Finnish Winter Swimming Champs

It was a couple of weeks ago now, but back on February 7, I went out to Imatra for the Finnish Winter Swimming Championships. It was a completely ridiculous distance to travel in order to swim two 25m races but I’d always wanted to go to Finland and their competition was the inspiration for Tooting to start the UK champs. It was really another trip lead by Emily’s swimming, but one that I could get into and one that gave me the chance for a cheeky snow ride too.

The venue was at the leisure centre in Imatra where a pontoon had been put into the river before it froze. The “pool” was then the 25m inside the pontoon which had been kept clear of ice by constantly agitating the water. During the competition, however, there was a man going around with a net. Normally, you might expect him to be fishing out leaves. Actually, he was taking out small lumps of ice. Icicles hung off the lane ropes, and the steps (insulated with pipe lagging) were encrusted – crunching under your hands as you got in or out. And to add the icing (ho-ho) to the whole thing, just outside the bounds of the pontoon were some guys ice-fishing with their little holes and little chairs.

There was a great atmosphere from the start. Even though we went straight to the pool and missed the opening ceremony, there were plenty of other people on the grandstand. It was a long wait until we got our turn to swim, but it was fun to be in such a supportive crowd and we did get the chance to witness a Swimtrek cap-wearing, thong-sporting nut-case.

Unlike Tooting, the pre-race preparation was indoors. For some reason, it’s always really hot in Finnish buildings. Far warmer than I’d keep my house in an English winter (16C for me). So, as I waited, I couldn’t bear to have my coat on and was even sweating a bit. Maybe some of that was anticipation. I’m not that great a swimmer and a terrible sprinter at any sport, but I can’t avoid feeling competitive. I was nervously trying to remind myself to go fast, not just the loping pace I normally do things at. Knowing that you’re about to get into the cold does always bring a lump to the stomach, but it just as surely brings a buzz afterwards.

The race itself was breaststroke. The Finns have traditionally used head-up breaststroke for cold water because putting your head under takes your breath away. And with head-up you can wear silly hats. But, this time they experimented with normal breaststroke. Until a masters session a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t done breaststroke since I was a kid so it wasn’t an ideal choice. Into the water I went, though, eyeing the others for clues about when to do what as the instruction were in Finnish. Once everyone’s shoulders were under, we were off. Seconds later, we were out again. It was a fleeting series of images: brown tinged water, another swimmer out of the corner of my eye, my breath bursting a bit, no real time to feel conventionally cold. At least I’d remembered to try to go fast.

Impressively, and stylishly in her flowery hat, Emily took first place in the international category. Sadly, I couldn’t see the race as it was only minutes after mine.

The evenings are one of the main reasons to go cold water swimming. Everyone parties and has a good time. It was organised fun here though. A few dancers and entertainers before the band started; then there was the Finnish approach to dancing. Everything in a Waltz style, whatever the music. I’m not the greatest or most enthusiastic dancer, but it was a weird sight and a weird dance-floor to share. At some point during the night, we met the other member of our relay team. It was thong-man, Nigel.

The relay was very much more of the same, except this time with team spirit. So the racing was more fun, the swimming experience was pretty much the same, and I had the surprise sight of a steward taking my clothes away thinking they should be at the other end for a team-mate. Fortunately, I stopped them!

After the swimming, we headed up to Ruka – where the Finns go for skiing and I was hoping to ride my bike a bit. Having carried it with me this far, I was going to make sure it saw some snow action. I set off for their snowmobile trails with high hopes. The first section was on snow-covered roads which whizzed by until I saw the distinctive “two skis and a caterpillar” track that I was looking for. Checking behind, I swung off the road and onto the trail.

It started with a little 2ft hump, and stopped immediately after. As I came down the hump, my front wheel sank way down into the snow, pitching me over the bars. Arms outstretched, I flew and landed face down with both arms sunk up to the shoulders. Huh – I wasn’t expecting that. I had noticed that the snow was too powdery for snowballs but I had hoped the trail would pack down. I was dead wrong. Every time I tried to ride, my rear wheel just dug a little hole. Even pushing, my feet would occasionally go straight through the tracks and up to my thighs. The “ride” was a 5 hour push. Objectives were made though: it was nice and remote, the trail mix went down well, and I got back exactly on time with a little water and a little food left. For scenery, though, Alaska’s better 🙂

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