Swimming with The Second Law of Thermodynamics

This is a one subject site, open water swimming.

Everything on the site relates to open water swimming. But since open water swimming is part of my life, sometimes other parts of my life or some of my interests get pulled in. They may look tangential but it’s because I’m trying to contextualize my swimming life. Like all open water swimmers, you can’t extract open water swimming from our lives and somehow find the real person.

So I occasionally write about Ireland and Irish culture or humour, because it’s where I (mostly) swim. I write about pool swimming occasionally, because it’s where I swim half of the year. (But there are a multitude of better pool swimmers than me, so when I write about it, it’s from an average pool swimmer’s point of view).

I write about the sea, the weather, my dogs who accompany me to the coast, the books or media that inform or help my swimming. I write about my swimming friends, real life and online (I don’t distinguish, I don’t have to have met someone to consider them a friend) from whom I learn.

I was getting some aches as the training volume was building up so I had another massage at the end of the week. I was developing a tightness in the centre (belly) of my left deltoid (shoulder muscle) and a really deep and sore ache in my right trapezoid (upper centre back). I also has a serious pain above my left glute (butt cheek) that only expressed itself once a swim went over three hours, (so this wasn’t a problem much). The massage hurt like hell. The delt eased out completely, I won’t know about the glute until the next long swim. The trap was still really sore afterwards and I hoped it would ease out over the next 24 hours. To aid that I looked forward to the weekly (at this time of the year) cold water swim.

This is my home. Guillamene Cove, on Saturday, from side to side, Click to mucho embiggen

It was a horrible morning. Cold all week, it was a little bit warmer on Saturday while rest of Europe was being hammered on the anvil of an extreme cold snap, with even the sea-shore freezing in Britain. But the air temperature leaving the house was about 8 degrees Celsius. This is the advantage of Irish weather, it’s mild in average, no great summers, no terrible winters. But the sea water temperature was down to 6° Celsius (43°f). It was overcast, Force Three onshore wind and with about a two metre swell, but I didn’t care. Just let me out there.

According to Polar Bear Joe at the Guillamene, it was 41°f the previous day (5°C) with colder air, coldest water temperature of this winter so far.

The entry was fine, and the next 14 minutes were euphoric. That word actually came to me while I was swimming. Isn’t that part of the reason we swim, that feeling? I’ve been trying to explain that feeling for two years now. During the swim, all my existential worries evaporated and I was at peace for the first time in a week. At the fifteenth minute I noticed the cold pain beginning in fingertips and feet. Given conditions were a bit rough and I would need to navigate the rougher water returning over the Comolene reefs, I turned back before I reached the pier. I was in toward shore closer than my normal outside deeper returning track, and it was really rough passing beneath the last house on the cliff.

The coast road from the Guilllamene facing Tramore, running above the normal swim route

I was back to the steps at 41 minutes, stumbled upwards on my numb feet to my fake Crocs (thanks Nuala) high on the steps. Someone started talked to me as I fumbled to get my goggles, cap and earplugs off. All I heard was a voice. With the ear plugs off and as my eyes cleared, it was someone with an American accent standing right beside, I mean right beside me, asking me how far I’d gone. As I tried to mumble a frozen-jaw response I also tried to make my way quickly to my box to start getting changed as soon as possible.

41 minutes at six degrees Celsius is the furthest I’ve gone. I knew what was coming with the Afterdrop. It would tough. I needed to optimise getting dressed as soon as possible.

As I got changed, with some difficulty, trying to get covered as my core temperature was dropping due to the inward flow of cold blood, conversation continued about cold water swimming as I struggled to answer and make sense, not easy when in this state.

I was in that hazy post cold swim state of mild hypothermia, where I’m pretty certain that I am functioning fully and that I can remember everything clearly, but later realise it’s not necessarily the case.

Later I wonder to myself. 41 minutes at 41 minutes at six degrees Celsius doesn’t seem like that much to me. I know, as I always do, that I could have gone further, why didn’t I swim for a nice round 45 minutes? But I realise that in these circumstances, when I am by myself, I let my body and a sub-conscious experience decide my swim times. With doing 41 minutes in 6° Celsius, I now, finally, have no doubt that should we get a 5° degree temperature this winter, the ice-mile is well within my capability. But for now, I can’t actually prove that officially.

Swimming, like everything else, is governed by entropy, which always increases, therefore order (or you could term it information in certain circumstances) is always reducing. Entropy is a measure of disorder. Eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over all, as scientist and author Stephen Baxter once wrote, it’s the ultimate scientific explanation of the universe’s evolution, which is governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a closed system, entropy increases, and the universe is a closed system. Within the smaller system of the earth, the human body is a closed system. It loses heat unless energy is input back into the system to offset loss. As cold water swimmers, we understand experientially the Second Law better than most. Hypothermia will always get you, regardless of experience. If the water temperature is below normal core temperature, no matter how high otherwise, it just will take a longer time. Because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics we get cold. So we need heat and food, two forms of energy, since mass and energy are the same thing. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is always there, always swimming with you, always waiting for you.

I have a deep integral sense of the numinous wonder of the world and the universe, that for me, expresses itself most deeply and is felt most strongly in open water swimming, in immersing myself in the green waters. The world is extraordinary, the sea is transforming, my friends are a value beyond price.  But that’s just my own world view.

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8 thoughts on “Swimming with The Second Law of Thermodynamics

  1. Well done on your 41 minute swim at 6 degrees. And also for managing to stay calm while coping with being questioned while dressing. Funny how non swimmers don’t realise how important it is to focus in those crucial ten minutes after exiting the sea. How often do you do these long cold swims? Is it every week?

    • Thanks, yeas at this time of year once a week is about all I can manage, pool training takes up the remaining days. An odd week I’ll squeeze in an extra one maybe if I want to recover from an extra long pool session.

  2. VERY impressed with your 41 minute swim. We swam 25 mins in same temperature at the weekend (Argyll, Scotland). Could have stayed in a bit more but the Big Chill (After Drop) is a terrifying prospect…..Know exactly what you mean about difficulty making conversation whilst getting dressed – we get it all the time. And we’re always having to explain we’re not bonkers.

  3. I like the use of the word euphoric, sounds about right to me – I’m off work next week so I’m might pop over for a swim, if you think you’d be able to keep up?

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