Putting your toe in the water
I learnt to swim and compete in the pool, the wonders of open water swimming have only been something that I have enjoyed in the past 10 years and compared to many I am only really at the start of my open water journey. It started in a wetsuit challenging myself in 3/5km events, but quickly the wetsuit and the increasing loops around buoys felt restrictive and these swims lacked the sense of adventure that I was hoping for.
My first taste of wild open water swimming came during an amazing weekend in the Lake District, the beauty of the Lakes I‘ve explored by foot many times sitting on the lake edge admiring the view, this weekend took us to the centre of the lakes where the vista was breath-taking. The area notoriously has its own climate where all seasons can happen in one swim from bright sunshine, to hail and gales, swimming with the wind and against it – that weekend brought the sense of adventure I was looking for, swimming had never made me feel more alive. Taking water from the lake and boiling it to enjoy tea and cake afterwards never tasted so good.
Increasingly, I wasn’t enjoying wearing my wetsuit, for me it takes away all the sensations I love about swimming. We’re covered in nerve endings and I love how the water feels, the wetsuit improves speed and balance, but I was finding it took away much of the pleasure of swimming, but this well-fitted piece of neoprene keeps me warm.
I don’t withstand the cold very well and when I get cold, it’s not a pretty sight! After completing the length of Lake Coniston in my wetsuit, a warm Ribena at the end warmed my hands but was impossible to drink as I was shaking so violently, it was the first time I had experienced such comedic involuntary movements to get my body to warm up.
What to do?
Know your limits and listen to your body
Many articles and experts to guide you on cold water, but experience has taught me caution against over-confidence. A weekend in Slovenia proved that as I adapt and acclimatise to the cold I can swim further and enjoy cooler temperatures, push yourself too far and your body will soon let you know you’re in trouble. Crossing the Italian border for one swim the higher altitude meant the water was colder than in previous days and at 12 degrees at the waters edge, half of the group put their wetsuits on, but with my confidence building I stayed with my costume. It might have been 12 degrees at the waters edge but a hundred metres in the depth and temperature of the water plummeted and it completely took by breath away, the safety support stayed with me knowing the warning signs to look out for. That swim felt much further and I had to scream at myself to move my limbs faster to get back to shore. Several Canadians where on the same trip, all of them with a lifetime of Lake swimming and they really didn’t seem to feel the cold….at all! When I ungainly crawled out of the water they knew exactly what I needed, lots of layers and a warming cuddle, human warmth has never felt so vital. I shook in that ladies arms for over an hour, at one point tears silently streaming down my face and while my jaws chattered I reassured her I felt OK and didn’t know why I was crying, her reply, “you may be ok, but your body is feeling really sad right now!” A lesson learnt and one I will always remember, know your limits and have people around you. Preferably ones willing to give cuddles!
Since then there have been incredible adventures, from wild swim days, closer to home regular visits to the Heath and Docks and our Montenegrin adventure at school, when we reminisce it was our day swimming along caves that for many was their favourite and most adventurous day it was also the coldest of all our swims and the biggest test for many of the swimmers.
I have a lifetime of swimming ahead of me and a bucket list of swims to complete, the longest of late has been the Henley Marathon at 14km and for this I decided to stay with the neoprene, but something has certainly changed, when I finished there was no shivering and at times the water felt too warm and I thought…next time I’m doing this in skins.