So I have had a nearly a year off swimming, but I have entered back into it with what felt like a daring dash to the coast to swim in the English Channel on a chilly January morning.
its been complicated, but other things have taken over. So I am out of shape, but after a dip in the sea at New Year I am determined to get back to swimming, to get back to my Total Immersion practice (with a view to even becoming a coach one day!) and to enjoy the one sport that i am able to enjoy on an even playing field with everyone else. Despite my Feldenkrais training, my arthritic feet are still a barrier to running, golf or tennis at decent level, but in the water, all things are equal and although I have little competitive drive I am keen to improve and aspire to do some long sea, river and lake swims eventually.
But this post is really about the wonderful community of open water swimmers in the UK.
After having been back in the pool for 3 days I became ill and had to stop for a few days but as I lay in my sick bed i developed the idea that rather than waiting for next year to do some cold water training, I would get going this year, but the problem is that the rivers and lakes and lidos are TOO cold at the moment for me to go in without a wetsuit.
I went on to the brilliant swimmer’s Facebook group, Did You Swim Today and was contacted by and enthusiastic swimmer called Deborah Herridge from a group called the Shark Sharks in Hampshire, who simply got wind of another wildwater nut on the site and asked where I swam, and I told her, Oxford. I asked her; Lee on Solent she said, and they were swimming the next day.
I made my mind up there and then whilst still suffering from the lurgy. I cranked up the heating in my bedroom, put socks and hat on, my thick hooded dressing gown and several layers of bedclothes.I popped several paracetamol and sweated myself silly. I was going to drive the hour and half to Lee on Solent the next day, a freezing Saturday morning, and swim in the sea at about 7 degrees with a bunch of people I had never met before. That is the fun of it and the power of Facebook. I’m often down about the internet (especially as the father of two teenage boys) but this is one of those places where it really comes into its own! I posted on the group’s site and Deborah welcomed me with typically swim open arms and even suggested that a cake should be cracked out for the arrival of a a newbie! With that sort of generosity, I couldn’t really wriggle out of it now.
I got up at 6.30 feeling pretty much better-that’s adrenaline for you, and set off for the coast without any of the rest of the family knowing!
There were some moments on the journey when it was snowing particularly that I thought it might be better to turn back, but I kept on saying to myself that it might be cold out but the water will feel warm in contrast. I was lead to my new destination nicely by the sat nav on my phone and got out of the car when I saw a man in a Dryrobe-the standard issue cosy coat of the hardcore cold water swimmer. As ever with the outdoor swimming community, I was greeted with friendliness and a whiff of geekiness. There is something of the obsessive about most swimmers it seems to me- and I speak as someone who is very new to swimming- every group has its stats man, its nutter and a gaggle of generally good natured and fearless ladies.
Deborah who seems to be the guiding spirit of the group was late and then failed to make it due to a flat tyre and the weather was getting worse. So, no “leader” and no cake, but the swimming still had to be done. One of the group had a camper van whose awning served as a cover while we waited to be assembled. It had started to rain now and I again felt tempted to get back into the snugness of the car. The last thing I want to do is have a horrible time and be put off for another year! But I literally gritted my teeth and told myself to get a grip!
The time came to go in and there was a certain amount of faffing around with where we would leave keys and towels etc because with cold water swimming you have to be organised because you don’t have long when you get out before you start shaking so much to be able to change!
I also needed to negotiate how long people wanted to stay in and I made a bee-line for a couple of women who were, like me, going in “skins” or with no wetsuit and without knowing the other blokes in the group I wanted to guarantee that I was with people who were not feeling that ambitious (these girls had only been going in “skins” since New Year and so were determined not to go too far-fine by me) so that I wouldn’t get sucked into a longer swim than I was ready for. As it turned out and, again, this is why I like this community so much, everyone was really thoughtful and welcoming in the water, making sure that I had a good time and was not too much out of my comfort zone.
The time came to get in and off we went; I find it so much easier to get into cold water when there is a gang doing it with me. Sure, it was cold, but then again I knew that, and I have trained before in colder water; I have a thought process now which accompanies every cold entry and a plan to carry out the counting to 90 which I read about in the incredibly inspiring Wild Swim by Kate Rew of the Outdoor Swimming Society.
It was great fairly quickly and as ever the counting stops after about 20 or so. The cold swirly grip that the water holds you with and tosses you about in is truly awesome. It was so nice to be back in the cold sea, but this time with a group of like minded nutters. Nobody was going to have a long swim, although one did go off at a tangent I think (but then again, everybody knew he would) but in the main the idea was to pootle down the beach (and although I say “pootle” there are some good swimmers in the group doing some serious head down front crawl, the stroke that I am attempting to master) staying quite close to shore for obvious reasons of cold management and back again. Me and my lady guides came out after 10 minutes and the other “pod” carried on for about the same again.
The aftermath of the swim was pretty brief. I had a shivery chat with one of the lady “skins” swimmers who encouraged me to think about coming to swim in events in the Solent in the summer and then we were off.
I didn’t shake as much as I have done in the past and was actually safe to drive from the off. If I had been in for 20 minutes it would have been a different story. So I was back in the hands of the Sat Nav and into the nearest petrol station for a coffee and muffin to accompany the beginning of an elated and ever so slightly smug drive back home.
I got back as the family was having a late breakfast! As ever I couldn’t resist crowing about what felt like a real achievement to me to what is a fairly concerted amount of indifference towards my intrepidness! I however felt great for the rest of the day and knew that I was back in the swing of things. As I write, in fact, I am already mentally preparing for a visit to the same group’s swim tomorrow; this time at sunset, with a promise of meeting the fabled Deborah, and cake or no cake I am seriously looking forward to it.