SLSC UK Cold Water Swimming Championships

24 January saw me attending the South London Swimming Club‘s UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. Now there’s a silly idea. Take one gigantic 90×30 metre unheated Lido, and organise a race in January when the water temperature can be as low as 1C then see what happens. What happened was that the water was a relatively balmy 4C; people travelled from the UK, Finland, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Canada, and Poland participate; and afterwards we had a barn dance.

Swimming in water that cold isn’t at all like swimming in a normal pool. And it isn’t like swimming in “normal” cold water – say, the sea at 10C or above. You just can’t stay in there for very long – it is no exaggeration to point out that if you did, you would die. But you can stay in there a lot longer than you may think. One advantage of the Lido is that the water doesn’t creep up your legs slowly so there’s no dipping your toes in. Step one is up to your waist and step two is swimming.

When the water fully hits you, it grabs at your breath. But the weird thing is that your heart doesn’t just stop, and you can swim. At first there is something surreal about the normality of swimming in an environment that you have been brought up to think would be unrelenting and impossible. Then as you get more into it, maybe do your first turn, it does begin to feel cold. Actually, it isn’t impossible but it is unrelenting. Your brain slows down a bit and your stroke starts to look and feel drunk. Even then, though, there’s a warm core inside and the thoughts are random. I felt my toes getting cold. My toes. While heat is being sucked out of every inch, my toes are wanting some nice warm slippers.

And when you get out, your skin is aflame. Bright red and invigorating the burn is actually quite pleasant. The bad part is that your hands and balance don’t work so well. So you stagger about and claw at your clothes to get the wet off and the dry on. Even when you do, it’s like there are little cold snakes running around under even the biggest jacket. They run and coil and disappear, only to come back again and again for the next 30 minutes or so. Fortunately, the recovery isn’t like a longer swim in the sea – a hot shower or bath is OK. It doesn’t shock the system so the SLSC’s sauna is a handy shortcut to recovery and feeling blissfully relaxed.

Such was my swimming experience when acclimatising for the competition. On the day though, I swam for a mere 30 metres. It was all about supporting Emily as she swam in 30m Freestyle, a relay team with the “Swimtrek Bullets”, and then the daddy… 450m endurance.

The relay races brought out the fancy dress. First, there were the Grenadier Guards who were swimming to raise money for soldiers returning from Afghanistan. They were pretty easy to spot in their bearskins which enforced a gentle head-up breaststroke technique. It was an impressive achievement for a group who aren’t really cold-water swimmers but relied on toughness and the good cause to get through.

The Swimtrek team’s fancy dress had a bit of a stripper theme. With Brad, Simon, and John dressed up as stripper policemen, they gave Emily a mix of the police kit and naughty school-girl. As you can see, she pulled it off and even managed to get the truncheon in behind her swimming hat. They didn’t win, but they did look silly and that’s the main point.

The final challenge was the endurance race. It’s invitational only as the uninitiated would have no chance of finishing 5 lengths, 450 metres of the Lido. It was easy to spot Emily before she started as she waited at the far end of the Lido in my jacket. The challenge was to follow her swimming hat for 5 lengths. After one, I could see her do a brief bit of breaststroke. I wasn’t sure what to make of that but, her stroke was strong again when she returned to front crawl. Turn after turn, she kept going and in the end managed a brilliant finish. Nearly 9 minutes in desperately cold water. Impressive stuff.

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