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OSS December Dip - John C. Kirk

Dec. 8th, 2012

08:56 pm - OSS December Dip

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Each year, the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) organise a "December Dip" as a fundraiser: this involves swimming 2 widths of Parliament Hill lido (2 x 28m). The pool is unheated, and the point is to wear a normal swimsuit rather than a wetsuit. I went along in 2009 (6°) and 2010 (0.1°C) but I missed it in 2011. Today, the water temperature was 3°C.

I booked my ticket a few weeks ago, but I had second thoughts about it today. On Thursday morning, I leaned down to one side to pick something up and felt my back twinge. (That was just from the bending, not the lifting.) This wasn't severe enough to immobilise me, and I know that the normal treatment is to keep moving, so I've been able to walk/cycle, but I've avoided any heavy lifting. I've also noticed that it feels worse first thing in the morning, after I've been lying still all night. Digging online, some people recommend swimming, because it's not a load bearing exercise. On the other hand, some people advise against cold water, because that will make the back feel stiffer.

Last night it was our office Christmas party, and I had a bit to drink. So, when I woke up this morning, I still felt tired, I had a headache, and my back hurt. Jumping into cold water didn't sound like a particularly attractive proposition. Like last year, I treated the ticket price as a "sunk cost", i.e. that money's gone whether I actually attend the event or not, so it shouldn't influence my decision. I decided that I'd go to the lido (stopping off for a cooked breakfast en route), then see how I was feeling. They allow spectators at the event, in exchange for a £1 donation, and my ticket would get me through the door. Once I was inside, I would then have the option of staying fully dressed and watching everyone else jump in, without it being obvious that I'd changed my plans.

I went to Gospel Oak on the Overground train, and there were a couple of women sitting near me wearing antlers. At first I thought that this was left over from a Christmas party, but then I realised that they were going to the same event as me. After that, I started looking for other people who were likely candidates, and my guesses were confirmed when we left the train. I think the common characteristics were that they all looked healthy and also quite cheerful.

When I got to the lido, they issued me with this year's swimming cap and 3 plastic tokens. These look like the things you'd get in a Ludo (or Skudo) game and we could swap these for food later, e.g. mince pies and stollen cake. That's a novel approach; I'm not sure why they did it this way rather than using paper vouchers, but it worked well. The tokens were different colours but that turned out to be irrelevant; they weren't linked to particular types of food, or anything like that.

The lido has male/female toilets which are accessible from the pool area. There's a doorway to each but no door; the room bends around a corner inside, so this doesn't reveal anything, but it does mean that the loos are effectively outhouses, at the same temperature as the outside air. After I'd used the facilities, I put my hands under the cold tap and thought "Well, that's not too bad." I then put my hand in the pool outside, and it was colder than the tap water. Hmm.

I decided to go ahead, for a few reasons. My back was feeling better now that I'd been walking around a bit. Also, I think that something like this is character building. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that this makes me better than anyone who doesn't do it; I realise that most of the people I know are unwilling or unable to take part in an event like this, and that's absolutely fine. However, if I do want to do it and then I back out because I'm afraid, that doesn't speak very well of me. Similarly, having told various people that I was going to do this, I'd feel embarrassed if they asked me about it later and I hadn't done it. Thinking back to my first parachute jump, I was more worried about the shame of coming back down in the aeroplane (if I didn't jump) than the risk of going splat on the ground! More generally, my mantra for today was: "I've swum in water that was colder than this. I survived that, so I can handle this too."

In previous years, we've gone in 2 "waves" because there are too many of us to all enter the water at once. That meant that the 1st wave all went in together, but then the 2nd wave was much more individual, depending on when the person in "your lane" had finished. This year, they expanded that to 3 waves + a 4th wave for people doing 2 lengths, and said that each wave would start as a group; I think that's a much better approach. The email that went round said that they didn't want everyone to try for the first/last wave, so I was happy to go for the 2nd wave. I arrived at 11:00, and the 1st wave was due to leave at 12:00.

While we were queuing outside, the organisers told us that these waves would go at 15 minute intervals, so I decided that I wouldn't get changed until after the motivational speeches. As it turned out, it was more like 5 minute intervals, so I came out of the changing room just in time to see the 2nd wave starting, and had to join the 3rd wave instead. Someone else had pre-booked for the 4th wave but he missed it for similar reasons, which is a pity. I think that 5 minute intervals are sensible, so this is just an issue of communication.

I normally go for the deep end of the pool, but this time I decided to stay closer to the shallow end, in case I had any trouble with my back and needed to touch the bottom. However, I think I overcompensated a bit: I started out at 0.8m. That's too shallow for safe diving, so I sat down and swung my legs in, then the water only came up to about waist height, so I had to crouch down to get my neck at water level.

People have written various descriptions of getting into cold water, e.g. saying that it feels like a hammer blow to the chest, or like being stabbed by thousands of icicles. Personally, I don't think any of those descriptions quite fit: it's a unique experience, and the only way to know what it feels like is to do it. Which, I suppose, is why so many people do!

Anyway, once I was in the water I set off. It was just about deep enough for me to swim, but my feet tended to drift down and touch the bottom during front crawl. (Well, more like doggy paddle than crawl, since I was trying to keep my face out of the water.) So, I moved across into slightly deeper water (1m), which was a bit better. Going across, I was very aware of my breathing, because I was basically panting. My back was fine, but I found that the cold water was draining all my strength, so by the time I'd finished my first width I could barely lift my arms out of the water and I had to switch over to breaststroke. It was quite bizarre, a bit like playing the computer game Doom where your health would rapidly decrease if you stood on lava or acid. On my return width, my hands felt as if I was wearing loose rubber gloves. Since my hands were actually bare, I think that means that the skin was going numb but I could still feel my fingers moving through the water. Oddly, though, my torso felt fine, as if I'd completely acclimatised to the water and was now comfortably warm. So, my body sent me signals that said "Hey, this is fine. Just chill out, take your time, stay in the water for as long as you like." Fortunately there was still part of my brain to say "No, bad idea, keep swimming!"

This year I remembered to take my sandals along, so I'd left them on the poolside with my Robie Robe. It didn't take long to put them on, and meant that the stone floor didn't leech away the rest of my body heat. In previous years they've had a hot tub, but sadly that wasn't there this time. I stood around to watch the 4th wave, but after that my teeth were chattering enough that I went back to the changing room to get dressed. I swapped grins with a couple of other people on the way: I didn't know them, but we now had a shared experience, which was nice.

I took along an extra layer of clothing today (T-shirt, shirt, hoodie, ski jacket), so I was warm enough afterwards, although I think I should have taken along some woolly ski socks rather than my normal cotton socks. On a related note, I saw that a couple of people in the 4th wave were wearing stripey socks. (Possibly neoprene?) It amused me that at an event like this, where people are wearing very little clothing, it's the extra clothing that actually gets my attention, particularly if it's a bit quirky.

Once I'd got dressed, I went back to the pool area to claim a mince pie. I hadn't arranged to meet anyone today, but I bumped into someone I knew (the guy who missed the 4th wave) so we chatted for a while. Also, the North London Brass Band was playing all through the event, and I enjoyed listening to them. Round about this point, I realised that all my earlier problems (headache, back ache, tiredness) had gone away, so there really are some benefits to activities like this.

We had good weather for the event today: although it was cold, it was also a bright day, with very few clouds. That meant that I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, and the water looked very inviting when the sunlight reflected off it.

I saw that some people had turned up today with their swimsuits on underneath their normal clothes, which meant that they could get changed outside. I think that's a good idea, so I'll try to do that in future. However, it relies on the swimsuit being dry; I also need to remember to take dry underwear with me to put on afterwards!

Having done this today, I'd like to keep going, so that I can properly acclimatise to the cold water. The snag is that Tooting Bec lido is a 40 minute cycle ride from my flat. So, that's a fairly long round trip if I go on a weekend, considering that I may only be in the water for a few minutes. I don't mind for something like today, because there's other stuff going on to make it a proper event. Really, I need to stop off there on my way to work, but that in turn means that I need to drag myself out of bed a bit earlier. So, I'll see how that goes.

I've entered the Cold Water Swimming Championships, which will be held at Tooting Bec Lido on 26th January. This event runs every 2 years, and I was there on SJA duty in 2009 and 2011, so it should be interesting to see it from the other side. I'll be doing the 30m freestyle and 30m head up breaststroke: that's 1 width for each race, although they have heats in the morning and finals in the afternoon, so some people will do that distance twice per category. The last time I raced at Tooting Bec I came last, so I don't expect to win anything, but I'll be happy just to take part.