CWSC 2013 - John C. Kirk
Jan. 28th, 2013
12:27 am - CWSC 2013
Yesterday (Saturday 26th) I went to the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido. This is the sixth time the event has taken place (2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013), but the first time I've taken part. It's also the coldest water that the CWSC has had so far (1.7°C).
I went there in 2009 on SJA duty. While I was there, I bought a copy of Wild Swim (by Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society). That got me interested in outdoor swimming, so I visited the Serpentine Lido in July 2009, and did the OSS "December Dip" in December 2009 (6°C).
In April 2010, I cancelled my gym membership and joined the South London Swimming Club instead (based at Tooting Bec lido). My intention was to start swimming in the summer (when the water was relatively warm) and then continue throughout the year to acclimatise. However, I didn't really follow through on this. That year I only made 6 trips to Tooting Bec Lido, along with a lido crawl (Serpentine and Hampstead Heath), then I was back at Parliament Hill for the OSS December Dip again (0.1°C).
In 2011 I went along to the CWSC again, but I was crewing the ambulance again rather than swimming. After that, I only swam at the lido once (in October), and I missed the OSS December Dip because I overslept.
In 2012, I decided not to renew my SLSC membership: I hadn't used it from January to April, and the lido is open to the general public from May to September so I could just pay on the door. As it turned out, I didn't go during the public season either, so I only had a quick splash in the sea at Brighton beach in June. I rejoined the SLSC with winter membership (cheaper than paying for the full year), but my next swimming trip was back to Parliament Hill for the OSS December Dip (3°C).
There's a bit of a trend there, but I signed up for the CWSC anyway. That was partly a way to motivate myself, since I'd have a specific event to attend rather than thinking "It doesn't matter whether I go today or tomorrow so I'll give it a miss today." Also, events like this and the December Dip have other things going on to justify the trip, e.g. speeches and food. It takes me about 30 minutes to cycle to the lido, so if I go at the weekend then I'll spend more time travelling than actually there. In theory I can take a detour on my way to work, but in practice I often cycle to East Croydon rather than Clapham Junction. That said, I recently checked London Overground's cycling policy and apparently they allow all bikes on all trains between Clapham Junction and Willesden Junction; I'm not sure whether that's a recent change. Anyway, that gives me an incentive to cycle to Clapham, since the Southern policy is more restrictive (no full size bikes between East Croydon and Clapham Junction during rush hour).
Although I haven't been to the lido for a while, I've been following a few blogs from regular members, notably Musings of an aquatic ape, Quick Dip, and Unusual Love Affair in London. Based on that, I know that the surface of the water at the lido froze over recently. However, it didn't turn into a giant ice cube, partly because chlorinated water has a lower freezing point. (Possibly -2°C, but I'm not certain about that.) Anyway, that means that it's possible to swim in water at sub-zero temperatures, which was rather an alarming prospect. So, I suppose I should be relieved that it was "only" 1.7°C.
Yesterday I drove up to the lido, since I was "ferrying" an SJA vehicle there, then I went off duty until it was time for the return journey. I went over to the registration tent to collect my race cards and a bag of freebies (magazine, swimming cap, and a few adverts). I've collected a few swimming caps from the OSS events, but I normally wear 2 at once in winter because they're so thin. The SLSC cap is thicker, so it may be good enough on its own, but I didn't try it yesterday. Along with the bag, they also issued each of us with a certificate for taking part. The person next to me in the queue had the same reaction that I did: "If I've already got the certificate, does that mean I can go home now?"
At 09:00 it was time for the opening ceremony, where Jo Brand (an SLSC member) gave a funny speech. There were also people paddling kayaks in the pool and towing "icebergs" (big white floats) behind them that had cardboard penguins on top, just to emphasise the cold theme of the event (photo). Everyone gathered near the shallow end of the pool to watch this, and the guy next to me struck up conversation. He was surprised to hear that I'm an SLSC member, since he didn't recognise me. Um, yes. I'm in a slightly odd position where I recognise a few regular swimmers from the blogs but they have no idea who I am, so I need to avoid coming across as stalker boy.
Anyway, I was booked in for 2 races: freestyle (at 10:17) and head-up breaststroke (at 11:22). Although I've seen the races in previous years, this was my first opportunity to find out how the logistics worked. Basically, we had to assemble 15 minutes before our race started, then go through a series of "stations". The races ran at 3 minute intervals, so the organisers were keen to keep everything moving on schedule: this meant that there was a bit of "hurry up, now wait". It worked well, so I'm not criticising it at all.
When we assembled, we were fully dressed and carrying our swim kit etc. in a bag. They then issued each of us with a plastic bag (a transparent bin liner, probably 50L). We went into the poolside cubicles on the east side to get changed, then I put my clothes into the plastic bag along with my own bag. As well as my swimsuit, caps, and goggles, I also wore my Robie Robe and sandals, so my boots and normal coat went into the plastic bag. There was enough space for all of it, but I recommend travelling light for this. I took a second bag to the event containing food, keys, wallet, etc., but I left that in the first aid post before I assembled for my race and I'm glad that I did.
We then went round to the west side of the pool where someone gave us a briefing. They checked whether anyone needed steps to get into the water (nobody in my races did), presumably because we were in lanes so someone might need extra time to get into position. We weren't allowed to dive in, so we'd just jump/slide into the water, then we all had to crouch down (shoulders below the water) and hold the rail: as soon as we were all ready, the starter would call "3 2 1" and then parp the horn. Once we got over to the far side, we could get out immediately; we didn't have to wait for everyone else to finish.
The next station was when we went into the cubicles on the west side, numbered for each lane. At this point we were 3rd in the queue, i.e. there was 1 group swimming and another group lined up on the side of the pool.
Once the group ahead went into the water, we were called to the side. At this point we had to take off any extra clothing, e.g. my robe and shoes. The lido has a concrete floor all around the pool, but they had black mats for us to stand on while we waited so our feet didn't freeze. These extra clothes went into the plastic bag, and volunteers took the bags around to the other side of the pool so that they'd be waiting for us when we got out.
Once the group ahead had finished, the commentator introduced us, so we each waved in turn when he mentioned our names. After he said my name, I saw someone waving at the back of the crowd: I couldn't make out the face, but I assumed that this was one of my SJA colleagues and so I gave a cheerful thumbs up in return. I later discovered that I was mistaken, but never mind; it was nice to think that I had a friendly face in the crowd to support me.
As I looked down at the water, I must admit that I was getting a bit nervous. (Without getting too graphic, I'd already been to the toilet twice since I arrived at the lido.) Still, it was time, so I crouched down and jumped in.
When it snowed recently, I nipped across the road to buy some milk and thought "Holy guacamole, that's cold!" When I went into the water yesterday, I wasn't quite so eloquent; my thoughts were more like "Aargh! Cold cold cold cold cold..."
There are different methods for getting into cold water: some people like to ease in gradually, shivering on each step, but I prefer to get in quickly and then start thrashing around so that I can warm myself up. The starter reminded us that we all had to get our shoulders under the water and touch the rail, and I thought "Yes, I'm doing that, can we please start swimming now?!" Based on the other races I watched, this probably only took about 10 seconds, but it felt longer because it was so intense. Anyway, the horn parped and off we went.
This was freestyle, and most people swam front crawl but I decided to swim backstroke. This always used to be my best stroke, but it's tricky to swim in an open pool when I might crash into someone else, so separate lanes give a good opportunity. However, by the time I was halfway across I saw that I was trailing behind everyone else so I rolled over onto my front to do front crawl (although I kept my face out of the water). Unlike the December Dip last month, I didn't have any trouble lifting my arms out of the water, and I did adapt to the cold to a certain extent. The people on the far side all called out encouragement, and I made it across.
It took me a couple of attempts to haul myself out, and I apologised a few times because I could see that I was splashing quite a lot of water onto the side in the process. When I came out, I suspect that I resembled a beached seal more than a graceful swimmer: I pushed myself out of the water up to waist level, flopped forwards, then swung my legs up onto the side one at a time. I noticed a lot of people taking photos of me, but I haven't seen them appear online yet; if I find them then I'll update this post. My bag was waiting, so I crawled back into my robe and put my sandals on. This is why I wanted a separate pair of shoes, so that I wouldn't get the inside of my boots soaking wet or have to walk around barefoot. Someone offered me a hot drink from a tray, but I declined. I assumed that it was tea or coffee (neither of which I drink), although I've subsequently discovered it was hot Ribena (which I do enjoy drinking on a cold day). So, that's a nice idea, and it's a pity I missed out on the opportunity.
The lido has a sauna on site, although it only runs during the winter when the water drops below a certain temperature. Personally, I'm not keen on saunas: they leave me feeling nauseous and light-headed. Yesterday, though, they had a couple of hot tubs by the pool side, and I do like them. Interestingly, the NHS specifically advise against hot baths for treating hypothermia, because this will draw blood away from the vital organs towards the limbs. However, as far as I know I wasn't actually hypothermic, and it worked out ok for me. There was some brief pain when the circulation came back to my hands and feet, but after that I felt a lot better.
While I was in there, I chatted to a couple of people from Serps (the Serpentine swimming club). The lido had a "dipping lane" set up in the shallow end, outside the race lanes, so any spectators who fancied a go could have an untimed swim. The Serps couple then had this conversation:
Man: "Shall we swim another width after we get out?"
That did make me laugh, since it was such a flat answer. It wasn't emphatic as such; her tone of voice implied that this was obvious, i.e. "Why would you even suggest such a ludicrous thing?" I mentioned that a lot of SLSC members will do their main swim, then go into the sauna, then have another quick dip before they get dressed (at least according to the blogs I've read) but this didn't sway her.
When I got out, I put my sandals and robe back on. I still had my swimming caps and goggles on: I'd pushed the goggles up onto my forehead after the race rather than taking them off altogether. As I pulled my robe on, I felt a gentle tug as if someone was taking my goggles off, but presumably this was just because I'd knocked them off with the robe and so they'd gone pinging off somewhere. Once I'd got it on, I looked around for them, but they'd completely vanished. They weren't on the ground or in either of the hot tubs. Apparently the sock-eating monster has varied its diet and now it's learnt to fly. Be afraid...
Fortunately my next race was head-up breaststroke, so I wouldn't need my goggles there, and I've been meaning to replace them anyway: they're a cheap pair that I bought several years ago, and they leak a bit. (On that topic, this article is quite funny: What your goggles say about you...) So, this was inconvenient but not disastrous.
I've talked a lot about procrastinating, feeling scared, and being cold. So, why do I do this at all? Basically because it feels so good afterwards. I don't just mean that I can appreciate the warmth more after I've been really cold to get the contrast. Beyond that, I felt really peaceful: none of the things that normally bother me were in my mind at all. Maybe being "chilled out" does have something to do with temperature after all? I've heard a theory that the body produces endorphins to deal with a painful situation like cold water swimming, so when I get out I've eliminated the pain and I still have the pleasure. Nice. I don't know enough about the physiology involved to say whether that's true, I can only comment on how it feels. It also helped that the sun was out, so I could feel its warmth on my exposed skin; outdoor swimming isn't quite so inviting when the sky is overcast.
After this, I had about 30 minutes before I was due to assemble for my next race. So, decision time: should I get dressed again and then get undressed again for my next race, or just stay as I was? I didn't feel cold, but I was basically rocking the Fred Flintstone look. I compromised by staying in my sandals (no socks/boots) but putting my other clothes back on. I went off to the changing room, and by the time I took off my robe I was basically dry all over except for my swimsuit area; I assume that's a combination of the towel fabric and the water just evaporating off. I saw someone else wearing a "onesie", and that could be quite practical at an event like this: warm, but quick to take off.
When I got ready for the second race, I had to put my wet swimsuit back on, which was a bit unpleasant, but that feeling didn't last for long. When I lined up on the side of the pool, I wasn't so nervous because I'd already survived the water once so I knew it wasn't that bad. After I jumped in, my thoughts then went like this: "Gah! Cold cold cold..." I made it across, and it felt as if I was keeping up with the others a bit better this time, but I came in last again. Ah well, never mind. I never expected to win anything; just taking part is enough for me. After I got out, I took the plastic bag and walked over to the hot tub as I was (barefoot, no robe) rather than getting dressed first, because I wasn't really feeling cold. That said, I could still appreciate the warmth when I got in!
The OSS December Dip isn't a race at all, it's just about participating. This was a race, but it's not ultra-competitive. In particular, it's not like triathlons where swimmers are elbowing each other in the face to get ahead of the pack, which I'm glad about. After my first race, one of the other guys shook my hand. While we were waiting for the second race, the commentator mentioned the excellent hats that were on display (example) and a couple of the guys from my heat said "Oh, you're welcome." The commentator couldn't hear them, because we were on the other side of the pool, and he obviously wasn't talking about them because they just had standard issue woolly hats (bought from a shop) rather than a custom creation. Still, that made us all laugh. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate that one...
Each race was accompanied by music, e.g. "Eye of the Tiger" or "Nothing's gonna stop us now". One of the pieces on rotation was the theme from "Chariots of Fire", and it's a pity they didn't use that on my races because then I would have had an excuse for swimming in slow motion.
The results aren't online yet: they'll be posted here later in the week. However, they were put up on boards yesterday. As I recall, my time was about 46 seconds for the freestyle race and about 57 seconds for the breaststroke. So, I probably spent about 2 minutes in the water altogether, allowing for the delay before we started.
The 2 categories (freestyle/breaststroke) were grouped by age and gender, so I was in the "male, 30-39" group. There were a maximum of 8 people in each heat, but there were about 30 people in my group and all our results were merged together, i.e. I was also racing against the people in other heats. As it turned out, I had the slowest time for my group in both categories. I looked at other categories, and the only person with a slower time was a woman in the "60-69" group (a different person in each category).
That said, I didn't actually come last. There were 3 people ranked below me in my group, with "DNS" next to their names. I assume that stands for "Did Not Start", because I know that there were a few empty lanes during the races. So, I think there's some kind of truism here: the people who turn up will always do better than the people who don't (within this specific context). John Kovalic wrote something similar about creating art (The Finish Line): "And all this while? Other folks are finishing up their pieces. They may not be as good as you, but they don't have to be. They finished. And they may have made a sale." I'm hardly Aquaman, but if I'd wimped out yesterday then I would have been even further down in the rankings.
I'm also thinking of Yoda's advice: "Do or do not. There is no try." There are some people who swim regularly, which is fine. There are other people who have no interest in swimming at all, which is also fine. However, if I keep saying "Yes, I want to do it but I haven't got around to it yet" then that's a bit crap, and it doesn't reflect well on me. So now that I've done the CWSC I want to keep up the momentum. At the very least, I want to start attending the Sunday morning club races. I took part in 1 race a couple of years ago, and (unsurprisingly) I came last. However, once people have done 3 races they get a handicap (measured in seconds), i.e. people start at different times and so the slower swimmers get a head start. The ideal scenario is for everyone to reach the far side of the pool at exactly the same time, although I don't know whether that's ever happened. If I actually have a chance of winning, rather than watching everyone else disappear into the distance, that would give me a bit more motivation to swim as fast as possible. Also, I'd like to be a bit more social, and I think that befriending people who already swim may be easier than persuading any of my existing friends to come swimming with me.
Anyway, after I'd left the hot tub I got dressed properly, then wandered around some of the stalls. Antic had a beer stand, but I avoided that because I'd be driving back, so I went for a crepe instead. I bought an I-Spy book for the lido which is quite funny, e.g. it has an entry for "Underwater Paparrazi" (the people who post photos on blogs). I also bought a T-shirt to commemorate the event: this has "Thrill to the Chill!" on the front and a list of competitors on the back. I bought a similar T-shirt when I graduated from Durham ("Class of '95") although it had at least 1 name missing (not mine, but someone I knew). I wanted to be sure that my name was there before I bought it, so I took a glance at someone who was wearing one, and I was surprised to see that my name was 2nd in the list. I'm not that early in the alphabet, so I wondered whether it was sorted by the order that people booked places. It turned out that the list was split in half (surnames A-J and K-Z), so I was near the start of the 2nd list. The guy running the stand clarified this, so I got the correct list on my T-shirt.
After this, I was at a bit of a loose end. I needed to wait until the end of the day, but I wouldn't be swimming in the finals. The commentator mentioned that they were looking for any free volunteers to help out with a few areas; I hadn't registered for that in advance, but I decided to offer my services anyway. The person in charge was happy to use me, so I got a yellow bin-liner to wear over my coat. I was assigned to keep the walkway area clear (asking people politely to move elsewhere to eat/chat) and keep people away from the generator (because it had an earth cable stretching away from it). So, I effectively had a triple role yesterday (driver, swimmer, SLSC volunteer). Mind you, although my uniform was different, I still had someone asking me for directions to the toilet!
The final event was the endurance race: 450m. That's equivalent to 5 lengths, but they actually did it as 4 lengths and 3 widths, i.e. almost 2 laps of the pool but starting and finishing in different corners. That really is a challenge, and it's definitely beyond me at the moment.
After that, they gave out medals and prizes to the winners. There were 3 medals for most groups/categories, e.g. bronze/silver/gold for male 30-39 freestyle. The exception was male 80-89, where there was only 1 competitor so he won the gold medal by default. Still, he's going to turn 90 this year, so I think he earned it. When it came to the endurance race, they gave out 2 sets of medals: 3 for the fastest swimmers, and 3 for the slowest (who'd therefore endured the water for the longest). Everyone else who completed the endurance swim got a participation medal, like the medals I got at the Brompton World Championship.
In the evening, the plan was for people to go to The Antelope to drink and chat. I went home first, so that I could get some food and hang up my wet stuff to dry, then went back up to Tooting. However, by 20:30 I was so tired that I almost fell asleep on the bus. When I got there, I went into the "upstairs room" (only about 4 steps higher than the downstairs room) but I didn't recognise anyone and it wasn't labelled as a private booking so I didn't know how many people were actually swimmers. Based on that, I decided to head home and have an early night. That's not a criticism, because it probably worked out well for people who already knew each other, but I think I'll have more luck chatting to people at the lido.
This event has also got a bit of media coverage:
Metro: Swimmers take the plunge at (very) cold water championships in Tooting
One News Page: Swimmers' icy plunge for cold water
ITV: Come on in the water's lovely!
Guardian: The very Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido