A Narrow Range

As water-based creatures we inhabit a very narrow range of temperature. Water is amazing stuff, and is quite unusual in that by can be encountered in all three of its phases without resorting to laboratory conditions.

At 0 Celsius water enjoys a phase transition between solid and liquid phases.  Below that, ice cools a gin and tonic, makes road surfaces treacherous, makes the hexagonal beauty of the snowflake.  Above that, liquid water moves from a refreshing beverage (or a bone chilling dip), through a temperate English Channel which can be dwelt in for the time spent to swim from one side to t’other, through temperatures positively dangerous to swim hard in for any length of time, all in the space of 30 Celsius or so.

Our bodies are more than half water. The precise figure depends on your age, sex, and how much fat tissue you have.  Around 60% is a reasonable estimate though.  While the body is capable of spending some time in water between 0 and 50 Celsius, it strives the whole time to keep its core temperature as close as possible to 37.  More than 5 Celsius either way, for any length of time, and we are in serious trouble, febrile or hypothermic.

We walk this knife edge as cold water swimmers.  The body does an awesome job of shutting down peripheral blood flow in cold water, thus minimising heat loss through the surface.  We feel this when our extremities go numb, when the whole of our skin screams in pain when we dive in, before receding into numbness.

The third phase of water can be seen when we boil a kettle, as steam rises.  We are seeing water vapour.  But water vapour is all around us anyway to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the humidity.

The universe has an enormous range of temperatures.  Temperatures ‘only’ go down to minus 273 Celsius or so (-273.15 Celsius, or absolute zero).  In practice, absolute zero can only be ‘approached’ in the lab, and as the temperature gets closer, strange phenomena such as superconductivity and superfluidity start occurring.  The lowest temperature recorded under natural conditions was a mere -89 Celsius at Vostok in the Antarctic.  There’s an awful lot further to go at the top end.  Our sun has a peak temperature of approximately 5-10 million Celsius.  The hottest temperature observed on earth was in the region of 56 Celsius in Death Valley California, though temperatures into the billions of Celsius can be achieved under special conditions in the lab.

Liquid water can only exist over a 100 Celsius range, at least in the normal range of pressure (note – if water has stuff dissolved in it, such as salt, freezing temperature can be depressed below 0 Celsius.). We can only swim comfortably in rather less than half of that range of temperature.  Long distance swimming is only really possible in a very narrow range of about 10-35 Celsius.

There are always exceptional people in life.  The ice mile is an increasingly popular goal (1 mile in water <5 Celsius).  Most people like me prefer it around 15-25!

OSS December Dip

Last weekend was the much anticipated December Dip (See previous post – December Dipping – https://swimsequence.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/december-dipping/).  600 People showed up at Parliament Hill Lido to get briefly cold, and generally have a good old British giggle.

A group of us had arranged to meet for a pre-event warm-up session at one of London’s other year-round outdoor pools, at London Fields in Hackney.  The pool was lovely, maintained at a constant 25C throughout the year, and a full 50 metres long.  There was lots of catching up between old friends, and intros between new ones, and a little bit of swimming.  In my case, just a cheeky mile to loosen the shoulders, especially as I still recovering from a rather annoyingly timed cold that had set me back for a couple of days.

After this, there was a dash across London to Parliament Hill Lido, in the back of Tom’s very kindly provided car.  I hadn’t felt like breakfast earlier on that day, so was getting really hungry, so after registering at Parliament Hill, we wandered up the hill to the local farmer’s market for a very large late breakfast:  a large burger, an onion pakora, and a pint of organic buffalo milk (a little reminder that we were in Hampstead!).

Then the swim itself.  The swimmers went off in a total of 5 waves, 3 waves of 2 widths, and 2 waves of 2 lengths.

I was in the first of the 2 length waves, and positively looking forward to it, confident that I had done more than enough acclimatisation earlier on in the season to enjoy the experience.  Off we went, diving into the cold water, which was hovering somewhere around the 6C mark.  One of the col things about Parliament Hill is that it is lined entirely with stainless steel.  This, in combination with the crystal clarity of the water, created a unique swimming experience.

There had been talk of stopping on in the pool to do the 900 m qualification distance/temperature combination for the Windermere Chillswim in February.  Though that event is ‘only’ 450 m, it requires that you do a 900 m distance swim in water at less than 6C, to demonstrate that you are ‘good for it’.  In the end I opted not to do it, to let the cold have another day to recover, and have a go at that the following day, in a river somewhere.  Some of the gang extended their swim a little though, (Tom, Bryn, Helen L).  Here is some amusing footage of Helen with a good shiver on after her 10 lengths – 620 m.  Respect to the longer distance swimmers……

The next day was different in many ways.  It was pleasantly warm for the time of year, though there was a good breeze.  The key difference was that that the sun was shining beautifully over the southern UK, and a dip was planned, this time in a new destination on the River Nene, at the outrageously picturesque village of Tansor.  A good gang of people met up at 11.30, for a visitor from out of town, Brian Lanahan was in town.  After some nattering, comparing of comedy headgear, and general banter, people started to get in……

Brian is from Florida, and not much used to cold water.  The gang had told him that the water temperature was at 8, rather than the 5.7C (42F) it was actually at, for fear that he might not actually get in.  Everyone did though in the end.  Tom’s beautiful photo taken from in the water of people getting back out on to the jetty, and me in mid dive, really captures the day.  If it weren’t for the total lack of leaves on the trees, you could be forgiven for thinking that this photo was taken in the carefree days of summer, rather than the 8th of December.

I had a great swim, upriver first, then back down, past the jetty, then back, making sure on my GPS watch that I had covered > 900 m in the process so I could ‘qualify’ for the Windermere swim.  The stroke felt great, though the water certainly was on the chilly side, and I lost contact with various extremities in the second half.  In the end I covered 943 in 19 minutes and change, certainly rather slower than in a swimming pool, but I was happy.

There was some massive shivering afterwards mind, once I had got changed, and the afterdrop kicked in, and it took a little while to go away.  I REALLY enjoyed my chicken soup and cups of tea afterwards.

Post Swim Shiver - Thanks to Finn for the loan of the Bad Piggy Hat....

Post Swim Shiver – Thanks to Finn for the loan of the Bad Piggy Hat….

Many thanks to the assembled crew for the lovely company (Helen G, Helen H, Wendy, Jessica, Sarah, Anil, Tom, Bryn, Andrew, and Brian).

Post Swim

Post Swim

December Dipping

This weekend sees the OSS December Dip, to be held at Parliament Hill Lido in London.  The OSS organises many events around the country throughout the year; with its iconic logo and ethos of spreading the good word about swimming outdoors it is at the forefront of swimming evangelism.  Another event it organises (and very well I must say) is the annual Dart 10K in Devon, a beautiful swim and a chilled out vibe.

Parliament Hill Lido looks great.  I say ‘looks’ because I have never been there.  It is one of the very few lidos in the UK to remain open throughout the year.  The size seems a little unusual in metres (61 x 27 m), though less so when converted to old money (200 x 90 ft).  All very lovely.  The main, and exciting, thing about PHL, however, is that it is unheated year round, so plunges beautifully as the autumn progresses, and turns into winter.  Here is a photo of the board, showing temperatures in Celsius for water and air (it is probably very close to this today, at the beginning of December).

PHL Temperature Board

PHL Temperature Board

The December dip is a mass participation event, with two events available, of 2 widths, or 2 lengths.  Event day temperatures have varied between 6C and 0.1C over the years it has taken place, which is a huge range, with 6C being really chilly, and 0.1C being OMG cold!

December Dip 2009 (Courtesy of OSS)

December Dip 2009 (Courtesy of OSS)

I have been doing some preparation for this, and other events this winter, though not as much as I would like if I am honest, with only 3 swims in the last couple of weeks.

As it happens, they were in 3 different rivers:

The Great Ouse at Coneygeare:- Only my second time here, and only a short dip of about 7 minutes, as a rather aggressive looking swan gave me an excuse to get out earlier than I might have done.  The water temperature was a somewhat startling 6.2 C (43.2 F),and felt it too.  The Ouse is known for feeling colder than it might, and has the affectionate nickname of River of Death (or ROD for short) among the river swimming community.  The rather small swim was rewarded with a rather large fried breakfast.

The Nene at Wadenhoe:- My first time here.  An absolutely gorgeous location, and an absolutely gorgeous swim from the carpark of the community centre.  Watery November sunshine turned the meadows to glistening, and the church on the hill to honey.  This swim was on the same day as the Ouse swim, was 0.3 C warmer, but felt much warmer, and a very lovely 14 minute dip was had.  Psychologically, having the albeit watery sunshine on your shoulders made life altogether more pleasant.

A delicious piece of cake, and multiple cups of tea were enjoyed at the tea shop after this swim.

Wadenhoe Church

Wadenhoe Church

The Cam at Newnham:- Another trip to the Cam of an evening.  This was interesting.  I was expecting a further drop in temperature here, to something starting with a 5, so was somewhat surprised when it didn’t feel ‘too bad’ when I dived in.  A pleasant swim up to Deadman’s corner, apart from swimming into a corner at one point (it was very very dark).  Helen got in after me, and caught me up at the corner, before ploughing ahead.  I was surprised after only a few more seconds to see her blinking green light come flashing back past me.  She stopped long enough to say ‘I’m not happy’, and swam off back to the riverbank.  She had been unwell earlier in the week, and was probably still a little weak and dehydrated I guessed (though still faster than me!), so I just shrugged my shoulders and swam after her.

Then a strange thing happened.  I started to ‘wonder’.   I started to wonder if she was OK.  Then I started to wonder if I was OK (I had been having a gala time up till then!).  I then imagined what would happen if I were to get into trouble right then.  I started to feel a little short of breath, and short of stroke too.  I really had to have a word with myself at that point.  The fact was, that although I was in fairly chilly water essentially on my own, in the pitch black river Cam in later November, I was still pretty safe.

Why was I safe?  I was only 150 m away from a known exit point; the river is very narrow and doesn’t flow quickly at all – I could have exited the water at any time and walked back, with a couple of scratches or trodden in cowpats being the worst I might expect; I was with someone who was only a little way ahead, who I know keeps an eye on her companions; I had experienced these conditions before.

So I leant into the vulnerability (see Brene Brown in Daring Greatly).  I forced myself to relax, lengthen my stroke, and ‘switch off’ mentally.  And sure enough, there was the exit ladder, and there was Helen getting out just ahead of me.

Newnham Riverbank Club

Newnham Riverbank Club

I learned a few things that evening.  I learned that every swim is different, even when ostensibly similar.  I learned that the mind is a funny thing, and can play silly tricks on you, especially when cold (though I was in for far too short a time at that point to be going hypothermic).  I learned that you can control it, even under slightly trying circumstances.  It reinforced the fact that the water is in charge, and we just place ourselves in its silky cool embrace for well controlled periods of time, and then we get out, and shiver, then eat something.

In this case it was a burger and chips and a pint of Aspalls, next to a log burner in the Red Lion in Grantchester.  Splendid.