Around four and a half years ago I suffered a football injury and changed jobs to the far more sedentary occupation of being an academic. This, combined with years of other contributing activity, resulted in some pretty bad damage to my lower back. The sciatic pain was really unpleasant and at its worst I couldn’t even lie down so even sleeping was a real problem. Sitting became impossible and sport (including football) was out of the question. After several attempts at physio, lots of medication and two MRI scans, I was finally offered surgery. In August of 2015 I had a microdiscectomy and Tayside NHS along with the medical staff were amazing. After 6 months my back felt better so I decide to try a light jog. Unfortunately the result was more back-pain (although this may have been a muscle pull) and I was distraught, but it got better and a week later I tried again. This time I managed about half a kilometre (only going slightly faster than a walk) but once back home, after a shower, I felt an awful pain in my lower back. I thought this was me finished with any sort of physical excercise, and sport, forever. After a few days of feeling depressed I decided to be proactive and do some research and found a video diary from a young American (much younger than me) who had been through a very similar experience. This seemed to make my experience real and I had to stop denying I was not well. Suddenly I began to realise that to get better was going to need a lot if work, and crucially I recognised that I was not going to be able to pick up where I left off 5 years ago.
I went back to the surgeon who reassured me that progress would be slow and I read advice online from reputable medical and health organisations and used this to begin planning a long period of rehabilitation. I stopped driving and avoided sitting as much as possible (I now spend most of the day stood up) and have taken up a range of low impact excercise. In particular I have found planking to be helpful (but I avoid things like sit ups) as this strengthens the core muscle group. I have cycled, used a cross trainer and even done some very gentle jogging all at about 50% capacity of what I would have managed before. Best of all has been swimming which takes most of the strain off my back, helps build muscle strength, and is low impact. And it is this that brought me to open water swimming.
Around April this year some friends (thanks Eoin & Chlo!) mentioned they were going to try swimming in the Tay with Ye Ancient Amphibious Bathing Association in Broughty Ferry (extreme sport club, very cold water, and club rule = no wetsuits!). I had been a fairly strong swimmer as a child so thought ‘why not?’ and decided to give it a go. After a couple of tries, and having got beyond the initial shock of hyperventilation (apparently this is common with cold water), I set myself a target of one of the shortest swims, 1 mile from Tayport (where I live) to Broughty Ferry. This was a veterans’ race but as I turned 40 a fortnight before the race it seemed perfect. The training involved gradually increasing the distance covered and time spent in the river (practising in the harbour) and I also swam in the pool working on my technique. During harbour training I suffered cramp on one occasion and was stung by a jellyfish on another but on both occasions I recovered and wasn’t put off. As the race approached I had no real way of knowing what to expect and in some ways was confident I could take the cold and was sure I could manage the distance. But I also had no idea what it would be like in the middle of this not inconsiderable estuary and thought the tides and waves could make the swim a real challenge. It turned out I was right on all counts but also extremely surprised at how tough the experience was.
Without going into great detail about the swim I think I managed fairly well until the last 10 minutes, when I just ran out of energy. The support boat really encouraged me especially over the final few hundred metres but I have to admit I have little memory of the final stages. I now realise I was suffering from hypothermia and in shock. The people who watched me from the shore, but didn’t know much about open water swimming were quite worried, but within an hour I was fine. That said I also have to reflect I was not prepared enough. Although I had read up on what to do, particularly taking precautions against cramp, I hadn’t eaten enough before so my energy levels dropped too low and this was made worse by the cold. I also did really badly with my breathing and my stroke technique went wrong using up more valuable energy (and which lead to me swallowing far more of the Tay than I would have liked!). The waves and torrential rain half way through were a real shock and probably made it harder still. But I did it and can say I have swum the river Tay. Also the buzz from swimming in such cold water and challenging conditions then recovering again was like nothing else I have ever encountered before. So I can see why people get addicted to it. The camararderie amongst competitors is also as good as in any sport I have ever participated.
I started this post talking about my back injury and how for some time I was in denial about what I could and couldn’t do. I think the lessons from this injury, and taking up this new sport, has really helped me (shock and hypothermia aside) as I’ve learnt about myself and my limits, but also that a setback in one area may present an opportunity elsewhere. I might not be able to play football, or even sit at a desk all day, but I can do other things and do things differently. To me it is about taking a different perspective, and learning about myself, which is something everyone (in particular educators) can aim to do.
Update on swimming the Tay (Sept 2016)
I decided to carry on with the open water swimming and successfully completed the Discovery mile (which is tide assisted so easier than a crossing) in what I thought was a respectable time of just over 27 minutes. The season finished in early September so I will have to keep training in the pool until next April, unless I give the New Year Dook a go (and you could too?!).