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).
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!
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.
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.
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.