If you have followed my blog, then you will know that when I swam 2-way Windermere I was wearing a wetsuit. This was because I didn’t know how my body would react to the cold as most of the swimming I have done in open water since getting back into it 5 years ago has been in a wetsuit. I felt that at the time, for me, it was the right thing to do, a wetsuit doesn’t just help me with warmth but the added buoyancy it gives me in my legs takes the strain off my back and other muscles to keep my legs together and streamlined. Obviously, in the pool I don’t wear a wetsuit but the distances are shorter so it is not sustaining the streamline position for hours on end.
Since my Windermere swim I have been looking into my next challenge and although I have a rough idea of what I want to do I am researching the swims and figuring out what may be the biggest challenges for me through the swims. At the moment, one of the biggest things is that I need to be able to swim for several hours without a wetsuit in water that can get incredibly cold. So, this winter I am hoping to swim all through the winter in just a swimming costume, swimming hat and goggles.
My normal swim buddy Val is not made for the cold so she has stopped open water swimming for the year and I decided that once she stopped swimming I would take off the wetsuit and attempt to swim skins; for non-outdoor swimmers that means no neoprene, just a normal swimming costume, hat and goggles only, no matter the temperature!
So, last week marked the first of my skins swimming and I have to say, I have surprised myself. On Monday night I did my normal BRJ pool session and on Wednesday afternoon was my first skins swim with my new swim buddy Clare. We met at the Huntingdon Slipway as it’s the easiest entry and exit for me, plus I could leave my wheelchair in her car. Getting in was interesting and a bit of a shock to the system. It was very slow progress at first with lots of “Oooo, Ahh, Eeeee, s**t, bugger” and a lot more interesting noises too. Clare was braver than me and was the first to step down and fully into the river, after a bit of convincing from Clare I eventually took a deep breath, reminded myself to breathe and got in the river fully.
It instantly took my breath away, it felt like my body was on fire but that it was freezing at the same time. It was like I was being stabbed with thousands of tiny needles but the thing I noticed was that my ankle/leg wasn’t hurting as much. I think that where I was having the shock to my system from the cold my brain was shut off from the pain in my ankle, it was a bit like one of the methods I used during Windermere to help control my pain. I reminded myself to keep breathing and get my breathing under control and as soon as I had I was fine and just felt free and content. We swam head up to the old bridge and back nattering away and I loved every second of it. It has been a long time since I did a ‘social swim’, all my training for Windermere was head down, focused and each swim had an aim or goal, so it was nice to swim simply for the joy of it. We had no distance planned, no speed requirements, no amount of time spent in the water goals, simply a gentle swim for the love of it and I did absolutely love it! We were in the water for about 45minutes which was much longer than I thought I would last and I wasn’t too cold afterwards either so it was a successful and great start to my winter skins swimming!
I didn’t have too long to wait for my next adventure in the river and this time there would be a group of us. I have been a member of the Cambridge and Peterborough flock of Bluetits Chill Swimmers for a while but have only been able to attend one swim with them because they rarely meet/hold swims in places that are accessible to me at times when im free and with somewhere safe to leave my wheelchair. One of the places they do often swim is at the portage point in Godmanchester and that’s where they intended on swimming on Saturday afternoon. Over the summer months I have got a bit better at getting out at the portage point but it is incredibly difficult and painful for me but I had enjoyed my swim on Wednesday so much that I just wanted to get back in the river as soon as possible.
The bluetits do a lot of ‘swoosh’ swims (swim downstream head up nattering) and that’s what they planned for this swim too, however, I cant get to the entry point they use as it involves going up steps, over a bridge and across a field but someone was kind enough to swim to the others entry point and then swim back with them. Myself and Tom met a little earlier than everyone else, I locked my wheelchair up so no one could pinch it and hung my ‘gone swimming’ sign on it (last time people saw an empty chair next to the river because I was swimming, they panicked and were debating calling the police).
It was time to get in! The big difference between getting in down the slipway in Huntingdon and getting in, in Godmanchester is that in Godmanchester you can’t ease yourself into the water, you are either in it or out of it. Tom got in before me and I could see that it took his breath away and was a shock to his system so I knew that when I got in the same would likely happen. However, this time I didn’t get anywhere near as much reaction in terms of feeling like I was being stabbed by thousands of needles, however, my ankle and leg did burn more than they already were. Tom and I swam up the river and I even managed some head down front crawl with very little brain freeze. The biggest thing I noticed was that I was getting lower back pain from tensing my muscles to make sure my legs were not only together but also on the surface – this is where wearing a wetsuit helps me, it gives me the added buoyancy in my legs. Despite that, the swim itself was beautiful and incredibly peaceful. The water was calm with little current and at one point I was loving it so much and so completely at peace with myself and the world that I turned onto my back and just lay looking up at the sky waiting for Tom to catch up with me. We saw a Heron (or 2) and even a Kingfisher, the leaves have started to change colour making the riverbanks more interesting and colourful too and I just loved it.
We managed to time it perfectly and got to where the others were getting in at the same time as they did. Tom and I then had the amusement of watching everyone getting in and got to listen to the screams and swearing as they finally got their shoulders under the water. There ended up being quite a big group of us and we were all different speeds. By this point I had been in the water for an hour but I was happy to just bob alongside people for a while, however, I began to feel the cold after about an hour and 15 minutes and myself and another swimmer decided to swim head down front crawl back to the pontoon. Then I had the challenge of how the hell to get out.
Getting out at a pontoon is not my strong point. In Godmanchester I normally walk round the end of it as the side by the bank is a little higher so I can normally lean forwards and kind of shuffle onto the pontoon enough to get my legs up under me into a kneeling position. Sadly, the stinging nettles and brambles have now grown a lot making it difficult to get round the end of the pontoon so, instead of it being fairly easy to get onto the pontoon I had to launch myself and basically be a beached whale, wiggle, shuffle and slide forwards till I could get enough of me on the pontoon to kneel…lets just say that it was not particularly elegant…I also ended up covered in mud and the next day a rather fetching bruise came out.
Like Wednesday, getting changed wasn’t an issue and I warmed up quite quickly. For me the thing that helps with this is keeping my swimming hat on till last and then put a beanie hat on afterwards.
So, despite I was unsure if I would manage 10 minutes skins at the beginning of the week I managed almost an hour and a half skins. Im absolutely thrilled, cant wait to get back in the water and im hoping that this will mean I will be able to tolerate colder temperatures and swim through winter – let the Jedi Polar Bear Challenge Begin!