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UK CWSC 2015 - John C. Kirk

Feb. 14th, 2015

10:10 pm - UK CWSC 2015

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A few weeks ago (Sat 24th January), I took part in the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido. This runs every 2 years (alternating with the world championships), and I previously took part in 2013; that blog post has some info about how I got involved with swimming at the lido, so I won't repeat it all here. However, it's significant that nobody else from the SLSC recognised me, even though I'd been a member for 3 years.

After that, I had good intentions for 2013, but my attendance was sporadic at best for most of the year. That only changed when I actually had a specific reason to be there on a particular day/time, so that I wouldn't just keep procrastinating and putting it off until "tomorrow". I did the OSS December Dip at Parliament Hill Lido; after that, one of my friends was interested in coming to Tooting Bec lido with me, so we arranged to meet up and swim together. That worked well, although there was an unfortunate incident when I collapsed after I got out of the water. Meanwhile, I also got involved with organising the swimming club's pantomime (Swimderella), so I got to meet several of the other club members that way.

I continued swimming at the lido in early 2014, then in March I joined the SLSC team at the Winter Swimming World Championships in Rovaniemi (Lapland). During the summer, I was helping out with the handicaps at the weekly races, so that also provided a way to get to know people: each person would tell me their name, then I'd tick them off on my list and tell them their current handicap. I carried on going to the lido fairly regularly until the end of October, but then it got a bit more tricky; it's only open in the mornings during the winter, and my body clock has a tendency to skew so that I stay up late and get up late.

Anyway, that all meant that when this year's CWSC rolled around, I actually knew a lot of the other people involved, and it was nice to see familiar faces. When I lined up for my race (head up breaststroke), there was a volunteer to carry each person's bag of clothes around to the far end of the pool; one of the panto organisers was assigned to my lane, so I didn't feel alone. I also got a cheer when the announcer called out my name, presumably from other SLSC folk.

On my previous trip to the lido (in October), the water was 13.5°C. The day before the championships, the lido froze over; the CWSC Facebook page has a photo of the lane markers on top of the ice! When I got there on the Saturday morning, the ice had gone, but the water was still cold. I'm not sure of the exact temperature: the sign on the wall said that it was 3.5°C, the announcer said 3°C, and various newspaper articles referred to it as 4°C or 5°C. In practical terms, it's roughly the same as the temperature inside a fridge, and I was a bit worried that I hadn't acclimatised in advance.

Anyway, I slid into the water, and I felt the familiar icy embrace. For anyone who hasn't done this, the closest analogy I can think of is getting into bed when the central heating is broken and the sheets are really cold. When the klaxon sounded, we all set off, and it quickly became obvious that I wan going to come last. That's fine: I never expected to win, anyway. On a more positive note, by the time I'd got halfway across I was confident that I could get the rest of the way. I was still gasping a lot, which meant that I got a bit of water in my mouth, but I avoided choking. When I reached the far end, I put my hands on the side and pushed myself up so that my waist was roughly level with the ground, then flopped forward and rolled my legs out of the water. All the grace and elegance of a beached whale... One of the people nearby asked whether I was ok, and I said I was fine: I was just slow, not ill. Still, I was glad to collect the cup of hot blackcurrant squash.

Once I'd drunk that, I went to the hot tub. (This isn't a permanent fixture at the lido, but there are a couple of them there for each championship.) Some people advise against this, e.g. H2Open Magazine recently published an article about "after-drop". However, I've done it a few times after swims like this, and I've never had any trouble; it feels nice, and I like to restore circulation to my fingers and toes as quickly as possible. I then went into the sauna (which is a permanent fixture), but I was careful not to sit in there for too long, and I stayed on the lower benches.

After all that, it was time to get dressed again. I got changed into my swimming gear in one of the poolside cubicles, but that whole area was reserved for people who were about to race so I couldn't use it again. The normal changing rooms were also open (with separate facilities for men and women). However, they also had a tent set up as a mixed changing room; this was right outside the sauna, so I didn't have to go as far before I got dressed. Inside the tent, there were just a few benches, i.e. no separate cubicles. So, everyone made an effort to be discreet (e.g. I kept my towel wrapped around my waist until I'd put my pants on underneath) and it would have been impolite to stare at other people, but the unspoken agreement was just to get on with it, a bit like getting changed on a beach.

The full results of all the races are on the SLSC website. It took me 57 seconds to swim the 30 metres, which was the slowest time in my category (male, aged 40-49). However, I actually finished 31st out of 40 because there were 9 people who didn't turn up. So, technically I didn't come last! I'm glad I took part: this gave me an incentive to actually get to the lido rather than putting it off, and after I'd got dressed I had the post-swim glow where I didn't feel cold and I was at peace with the world.

Since I wouldn't be in the finals, this left me at a loose end for the rest of the day, so I offered to help out. I described the staging process in my 2013 post: basically, the swimmers for each race were shuffled around to particular points at particular times, to keep everything running on schedule. I took over from someone else (who was due to swim), and spent a while dashing back and forth near the shallow end of the pool: I'd guide each group of swimmers to the first assembly area, then when they'd all arrived and the next staging point was clear, I'd take them over to the second location and gather the next group in the first location. Initially I was wearing a marshal "tabard" (bin liner) over my ski jacket, but I had to take my coat off because I was sweating.

It was particularly hectic during the relays, because we had 4 times as many people for each race. After that, things calmed down a bit, so I took advantage of the opportunity to nip over to the beer tent and pick up a couple of home made cakes. (A lot of the lido swimmers are also keen bakers.) When I got back, the person who I'd previously relieved was back from her swim, so they didn't need me there anymore. However, I then heard an announcement over the tannoy saying that they desperately needed an extra timekeeper, so I swapped roles and volunteered for that.

They gave me a normal stopwatch (which we use for the Sunday races) and also a Dolphin timer, so I held one in each hand. The Dolphin timer would automatically start, but I had to press the button on the normal stopwatch when I heard the klaxon. We had one timekeeper for each lane: when "my" swimmer touched the side, I had to stop both devices. However, if I pressed the buttons on both devices at the start then I'd actually be stopping the Dolphin timer, which would be bad. Ideally I would have liked to practice before I had to time a real race, but we didn't have time for that. This reminded me of the old challenge: can you pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time? I was worried that I'd automatically do the same thing with both hands, so I kept my thumb well clear of the button on the Dolphin timer. However, that raised another question: how sensitive was the button? I had my thumb resting on the button for the normal stopwatch during the race, but again I was worried about stopping the Dolphin timer by accident. That meant that I was slightly late stopping it at the end of the race, but the extra stopwatch was there to act as a backup: when another volunteer came around with a clipboard writing down the times, I told her that the stopwatch time was more accurate for this race.

After that, I was ok with the logistics of the devices in subsequent races. So, my only other challenge was standing in the right place. I had to be near the edge so that I could lean over and see the swimmer touch the side, but I didn't want to fall in, so I stood as if I was about to start running with one leg out behind me to act as a counterweight. After I'd done that for a while, I needed to put my coat back on, because I wasn't moving around to keep warm.

In previous years, the final event has been a 450 metre endurance race. They didn't do that this year; instead, there was a "Big Splash", which was similar to the OSS December Dip. Basically, a bunch of people lined up at the side of the pool, then all jumped into the water together. Some of them then got back out immediately, while others swam a width or two. It wasn't a race, just an opportunity to experience the cold water.

When I was in Lapland last year, Barbara commented that faster swimmers have an extra advantage during the endurance swim, i.e. they spend less time in the cold water. So, rather than having a fixed distance, I wonder whether it would make sense to have a fixed time instead. In particular, I'm thinking about Knutsford's Great Race (held every 10 years). This involves people riding penny farthings, and the competitors have to do as many laps of the course as possible within 3 hours. In 2010, they apparently signalled the start and end of the race by firing a cannon! The swimming equivalent might be to ask "How many widths can you swim in 5 minutes?" People would still have the option of getting out early, but this could create an interesting "hare and tortoise" style of race, where the slow plodder could beat the speedy swimmer. This may not be feasible, but I think it would be an interesting thing to try.

Once all the swimming had finished, the judges handed out medals, including the prize for "best hat". This photo shows a couple of the entries in action:

The dragon won the top prize in this category.

Anyway, all in all it was a good day. We definitely had the right weather for it, with a clear sky and bright sunshine. If you want to read more about it, here are some other write-ups: