Channel swimmers have a saying that you can’t be ‘too vain to gain’: adding bioprene can be a vital part of readying yourself for the 21 mile crossing. After many rounds of unsuccessful IVF, Jessica Hepburn decided to swim the channel, and meet and eat with 21 inspirational women, to get fat and answer the question: does motherhood make you happy?
When I approached Kate Rew about writing an article for the Outdoor Swimming Society we discussed several ideas – why I hate swimming but do it anyway was high on the list. When I talk to people about water I don’t wax lyrical about its life enhancing properties or its velveteen feel on my skin. Instead I talk about how it’s become inextricably linked to my relationship with motherhood. I didn’t realise when I started what I call my ‘Channel Agony’ how many parallels there would be with going through IVF. No doctor or science can guarantee you a baby, and no amount of training can guarantee you’ll cross a sea. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that nature is in control of both, not me. But finally we settled on food – my favourite subject.
One of the things that people say to me when they’ve read my book – 21 Miles (published in May 2018) – is: ‘but lots of the women you met didn’t eat…’. 21 Miles is the story of how I wrote to 21 inspirational women and asked them to meet and eat with me to help me get fat to swim the English Channel and answer the question: does motherhood make you happy?
When strangers ask me why I decided to swim the Channel my evasive but revealing answer is always: ‘a lot of pain’.
It seems to me that the only redeeming thing about training to swim the Channel is it’s a licence to eat. You can’t wear a wetsuit so a bit of human padding is the only way to keep out the cold. Plus, the training is so full on that a full English breakfast everyday doesn’t even touch the sides. My book is a celebration of food but it’s true that many of the women who agreed to meet with me – from The Great British Bake Off’s Prue Leith to the legendary Channel swimming trainer Freda Streeter – didn’t eat very much so the book also considers women’s complicated relationship with food. Are you too vain to gain?
When strangers ask me why I decided to swim the Channel my evasive but revealing answer is always: ‘a lot of pain’. The longer answer is: 11 rounds of unsuccessful IVF, multiple miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that almost took my life – a perfect baby but in the wrong place: my stomach. I don’t give this away immediately because people generally don’t know what to say if I do. But if their interest is piqued I tell them they only need to Google me. The gory details are all over the internet, following the publication of my first book four years ago – The Pursuit of Motherhood.
If you’re given the ‘seven and six’ – the pinnacle of Channel swimming training (seven hours on Saturday, six on Sunday) – positivity is the mindset of choice. Not for me.
It was that pursuit that led me to another – the English Channel. I call it my childhood dream turned midlife crisis. Anyone who knows me from the outdoor swimming community – from members of the Serpentine Swimming Club to the Dover beach team – will tell you that in the beginning it wasn’t a dream, it was a disaster. I could swim (a bit of breaststroke) but I didn’t come to this challenge as most people do – as someone who was a competitive club swimmer as a child or who had discovered a love of open water as an adult and gradually excelled. No, I am (and will probably always be) a reluctant swimmer who is terrified of the cold. I became well known for complaining bitterly before each training session. Down in Dover there’s a lot of bravado on the beach. If you’re given the ‘seven and six’ – the pinnacle of Channel swimming training (seven hours on Saturday, six on Sunday) – positivity is the mindset of choice. Not for me. There’s a whole chapter in my book dedicated to why ten minutes feels like a marathon swim. But sometimes we have to do things that are tough to make ourselves tougher, so I did. As I swam up and down the harbour I would breathe and look longingly towards the Premier Inn and think about the bath and all the food I’d be eating, guilt free, later.
Karen Thorsby’s book Immersion looks at the notion of ‘heroic fatness’. It’s true that marathon swimmers often believe the traditional image of an athlete and I think that’s one of the things I have grown to love about the outdoor swimming community – its ability to defy stereotypes, including all the champion long-distance swimmers who are never too vain to gain.
Sometimes we have to do things that are tough to make ourselves tougher, so I did.
Jackie Cobell – known worldwide as ‘The Ice Queen’, who holds the record for the slowest Channel swim ever (28 hours 44 minutes) is also one of the interviewees in my book. She told me that until she started swimming she had struggled with her weight all her life – she had a gastric bypass and even had her jaws wired up. Over a pub lunch near her home in Kent she explained why her own motherhood story had influenced her relationship with food. It broke my heart. Another moving episode is when the Very Reverend Lorna Hood (Honorary Chaplain to the Queen) refused my offer of a slice of cake but then leant over and took a bite of mine and revealed she had been castigated by her religious colleagues for conducting funeral services for women who had lost babies in the womb. It was a moment of shared experience between strangers that I’ll never forget. Food does that. It comforts us, it connects us. And for me, well, it’s by far the best thing about swimming.
Jessica Hepburn is the author of 21 Miles: Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood (published 3rd May 2018 by Unbound, £14.99)