February 2017 – No time to get cold feet

With a month of solid swimming training under my belt I had developed a slightly better swimming technique and could cope with being in very cold water (+2’C) for a decent length of time (20 minutes) without suffering greatly for it.  Any exposure to very cold water will cause your body to react and prolonged exposure can be painful, even lethal, so always take precautions and always have company when practising.

In early February I was back in the water in competition for the British Ice Swimming Championships in Loch Lomond, Scotland.  My friends in the #ChesterFrosties group had the event long in the planning and I’d helped book the accommodation and arrange transport, little knowing what I was letting myself in for.  Arriving at a remote bunkhouse on the shores of the loch the evening before the competition started, someone suggested that we went for a late night swim.  It was cold, clear and calm, so why not?  The temperature at the top of the local mountain Ben Lomond was forecast to be -12’C and the snow line was well below the summits.  A group of us went down to the shore in our overcoats, stripped down to our trunks and then got in!  Whatever pain and trepidation may have been present was almost immediately surpassed by the tranquil beauty of the moment.  The water, though the thermometer said it was barely even 4’C, felt warm and silky, everything was lit up under the clear blue moonlight and the temptation to swim further out into the darkness was too much for me to resist.  The further I got from shore the more of the mountain skyline I could see and the more tranquil the lake seemed.  Thankfully my friends on the shore were keeping watch and shouted to us all to go back before the cold tricked us into hypothermia.  Once we’d wrapped up in towels and thermal overcoats and walked briskly back to the bunkhouse to get the blood flowing, we allowed ourselves a ‘wee dram’ of whiskey in the warmth of the house.  A few hours later we’d be in the water again for the competition – there really was no time to get cold feet.

After a warm and cosy nights sleep in the bunkhouse, we rose early, had our porridge and went down to the race venue.  As the coffee seeped into our bloodstreams on the minibus journey from the bunkhouse and started to wake us up beyond mere consciousness to alertness we noticed that the weather had changed.  The calm, quiet stillness of the night before was gone and had been replaced by howling winds and lashing rain.  There were waves crashing on the shore, not lapping gently but crashing!  After registering for our respective events those who were taking part in the endurance races (1km and 500m) had to go and have medical checks as these races were the first in the day, shorter races would take place in the afternoon.  The water temperature was a low 4’C, the air slightly cooler.  I’d booked in for the 200m Freestyle, 100m Freestyle and 4 x 100 metre relay so I had plenty of time to cheer my friends on in the morning in their races.  However, with the deterioration in the weather the organisers safety vigilance stepped up and some of my friends who’d started their endurance events were pulled out midway through.  The time allowed for events also slipped as people were taking longer than expected to sometimes physically have to fight their way through the waves.  This slippage allowed me to slip off site to the nearest town, Balloch, and get some lunch.

There are many cultural traditions in Scotland, such as wearing kilts, drinking scotch, eating haggis, playing bagpipes, highland games and folk dancing.  There’s some cultural experiences too that ought to be had, the deep fried Mars bar is one of these, as I found out at the chip shop in Balloch, deep fried pizza or ‘Crunchie’ is another.  Finding myself at a nation ice swimming championships with an international field of athletes and knowing I would be competing in some very cold sprint events in an hour or so, I did contemplate the wisdom of indulging in these cultural experiences. Aye…

Due to the weather the 200m Freestyle event was cancelled and competitors were offered the chance to compete in the 100m Freestyle instead.  The 100m Freestyle similarly became the 50m Freestyle and the relay, well a relay took place.  The records show that I came 12th in the 100m (2nd in my age group) which is probably right and they also show that I came 1st overall in the 50m event (1st in my age group too).  My recollection of the actual results was different but given the intensity of the waves I was genuinely thankful to have finished each event and got out of the water safely.  Every one who took part that day deserved a medal for having got in the water, let alone finishing their events.  My swimming style was still messy and I had to be helped out from the water at the end of each race, thankfully I had friends there with me who looked after me as even though I felt fine in myself I am wise enough to listen when they told me ‘you don’t look fine’.  They whisked me off to the heated recovery tent and I sipped hot Ribena between each event.  In retrospect, swimming three ice races in half an hour was over ambitious but I hadn’t planned it that way.

There are plenty of books out there to read about swimming, not so many about outdoor swimming and even less about ice swimming.  Back at the bunkhouse after the races I read Wim Hof’s “Becoming The Iceman”.  It is incredibly poorly written and does not offer a great deal of insight into what is now known as the ‘Wim Hof Method’.  If you want a fairly comfortable introduction to cold water experiences and exposure then his methods are good in my opinion.  He is not and does not claim to be a competitive cold water swimmer and I don’t think his method would work for competition.

When we got home from the event I went back in the pool and worked on my training programme.  Bearing in mind it was a four days a week programme for four weeks, I had only progressed to day two, week two due to repeating cycles until I felt comfortable and confident enough with them.  I had also been working my way through Terry Laughlin’s book ‘Total Immersion’ which I had bought in 1996 but never actually read due to the fact that I did not get on with his writing style.  It had been sitting on my shelf for 20 years gathering dust and now that I’d decided I actually wanted to learn to swim it was proving quite useful if equally unreadable.  I was now swimming five days a week, usually three days in the pool and two days outdoors, whatever the weather or time of day.  I had cracked bilateral breathing and also managed to keep my face immersed in the water whilst doing freestyle swimming in icy water.  Both of these things were breakthroughs for me.  I’d also worked out that it was having to wear a swimming cap and ear plugs that had been making dizzy me in the races in Windermere and Scotland.  I just was not used to wearing either.

Almost everybody has their own way of getting into freezing cold water, some brave and well conditioned souls like to jump or dive in.  This  method of entry is not recommended.  Some walk in and as soon as it is deep enough sink their shoulders in, take a breath and go straight into a swimming stroke.  Other walk in a little way, splash their faces, chest, arms etc and then move in a little deeper before they summon up the courage to swim.  Many never actually make it to swimming in the cold water, they get in up to their ankles, feel the cold and think better of it, literally getting cold feet.  I’ve deliberately put myself in situations where there is a social expectation that I will just get in and get on with the swim so that I would not have too much time if any to feel the cold first.  If you find something that works for you and gets you in the water, go for it!

Late in February, the organiser of #ChesterFrosties asked if anyone was available to appear in a feature being written for Audi magazine, she needed people who were willing to be photographed swimming but did not necessarily have to talk to the interviewers.  Naturally I offered to help and so on the day and arranged to take a long lunch from work to drive down to the lake, swim and then get back to the office without taking too much time.  There were four of us who went, and the interviewer had a camera crew with her as she was going to make a video too.  I was one of the first on the water and admittedly one of the first out too!  But the camera crew seemed to like me and followed me as I swam.  I was very aware that they might publish shots of me so despite the fact that I had only just cracked bilateral breathing and full face immersion in the water, I gave it my best.  It was there and then in those moments that I had my own breakthrough, not only in bilateral breathing but in face down, freezing water, freestyle swimming.  I have not looked back since.

Book of the month : Becoming the Iceman by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales available from http://www.wimhofmethod.com