Pushing yourself to the limit

With the sea and air temps dropping, Lou Walker finds there are new mental battles to fight in the water

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Well, this winter swimming malarkey is getting interesting. Last weekend at Boscombe the water temperature was seven degrees and I lasted 14mins. The water temperature has dropped dramatically in the last three weeks and there are new mental battles to fight in the water. But I now know which mental battles are worth fighting. 

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With normal swimming, cycling and running, your body will keep exercising safely 99% of the time, even if your brain’s screaming at you to stop. You just have to tough it out. But, with cold-water swimming, you ignore certain signals at your peril. If you shiver in the water, start to feel warm or struggle to make progress, it’s not the time to be a hero and push on – you’ve got to get out double quick. Even if you’re not dangerously cold, staying in just 5mins too long can make recovery longer and deeply unpleasant.

I pushed it a bit far a couple of weeks ago. The first Sunday in December was bright and sunny with a calm sea. The photos make it look like a summer’s day, except it was -3, there was frost on the beach and the water was 9 degrees.

We jogged down to Boscombe Pier and aimed to swim the 1.2 miles back to our base. In the summer this would just be the homeward stretch of a two or three hour swim, but in those temperatures it was an event that gave some of us sleepless nights. There had been discussions about wetsuits and three Seals opted for the full rubber. I’d been tempted because, with the wetsuit, it would’ve been a fun swim not a scary one but I stayed wetsuit-free. My one concession to the cold was an extra hat – finally our boss, Dee, had lifted the double hat ban (“you won’t feel the benefit…!”).

We discussed safety before we started. We had people walking with us down the beach, watching us closely and carrying towels and hoodies so that if we got out we could put a layer on and run back to our clothes. The wetsuited swimmers were also keeping an eye on the non-wetsuiters. I’d no intention of swimming the whole way because we estimated that in the cold water it would take us 45mins and I thought my max was probably 30mins.

Of course, the water was perishing but the group mentality kicked in and 14 of us waded in and started swimming.

The current was with us and the groynes ticked off quite nicely.  It felt empowering to be in a group swimming with purpose, but without the punch up of a race. We had all been a bit apprehensive but now we were actually swimming, the sense of togetherness was palpable. I could see the reassuring red jacket of Paul, ‘my’ beach walker, so I settled down to concentrate on my stroke and tried to relish being fit and able enough to be in such an extraordinary situation on a glorious winter’s day.

I knew I was getting cold but everyone was swimming strongly we were making great progress. I worked so hard – a good threshold effort most of the way – partly to stay warm and partly to get as close to home as possible before I’d have to jog. After 22 minutes I was definitely tired, but could still push, still work my hands and was moving ok although my stroke had gone to pot. I decided to push on to the finish.

We all managed it in +/- 30mins. When I got out I felt vacuous and spaced out. Paul gave me my hoodie and towel but the weird thing is that, instead of grabbing them and running up the beach as usual, I insisted on dressing on the beach. I couldn’t balance so had to sit down… and managed to sit in the water. God knows what I was thinking – the cold had affected my decision-making.  

Back at base, I managed to dress but needed help. The after drop was horrendous. It was as if freezing water was seeping into my abdomen and filling up the space around my organs. I should have got out of the water 5mins earlier – but my cold-addled brain only registered the ‘go on, push yourself’ messages and filtered out the sensible ‘you’re beyond your limits’ messages.

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But of course I did warm up eventually and before driving home, I looked back to the pier and the stretch we’d swum. The sea was blue, the sun was shining. And blow me, I really wanted to get in and do it again.