FEATURES,  View from the Water

Don’t follow your dreams

I have a confession to make. For the past few months my swimming has been pretty much confined to the occasional cold water dip. I have been training for a 100-mile ultra marathon so I have been doing a lot more running than swimming.

As well as being an outdoor swimmer I also love trail running. For me there is a huge crossover between the two sports: the joy of being outside in nature, the adrenaline rush of competition, the necessity to deal with whatever weather is thrown at you – be it choppy water in the English Channel or torrential rain as you run across the South Downs. Both sports are an escape from city life – as different from the chlorinated pool and the gym treadmill as it is possible to be. Being active in the outdoors makes me a happier person. Fact. But where does endurance sport fit into that equation? What drives a person to run 100 miles or swim the English Channel? And does the associated pain of endurance sport make you a “happier” person?

Follow your dreams. It is the mantra of today’s self-obsessed society. But at what cost to those around you? Training takes time and dedication. To be a successful endurance athlete you have to be obsessed. And you have to be selfish. Friends, family, relationships – these have to take second place. No drinks at parties, whole days devoted to training and recovery. All in the pursuit of a single goal.

Yesterday I took the decision to withdraw from my 100-mile race. Five weeks ago I injured my foot and I am still not able to run. I have lost too many miles in that five weeks to be able to make up the training in time for race day. I know it was the right decision, but now there is a big hole in my sporting schedule.  

My initial thought was: “I need another big challenge to train for”. But then I asked myself, what happens when endurance sports become an escape from yourself? I know that I like to push myself to extremes. What if I just… tried to enjoy myself?

So this summer I have no big races planned. After months out of the pool I am now trying to regain my swim fitness and speed. It is hard work. I feel embarrassed trailing behind people I used to lead. So my challenge now is to get swim fit so I can enjoy a summer of swimming. I will enter races and I will swim hard, but not having one big challenge to train for is quite liberating. I can do stuff. It doesn’t matter if I miss a training session and go to the pub instead. I am looking forward to enjoying some long summer swims just for the love of swimming, not competing. And I can go for a run without stressing about mileage and whether I will be ok running another 30 miles the next day.

Sometimes in life you need a big challenge. Nothing is more rewarding than dedicating yourself to one goal, training hard and succeeding. But you should recognise why you need that challenge: sometimes you need to take a step back, to remind yourself why you love swimming or running in the first place, and to reconnect with that simple enjoyment of being in the outdoors. Sometimes your biggest challenge is not having a challenge.

And my challenge of running 100 miles? Well, I have just entered a marathon in October that will be a nice training run for a winter 100-miler…

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.