Find a way, Diana Nyad
Recommended by Claire Eadington. Claire’s top choice of book was Alice in Wonderland, which I had to reject as it fell outside the rules (being a book I had read before), but I was so tempted to ignore my rule after her persuasive suggestion: “It never fails to remind me to be curious, to accept the wacky things life throws at us, gives me the courage to be me, and in work terms not to apologise that my career hasn’t followed a path that fits a mould. It’s also quite short.” Her recommendation of Nyad’s book as an alternative was also pretty persuasive, luckily: “about swimming and has motivated me to carry on to do my marathons and triathloning and stuff, against the odds of my very basic physical skills!”. I first met Claire at a mutual friend’s birthday concert in 2014, but we had a lot of friends and interests in common, and then she moved to the same area as me. Claire is a singer, but also an athlete and even has time for a proper job at the environment agency – you can read her own blog here and/or watch her excellent recent TEDx talk here.
I am SO glad that I stuck to my rules and read this book instead of Alice. Diana Nyad was one of the top endurance swimmers in the world in her twenties, and in 1978 (aged 29) attempted to become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. She failed. This is her biography, which details her rekindling of this idea in her sixties, and her eventual triumph (on the fourth attempt in 3 years) aged 64, becoming still the first person to manage it (and at the time of writing, still the only), more than 30 years later.
I have an interest in extreme feats of endurance, having completed a couple of ultramarathons. My ultimate aim of finishing a 100-mile race before I was 40 fell by the wayside after an 80-mile success at 38, but then a series of injuries and the excellent addition of a new baby put paid to my year 39 season! Nonetheless, that goal is still there, for a time in the future. Most of my running friends know that I have a slightly unhealthy obsession with the Barkley Marathons (best information here), and the comparisons between reading Nyad’s accounts of hallucinations 40-odd hours into her swim and those of finishers of this ultra race after their 50-60 hours in the wilds of Tennessee are very obvious.
Nyad writes with excellent clarity about her drive and passion. She describes with huge affection all of the members of her Team (always capitalised as a sign of respect), even when talking about times when they have had to part ways. Her humility, even when faced with the enormity of her achievement, is extraordinary, and is a brilliant reminder to any reader that there is always something more than personal effort in the background. Whatever our achievements, there is someone else who has helped us.
It was very interesting to read this account of an enormous challenge, particularly within a discipline where I have extremely little talent. I tend to sink, and swimming is the only sport where I see boys at school (which only goes up to 13 year olds) regularly being considerably more competent and certainly faster than I am. I am sure that will change as age catches up with me, but I know my limitations in the pool. Nonetheless, the challenges that this sport throws up, whilst different to the idea of taking on a multi-day foot race, or a multi-stage bike race, or any other challenge I can think of, all have counterparts. Organisation is key. Training is key. But self-belief, drive, determination and grit are probably the most important thing of all. Roll on the next two books I have on the list – Grit and Bounce!
I “only” managed 80 miles in my last 24-hour attempt because I allowed myself to crash out and go to bed for 5 hours in the middle of the night. If I had trained better at the sleep-deprivation part (you would have thought that 3 children (at that stage) would have done that!), or had listened more to the several friends I have that have achieved this distance (and much more, some of them), then perhaps I would have managed it when I was in the form of my life, running-wise. Most importantly, though, I learnt lessons – I knew the following year that I wasn’t in the right shape, and I pulled out rather than put Sarah through the stress of seeing me, or rather not seeing me, for the hours of training required.
Nyad talks time and time again about learning from every mistake, always learning. There is much that anyone could take from this modus operandi, in every walk of life. I won’t describe the circumstances of her various failures, but suffice to say, each one taught her lessons. Whilst I am not utterly convinced that the growth mindset model of educational principles that is currently de rigeur is the final answer to instilling good learning principles, there is definitely a lot to be said for the basic idea of blooming well giving stuff another go.
I will finish with the first words Nyad uttered on finally making it to Florida Keys, on the fulfilment of her life dream:
“One: Never, ever give up. Two: You’re never too old to chase your dreams. Three: It looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a Team.”