Swimming through anxiety

For as long as their have been humans, there has been swimming. If you engage with aquatic evolutionary theory, you could say that we were swimming even before we were human. And it’s true that we were all kind of swimming before we were born. But why is swimming in water, particularly cool, open water, so good for us?

I’ve just come back from a holiday. Holidays are a total luxury; but, as they are afforded by the kind of life choices that send you slowly mental, they are a total necessity. Anxiety was scrunching me up, making me jumpy and edgy, causing me to withdraw, ironically, from the very things that sort me out: swimming, exercising, socialising, relaxing. Instead, I was hunching, pulling inwards, flicking obsessively from app to app on my phone, searching for something but never knowing what. Working hard, and trying to work harder. Spending too much time staring at screens, obsessing with doing more, being better. But anxious energy gets jobs done, and in this state of flux, I remortgaged, sold my car and researched and bought a new one, organised builders’ quotes and PTA events on top of working and sorting out my family’s needs. I also organised a holiday.

Swimming has always been the centre point of my holidays. The criteria for my parents’ holiday plans was to find a beach or lake or river and then choose the campsite or rental nearby. So ingrained is this particular method of searching for holiday accommodation that I barely noticed how my planning focused on proximity to the nearest body of water.

Our first swim was on the journey itself. The Plymouth to Santander ferry takes 20 hours, and among the entertainment on board is a small pool cut deep into the deck so the water doesn’t slosh out. Lately, stress and anxiety has taken its greatest physical toll on my jaw. Somewhere across the Bay of Biscay that night brought a terrible wave of temporomandibular joint pain that jolted me awake and kept me there, even after scrabbling around our sleepy cabin in search of drugs. So the next morning I thought a swim might wake me up.

For an open water swimmer, a swimming pool is poor cousin to the vast, ever-changing waters of the ocean, lake, river, tarn, loch or stream. This one was small and over-chlorinated, but it was water and it was deliciously cold. It woke me up all right. But more than that; I was amazed by the sense of calm that washed over me with that cold water the moment I submerged. I smiled, I felt the knots in my muscles loosen a little, the stuffy headache recede, the tetchiness fade.

What an idiot to have forgotten. The stream next to where we pitched our tent in the breathtakingly beautiful Spanish-Basque mountains, the crashing Atlantic waves on the west coast of France, the turquoise-clear lake near our campsite in France, even the open-air pool on the campsite, undid the painful knots of anxiety in my body and  washed them away. Star floating and watching wisps of cloud cross the blue sky as the waves lifted and dropped me, jumping off a rock into a deep pool in the mountain stream, diving through the surf, I was struck by how the water always changed, not just in colour and temperature, but in viscosity, opacity and taste. Being in it, on it, under it is an experience for all the senses, and somehow, unlike any other activity, it always cures.

Another of my holiday pleasures is reading. I took with me two books. Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley, which I had started at home, and The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. Both these women swim the year round, both have had huge emotional health issues with which to deal, both very different from one another, and different again to me, but to whom I could relate in many ways, mainly in their love of being in cold water and the salvation it gives them.

All this; these women’s accounts, my own anxiety being undone by water, made me wonder why swimming outdoors is so powerful a healer. I’ve known for a long time the benefits of swimming, releasing endorphins, well-being from exercise, better sleep patterns, better health and fitness, relaxing through breathing steadily. But can you not get all that from running, cycling and yoga?

There are plenty of theories about cold water swimming, as explained in this article. Connection with nature, release of adrenaline, training your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response so you cope better with stress, anti-inflammatory properties of cold water, and improved immunity. But science is still at a bit of a loss as to exactly why and how plunging into cold water seems to sooth anxiety, cure depression, wash away grief, loss, bereavement, emotional pain.

There’s no shortage of accounts showing that open water swimming does change lives. For Amy Liptrot, it helped her deal with enforced sobriety; for Alexandra Heminsley, cope with infertility. For me, a lot of my anxiety has been tied up with poor body image, but open water swimming seems to have transformed me into someone who’s if not achingly body positive, at least at peace with how I look. Like Heminsley, it’s helped me take pride in a body that I’d always felt wasn’t good quite enough, to find strength and power where I’ve previously seen cellulite and flab. My sister, a photographer, and a person who knows me better than most, photographed me as part of a project in the pool (main photo and below), and she was amazed by the change in my demeanour, my confidence and self-assurance as I entered the water.

It also helps me switch off my whirring mind. When I’m in the water, I don’t think about much more than the sensations, the colour of water, its opacity, whether its sharp and biting, or smooth and velvety. Whether it has a saltiness that buoys me up and stings every nick and scratch on my body, or a freshwater, mineral taste that envelopes me. As I swim, I think about the pull, catch, kick, breathe. I watch the Hockney-like patterns on the sea bed, the pebbles and reeds, or simply my hands pushing away in turn with a steady rhythm. I stop, I look towards the horizon, the sky. Birds and fish come close by. I feel strong, happy, peaceful, and that feeling will often stay with me for more than a day.

I’m a science person, rather than one of faith or religion. But from time to time, even those of us who put faith in science needs to accept that some phenomena is beyond rational explanation. There is perhaps something in the fact that we are ourselves made of water, that we grew in it, that we evolved in it. Just as we are likely affected by the lunar cycles, maybe we are somehow connected to this life-giving element. Perhaps, sinking into a warm bath stirs some kind of pre-birth memory of comfort and safety. Perhaps wading into cold water awakens a genetic memory from our ancestors, living on the shoreline and wading into the cold seas and rivers to find small crustaceans and shellfish for dinner – read The Descent of Woman by Elaine Morgan for more on this fascinating evolutionary theory.

Proof that swimming in cold, natural water heals all manner of emotional and mental health issues is anecdotal, and overwhelming. The manner in which it heals varies from person to person, but the resulting rosy glow and sense of peace and well-being seems to be universal. For me, it’s at once meditative and soothing, and a perfect, attainable high, giving me a pure buzz with a healthy afterglow. Maybe there are no fathomable reasons why, and it doesn’t even matter.

Good reads

Leap In Alexandra Heminsley
The Outrun Amy Liptrot
The Descent of Woman Elaine Morgan

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Swimming in Clevedon’s Marine lake: Photo credit Fur and Gold Photography

 

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Masters of birth… and swimming

It’s very hard to describe why physical experiences have such a lasting emotional impact. Possibly the most physical experience of all for many women is giving birth. So why is it important that a woman has control over how she gives birth? And how can mastering your body again help heal a bad experience?

Before I had babies, I believed the medical mantra that a healthy outcome for mother and child was paramount. By hook or by crook (often literally), both shall survive. But through experience and anecdotes of friends and family, I realised that a healthy outcome is much more than mother and child surviving birth; it’s a knife-edge, raw, critical mind-game that can break even the strongest woman.

It was April 2006, and Ellen was recounting to me her birth. We both had 6 week old babies. I was shell-shocked and dazed, but steady and happy; much how I thought we all must be feeling. But she was a mess. On the corner of a street, she crumbled, shaking, crying. A strong, positive, open woman, traumatised by her birth experience.

I looked down at her beautiful, healthy daughter asleep in her pram, and wondered how the manner of her arrival had such a profound effect? Yes, Ellen’d been critically ill, but she hadn’t died; they’d both survived; here she was 6 weeks later, outwardly showing no more scars than me. And yet she was destroyed.

It wasn’t until I started swimming that I began to realise how accomplishing something intensely physical is mentally empowering, because it helped chase away my demons. By that rationale, I understood how it is disempowering to lose mastery of your own physicality. I’ve blogged before about how replacing having babies with endurance exercise has been good for my mental health, and I’m still drawing parallels between giving birth and swimming.

It’s all about control. Not control in the control-freak sense of the word, and perhaps this is where there’s confusion in the maternal-control debate; but control in the sense that you have command of your body, rather than having things done to you.

Giving birth is such a base physical experience. It’s almost animal, in the way that reason can leave you as you tune in to and use the intense pain and energy of your body. That sounds a bit out there, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. When it goes right, it’s all about you and your body, and you finish holding your newborn in a state of euphoria that really has no comparison.

When it goes wrong, though, the medical team takes the reins, the pain becomes unbearable, even dangerous, and the woman is left at best with bonding difficulties, and at worst with post-traumatic stress, which was Ellen’s eventual diagnosis.

Making choices is key, even when things are going wrong. I could write pages on the many antenatal choices women can and can’t make, depending on who they are, where they live, who they talk to, but I won’t because there are many studies and campaigns out there already, not least by the NCT (National Childbirth Trust).

And there are choices during the birth itself. For example, during my medically-induced birth, I chose to have a portable heart-rate monitor so that I could choose my position rather than being stuck on my back. I knew to ask; it wasn’t offered, and I had to be a bit pushy. But my midwife assented, and it was a game-changing choice that affected my experience and perhaps the outcome of the birth, subsequent bonding with my baby and my mental health.

But words like choice and control are flimsy and ubiquitous. Women who use them as part of their maternity care dialogue are often dismissed as demanding or unrealistic. It’s also assumed that you’d choose to have the coveted natural birth experience, when of course drugs and c-sections can be equally valid choices.

An insanely stupid and irresponsible bit of journalism claimed that middle-class mothers were behind a rise in c-sections: “Some women do opt for a caesarean section because they can’t cope with the uncertainty,” said Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives. “They control the rest of their lives, but they can’t control labour.”

Quite apart from the fact that neonates are bigger than ever, mothers older, and many are, like, emergencies, some women choose to have a c-section for damn good reasons like they were traumatised and nearly died by attempting a ‘natural’ birth, and ended up having a c-section anyway.

For Ellen, it was the planned c-section birth of her second baby, the one she thought she’d never be able to face having, that helped undo the trauma of the first. Granted by a sympathetic consultant, it was, in her words, calm, peaceful and beautiful.

Anecdotally, it seems that one of the best therapies for women who’ve undergone traumatic physical experiences is to have a positive one. To use your body for good, to see how strong it can be, and prove that you can be the master of your own physicality. Others, like me, throw themselves into a sport or activity that demands a lot of our bodies.

I was interested to hear that one of Jimmy Saville’s victims has taken up open water swimming because she feels it has allowed her to take back mastery of her own body. I think that too has helped me understand how it takes a positive physical experience to help get over a negative one

All is not lost. Organisations like the Birth Trauma Association and Birth Crisis Network who seek to help women traumatised by their experiences, raise awareness and work to prevent it. Some NHS trusts also offer debriefs, though I’ve read the this vital service might be under threat by the Tory axe.

Nobody wants mothers and babies to die during childbirth. But it’s fast becoming clear that a positive experience of birth is just as important as a healthy outcome. 

Feminism is for men too

International women’s day, and among the social media stories of inspiring, strong women came the plaintive utterances of a few men: “why isn’t there any International Men’s Day?”

For a start, a simple Google search would have answered this question: there is. It’s on November 16th this year. But also, International Women’s Day is not about man-bashing. Just because man is the only other option to woman, it doesn’t a playground game of one-upmanship (or upwomanship) make.

The same can be said of feminism. Men often seem to feel threatened or displaced by feminism, confusing sticking up for women with the putting down of men. Feminists, even among other women, have an image of man-hating, pubic hirsute drinkers of their own menstrual blood. Geri Halliwell, ironically herself a victim of the pressures put on women by an unbalanced society to tragic proportions, once proclaimed that feminism had ‘done its job’.

But it hasn’t done its job. And though the rise of feminism has caused something of a crisis of masculinity as gender roles, even genders, have become blurred, it is triumph for men too, releasing them from restrictive expectations. Just as women can now choose careers, men can choose to stay at home with their children, marry other men, cry at the sad bit in Dumbo and wear skinny jeans.

I go back to my grandparents, who I blogged about here. My dear grandpa died on International Women’s day. The date isn’t without significance. My grandpa was the epitome of the 1950s head of the household: quiet, dignified, well-read, wise, respected. He fought in the war, and suffered huge injuries, including the loss of a leg. He was hero, a rock, a patriarch.

To mention what he wasn’t isn’t to disrespect his memory because he was what society expected from his generation (plus I adored him): not emotionally available, involved, or hands-on with childcare. My granny, as I have said, was a work horse. She was all of those things; and what that entailed in real life is a bigger picture than words can paint.

Now, just as I have had more choice than my granny, my husband has had more choice than my grandpa. He shares household chores, childcare, and an equal relationship with me. For one adverse to washing-up, this may not feel like progress, but when I watch him kick a ball about with our son, or plait our daughter’s hair, or listen to her torture her clarinet, I know that his relationship with his children is progress beyond words. He said that he’d be happy if any of our children were gay. A sentence that would’ve been unthinkable for my grandpa’s generation, and a true indication of how comfortable he feels about them.

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My husband with our boys.

As though better relationships with your children weren’t enough, men have also benefited from freer, better sex; reproductive control; equal relationships; protection from hate and sexual crimes; sexual freedom; more choice at work… the list goes on. True feminism is about gender parity, and that is good for all human kind.

Someone needs to tell the boys. I feel like I have a one-woman mission to make sure my two boys grow up as feminists. I have to confess that when I first looked into the eyes of my eldest, I felt raising a boy was the easier option. But I’ve changed my mind, and aside from teaching him how to bake (he does a mean lemon-drizzle cake), I’ve realised that I need to teach him how to understand that porn doesn’t represent true sex, that girls don’t aspire to look like Barbie, that it’s fine to cry if someone hurts your feelings.

It’s a hard message to teach. You just have to look around the playground to see that gender stereotypes are hard-wired. Still. After all this time and all this talking. The problem is that men talk to men, and a flaw in feminism is that too often us women focus on one another.

Geri Halliwell is wrong on so many levels. Her ginger spice body one minute stacked on Buffalo trainers with a crotch-skimming Union Jack dress, the next minute painfully thin on a beach, has been transformed because what? Because she feels the pressure to sell herself on her sexuality and looks rather than talent. Ok, you could argue that she lacks talent, but she certainly lacks insight and wisdom when she says that feminism has ‘done its job’.

Until there is true parity between the sexes, feminism has a long way to go. Until men stop being jealous of women and girls being in the limelight, and until women like Halliwell stop undermining feminism, there’s still a lot of talking to be done.

Us mothers can make a start by raising our boys in a way our grannies couldn’t raise our fathers and uncles. We can remember our grandfathers with love, and show our sons how much better equality has, and can continue to make the world better for all humanity. I like this blog on raising sons as feminists.

My last word goes to International Women’s Day. It’s about acknowledging, celebrating and respecting women while recognising how far society must come before gender parity truly exists. It’s not about saying women are better than men, it’s about equality.

From the other side of an ocean

This one’s for my granny, really. I feel pretty sure she would have been an open water swimmer, such was her love of sea swimming. But she was the wrong side of an ocean of feminism, born before women swam against the tide of patriarchy… I could continue to extend this metaphor, but you get the picture.

My granny is a true matriarch. Right now, with 85 years on the clock, she is nursing her husband through his final weeks on this earth. Their exchanges are tender and touching, and we wonder what she will be without him. But at the same time, we’re watching an amazing, strong woman working like a horse to care for others, as she has always done, and she seems like someone who could never be adrift.

At one point in her life, she was caring for three children under the age of seven, and her ailing father, travelling by train from Hampshire to Dover to look after him, putting her feelings of exhaustion down to worry and grief, and missing the signs of her fourth pregnancy.

As a grandmother, she was always cleaning, cooking and playing with us. She’s the only person I know to have had a replacement shoulder from all that ironing. She’s the only person I know who irons underwear.

My own experience is from another place. In between her becoming a mother in 1951, and me in 2006, came the feminist movement. Women of my generation blog about the fact that motherhood is a hard grind, then leave the laundry to fester to go for a swim.

We get lambasted for it, too. Not by our menfolk, parents or grandparents, but ironically by other mothers of our generation who say that we should be grateful for our children, and not whinge about motherhood, rather bask in the sunshine of its eternal glory. Articles like this one lament a current ‘fashion’ to akin motherhood to martyrdom.

I love an irreverent moan, and feel that the success of bloggers like The Unmumsy Mum is a success for all maternal-kind. In my mind, motherhood is akin to martyrdom, as it always has been. My grandmother was a martyr: a fulfilling career and hobbies weren’t really on her radar. She martyred herself to a pile of ironing.

Sometimes I think finding motherhood tough might be a bit wussy compared to my granny’s generation; I can’t imagine not having a washing machine. But our battle ground is the same: expectation. What we actually expect of women may have shifted beyond recognition in the last 85 years, but women’s behaviour and choices are still dictated by societal expectations; in that sense, the feminist movement hasn’t yet done its work.

In the 50s, women were largely expected to marry, stay at home, have children and raise them. It was an age of respectability and conformity. This meant that women had little choice when it came to education, work and personal liberty. Expressing dissatisfaction in your marriage or with your children was a sign of ill mental health.

Now, successful women are expected to be educated, have good jobs, have equal, loving relationships, bright children, amazing homes and looks that belie their true age. In the sense that we make more choices, we have liberty by the bucket load. And yet we’re as oppressed by a media wall of aspiration and judgement as our grandmothers were by 1950s rules of decency.

I’m not saying we have it harder, just that things haven’t moved on as much as we’d like to think. Choose career, and you get judged for leaving it late to have children. Choose children, and you lose out in your career. Get fat in pregnancy and get teased. Get thin, and get accused of using a surrogate like Beyonce Knowles.

Now, as in my grandmother’s day, it’s women who judge the hardest. This culture of expectation pitches women against each other, and that hasn’t changed either. If in the 1950s you’d expressed despair at the demeaning job of wiping endless shitty bottoms, you may have been the subject of gossip at the vicar’s wife’s tea party; now you’d face a bitter rebuke in the pages of The Guardian like this bit of misdirected vitriol by Bibi Lynch.

Now, as in my grandmother’s day, the practical and emotional ties of motherhood trump any amount of choice. Right now, my youngest is sitting on my lap, and I can tell by resting my cheek on his forehead and because his breath doesn’t smell very nice that he’s not very well. No matter what wonderful choices I had in my education, career and clothes, I am in exactly the same spot as my granny was all those years ago as primary care-giver.

And now, as in my grandmother’s day, women have true strength. If we stop judging each other, comparing ourselves, or squinting into the mirror for wrinkles, we’d see small, modest stories of unerring feminine strength, like my 85 year-old granny washing her husband’s feet to make him more comfortable.

I do feel thankful that I’m a woman in a time where I can leave the laundry (two days on the landing damp in a basket) and go swimming. My granny grew up in Dover and loved swimming in the sea; I wish she hadn’t had to abandon it. I don’t think she’d be up for open water swimming now, but she’ll always be with me as I swim.

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My granny and her daughters (the one on the right is my mum) were all Guides in the late 1960s.

 

 

A new physicality

It’s official. Swimming has taken over. But of all the things I imagined it to be when I started on this swimming journey, birth control wasn’t one of them. Right now, feeling reflective as I near a decade of motherhood, I realise that swimming has been about more than repairing my postnatal body.

On this day in 2006 I was eleven days overdue with my first baby. Over the next fortnight my body would go through the most raw, physical experience of my life. From carrying a great weight and circulating 25% more blood, to medical procedures to induce labour, to labour itself in all its animal grit and rawness, to post-partum bleeding and repairs, to learning to breastfeed, carry and nurture my newborn son. Nothing could have prepared me for the physicality of motherhood.

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The face of someone shell-shocked by new motherhood

That was just the beginning, though. Not just that looking after a child is an intensely physical experience until they are beyond the age of needing help eating, dressing, wiping their own bum. But also that I tripled this demand, having two more babies in 2007 and 2012.

Oddly, as I passed the two-and-a-half year mark with my youngest, I found myself drumming my fingers a bit. I no longer needed to change nappies or have someone balanced on my hip. I was sleeping an eight hour stretch most nights. The relentlessly physical demands of the last eight-and-a-half years had left my body feeling, well, like a used lump of flesh.

What should I do with it now? Childbearing was something I knew I was good at doing; I had the hips and everything. So my husband’s veto of a fourth child sent me into a bit of spin. And then to the pool.

It’s probably pure biology that drives women in particular to keep on procreating. But childrearing is tough work; demanding, relentless, ageing, expensive. The more children you have, the greater the demand on your person. It’s simple mathematics. There’s also unrivalled joy, of course. And having been consumed once or more by parenthood, the idea that you won’t get to bring another wonderful person into the world can take some getting used to.

There are hundreds of blogs, discussion forum posts on parenting forums like Mumsnet, even a Wiki-how entry (with pictures) about how to cope with not having another child. Some describe it as an itch, or a grieving process. Some yearn for the pregnancy, or the newborn, others the child themselves and the ensuing chaos they’ll bring to the family like this columnist.

It wasn’t until I started swimming that I realised that being proud of my body for something other than pushing out a ten pound baby (my third. I did that!) was just what I needed. Focussing on swimming filled a void that so easily could have been a fourth baby, had my husband been less adamant.

I could write a list of the relative pros of bring human life into the world verses those of going for a swim. But suffice to say that while I do make lovely babies, and number four could have been a Nobel prize winning game-changer, for my mental and physical health, swimming has been the better choice.

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Not just a lump of used flesh

A decade on, my body’s been changed by childbirth, but swimming is helping mend it: diastasis rectus abdomonis rectified by the core conditioning part; a weakened glute and wonky pelvis from all that baby carrying strengthened by the resistance of the water; and a calm mind achieved from the quiet focus that comes from bashing out lengths. I wrote this article last year about why swimming is good for post-natal mums.

Now I feel healthy and strong, I can’t imagine again putting my body through pregnancy, labour and caring for a baby. For me, it’s been about occupying myself physically, and remodelling my body from postnatal lump of flesh to one that can nail long-distance open water endurance swims. This has been wonderful for my self esteem, and while not dissimilar to labour, it won’t tear my perineum, which is a total bonus.

 

 

Get your chill on

This weekend is the Big Chill Swim across Windermere. I want to get in to open water swimming all year round. It’s the exhilaration, the way your skin prickles and makes you really feel. I’ve plunged into cold water; I totally get the thrill. But I’m yet to brave it…

Standing on a rock in the Picos mountains in Spain, I looked down at the beautiful turquoise pool below. It seemed infinitely deep, and with the heat of the Spanish summer sun on my back, it was so inviting. But in the mountains the temperature of the water so close to source was fricking freezing.

Still, the plunge, the mind-numbing, body-shocking plunge, was exhilarating. The change in body temperature awakening the mind and focusing the senses. It’s the same principle as having a cold shower or plunge pool after a sauna; and it’s supposed to be good for your bodily functions and circulation too, which you can read about here.

But plunging or showering in cold water when you’re hot is very different to swimming across a pond on Hampstead Heath in February as described in this blog (with which I’ve completely fallen in love: beautiful photography, great writing).

So why swim in freezing cold water on a freezing cold day? Your limbs feel heavy and sluggish as your body decides your vital organs need warm, oxygenated blood more than your extremities. A friend of mine did an open water swim where you weren’t allowed to put your head under the water or you’d die. Extreme.

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Lewis Gordon Pugh: the world’s best open water swimmer

And don’t we just love an extreme? I’ve been reading blogs and articles by cold swimming affeciondos like this, and I can’t find any actual physical benefit to cold water swimming like those of the sauna then cold shower. Rather the benefit seems to be mental, feelings of euphoria, strength and confidence. So really the same reasons anyone does an extreme sport or activity.

Of course, we shouldn’t be dismissive of these kinds of mental and almost spiritual advantages. While to some cold swimming might seem like torture, if you read the words of those who do it, it’s easy to see why it becomes a kind of addiction.

Having been inspired to try cold water swimming, it’s tempting to grab my wetsuit and head to the nearest body of water (which wouldn’t be far as we’re currently on flood alert!). But I’m not going to. Not yet, anyway. It would be more sensible to start after a summer season of open water swimming, where you swim regularly getting used to the temperature as it slowly drops.

The Open Water Swimming Society has a fantastic article on getting in to cold water swimming, including a section by a doctor on what the cold water does to your body. It sounds a little daunting, but actually he’s not saying much more than you’ll need to pee more, you’ll gasp, shiver and be really, really hungry afterwards.

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Swimming, I mean enduring, the sea with friends in Bantham in March

I prefer swimming in fresh water to salty, but the marine lake in Clevedon has a group that swims all year round. I have just requested to join them. My cousin has membership with Henleaze Swimming Club in Bristol, which has events throughout the year.

But my ultimate goal is the Big Chill Swim. “There is a long tradition of open water swimming around the world and we feel that the uplifting experience of long distance swimming and winter swimming should be experienced by everyone.” These words just goad me into thinking my open water swimming experience won’t be complete until I’ve frozen off my very own tits swimming across Windermere.

Finally. The world swimming under ice record. Amazing. Insane.