On Saturday I went for the traditional Christmas dip with the wonderful folk from the Outdoor Swimming Society. It was great fun, though I’m not sure I’d do it again without proper preparation – or a wetsuit. To swim in very cold water (it was 8 degrees C) ideally requires a certain amount of body fat (which I haven’t got). And a week of cold showers in advance probably wouldn’t have gone amiss either! Plus I had a bit of a sniffle and a cough. In short I didn’t feel 100 per cent.
So when I had to sign an insurance waiver saying if I died of a heart attack it was my own stoopid fault and the most I could expect would be that they would fish my Speedo-clad corpse out of North London’s Parliament Hill Lido, I did fear the worst. What I figured though is that I was best trying to get used to the cold temperature before diving into the water for the 12 o’clock race to the other end of the pool and back. So I gingerly skirted round the edges of the lido, dipping my toes in, until I plucked up enough courage to get in the water.
What I didn’t expect was that my breath would be completely taken away seconds after lowering myself into the water. There was no possible way I could exhale and the feeling was, if not quite terrifying, not exactly pleasant. So after about 15 yards I swam to the steps and tried to warm up before trying again.
Second time round was much better, I felt I could control my breath a little easier but the ‘brain freeze’, what’s sometimes called an ice cream headache, was more than I could bear. I know from previous experience swimming in the Lake District this is one of the first signs of hypothermia and was probably how the Titanic victims felt in the few minutes they had before expiring in the Atlantic!
Anyway, I managed about 30 yards and was ready for the 12 o’clock ‘wave’, though I was still shivering quite badly – so much so that the tinsel-trunk wearing swimmer in the picture above suggested I should think about throwing in the towel or whatever the swimming equivalent is (taking off your goggles?). In the end though I was fine. I dived in no problem and was starting to getting used to it when I decided to err on the side of caution and head off for a warm shower after swimming a 25m width.
So what did I learn from the experience? That I am not so hardy as I thought (one bloke swam about 40 lengths in just Speedos and he looked totally calm). And that you can’t beat a nice cup of tea and a mince pie after a cold dip! Also I learned that it’s really not possible to have enough clothes or enough heat in the car to warm yourself up afterwards.
And while I’m not sure about the whole extreme swimming thing (I was reminded on several occasions that it was just 1 degree last year when they held the event – now that is cold) what I really like is the camaraderie. I love the way that swimming outdoors generally, but especially in challenging conditions like this, brings everyone together.
So thanks once again to the Outdoor Swimming Society for organising the event and getting my Christmas off to a bracing start!