the edges


11/02/2013 by Carl Reynolds

To swim in cold water is to already be at the edge of most human experience – to swim more than a few hundred meters in very cold water (sub 5) is to occupy a space than only a tiny handful of humans have been in. Regardless of your time/distance in, cold water swimming will continue to be heralded with sHocK headlines for the foreseeable future, as someone somewhere gingerly steps into a hole broken in the ice, or is captured in fancy dress at one of the innumerable dips/dashs and splashes occuring ever more frequently on Christmas, Boxing and New Year’s Day. The recent UK Cold Water Swimming Championships was publicised more around the world for the costumes and hats people wore than for the 600 swimmers who sprinted or endured sub 2 degree C water. Water and people at the edge of freezing, but still exhuberent in their celebration of edginess.

It’s hard to picture the effects of cold water on the human body in a still picture. A moving image with sound makes it easier, but even then I only have one record from the CWSC and that’s a vicarious one. See here at 4.21, as one of the endurance swimmers describes the scene in the sauna after the event. But what’s clear from reading a host of research and excellent summaries and syntheses by other bloggers, is that the more you acclimatise and habitualise, the easier it becomes and the longer you can swim. But there are edges, they are not universal and those of us who choose to explore those edges should be damn careful, as it can be a life threatening choice.

I knew a lot of the participants in the CWSC sprints and endurance. Some of them personally, some of them as FB friends. Others I’d heard of; and the converse is true. What I appreciate from these contacts is the sheer jubilation that hundreds of people (maybe thousands) in the UK take from swimming in outdoor water the year round in rubber or blubber. Most of them are in self organised clubs, that look after each other and ensure mutual safety…but they do not have a rule book. They assume people are adults and observe the maxim (apologies to Lone Swimmer, the sole exception) that swimming in pairs is your minimum.

A smaller number spend the winters swimming outdoors in more regulated spaces – those of us at Tooting Bec Lido for example. We have lifeguards, we have self appointed guardians of safety and we have club committee members who are distributed along the spectrum of thinking that swimming more than a couple of minutes in cold water is irresponsible, to those that appreciate that people can train themselves to do more and that adults should be treated as adults.

So, for example, we have one member who was told by a race organiser that he was withdrawn from the endurance race because he set a bad example. He doesn’t wear a swim cap regardless of the weather; but I have yet to see anyone else follow his example. This may not have been the bad example he sets – it may have been that he swam a km under 5C and then took some time to recover afterwards. But that’s pretty unsurprising. At the other end of the spectrum we have a committee member who insisted that the club logo be placed on the cap of a small number of people who were going to swim a km under 5C and call themselves Polar Bears.

So if you swim in a more regulated environment you also have to swim in politics. But the wider guidance for distance in cold water is still sound – inform the lifeguards; don’t do it alone; understand what your body is currently capable of (not what you think you might be able to do); have a get out process; embrace failure (you save yourself embarrassment) and pay attention to the impact you’re having on yourself and others. But don’t be overly constrained by the oh-so-British jobsworth/bean counter/bureaucrat/ARP warden tendency. Cold water swimmers are mainly eccentrics, not conservatives.


13 thoughts on “the edges

  1. Ian Clark says:

    A serious subject I know but I did raise a smile at; ‘gingerly steps into a hole broken in the ice’. I see what you did there!

  2. David Davies says:

    Always a fascinating blog Mr Ape, this one no exception. I offer a personal perspective on the issue of degree of regulation for cold water swimming.
    For mere mortals such as I the achievement of just getting into cold water (let alone swimming substantial distances) still has a WOW factor. And I speak as someone with plenty of experience of more “conventional” endurance events such as cycling, running, kayaking etc. Demanding as each of these events may be, they do not engender the sort of open-mouthed amazement that I see from ordinary people (who’s swimming is usually confined to heated indoor swimming pools and quick dips in the sea on family holidays) when faced with the prospect of doing a couple of widths of the lido at 2 degrees. So first of all let us acknowledge that the cold water swimming I have seen achieved by people down at the Lido is absolutely, undoubtedly unquestionably exceptional. And when one takes the time (as I have) to talk to swimmers and ascertain their motivations one does tend to find a robust swimming history (with many swimmers this runs to years of experience and competitive success at an early age). Not in everyone’s case of course (you may have been being unduly modest Mr Ape), but I would suggest your average regular swimmer over the winter at the Lido is bottom line a very good swimmer and well experienced in cold water to understand the risks and, crucially, to understand their own limits (as you so rightly point out).
    There are two sources of potential danger; the new swimmer who has no idea about the risks and the experienced competitor who wants to push their own personal limits. I have been mightily impressed by the attitude to safety at Tootin’ – signs pretty much everywhere, mentions in the newsletters, statements on the membership documents and on the web site, the advice of fellow members etc etc. And the most obvious and important safety precaution, the presence of trained and competent lifeguards who suffer the ennui of hour after hour down at the pool side with, on accasion, very few swimmers, just in case a swimmer does happen to get into trouble. Their presence is a sign of the commitment to – and investment in – safety by the Borough Council and the SLSC. They are also very personable and they get to know the regular members. The true benefit of this is they recognise newcomers and are able to pay particular attenton to the inexperienced swimmer especially during the winter months. Outstanding.
    For the more experienced swimmer with a competitive edge there must always be the temptation to try and achieve a personal best, to swim for a longer distance in colder water, to challenge their own abilities and to compete with their peers. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but a little competitiveness has to be healthy and it wouldn’t do for us all to be the same would it? How does one regulate the experienced swimmer? It would be extremely difficult to do so unless one had a strict monitoring process in place with spotters for each swimmer and a register of their swimming over time and temperature. My personal view is it is inevitable that some swimmers will push themselves to explore their limits and to accelerate the acclimatisation process and I like the “edginess” that such competitive behaviour produces. From a safety perspective it may not be ideal, but such behaviour on the rare occasion it occurs would seem to be part of the eccentricity of the place and the people who make up the membership and for whom inappropriate regulation would be an unfortunate imposition.
    Let me close this ramble by offering a balance. it is extremely rare that I hear of – or see – people taking risks with protracted swimming in cold water at the lido. Almost all swimmers are content to swim well within their limits and the general awareness of safety is very high with a culture of caution which is engrained in the fabric. It is a fantasic place to swim and to pass a few hours a week with a wide variety of people (a most eclectic mix).

    • As the song says, “…wontcha come and av a swim wid me?”. Haven’t seen you for a while Mr D. It’d be good to have a natter some time. Thanks for your comment.

  3. LoneSwimmer says:

    You know I don’t have a choice, right?

    Great post!

  4. wildswimmers says:

    Very good post Carl, you made many good points there. Well written!

  5. A thoughtful and interesting piece. Personally I break the rules and often swim alone, because I like it. I swam in 2 degree water in snow on Dartmoor alone the other week, and I knew the risk I was taking. It’s also about experience and the need to push those boundaries a bit.
    I notice in our large group of wild swimmers that there are a couple of different types. Some like being organised and being in a group. Others hate that and would rather do their own thing. We all get on and meet up on different swims, and we have become more risk aware after a couple of incidents involving swimmers we didn’t know. But the more that has started to impact on our ability to just swim off with people we don’t know, the more some of us have reflected on why we do what we do.
    For me part of the fun is showing others what they are capable of. Of course there are limits but it’s down to individuals to decide for themselves.

    • Thanks Lynne. There’s an article emerging on the transition from edge to mainstream there. How the core absorbs the periphery or expels it. How what’s revolutionary becomes reactionary. Flux. And so on. The big wheel keeps on turning. And don’t you always have Honey with you?

      • wildwomanswimming says:

        Indeed…interesting isn’t it? Honey is usually with me, and I have hopeful visions of her rushing to get help like an emergency. However, she might just eat frozen horse shit instead.

  6. Barbara says:

    Ah, now talking about the way the edges become the middle (what I am going to christen “The Penguin Effect”), Hilary often speaks of how things have changed since she first started swimming at the Lido. That was about ten years ago – apparently it was unheard-of then to swim lengths in the winter, and now lots of people do. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, no matter how large, how forbidding, how unclimbable a mountain is, no matter how many highly skilled, expensively sherpa’d, mightily experienced teams of Himalayan mountaineering superstars it casts back to die upon its slopes, you can guarantee that approximately a fortnight after it’s been finally conquered, you will find family parties, accompanied by Grandma and the baby in her buggy, strolling up it on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy the view without even bothering to change their shoes. I think we saw some of them at the Championships.

  7. Giovanna Richards says:

    BRILLIANT!Very well said Carl :) Date: Mon, 11 Feb 2013 11:00:23 +0000 To:

  8. kirisyko says:

    Reblogged this on Sykose.

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