It is raining. Hard. It’s 9am on a Sunday morning in September. It’s very windy and extremely chilly. It’s just not nice.
I’m standing in mud in a carpark by the boot of my car and I’m removing my clothes. I look up and lots of other people are parked near me doing the same. There is the background sound of jovial chat, some hefty swearing and lots of nervous giggling.
Some people however look really relaxed and comfortable and like this is all totally normal. I look around for anyone who looks as clueless as I feel, and I think I spot a couple of candidates. I decide I’ll hover near them once I’ve completed my preparations as if there might be some safety in numbers.
I’m about to go swimming in a lake.
A proper lake that is all organised and prepared for this.
There are marshals and canoes and wristbands and timed entries. I need to have my tow float, and my wristband and I need to announce on arrival if I’m going in in ‘skins’ (just my swimming costume) or in a wetsuit. I’m doing the former which means I’m parked nearer the lake and I’ve earned an extra nice smile that conveys ‘good for you’ from the parking person.
Is this ‘good for me’?
This is the first time I’ve done this. Not swimming, but something that has now become a ‘thing’ – open water swimming.
I had to work hard to breathe calmly and my brain was a bit overloaded by the fizzing sensation across my body. Burning, stabbing, biting…
I’m here because at the end of the summer of 2020 I finally managed to get away on a form of holiday. On the first day I looked at the sea and decided to swim in it every day I was away. And I did it and it made me feel really good.
Once home I missed it and so I began the hunt for somewhere to keep the swimming up. All the pools were closed, and all the chat was about how in lockdown people were embracing the wild. Wild swimming has been a ‘thing’ for a long time but 2020 took it to a new level.
Treats to lure you into wild swimming
My initial investigations made me feel rather nervous and a bit put off. There seemed to be a real movement, accompanied by masses of Facebook groups and lots of very specific knowledge.
There were the bobble hat humans, the wetsuit humans, the triathlete humans, the ice loving humans, the ‘seek out the most random swim spots’ humans and I truly wasn’t sure where I fitted in.
I felt unsure where to swim safely, what groups to join and what a newbie might need or need to do.
To my rescue however came the VeloVixen community! I realised that lots of women on our famous Facebook group were embracing open water swimming alongside their cycling. It seems to be a natural fit. They were there to answer questions and allay fears and offer brilliant advice.
And, of course, there was Fran. Our wondrous colleague Fran who had been doing some open water swimming in the summer and who had decided to keep going in the winter.
And then there was the after swim high
She and I chatted, and she knew everything I needed to know; the website to sign up to, the basic kit I’d need and the local places to try.
She assured me that every kind of swimmer went, and that for every be-wetsuited semi pro who had been doing it for years, there would be a newbie like me who liked to swim breaststroke and enjoyed the feeling of being in water. And that there would be everything in between.
And so, here I was in the car park about to enter a choppy grey lake that was about 14 degrees Celsius.
Fran agreed that it wasn’t the optimum morning to begin my open water swimming career and if I could offer any advice to someone thinking of following in my footsteps, I’d probably agree that fair weather and a light breeze would make for a nicer start.
However, since I was there and I’d committed to going in and since there was a café that sold takeaway bacon sandwiches, I decided to close the boot, clip on my tow float, zap my wrist band - and enter the water.
It was cold.
But I’d taken advice and I just stood in it for a minute to let myself feel that. It was quite different to the sea.
My legs took a moment and then they registered that they’d been plunged into very chilly water and my heartrate started to climb. I stepped in a bit deeper and up my body crept a sensation of alarm.
This was properly chilly.
However, I took a moment and steadied my breathing and gradually waded in deeper. And then I pushed off and started swimming.
The first minute or two were really quite shocking.
I had to work hard to breathe calmly and my brain was a bit overloaded by the fizzing sensation across my body. Burning, stabbing, biting… there are lots of words for those first feelings. Everyone finds their own.
I can only imagine how balmy and warm 14 degrees would feel now and how completely tropical the sea will feel next summer.
For me, as time has gone on, I’ve refined them to ‘exquisite active chilling’ – a rapid, vivid cooling where despite the sort of hurty burning my whole body is taken down many levels not only in terms of temperature but by making the whole world come down to my senses alone and so chilling my thoughts as well.
I was able to swim. Parting the cold water with my hands and feeling my whole body in a really complete way. Nothing became really hectic again until the moment I got out.
And then there was the after swim high. For as you go down, so you must come up.
Initially I felt super warm on exit. I knew I had to get changed fast. Because then comes the after-drop where your body continues to cool on exit and the shivering begins. You need to be dressed for that and jumping about and having a nice warm drink. But I felt fantastic and that feeling lasted for hours.
Since that first swim there have been lots of others. As lockdowns has changed things so locations have changed. There has been a purpose-built swimming lake, the original lake and a lovely lake in a local park where an ad hoc group of ladies have started swimming and there is always likely to be someone going so that you are not alone.
There have been more wet mornings but lots of glorious ones too. There has been the company at one lake of a resident swan called Daisy, there have been sweeping flocks of birds, there have been protesting ducks and squawking geese.
There has been clear water, murkier water, all over body slime and weed that has popped up later in the day in my bra. There have been a couple of beautiful sunrises and one delicious mist morning full of cool and silence.
One lake has commuter trains that go by and we wave from the water. From another you can hear the motorway and all the drivers whizzing by. The last is surrounded by trees and always full of swimmers but with brilliant vistas into the distance.
I’ve added gloves and wetsuit socks to my swimsuit. I have lost my swim hat in favour of a bobble hat. I’ve bought a special robe and a mat to stand on.
And the temperature has started to go down. The lowest so far has been 5.5 degrees.
Cycling and swimming have gone hand in hand for a long time
My time in the water has had to reduce but the thrill hasn’t diminished. I can only imagine how balmy and warm 14 degrees would feel now and how completely tropical the sea will feel next summer.
I made a mistake one time and stayed in too long.
I was cold for much longer after the swim and I found it a bit hard to talk. It was quite scary.
I’ve learnt that at the moment when I wonder whether to do a bit more or not, I should head back in. I don’t swim quickly or especially far but it doesn’t matter.
There has been so much thrill to keep me returning and wanting more. I have started to refine my behaviour a bit and create the rituals I need to warm up sensibly.
I had too warm a shower one time a bit too soon and the skin itching was bananas, but I’ve not done that again! Now I find that a couple of hours after the swim my body has recalibrated fully and yet I can still call up the cold thrill and almost feel it in my bones.
I’ve found my favourite place to swim and waved distantly to some other brilliant women. We’ve got a What’s App group and some dates in the dairy for special swims. We shall swim at the solstice and we will raise money for charity with a swim in January.
And I think I’ll try and swim all winter. I’ll try. It’s likely that swimming will become dipping pretty soon, and it seems like a lot of faff for a short trip, but a cold shower will never do the same thing that this does.
Fran and I now talk at work all about our swims much to the horror and amusement of the others. We compare notes, we chat kit.
I am doing it really because of that first moment.
We’ve added a page to the VeloVixen website (click here) and started to stock products for outdoor swimming. We hope our obsession might become yours. Cycling and swimming have gone hand in hand for a long time but this relationship with swimming in outdoor locations seems to be strengthening all the time.
It may be because they share the same elements of freedom. Freedom is something that this year has made us crave so desperately.
In the lockdown times to stretch one’s limbs in different vistas and to look at different horizons has been so crucial. To choose one’s own line, to decide one’s route and to be free to move your body mask free have all become some of life’s greatest luxuries.
Then we can share our experiences on our social media groups, and this has allowed us to bond safely beyond the confines of our own bubbles, to celebrate each other and to connect. It gives us an interest and something to look forward to.
So, what do you think? Do you want to try it too?
It may be a bit late in year to start from scratch, but the spring is just over the horizon and perhaps it is something to try in 2021?
If you live near the sea, then that would perhaps be the obvious place to begin but for those more inland there are many lakes and ‘official’ venues and lots of resources online to tell you how to find the more ad hoc spots.
There are the groups of course and I have found everyone very welcoming. In the press there has been some chat about those who are long standing swimmers being frustrated with all those ‘discovering’ outdoor swimming now, but I have not found that to be the case at all.
There has been a lot written about swimming this year. It definitely has a 2020 zeitgeist feel. It is one of things that the pandemic accelerated.
Maybe like mindful colouring it will have its moment and then fade quietly away. But I doubt it.
I’ve read lots of articles about the benefits of swimming like this. Done right and with care there seem to be many reasons to do it.
But I’m not really in it for the extra t-cells or the dementia fighting powers, nor am I in it for its anxiety reducing charms or to prove anything to myself. I’m not even doing it to connect with nature or to bond with the excellent humans who are in the water with me.
All those things are true of the experience and all those things are great. I love seeing other people there and I enjoy the views, the sunrises and the birds and I’m delighted to think I might be doing myself some good.
I am doing it really because of that first moment.
The moment when I am transported completely into my body and all the bits of me come alive and I feel them all independently. And for the parting of the water in front of me and for the simplicity of that.
For the freedom. Come on. Dive in.