“I Am Human, The Same As Every Other Person, I Am As Powerful And Kind And Able As Every Other Person. I Can. I Will. I Am! I Am The Creator Of My Own Future, The Pioneer In My Own Adventure Story.” – Beth French
Interview By Elena Holmes
Beth French is a pioneering adventurer who swam the English Channel in 2012 to prove to her son, who is high-functioning autistic, that anything is possible. She later became the first person ever to swim from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly, against the current, and most recently challenged perceived limits by attempting a world first, taking on Oceans 7 (seven of the toughest swims on the planet, a list only completed by 6 people to date) in a single year. We spoke to Beth about having a period in the ocean, sharks, and wishing for tampons to be as vital part of adventure kit as crampons.
Do you feel that menstruation has ever impacted upon your participation in adventure, either positively or negatively?
Endurance swimming is impacted on hugely by menstruation – particularly in cold water, or in shark areas. For training, where I swim up to 8 hours without a break, I have to plan around my period. In the pool I can hop out empty my Mooncup and get back on with my swim, but in the sea it’s not that easy. In warmer waters without the shark risk I usually allow my body to just get on with it – I don’t use anything as the flow is often reduced or stopped altogether during long swims. That’s only fine however if you are able to sort yourself out soon after getting out the water. I have to plan very carefully when swimming channels and gauge where I will be in my cycle during the tide window. I have had to miss out on some cold water swims as I am on the first 2 days of my period. In the past, long swims in under 12 degrees on these days has resulted in severe cramps developing into dangerous abdominal spasms that rendered me virtually unable to move in the water, and even damage to my femoral nerve!
Beth talks to me about the controversy surrounding menstrual blood and sharks. During a recent interview by TMZ, surfer Laird Hamilton stated that “the biggest, most common reason to be bitten is a woman with her period, which people don’t even think about that.” Beth refers me to an article written in response which assesses the various myths surrounding periods and sharks and concludes that there is in fact no evidence to suggest sharks are attracted to period blood.
“I have never felt threatened by sharks and have only taken hormones to delay my period in consultation with my crew as they wanted peace of mind.”
Do you have any menstruation-and-swimming-horror stories to share with us?
Yes! Swimming long swims with a tampon in ends up feeling like you have an iron bar in your lower gut and can cause cramps which are never good! So I switched to a Mooncup, which is much better as it is more malleable. However, if you are on a longer swim and are on a heavy day, when the cup is full it can make you feel like your insides are falling out! Additionally when you stand up on the beach at the end of the swim, excess water that has made its way into the cup and the pressure of tired muscles holding you upright means that I have experienced that nightmare of bloody water running down my legs as I make for my towel. I’ve had to stand in the shallows and empty my cup before now! Far from ideal.
Once I had to complete a 6 hour ocean swim in under 13 degrees for a qualifying channel swim and it had to be done in a time frame. I woke up on the day of the swim and promptly started my period. The water was 11.6 degrees and after 2 hours, the cramps were unbearable; the cold water had tightened my muscles and with the abdominal strain of swimming, I was in agony. But I had to complete it. After 4 hours, I couldn’t use my legs to kick at all, and trying to come upright for feeds was wretched. The inflammation of menstruating and constriction due to the cold had meant that my femoral nerve was being squeezed. When I had at last made 6 hours, I could barely walk. I was still having physio on my groin and hip 8 months later.
What action do you take, or have taken in the past, to deal with menstruation when swimming, and how does this differ from what you do when on dry land?
Changing to a Mooncup from tampons has definitely helped. As I’ve already mentioned, avoiding cold water on my first 2 days is pretty essential, although also very limiting as the water is always pretty cold in the UK! I also have to travel with hormone tablets to delay my period for certain channel swims as it’s just not worth the risk.
In some ways I guess swimmers have it easier as we can just let things loose when swimming in the sea and only have to scamper for something when we get out. I use a changing robe on the beach and have many times discreetly inserted my cup whilst getting dressed. In the pool, you just have to get out and go to the bathroom. It can get hellish in mixed company when you are far from privacy.
Do you feel comfortable discussing menstruation amongst your support team/friends/teammates in preparation for problems that may be faced when swimming, or to discuss a problem as it arises?
Comfortable or not, I have had to. After the 6 hour swim when I could hardly walk, we had a serious talk about facing channels with periods. My male support crew member was taken aback, but I stressed the importance of his being open and aware as it would massively impact my performance. With my female support we talk freely as travel and stress and physical activity impact all our cycles. We keep tabs on moods and cycles as part of tracking fatigue too.
It is impactful on my sport, so I feel comfortable talking with anybody. It is so important and completely natural and if others aren’t comfortable, it is even more important to raise the issue in a laid back but clear manner.
Does the gender of the people in front of whom you talk about menstruation affect how comfortable you feel talking about it?
Not personally, but the response differs massively. I have found that men who are part of the discussion even by proxy are just not as educated as women and so won’t be as comfortable talking about it. Supposedly there is an assumed understanding among women, but men involved in adventure are in my experience usually aware that it is another logistic that has to be dealt with and every member of the team is involved in that. Logistics affect everybody and it is all of our responsibilities to understand each other’s needs.
How do you feel about the ways menstruation is treated within our society and would you like to see any changes in which it is discussed or dealt with in the UK?
I would like to have it dealt with more openly and for there to be less embarrassment on women’s part when dealing with the moods, the water retention and the bleeding – at the end of the day these all impact a team and performance! If adventure can be a level playing field in which to have these discussions in a wider context, then good!! The only way we can get men on side is for taking tampons in the kit to be as normal a discussion as taking crampons to climb Everest!
Do you think that any women find menstruation a barrier to participating in adventure and, if so, do you think it needs to be that way?
I think women are still ashamed of menstruation in some cases and shield their cycle from the world so they avoid sports or adventure. I also think that the medical world hasn’t dealt with menstrual difficulties fairly. I have suffered from endometriosis, active and chronic endometritis, polycystic ovaries and chronic pelvic inflammatory disorder, and for most of my life I was just told to live with it. Severe pain is not something you are designed to live with and certainly in menstruation, it is a sign that things are not in balance. Now I use my cycle to gauge how healthy I am as prolonged ultra-endurance events frequently result in women becoming dys-or amenorrhoeic (the experience of severely painful periods or the stopping of periods altogether). Staying regular through all my channels is a good sign that I am fundamentally healthy and maintaining safe buffers for my body.
Everyone here at Women’s Adventure Expo would like to say a huge congratulations to Beth on her recent Ocean’s 7 adventure. It takes an incredibly strong woman to know when to let go of a challenge which is negatively impacting not only herself, but her son as well. We are so proud of everything that she’s learnt and achieved, and can’t wait to hear her speak at our WAExpo 2017 Main Event!!