Zest's Victoria joins the winter endurance swimmers to find out if a February outdoor dip is as extreme as it sounds - with no wetsuit allowed
Standing in the bathroom of my hotel suite under the dim 7am light, I yank on the tap and hold my hand under the icy water.
That’s the extent of my cold-water swim training – and the gulp-in-shock moment of realisation that the day ahead may not go swimmingly.
At Low Wood Bay Hotel and Marina I meet the 260+ brave participants of the inaugural Chill Swim. They’ve all signed up to dip in Lake Windermere’s below-five-degree water, unfazed by the rule: no wetsuits allowed. Joining the locals are both experienced and novice swimmers from across the UK. Even Russians, Latvians and Finnish have flown in to conquer the Lake and display their hardcore winter swimming prowess.
As I scope out the location of my 30m head-up breaststroke a 69-year-old women exits the water to huge applause, her face glowing, after a 450m endurance swim.
Cold-water swimming takes practice, or at least a 'dry' run. Your body must acclimatise. Your mind also demands preparation in order to eradicate shock, which could lead to panic once in the water. But like most things, I’m going in at the deep end. Training starts now.
I surf the crowd of swimmers in search of advice and find Jenny Rice, 27, a graphic designer from London. ‘The advice does say you should build up slowly, but when I started at the Serpentine Swimming Club in January four years ago the water was about three degrees… and I’m still here,’ she says.
So there are clubs? People actually do this regularly? ‘Yes, since joining I’ve ended up doing lots of events. I went to the Winter Swimming Championships in Latvia last year. I’m actually a world champion.’ My jaw hits the floor. ‘I won the 50m race. It was about two degrees and they had jets in the water to keep it from freezing over. I did it in 32 seconds.’
It turns out cold-water swimming is a daily routine for many members of the ‘Serps’. Charlie Masding, 32, who works in charity marketing in London, tries to swim every morning before heading to the office. ‘It sets me up for the day,’ she says. ‘My top tips would be to join a club and go with someone. Do your research so you know it is safe to swim. Also know your limits and get out before you feel too cold. Finally, warm up again slowly after swimming, like jumping on your bike and cycling on to work.’
Other than the natural alternative to a morning espresso kick, what draws people to this extreme fitness hobby, I wonder. ‘The people,’ says Jenny. ‘We’ll have a cup of tea and sit and watch the races. It’s really fun. The swimming really gets your blood flowing, you feel fantastic afterwards - and you learn to appreciate warmth a lot more too.’
She’s right. I’m fighting the fear by feeding off the atmosphere. Like lemmings, swimmers steam in and out of the water to the spectators' cheers of admiration.
My name is called and over the Tannoy I’m suddenly told to ‘take off my clothes’ and descend the ladder wearing nothing more than a cossie and a layer of pasty goose flesh. The whistle blows.
I drive my first stroke through the water and the temperature instantly takes my breath away. In fact, I can’t breathe. I desperately attempt to take in oxygen and after a few failed attempts I manage one deep breath. Panic over, I remember I’m in a race and start to compete.
Instantly a huge splash hits me like a rock in the face and sends ice-cold water down my throat. My lungs scream and my breath runs away with me again. I fight the shock and once again regain my breathing pattern. The race is back on and I feel like I’m surging through the water, oblivious to the cold.
Nearing the end, my arm bursts out to hit the wall in my own Keri-Anne Payne Olympic moment. I scramble out of the water, unable to speak to the man with a microphone who’s asking me when the next issue of Zest magazine is out.
It was over in seconds (37:02 to be precise - not such a surge) and as I sit with a hot Ribena in hand, I’m strangely wishing I could get back in and attempt the 60m race. I’m not the only one: ‘It’s exhilarating. I want to go in for longer next time. I could definitely do 60m. Everyone is so supportive and it’s not as competitive as I’d have thought,’ says Jackie Candlish, 56, a council worker from Durham and another novice cold-water swimmer.
‘It’s invigorating; liberating. I was a little concerned as two of the ladies in my heat had come from Russia to compete and I was afraid they would leave me standing. They did! But that didn’t matter. It was so fun,’ says Joanne Carradice, 46, self-employed, from Lancashire.
Wild bathing in Iceland
Although the Russians did dominate the podium when the medals were awarded, our International Champion Jenny Rice remained undefeated; claiming gold with a time of 43 seconds.
Taking one for Team Zest, I stepped up to receive bronze. That’s right, I actually came 3rd in the 30m 20’s age category. Whoop, whoop! But rather than just walk away with a medal around my neck and a huge sense of achievement, I sat in the hot tub staring out at the lake feeling compelled to get back in.
Unbelievably, I did. I arrange to meet Charlie from the Serps and the next morning we find ourselves back in the lake again. So this is how people become cold-water swimmers - it's addictive.
A trip - and swim - inside the Arctic Circle
Registration is now open for the 2014 Chill Swim. You can find out more about open-water swimming at the Outdoor Swimming Society website or Facebook page, including their interactive wild swim map.
To explore the Lake District by water sign up for a wild swimming course at Head to the Hills.
Read about Victoria's first open-water swim in Cornwall
Posted: 07/02/2013 at 11:59
Posted: 09/05/2013 at 11:33
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