“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
A couple months ago, on our first long ride since the winter, my partner suggested training for a century — a hundred-mile bike ride — in the steep, crunched Pennsylvania mountains that summer. Yes! I yelped, and then later, more quietly: Hmmm. I love long rides, and the physical purpose of training immediately appealed to me. But something about the mileage-based proposition felt wrong. If I was working toward a century, I’d consider every outdoorsy jaunt first for the distance it could offer, and second for all the good stuff, like views and whether or not we pass cows. It felt arbitrary, flat, unromantic. I dismissed these little pangs until I reread Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, the cultish English travelogue about swimming across England by connecting streams, rivers, estuaries, moats. This was the adventure I wanted. Not swimming, per se, but a physical pursuit determined by nature — a physical, outdoorsy, inventive romp. I wanted to do something wild.
The 1999 publication of Waterlog energized both environmental preservation and propelled the wild swimming movement in England. (The term, associated with Deakin, “wild swimming” became so popular in the decades following the book that it’s now controversially cliché.) Despite the book’s influence, it wasn’t until last month that it was published in the U.S. This delay has confused me ever since I first read an excerpt of Waterlog several years ago, in a printed PDF from a former professor. But reading it anew in 2021 feels fortuitous: It’s the story of a restless man who’s ready to break from a confined existence. At the book’s beginning, Deakin is swimming in his local spot for the umpteenth time, when he feels a craving to swim through the country until he rejoins the sea, “to break out of the frustration of a lifetime doing lengths, of endlessly turning back on myself like a tiger pacing its cage.” I saw myself, during this past year and a half, doing fast feet and high knees in front of my biggest window. And I saw an invitation to pursue whatever would burst me out of here, door held wide open, beckoning hand rushing me along.
Now, again, vehemently: I have a deeply limited interest in swimming. Love to splash, love to jump in, love to chat while submerged, do not need to make any forward progress. But I admire the individualistic weirdness, the thirstiness for nature, the physical bravery of Waterlog, which of course I read entirely on a couch, basking in the sinful crank of air-conditioning. But like Deakin, I want to pursue something “unofficial.” A marathon, a triathlon, a century: all of these are very official. So much of our lives, and especially our fitness lives, are at risk of being signposted, regulated, and interpreted. “Walking, cycling, and swimming will always be subversive activities,” he writes, as they are always “breaking free of the official versions of things.” Subversive! I didn’t know I was so subversive, but I guess I am, and I love to be flattered.
Crucially, Deakin is not a professional, not a ribbon-winner. He’s clearly strong and determined, but he writes: “I am no champion, just a competent swimmer with a fair amount of stamina.” But he is an enthusiast. As the year of his swimming goes by, he becomes like an animal, with a “frog’s-eye view” of the world. “If I had a totemic ancestor,” he writes, “it was the otter or the eel, swimmers who often cross country by land, filling their instructive maps.” Deakin was born a terrestrial biped with mammal’s lungs, who will do everything in his ability to navigate his world through water.
Once Deakin begins his watery path, this organizing principle heightens his sensitivity to all life around the water. He’s Annie Dillard on the move. Of course, he becomes exceptionally sensitive to the quality of the water: There are soft waters, velvety waters, lively waters, “gin-clear” waters, waters that feel like the “wildest natural Jacuzzi.” He learns that once you’re in the water with them, animals don’t skitter from humans much at all. He swims with eels in the fen, he grouses about “nature’s bagpipes, the incessant gulls.” Waterlog is also a rich people’s history of riparian life. Deakin discovers that dunes around a beach in Norfolk are called “lust bowls,” and they often contain nude lovers. While swimming in Malvern waters, known for their medicinal purposes, he learns that the Victorian poet Tennyson credited this water with leaving him “half-cured, half-destroyed.” I’d love to know more, Lord Tennyson, but this also speaks to the potency of letting nature get intense with you.
This journey is sublime and full of otters and characters — but it’s also cold, muddy, scary, and ruthless. Partway through his aqueous trek, Deakin’s swimming in a viciously strong current in an estuary by Cornwall, surrounded by tugging seaweed. He panics for a second before giving in. “It was like dream swimming, going so effortlessly fast, and feeling locked in by the current, with no obvious means of escape,” he writes. “I kept on swimming until I practically dissolved, jostled from behind by the swell.” He has to use all his power to break free and swim to the shallows. By the time he gets to the shore, he doesn’t have the strength to do anything but crawl. He has to give in and he has to fight back. His swim isn’t just about moving, but about, literally and ecstatically, being moved.
I don’t know what my specific version of the Waterlog affair will be. Am I going to trace the coastal migratory path of a songbird via paddleboard? Definitely not. Am I going to bike from friend’s house to friend’s house along the Eastern seaboard and eat delicious crab at seafood huts along the way? Maybe, but I don’t really know anyone in Baltimore anymore. Amazingly, I’m not at all in a rush to decide on my exact gambit. At the very beginning of the book, Deakin writes that he was just doing laps in his regular spot, when “the journey first suggested itself.” If I want to be responsive to nature, I probably have to wait for nature to suggest itself to me. I’ll keep you updated!