Swimming and the meaning of life

IMG_20140914_094114“About The Swim: The Dart 10k is a stunning swim down the River Dart in Devon. The swim is not a race, but a journey: all swimmers can swim at their own pace, from leisurely to fast, as they wind their way downstream through the rolling hills of Devon.

Distance wise this is the aquatic equivalent of a marathon, and sure to become the new challenge distance for swimmers. There is an elite category for those who like to race, but for most swimmers it’s about doing the distance, and enjoying the ride.

The river Dart rises on Dartmoor in Devon and winds its way over the moors down to the sea at Dartmouth. We will join it at Totnes, swimming 10K down the estuary and finishing at the small waterside village of Dittisham.” [Taken from the race guide]

A sweet chemical scent, pinched a little, reminiscent of the plastic barber’s chair from which one regarded oneself, robed and round-faced in the mirror, damp hair plastered down and in the corner, jostled by paraphernalia, an open-mouthed glass jar of potassium-blue water holding combs, drownded and urchin-black… Pungent miasmas of this smell arrive inexplicably, haunting the swimmer, and then are gone leaving the faint rot of estuary mud, eel bodies, the wet pelts of otters, granite beaches shiny with the retreating tide, the last of the summer dust tumbling off the oaks which are dipping their skirts into the goodbye water; this smell also in your nostrils, which burn with the salt water.

With each bend in the river, the fields and woods fish-eyed from the water, shuttered with our deep breaths, the final destination draws closer, the sea tang grows stronger.

A restless, submarine sound. The constant press of the water; its grinding, scouring down the course. Surface truckles and popples and the smack of your hands digging away and finding bubbles and flotsam, once a sharp round pod caught perfectly between forefinger and thumb, snagged briefly in a machine part as it pushes back and then lifts airborne, the pod immediately jettisoned for efficiency, the part arcing on, overhead and down again into new water, to dig again, to find a hand hold, to move forwards.

This swim as life in 10 kilometres. Beginning with a plunge into cold, reaching for breath, confusion, disorientation, slowly a path opening up, the current pushing on, there is no going back, there is no choice but to battle on. Competition may be unwelcome but it is unavoidable. We hunt for rhythm and finding it – some better than others – begin to make headway, to accumulate distance and knowledge. The landscape changes, we enjoy the company of others, the solidarity of a journey shared, but already each of us is busy, it is hard to spare much of ourselves.

A headwind blows up the estuary, and we endure choppy water, we are tipped over, our arms flail. The journey is the thing, the search for understanding, for things beautiful. The smartest and best informed find the invisible current; for some the ride is easier than for others. Our arms tire. Cramp attacks the machine, we need fuel, we cannot go on forever. But we keep going for now, moving more slowly, steadily, our strength fading. At a landing spot we beach ourselves, cheered by strangers we leave the river to those who follow. Our race is over.

What helps us down the river is the unfurling of an idea, a story we think important enough to express, to act into life, and hand on. Some people use religion to get them to the end but I believe a story trumps religion because a story is ours and beholden to us, its shape and outcome depends entirely upon how resourceful we are, how imaginative we wish to be, how kind. Religion is a coloniser, laying down rules and restrictions, sapping initiative, taking credit for the good we do and laying down blame for the bad, telling us what to do in this situation and then in that one. My story is unfinished, still unfurling; I will not share it here. I carried my friend Roddy down the Dart, and my darling wife, our three children growing under me, who one day will swim with me, to whom I will hand on my stories when I get out of the river for the last time.

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