Day 4: Scandi traditions

The 25m heads up breaststroke is the traditional ice swim, winter swimming staple and the biggest race of the entire event. Ana and I didn’t race, but took part in another winter swimming tradition: the sauna.

The quintessential winter swimming event, heads up breaststroke is the most popular race with almost 650 participants of the 1300 who took part in this year’s Winter Swimming World Championship.

Most of us Seals took part, with only four providing the excellent spectator support that we’d enjoyed so far. Ana, Sonja, Susie and I watched Seal after Seal parade out to the start line among the colourful hats of the heads up swimmers, and the serious faces of the racers, each putting in performances that fitted somewhere along that line.

The crowd, the colours, the vibrant atmosphere seemed to have notched up a gear, with more flag waving and cheering as loud as the hats and team wear. Smooth and well-organised, row upon row of swimmers emerged from the changing area and transition hub to ‘take off their clothes’, ‘get in the water’ and ploughed their way to the other end of the pool.

Ana and I had both entered the untimed swim. That meant we could rock up at our pick of allocated times and swim in a pool next to the event pool. With this not being a race day, we decided to have a dip after the last 25m breaststroke race. So, after Laura had finished, we went to the changing area.

With a bit of time before our pool time, and very few swimmers left in the post-race area, we began with a sauna. The art of sauna is something Britain hasn’t quite got, but the rest of Europe takes very seriously. At the championships there were four saunas: a big event tent with a central bench and eight heaters, a traditional cabin, a van and an old VW Passat.

The SaunAudi was our favourite, and this was where we started. This yellow hatchback had been cleverly converted, lined with wood and with a burner on the passenger side dash. Inside, we found a large, convivial Russian doctor in budgie smugglers who invited us into his ‘Russian submarine’ and gave us tea from his flask.

SaunAudi – tradition with a twist

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We then went back to the transition hub to be led to the pool, where we swam 100m at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view from the pool. Team mate Bettina had lent me her Gopro so we could film the experience from the swimmer’s point of view.

Back in the hot tub and sauna to warm up, we experienced the deep-rooted Finnish spa tradition of putting your body through heat extremes. This is said to reduce lactic acid buildup in muscles, induce heat shock proteins and human growth hormone, and release several other hormones like norepinephrine. Also, it feels good, releases endorphins and reduces anxiety.

Ana and I certainly felt very relaxed afterwards as we wandered back to our apartment through the snowy, picturesque streets of Tallinn Old Town. This day felt like a traditional winter swimming, and it felt good to reflect on the Scandinavian roots of this wonderful event.

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Day 3: Nailing new experiences

The Big Day. All those mornings when I lay awake imagining my start, all those training swims in the lake, all those practice sprints in the pool; this is where it starts and ends, all in the space of less than 18 seconds, I hoped.

Waking up hungover was not ideal, but a fair price to pay for the experience of the night before. I think that’s probably the difference between me and the actual serious athletes, especially the speedy Russians.

For us Seals, this was one of our biggest events starring Bettina, Claudia, Susie, Sonja, Ana, Jim, Pete, Laura and Melissa. And me, of course. The support team at poolside was on form, flag in hand.

As our time approached, we went to the warm changing tent to prepare ourselves. Changing into our swimwear, we watched swimmers doing serious warm ups, whirling windmill arms, lunging slightly aggressively, psyching themselves up. More in the taking selfies and talking nonsense camp, we did a few token exercises.

The nerves gave me an almost electric out-of-body experience. I couldn’t keep still, fidgeting, heart hammering as our heat was called forwards. We sat on plastic seats with our laminated lane numbers, then as the next heat got called up, we moved forward to the next waiting place. Fellow Brit in my neighbouring lane, Susannah, gave me moral support, though she said I made her nervous.

Eventually, we were up. Walking out along poolside was such a buzz. Even though I’m not especially patriotic, I welled up as I heard my name: “In lane three, representing the UK, Rowan Clarke.” – what a thrill!

The start was very quick – too quick. “Take off your clothes,” said the announcer so we put our Dryrobes in our baskets. “Get in the water,” and we climbed down the steps. Then came the beep.

I had been obsessing about the start. I knew my reactions weren’t the sharpest, and that there was no proper solid wall from which to push off, and that at this distance, and with powerful quads, the push off would be important. I was slow to start, and my push lacked power. But I windmilled like hell, and swam well, coming third in my heat by 0.02 seconds.

To start of with I felt happy to have finished, then disappointed that I swam slower than I had done in practise swims. Then delighted to be 9th overall in my category. Then even more delighted to be British number one in my category and British number two out of all women after our own 24-year-old Laura, and ahead of Susie. And 66th woman in the world. Result! On International Women’s Day as well.

In our categories, Laura and I were both ninth, Susie was seventh, Sonja 11th, Claudia 14th, Bettina 10th and Ana 20th.

As though that wasn’t enough exercise, after a very brief lunch of a small slice of cake and a banana, we hopped in a mini-bus to forest just outside Tallinn to go cross-country skiing. We had a lesson on how to ski, before heading out on the track through the beautiful snowy forest.

In the evening, we went to a presentation about different winter swimming clubs from around the world, before coming back to our apartment for supper, and then heading out into the beautiful cobbled streets of the Old Town to Tallinn’s smallest bar, The Furry Owl.

A day of firsts, incredible highs, and unadulterated joy. My first World Championship race, my first time on skis, my first time crawling through a tiny hole to get into an underground bar.

 

Tallinn here we come!

There aren’t many times in your life that you get the chance to enter a world championship. But here we are; a motley bunch with one thing in common – a love of winter swimming.

The World Winter Swimming Championships 2018 open tomorrow in Tallinn, Estonia. Arriving over the next couple of days, the Bristol-Clevedon area will be well represented by the South West Seals; there are 13 of us who swim regularly in Clevedon plus four or five more extra team members.

We’re staying in an Airbnb apartment. Our lovely host hasn’t filled us with confidence. His latest communications told us that ‘we have quite cold in Tallinn’ and to ‘take warm pyjamas just for heavens sake’.

Cue feelings of mild hysteria. We all know we can manage the water temperatures; we are all very well acclimatised having swum a weekly since the water started to cool in October, and we’ve all dipped in water around 0ºC. But it’s the grandness of the world stage, the tingle of excitement, the minus air temperatures, and what to wear to the gala dinner that flips our stomachs.

Over the next few days, we’ll post regular blogs for our friends, family and fellow cold water swimming aficionados to follow. This is where you’ll hear about our antics, adventures and, dare I say it, medals.

For some of us, this is our first competition. Ana and Jim have only learned to swim in the last year; Hillary, Anne and Tom only decided to enter at the last minute; Susie is our team captain, experienced championshipper, font of all knowledge and founder of the South West Seals. The rest of us have a mixture of experience from childhood club swimmers to recently trained swimmers who’ve taken part in a few galas, and a few of swam in the National Swimming Champs at Tooting Bec Lido last year.

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Last minute training today: L-R Anne, Sally, Hilary, Tom, Row, Ana, Susie, Sonja, Claudia

Most importantly, though, we have badges, team swimwear and gorgeous orange Clevedon Pier hats designed by our artist friend, Nancy Farmer.

Today some of us Seals practised our race starts and sprints. For most of us, this will be our last open water swim before we climb down the ladder to our starting positions for real. So watch this space, and let’s see how this motley bunch fares in the World Winter Swimming Championships 2018.

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Seals costume, Clevedon Pier hat and acclimatising in the snow!

 

Bikini weather

The current cold snap is perfect for Winter Championship training. Practising starts, smiling while sprinting face-in, operating numb hands and larking about in a bikini…

Never much good at sports, and never one to take myself seriously, I have finally found a sport where mucking around and laughing actually improves my performance. As the ‘beast from the east’ gusts its way from Siberia bringing snow and freezing winds, my body is being tested like never before, and it’s time to find new coping strategies.

“Force yourself to smile,” said teammate Tom on Sunday. “It makes you believe you’re enjoying it.” Scientists have found that smiling releases the feel-good hormone endorphin, and serotonin that helps regulate mood. Smiling through discomfort or stress can effectively trick you into feeling less pain.

Sometimes the only way to cope with getting into water that’s hovering just under the 1ºC mark is by acting the fool. It takes a lot to even contemplate swimming in water that cold, and going it alone is unthinkable. Brave is a word, but it doesn’t feel brave; it feels foolhardy, and counter intuitive, so eking out the fun is important.

For a start, water this temperature is painful. Last year, I got pain in my hands at 5-6ºC; this year, I felt pain for the first time on Sunday. I’ve also ditched my beloved Aquasphere Vista goggles that cover that sweet spot between your eyes to prevent ice-cream headaches, for tiny, more streamlined racing goggles that don’t. Plus, my sensitive teeth are not impressed by the cold water in my mouth.

The hand pain is the worst. It’s not simple numbness, but actual pain caused by  thermoreceptor nerves in our skin to tell us that we’re at risk of tissue damage (in the same way as burns hurt). Vasoconstriction that closes capillaries in our extremities to protect our core temperature also causes discomfort, numbness and lack of movement in our hands. I set mine into a swimming position like one of those pose-able figures, and need help undoing my swimming costume straps and removing my earplugs afterwards.

The head pain is also caused by sudden exposure to cold water temporarily altering blood flow in your nervous system. And again, it’s a warning shot; stay in the cold water too long and it can start to cause mental confusion, tissue damage and death.

So not swimming solo in this weather isn’t just about help with getting dressed, it’s also a matter of safety. But camaraderie plays a huge part too. Just as smiling helps us believe pain is less, well, painful, swimming with friends increases bravado and confidence and that changes perceptions.

I felt sick to my stomach driving to the marine lake on Sunday and today. There aren’t many occasions where I don’t want to swim, but the horribly low temperatures of air and water had seeped into every fibre of my being. When you’re freezing cold, plunging yourself into ice-cold water is completely illogical.

But camaraderie gets you there. Meeting my fellow South West Seals, most of us training for the World Winter Swimming Championships which take place next week (March 5-11 2018) in Tallinn, Estonia, buoyed my confidence. It’s partly being in it together, but also that we’re incredibly supportive of one another. Camaraderie is the spirit of trust and friendship among humans, and in that team environment, you feel invincible.

Never exactly shy, playing the fool has always boosted my confidence. I like laughing, being childish and uninhibited, so finding a sport where that kind of behaviour actually benefits my performance is wonderful. Prancing into the water in a bikini with my whooping teammates made the impossible possible, and I managed a 300 metre training swim at 1ºC.

Will I be mucking about in a bikini in Estonia? Well, no. Seeing as I’ve changed my goggles to shave a couple of milliseconds off my time, I will actually be taking my races seriously and relying on adrenaline to get me in the water.

But with my team behind me, I’ll be having fun in Estonia too. And if you saw my face under the water as I race, you’d hopefully see that I remembered to smile.

All about perception

You should’ve heard the snorts of derision from winter swimmers at the recent release of the research behind new wetsuit rules. But it did float one interesting issue to the surface – that of perception.

You could say human experience is all about perception. Reel off the quotes and idioms: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it’s a head game; mind over matter. Oscar Wilde said: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Edgar Allen Poe said: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Cold water swimming is absolutely about mind over matter. People ask me how I do it. As I stand at the top of the steps about willingly walk into a freezing lake, I think “here I go. Exhale.” As I swim, I notice the prickle on my skin, the dead ache of my fingers and toes, the way it smarts my face, and I choose to enjoy it. Mind over matter, see?

The Fédération internationale de natation (International Swimming Federation, or FINA) has just released its research into the effect of cold water on athletes. This led to a change in wetsuit rules for competitions and events, chewed over by the Outdoor Swimmer here.

Yawn, I know. But bear with me; don’t fall asleep just yet.

A series of tests on marathon swimmers explored the physiological effect of cold water. I love the cold water response; it’s fascinating. And if you’re a cold water swimmer, it would be pretty remiss of you to not know about it. As you enter the water, there’s the cold shock response: gasping as your  sympathetic nervous system is activated, hyperventilation, increased heart rate, and blood pressure as the vessels in your extremities constrict (vasoconstriction).

Next to that cold shock response is heat loss, as the cold water conducts heat away from your body. To begin with, your working muscles share the flow of warm, oxygenated blood with your core, but after a while they start to cool, and that’s when cramp, heavy limbs and sometimes confusion can kick in. As your core temperature cools, and continues to cool after you leave the water, too long a swim can lead to hypothermia.

The researchers found that of 226 swimmers, 14 swimmers had a hypothermic core body temperature (below than 35°C) during or after their swims in water of 14-20 degrees. So how do winter swimmers survive at 3 degrees?

“I’m going to say goodbye to you now, Mummy,” said my rather scathing 10-year-old daughter before I swam in a recent ice gala, “because you’re going to die.” To be fair, if death really was on the cards, I probably wouldn’t do it. But there are three factors that preclude my imminent demise: 1. Acclimatisation, 2. Subcutaneous fat and 3. Brevity of swim.

I swim throughout the year, once or twice a week. The water temperature gradually drops through the autumn, and by swimming frequently, my body adjusts. I get a mini version of the cold shock response when I get in, but I control that gasp with a long exhalation, and I don’t hyperventilate now. Once in, I consciously slow my stroke, and tell my body to relax.

My body is naturally athletic, but it’s cocooned in nature’s equivalent of a duck down duvet: a superior layer of subcutaneous fat, both the ordinary white kind and heat-generating brown fat. The FINA study showed more extreme cooling in the leanest athletes (not surprisingly); for cold water swimming, you really do need some insulation.

And my winter swims max out at ten minutes. The swimmers in the study completed 2 hour-long marathon swims, and hypothermia really only kicks after about half an hour. Plus, an experienced, acclimatised cold-water swimmer can listen to their body and know when to get out… or can they?

So here’s the rub. The FINA research also found that “swimmers have an unreliable perception of cold stress”. While this research was on leaner than average marathon swimmers, it’s this little nugget of perceived wisdom that us chunky dunkers and winter dippers have in common with our endurance swimmer and triathlon friends: it’s all about the head game, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re feeling fine.

While the mental health benefits of cold water swimming are well documented, the physiological benefits are a bit more woolly. There’s not much beyond anecdotal theories around boosting the immune system, activating metabolism-increasing brown fat, burning calories and improving circulation; not nearly as well researched as the physiological dangers, in fact.

And yet, people have been extolling the virtues of winter dipping for centuries. I’m fairly new to it, but I love the natural high, the smarting skin, the way it makes me feel alive, elated, keener, sharper, happier. I’ve not been ill once this year, could that be down to the cold water?

What’s more, my tolerance has improved significantly. My hands don’t really hurt like they did when I first started winter swimming, I can swim further, faster, more efficiently. I haven’t experienced an after-drop, and I don’t even shiver. My body doesn’t experience cold stress. Or does it? Is all of this purely conjecture?

Whether its real or perceived, the mettle that it takes to walk down those steps into the lake does have the potential to be dangerous. However you feel, keeping your head and never swimming alone or for too long is sensible. There are times your kit (watch, thermometer) and swim buddies or support crew will be way more reliable than your own mind.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that the perceived benefits of winter swimming are real. Dipping in cold water is wonderful, and its benefits are more real to me than anything else. For me, nothing is more liberating, exhilarating and joyful. And no amount of research can measure that.

That brings me neatly back to my first idea: that human experience is all about perception. W. B. Yeats said “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” I feel that this describes open water swimming than more accurately than any amount of research; it sharpens the senses; it is magical.

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Swimming hungover isn’t the best idea physiologically speaking, but it feels wonderful!

My Eddie the Eagle moment

Estonia 2018. Flights booked, events entered, stomach flipping somersaults anytime anyone says “Tallinn”, but I’m actually doing it: World Winter Swimming championships, here I come.

It was actually not hard to enter; in fact, I’ve had a much easier time than Eddie the Eagle Edwards, who at least had to record a qualifier. It was just a case of registering for a couple of events, and then finding a flight.

It’s the training and doing that’s the harder bit. Swimming at least twice a week in biting water that electrifies your skin and turns it an alarming shade of pink is challenging enough, but racing in even colder water on the world stage for winter swimming will be quite something else. The water is expected to be under a degree. That’s colder than a G&T with ice.

And I’d be nothing without my team, the South West Seals. We’re motley crew of winter swimmers and chunky dunkers who gather on the side of Clevedon marine lake throughout the winter, faff immensely before tripping off to the water, swimming for a short while, and then faffing some more over warm drinks. Half of us are just in it for the cake.

We’re a growing team. This year, around 75 Seals have signed up to the Facebook group, and a dozen of us are going to Estonia. As winter swimming catches on, with its benefits for health and well-being, the number of feet-stamping, hot-water bottle hugging swimmers at the side of the lake increases too. Sometimes it feels busier than it did in the summer.

And we’re none of us athletes. Most of us are better covered than your average Olympian; I swear more ballast makes us better insulated and more buoyant. Our ages range from mid-twenties to late-fifties; our neoprene wearing from full wetsuit, booties, gloves and bonnet to bikini-only; our technique from quick dunk full of swears, to freestyle loops around the lake.

Estonia requires no neoprene. Other than that, it’s open to anyone with the desire and cold water experience. For the less confident in our group there are untimed events, while our youngest member has entered about six competitive events, and being an athletic, experienced swimmer in an age-category that’ll have the fewest entrants, has a good chance of winning some bling.

And imagine that! While there will be some hardcore northern European competitors for whom winter swimming has been a way of life since childhood, there is a small chance that a couple of us will win a bronze, silver or even gold in our events. Proper world champions!

However we do, the experience will be immense. The absolute joy of winter swimming is that it’s pretty much the only sport where it’s enough to simply be sporting. Other world championship-level sports require an Eddie the Eagle standard of dedication and practise; winter swimming just requires a masters-level of faffing and a penchant for cake.

To follow the South West Seals’ adventures in Tallinn, watch this space…

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Swimming at Clevedon at around 3 degrees centigrade