The Swimmer - John C. Kirk
Jan. 11th, 2014
06:16 pm - The Swimmer
Today I went on a small swimming tour around London, organised by The Swimmer. Their website has more info about the inspiration etc., but the basic idea is to swim in four locations in London, running between them:
- Hampstead Heath pond
- Parliament Hill lido
- Brockwell lido
The total running distance is supposed to be roughly equivalent to a half-marathon (13 miles, 21 km). The swimming distance is up to each person, but it tends to be a quick dip rather than a prolonged stay. However, I'm a bit out of practice at running, and I wasn't sure that I'd be able to keep up with everyone else, so I cycled between swims instead.
The plan was for everyone to meet in Hampstead at 07:00, ready to leave at 07:15. That's quite an early start, and I struggled to haul myself out of bed after 2½ hours of sleep, so I missed my train. I wound up arriving there at about 07:20, just as everyone was leaving. Everyone else was running, except for the guy driving a support car (to reduce what people had to carry), so I was the only cyclist. I followed the runners, and when we switched to an off-road section I ran for a bit pushing my bike. The pace was fine: in fact, it almost felt like a brisk walk, so I wasn't taking very long strides. However, I didn't have the stamina to sustain that as far as the pond.
There are three ponds on Hampstead Heath:
- Highgate Pond (men only)
- Kenwood Ladies' Pond (women only)
- Hampstead Pond (mixed)
(Names taken from the Camden council website).
I've been to the mixed pond a couple of times before, e.g. during my lido crawl in 2010. Today we all went to the men's pond, and it's the first time I've been there. The door outside looks quite imposing:
That's actually the outer of two doors, which swing in opposite directions, presumably to make sure that nobody from outside can see in when one of them opens. Although the sign said "No bikes", I took my (folded) Brompton inside, and nobody objected.
Inside, the changing facilities are pretty basic. There's a fenced off courtyard with a long bench running around the outside. There are metal walls and a small corrugated iron roof which just covers the benches, so the middle of the courtyard doesn't have a roof. In fact, the courtyard is split in half, and one half is normally reserved for nude sunbathing. (No naked swimming allowed.) We had a mixed group today, so the sunbathing area was re-assigned as the women's changing room:
(By the way, sorry for the blur in those photos: I took them on my way out, and my hands were shaking a bit from the cold.)
We arrived there just after 07:30, but we weren't allowed into the water until 08:00. I'm guessing that this is because the lifeguards want to have enough natural light to see people in the water clearly. The sky was dark when I left Croydon this morning, and I still needed lights on my bike on our way to the pond. By the time we arrived it was "pre-dawn": the sun wasn't up, but the sky was light grey.
Anyway, we eventually got the all clear to go in. One novel feature of the men's pond is the springboard, so a few people did some impressive dives off that. However, I opted to climb down the ladder into the water instead; I've never got the hang of diving properly (rather than doing a belly-flop), and I wasn't quite enthusiastic enough to do a "stick dive" (feet first). So, I just did a short swim around there, from one side of the pier to the other; at a guess, that was only about 10m. According to the sign in the changing area, the water temperature was 5.4°C, which sounds about right based on the way it felt.
After I got out, I went to the loo. (Bear with me, there's a reason I'm mentioning this!) One thing I've noticed is that every time I go off to do cold water swimming, I need to go to the toilet at least twice before I leave the flat, then again when I arrive at the lido, regardless of how much I've had to eat/drink that morning. I assume that this is a fear response, but I need to overcome it.
In this case, that meant that everyone else had finished getting dressed before me. Since I had my bike, I told them to go on ahead to Parliament Hill lido, then I'd catch up. I wasn't entirely sure of the route, but I had my A-Z with me.
I got there ok, but some people were already heading back to the changing room (after their swim) as I arrived. This is the lido that I went to last month for the OSS December Dip, and I did two widths (56m) like before. I didn't notice the temperature when I arrived, but according to the City of London the temperature yesterday was 7°C in the lido and 5°C in the ponds. I'm surprised that it would be so different, but it probably has something to do with depth. This time I did jump in off the side so that I was completely submerged before I started swimming, and I handled that ok. At Tooting Bec lido, I've noticed that when I go back into the water after I've been in the sauna it feels easier the second/third time around; I don't know whether that's because I've got used to it or because my body is warmer. In this case, jumping in wasn't as much of a shock as it was last month, but that may be because the water was warmer.
By the time I'd got dressed and left, everyone else had already left, running to the Serpentine. Again, that's fair enough. I don't want to delay them, and there is a certain time pressure here: the Serpentine is open to club members (and one-off guests) from 06:00-09:30 every day. I left Parliament Hill at 08:40, and arrived there at 09:25, so I was just in time to go in for a quick dip. I've been to the Serpentine before (when it was open to the public during the summer), and I used their indoor changing rooms. I've heard that club members also have a small shed (?) allocated to them. However, today we all just got changed on the path next to the water, so this involved some strategic positioning of towels. I used my Robie Robe when I got out, which is proving quite useful in cases like this. I'm not exactly sure how far I swam there, but I'm guessing at 15m. There was a small group of spectators there: I don't think they specifically came to watch us, but we got their attention while they were walking past, and they seemed quite amused.
I picked up an application form for the Serpentine Swimming Club, and I intend to join. It's only £20/year, which is pretty cheap. The catch is that this only covers the times when it's exclusively open to members; if I want to go along during the day in the summer then I'll have to pay the normal public fee. By contrast, I pay £115/year to join the South London Swimming Club, but I can swim there any time that the lido's open without paying any extra money. Still, the Serps membership will be useful if I do any future Swimmer events, or if I happen to be in the area at that time of day.
After that, we all assembled in the car park for some group photos. I haven't seen them yet, but hopefully they'll pop up somewhere in due course. A couple of kind people were also passing around slices of cake. This happens a lot at Tooting Bec lido too; for some reason cake and swimming seem to go together. We then set off for Brockwell lido. The runners split into two groups (fast and slow) and I cycled next to the fast group. I easily kept pace with them, and I actually felt a bit guilty about blocking the path by cycling slowly, so I took a leapfrog approach: I'd cycle past them, then stop and wait for them to pass me, then overtake them again. That worked fine up as far as Chelsea Bridge, but then I waited for a while and the runners didn't appear. I went back to look for them, but I couldn't see them anywhere. I checked my map but I couldn't see any obvious roads for them to take. Anyway, I then figured that I should just make my own way to the next stop. I arrived there at the same time as the final runner, so I'm not quite sure how that happened! Admittedly I wasn't going flat out, but my earlier speed should have been fine. I assume that I took a longer route than them. I didn't have a GPS with me today, but I traced my route on the map from memory (as best I could) when I got home. According to that, I cycled 26 km (16 miles) getting to the lidos, so that's a bit further than expected.
More generally, I think there's a camaraderie from running together which I didn't get when I was cycling around on my own. I don't regret cycling today, because I wouldn't have been able to keep up with the others on foot, but I think I'd get more out of the event if I did the same as everyone else (or if I had other people cycling with me).
I was surprised to see how full the car park was at Brockwell, although that didn't translate to a full pool. They claimed that the water was 8°C; that's consistent with the idea that lidos are warmer than ponds, but it didn't feel that warm, and Tooting Bec lido was 5.5°C when I went on Thursday. I've heard that you can get different results depending on where you take the temperature in the pool (i.e. how deep the water is) so maybe that's the issue here. Anyway, I did 2 lengths there (another 100m). It's the first time I've been to that lido, and it's a decent place to swim, although it's very shallow at one end: roughly up to my knees, whereas Tooting Bec lido goes up to my waist. So, I'll stick with Tooting as my regular pool, but I'm happy to go there for visits.
Brockwell also has a café, and the organisers reserved a table for 20 of us at 11:15. (That provided another incentive to keep us all on schedule rather than faffing earlier!) They do posh versions of fry-ups, so I got a vegetarian version of a full English breakfast for £9.75, including poached eggs on sourdough bread. Similarly, rather than stocking Coke, they sell Ubuntu fair trade cola. I was very tempted to quote xkcd ("Sorry, I don't play Pokémon"), but I wasn't sure whether the others would get the reference. Anyway, I'd certainly worked up an appetite by that point, so I was happy to hoover up that food. That also gave me an opportunity to chat to the other swimmers, and they're a friendly bunch.
After we finished there (at 12:30), I cycled home. I considered taking a detour via Tooting Bec lido, but I wasn't sure whether I'd get there in time to make it worthwhile (since they close at 14:00), so I just came straight back. There weren't any big climbs during the event, but hauling my bike up Knights Hill afterwards was a bit of a slog. So, my final tally is 43.2 km (27 miles) of cycling, equivalent to a full marathon, and about 180m of swimming.
All in all, I had a good time, and I'm glad I went. This event runs every month during the autumn/winter/spring, but not during summer (because the pools are too crowded). I don't think I'll be able to make all of them because of my other commitments, but I certainly hope to go again. I'm still trying to build the habit of regular swimming, and an organised event motivates me to actually turn up rather than procrastinating.
I also recommend the swimming blog Entirely surrounded by water; I first heard about this event via a post there.