My club’s Women’s Champion Marathon runner changing next to me after an 18 mile February run. I asked her: Did you enjoy the snowdrops in Trentham woods? She said: What snowdrops? And that is an important difference between a Champion and an Also Ran. Nowadays it seems to be called Focus. I had it once.
Wind back to 1954. Two scrawny little boys plastered with mud stagger up into the school field, I’m one of them, 90 others trail behind. I desperately make feet fit terrain; one slip and I lose. I seem to breathe in and out at the same time, not enough air, weights in legs. He’s going past. No, he isn’t. I throw my body at the line. So does he. My first and last ever win.
Wind forward two years. Rheumatic fever. 10% chance of dying. I didn’t. Months of daily nosebleeds and wee looking like rancid milk, every joint hurting and crepe bandaged. Dozens of books read. 60% chance of significant impairment of heart function. I got that. Resting pulse, formerly 50, went up to more than 65. A year off school. I returned as an alien. Doctor said no physical activities so I became the soft boy who dodged games. Later I went back to the doctor: no football, no running, no swimming: no cycling; you name it and I can’t do it.
So I disobeyed. Starting very slowly from a low base I rebuilt some fitness, but never to the heady levels of winning a school championship; the impaired heart saw to that. Better than average was the best I could hope for.
And that is what I have achieved. I did lots of commuter and leisure cycling and swam as often as possible, mostly in pools but lakes and sea during the holidays. When mass marathons started I took up running again, with a disastrous first attempt of 3 hours 50 minutes. Better training followed and a top time of 2 hours 58 minutes. About 25 marathons in all, ranging from not bad to utterly farcical. When fairly fit from running, in my 40s, my frenzied breaststroke took me to a 31 minute mile and a 3 hours 40 minutes for 10000 metres.
After these feats I suffered a natural slowdown, worsened by a series of injuries caused by adjusting for osteoarthritis. This ended in a total hip replacement in 2010, at the age of 69. Running came to a complete stop. Crawl was just that, a crawl, but all I could do since breaststroke leg kick is known to dislocate new hips. Breaststroke gradually returned, but the weak kick on the mended side had to be matched on the good side to avoid swimming round in tight circles.
So, a mainly good physical life with two nasty setbacks taught me a valuable lesson, one that others have learned better than I did. You can only play your life with the cards that have been dealt. I never had any Aces or Kings, but did well with a handful of Queens and Jacks. After rheumatic fever I made do with cards like the ten of Spades and nine of Hearts. The replaced hip snatched these away and I had to subsist on sixes and sevens.
I find it hard to adjust and cope with having been a fair athlete and now having to deal with being among the slowest of the slow. It works if I focus on what I can actually do rather than regret what I can’t do any more. For example in the River Trent, I have swum, in stages, most of the way from Shugborough, near Stafford, downstream to Stoke Bardolph, missing out 4 stages for diary reasons. Some of the stages have been done more than once. My proudest thing is to have learned how to join that fairly small section of swimmers who can swim appreciable distances in very cold water without wetsuit protection. This is along a continuum: I can’t swim channel solos or relays ; nor can I even think of attempting an ice mile. But I am very proud of what I can do. I have won seven Gold Medals at the Windermere Chillswim at distances up to 450 metres because nobody of my age has turned up. In one event where somebody did, I was beaten out of sight. The two events I won last December earned enough points to put me eighth in the World Cup as an over 75 cold water swimmer, so I can still dream the dream even though I can’t actually swim.
People are sometimes kind enough to tell me that I am doing amazingly well for my age. It doesn’t seem that way to me , but if it is true, it is down to a combination of hard work and luck. Hard work speaks for itself, of course, but luck is a many variegated thing. I was born in 1941 with the War raging all around. My birthplace was a council house bedroom, sublet to my mother, who was one of eleven, two of whom died in childhood. However, social conditions improved after the War, decent food, health care and education, so that I was lucky enough to become Head of English in a secondary school, teaching up to A Level. Luck has also meant that I have not yet been visited by any of the fatal diseases of old age.
I also think that there will be many more like me in future years, when the super fit swimmers and other athletes become old, in their turn, assuming that they enjoy good luck as I have done. Oh, and they need to keep working as well. Many of the people doing amazing things like Channel relays and solos will still be doing amazing things when they are 75.
So, what’s next? As the footballers say: take it one match at a time. Big events don’t attract me, not just because I would be nearly last, which I would, but because the huge expense involved can easily be wasted by a bout of sciatica on my part, or cancellations because the lake is unsuitable. An exception will be the Windermere Chillswim, where I would hope to win another medal, owing to the scarcity of elderly, idiotic swimmers.
I am also down for another North East Skinny Dip at Druridge Bay, at dawn on 24th September, three days after my 76th birthday. If you have thought of going but have been put off by the idea that it may be sleazy and pervy, don’t worry, it isn’t. It’s jolly and happy and hilarious, and people who have tried it say that it has made a huge difference to their body confidence. For the rest, not very ambitious. I have a private system of PBs for the year. The times go up and the distances go down, I have almost accepted that now, but it can be so very frustrating.
Glenys and I have been an item for 57 years. Yesterday she stood in a thunderstorm watching us swim, at 74!
Doodles by #swimandtonic Artist in Residence – https://www.instagram.com/feelgoodinsta/