Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Winter is when cold water and ice swimmers get super excited. You can get cold and wet with total strangers, and share a pint with them laughing about it afterwards. It’s all good fun and doesn’t sound like an extreme water sport–unless you’re in the water. As the water temperature drops in the single digits and your own digits start to tingle, it’s time to think about one of the big events of the winter swimming season–the Big Chill Swim in the Lake District. Last year, I took part in my first Big Chill Swim and went as a total newbie, not knowing what to expect. It was both intimidating and scary but turned out to be loads of fun. This year, I’m returning with friends and family. More people, more fun! Here’s what to expect, based on the 2015 event.
First of all, the scenery. I bet that very few swimming events enjoy a splendid backdrop such as that of snowy summits over a lake’s horizon. It’s quite stunning and when I looked at the swimming lanes, they seemed ridiculously small compared to the sheer size of Lake Windermere. Of course, they would and it’s one of the beauties of winter swimming. It reminds you that you’re only human after all and that it’s not an activity to be taken lightly. Hence the distances of the events. By swimming standards, they’re incredibly short: 30m, 60m, 4-person relay, 120m, 240m, 450m and 1K. As the distance increases, the number of participants drops dramatically. Only hardened winter swimmers go for the 1K and I’m not one of those. Last year, I signed up for a 60m race and that seemed daring to me.
In the morning of the race, I went to register inside the Low Wood Bay Hotel and was thrilled to find a familiar face from the Serpentine Swimming Club doing sign up. Why hello, Rod! Already, the water felt warmer. I got assigned a race number (44) and received an orange mesh goodie bag with branded swim cap, energy drink, local treats and my participation certificate (already!). since I wasn’t swimming before 11 am, my family visited a local tree adventure park for a couple of hours.
At 11am, we came back and checked in on the race numbers. They were slightly behind so my girls and my husband looked for lunch while I looked at the races, hoping that divine inspiration would dawn on me and tell me exactly what to do best. What can I say. The water was dark and showed small ripples. Swimmers arrived on the deck covered in a lot of layers except all were barefoot in flip-flops. They got undressed, swam, dressed again – next batch. Divine inspiration would have to wait, my turn was up.
I changed inside the heated women’s changing tent and got out in my dryrobe (the bane of winter fashion but delightfully warm). Just a couple of races before mine, my “batch” was called to another tent, a smaller heated tent with lawn chairs where we sat like ducks in a row, greeting each other. Thanks to my Serpentine wool hat, another swimmer told me that she was a Serpentine swimmer too and we chatted a bit. Internally, I was quite nervous but I think that everybody was. Who wouldn’t be when they’re about to get undressed outside in the middle of winter?
Everybody on the deck! The announcer called our race number and we all walked out to the wooden deck above the lake. With worried anticipation, I put down my “dry stuff” next to me and got ready – ear plugs, swim hat, swim goggles.
One minute to go. We let go of our warm layers, watched the previous swimmers walk away and faced the water. We were next. We went down the small ladder and waited for the signal. That part always kills me with nervousness. That’s when I just went to go and get it over with. I didn’t even look at my neighbors. Shoulder high in the water, I hung on to the sides of the deck and just looked ahead. My mind was blank and I barely heard the countdown (very good ear plugs, thank you very much) but I heard the final word.
Go! We all started swimming like mad bees and once in the water, I lost it. What I mean is, I lost all my beautiful plans of swimming in a straight line, swimming long fast strokes and streamlining. From what my husband told me afterwards (because I couldn’t see anything), I started strong but then zigzagged and lost ground. I knew it too, as I bumped into the lane dividers twice. I was having a hard time swimming “rationally” and efficiently.
At the end of the lane, I turned around and saw one or two other swimmers ahead in my peripheral vision. I had better hustle up! Which I did. I had regained some swimming composure on the second leg and swam straighter. Still, I probably finished second to last in my race and I was elated. I’d done it! Yes, it was a real race and I was slow but I’d done it anyway. My first real race, can you believe it? Nobody had dawdled away their 60 meters at 5.6C, that I can guarantee. In fact, I suspect that many around me were serious swimmers. I was in awe of them, the people who can swim as fast in a cold water lake as in a heated pool. Oh what incredible swimmers they are. This called for a hot cup of tea to celebrate (the pint would come later).
Later in the day, I watched a few relays and had to laugh at some of the outfits. Whereas the morning individual race swimmers were all serious in their speedos, a lot of the relay swimmers were having a ball swimming in unlikely outfits with unlikely relay names. The fabled East German Ladies Swimming Team of Hampstead (all men, none German) was there again, as can be expected from this seriously eccentric bunch. Wet’n Wild, Vicious and Delicious, Two Cream Puffs and A Couple of Tarts, Sparth Vaders, Bearded Ladies were some of the other team names. Oh swimmers, behave!
With 01:06.06, I placed 13th out of 26 swimmers in my age group (female), 34th over 67 for female swimmers and 73rd over 167 for overall swimmers in the 60m freestyle race. The fastest man did 00:38.1 and the fastest woman did 00:43.7. Profound respect to them both!
Entering the Big Chill Swim not only earned me a glorious pint that evening in Ambleside, but it motivated me to persevere in this nutter idea that swimming in the winter can (and should be) done with a certain dose of regularity and enthusiasm, not just for my overall good health but to keep all winter bugs at bay and to eat more cake with friends.
To winter swimming!