The alarm goes off in my parents bedroom. I know Dad will be another ten minutes, so I try and shut my eyes for another few precious moments of sleep, but I'm already wide awake.
I look at the alarm clock, the red numerals cutting through the winter morning darkness and into my 12 year old brain. It's 5am.
I snuggle under the covers, waiting for Dad to come in. Like every morning, I'm hoping he'll decide he can't be bothered and just go back to bed, but he never does.
He come in an switches on the light. Same ritual, pretend to be asleep. He knows I'm awake but plays the game, gently rocking me until my head pokes out of the warm covers.
"5 minutes", he says.
I fall out of bed, as the microwave starts downstairs. I put on whatever clothes come to hand, pick up my bright yellow 'City of Leeds Swim Club' bag and stumble down stairs, a whirlwind of gangly elbows, knees and mismatched winter clothes.
Dad hands me the mug of hot mile and digestive biscuit and I take it out and into the car. Anything else to eat would mess up my stomach and ruin the swim I'm about to do.
The 15 minute drive from Wetherby, a relatively comfortable suburb, to the Leeds city centre is only fifteen minutes. At rush hour, it's more like an hour.
It's surreal this drive, the streets are dark and empty, just a few cars here and there, and since it's 1985, a milkman. You wonder what these people do, why they're up so early.
Dad plays Radio 2 all the way there. I hate it. Old fashioned music, an annoyingly cheery DJ and his daily 'bog eyed job' where other wierdos up at this ungodly hour phone in to talk about their morning run.
All can think about is how much I want Dad to turn around and just take me home.
At the same time, I look forward to the swim. I'm a clumsy young man, shy, walk into things and sometimes struggle for words in large groups. But in the pool, my body knows what to do and I feel confident. It feels like home.
(This loving and hating is how I will feel about my job 29 years later. It's probably closer to the truth about how I feel about lots of other things too and my 39 years old self will suspect that living in the 'grey' (to quote Rob) when it comes to feelings and needs will be closer to truth about people than the normal black and white assertions)
I never think about how much Dad probably wants to go home too on these journeys. It will be another fifteen years before I understand this.
We arrive at Leeds international pool. It's a montrous building, a true bastion of the mad archticture from the 60's.
They designed a groovy lighting pattern on the ceiling, which means backstrokers career all over the place, following the chaos on the ceiling, rather than the parellel straight lines of other pools. There are cockroaches in the changing rooms, you learn quickly to wear sandals,rather than endure the sickening 'crunch squelch' underfoot that can only mean one thing.
On poolside, no one talks that much, no one wants to be here. The heating didn't have time to kick in on any of our cars and te boilers at the pool haven't come on either. We're all freezing and all we have to look forward to is diving into a cold pool.
We do our stretches, our arms blurring into windmills as we swing the stiffness of our shoulders and allow our coaches to bend them into excruciating positions.
Then we dive in to do our warm up, each of us in turn off the blocks. Eight hundred metres. Two full stroke, two pull, two kick and two swim again. Gradually, the 'hating this' turns into acceptance and the body begins to warm up.
Then we're into the rest of the two hour session. Lots of drills, then a gruelling main set. This is deepest winter, the time when you put the work in that you hope will pay off later next year. This main set will hurt then. Something like 10 x 400 freestyle, or 3 x 1,500. The pace will be quick, little rest between each rep.
You're on your own in there, just you and your mind in the water. But the mind doesn't wander. You're totally in the moment.
At the same, you're swimming with ten other people in the chain, trying to stay ahead of the person behind you, willing yourself to close in on the one ahead.Training is competitive, it means a lot to lead the lane, but I never get to do that in the long distance sets. I'm a middle/short distance swimmer, here I'm looking to survive.
The next couple of years will see me develop my medley. The equivalent of the 400m hurdles in athletics. Not long, but agony nonetheless. You start with fly, and then hold on. It's a sprint by as much about endurance as any mile swim.
We move on to kicks, pulls, shorter reps on other strokes and medleys. I tend to lead the kick sets, the backstroke and medleys. I always lead to the one hundred free sets, It feels good out in front but it's also hard to have no one to pull you along.
It's spooky how every session is roughly the same yet totally different.
Training for a sport like swimming isn't pretty. It's months and months of repetition. There's variation between sessions, but it's like the back-catalogue of Status Quo...it's just variations of the same theme. I've often thought that sports champions are not built on talent or the abilty to handle to pressure, what decided winner in the capacity to put up with, or enjoy repetitive, excruciating work.
You make up little challenges, you look for best times in training, you play games against the clock, but ultimately, it's about that bastard second hand spinning around, never giving you enough time to recover between sets, just enough to stop your body packing in.
At that age, you don't understand the nobility in pain and sacrifice yet. You can't articulate the joy in doing something well, you just feel it. Some fuzzy emotional glue that binds you and your team mates in some unspoken pact. It creates relationships that are more adult than the ones in school, which makes swimmers can be at once replete with fast, loyal friends in the pool, and yet very lonely.
When you have no time for what everyone else does after school, you miss out, which is made worse by the fact you know something is missing with these other kids, what knits you and other swimmers together is missing here.
But yes, every session is different too. Some days, it's usual. Not too bad, not too great. Just work that feels good. Others days, it starts off as agony, but if you swim through it, it melts away into a natural high, you feel like you could swim forever and the loss when the session finishes is quickly overshadowed by the pain of having pushed too hard. Very occasionally, you dive in and just feel amazing, it's not a high, just a day when you can do no wrong.
But then there are the day when you have woken up in someone else's body. You're lethargic and sluggish, even the warm up hurts.These are the days you have to push to do anything beyond surviving. These are the days where you really understand what sort of engine you have. The days when you feel great are not easy, but they zip by with a light joy. Every minute of a 'body-snatchers' session, where you feel you've been invaded by another person who has never swam a length in their life, every minute takes a lifetime.If you can get through these sessions, you can get through anything.
I've often thought my capacity to get through difficult stuff as an adult was forged in the furnaces of body snatcher sessions.
But my introverted nature, and preference for a few, close friendships was created here too.
The session finishes, the boys are bantering as they get showered and changed. As usual, we take too long and Dad is cross when I emerge from the changing room, red goggle marks livid aroudn my eyes.
While I've been training, he's been out for a run and got the paper. We're back in the car and hated Radio 2 is back on. It's Derek Jameson -even worse. But now I can get lost in the paper and munch on the Kit Kat Dad always gets me on the drive home. We're leaving the city, while everyone else is fighting to get it, so the drive is still pretty quick.
Then we're home. Dad gets changed into his suit, I get into my school uniform while Mum makes breakfast.
I have the ritual massive bowl of porridge.Then a four sausage sandwich, the lashings of tomato ketchup make it look like roadkill. Of course, there' gallons of tea, made properly in the pot.
I'm still hungry but physically unable to eat anymore. The sensations I associate most with those swimming years are hunger and a constant pain in my shoulders and arms.
My greedy personality was created in these years as well. My thirties become the developing trade off between learning to eat less and maintaining a training regime in a body that's slowly starting to say no more and more.
Then Dad's out to work and I'm out to school.
Eight hours before a go training again. Already, I'm at once dreading and loving the idea.
21 hours until the alarm goes off again.
Day in day out. I love this. I hate it. I want it to stop, I want to this forever.
My 39 year old self feels exactly the same, he's just learned to live in the eye of the conflict.