Swimming in cold water is invigorating. I forget how much I actually love it. Most people simply think I am mad, but nothing makes me come more alive than swimming in God’s creation in icy crystal clear water. Last weekend I did a cold water training swim in preparation for my upcoming Cape Point Challenge in Cape Town in December. My goal was to swim for 30 minutes minimum and if I felt good to push it to 40 minutes.
As the afternoon approached I starting doing my mental preparation. It was going to be cold. I have not swum in cold water for months and so I forgot what to expect! I did a thorough warm up before I got in as I psyched up my mind to obey what my body was complaining about.
My philosophy when getting into any water: Do it fast. One of the hardest things of being a swimmer and swimming training is getting in. Even on a hot day, the change in texture and the sudden envelopment of water is always a bit of a shock to the system. All swimmers will understand what I mean. It’s going from dry to wet, warm to cold (or sometimes the other way around), air to water – different elements, different textures. A different experience. One which only a swimmer can understand is worth it no matter how harsh the conditions inside or outside are, once you make the plunge, it is worth it. You enter your own little silent bubble encased in a water bubble and instantly life’s stresses and troubles are temporarily washed away. There are very few times I get out the water feeling worse than when I got in.
For me, swimming is good for my soul. People say exercise is addictive because of the hormones and endorphins that are released. For me, swimming takes that to a new level as you are forced to hear nothing except the sound of your own bubbles as you exhale life’s stresses and focus on nothing but your constant steady stroke, counting laps or technical aspects of the swim. Sometimes I just switch off completely.
But I digress! So I took the plunge into water close to 10 degrees or possibly colder and it literally took my breath away. The first 5 minutes were painful. Every time I put my head in the water, my ears, hands and feet ached. I was struggling to get my mind to believe I could last like this for 30 minutes! But after the first five minutes, you go numb. A warm glow envelops you and you get to experience not feeling for a few more minutes before the stiffness sets in and you have to force your body to relax into each stroke to prevent stiffening up even further. For the next 20 minutes I alternated between feeling warm glows, numbness and stiffness. I reached the start again after 30 minutes. I still felt good so thought I would swim an extra five or ten minutes and push my body a bit further. After three minutes I realized it wasn’t the best idea as I started getting VERY cold VERY quickly. I forced myself to relax as I swam back to shore and exited the water.
This is the challenging part of cold water swimming: warming up again!
I could not stand straight I was so cold. I couldn’t feel anything. My friend had swum with me for some of the way and as we jumped into the car and started chatting we sounded drunk. I was in a state of euphoria and every now and then would scream hysterically. My friend who was driving us was very concerned and was driving my well-travelled Tazz like the car in the movie ‘The secret life of Walter Mitty’ (as they were driving away from a volcano!) That just added to the hysteria. I was shaking uncontrollably and went straight into a hot bath which went instantly cold. After five or ten minutes of trying to warm up in a constantly-cold hot bath, I gave up and decided to get dry and warm in front of a fire with two blankets covering me, shaking uncontrollably until I managed to get some hot Milo down. I LOVE Milo and it certainly assisted my recovery process. After about 40 minutes I was finally warm enough to sit still and hold a normal conversation.
Sterkfontein dam is the 3rd largest dam in South Africa and the cleanest dam in the country. There are no rivers flowing into it which is one of the reasons it is so clean. It is spectacular. The water is a crystal clear blue colour. There are dead trees growing out from the bottom of the dam which creates an eerie beauty. Its starkness adds to its beauty.
I find life to be a bit like this. Sometimes there is starkness all around us, but even when it’s cold outside and we are comfortable, taking a step outside our comfort zone into the unknown icy blue can be the most invigorating life-giving experience and can make you feel alive.