I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I’ve heard that anorexics always see themselves as fat, but I saw the opposite with my physique. Like Michelangelo saw the sculpture of David he would release from a block of stone, I saw my muscles and strength beneath. I only think I look fat in old photos. For instance, I was “as fat as a fool” when I swam the English Channel. But, that kept me warm, helped me float, and fed my muscles.
I was very happy with my long term physique for long distance swimming and strength. I saw myself as a small sumo wrestler with a considerable amount of muscle mass covered with a protective layer of fat. It worked very well for the things I wanted to achieve. I’ve swam over a mile (2000m) in 1.9° Celcius (34° F) and three miles at 40°F. Not to mention, six hour swims every two weeks or so for a year with plenty of physical work—cycling in high gears, carrying the bike whilst jogging and rowing a boat were part of my program. I felt strong and healthy for the most part and rarely cold.
Now in my 40s, it’s wiser to be lighter. The trophies of the heavy work remind me that the daily minimum is the way to go and the desire to lift heavy weights and cover very long distances has waned along with my mass. I now feel the cold more.
I celebrate improvisation: I participated in the UK Strongest Man heats by training in my garden with scrap metal and old tires and tree trunks. Recently I ran my portions of a relay triathlon between London and Paris wearing normal clothes and my usual Dr. Marten boots. I used a steel bicycle made in 1963 for the cycle stage. “Did you find that at the roadside or in a museum?” joked a team mate. In the poem “If,” Rudyard Kipling challenged the individual to see their work destroyed and to rebuild again “with worn out tools.” I realise that I’m railing against convention. To me, the veneer of professionalism which demands branding and uniformity ignores the individual art of survival and practicality. Improvisation is not fashionable, a bit like calisthenics in some quarters. The poster boys and girls of conventional fashion wear makeup, have suntans, clean clothes, and operate in perfect conditions which do not exist in reality.
At the Louvre in Paris the other week, I photographed a bearded statue with a big arm. “That’s me,” I declared to myself, that perfection visible to me beneath an imperfect form. “It’s what you are becoming,” said a voice from the future. I didn’t realize until relatively recently (the last decade or so) that I am a time traveler. I’ve often imagined my future self returning to give advice. Sometimes the advice felt unhelpful, but I took comfort that the future me cared enough to try and help. Sometimes sneering at the elder know-it-all version of myself, I resolved to do it my way. “Stick to the basics,” he said, but I clamored for the cheer of the crowd, the wow of friends and colleagues. Vanity lifting and trophy hunting were (and are) very seductive.
“Calisthenics is both the fountain of youth and the quick route to old age,” my future self advised. “I’m curious about it being the quick route to old age,” I commented. “Time flies when you have fun,” he replied, “Especially given your habit of doing things unconventionally. Don’t worry,” he regularly assures me at opportune moments: “Everything will turn out fine, but the work has to be done.”
I remember these inner conversations and revisit my younger self to reiterate the message. Sometimes I didn’t listen—I remember that too. There’s still more to do, always more to do. Each day is a new start, a bit more revealed from the block.
Winston Churchill had the right idea: “Live dangerously, take things as they come. Dread naught: all will be well.”
Dan Earthquake is involved in event safety and hosts winter swimming training camps for Channel Swimmers. In 2013 the Channel Swimming Association awarded him the trophy for “Greatest Feat of Endurance” for his 21hr 25 minute crossing of the English Channel. In August 2018 Dan was part of the 4 person relay team that set a new record for the Enduroman Arch to Arc triathlon between London and Paris. For more info, visit www.eqnrg.info