Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Polar Bears Go Swimming

...but I could have done, and will do, better in future.
This, I hope, will be one of those "what went wrong" posts, rather like Patrick's Windermere post last year - mostly for my own record so I don't make these mistakes again, but also in the hope that it helps someone else. Because even though nothing actually went wrong, it definitely could have gone better. It's a little embarrassing to admit that this swim really bloody hurt and there was next to no cold water euphoria. I'm a bit annoyed with myself because if I'd done everything right it's quite possible I could have gone around the buoy or even twice around it. Still, everything is a learning experience, right?

Welcome to Boundary Water Park in Cheshire, a place which is difficult to find since apparently signage is optional, but so pretty it's worth the trip. I'd swum here once before in high summer, when the weeds were just a week or so away from making it impassable. It's gorgeous and I'm keen to bring the kids down for a paddle when it warms up. I knew a few things about it: it's generally easier to just strip off and get in than use the changing portakabin; it's an easy, sandy entrance and exit; and the whole lake is shallow so it would be much colder than Quays. 

Reported temp on the day: 2.8oC. Cold enough for an ice mile - and whilst I'll never attempt that myself, I am delighted to congratulate Hazel Killingbeck, the youngest Ice Miler in the world, on hers! The lake had been down as far as 0.4oC and frozen a few days previously, and although we had a good chuckle about the ice bath USWIM provided, it was definitely colder out there (I stuck my arm in to test it, you see. I'm clever like that).

We hung around for a while, pretending to socialise but really working up the courage to get in (well, I was, anyway). There weren't many of us - maybe eight in skins and half a dozen in suits? I wasn't really paying attention to numbers. Eventually we stripped off and there was mistake number 1 - we should have got straight in instead of mucking about doing silly photos like this:

Spot the Team Bear polar bears! And yes, Marylyn, the lady in blue is so determined not to miss out that she has a plastic bag over her wrist-cast. Nothing short of heroic! <3

It was a lot of fun and I don't begrudge it, but it was a contributing factor, I think, because although I'd meticulously organised my bag and heap of clothes beforehand, I knocked it all over putting my glasses away and didn't sort it through again before getting in because I wanted to join in with the silliness. This was an idiotic thing to do because virtually every item of clothing I was wearing was black, so it took extra time to find everything in the right order when I was getting dressed. I will wear coloured things in future!

Mistake number 2 was forgetting to anti-fog my goggles. AGAIN. I always remember at the last minute, hope it'll be ok, and it never is. I should know better because foggy goggles make me very anxious and that's never good.

Getting in was ok. I'd considered putting on my neoprene socks - they'd been a big help getting into the sea because I really hate scrubbing sand off afterwards, and I knew it was a sandy, squishy entry at Boundary. But it was much better than I expected and I don't think I needed them after all. So I'm only counting that as a half-mistake because it was a distraction, not a difficulty.

Let us be honest: this was very, very cold. It's five degrees colder than I've ever done in skins. Five degrees difference is an awful lot. It really hurt; spiky, stabbing hurt - and yet the bit that's usually so awful, when the water laps at your kidneys - that wasn't so bad. Since I was distracted by trivial bits and pieces, my overwhelming feeling was that I just wanted to get it over with, and that's when I made mistake number three, the biggest and potentially most dangerous - I didn't tip the back of my head into the water. Nor had I done my usual ritual of wetting my neck and face: since there was no way I was getting my face in the water, especially not with a head cold and rapidly disappearing voice (which, let's be fair, was because I was up half the night nattering to Rach!), it didn't seem to matter. 

That was STUPID. I didn't give my brain the "cold water is coming" signal, and so my breathing didn't settle down at all, it was too fast. I set off with a rapid breastroke (not my best stroke!), determined to touch the buoy and get back again before anything went wrong. I'd turned around and was heading back before the rest of the group had reached the buoy and that was a bit sad, really, we usually do this together. I also hadn't set my watch off, which was another daft thing to have done - both distracting and potentially dangerous, though given we had good support and were close to the shore, it wasn't essential like it is for a solo sea swim. Another rookie half-mistake.

I got out ok thanks to a helping hand (you almost always need a helping hand out of the cold!) and dove thankfully into my shiny new DryRobe. That was brilliant. If I hadn't had that I'd have suffered a great deal more from the delay caused by rummaging through my clothes. However, I wasn't shivering at all, I had no giggles (a dead giveaway for being at my limit - later discussion revealed everyone has a different "tell", how funny!), and I really don't think my core temp had dropped a great deal. I was in less than ten minutes from first footing, anyway, and covered 50m. Which, it occurs to me, now means I could take part in a number of Chillswim events next winter, having proved to myself that it is possible.

Once dressed and with coffee and cake securely in my mitts, I finally started to smile a bit. Ok, a lot.

Three Bears: Rach, Cathy and me. 
We are silly and made of cake, love and a healthy attachment to pain.

USWIM provided for us famously, as ever - there was a fire to huddle round, and Cathy and Marylyn even went in the ice-bath straight afterwards (Cathy, an OWS in her first season, is now so tough she sheds ice-cubes when she takes her cossie off!). The coffee flowed freely, there was cake, hot sandwiches, music...everything you could have wished for. We ate a lot of cake, chattered to everyone and it was a great day, in the end. It was a good achievement, I learned a lot from it, and we had an excellent natter with a Mersey Mermaid we're keen to hook up with for river swims later in the year. And there was cake. Did I mention that?

There's one last mistake.

I'm reading Cmdr Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth at the moment. It's a fantastic book; he writes warmly and engagingly and I'd recommend it to anyone, particularly those of us in the endurance sport community and especially to anyone taking part in relay or team events. I was standing in the kitchen making the tea with my Kindle reading to me, and I started laughing as I recognised a scenario straight from swimming. He's describing a training simulation of an accidental splashdown in the Soyuz capsule. There are three astronauts: himself; Max, a cosmonaut on his first command; and an astronaut named Andre who's as big as you can get and still fit in a suit. It's summertime, they're wearing pressure suits which need to be changed for water safety suits, and it's getting ridiculously hot in the cramped little capsule...

"Just when the heat felt the least bearable, I fake-shivered and said "Brr, it's cold!". It provided not only comic relief, but, for whatever reason, a bit of physical relief as well, so we all started doing it and for a glorious moment or two almost believed we weren't bathed in sweat."

What did we forget to do this swim? Not one of us said "eeee, it's TROPICAL!", not in my hearing anyway. Nobody flat-out denied the cold, no singing of Club Tropicana. We didn't even have the now-traditional War of the Roses over whether Lancashire or Yorkshire lasses can get in first (though I must point out I often win that one :P and hopefully that will set the scene for next time!) . We didn't do anything to shift our psychological state from fear to respectful mastery of the cold, and that temporary loss of humour, I think, made all the difference to me.