Finding my inner Mermaid

Guest Blog by Amy. Beautiful honesty, a true Seabird

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Guest Article by Salty Seabird Amy

I first started sea swimming in 2013 when I dipped my toe into the world of triathlon. I’d run a few marathons and had my eye on completing an Ironman for my 30th birthday (because that’s what you do for your 30th right?!). I got into the water, and HATED it! Running was always my strength, I was OK on a bike but swimming, swimming was my absolute nemesis. I had never learnt properly as a child and despite hours and hours in a pool I just didn’t seem to get any faster or better. Despite loving being in the water I never found the love of chasing a time or covering distance. I just never felt good enough despite my desperate attempts to become the mermaid I knew I was inside.

After Ironman I carried on swimming despite my complaining, not wanting to lose the hard work I’d put in to my swimming fitness. I even entered some long distance events including the Dart 10k and swam round Comino Island in Malta. I wanted to be the streamlined graceful dolphins that seemed to be part of every group I swam with, but I still just never felt like I found my inner mermaid.

 

Fast forward to 2017 and all thoughts of sporting events disappeared as I started to suffer with my mental health. Throughout 2018 I fell into a black hole where I didn’t want to live anymore and was hospitalised twice consumed by the hideous monster that is depression. Running had in the past been my salvation, but even the enjoyment of my favourite trails wasn’t improving my mental health and so I looked to the water.

It was during this time that I started just going in the sea for fun. I have some amazing, caring friends who would literally drag me out of bed and off onto the Downs for a run or into the sea to watch the sunset. Being in the water I realised was the place I began to feel at peace. Long gone were any worries about chasing a fast time or covering a certain distance, just the peace of floating around, feeling the water on my skin was the only thing that stopped the incessant chattering of the racing thoughts in my head that I suffered with the rest of the time. I ditched the wetsuit and fell in love with cold water.

As the year wore on and the temperature started to drop there were less people willing to get in the water with me and my friend Claire suggested I look up the Salty Seabirds. This amazing group has allowed me to continue with my winter swimming and has become a valuable part of my journey towards recovery.

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There is always a friendly face or 17 to chat to in the water and everyone is so supportive of each other with no competitiveness. Last week I even found myself setting my alarm for 04:30 am to swim under the Blood moon at 5am with 17 other brave seabirds. The thermostat on my car showing -4 degrees as I drove down to the seafront wondering what the hell I was doing! It was one of the most magical experiences, organised by seabird Sam, made even more special to share it with such a lovely group of people.

Although the waves of depression still get me, they are getting smaller and I am getting better at staying afloat. Maybe I have become that mermaid after all, or seabird. The future feels brighter, and definitely salty!

The Rock – Swimming with my Spouse

My rock in stormy seas. Introducing Mr Seabird

The final part in the family swim stories trilogy.

Part I – Libby in the Lakes – swimming with my Daughter

Part II – Monarch of the Glen – swimming with a Laird

My husband and my depression, have been constants in my life since I was teenager. We met when I was 12 and he was 13 and we got together when I was 15 and he was 16. Right about the time when my teenage brain was experiencing it’s first incidence of poor mental health, and seeking out new risky experiences, resulting in lots of poor choices. He watched the poor choices from the wings, without partaking himself, often clearing up the debris.

Over the years, like any couple we’ve had our ups and downs, as my mental health has had it’s up and downs. Sometimes the two things are intertwined. My choices have improved with age and so has his support. He doesn’t always agree with my choices, decisions and ideas but his support is unwavering. When I let him get a word in edge-ways, he has been known to give bloomin’ good advice. He is the rock I cling to in stormy seas.

My choice to skin swim in the sea year round is also watched from the wings. He loves that I do it, but he neither has the time or inclination to join me. He enjoys being at the beach or in the sea but he prefers gentle beach breaks or small hidden coves and warmer sea temperatures. Our holiday choices are easy. It has to be by the sea and the car is filled with neoprene, SUPs and surf boards. He will get up early for solo surfs and be the first one to suggest a sunset swim before bed. Finding a beautiful secluded beach in Cornwall a couple of years ago and forgetting our swimsuits meant a skinny dip was inevitable. The teens are yet to forgive us.

Our holiday choices match but the type of swims we like can differ. I have been bought up on steep shingle shelves and long shore drift. Brighton beach is my favourite place to swim. It’s familiar, although ever changing. It’s my safe space although sometimes precarious. He only likes it local when it’s warmer and when it’s slack tide. He hates the, sometimes unstoppable, strong tidal current that can be like swimming on travelator going the wrong way. A couple of hard swims home when I’ve encouraged him to swim with me didn’t help lessen his hatred for fast moving water.

On special occasions I can convince him to swim with me on home territory. The featured image above show the pre-swim smiles of my 45th birthday. Early on a Sunday morning in July he accompanied me for a swim out to the buoys in front of the King Alfred. There is no post swim photo. There was no post swim chat. There was only post swim sulks, from both of us. The cross shore pull that had made reaching the buoy relatively easy was making the swim back tough. As I swam beside him giving advice on where to aim for to exit the sea safely and where we had left our bags I infuriated him more as I was able to talk and swim and wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned about getting back to dry land. We ended up having a row in the sea that resulted in me swimming off in the direction I had suggested and him the other. In hindsight I realise I had taken him out of his comfort zone, then emasculated him with my nonchalance in the water only to abandon him when he was feeling vulnerable. The salt in the wound being the walk over sharp shingles at the end of his ordeal. He is so confident in every other aspect of his life it didn’t enter my mind that this was something he was doing for me and not necessarily something he wanted to do.

It really is the pull of a current that he hates. In a warm non-tidal Mediterranean sea he would regularly take the children out to depths and distances that left me watching from a sunbed in horror. Fortunately, a couple of bad experiences haven’t put him off swimming with me…..just not in Brighton. This year’s birthday was spent swimming the Somerset Levels together. Pull of the water panic was replaced by pike panic. There was our trip to Scotland. The glens and waterfalls are hands down, the most beautiful place we have both ever had the pleasure of swimming. The peaty dark brown lochs provided a very different swimming experience as he confidently entered the water I splashed and stayed in the shallows put off by the murky water and what could lie beneath. He also joined my sister and I when we swam in Bude Tide Pool in April in armed only with his swim shorts. But he is at his happiest in a Cornish cove in the summer.

I call him a fair-weather swimmer but he is really not. He just doesn’t enjoy some of the same swims as me and there is nothing fair-weather about being married to me. All the while I wish to skin swim, year round I have the company of the Salty Seabirds. Absence makes the heart grow fonder after all!

Scribe: Seabird Kath

Footnote: I am reading and editing this in bed pre-publication and he is snoring to the point of punching his face in! It ain’t all hearts and roses.

New Year. New Me?

Sometimes I struggle to be a balanced Seabird and focus on the measure rather than the pleasure

My Social Media streams are full of Dry January, Vegan January, Red January, 2019 goals and challenges. Whilst I doff my cap to anyone that has taken the time to reflect and decided to make positive changes it is still something I struggle with.

The bit I struggle with is the balance. For me, when I really focus on improving something, pretty much everything else falls by the wayside. My struggle isn’t that I won’t stick to my goals or step up to the challenge, it is that I will do it at the detriment to everything else. And it may not actually make me happy.  (See previous blog; to swim or to gym?)

In 2018, I made a very conscious decision to focus on my mental health. But this has been  at the detriment to my physical health.  I ended the year over a stone heavier, drinking wine most nights and doing very little physical activity other that strolling with the dog and getting changed quickly to beat the sea swim after drop. I am not body shaming myself, far from it, but the midriff insulation was due to the alcohol consumption and lack of cardio exercise, so not a healthy weight change. I am lucky to have masses of body confidence so it never prevented me from slipping on a swim suit in public. But the sea swims became a way to clear the booze fuzz rather than the busy life buzz. A way to wake me up after a wine soaked sleep that is never the desired deep sleep that repairs and restores us. I’d achieved my goal to swim myself happy but at what cost. Imbalance again!

So I have jumped on the New Years Resolution train and am searching for the elusive swim gym balance again! Different year, same story…..so hardly a New Year, New Me! Undeterred, my plan is to try and balance booze, sweat and swims. So I have stopped drinking alcohol at home, entered a few swim events and completed my first parkrun. Hopefully a more balanced me rather than a new me.

The push to enter a swim event was to spend time with my teenage daughter who has her own life and very little free time now. So when she had to cut short our trip to the Lakes in the summer I decided to enter us both in the The Big Bala Swim to ensure we still make time to swim together. I then looked at pretty much every other swim event across the UK looking at dates and times and seeing how many I could cram in. After entering another two, The River Arun 3.8km and the Hever Castle 2.5km swim, alarm bells started to ring. I was in danger of losing the balance of swimming for pleasure as well as the measure, and had spent a small fortune on entry fees.

So I stopped and my only other swim ‘events’ this year will be moon gazey, sunrise, river field trip swims with the Salty Seabirds. A balance of pool plodding for the measure  and sea bobbing for the pleasure is the aim for 2019. Seabird Sam uses the hashtag #swimforthewin, and what she means by this is swimming outdoors, embracing your surroundings and being in the moment. Not entering lots of events to swim as fast as you can. I need to be a bit more Sam sometimes.

The push to do a parkrun was after a discussion with Seabird Clare (Race Director of Hove Promenade parkrun) on the synergies between parkrun and Salty Seabirds. Both are totally inclusive and free to participate. Both running, swimming and being outdoors has well documented physical and mental health benefits. The idea was to encourage some Salty Seabirds to do the parkrun and some parkrunners to come for a swim in the sea when the weather gets warmer. I decided to try out a run and cool down swim and threw the invitation open to any other Seabirds that wanted to join me. The response was great. Many of the Seabirds are already parkrunners or were looking for a regular weekend swim.

So I did my first parkrun last weekend. It was great. A really well organised weekly ‘event’ that has gone global. The whole thing is run by volunteers and anyone can join in, even walkers. There is a volunteer each week whose job it is to come last. As I started to run I was cheered on by some of the volunteers shouting ‘ Go Seabird’ . (We are easy to spot in our bobble hats.) Upon hearing this shout, a runner behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked ‘ are you a Seabird?’ Runner Rachel had heard about the Salty Seabirds and joined our closed Facebook page to see what we were all about. She’d seen my shout out for people to join me at parkrun for a run and a swim and decided to join us for the run. Having never met her before we spent the next 30 minutes chatting the whole way round the course. Only stopping when we spotted a Seabird hat of another runner and waved or shouted hello. Another synergy with Seabird swims – starting an activity as strangers and leaving as friends. When we had finished we jumped in the sea where other non-running Seabirds joined us. The perfect cool down.

I was a runner in a former life and have a couple of marathon medals. I trained hard whilst working full time with two small children and a husband that worked away a lot. Weekends were taken up with long trails over the South Downs and evenings filled with research on new routes, fuel filled diets and running shoes. The imbalance was very present. Interestingly, I never timed my runs but I did measure the distance and walking, even when injured, was never an option. I never owned a snazzy smart watch that told me how many minute miles I did and Strava hadn’t been invented then. I used the sea to cool down and would often walk up to my waist into the water in my running tights to sooth (numb) my aching muscles. Now, If I am strapped for time I may run with dog, but with no events entered or specific goal or challenge I just kinda stopped running.

The parkrun appears to be the perfect balance of one run a week over a short distance that I can improve at over time. It is on a Saturday morning starting the weekend in a really positive way with a run and a swim. I say appears as I have already bought new running tights and trainers and stripped 9 places of last weeks finishing position. But I haven’t entered any events…..yet. With no one to chat to this week I ran faster but didn’t enjoy it quite so much. As with my swimming I need to balance the measure and pleasure. Last weeks running partner Rachel was super chill and happy to chat. I need to be a bit more Rachel sometimes.

So, it’s the old me entering 2019, the old me entering events but it is the new me knowing when to stop and just float. It is the balance that will keep me buoyant. A healthy mix of both measure and pleasure in both swimming and running. If you see me signing up to Strava….stop me!

Author: Seabirds Kath

Footnote: Running bird Ostrich can out run a horse and can reach top speeds of 70 km/ph (That’s 43mph in old money)

Running bird Kath cannot.

 

We don’t want your money honey – Votes For Women!

Please vote for our Women in Waves project to receive funding from Aviva Community Fund

Here at Seabirds HQ we need help from the Seabirds community and supporters. We are not looking for donations but rather your votes.

We have applied for funds from the Aviva Community Fund for our Women in Waves Project. 

What do we want?

To introduce open water swimming to local women  to improve their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. There are lots of courses locally run to help people transition from the pool to the sea but many people are intimidated by these courses. Many women struggle to get into a swim suit, let alone a pool or the wide open sea. Yet it is exactly these women that would benefit so much from introducing open water swimming into their lives.

What will the money be spent on?

The money would be spent on equipment like swim hats and dry robes – to keep participants warm and safe, changing and pool facility hire – to provide a safe environment for participants to get used to open water swimming, administration costs and dedicated coaches and instructors to facilitate the courses to ensure the participants get the best out of the courses.

Who will benefit?

We have canvassed feedback from local women, who have experienced hormonal and menopausal related wellbeing issues, aged 40-60. We asked them;

  1. If they visit the beach and swim in the sea?
  2. What factors can contribute to low confidence and motivation, preventing them from swimming in the pool or the sea?

We then asked them to help us develop ideas for activities that would “make them feel happier and more confident” as part of a pilot session. In this way we have gained a real insight into the issues faced by women of a certain age.
We understand that there are points in women’s lives where they need support to build resilience and to make improvements to their wellbeing. We believe that outdoor swimming can improve outcomes for women experiencing mental health challenges from firsthand experience. Modern day living is a challenge, particularly in times of austerity. Services are being cut and many vulnerable women are falling through the net.

Why we want your votes

Female-centric courses with participants falling into a similar age bracket in a safe and structured environment may be the only way some women would even consider swimming the sea. We are passionate about encouraging more women into the waves to improve their wellbeing and voting for this project would make this happen

How do I vote?

How you vote in 3 easy steps;

  1. Click on this link Women in Waves and register with Aviva (you must be 13+ to vote)
  2. Enter your email address, create a password and enter your name to register. You will be sent an activation email to this account. Click on that link
  3. Once signed in to your Aviva account you can opt out of their mailing list and search for ‘Seabirds’ which will take you to our project and allow you to vote.

The Small Print

  • To stand a chance of receiving the funds we are aiming for 2000 votes. We are currently at 834
  • Voting is open until 20th November.
  • You can vote using all email alias’s available to you
  • You can share this project with your family and friends and ask them for their votes too.

Still undecided?

Various social factors put women at greater risk of poor mental health than men. However, women’s readiness to talk about their feelings and their strong social networks can help protect their mental health. Seabirds already have an established network of sea swimmers that gain confidence and happiness from being part of a community group. The course would act as a foundation for women to join the already established swimming community group providing them with respite from daily worries, a support network and a regular activity and meet up.

Here are some quotes to encourage you to vote!

These are the comments from the women that participated in our focus group pilot session.

” For the time we were in the sea I really didn’t think about anything else but the waves.”

” It was wonderful to connect with new people”

” The sentiment ‘you go in strangers, come out friends” really rings true”

” Lovely idea, good solidarity, much needed”

” Really supportive group – loved it”

” Invigorating, confidence building”

As ever – Thank you for your support and  hopefully your vote.

Seabirds xx

To Swim or to Gym? That is the Question

National Women’s Health and Fitness Day falls on the last Wednesday in September. i.e. yesterday. This is an American concept but one that the UK seems to have adopted. My Social Media streams were full of positive images of women keeping physically fit. Lots of references to introducing exercise into your life and healthy living particularly diet and super foods. But still a disproportionate lack of advice, images, suggestions to promote Women’s Mental Health.

Mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically linked. If you focus on physical health, i.e. diet and exercise, there is a positive impact on mental health . The WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.” Nowhere is the relationship between mental and physical health more evident than in the area of chronic conditions. … People with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health.

In the past I have prioritised my physical well being over my mental health. I was your typical gym bunny. Always doing the school run in Lycra and headed off to a gym class as soon as I had dropped the little darlings off. The sweat was addictive and the endorphins kept me coming back for more. As with open water swimming, there was a supportive gym and school mum community too. But it was a double edged sword for me. It brings out my  competitive nature and I found that it was never ‘enough’. I hadn’t trained hard ‘enough’. I hadn’t gone to ‘enough’ classes. If I didn’t sweat it wasn’t ‘enough’. My focus on my physical wellbeing was beginning to have a detrimental impact on my mental health.

So I changed my approach and looked for balance. I reduced the gym classes and mixed them up with more gentle classes that focused on strength, flexibility and relaxation. Much needed for 45+ year old joints and a frazzled brain. Slowly I weaned myself off the sweat addiction. But the hardest activity to change was my swimming. Open Water swimming has always been part of my life but in recent years I have introduced pool swimming into my routine. Not indoor pools….that would be a step too far! I applied my standard discipline approach to this activity. The number of lengths I swam each time and the time it took to swim distances. It was hard to be a seabird swimmer, free from swim drills in the pool. The lane ropes almost dictate swim drills to me. So I headed for the sea and ditched the pool. Luckily there was a Seabird flock waiting for me to join them.

Over the last 18 months, since the Seabirds were formed, I have swum in the sea all year round and there has been a marked improvement in my mental wellbeing. However, as soon as the water warmed up enough to be safe,  I found myself setting swim distance targets all over again. Round the pier, counting the groynes or using the iconic yellow swim buoys to measure the distance of my swim. I even swam solo, which was as much to do with a confidence goal as the need to pursue physical goals. If I didn’t swim front crawl without stopping and get up a sweat (yes you can sweat in the sea) it wasn’t ‘enough’.

Vanity played it’s part too. Ditching the gym and the pool changed my body. And not in a way I liked. It didn’t stop me from stripping off on the shingles and showing half of Brighton my bare bum. But lots of my clothes now don’t fit and even the most resilient woman would struggle in seeing the positive in that. Without knowing it the Seabird Community brought me back to balance. Listening to their pre and post swim conversations I distinctly remember one Seabirds saying at school she wasn’t ‘sporty’ and now she is proud of what her body can do after months of sea swimming. Others have talked about being role models for their children, showing them that there’s life in the old Seabird yet. All of them talk about how happy they feel in the water and for hours sometimes days afterwards. The running theme throughout was always that getting in the sea was ‘enough’. It didn’t matter if you swam out to the buoys, lay in the shore dump or floated in the waves. It was ‘enough’

Health and Fitness is and always will be a very personal choice. Alone or in a group. In a gym class or in the outdoors. Dry land or in the water. If you don’t enjoy it and if it doesn’t make you happy it won’t be ‘enough’ and you won’t keep doing it. And your mental health is as important as your physical health. For me finding a balance is a challenge. But I think I am finally there. A mixture of gym classes as I like routine and encouragement. A daily dog walk on the South Downs as I love solitude and fresh air. A seabird swim free from arbitrary goals that leaves me feeling happy.  So the question isn’t really Swim or the Gym. A balance of both is ‘enough’.