My First Cold Water Swim

I have had a rude awakening.  I have been totally blazé about the swimming section of the triathlon.  I can easily swim 750 metres front crawl in the balmy waters of Waltham Forest Feel Good Centre.  I’m not very fast (when am I ever fast?) but I manage to prevent the water entering my respiratory system, move in a straight line and overtake people doing breaststroke.  I could probably swim three or four times this distance, the only thing that stops me is the fact that it is pretty bloody boring.

And so it was this foolish confidence that inspired me to sign up for the mini-aquathlon at The Triathlon Show.  400 metres in Victoria Dock followed by a 3km run on the lesser cobbled part of Victoria Dock parkrun.  How hard could it be?

Unfortunately, the beautiful sunny weather we’d had at Barking the previous day was completely absent on Sunday, and as I lugged my wetsuit to the Excel centre, it started to dawn on me that this was going to be a glacial affair.  I am usually the person clutching a hot water bottle and wearing three jumpers in July, not the person leaping into the Thames in March.

There were only eight people suicidal enough to sign up for said aquathlon, and other than me and Rob, they were all experienced triathletes and outdoor swimmers.  I chatted to one girl in the changing tent and hoped she would say something reassuring like “it doesn’t feel that cold in a wetsuit” and “it’s alright once you get in”.  She did not say either of these things, instead she said things like “it’s a bit cold even for me” and “I try not to swim outdoors this time of year”.

Then we received the news that the start had been slightly delayed because “the lifeboat is rescuing a hypothermic man from the other side”.  I started to think this was possibly my most ill-advised idea to date and wondered if I could waddle off quietly and just go straight to the running bit.  Apparently I couldn’t.

“It’s not anyone’s first cold water swim, is it?” said Mr Safety Man.

I raised a gloved paw nervously.

“First time this season?  First ever??

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I look like a fucking penguin

I nodded sheepishly and received an extended briefing.  Then we were ushered to the water.  Putting my toes in wasn’t as bad as I thought, because they were covered in swimming socks, but once my torso entered the water it was like taking a dip in an ice bucket.  I gasped for air and let out a few choice words.  During a talk earlier that morning a man who looked like he knew what he was talking about had said that you should get your head under water as soon as possible but I found my head was employing some of those old “I don’t want to die” reflexes and was going nowhere.

5-4-3-2-1-go said a voice from the shore and I tried to pretend I was at Waltham Forest Feel Good Centre and gave it my best front crawl.  Oh my fucking god.  The water was a murky green and malodorous and every brain cell I had left screamed at me to get my head out of it.  Heads do not belong in freezing water.  I pulled off at least four more strokes, breathing to the side, but I didn’t seem to be getting much air in and I took an involuntary gasp which of course lead to a mouthful of the green, murky water.  That was it.  Fuck front crawl.  Granny breaststroke all the way.  I popped my head out and saw Rob was just ahead of me making some very strange noises and the rest of the field were miles ahead already.

I swam as far as the first buoy, and then noticed a passing lifeboat asking me if I was ok.  I tried to muster a smile and a thumbs up.

“It’s a bit cold.  I am going back now.”

“Would you like a lift?”

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In transition. Rob had to extricate me from my wetsuit because I couldn’t feel my fingers.

Although every fibre in my body wanted to be out of that freezing water I couldn’t bear the thought of having to come home and write a blog post about being rescued from Victoria Dock by a lifeboat so I soldiered on and grannybreaststroked back to the pontoon where a lady from the Red Cross offered me a blanket and a heater.  I’d swum about 200 metres in eight minutes.  Although I’d technically DNFed already by not swimming the whole distance, I wasn’t going to miss out on the run bit.  I got out of the wetsuit and dried my feet with my Leyton Orient towel, then staggered to my wobbly feet and ran off before anyone could manhandle me into the first aid tent.  For the first 200 metres or so, my pace was much faster than it felt.  Sadly this effect did not persist (although maybe it is not a good idea to try to manipulate your running speed by inducing a mild state of hypothermia before every run).  I plodded the first lap without further event.  Rob was not inclined to run any further because of his dodgy leg so I also threw in the towel.  I have heard people (those weirdos on open water swimming Facebook groups) talk about how euphoric they feel after a cold water swim but I only really felt the euphoria normally associated with surviving a near-death experience.

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This was the easy bit!

I do feel very proud of myself for doing it (well, kind of doing it) but I have also realised that there is more work to be done on my swimming and that it cannot be done from the comfort of a pool the temperature of a warm bath with a sauna and jacuzzi attached.  This is a great pity.  I think I need to work on those pesky self-preservation reflexes.

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