Cold water Wallowing

Cold water Wallowing
Cold water Wallowing

Coldest dip yet!

An interesting week with a bit of swimming done, not as much as I would have liked but good all the same. Slowly eating away at my 430 km target for the year – now only 422 to go before the 1st December.

So on a grey morning in West London, 5 intrepid swimmers found themselves on the banks of the Jubilee river to take a dip. In two weeks time, some of  this bunch will be taking part in the PHISH cold water swimming competition and one of the things that we have to do to be able to compete in the endurance event is to do a qualifying swim of up to 1km in water below 6 degrees Celsius (42.8 in American talk).

So with most of my tech prepared and ready to go, I left my GoPro behind as it was not really the best day for photos, and we removed our dry-robes and waded into the river. I have now gotten past the deep breathing stage whenever I get into the water and now just wade in and get going; no point in prolonging the agony! And yes, it is pretty brutal when you immerse yourself in 3.9 degree water (39 in American talk) —-sans wetsuit.

The general  – and sensible plan – was to go out and do 5 minutes out and 5 minutes back and then if we were feeling alright, we would go again. Well there is only one problem with that plan, if I did come back after 10 minutes, I would never want to go for another loop. Also, I am not really one that listens very well. Well anyway, we were off, Joe leading us out in his wetsuit – the only sensible one among us. I was hot on his heels. AT THIS POINT THERE IS REALLY NO NEED TO HANG AROUND!!! For various reasons which can be broken down into the following

1 – Hands and Feet are on Fire

2- The intense concentration on trying to avert cold water panic

3 – Trying to generate SOME body heat – if that is possible

4 – You stop and the cold takes a grip pretty quickly

It is hard to believe that less than a month ago I was hammering out a 10km set (100 x100m on 100secs) in temperatures of 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 in American talk). Yesterday I was hammering out a 4.5km set in 26 degrees (78.8) and today I find myself trying to get to 1km in 3.9 degrees C. Subsequently It has been brought to my attention that this sort of ability is pretty rare and this from an extremely accomplished open water swimmer.

Coming from the person it came from, that is quite an accolade but one thing she does get right is that your mind has to be convinced. I am in TOTAL agreement with this and spent a lot of time in the drive-over there this morning – as well as many hours before – playing through the whole event in my head and how it would all pan out.

I use this technique for pretty much most of my marathon swims and it works tremendously well for me. Mainly because I know what to expect and my mind can dream up some pretty odd scenarios to work through. If my physical training has not been up to scratch, I always fall back onto my mental training and thankfully that has held me in good stead so far.

This is my track and it is pretty spot on

Where that Dot is, is about 400m and that is where I swam into the bank. The visibility both above and below the water was pretty poor and whilst swimming, all of a sudden I felt my hands and feet dragging on the bottom. Honestly, it felt like I was soon to become the next culinary craze of ‘pulled hippo’! A 100 blades tearing at my skin doesn’t begin to cover it; this is the level to which your hands and feet are on fire. After short look to see all was good, I swam back into the middle of the river.

It took about 7 minutes to get comfortable – well, as comfortable as I was going to be in this swim. After about 10 min 30 seconds, I was still feeling pretty good; fingers, check, toes, check, movement in said extremities, check, breathing, check, other body extremities, well we worry about them later!!!  I stopped and removed my goggles to take in the awesomeness of my surroundings. It was idyllic – a typically British wintry scene. It was time to turn back as I did not want to push my luck. Even at that distance, I think many would already say I was pushing the limits. Joe was with me and he carried on a while longer.

The journey back was a bit more taxing and things started to change in my body at about 15 minutes. One thing you learn when challenging yourself in this adventure is you HAVE TO BE ACUTELY AWARE of your body and what it is doing. Often in cold water swimming, euphoria and feeling generally comfortable can be warning signs of things going bad. Although the euphoria was absent, my body was comfortable but my fingers felt like the size of cucumbers and it was becoming more and more difficult to move them with ease. My toes were also becoming less responsive. I was glad to be on the return journey and it was another 4 minutes and I was at the bank again.

Now to get out, get dry and get warm. Having people on the side is more of a necessity in cold water swimming. When you get out your toes and hands are virtually useless and having someone around if you need it is essential. Now get dry, get warm and wait for the shivers.

Soon, we were having a great chat with 5 cold swimmers and Sakura and Nick Adams, in the car park. We were picking Sakuras’ and Nick’s brains about cold water swimming, especially Sakura as she has been involved in studies regarding this. A very interesting discussion ensued in amongst the chattering of teeth and sipping of coffee for those who could hold a cup. And after a great swim, the only injury I walked away with was a bitten tongue which occurred whilst trying to talk and shiver at the same time.

So why do I do this to myself?

In all honesty, I do not really know the answer to this question but let me clarify a few things that might give sufficient insight.

As you know I started my swimming due to a back problem and once a challenge is taken on, there is only one thing to do, keep going until you have satisfied the challenge. I have done this countless times over the last 8 years and whilst I still learn a huge amount from each and every Swim or challenge, I needed something to move me out of my comfort zone again and put me in completely unfamiliar territory.

I do a fair amount of swimming anyway so it was only a matter of time before I started wondering about other aspects of the sport I have become passionate about and whilst mega swims are out of my reach for various reasons, cold water has really intrigued me. I have done the 31 degree stuff and survived so lets move to the other end of the scale. From the moment I jumped in, the physiology side of things really started to get me interested. Once I did one I thought okay not too bad. I have never come across a sport yet where the physiological reactions of your body are so VASTLY different EVERY time. Okay I agree, that today was the furthest I have swum in waters of this temp and it is definitely the coldest I have ever swum in. So two personal bests for me. 

As for trying to mentally prepare for these events, as mentioned earlier, in marathon swimming, I can usually dream up most scenarios. Cold water swimming has challenged me on a completely new level in that, no matter how much I have read about it, it still comes up with some pretty weird alternatives that not even my wild imagination has dreamt up.

I expect shivers, but sometimes these never come

I expect hands to go numb – but not to this level.

I expect fingers and toes to lose feeling – but not to this extent.

I expect after-drop – but sometimes the length is totally unexpected.

I expect my core temp to drop but, again, not for the length of time and even this varies with virtually every swim

So if you want something where the conditions change all the time, the hazards change all the time, the goal posts change all the time. I do not think there is one single aspect of this game that is a constant posing challenge after challenge after challenge. And in each of these challenges, I learn so much about myself. I also learn so much from the amazing people that I meet and yes, as mentioned before, one of the reasons I keep coming back is the amazing people. You do not need to be a fitness freak – I am very far from it, to enjoy something enough to become passionate about it.

Happy Swimming and I hope to see/meet many of you at some point but until then I hope I manage to inspire a few into really moving out their comfort Zone.

About the author

Ameteur Endurance athlete and marathon swimmer Having taken up marathon swimmng in 2008 with the challenge of the English Channel, I then continued on to Cycle up Britain, Kayak across Scotland and run a few marathons. None of those held the draw that marathon swimming held so in 2014 I was back in the water to Swim one of Switzerlands iconic endurance swims, lake Zurich. In 2015 I opted to take on my biggest swim to date. SCAR challenge.- 4 lakes in 4 days with distances Ranging from 6 miles to 18 miles.

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