Sunday, June 26, 2011

In the Big Waves

We are in Tenby for the week. I think it's something like our forty-sixth annual visit to Park Hotel, which has been owned by the same family all this time.

Today was perfect weather for swimming in the sea: just how I like it, with cloudless skies, but not too blisteringly hot.

The sea was quite choppy - huge waves, some bigger than me (mind you, I'm not very tall)

My mother, who is eighty-seven, insisted on coming into the sea, of course, in spite of the white crests everywhere. She had already swum in the hotel open-air pool with Olli and me, before breakfast, so now that it was about eleven o'clock it was definitely time for another swim.

Here she is amongst the big waves:

The beautiful North Beach is very safe for swimming: but not if you're eighty-seven and slightly built anyway. So eventually, she realised that the waves were too strong for her and she came out, but she wasn't pleased about it.

I pointed out that she was probably the only eighty-seven-year-old swimming in the sea in Tenby today - and perhaps the only eighty-seven-year old swimming in the sea in the whole of Britain. It cut no ice with her. The rest of her day included a walk round Tenby, another swim in the pool and an evening walk up a steep path to a local view. She doesn't compare herself with eighty-seven-year-olds, but with how she used to be and she doesn't like it.

The last time I was in the sea here was on Boxing Day, when there was snow on the beach and I did the Tenby Boxing Day Swim. Today it was much warmer. I stayed in for an hour, swimming and gliding in on the waves and jumping through the big ones - - and very occasionally getting caught unawares and knocked over.

I realise that I am still using all the big-waves skills that I learned here when I was nine. If you take your eye off the incoming waves for a moment and a big one knocks you off your feet, you must instantly jump up, because the one behind will be even bigger.

I jumped into them, and floated over them, and swam through them - - and I loved every second.

Here I am, just after a wave had gone over me:

If it rains for the rest of the week - and I do hope it won't - then I couldn't have had a better day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Life in Cold Water

I should have done that swim thirty years ago, of course, when I was twenty-four.

But, of course, when I was that age such organised swims as The Great North Swim didn't exist.

Our family always swam in open water whenever we could, as long as it was safe, or as safe as possible.

Here's one of my favourite swimming places from childhood:

It's on the River Esk, near Boot in Eskdale, Cumbria - a delightful deep pool of cool - well, okay, cold - clear water, in beautiful surroundings. We loved it. I still do.

We swam in rivers nearer to home too, such as at Wetherby, near Leeds. We were always careful and we never had any problem.

We swam at the seaside of course. If there was sea, and it wasn't too rough, we'd be in it. I have always liked a few waves though - ones big enough to jump in and to catch the top of and be swept towards the shore.

My first forays into the sea were in the cold waters of the beach at Walney, Barrow-in-Furness, trying to balance on the pebbles underfoot. I couldn't swim then - I learned to swim at four - but I still remember loving it.

The cold never bothered me. My mother loved swimming - still does - and the temperature of the water never stopped us going in. So Windermere at sixteen degrees Centigrade was absolutely fine to me - I have swum in much colder water, without a wetsuit. (Yes, yes, I know, it's partly to do with - well - not being too thin!)

Some swimming always stands out in my memory. Swimming in the river pool in the photo above, looking for tiny fish. Swimming in the sea at Tenby, in the late-afternoon sunshine, with seagulls calling, year upon year upon year - - and I hope to do it again next week, when we're on holiday there again.

Swimming in the open-air pool at Park Hotel, as a child, with the wonderful swimming instructor with his splendidly apt name: Ivor Fish.

And, far more recently, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico in Florida in winter 2008, with pelicans diving in the sea around me.

Oh yes, I have enjoyed swimming all my life and hope to enjoy it for many more years to come.

But the Great North Swim was particularly special.

In my twenties I had hoped to do more open-air swimming than I actually did. In my late twenties it all seemed to have stopped forever when I lost my first baby, was very ill and had a thrombosis in my leg. I thought that had put a stop to swimming any distance at all.

I certainly felt that it put a stop to my youth, in one fell swoop, at the age of twenty-eight. I'd gone from being a happily pregnant young woman to being in a ward for people with chronic conditions, where the next youngest person to me was seventy-four.

Very, very slowly, over the years, my bad leg has got better, and the swimming has most certainly helped. I never thought, when I was in my thirties, that I'd be able to swim a mile in open water. So it meant such a lot to me.

So. In October 1984, I felt that I very suddenly lost my youth. In June 2011, it was as though, in the space of one hour, five minutes and twenty seconds, I got it back again. Very grateful thanks to those who believed that I could do it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Great North Swim

A friend of mine was talking about The Great North Run.

"Oh, and there's a swim, too," she said. "A mile in Windermere."

Well, I thought, I could do that. I love swimming in the sea. I bet I could swim a mile, if I trained a bit. And it would be fun to swim in a lake.

Sometimes such idle thoughts just swirl round in your head and fade away. But these didn't. They resulted in me finding the website, and applying to take part in the 2010 Great North Swim, in early September.

I started training in December 2009. I hadn't swum a mile before - my usual swim had been 42 lengths, a kilometre - but that first day I just kept going and, rather to my surprise, swam a mile.

Righto, I thought, I'll do that every time from now on.

Sadly, last year's swim was cancelled at the last moment because of blue-green algae in the water (we had a lovely weekend in the Lakes though). I deferred my entry to this year.

I kept on swimming a mile as often as I could - I stopped counting after a hundred - and I loved it all.

But then, suddenly, the swim was upon us and we (that's Stephen, Silverback and me) were off to Bowness, where we were staying for the weekend.

And suddenly, I was terrified. The weather forecast was RAIN only to be interrupted by HEAVY RAIN. My biggest fear was that they'd cancel it because of poor visibility. My second biggest fear was that they wouldn't cancel it, and that I wouldn't be able to see where I was going, and that Stephen and Silverback would get drenched and we'd all have a thoroughly miserable time, and that I wouldn't be able to complete the course, and that I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't. I didn't know how I'd react to being out in such a deep lake. Most people I'd spoken to - even really good swimmers - said "Ohh, but it's so deep!"

So, yup, I was really really scared.

But, by a miracle, as we caught the boat up the lake from Bowness to the swimming site, there was NO RAIN AT ALL. I couldn't believe it.

The site was very busy - this is Britain's biggest open-water swim and ten thousand swimmers took part over the weekend, in half-hour "waves" of three hundred swimmers.

I knew that, because of my diabetes, I needed to make sure I'd eaten plenty or I would just simply run out of energy. An hour before my 12.30pm swim I stuffed a beef salad sandwich down my throat, but I was both very nervous and not at all hungry. It tasted like cardboard, but I managed it.

I changed into my swimsuit and wetsuit in a huge, steamy heated marquee filled with women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Never has so much female flesh been on display combined with so much rubber. Some people would have been in very heaven.

We had to wait a little while before swimming and I was getting both even more nervous and very hot in my wetsuit.

"The acclimatisation pool is down there, do you want to try it?" said Silverback. Hurrah! This was so helpful to me. I would not have spotted it because of the crowds, and also because my prescription goggles, though a great help, are not brilliant vision-wise.

The acclimatisation pool was just a little pool where you went in and swam round in a loop to get used to the temperature. It was sixteen degrees Centigrade - much warmer than the sea I went into for the Tenby Boxing Day Swim, that was nine degrees - and the water was clear and lovely.

As I went in, all my worries just went. It wasn't raining (it never did rain!) Suddenly, I was sure I could do the swim.

Out I came and joined the crowd ready to start.

Here we are, in a photo taken by Stephen:

I'm the one in the orange hat.

And then the hooter went and we all went into the water:

I'm the one in the orange hat. No, not that one! The slim, fit one right at the front.

Well, perhaps not. I hung right back - I wasn't bothered about the time, just about getting round, and a timing chip on my ankle would give the time at the end anyway.

After the first stroke I thought - I love this! We had to swim past three huge yellow buoys - very easy for even someone with my eyesight to spot - and then to a huge pink buoy labelled HALF WAY - and then back past three more yellow buoys.

There were people in kayaks for safety all the way - they were very friendly and I stopped to chat to a couple of them as one said "Everyone swims past and nobody wants to talk to me!" I found myself giving advice of "you'll get used to it - just carry on!" to a girl who was swimming in a wetsuit for the first time and was finding it really tricky.

I wasn't anywhere near the front - - but I wasn't right at the back either. Out in the middle of the lake, I realised how much I loved the peace of it, and the opportunity to be there. The swimmers were well spread out and it wasn't crowded at all.

Suddenly I was at the pink buoy - half way! I had to touch it before setting off back. On the way back I realised I had plenty of energy and so speeded up a bit and it was such pleasure just swimming as fast as I could through that beautiful, chlorine-free water.

We had to swim under an arch for the end of the race and then climb up a slope. They had two people on hand to haul the swimmers out - - because suddenly, everyone's legs just didn't seem to work properly and I lurched drunkenly along the path to give in my timing chip and collect my very pleasing goodie bag with a T-shirt, a medal (and I'm really proud to have it!) and various other things, plus a pair of flip-flops.

So here I am, at the end of the race, epitomising the phrase "bedraggled but very happy".

I was very pleased - and surprised - by my time of 1 hour 5 minutes 20 seconds. Okay, the men's winner did it in just over quarter of an hour but hey, I'm a bit older than him, and I was swimming breast stroke, okay? You can see all the statistics about how I did by typing in my race number 5145 to this link.

1980 Olympic Champion in the breast-stroke was there too - Duncan Goodhew - and there are some great photos of him on Silverback's blog, Retirement Rocks. Do read Silverback's post about the swim - and his excellent photos there really capture the atmosphere. Duncan Goodhew is the same age as me and I'm proud to have swum in the same lake as him this weekend - - though I think he swam a bit faster than I did!

Particular thanks are due to my husband Stephen and my great friend Silverback for their unwavering encouragement and also to those kind people who have sponsored me to help Sally Womersley in her fund-raising to help Multiple Sclerosis research (and there's still time to sponsor me for this excellent cause here). Also thanks to those who have given cash too!

What a wonderful experience. I'll never forget it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Longest Day

"I just feel tired all the time." "I want a sick note." "I'm not happy with my medication."

Yes, it's OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examination) season and Simulated Patients like me have been working on the medical students' exams for them to be assessed on their consultation skills.

You often have several Simulated Patients (known as SPs) playing the same role so it's important that it's played in exactly the same way - hence we have a training session to standardise the roles, and also there's often a starting statement such as the ones above.

How it goes from then on depends on the student but there are usually a series of challenges that we give them so they can demonstrate their skills - - or lack of them. The level of difficulty depends upon the level of the students. In the early years they might be "taking a history" - finding out all about the patient's lifestyle, circumstances and past medical history as well as the "presenting complaint" - ie what the patient has come to the doctor about!

The fifth years who are about to qualify have much more complex scenarios - a patient asking for something that the doctor simply can't give, for example, or a very emotional patient.

In the early years of medical school each "station" is quite short - a minute to read the instructions and then, say, five minutes to do the task. It's amazing how much can be done in five minutes though. In the later years of medical school, sometimes it can be ten or even twelve minutes.

This week I've done two OSCEs and they were, I have to say, the hardest I've ever done. Very large year groups in the Hull York Medical School first and second years resulted in extremely long days.

On Tuesday I had to be in Hull - sixty-five miles away - by seven-thirty in the morning, and then we finished at about half past six at night, and drove back again.

In between we did eighty - yes, eighty - five-minute "stations" in two-hour blocks.

Then I did a similar thing, playing a different patient with a different problem, in York - a mere twenty-five miles away - on Thursday.

In the room is the examiner and me. A bell goes to start and then each student moves from station to station, with a bell going to signify the end of each station and the start of the next task.

So, from my perceptive, the bell goes, a student comes in and introduces himself or herself, I start with something like one of the statements above, and off we go, with the examiner marking the various skills demonstrated and questions asked - for example, in a scenario about a cough, it would be really important for the student to ask if the patient smoked. Then another bell goes, the student leaves, and the next student starts reading the instructions outside the door for one minute until the bell goes to start again.

It's a difficult two hours for the students of course. I have been doing OSCEs for years and years and worked with thousands of students and I must say that the students I met this week were almost all polite, friendly, knowledgeable, thorough and empathic. The standard of communication skills has really shot up over the years as more emphasis has been placed on it. Hurrah!

The examiners I worked with - both doctors of course - were a real pleasure to work with too and that makes such a difference during such a very long day.

Doing twenty roleplays in a row, then a short break, then another twenty, and so on, is just relentless and takes every ounce of concentration - otherwise you find yourself thinking "Oh no, I just said that!" and yet it was to the previous student. It's vital to give them all the same opportunity of course.

The way I get through it is with a kind of pig-headed determination. When the eightieth student comes in, I do my damndest to behave as though the whole thing is fresh and new. It definitely befuddles your brain afterwards though and SPs do talk about "OSCE brain" as a new and interesting medical condition.

During the very last twenty I did allow myself the luxury of counting down, writing on a piece of paper 20 - - 19 - - 18 - - and so on, in the one-minute gaps between roleplays.

Another of the SPs set himself the interesting personal challenge of drinking the whole two-litre bottle of water that he was provided with.

"And then, at the end, I went to the toilet and I peed for seventy-eight seconds! SEVENTY-EIGHT SECONDS! I timed it!" he said with considerable pride.

Ahhh, OSCE season. Glorious.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Mad Day

I had to be in a Distant City by 7.30am this morning, which meant getting up at quarter to five.

The work started soon after 8am and finished at about 6.30pm with very short breaks - it was an exam for medical students. Eighty roleplays, each lasting five minutes, in four sessions, each of twenty roleplays.

It all went very smoothly, though I have never done so many roleplays in one day!

I will be going to bed very soon and I probably won't need to count sheep. Though if I do, they will probably turn out like the ones in this video.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Great North Swim - - Again

Last year, you may remember, I tried to do The Great North Swim.

It's swimming a mile in Windermere, the largest lake in the Lake District.

Two days before it was due to happen last year, it had to be cancelled because of toxic blue-green algae in the water.

I was gutted. I had been practising since November 2009 and I was really looking forward to proving something - - I'm not sure quite what! - to myself. That I'm not quite past it, I suppose.

I've always swum a lot. I'm not naturally athletic, but it's the only sport I've ever been any good at. And I've always loved it. Some people love the freedom of running - - well, I've never been able to run any distance at all.

But I've always been able to swim. Not fast, but I've always been able to keep going. Since November 2009, when I decided to work toward the Great North Swim, I have swum a mile two or three times a week: it's sixty-four lengths of a normal-sized pool. A mile takes me almost exactly an hour.

I swim breast-stroke, though not - I hope - that "middle-aged-lady" breast stroke with your head up high, your perm intact and your glasses on.

No, I swim a plunge-your-face-in-the-water kind of breast stroke and that's my only asset, really - I have quite a decent style. That and a kind of dogged persistence and an inner refusal to believe that I'm over about twenty-five.

Stacked against me in the swimming stakes are that I've had a deep-vein thrombosis in my leg, I'm diabetic and I'm - er - not in my first flush of youth. Also I'm blind as a bat. Even with my prescription goggles. Yes, I'll start off in Windermere - - who knows where I'll end up!

When I first saw the swim advertised I thought "hey - - I could do that!" But ever since, I keep meeting much better swimmers than I am who have said "Ohhhh no, you'd never get me doing that. Not in a lake. Oh no." And I keep thinking - - should I be worried? Will I be able to do it?

I've been practising swimming in my wetsuit, (they insist upon swimmers wearing them for warmth) which has taken a lot of getting used to - it's too big, and it takes a while before I can get all the air out of it. But I'm getting better.

Now then. I have several friends and colleagues who suffer from the terrible, debilitating illness Multiple Sclerosis, or MS.

An actress friend of mine, Sally Womersley, has been raising money to buy a special machine to assist with MS research. She has already raised nearly thirty thousand pounds for the Edinburgh Centre for MS Research.

So, in doing the swim, I am also trying to raise money for this excellent cause.

I am asking for your help. I have never asked you for money before and I know that these are hard times. But anything that you can give will be very gratefully appreciated. You can donate to Sally's MS Research machine here - just click on the link, it's a secure site for donations.

The swim's on Saturday, 18th June - in just under two weeks' time. Stephen and Silverback will be there to cheer me on, and I'm grateful for their support. I am nervous, but I am excited. Wish me luck!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

In the Changing Room

Two weeks today, I will be doing the Great North Swim in Windermere in the Lake District - and more of that in my next post!

It's a mile in the lake and they insist that we wear wetsuits. Me, I'd be perfectly happy without a wetsuit - I'm fine in cold water, have swum in it just about all my life.

But, since they insist, I needed to practise swimming outdoors, wearing the wetsuit, as it takes a bit of getting used to.

So off we went this morning to Ilkley Lido, which is an open-air pool built in the 1930s. It's unheated but I love it and I spent a lot of time there as a child. There are some photos on the site I've linked to and I'd love to show you some photos of my own but they are absolutely strict that you can't take any, for fear of paedophiles. Sighhhh. Stephen got his phone out at one point to time my swimming - - and was immediately asked to put it away, as it has a camera on it.

The pool has one of those old-fashioned changing rooms where you put your clothes in a box and hand it over to an attendant (rather than the modern locker system.) I like the old-fashioned system.

However, because it was sunny today, the changing rooms were really busy and, as always, I marvelled at what goes on there.

There are three showers, each producing not much more than a trickle of water, so why Yummy Mummy decided it was a good idea to wash all her four daughters' hair I don't know. It took forever, and nobody enjoyed it. A stoical British queue stood patiently, waiting for the showers, whilst shampoo foam oozed along the floor and the daughters kept their eyes open whilst their hair was being washed, and then got shampoo in their eyes, and screamed, one by one, each one failing to learn from the example of her predecessor.

At the sink stood Little Miss Beauty Routine. I don't know if she WAS going straight from the swimming pool to the Grand Ball at the Palace, but that was the impression she gave. She cleansed, she toned, she moisturised. She applied a base coat and then a top coat and blusher and eyeliner and eyeshadow and lipstick and then she swept her hair into some elaborate style.

When I left, she hadn't even started struggling into her ballgown (or whatever she was planning to wear once she'd removed the swimsuit). I noted that she had by now spent longer on her beauty routine than I ever have, ever, for any occasion, ever. Hmmmm. I'm not sure if that says more about her or about me.

As I got dressed, the child in the next cubicle had clearly learned much from Stewie in Family Guy. She, however, had a variant on his "Mom - - Mom - - Mom - - Mom - - Mom" routine.

Her question was this.

"Mum, do I need to put my knickers on?"

Mum, for some reason, failed to reply.

"Mum, do I need to put my knickers on?"

No reply.

"Mum, do I need to put my knickers on?"


"Mum, do I need to put my knickers on?"

"Mum, do I need to put my knickers on?"

"Mum, do I need to put my knickers on?"

Oh! I was SO tempted to say "No, leave them off, give the paedophiles a treat" but I didn't want to be thrown out.

Her mother never did reply, possibly because she was now down the other end of the changing rooms, with the Exhibitionists.

I bet men think that you only get these in men's changing rooms, with men keen to demonstrate the size and perceived quality of their equipment to those less well-endowed.

Men are wrong. Women do it too.

Some women do the communal showers naked and I don't mind this at all. It's possible to be naked without emitting a "LOOK AT ME!!! I'M NAKED! NAKED! WITH NO CLOTHES ON! WOOOP WOOOP!" kind of vibe.

But some women are just keen to show off their bodies in the hope we'll be really impressed.

Some are the twenty-somethings who have been working on their Bikini Body all winter.

They don't just shower and leave, oh no. They sing, prance around, lather themselves - - but all in a way that's designed to show off their perfect bodies. There is always a subliminal message going on.

"Look at my BREASTS! COUNT THEM! For lo! I have TWO! Here's ONE - - and here's the OTHER! And now I am going to show you my LADYPARTS in all their GLORY!"

It's not just the perfect-size-tens who do this. You also sometimes get it from the Women of a Certain Age. Their message is different.

"You have NO IDEA how my body has suffered. For it has borne SEVEN CHILDREN and I have BREAST-FED THEM ALL. Let me demonstrate the effect that this has had on my poor old wrinkled body! For hey, I am PROUD and I am going to SHOW YOU, sisters."

I feel that the testosterone-fuelled competition in the men's changing rooms must be simplicity itself in comparison.