Category Archives: Open Water swimming

Understanding Open Water

Perfect is the enemy of good

When I started back swimming for the first time since I was a kid, it came a huge but only slowly realised shock that I was the not the excellent swimmer I’d been as a young teenager, when I swam front crawl and butterfly in club for a year or two. I really don’t recall how long it was but it wasn’t club as we’d now know it with six a.m. training, five says a week.

I’d been away from swimming for decades and surfing didn’t really count. As soon as I started back I was breathing bilaterally naturally. After only a few weeks in the pool, not really knowing what I was doing, I swam two miles at Baile Na Gaul on my first open water swim, from the gritty and bleak tiny beach to Helvick Harbour and back. As a surfer, the sea didn’t frighten me and some time later, not knowing anyone there, I double-lapped Sandycove Island by myself, without realising that was a big target for many people. All I recall is that I had no idea of the shape of the island and at one point worrying I’d missed the turn back inside. (You need to swim Sandycove and realise that from outside the coast everything looks flat and similar and inlets disappear) to appreciate this.

So it was fairly reasonable that I thought I wasn’t a bad swimmer. It was another two years before I met Coach Eils, who rapidly disabused me of the notion. Her damning criticisms included “mechanical” and “substituting fitness for flow“.

I have over the years since changed my swimming style quite substantially. Most of it has by necessity been done by myself. But the more you know, often the less you are satisfied. I torture myself endlessly about my stroke and my speed, trying to improve, to get a smidgen more speed that I’ll never find. Is the angle of my arm correct? Are my hands parallel to the surface? What’s my streamline profile? And on and on.

Swimming technique requires constant work just for maintenance, let alone improvement. One effect of this endless treadmill is to sometimes, or in my case more often than not, lose sight of a simple fact.

I don’t have to be a perfect swimmer, to be a good swimmer. The twenty percent time and effort and work that got me eighty per cent of the way, that made me a good swimmer, is far eclipsed by the eighty percent I’ve spent in a seemingly fruitless quest to improve that final twenty percent of technique.

Sometimes you just need to remember how far you have come, rather than fretting over the remaining possible improvements you might never achieve. Not getting faster isn’t necessarily a failure. Maybe you are more relaxed instead, less likely to get injured, or maintaining fitness or speed as you get older.

So much of swimming literature and gurus and advice is aimed at perfection. But chasing perfection is Xeno’s Dichotomy. It’s often more fruitful to look how far you come.

Good enough (donal)

Can you swim comfortably? Are you relaxed in the water? Can you maintain a consistent stroke and stroke rate? Can you adapt to changing open water conditions?  Are you in control? Are you enjoying swimming?

You don’t have to be the best open water swimmer, you just have to be good enough.

 

Diana Nyad to confess all on Oprah!

How many times have I started a posted a post with similar words to; “Strange things happen in marathon swimming?

Ah, how the worm turns.

One reader of LoneSwimmer.com is a pool swimmer with their sights set on open water and their first 10k swim, always a big milestone. Their research led to LoneSwimmer.com and accidentally to my very popular LoneSwimmer.com article on Nyad’s controversial claimed Cuba to Florida swim.

oprah icon_256Said reader is also a “nondescript” (their term) employee of Harpo Productions. This  is the parent company of Oprah Prime and Oprah.com, which since the demise of the networked Oprah TV show, is the main outlet of host Oprah Winfrey. It’s the media avenue where the Lance Armstrong “confession” was made, in his failed attempt to convince the world it was everyone else’s fault.

On Friday night I received a camera phone photograph of notes taken in a post-recording production roundup meeting.

Oprah April's Fools Diana Nyad.resized.rotated

These brief coffee-stained and handwritten notes claim Diana Nyad has recorded a show with Oprah Winfrey. A brief “Executive Summary” calls the recording “Confessional and redemption-seeking” wherein she will likely admit to fraud during the events of the last Cuba to Florida attempt. Details will only be evident on the web release in May as our source didn’t see the actual recording or tape.

Given Diana Nyad’s lifelong history of self-promotion, is there any announcement in swimming less anticipated than this?

In marathon swimming, routes once apparently closed open up, connections previously unknown become apparent.

Since the events of last autumn, Diana Nyad has continued to peddle outright lies about the events, amongst which are claiming to have supplied proof of the swim to the satisfaction of the review panel, and continues to claim some mythical world records. But the supposed swim remains shrouded behind verbiage and a lack of any actual evidence and her post-swim fabrications were far more obvious to anyone interested, as could be seen on her reddit AMA in the New Year. (An online question and answer discussion session). (Some user called LoneSwimmer responds).

However, Hollywood hasn’t beaten a path to her door. She didn’t win the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer Award, her hoped-for musical based on her life is apparently no closer, and the public exposure of her treatment of Walter Poenisch all those years ago has become a publicity liability. So the avenues available for her further self-promotion were becoming  limited. As I can see from the search terms into LoneSwimmer, people now searching for Diana Nyad know there’s a controversy or even deception and most likely even use those words . This slipping from the public eye led to a failed turn on America’s Dancing With The Stars, some reality TV program, which like other similar reality TV dross, rounds up has-beens, never-weres and wanna-bes, in an orgy of desperate public attention-seeking.

But when those who know aren’t to be convinced, and the questions won’t go away, what better way to for a relentless self-promoter to grab the public attention than to throw themselves on the mercy of the public, and seek “redemption”. The public generally loves stories of redemption with a little bit of embarrassment.

I  have long held to the similarity between Diana Nyad and Lance Armstrong in terms of narcissism, media control, self-promotion and sporting deception. That analogy continues to be relevant.

Time will tell.

 

 

The Unwritten Rules of Open Water Swimming

Once again my mind was wandering during a swim. I’d had a conversation earlier in the day with someone about the “giving back” aspect of open water, how most swimmers were also involved in some way or other in maintaining the community aspect of the sport, which in turn maintains the sport itself.

This led me to think about some unwritten rules of the sport, things that are implicit or taken for granted, or even often discussed but rarely  explicitly written down.

One thing about a list such as this, is it contains items I myself think are  important or should-be-obvious precepts or even may have a local Irish flavour. But I would like to think that while there may be more, all these are built into the underlying assumptions of open water swimming.

It’s difficult to investigate assumptions while swimming or driving a keyboard, as we are usually blind to them. (Maybe we need a proper sociological investigation of rules by Channel swimmer and sociologist Dr Karen Throsby).

Rather than the assumptions of the culture though, I was thinking about, as I said above, sporting rules. Of course a rule that isn’t written down isn’t a rule. So what generally agreed guidelines do we or should we try to adhere to, that maybe need to be explored or explained?

1: If another swimmer is in difficulty, you must assist where possible. Forget the race, the title, your dreams, the sponsors. You are not required to put yourself at risk however.

2: Always think safety. The best safety decision are (yawn, here I go again) made outside the water.

3: Don’t cheat. Don’t lie or mislead supporters, sponsors, charities fans, media, friends or anyone at all, about what you are doing or planning to do. In a way this is the most common and unspoken rule of all sports, and observed by the breaking as well as by the adherence.

4: If another swimmer has a pioneering swim planned, do not steal it, by getting in before them, just to do it first. It doesn’t matter what your relationship is with the other person, this just shouldn’t be done.

5: You do not bootleg or pirate a swim where an official organisation exists to govern that swim.

6: Give back. Open water swimming is only possible through the actions of volunteers. Make sure you are doing something to help others, the variety of ways in which you can do so is very wide. You aren’t obliged to insert yourself into everything but you can organise an event, or maybe you can assist another. You don’t have to be a great swimmer, you don’t  have to have a huge ego.  You can be safety, marshall traffic, crew on boats, even write a blog. Hell, no-one knows better than a few of us that any average swimmer can get involved in something big. The range of ways in which you can contribute the sport is far wider than immediately obvious, and it’s up to you how you want to contribute, not to others to dictate to you. This one is less obviously a sport rule and crosses also into the culture domain.

7: Where applicable, follow the Two Golden Rules. (Disclose all the rules being used, such as the Marathon Swimming Federation Rules, and use an Independent experienced Observer).

*

I’m sure there are more I can’t think of right now. When I wrote the first draft of this, I thought of four items. Then I wrote another three months later. I’m pretty sure that the day this gets published, I’ll think of something else, and of course, the wisdom of crowds will think of more.

I’m looking forward to hearing your wisdom.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain

Part 1

Part 2

Ten minutes after briefing and the swimmers were lined up on Lough Dan’s so-called beach for the group photo seen in the previous part.

Sometimes writing about the minutiae of swimming is really boring. Sometimes such reportage can mask some other truth. Sometimes I think that the more I try to explain the less I succeed.

Unlike a marathon swim that can take multiple hours, the Ice Mile swim was short enough to recall detail of each of the four 400 metre laps, especially for someone who is used to trying to capture sensations for writing. But an ultra-detailed analysis can often be to see the paint on the building rather than the architecture.

Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws
Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws

The entry and swim out to the start pontoon was fine. I can get into extremely cold water comfortably after years of winter swimming and the 3 degrees Celsius (37.4° F.) at the edge was better than wading through ice as we had the previous year. Entry is easier when there is no wind or rain and you are swimming with others.

I relaxed through the first two laps. Almost certainly too much in retrospect. I was much slower than normal for the first 800 metres.

At the start of the third lap, I allocated part of my awareness as a monitor. Its only job was to check myself, my perceptions and reactions for as long as was possible. Cold slows and thickens the blood, cognition becomes impaired but the hypothermic person doesn’t realise this. Those movies where a hypothermic person clearly realises they must get moving or they will freeze are mostly nonsense.

By the third lap I had developed extreme pain in my hands and feet. Please remember I am used to really cold water, and I don’t describe that pain lightly as extreme. I began to get nervous about one of the lesser-known possible side effects of extreme cold water swimming, that of nerve damage to fingers (not frostbite). So I started clenching my fists and fingers hard during stroke recovery. I also put the pain away, walled it off. It was severe, but I’m a distance swimmer so it wasn’t relevant and I ignored it.

That penultimate lap hurt. So much.

Finbarr passed me. Everyone else had already moved in front of me though I’d been first to swim away from the beach. (I had swum to the pontoon to start, which wasn’t necessary, but I had wanted to so do). On the third lap I had reached the 75% distance that mirrored my 75% pre-swim confidence. I touched the buoy on the pontoon for the seventh time and started the last lap. I never took any notice of Eoin Gaffney on the pontoon or the kayakers or the RIB crew for the entire swim, except for the occasional taste of diesel in the water.

I was cold, then colder. Into hypothermia. As you know, cold is a word that holds no meaning in this situation, but I don’t have a better one. Unless you are cold water swimmer you have no idea what I mean, you just think your experience of an ordinary cold winter day is analagous.

There was pain, present but also distant because I disregarding it. Still swimming. Still focused. Hands quite extraordinarily not in The Claw. Still slow. I tried increasing my stroke rate. I couldn’t hold it for long.

Going down the seventh leg in the last 400 metres, the Black Rain developed.

The Black Rain. I have not heard any other cold water swimmer describe this. I have suffered it once previously. Spots before the eyes is a poor descriptor. It is more like a shifting rain, starting very light, almost imperceptible. Varying sizes, speed and seeming distances in front of me.  Just like rain, except its colour.

I touched the far buoy for the last time. 200 metres to go. Then the swim in. Okay, just the 200 metres to worry about. I knew I would make it.

The RIB was near. There was a kayaker beside me. I could not tell what or if they might have been saying. I didn’t really focus on them, and didn’t think to try. I didn’t think of anything beyond monitoring myself. Swim in. That was all. That was everything. The Black Rain was heavier and I was developing tunnel vision. Not a metaphor, but actual vignetting of my sight. The boats were near but felt far away, not really having anything to do with me, on the far side of a veil. Head for the beach.

Cold blood. Cold enuf blood becomes viscus blood. Viscous. Swim. Thick blood. Thick blood flowz slowly. swim. coLd blub blood Passes oxigen 2 ur brain slowli. always swim. keep swim. Your thinking. ur Thinking gets slowly. never stop swimin. never stop, never stop. never stop cccold. izh beach. shallow. stand. colm’s son. Mr Awesome. OUt. Dee. gEt Drest.

I didn’t need to touch the pontoon at the end of the 1600 metres. Since the beach was further away I had de facto completed the distance. Warren Roche and Tom Healy helped me once got into shallow water and stumbled semi-upright.

*

Despite the ever-encroaching cold, I had never stopped swimming, never stopped making forward progress, never lost sight of what I was doing. Years of cold water swimming makes a difference. Deeply ingrained habits and patterns and thinking mean everything.

The last two legs of the swim had taken both zero time and infinity. Time travel jokes become inessential when time itself ceases to have meaning. Cold is the universe’s ultimate time machine encased in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Time, like my trap, is a mental construct of swimmers. Time is a beast, or a wall, something huge, not the little parasites of seconds and minutes. If we are close enough we can’t see it all and it either slips away or fills our sight and becomes meaningless.

Immediately afterwards the freight train of Afterdrop took me harder than it ever has previously. Many people helped me as I was virtually unable to dress myself, but especially Tom Healy. I was almost unresponsive. My memory of the fifteen or twenty minutes post swim is hazy at best.

I’ve had mild hypothermia more times than I can recall, like most cold water swimmers. We don’t call it hypothermia of course, we just say chills and shivers. It sounds safer, doesn’t scare others. I have been in serious hypothermia (by my scale of experience) twice before. I’ve had memory loss. Loss of motor control. Inability to speak, to walk, to drive. So I can with confidence say that this was the worst hypothermia experience I’ve yet endured.

I am thankful specifically for the help of Mr Awesome Tom and his partner Rachel, Nicola Gilliland, Alan Smith, Colm Breathnach’s friend Warren Roche whom I thought was Colm’s son. (Should I apologise to Colm or Warren or both?)

And of course my regular accomplice Dee, who didn’t panic either and is still making fun of what she describes as the manic rictus of my face post-swim. I think she’s mixing it up with my regular face.

For reference, you have seen me write many times that I am an average range speed swimmer. The Sandycove Island Challenge each autumn is a similar distance when including the extra Ice Mile start and finish portions, about 1750 metres when the water is flat.

My time for the 2013 Sandycove Island Challenge, which had similar flat conditions and was maybe 14°C. , and my best ever race lap, was 25:30. Course record is held by Irish International swimmer Chris Bryan at 19:40 or thereabouts. My time for the same distance Ice Mile was astonishingly over 37 minutes. That’s what cold can do to a really experienced cold water swimmer. For reference I am 171 centimeters tall and weighed 76 kilos for the swim and my resting heart rate the previous morning was 53.

I had stopped shivering and was recovered and was out and about for photographs in under an hour, thanks to heat, hot water bottles applied correctly, glucose, rubbing and all the techniques used on a hypothermic person. Core temperature took a while longer to recover, until about the time we were half way home, two and half to three hours after the swim.

Seven of the nine Ice Milers finished. Colm Breathnach and Donal Jacob pulled out at 1200 metres due to not feeling right during the swim. You should recall that Colm is already an Ice Miler and a faster and better cold water swimmer than I. Fergal says, and I agree, having done the same myself last year, that for a swimmer such as Colm to pull out during a swim displays self-knowledge, confidence and experience that others should take note of and emulate, and hopefully indicates to others just how seriously this swim should be approached. I have great respect for both swimmers for the decision they made on the day.

*

Given a choice between a "heroic" pic and this one, there was little option
Given the choice between a “heroic” image and this one, I think the truth is more important

Did you think it might be different? More macho or inspirational?Something with less…pain?

I can’t do macho. Don’t know how. King of the Channel in the late 70′s, Des Renford used a phrase “Doing It Tough”. I did my Ice Mile tough. Frankly and honestly in my opinion this stuff is too dangerous to load  macho bullshit onto it.

Winning ugly” according to DeeNot pretty”, she also said, (though that may have been a general observation about me).

Getting it done. No need, no plan, to do it again, I swam out of the trap. I wish I could swim out of other traps.

The Ice Mile was awful, painful and horrible.

Cold is such an insufficient word.

*

Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before leaving the surface. Be afraid!
Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before departing the surface. Be afraid!

Afterward:

Later after warming up my heart rate was elevated for a few hours. Two days later I developed muscles pain for 24 hours almost identical to what I experience after the first five or six-hour pool swim of winter similar to what Colm reported after his Ice Mile swim last year. It felt like lactic buildup aches in my triceps, lats, pecs, along with lower back and thighs. The aches over the kidneys lasted another two days. I had an unidentified bruise and swelling on one finger, when I rarely bruise even after impacts. Minor issues and otherwise I am perfectly fine.

Here at the end of Part III, I’m taking a temporary break from the subject before returning with reflections and thoughts on the wider context of Ice Mile swimming, with the challenges, dangers, frauds, difficulties and some recommendations.

*

Fergal’s  writeup is here.

Vanessa’s excellent video is here.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – II – Surprisingly Cold

Driving to Wicklow that morning, it never once occurred to us that the water temperature would be cold enough. I was absolutely fine with that.

Here’s anther stupid thing we are doing on yet another early morning“, may have been something Dee said.

We passed over the Wicklow Gap pass, and there was no snow or ice on the mountain tops. The outside air temperature was about two degrees Celsius on the high pass.

We reached Lough Dan just after ten a.m. It’s the main outdoor location for Ireland’s Scout troops but there weren’t any present this weekend. Down at the lake edge everyone had arrived before us, and there were many people milling about, from kayakers and family, to support and safety personnel and half- and mile swimmers. North Channel “earliest, coldest and boldest” Fergal Somerville, the man behind the swim, and others were busy erecting a welcome new addition, a large tent for changing.

After 10 or 15 minutes of chat, I asked about the temperature and was surprised to hear it was somewhere around three degrees. I literally did not believe that but Fergal pointed out the four thermometers out on the rocks around the cove for me to check. They did indicate a range of temperatures from 3.0 ° to 3.5 °Celcius. So it looked like the Ice Mile swim attempt was on!

Four thermometers for certainty.
Four thermometers for certainty.

I did have an initial reaction that the water was again too cold for me. If an Ice Mile can be done at exactly 5.0 ° C., then honestly that’s the temperature at which I’d prefer to do it the swim. I am not in an ego match with anyone who can swim in even colder water. But such precision or luck is not in the nature of Irish weather and water.

Unlike last year though, once that initial reaction passed, I was always going to do the swim. If last year there was only a 25% chance I might do it, this year there was only a 25% chance I wouldn’t do it. To allocate a greater degree of certainty would be to ignore the ever-changing nature of cold and open water swimming and many lessons learned over years of open water swimming. 75% was what I needed.

Mentally I was engaged. After years of hurling myself into cold water, I’ve long ago shed fear and even nervousness and I’ve discarded negative pre-swim thoughts. I might have put myself into this trap, but that didn’t mean I was going to be negative about it. Such a mindset is not conducive to extreme cold water swimming. A swimmer needs to be positive and in control of their thought processes, because that is all they have power over. I was going to swim my way out of this trap.

There were originally ten swimmers planning to take on the full mile challenge, with nine present on the day of whom four were already Ice Milers from last year: Fergal Somerville, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery and Finbarr Hedderman.

To those were added the Aspirants; Moldavan Irish-based Ion Lazarenco, Swiss and also Irish-based speedster Sabrina Weidmer, Eastern Bay Channel Aspirant Paraic Brady, Waterford triathlete Donal Jacob, and myself. There was another group of swimmers who would attempt an 800 metre (half mile) swim.

Two-time English Channel swimmer Eoin Gaffney was on time and lap keeping duty out on a pontoon for the 400 metres laps. Five kayakers and a RIB. A medical Doctor (and swimmer) Nicole Gilliland. Three Fire Brigade staff, all extremely experienced and knowledgeable open water swimmers and paramedics, Tom Mr Awesome Healy, Irish Republic English Channel record holder, his partner Rachel Lee, holder of multiple Irish swimming records, and Alan Smith from Waterford, who had a big effect on the Sandycove Swimmers in his methodical planning. And more:  John Daly,  English Channel Solo and Ice Miler, Mark Lynch, Eastern Bay SC and organiser, Declan Proctor, Swim Director, Barry O’Shaughnessy, Lough Dan Scout Leader. Families and individual helpers and even multiple dogs.

Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing
Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing

There may have been 50 people present to help us out, to watch over us, to keep us safe. All necessary. All potentially essential.

In the last post I wrote:

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel.

Eastern Bay Swim Club’s Declan, Mark and  Fergal put on the safest, best planned and supported Ice Mile conceivable.

This was an Invitation Only event. The swimmers all had a record of recent cold water training, medicals, and all were known to the organisers and most of us knew each other and Fergal knew each of us. At the start of the winter he had requested we each keep training logs (which I do anyway). We all had recent medicals. I’d been swimming more than last winter, though the extraordinary series storms of mid-December to mid-February had severely impaired almost everyone over the preceding four weeks, when I’d only managed two ocean swims. At 76 kg. I weigh all of 1.4 kg more than last year. Not much, and not what I wanted to be (77-78kg) but more importantly, I haven’t had a recent weight loss like last year.

A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG!
A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG

The safety briefing was comprehensive and included all the important caveats which which open water swimmers should be familiar:

  • It’s only a swim. You can always swim another day.
  • You MUST obey anyone in a boat if told to get out.
  • You can always pull out and you are never more than 200 metres from land.
  • You can always swim another day. Always worth repeating.

A very important rule was added for this specific event:

  • Swimmers must be on the last 400 metre lap by 40 minutes or at least making steady progress to the finish. (Otherwise they would be too slow and too cold). Swimmers also could not stop, tread water or switch to breaststroke, all excellent local rules to ensure safety.

At about 11.10 a.m, as people drifted from the safety briefing to get ready, I spoke quietly in an aside with Tom Mr Awesome Healy.

Tom. I’ll get badly cold. I wanted to warn you, so it doesn’t come as a shock.

I think I may told him not to panic, which Tom with swim and Fire Brigade and paramedic experience was absolutely NOT going to do anyway. I’m sure he’ll forgive me.

It’s good you know yourself Donal. Thanks for letting me know.”

All the swimmers before the start.
All the swimmers before the start.

*

I hadn’t planned to split the account of the Ice Mile into two parts. However, I did not wish to de-emphasise the excellent support of and importance of Eastern Bay Swim Club’s pre-eminent support and the safety aspects of such a swim. Therefore the next part will cover the entire swim itself.

Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed
Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed

Ice Mile Dilemmas – I – The Trap

Sometime back in winter of 2010, Sandycove Island Channel swimmer and local legend Finbarr Hedderman and I discussed attempting an Ice Mile.  At the time the International Ice Swimming Association was very new and less than a dozen people had joined its ranks, and half of those were the founders. For those unaware of the Ice Mile challenge:

1) You are better off.

2) It’s a mile (1600 metres) swum in open water of temperatures of five degrees Celsius or lower, wearing only standard swim costume and cap. It’s pretty much as least as horrible as it sounds, and in probably worse. It’s governed by the International Ice Swimming Association founded in 2009 in South Africa by five swimmers. The goal for the IISA is to have the Ice Mile introduced to the Winter Olympics.

InternationalIceSwimmingAssociation_logo

In retrospect the best time for me to have done an ice-mile would have been the previous winter of 2009/10 when I was training for the English Channel and doing a lot of cold water and the Association had just been founded but unfortunately my time machine is temporally out-of-order. (Gee, I wrote a time machine joke.). 

I’m going to put an important disclaimer and reminder here early on, and a subject to which I will return. I cannot stress these enough.

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel. An Ice Mile should not ever be attempted casually, and for most people should never be attempted.

The temperatures here in Ireland are marginal in two ways: For most of the year the temperatures are such that only experienced open water swimmers are comfortable in our cool water. The other margin is that the cold winter sea temperatures usually hover about six degrees Celsius, just above the prerequisite five degrees to allow an Ice Mile attempt.

Therefore any Ice Mile attempt in Ireland usually requires co-operative (cold) weather and there are only a few usable locations, the most suitable of which are cold mountain lakes.

As those who read this blog last winter will recall, English and earliest-and-coldest-ever North Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville hosted on an Ice Mile attempt at Dublin’s North Wall in February of 2013. We didn’t get the necessary temperature, and I suffered significant post-swim hypothermia due mainly to a then-recent  weight loss of almost six kilos. I’m not a big person anyway so that was not insignificant weight loss. I turned down another opportunity just a week later to join others of my good friends and personal heroes Finbarr Hedderman, Ciarán Byrne and Rob Bohane in an Ice Mile swim in the Kerry Mountains.  A few weeks later Fergal again hosted another Ice Mile attempt, moving location to Lough Dan in the Wicklow Mountains.

That day in 2013, surrounded by snow and ice, my mind mostly elsewhere, I decided against swimming the full mile, ans swam half the distance, partly because of the very low temperatures; one point four degrees through surface ice at the lake edge. And partly because I was just wasn’t at all mentally engaged for personal reasons that weekend. I remember saying to Dee that I didn’t have it in me that day to mentally go where I would need to go in order to complete the mile.

Indeed I wrote here afterwards: “most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but [knew they] would come with a physical price. And I also know that sometimes pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do”. 

I’ve got a little thing I like to say when appropriate. It’s not poetry or memorable but I really believe it very strongly and it’s my own open water mantra:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

That day Fergal, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery, John Daly and Carmel Collins all completed the swim and became Ice Milers, all excellent cold water swimmers.

Glendalough log MG_1374_01 (Unsharp 3.0).resized
Taken at Glendalough Upper Lake, hours after the 2012 Lough Dan Ice Mile.

It was unexpected that afterwards people both commiserated with me and congratulated me on my decision, even at the CS&PF Channel Dinner in the UK. I wasn’t at all bothered by not doing the swim and was happier with making a personal educated decision to not swim the full mile, (despite irresponsible pressure from one swimmer). I made that decision based on knowing myself; my experience, my physiological state and my thought processes.

One year later, in this 2013/2014 winter, which isn’t as cold as last year’s bitter season, Fergal and The Eastern Bay Swim Club once again decided to host an invitation-only Ice Mile attempt in Lough Dan high up (relatively speaking, our mountains are low) in the Wicklow Mountains. The actual date stayed flexible to allow for weather and temperature changes. but the third and fourth weeks are usually the coldest water temperature here. The date was finally fixed one week beforehand and I indicated I’d accept the invitation and made my final decision to go only 24 hours beforehand. But honestly, with the milder temperature, I certainly did not think we would have the necessary low temperature, nor did most of the other attendees. And I wasn’t at all bothered. A swim at six degrees would suit me fine and I’d be hypothermic afterwards anyway.

Now let me say, and this is also important and key to this whole thing, that I’ve changed my mind about the Ice Mile challenge over the last couple of years since Finn and I first discussed it, starting before last year’s attempts and solidifying early last year. I was no longer particularly interested in the challenge for myself.  I’ll get into those thoughts about the Ice Mile challenge later in this series.

So this was the context of my first dilemma.

I write about cold water swimming. It’s my favourite subject, my favourite palette, and my articles on the subject (index on top right of the page!) are part of what define Loneswimmer.com.

I love cold water, love that bite. But it’s Hobson’s Choice: We don’t have warm water here so it’s cold water or no water, love it or leave it. I also believe in trying to help educate about open water and cold water swimming’s dangers and benefits.

And specifically, I also know that I like cold water, down to about six degrees Celsius (42.8° F).

Sure, I can and have, swum in water of five degrees and colder. But I don’t (always) enjoy it. The balance of reward versus difficulty doesn’t really work for me unless I also reduce the time commensurately. At five degrees, 15 to 20 minutes is fine. (For me). At four degrees, I don’t like swimming longer than 12 to 15 minutes. I also don’t want to increase my weight significantly, nor do I want to push the swimming time limit weekend after weekend, as I would need to do and have previously done, to increase my cold tolerance. For most of the coldest winter months here, I generally swim anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes depending on the day and conditions and month. I want to enjoy it, to explore my own mind while doing so, to feel what inspiration may come.

But there’s an increase in attention to the International Ice Mile Association and the numbers doing Ice Mile swims are growing, particularly in such areas of regular cold water swimming as Ireland, the UK, South Africa and the northern latitude American continent. I started to feel pressured.

How can we take Donal’s writing on cold seriously? He’s not even an Ice Miler“.

It was a mental construct and a trap entirely of my own making. Sure, I knew it for the fancy that it was. But I couldn’t shrug it off and I still felt I needed to do an Ice Mile, if only for the sake of my existing cold water writing, rather than any particular desire to achieve the target.

We do this, us stupid swimming apes, build imaginary mental obstacles and make them real, and sometimes impossible. I’m a master at it.

*

Allied with this was another dilemma, what I think of as The Paul Kimmage Effect.

Paul Kimmage was a Irish professional cyclist in the late eighties and early nineties. He was not successful and retired quickly and wrote a very good expose of his experience and the drug culture of cycling, including his own use of prohibited substances. He later became one of the long-term key anti-Lance Armstrong journalists and subject to one of Lance Armstrong’s more famous and vicious attacks.

Because Kimmage (of whom I am a fan) had not been successful in his cycling career and because he had exposed something that many cyclists didn’t want discussed, he was heavily criticised and even disregarded.

There are aspects of this challenge that I wanted to write about that I felt could be disregarded if I myself had not completed the challenge. Ironically, I had built that trap myself by completing the half mile swim last year. Had I said up front that I wasn’t at all going to even attempt that swim and proceeded from there, subsequent discussion may have been easier as I’d have just been an educated observer and commentator. Otherwise I’d have been one of the people who didn’t or couldn’t do it. So this really felt like a Catch 22.

I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I felt I would probably have to do it sometime.

Cold Water Acclimatization

This post was a companion to HABITUATION, both of which I wrote in early 2010. Since I revisited and largely rewrote that as Cold Water Habituation, my plan was to do the same in this post also.

Acclimatization (acclimatisation for those of us who forego the use of the z)  is a different factor to habituation.

While habituation is simply the process of adapting to getting into cold water, acclimatization is about a person’s ability to stay in cold water for longer.

(Acclimation is the same process but done in controlled or lab conditions).

In brief, as every open water swimmer knows, the more you train in cold water, the better you will be able to tolerate the cold, and the longer you will be able to swim in the water.

Acclimatization is a more difficult and often almost mysterious process than habituation. It takes longer to develop and longer to lose. It tests one far more, requiring a greater willingness to push ourselves.

I’ve luckily gotten to know a lot of cold water swimmers, originally through the Sandycove swimmers group, many of whom say you can think your way through cold, at least up, to a certain point. I know one swimmer and psychologist who helps people in this area, and stress overcoming the fear, that the swimmer should tell themselves that they are warm when they feel the cold, or to focus on different subjects, or to imagine they swimming in warm water, etc. These are classic sports visualization methods that are used to transcend different problems.

Guillamenes platform during winter storm, long exposure
The Guillamenes platform during a winter storm, (long exposure)

I have certainly found for myself that even getting into  6 or 7 º C., after the first minutes of pain, that I now have a definite whole-body feeling of warmth, (excepting feet and hands).

However, there is the problem that physics and the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. A favourite quotation of mine is  “eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over everything”. (Yes, I have a melancholy bent). However, this alludes to the fact that entropy increases and heat is lost in everything in the universe. As open water swimmers we are affected by such facts as:

  • One loses heat in water at 30 times the rate in air (thermal conductivity).
  • Heat loss is slower on sunny calm days than overcast windy days which strip body heat away even more quickly.
  • You lose 10% of your heat through your head, (in proportion with the rest of your body).
  • The ratio of heat loss is proportional to the volume and surface area, so larger people lose heat more slowly as the ratio of volume to surface area is increased.
  • Fat is an insulator and slows heat loss.
  • Insufficient food and fluids, alcohol intake, illness or not enough sleep all make one feel colder.
  • Pockets of changing water temperatures have a significant effect.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, entropy increases. In the case of swimming, the closed system is the body, the air and the water. heat will flow from the warm body to the cooler water. You lose heat unless you input sufficient heat energy.
  • No-one is immune to heat loss or hypothermia.

Put all that together and all you get is what you already know. You get colder quicker in water, but the rate of change is dependent on a range of factors.

One factor I didn’t put in there is the mental aspect, because it’s difficult to see how thought (Werner Heisenberg & Quantum Mechanics aside :-) ) can have any effect on the rate of change of the system, i.e. how can thought slow your cooling rate? Many experienced swimmers will say you can think your way into extending your time in the water. I’d never been able to say this. I do believe that you can stay calmer, and accept what’s happening, which makes it feel easier.

I think that you get more used to being in cold, and you recognise your early hypothermia indicators better so you can push your limits more. You learn to swim further into your own cold experience. You get better at preparing and recovering. Some of those very experienced swimmers I know have learned to accept and box off the cold, realise it’s there, know the efficiency is decreasing but at the same time know there can be a long gap between the early hypothermia indicators and remaining period during which much swimming can still be done.

The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability
The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability

There is also the case that with improving  habituation, that heart rate and stress hormones decrease, and therefore the person feels better about getting into cold water and less nervous. Less heat will be lost in the initial minutes, which also leads to greater capability. This is the positive adaptive feedback system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The small improvements drive confidence, the confidence allows the swimmer to push themselves while staying more relaxed. The mental aspect of cold water swimming was the single thing I most struggled to understand in my first few years of winter swimming. It seemed too trite, too easy, without really saying anything useful. It is easy to say that mental attitude allows one to swim longer but it has taken me years of winter cold water swimming to really realise this, to integrate it and to try to convey it. To understand what it means and to comprehend the effect that thought has on my own cold acclimatisation and ability, and not least to be able to explain that better for myself and hopefully others.

It has not been a short journey. If I could do it, so can you.

Cold Water Habituation

HABITUATION was one of my very first posts, and the first post I wrote about cold and cold water swimming, over four years ago, little realising it would become my favourite subject. Although it is linked in the Cold Water Articles Index, I decided to air it out and rewrite it. (And change those capitals).

Back then I mentioned how I  had progressed in cold. I used myself as an example to demonstrate progressive cold water ability. I was previously a surfer, wearing wetsuits year round and thinking I knew what real cold was. I later realised I had only ever once been close to getting as cold as I regularly get as an open water swimmer after 30 or 40 minutes. I had been surfing for six hours straight with no hood in winter that time.

 I started swimming open water during summer, but wore a wet-suit for the first winter for very irregular swims, and I was still surfing regularly. Toward the end of my second winter of swimming, which wasn’t as regular as I swim now, I decided to do my first non-wet-suit swim of the year, which was in late March I think, only a month after what is usually the lowest temperature of the winter here. March is still very cold water. 

Ballydowane Cove across to St. John's island
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John’s island

I clearly recall, will never forget in fact, arriving at Ballydowane Cove on a cold Sunday morning, with chest high waves, and feel physical effects of profound apprehension, even fear.

I recall that first experience of 7 or 8 degree water like it was yesterday, and I swam for 10 minutes. Disappearing in the waves, and ending up swimming the short length of the beach, and taking ten minutes to so do, and having warned her I’d only be in for a few minutes, Dee thought I’d been drowned. It seems a long time ago. The fear lasted for the next few swims before it disappeared.

The process of getting inured to getting into cold water is called Habituation.

It is not special, it’s not a reflection of an innate ability to handle cold. it doesn’t mean or signify anything. It’s a purely physical response and almost everyone can do it. (Excluding people with cardiac problems or certain circulatory or cardio-respiratory illness or other underlying contra-indicated health issues).

It will hurt for a few seconds or even a few minutes. Increased adrenaline beforehand may elevate your heart rate before you get in the water. You will find it difficult to breathe the first minute or so. You may flail about for the first one hundred metres. You can just relax and float in the water, you don’t have to swim. In fact that’s what King of the Channel Kevin Murphy prefers to do in cold water.

But, you will also settle and relax and get used to it.

coldI know it won’t kill me.

This is a primary mistake that some people make. They think that other swimmers, (more capable or tougher swimmers than them, in their mind), don’t feel it. They do. I do. It just matters less. Of course I also feel the same about other’s swimmers capability. Somewhere is a swimmer who really is better at cold than everyone. It make be Finbarr Hedderman. Or Kevin. Or Fergal, or Lisa or Alison or someone else. But we are all on the same spectrum of tolerance, just in different locations.

When I wrote this in 2010, I’d just met cold water Sandycove legend and Channel swimmer Finbarr the previous weekend, river swimming in Fermoy in 7½º Celcius (45½F) water, in October. At the time of writing, I wrote that seemed too cold for me as a sudden transition  from sea swimming in 10º Celcius. And I had a few years of cold water swimming behind me already.

It made me feel like he’s good at cold and I’m not. But Finbarr is much taller than I, meaning an overall greater heat retention.  He is also exceptional in his ability. He swam 35 minutes in that temperature. I was seriously impressed. I’m sure it hurt him too though, just as much as a 10ºC (50F) hurt me then.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.
Finbarr’s smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher’s neck. Underwater.

In 2013/2014, I don’t consider that exceptional, and regularly swim the same or longer in that temperature. Of course Finbarr is swimming an hour.

The first few times you immerse yourself in very cold water will provoke a fight-or-flight response, elevating heart rate and stress hormones, potentially leading to anxiety or even fear.

I saw this with a friend recently when we were going for a swim at around 7.5º C. He hadn’t been in cold water for a couple of months so he was very anxious beforehand. He was utterly fine during his swim and afterwards.

Habituation just means becoming accustomed. In our case become accustomed to getting in cold water. It only takes four to six repetitions before the pre-swim anxiety abates and your heart rate to stay controlled. It become easier. The pain of immersion will decrease, though never disappear, and cold shock response will also reduce somewhat. Indeed there are few physical activities from which we can have such a speedy response.

More importantly, is you will realise that it’s not going to kill you. All the pre-swim anxiety will start to diminish. That the pain is not what you anticipated, that your imagination is worse than the reality. That every time you experience that initial response, you are reducing the power that cold may have over you.

You will start to see Cold in a different way, as a more intangible ghost over which you also have power. Until you too are part of this cult.

A Cynical Devil’s Dictionary of (Open Water) Swimming

In the early twentieth century, American satirist Ambrose Bierce collected his weekly newspaper columns into a book which he intended to call a Cynic’s Dictionary. His repeated characterisation as a devil by various US politicians of the day led to its publication under the title of Devil’s Dictionary.

I have neither the wit not skill of Bierce, but I thought it would be fun to devise a brief Cynical Devil’s Swimming Dictionary. It so transpired, such that I may continue to add to it.

***

Anti-fog: The biggest lie told by the swimming industry.

Butterfly: Vicki Keith & Sylvain Estadieu are nut-cases. More importantly, a type of post-swim cupcake. Mmm, cake.

Bioprene: The next big thing in celebrity diets. Just you wait. Sunday supplements and Horizon specials, here we come.

Cake: See Butterfly.

Carbs: Cake in another form. Sometimes chocolate. Or just cake. Mmm, cake.

Catch: The nonsensical idea that swimmers grab onto and hold and pull the water, under water, with their hands, in order to move forward. Clearly they move by micturating prodigiously behind themselves. Or open water swimmers anyway.

Costume: Swimsuits, Cossies, Bathers, Budgies, Banana Hammocks, Speedos, Togs, Swimmers and “middle-aged men shouldn’t be allowed to wear those in public” are all various terms for wisps of artificial fabric swimming apparel that are changed and cleaned less often than a hobo’s underwear but cost more per gram than real fur.

Channel: A body of water stretching between Stupid and Broke.

Channel swimmers: A cult or a club. Or both.

Cold: No. No, it’s not, you baby. Get in.

Copper Coast: My paradise. My playground. Bloody cold. Full of bloody jellyfish. Few swimmers. Applications to swim must come through this office.

Depth: It’s not under me, it’s not under me. It’s not under me.

Diana Nyad: See Marathon Swimmer.

Dover: Why so many people swim away from England.

England: More people try to swim away from it than anywhere else in the world. See Dover.

France: Bloody hell. I suppose it could be worse. It could be Belgium. Or England again. I gave up my two-way attempt because I didn’t want to swim to Dover. Two-way attempt? Hey, if you ever have to swim from France for an hour to get back to your pilot, you too can reasonably claim it was a two-way attempt.

Feeds: The technical description of the vast quantities of infant food open water swimmers stuff into their gaping never-satiated mouths, like huge baby birds.

Fish: The Men in the Grey Suits. The Landlord. Does not include any other fish.

Fraud: See Diana Nyad.

Goggles: When asked the first time what is best in life Conan The Barbarian said: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. And new goggles. I love new googles.” That’s a Hollywood Fact.

Grease: The best stuff is made from baby dolphin juice. I can hook you up. Call me.

Imagination and Intelligence: Lack of. Why marathon swimmers keep swimming. How marathon swimmers keep swimming. Really, we’re pretty dumb. Ted Erikson said so and he’d know.

Ireland: Home of swimming Gods and Goddesses, Ocean Giants and Sea Conquerors, a coastal cold water heaven. And a lone swimmer.

Jellyfish: Boom. Right in the kisser! Who says the little bastards have no brains?

Kick: This is how you stop triathletes trying to pass you. In the head, for best effect. I do not condone this. On a completely and utterly unrelated note, triathletes can’t tell one skin swimmer from another, we all look alike to them. So if you accidentally kicked one in the head, that would have nothing to do with me and you probably wouldn’t get caught.

Lakes: Old-timey version of pools. No chlorine but you do get the urine and dilute cowshit for free.

Lengths: Not as commonly thought, a  pool measurement, but in multiple figures is the real distance in body lengths between a swimmer who tells their wife/husband they came third in a race, and actual third place. Cannot be a fraction.

Marathon swimmer: Not Diana Nyad.

Marathon swimming: It’s a dumb thing.

NST: Non-Shivering Thermogenesis. This is the technical description of the time just before  male cold water swimmer’s testicles become safely ensconced within their bodies.

Nude: Ned Denison’s scary predilection for swimming without togs on club swims. Never mentioned in his IMSHOF induction.

Ocean: Home. See Water. Also sea water. Free.

Observers: Hauled-out crusty old sea dogs. Bring your own food. Lock up your daughters.

Open Water Swimmers: the very zenith nadir of the swimming world. Above Below Tadpole Age Groupers.

Pilot: Someone you pay a lot of money to insult you, while you swim, just at the point when you already feel most stupid.

Pool: A box of urine and chlorine. Pay to use.

Propellor: Anyone who worries a lot about Fish hasn’t been too close for comfort to a moving propeller. Aka The Spinning Blades of Sharp Cutting Pain and Dismemberment.

Qualification: The complex and lengthy process of incorrectly and fraudulently  filling out multiple forms and questionnaires, forging signatures and lying about swim times in order to swim somewhere stupid so that next time, you won’t have to write the entire work of fiction from scratch.

Recovery: That morning you stayed in bed and still regretted it. The day you went swimming … and still regretted it.

Reefs: If you are racing, don’t get between us and them. See also Kick.

Swimming: A bad metaphor for life. A good substitute for life.

Sharks: The Landlord. The Men In Grey Suits. Bitey. Grey. Also gray. See Fish.

Swedes: Either butterfly nut-case Sylvain Estadieu’s fiancée, Great Greta, or a type of elitist swim goggle. Depending on your geographical location and preference. We all know Sylvain’s preference, right? Right?

Technique: It’s a little-known fact that before Atlas was condemned to roll a stone uphill for eternity, he was first put to perfecting his front crawl swim technique, but it deemed too cruel a punishment. Any swimmer left to their own devices will rapidly devolve to the worst technique possible, except open water swimmers, who have none to begin with.

Tides: Often treated a fairy tale  by swimmers who swim on lakes. The variability in time, height  and location prove God is a woman. Or a man. I dunno, I’m no theologian or misogynist.

Under the boat: Don’t go there. I’ve been. It’s not nice.

Viking Princess: Reg Brickell’s Channel boat. You ain’t crewed till you crewed on Viking Princess. Unless, you know, you have crewed.

Water: Are you frequently damp? That’d be the water. You’ll find it’s wet.

Wildlife:  Technical swimmer’s collective noun for all things that are Not Jellyfish and Not Sharks.

X-Men: A supposed superhero team which has no swimmers. You know the rest of the world makes fun of Aquaman? That because they all can’t swim. Aquaman would kick Wolverine’s ass in the water. And I doubt that wheelchair of Professor X is much good as a pull-buoy. Also, begins with X. You try it if you are so smart.

Youghal: A coastal town in Ireland that begins with a Y.  Goddamn it it’s late!

Zip-line: Every open water swimmers’ favourite  race technique, that they pretend to utterly deplore and sworn they’ve never used. I’ve myself have certainly never used it. Ever. In unrelated advice, grease your ankles.

***

Related (humour) links:

Open Water Swimmer’s Fashion & Beauty Tips. (loneswimmer.com).

Two Distance Swimmers meet. (loneswimmer.com)

Swimming Taxonomy (loneswimmer.com)

GRANT PROPOSAL AND APPLICATION – TOWARD A POST-MODERN CONTEXTUALIZATION OF SWIMMING SUB-CULTURES (loneswimmer.com)

Introducing a precise open water  temperature scale (loneswimmer.com)

Cold Shock Response and the Mammalian Diving Reflex in cold water swimming – Positive & Negative Feedback systems

I read a blog recently about cold immersion and cold baths, and cold swimming to a lesser extent. The author was speaking about the positive physical and mental benefits of regular ice baths. Similar benefits to what we as cold water swimmers regularly experience. All well and good. For aspirant Channel swimmers without access to regular cold water swimming, the recommendation for cold showers and baths is old and trusted.

However in his explanation of what was happening in the body the author focused exclusively on the Mammalian Diving Reflex as the primary response of the body when being immersed in cold water and completely ignored or didn’t understand the effect of Cold Shock Response and its place in the equation. (I didn’t save the blog link, sorry.)

That blog wasn’t the only place you see this. If you search on Mammalian Diving Reflex you will see it widely referred as the (only) process  in action when people are immersed or submerged in (cold) water. It’s a classic example of people taking all their knowledge from Wikipedia, because it seems the same Wikipedia core text is used all over the place.

I’ve covered both before and as a cold water swimmer, rather than someone sitting into a cool water bath, and I’ve focused as  much on Cold Shock Response, and the issue of Habituation, the process of getting used to getting into cold water, (not the process of staying in it).

The blog author just cut and pasted a Wikipedia article on Mammalian Diving Reflex, and while the Wikipedia article wasn’t wrong, both it and the blog were incomplete from the perspective of a  cold water swimmer.

So what are each of these and do they interact?

While swimming in Tramore Bay the other day, the water having risen by a degree in two weeks to about 7.5 Celsius, I got thinking about these two responses and how one, Cold Shock Response could be considered a positive feedback system while the Mammalian Diving Reflex could be considered a negative feedback system.

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered about Positive Feedback in a biological sense in open cold water swimming. Previously I considered that the Habituation/Acclimatisation process in cold water swimmers could also be a positive feedback system.

The simple process of improving cold ability
The simple process of improving cold ability

In Systems Theory (and elsewhere) a Positive Feedback System is where a small change causes a further bigger change. Therefore positive feedback is often considered a de-stabilising process. One example might be the international banking system that led to the 2008 collapse: Increased risks led to larger profits which led to larger risks until the system collapsed. However positive feedback can also be a process for change or improvement: If you swim more, you get fitter and able to swim even more, i.e. the training effect. Or the more you get in cold water, the better you get at getting into cold water.

Negative Feedback is often considered a stabilising process, the most common example is a thermostat which regulates heats by switching off when it gets too hot, switching on when it gets too cold: Negative Feedback acts in the opposite direction to the initial impulse.

Cold Shock Response is the bodies response to sudden cold water immersion. It results in varying degrees according to the person’s habituation experience, primarily in elevated heart rate, and elevated stress hormones. It is the elevated heart rate which is dangerous, to lesser extent in the increased chance of cardiac arrest, but more commonly in the chance of aspirating water due to shock and subsequently drowning. Less habituated or experienced swimmers will note an increased heart rate and nervousness even before immersion occurs if they are expecting the cold. I noted some years ago that the first time I ever swam during winter without a wet-suit, I was literally terrified beforehand. Then the initial cold shock drives the heart rate higher. This is a limited example of Positive Feedback, where the initial is destabilised by something (cold) that acts on the input.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is another innate biological response to immersion. As the name implies all mammals exhibit this, human to weaker extent, but it exists to extend the time that animals can survive while submerged by reducing the need for respiration. This occurs in swimmers through two main biological reactions; decreasing heart rate (brachycardia) and therefore slowing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the body, (as excess carbon dioxide is what cause us to have to breathe); our constant companion, peripheral vaso-constriction, where the capillaries and blood flow in the extremities is restricted to allow more oxygenated blood to be available to the heart and brain.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is initiated when the fact is submerged, and this is the reason I have previously written many times that you should splash your face before getting in the water, rather than the incorrect but widely cited slashing water down your back.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is obviously a case of Negative Feedback, where the body reacts in opposition to submersion to protect itself.

So we can see that there is both positive and later negative feedback in operation in cold water swimming, where the negative feedback occurs to stabilise and protect a human through adaptive physiological response. But the initial negative feedback of Cold Shock is very significant and should not be ignores, as so many non-cold water writers seem to do, as it carries its own significant risk factor.

The bottom line though, is that this is another way of saying, that ability in cold water swimming improves with repetition. Habituation improves much more quickly than Acclimatization. In a little as four to five repeats, people become much more comfortable with getting into cold water.

Now get out there!

Loneswimmer.com is four years old

I had forgotten about the anniversary but I started LoneSwimmer.com on a whim on the afternoon of 18th of January, 2010. Little did I guess where it would lead.

Since then LoneSwimmer has grown year on year, and often month on month. It was viewed in 185 countries in 2013 though the countries that most read LoneSwimmer are the USA, UK, Ireland and Australia, in that order. English Channel aficionados will know those are the four biggest Channel swimming nurseries. It’s possible that LoneSwimmer, which amazingly won the inaugural 2012 award for the best sports and recreation blog in Ireland, may be the most popular entirely amateur open water swimming blog in the world! This is both gratifying and terrifying to me. Though as you may know I did once get some free goggles and paddles for review, nonetheless LoneSwimmer is just me, one average swimmer on the south-east coast of Ireland, still talking shite from the middle of nowhere (and making nothing from it). Let me mention up front here my invaluable behind-the-scenes editor, partner and second-shooter photographer and all round supporter Dee. The longer a post here is, or the more typos it contains, the less likely it is that Dee proofed it. Like this this one.

LoneSwimmer monthly charts 4 years no data
47 months of LoneSwimmer.com

Writing LoneSwimmer has been challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, dispiriting, heart-breaking, seemingly never-ending, boring and exciting. Remarkably like open water swimming in fact.

I have a typically cynical Irish view of many things, including “mission statements”, but I’ve striven to keep the blog on the (extended) subject of open water swimming, and to keep anything else about me or my life away from here, and that has occasionally not been easy, because … life. My original idea for this blog was to share everything I’ve learned the hard way about open water and that has remained my guiding principle. It has also meant increasingly covering pool training aspects and ranging into entirely unexpected areas. I discovered over the four years that there many things that open water swimmers all know, but that no-one had written down. So there are other versions and opinions of everything I write, and I’d encourage you to keep those opinions, or to seek them out elsewhere or to write them down and publish them yourself. I’ve been asked by a few people about writing blogs and I’m always happy to share all the many mistakes and long learning curve I’ve endured.

I re-organised the blog in mid-2013 to index all the How To articles and they range in utility for all levels, from beginners to resources for Channel and marathon swimmers. The compliment I value most continues to be the simple “Thanks” from anyone whom I’ve helped by something I’ve written.

When I started I just knew my own swimming friends here in Ireland. Now I have swimming friends all over the world.

I read many swimming blogs, so many I had to make a separate fixed page of links for your ease-of-use. Sometime after I started LoneSwimmer, I came across another blog called Freshwaterswimmer.com by American Channel swimmer, Evan Morrison. (That link will take you to the newer version of Evan’s blog; Farther, Colder, Rougher). Evan had started Freshwaterswimmer.com within two weeks of LoneSwimmer.com.

Somehow, and I’m not even sure how or when looking back, Evan and I became transatlantic writing partners and collaborators. I suspect it was partially because Evan and I agree on many aspects of marathon swimming and the people and challenges involved, and neither of us like people hoarding information to gain some spurious power. As you know by now, that link with Evan led through various discussions with many people to the formation of the marathonswimmers.org forum by Evan, who is the site owner, and myself.

The forum is now the most vibrant community of Channel, marathon and aspiring marathon swimmers globally. This in turn led to the Global Marathon Swimming Awards, the only peer-voted marathon awards in the world. And from there it led to the recent release of the Rules of Marathon Swimming by a core group of authors and reviewers, which rules have already been welcomed and endorsed by an astonishing number of well-known marathon swimmers from around the world. (If you haven’t endorsed the rules yet, regardless of your accomplishments or level, it’s never too late, you can do it over there or email me, or email rules@marathonswimmers.org).

The foundation of marathonswimmers.org and the writing and release of the rules of marathon swimming may be the two most important swimming-related things I have or ever will do, though Evan and I are not finished with our ideas. We both believe in the democratization of open water swimming and the power of community input and ideas. 

Whew. How did all this happen an average swimmer from and in the middle of nowhere?

My very first posts were about my local swimming area, Waterford’s then not widely-known but gorgeous Copper Coast. When people think of Ireland’s coast it is often the west and south-west coasts, but four years later the Copper Coast has now become better known and more appreciated. It’s a quiet, isolated 40 kilometre stretch of cliffs, intermittent coves and small villages, and it’s my playground. A small number of you have even come here to swim it with me and you are all always welcome to join me at play here.

Kilfarrassey rocks_MG_8854.resized
Kilfarrassey on The Copper Coast

My next post was about cold water habituation. Little did I realise that for four years I would continue to write article after article about cold water swimming.  I collected those ongoing articles into a Cold Water Swimming Index in mid 2013 and was amazed to find there were about 50 articles on that subject alone to which I continue to add. Surprisingly only nine months later, the index page itself is now the second most popular, and the most linked into and referenced page on LoneSwimmer. Two of the articles on that subject are the site’s most popular individual articles, the perennial and humourous Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale and the eternal question “What temperature of water is too cold to swim in?”.

This_is_your_brain_on_open-water_swimmingI’m not a naturally funny person, so when I write something humourous I get a special kick from it. I can’t draw, at all either, so I did one cartoon in a simple graphics package that I’ve seen appear elsewhere a few times since and I still think is accurate.

In 2011 I wrote an April’s Fools post that caused outrage across the Channel swimming world. I got some shall we say strong messages, which made me laugh all the more. I remember leaving the pool that Friday evening, to a phone that was almost red-hot with all the emails, calls and SMSes. DNOWS and many in Dover and elsewhere were all caught. That post is long deleted, I did a another one on a different subject  in 2012 that caught many actual Channel swimmers but when I suggested to Evan that we combine our blogs for the 2013 version, we once again sucked in more people, including, again, the open water swimming media. A good April’s Fool’s joke should sting the victims, and hopefully made them laugh later. Catching people globally once was great fun, twice even more, but three times? Well I don’t know what that says about you all, or me. I am now retired form April’s Fool’s jokes.

I almost stopped writing LoneSwimmer in late 2013, as was obvious to regular readers, for what was and continues to be a combination of many reasons but for the moment, LoneSwimmer struggles fitfully on. Actually even this post has had three different revisions, one more negative, and one more positive, than this one. I never know where LoneSwimmer is going, I never had a plan beyond that original idea. Most often I have panic, when I think I have already written everything I could say. Right now, as I write this, I don’t feel like continuing, but tomorrow I may be different. I’ve learned to mostly ignore how I feel about it. Sometimes writing has been almost all I have had to hang onto.

One thing I do know, is that had I not started writing LoneSwimmer I would never have written the posts of which I am proudest:

Two golden rules of open water and marathon swimming. This ideas in this post have become embedded in the rules of marathon swimming linked above. It’s worth it all for that alone.

My multi-part series on Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel records. Our sport to this day is still one that is essentially done in private and we still huddle around the electronic campfire  telling stories of swims. It was a fantastic honour that both swimmers and friends allowed me to see firsthand and later tell their stories. I have other stories of other friends, which were not covered here, not willingly, but because I did not think it was my place to so do. These most obviously include Rob Bohane, Alan Clack, Gábor Molnar, Owen O’Keeffe and Páraic Casey. I love covering swims, and you know where to find me…

Part Five of the series on Diana Nyad: Probity & Integrity. Evan & I, as co-founders of the forum were dragged into the astonishing unveiling of the truth in the Diana Nyad story on that extraordinary thread which set international headlines. I had written previously about her a few times before this series, changing from being a fan and supporter into a cynic and eventually an opponent, while the swimming and regular media embarrassed themselves, again, with their unquestioning sycophantic acceptance of her duplicitous lies and bullshit. I’ve been saying recently when asked, that when you see a sportsperson whom is suspected of cheating, who has an asterisk beside their name in the records books, someone had to put that asterisk there. Someone cared, someone wanted honesty and integrity in their sport. I believe all us honest swimmers put the asterisk after Diana Nyad’s name and I am proud that that post seems to articulate something with which every single swimmer I’ve met has agreed.

The series on MIMS 2013. I think NYCSwim treated most of the 2013 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim entrants shamefully and things currently look no better for 2014. I put a lot of effort into covering what happened, once again doing a news story which none of the actual swim news sites covered ,especially since LoneSwimmer isn’t a swim news blog.

Much of what I write is intended to be functional and/or instructive. For example, when I wrote down the etiquette of lane swimming, I wasn’t saying anything new. Others had written similar before me and I was just exercising the demons that all pool swimmers are plagued by, when joined by people who don’t know what they are doing. A couple of years later, those rules have now been read thousands and thousands of times.

When writing you can’t always go to the well. You’d run dry very quickly, run out of things to say. Had I stopped writing LoneSwimmer early on, maybe I wouldn’t go the well at all. I certainly wouldn’t have written this post from just over a week ago which I think is the single best post I’ve yet written.

Another Winter Dawn, my most popular image on Flickr.
Another Winter Dawn, on Flickr.

Had I never started writing LoneSwimmer, I’d also likely never have taken up photography. Luckily my tastes in photography tend toward the exact images that we open water swimmers enjoy, and which are often disregarded by others as mere landscapes.  You can check out my Flickr page  RSS in the sidebar and you can always contact me if you want prints of any photo here. For the record, this has never happened! I shall keep trying to get better.

I’m an average swimmer and resource-restricted so I don’t or can’t aspire to extraordinary undreamed of swims.

I’m Irish, where we as individuals are not encouraged to be proud of our own achievements and where as a country very many people are still in a very dark place, including myself.

Writing LoneSwimmer, friendships in the swimming community and your continued interest, all have allowed me to achieve and aspire to other things in swimming.

My name is Donal Buckley. Some people now even call me the lone swimmer. I’m a Channel Swimmer, and a swim blogger.

Thank you for visiting my site.

The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.

Open water swimming and marathon swimming is dangerous

Eilís
Coach Eilís

In November 2010, Cork and Sandycove Channel Coach Eilís Burns held one of her irregular brief seminars for prospective Channel solo swimmers for the 2011 Channel season.

It wasn’t an open-to-all seminar. Those attending were people who had contacted Eilís asking her to coach them. Eilís is careful in whom she agrees to coach, requiring a proven desire, a willingness to do the required work, and the temperament to do what she says.

As part of that seminar Eilís had asked four of the local Channel swimmers to attend and speak briefly on subjects of our own choice. The four were; Lisa Cummins, two-way English Channel solo; Imelda Lynch, first Sandycove and Cork female Channel swimmer and a local legend amongst Sandycove swimmers for her tenacity and tough training regime; Rob Bohane, aka The Bull, who as part of the Magnificent Seven, first attempted the Channel in 2010 a few weeks after me; and the fourth was myself.

Six of The Magnificent Seven. From left; Ciaran Byrne, Donal, Liam Maher, Jennifer Hurley, Rob Bohane, Gabor Molnar. Channel swimmers one and all.
Six of The Magnificent Seven. From left; Ciaran Byrne, Donal, Liam Maher, Jennifer Hurley, Rob Bohane, Gabor Molnar. Channel swimmers one and all. Not a gram of fake tan between us.

I remember all the presentations with varying degrees of clarity. But my own and Rob’s are much clearer.

Rob had attempted the Channel in late August, a couple of weeks after Jen Hurley and I had swum, and within 12 hours of Ciarán Byrne soloing. Liam Maher, Jen Hurley, myself and Ciarán had all succeeded, the first four of the Magnificent Seven, with Rob, Danny and Gábor still to go.

All through training, and Eilís’ training regime for us was brutal, we became increasingly convinced we would be one hundred percent successful as a group. The Channel taught us all otherwise. Rob encountered the horrendous weather of which the Channel is still capable of throwing at Solos even with modern forecasting. Ciarán had gotten to France before getting shut out by the Channel but Rob ran into the full force of the Channel’s brutal face. After a dozen hours of swimming, Rob was pulled from the water by hos crew and later hospitalized with cold water pulmonary edema. That story continued because Rob recovered and on his second attempt in 2012 he was also denied with more horrendous weather. But he eventually prevailed and indeed Rob went on to set the Sandycove club Channel record. Less than the fast time, what is far more important is Rob’s journey to get there.

Wearing the Hardship Award Hat in 2011
Wearing the Hardship Award Hat in 2011

In 2011, following a visit to the Cork University Hospital Emergency by Liam Maher after a particularly … challenging, Sandycove Island Challenge race, a new Sandycove Island Swimming Club annual award was introduced for the most dangerous swim undergone or most damage suffered by a club member, known as the Hardship Award. I was the retrospective inaugural 2010 winner for my Channel solo, followed by Liam, then Rob, with Ned being the 2013 winner for the emotional damage he suffered for losing many of his records in 2013 to other club members. The not-at-all-coveted Hardship Award is a Hard Hat!

At EilÍs’ 2010/2011 seminar, still raw from the first crossing, Rob spoke eloquently of how he had a great family and life, and that if not making it across the English Channel was the worst that had happened him, then he was a very lucky man.

My own input was brief, I only wanted to say one thing really:

I told the assembled aspirants that the thing they most needed to comprehend themselves, that they most needed to discuss honestly with their partners or parents or family, is that solo Channel swimming is dangerous.

We don’t like to discuss this aspect. We like even to pretend otherwise.

In 2010 I had my own near-lethal experience in the Channel and then Rob had been hospitalised. Lisa had been hospitalised after her two-way Channel swim, Ned had been hospitalized after Santa Barbara. Four members from one club, and while I was the only one of that four not hospitalized the experience was no less dangerous. (BTW, as Evan once pointedly asked me, just where is the full account of my Channel swim, given the other swim’s I’ve covered? The answer is, it’s a long comprehensively written account and part a longer term project that may never see light and so may eventually surface here, Frankly the story is far too often told and repeated as a rumour in Ireland, such I’ve been asked, “did you hear about the guy who swam and the Channel and …”).

Let me repeat: Open water swimming is dangerous. To be responsible to the others we help, advise or even inadvertently inspire we MUST honestly acknowledge this. Channel swimming is especially dangerous.

2012 we lost Sandycove swimmer and our much-loved friend Paráic Casey in the English Channel. In 2013 the Channel swimming community and her family and friends lost Susan Taylor in the English Channel. I mean no disrespect to any others by not continuing a roll call, as part of my point is these are the dangers and losses incurred within the community of people I know myself. (I’d met Susan in Dover in 2012).

I looked at those people in Cork at the seminar and told them this was their first task as Aspirant Channel swimmer: To be honest with themselves and the people important to them. Open water, Channel and marathon swimming is dangerous.

Regardless of our experience and skill, the sea particularly is a vastness beyond us. To accept this and the inherent risk is to improve our ability to survive.

If you can accept that fact, integrate it as well as it is possible for anyone who thinks they the measure of their own dreams, you have taken a significant first step to being a real open water swimmer.

After that seminar, one of the attendees, who had been present with their partner, decided against the Channel. As someone who encourages open water and Channel swimming, I considered and still consider that a good result. 

I am obviously not against people being open water swimmers or setting their sights on extreme swimming goals or following dreams. But I do strongly believe that you should do it from a prepared base. I will not help someone whom I don’t think takes the risk seriously.

I’m (mostly) a lone swimmer. As a consequence I am not reckless (despite views to the contrary) but consider carefully both my own abilities and thresholds, and each day’s conditions, and weigh each and every swim before I start.

By accepting the existence of risk and hazard (the potential outcome of risk) we actually gain another tool in our repertoire.  By being brave enough to stand our ground and know when not to swim, when not to risk our limits is to know ourselves.

No-one swims, or at least no serious open water swimmer, with the thought of not returning, any more that mountain climbers or polar explorers do. But the possibility is part of what makes open water swimming what it is and a properly cognizant open water swimmer is pursuing a type of existentialism, not fatalism. By realising that understanding our constraints and boundaries and the immutable superiority of nature, which we don’t actually conquer, but temporarily deceive or elude, you are making yourselves a more capable and adaptable swimmer. 

Be safe.

The Reverie of Cold

Look away, look away.

My head whirls, sentences and clauses. Words and incantations. I need to hold the intent, remember the state. I need to write. I have swum, and now more than anything, I need to write. More than I need people or food, more even than I need heat, I need to vomit out the words.

This time we run
This time we hide
This time we draw
On all the fire we have inside.

My foot is heavy on the accelerator as I drive homeward, the car’s heater blasting warm air around me, an illusion of warmth, my core temperature still depressed, and dressed as I am in four layers of clothes with a heavy coat, gloves and a wooly hat over all. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

I’m in a fugue, and I know I will soon forget. I am one-millionth of a second displaced from the world and I am untouchable and redeemed. That one-millionth gap is a void. Lone swimming ninja ghost. Invisible, alone. I have tunnel vision and I feel like I’ve taken all the world’s narcotics. But I will warm up and then I shall be returned from the Fey Lands, rewarm and forget the connection. Forget the disconnection. Forget the Fey Lands, forget the fugue, start to distrust myself again. I will become normal and insufficient and lose the brief Redemption.

The Fey Lands. Jotunheim. Tír na nÓg. Tuatha Dé Danann and Lachlanach. Celts and Vikings, on the edge of the World. They knew. Earth, fire, wind and water. Cold also is elemental, a succubus. I can only get there in winter, in cold, through cold, with Cold. There is no map, no Google Earth, no App for the Fey Lands. When we leave the Fey Lands we forget their existence. To remember is madness. Others have found different entrances, different landscapes, different climates. Hell is ice not fire. I neither believe in hell nor heaven. Ascetics, hermits, ecstasists. All pilgrims to the Fey Lands. I’m a pilgrim of Cold. Holymad. I approach by swimming, in cold water, enrobed by cold, into Cold. Soon the Fey Lands will slip away, my memory of their existence will attenuate and dissipate, I will distrust my own words, you will think me cracked, the ecstasy of extremism lost to my mundane failed existence. I will forget the reverie of the Cold. Pools cannot ever do this. Other people are masking agents that stop me losing myself to the Fey Lands. Chlorine and warmth are bulwarks, palisades that stop me throwing down heaven, bar me from finding the Fey Lands. 

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

Do this. Don’t do that. Be careful of. You are not allowed. You will fail. You have failed. I am not capable. I couldn’t. I was not able. I failed. I’m embarrassed. I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t write it. Bollocks. Out there I am invincible, untouchable, inviolate.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

I swim to the edge of the Fey Lands. If things are sufficiently marginal, I will glimpse them from the water. I didn’t know, I never knew, I never know that I am swimming to the Fey Lands. 

Cold water. Cold isn’t cold. It’s fire. It burns your skin. Fingertips sting. The soles of feet excruciate. You feel the entire surface of your body at once, you feel the entire skin of the waters and the world. The Cold possesses you, becomes you. No. You become the Cold. The holy Cold. No synonyms are required, nor sufficient.

The currents were strong. Stronger than in years. Not as strong as me. Not this time. All my years there I never had to swim to avoid that reef. Swept past the steps and the concrete, the water still wants me but I turn back, fight back, swim back. I know, know it’s enough and the time doesn’t matter.

Then I broke loose
You weren’t around
So I raised banks
And trains until I tracked you down.

Out of the water, the first glimpse of the Fey Lands is gone. I only know later there was the glimpse. Or was there?  Illusion. Delusion. I get dressed and feel great, powerful, more alive, more life than one body can hold. I have a window of time. An absolute learnt span when I must get dressed before the Freight Train arrives. Grab my box, shamble up the steps.

Fifty steps. Sea to world. Why fifty? Why does fifty seem important? I know. But I feel great. I’ll go for a walk.

Open the lock box on the car. Fire my stuff inside the boot. It’s here. The Freight Train is here. The Freight Train always arrives, inevitably. No walk. I’ll just sit into the car, turn on the heater. Warm air, warm clothes. I’m on the Freight Train. I am in the fugue. Shivering and shaking, the Freight Train takes me. What will the ride be like this time?

We made some friends
But now it’s done
I always knew that we would
Never find the sun.

Short but intense. The Freight Train isn’t a commuter train. No light shivers here, it’s a ride of clattering shakes and chattering jaw.  I don’t feel cold. I never feel cold. I never feel cold. You misunderstand cold. You walked in the rain and got wet on a cold day? I am a connoisseur of Cold. The Fey Lands are different. Your commuter colours are pastel shades but my Freight Train is primary hues. I am alive on the Freight Train. No nodding off on the Freight Train. No mere commuters on the Freight Train. The Fey Lands are around me on the Freight Train. I see them. You cannot. Are you a pilgrim too? How long will I be on the Freight Train, this time?

Afterdrop. Hypothermia. Cold. Rewarming. Mealy words, accurate but inaccurate.

I just realised I am, what do I say, cool? Chilled is the word. Not cold. Cold, that cold, the Cold, the fugue, is a different state. Cold is sacred. The fugue is gone, I’m off the Freight Train. I catch a branch line back. I’ve left the Fey Lands. 

The words. The words weren’t right. I didn’t hold the intent. The fugue. The Fey Lands. The Reverie of Cold. So easy to lose, to forget. People, hot chocolate, fingers on a keyboard. I’m just a cuckoo again. What are these words about? They consumed me and I don’t know. Did I imagine it all?

I shall just have to swim again. In cold water.

Maybe I’ll stop. Maybe I won’t. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

__________________________________________________________________________________

* Words by Chowning & Randle

Advice for New Year Swimming Resolutionistas, whether for exercise, swimming improvement or weight loss

For the entire  year your pool is pretty predictable: “Hey Larry“, “How are you Mary?”, “Want to split the lane, Conor?“. (These are a fictional Larry, Mary and Conor in my local pool, not the actual real-life Larry, Mary and Conor in my local pool).

Then it’s the start of January and the first full week after New Year, they arrive, the Resolutionistas. The New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and/or get fit folk.

Every single year we see them and every single year they are usually gone by the last week of January or the middle of February at the latest.

On the one side they can cause problems for regular swimmers as they fill lanes with Furious Bob’s who have no idea what they are doing. (Thanks to Niek Kloots for the updated link. Just in case that link breaks, I’m mirroring the letter on a static page on LoneSwimmer.com).

On the other and more important side, people who really want to make a change need help and encouragement.

So in a spirit of encouragement for those Resolutionistas who are embarking on an attempt at building a better new life with swimming as a component,  be it to lose weight, get more exercise, become better swimmers or any of the above, I thought I’d offer some advice from someone whose primary qualification is a lifetime throwing himself into and off of things.

  • Swimming is hard. Really, It’s far harder than you think. Sure it doesn’t seem so, as undistinguished-looking middle-aged folk like myself saunter down the deck wearing (shudder) Speedoes like that TV ad singing I gotta be me. Surely the fit looking young people lounging outside the sauna are more worthy of emulation? Good swimming is a combination of superb cardio-respiratory conditioning (heart and lung fitness), highly attuned proprioceptive senses (understanding what every part of your body is doing)  and multiple hours and years of technique training. And I’m an average swimmer by swimming standards. Almost no other sport you have done will compare, thought ballet or dance, about which I know nothing, come to mind as analogous. Think you could pull off a Swan Lake prima donna performance based on 20 minutes practice every second day for two weeks? I don’t. So give yourself a break and take your time. By the way, dump the board shorts and bikinis and take a look at swimming etiquette. There’s a good reason all swimmers wear proper swim wear: Everything else adds drag and therefore difficulty.
  • Pepe-Le-Pew-cartoon-classics-756112_388_335As with any physical exercise consistency is the single most important aspect. You can’t go from zero to hero in four weeks. You have to think long-term. Not a day, instead a week. Not a week , instead a month. Not a month, instead a year. A year is long isn’t it? No, it’s not. You have to rationally understand your improvements are made through attainable and sustainable improvements and measurements. Ridiculous targets in fitness level, ability or weight loss will either not be reached and will lead to disillusionment, or if you make some unexpected change, like weight loss accelerating after four weeks of exercise, it will not be sustainable. Swim, then swim more, then keep swimming.
  • Keep realistic and consistent measurements. There’s hardly an engineer or sportsperson alive who doesn’t think that measurement is vital to improvement. Measure simple things in swimming. First if you can swim 100 metres or yards continuously, whether that’s two or four pool lengths. Forget about how long it takes you because you are not ready for racing. Then see if you can repeat that five times. Then keep an eye on long you have to rest between each 100 metres. I’ve been keeping a detailed log for years, and I enjoy seeing my own progression. But remember, swimmers don’t think or talk in lengths or laps.
  • Learn to breathe. Seriously. The most repeated complaint any swim coach or swimmer has ever heard from a non-, beginner or improving swimmer are the words “I can swim fine but I have problems breathing“. If you cannot breathe, then you actually aren’t a good swimmer. That’s like saying a particular car is good except for the small problem that it needs fuel. Swimmer all repeat coaching aphorisms. I have always liked; swim around your breathing, don’t breathe around your swimming. That means that breath comes before movement in order of priority. You learn to breathe properly in a controlled fashion and integrate that into your stroke. Want the super-secret swimming secret of how this is done? Exhale constantly underwater. Don’t tell the other swimmers I told you the secret.
  • Swimming really does take effort. The other thing swimmers all hear is that their swimming looks effortless. Swimmers are like swans in that way, all seeming grace on the surface, but furious action underneath. We warm up in the pool then we do the main swim sets, then we cool down by easy swimming at the end.
  • Swimming is poor for weight loss in beginners. You will not be getting as much exercise as you think, because you really probably are out of breathe. That is not the same as effort. Swimming also stimulates appetite, unlike many other sports and people often overeat after swimming. (On the positive side experienced hard-training swimmers can generally eat as much of anything as they want as they consume so many calories. Ever eaten 6000 to 8000 calories, in a day, every day and not gained weight?) But some good news also results from a 2013 scientific study that shows even moderate exercise results in changes in the genome that affects fat storage.
  • Keep it simple but vary each day. You should not be trying to emulate the good swimmer in the lane. Be Pepe Le Pew: Relax, and set your sight on eventually catching up with Mon Cherie when they are not expecting it. Don’t do complex sets but don’t do the same thing every day. The main part of your swimming set is that central portion, where you do one particular thing. Today you can do sets of four lengths with a shortish rest. Tomorrow you can do single lengths and try to do them faster with a longer rest between.
  • Gon on red top
    On the red top

    The clock is your friend. Learn to watch it, not for how fast you are swimming, but for how long you are resting. Reducing rest interval times means your heart cardiorespiratory  (heart and respiratory fitness) is improving. Cardiorespiratory fitness is one of the most important predictors of long-term health.

  • The Internet does not know what you are doing. I don’t mean Facebook or Twitter etc. By the way though,  don’t post what you are doing there until you are sure it will stick (at least a year). Instead I mean that YouTube etc have great swimming advice. I even have some here. But I or YouTube are not as effective as the good swimmer in your pool or the local swim coach who can see you. Someone who knows what they are doing who can make actual suggestions relevant to your specific swimming is the best option.
  • Enjoy the improvements. People often say to enjoy the process and that’s true but it’s deceptive. It is the case that every swimmer will tell you, that swimming is full of frustration and exhaustion. Sure there are those indescribable days of “flow“, but they are rare. But the real enjoyment comes from being consistently healthy and fit, and from actually seeing improvement. Your bad swimming days are not special. Your bad swimming days only become special if you allow them to be your last swimming day.

I’m with you. It’s never too late to start, and you can do it.

You are already the captain, pilot and owner of the greatest vehicle you will ever own, your own body. You just need to get a bit more familiar with the controls.

What about we meet here next year and you can tell me about your success?

Related articles

HOWTO: Write a simple swimming training set (loneswimmer.com)

How To use the pace clock (Farther, Colder, Rougher)

HOWTO: Read Swimming Notation (loneswimmer.com)

HOWTO: Lane swimming etiquette (loneswimmer.com)

HOWTO: Introduce interval training to your swimming (loneswimmer.com)

HOWTO: Why you SHOULD shower before you use the pool and why you SHOULDN’T pee in the pool. (loneswimmer.com)

Images of 2013 – 3 – Affinity for water

When I started writing loneswimmer in 2010, almost four years ago, I didn’t add a single image for months. I was learning to write regularly, learning, as I still am, to express my thoughts about swimming, and trying to stick rigidly to one of my guiding principles, not always easy for any Irish person, and especially me, of keeping this blog to the subject!

But with the blog writing, the demand for illustrative images grew, and I didn’t like searching for vague random images. Why not just start taking my own?

So it started. The photos were initially purely illustrative, and for the last two years, I have been getting more on top of the technical aspects.

I think I mentioned in Part 1 of Images of 2013 – People, that I just completed a 365 project, as it’s known in photography, a shot every day for a year, and as I reviewed the year, my progress and improvement and increasing technical ability, it struck me, not for the first time, that the photographs I most love capturing, that I spend the most time on, that I chase the most, nearly all involve water: whether the sea, rivers or lakes (to a lesser extent , as like swimming them, lakes can be boring to photograph). Beginning photographs are sometimes advised to find their photographic passion. It turns out mine was exactly what anyone reading here could have predicted.

Sea pinks
Sea pinks were one of the first things I loved photographing around the coast.

I am limited in my ability to photograph actual open water swimming to a few events where I am crewing. Otherwise I have no exposure to swimming galas or open water races where I am not swimming.

But I guess it is no surprise that I have an affinity for water. Last year I did a round-up of what I though were my best images, but for this last round of my images of 2013, I thought I’d explore my favourite watery images of the year.

The shot below was taken on a very cold January Saturday morning. I’d been at Newtown Cove since before dawn, been there for about two hours. I hadn’t taken anything of merit, though I didn’t realise that at the time, and I was almost as cold as if I’d already swum. I was just starting to play with longer exposures at that time. I left Newtown Cove, putting my gear in the car and wandered down to the Guillamene Cove before I went for a swim. No tripod, no remote, just a handheld camera and the cove was in deep shadow. I braced the camera on the railing and tried to hold it steady in the breeze.

Guilamenes_Painted_waves.resized
Waves breaking over the old steps at the Guillamenes Cove, Tramore Bay, Waterford, Ireland

Of course I was back in Varne and Dover this year a few times. Every time I return to Dover and Varne I hope I’ll get a chance to shoot some better pics for myself but the nature of Channel swimming and Varne and Dover, is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. I can’t spend dawns and sunsets off by myself chasing photographs and I’ve looked off the Varne cliffs as often as any Channel swimmer. This year, I did want to shoot one thing in particular though, that I have also shot before: In November 2012 a bench was installed in the Varne clifftop garden by Sandycove swimmers and friends to commemorate Páraic Casey and his tragic loss in the English Channel and while I’ve taken quite a few shots of it, I didn’t feel I’d done it sufficient justice. I’m not sure I have yet captured it as I want but I shall keep trying.

9-September_Paraic's_bench_IMG_0235_01.resized
Memorial bench for English Channel and Sandycove swimmer Paraic Casey at Varne Ridge, Capel-le-Ferne, UK

I live close to the river Suir, one of Ireland’s longest rivers. Rivers are more changeable than lakes, but less mercurial and unpredictable than the sea.

Winter dawn on the river Suir
Winter dawn on the river Suir

The cool blue dawn light is the best time to capture the river.

Foggy river dawn IMG_8767.resized

But the golden glow of evening enhances the river and adds further depth to the name of the river Suir valley; the Golden Vale.

The Golden Vale and river Suir on the borders of counties Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny
The Golden Vale and river Suir on the borders of counties Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny

I do however notice other rivers than the Suir.

Abhainn na Ri, the King River, rushing past the old mill in Kells in Co. Kilkenny.
Abhainn na Ri, the King River, rushing over the weir past the old mill in Kells in Co. Kilkenny.

Kilfarassey on the Copper Coast I mention frequently, as it’s my alternative main Copper Coast swimming location, which offers a range of challenges, routes and explorations.

Kilfarrassey rocks_MG_8854.resized
The Sea of Not-So-Tranquility

Not everything is open water. A swimming photographer with a simple waterproof camera, (before he kills it, another one gone) will always be on the lookout for the shot that the non-swimming photographer on dry land can’t see. This photo intrigued quite a few non-swimmers who saw it on a forum as I explained what an upside-down sunny pool looks like to a swimmer going through a flip turn.

3 - Upside down pool world-P1010026.resized
Upside-down water world

In summer I traveled south-west to Kerry, the greatest of all Kingdoms, for Rob Bohane’s record-setting Round Valentia Island swim. Travelling out of Glenbeigh in the late long summer evening, Dingle Bay was quite spectacular.

7-July_Dingle_Bay_sunset_MG_6158_01.resized
The blue-layered sunset mountains of the Dingle Penninsula across Dingle Bay.

The next day the distant crag of Skellig Michael island was barely visible from the boat, through the haze of what later proved to be the single best day of summer.

Skellig Dream_MG_6250.resized
Skellig Michael, twelve miles out into the Atlantic in the summer morning haze

Toward the end of the year, I was still shooting on the river, using the different lower angle and setting point of the northern latitude Sun.

River of fire IMG_8931.resized
River of fire

As I swim almost every weekend in Tramore Bay during the winter, I revisited a location on the cliffs from where I like to shoot, as recently I’ve been shooting a lot of black and white long exposure landscape and took my own favourite shot of the year. It looks gorgeous printed. Hint! If anyone is looking for a full resolution print of any of these, we can do that. Limited edition and signed!

At the end of a year, I’m happy with my photographic progress. Water inspires me, transfixes me.

Dreams of Newtown Cove IMG_8599_02.resized
Dreams of Newtown Cove

I may have missed a few of my favourite shots in this quick roundup. If you want to see a wider range, here’s my Flickr account.

I can guarantee, there will be water!

Images of 2013 – 2 – Swimming Locations

I didn’t think 2013 was a great year for swimming new locations for me, though early in the year I’d hoped that would be different. Unsurprising, I suppose, as the longer I’ve been swimming, the further I would need to travel to swim new locations. I’ve covered all the Copper Coast, much of the rest of the Waterford coast and I’m not a fan of river swimming, and there are no significant lakes anywhere near me. Also, I had no big swim this year, not being able to afford one, and the situation looks the same for 2014. :-(

But that didn’t stop me having a look through the year’s locations, and there were a few I’d forgotten to add to my favourites and in review the year wasn’t bad.

I’ll start with my watery home, Waterford’s Copper Coast, and most specifically Tramore Bay from my usual starting location of the Guillamenes Cove.

Tramore Bay_MG_8972.resized
A very calm day in Tramore Bay in December, made even calmer through use of a very long exposure. The orange buoy is about 450 metres out, can’t be seen from distance in the water, and what I use to test my navigation skills during the summer, requiring of myself that I reach it with no more than a 25 metre deviation to either side.

It wasn’t all good at the Guillamenes this year. The increasing litigiousness of Irish society and the nonsensical and fearfully reactionary approach of Tramore town council and my own club led to this steel monstrosity, which so incensed Wallace.

Wallace Guillamenes

Newtown Cove is only 200 metres away from the Guillamene Cove. Though I swim past it on at least half of all my swims, dependant of swim direction, yet I start there less than one time in a hundred. We did however start the distance camp swim from Newtown Cove.

Cove entrance_MG_8971.resized

My favourite other location on the Copper coast is Kilfarassey, providing as it does a range of reefs, caves, tunnels and swim distances and directions, centered around my favourite playground of Burke’s Island which sits about 600 metres from the beach. As a swimmer and blogger I use more representational images. But as an aspiring photographer, I’m increasingly drawn to try to capture more of how I feel about a place.

Burke's Island IMG_8614_01In the first two of the extraordinary five whole weeks of summer that Ireland received in 2013, while the water hadn’t yet risen above 10C, I swam more on the coast at the east side of Tramore Bay. Swimming out from Ballymacaw, Portally and Dunmore East, including finally swimming partway into Seal Cave between Portally and Ballymacaw, a scary place. I’ve never swum this wild stretch of coast without experiencing strong tidal currents running east or west.

One Saturday in June, I took some photos of an inshore fishing boat passing below the cliff walk. Three days later I heard of yet another boat from the local main fishing port of Dunmore East lost with all three hands, all of them brothers, off Powerstown Head, which marks the entrance to Tramore Bay and can be seen in the first photo above, and which is the terminus of the easternmost stretch of Waterford’s coast. When I checked my photographs, it was indeed the same boat, the Dean Leanne, with two of the three tragically lost brothers onboard, probably the last every photograph of the brothers at sea. I found a connection to the family and passed on all the photos.

Dean Leanne & Hook head

In January a group of us attempted an Ice Mile in Dublin at the Bull Wall, but the water wasn’t cold enough, even though I got quite hypothermic.

The swim route. Nothing much to see here.
The swim route. Nothing much to see here.

A few weeks later In March, the same group swam in the Wicklow Mountains at Lough Dan. For a variety of reasons I decided against the full attempt but the trip was great, and wading into ice-covered water measuring less than two degrees at the edges was … interesting.

Lough Dan_IMG_1304.resized

 In the coldest spring in over fifty years in Ireland, Dee and I took some Mexican visitors to the West Coast for the view. The howling Force Eight wind and five degree (Celsius) air meant they were unable to emerge to see much of the scenery. But apparently the most shocking thing they saw was me going swimming in Doolin harbour in a three metre swell in a howling wind and crashing waves, wearing a Speedo, with a dolphin and two fully dry-suited divers. How Dee & I chuckled.

Beyond Doonagore Castle the Crab Beast roars
Beyond Doonagore Castle, Doolin Bay with Crab Island bearing a full Atlantic attack. This shot was taken three miles from that wave.

I don’t think my first Sandycove trip of 2013 was until April, but I managed more Sandycove laps in 2013 than in 2012. My lifetime total is still well below 200, so joining the Sandycove “D” Club of 500 lap swimmers seems distant at best and I shall to remain content with being  “C” club member. Most of the rest of the County Cork Coast eluded me this year, despite early promises from other Sandycove swimmers. And I guess I’ve written and shown you plenty of Sandycove before.

Morning view from the outside west entrance with the sun in the east. The slipway is on the left, some of the reefs at the first corner are appearing and the tide is dropping toward low.
The Red House above is no longer red.

April and May saw me returning to my usual caves on the coast, but leaving exploration for new caves until the water warms up later on in the summer.

Newtown Cave
It is impossible to capture the range of light visible to the human eye with a camera in one photograph but I love the reflections of this shot from inside Newtown Head cave.

I made it back to Coumshingaun in the Comeragh Mountains during both winter and summer. Coumshingaun is the closest lake to me, if one ignores the 45 minute climb, but only I swim it during summer as the edge is circled with rocks and being so far from a road the risks are too high to swim in winter. 

Coumshingaun in winter (Nat Geo filter).resized

Loneswimming Coumshingaun.resized

I’m not sure if I made it out to Carricknamoan rock off Clonea in 2012, but I was back there in 2103. It’s a swim that looks simple in the picture below, taken from the slight height above the beach, and is only about three kilometres round trip, but it still requires experience as the rock is so low that it can’t be seen until the last couple of hundred metres, and there are changing tidal currents.

Carricknamoan & Black Rock_MG_4927-resized.resized

 I also completed a short swim I’d scouted in 2012, swimming out of Ardmore Bay to the wreck of the Samson, under the cliffs of Ardmore Head. (Ardmore is the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland). You can take a shorter 10 minute swim to the wreck if you climb down the path to the angling point and start from there, but what’s the fun in that? While rounding Ardmore Head into the bay on the return swim, Dee took a favourite photo with mine.

Loneswimming IMG_4749.resized

While Distance Camp final weekend and the qualification and torture swims were on, I instead cancelled my planned attendance on the last weekend to catch up with a swim I wanted to do for many years, to circumnavigate Skellig Michael, the 800 feet high island peak the site of a 1500 year old ancient hermetic site, 12 miles off the Irish south-west on the end of the Continental Shelf. Another swim not for beginners, despite its short course.

NW reef IMG_7077.resized

During the summer, I also range out along the Copper Coast away from usual entry and exit spots, particularly liking to risk swimming across Ronan’s Bay, as the return trip can present currents strong enough to cut swim speed by two-thirds and generate a significant challenge.

Newtown Head and the Metalman & pillars from across Ronan’s bay

August is the summer peak for open water swimmers. Long warm(-ish) days (this is Ireland after all), warm water (16 to 17 degrees Celsius in August this year, exceptional) and races. Carol Cashell organises the local favourite Ballycotton 4 kilometres race, which is usually cursed with bad weather, late in August. It’s a challenging swim and the conditions the past two years have made it an experienced-swimmer-only race.

After the race, after the pub, I wandered back down to the tiny beach to catch the moon over the island.

Ballycotton Island moon IMG_8815.resizedSeptember saw two visits to Dover for Sylvain’s Channel Butterfly swim. So there were the usual swims in Dover Harbour,

Dover Harbour Entrance IMG_0196

…and a swim into France with Sylvain. Channel dawn.resized

Not a bad swimming year I guess, in reflection.

If the weather co-operates, when this post is published, I’ll be swimming at the Guillamenes for my Christmas day swim.

Update: The Christmas day weather didn’t co-operate. The swim was cancelled due to heavy seas, but I swam anyway and about 20 people foolishly followed me into the water. Foolish as the swell as almost three metres, and I’ve had a lot of practice at timing and rough water particularly in Tramore Bay. But everyone was safe and fun was had.

Maybe we’ll get to swim together next year but regardless, have a happy holiday and my best to you all, my friends.

Related articles

Images of 2013 – 1 – Swimming People (loneswimmer.com)

HOW TO: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer

[This is a repeat of a post from the last couple of years. This post is pretty popular at this time of year, some editing to previous versions. :-) }

With Christmas coming, many people who would never consider getting in cold water will be thinking of a Christmas or New Year's Day dip.

If you are wondering WHY you might or should do it, apart from taking part in a local tradition in many places, the great craic of meeting lots of people having similar fun,  doing something that will add more flavour to your Christmas dinner than anything, having a hot punch at the Guillamenes and supporting a local charityand the club I love, then read this.

The experienced cold water swimmers will not need any of this information. And those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are enduring hot weather and warm water have my condolences. And there's the South Africans, for whom the water can still be cold down there even in mid-Summer.

Guillamenes Christmas swim 2007

I’ll be down at the Guillamenes myself as usual, with the people who never normally go near the sea. The weather forecast for Christmas Day 2013 is pretty poor, winds and rough water, which will reduce the numbers but I’ll still be swimming unless it blows out.

The most important message I can give you is that cold is a skill, not a talent so it can be learned. But if your first cold swim is Christmas Day, you won’t do learn it on that one day. So instead plan and know what to expect. You cannot be too careful around cold water and rocks. Three days before Christmas 2013, the water in Tramore Bay was about 8.5 degrees Celsius, with a very cold strong wind, giving an air chill of two to three degrees Celsius.

PLAN and OBSERVE:

If swimming by yourself, make sure you inform someone where and when and preferably have an observer.

* If it’s an irregular visit, your most important pre-swim action to make sure you know where to exit the water safely. Do not rely on the wisdom of crowds. Many of the people near you will know nothing and some will be acting macho.

* Watch the water before you get in. Regardless of the amount of people in it, if the water is breaking or surging more than about a metre, on steps, rocks or a ladder, the exit will be difficult, dangerous or even impossible.

* If you have been drinking alcohol the night before, don’t do it. Alcohol seriously impairs the body’s ability to deal with cold. The same applies if you haven’t slept the night before. Bravado has no place around cold water swimming when you don’t know what you are doing.

* Consider putting your swimsuit on *before* you go to the sea. You will spend less time getting cold before you swim.

* Make sure you have: a swim cap (silicone or neoprene preferably). If you only have latex, wear a couple of caps; a towel; goggles. And plenty of warm clothes for afterwards. Including a hat and gloves. Warm clothes are many light layers rather than a few heavy ones.

* Bring sandals or deck shoes. Winter swimmer Jack Bright points these are nearly as important as the towel.

* Bring something to stand on while changing. A spare towel, a piece of cardboard, a car mat.

* Forget grease. It does nothing for cold protection and you won’t in long enough to worry about chafing. If you are in long enough to need lubrication, you need none of my advice.

* Neoprene (wetsuit) gloves and booties will significantly reduce the discomfort if you are not used to cold. Wetsuits are definetiely NOT ALLOWED.

Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011
Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011

BEFORE THE SWIM:

* If it’s windy, disrobe from your lower body first. Keep your torso and body warm for longer.

* Change as close to the water as you safely can. You want to reduce the time exposed before and after swimming. Make sure your clothes are above the high water line though.

* Wear the sandals as close to the edge as you can. The ground usually will be colder than the sea. Cold = numb = lacerations = blood.

* DO NOT STAND AROUND TALKING once you are changed. Get to the water.

* IT’S NORMAL TO BE NERVOUS. Your body is adapted to avoid cold. Just be positive. Accept the increased heart rate. Tell yourself you are a swimming god.

* It’s not a competition. Depending on your location there may be lots of people who don’t know what they are doing in the water that day. There will be 100s at my regular spot, whereas the weekend before there’s just me. Stay clear and watch everything. Move carefully.

* SPLASH WATER on your face before immersion. This indicates to your body extreme cold is coming (by which I include temperatures of up to 12C/55F. I can’t take someone calling 14C/58F cold seriously, no matter how I try). It will allow your heart rate to settle quicker.

* Just as you get in … tell yourself it’s warm. It doesn’t matter if you hear the sucking sound of body parts rapidly shrinking inwards. Cold is partially about attitude. Tell yourself it’s actually better than you thought: Hell, it’s almost warm. I was worried about this?

* DO NOT DIVE IN. Just don’t do it. I don’t care how tough you think you are. Unless you are a very experienced cold water swimmer this is a dumb thing to do. It causes heart attacks and rock impacts. But don’t stand there trying to get in either. Walk in to your waist. Splash the water. Then off you go. No more than one minute getting immersed.

RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim
RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim

DURING THE SWIM:

* Without experience it is difficult to get the face into cold water. This is normal.

* Cold stimulates the gasp reflex through increased heart rate. After the initial 10 seconds It makes breathing difficult for the first three minutes. This is also normal. And why you splash water on your face and get in slowly.

* STAY CALM.

* Change your breathing pattern to head above water or breathing every stroke or 2nd stroke.

* DO NOT STOP IN THE WATER

* HAVE A GREAT TIME. Feel like a hero. Do 10 metres. Or 20 or 50 or 500 metres. It won’t kill you. Probably.

After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.
After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, the Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.

EXITING:

* Watch your exit. Be careful. It is at this point most lacerations occur on the feet, legs and hands.

* Get your footwear on immediately and get to your clothes.

* If the temperature is below 10C, you will likely be a vivid lobster-red colour. Your skin will also be tingling all over your body. You will go from pain to numbness. There is no in-between.

AFTER YOUR SWIM:

* AFTER-DROP is dangerous. You have only a few minutes before its onset unless you only in a short time. After-drop is the body temperature dropping after you exit the water. It’s not a problem if you are only in a couple of minutes, though that time is less if the temperature is 5C (40F) or under.

* DO NOT VIGOROUSLY TOWEL YOURSELF. It speeds up the arrival of Afterdrop.

* Dry the torso first. Dress the torso.

* Then put on a hat.

* Then dress the lower body.

* Then and only then, have your chat, your hot chocolate or soup.

FEEL GREAT, job well done!

Go home and stuff yourself, secure in the knowledge you are a winter swimmer, at least once anyway.

Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012
Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012

Related articles

WHY would anyone swim in cold water? (loneswimmer.com)

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 5

Part 1Part 2Part 3. Part 4.

I wasn’t sure when I started this how long this series would be. Previous long series have run to five posts. This will take six. Given his achievement, I think it’s fair to say that Sylvain deserves a six-part series!

As I wrote in the previous post, almost immediately after Sylvain got sick Mike Oram started feeding him, with no discussion with crew. Between getting sick and Mike’s feeding the time lost was about five minutes.

Twenty minutes later was the next scheduled feed, at 16:45, and adhering to the plan wasn’t as important at this time, but Mike again fed Sylvain, this time with a watery porridge, water, and mouthwash to remove the vomit taste. Five minutes after this feed, Sylvain got sick again but reported feeling better afterwards. Less than ten minutes later again, just before 5 p.m. Mike fed Sylvain this time with a cheese spread on bread. We as crew were superfluous at this stage, and since this was Sylvain’s swim and his success the only important thing, it wasn’t about how we felt, so we bit our tongues. From Mike’s point of view about many things in the Channel with his 800 crossings, crew are mostly baggage, which will be not be a surprise to anyone who has read or heard his many  “swimmers are only my third and slowest engine” comments. The 5 p.m. feed was lengthy, taking Sylle over two and a half minutes.

Sylle in the sixth hour shortly before getting sick
Sylle in the sixth hour shortly before getting sick

So why did Sylvain get sick? As I’ve also said previously, this happens usually because swimmers take in more carbs than they can process as they mostly are in liquid form and happens many people.

Channel swimming burns about 800 calories per hour. The human body, regardless of size, can take in about 280 calories per hour. Earlier during that morning “discussion“, Mike had ridiculed me for not having a “T-form“, or for not knowing the term. Not needing Mike’s approval I’d asked what he meant, and I had mentioned I’d read all his emails to the Channel Chat group over the years, a repository of which articles Niek Kloots hosts on the Netherlands Channel Challenge site. They are worth reading if you are interested in Channel swimming, and being here, you may be interested, as Mike knows more about the Channel than most people, Fred Mardle and Reg Brickell being the only other pilots with similar experience.

The T-form, is essentially a calorific input/output balance sheet (my explanation). Mike explained to me all about calories and liquids and blood and liver etc, not really accepting that I, or indeed any swimmer, might have some or any knowledge of these matters. Mike explained how he had brought the idea from his sales training in the US, in between his extensive sailing and piloting etc and plotting swim routes from California to the North Channel. Apparently.

Mike’s T-form is the written form of the mental calculation that experienced swimmers do subconsciously or even occasionally consciously. Written down or not, there is the same net result: calories-in do not equal calories-out. Eventually a swimmer goes from having a positive glycogen amount in the liver and muscles to a deficit. Part of training is to get adapted to the transition from glycogen burning to fat burning, also known as ketosis. Writing it down adds nothing except work, unless you are so poorly organised or inexperienced as a crew that your swimmer is feeding too little or too much.

Lisa and Zoe and I continued to discuss with each other and to talk to both Mikes. Mike Oram’s primary assertion was “this year’s Maxim is bad“. He said that this Channel season had seen a significant increase in the number of swimmers getting sick.

Maxim is the most used carbohydrate by Channel swimmers and that used by Freda Streeter to feed swimmers on their Dover Harbour training swims, so it became the default. I’ve used it, Lisa and Zoe used it and many more. Maxim is a 99% maltodextrin carbohydrate and both Evan and I’ve written previously about different aspects of feeding. Evan’s posts on maltodextrin product comparisons and osmolality are particularly useful in this discussion if you want to understand some of the varying factors.

In 2012, Maxim became increasingly more difficult to source until it disappeared. Freda and the beach crew and many others, including myself for MIMS2012, and Lisa, sourced anther product, called Vyomax Maxi. Sylle was using a different product as Maxi wasn’t available in Sweden, but his was still just a generic 99% maltodextrin. I’ve also used Sponsor Competition Sponsor Long Energy, Hammer Perpetuum, Go Energy and others.

During the immediate hour subsequent to Sylle getting sick, Mike Ball looked at Sylle’s feed stuff and then asked why we hadn’t informed him that Sylle wasn’t using Maxim. Lisa and I tried to explain that 99% maltodextrin was 99% maltodextrin, regardless of label, we even still call it Maxim. I don’t think Mike Ball, whom I greatly like and respect, really believed us!

During this time Mike Oram spoke much about noted American Channel Swimmer, friend of his and one of the Channel greats, Marcy MacDonald, who only recently had completed another two-way swim, her third, with Mike, her regular pilot. Mike said she had been sick most of the way, and he’d reverted to the older English Channel feeds of porridge, tea and bread to keep her going.

I am of the opinion, as I’ve written about other swimming subjects, that simple explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones: Did Diana Nyad catch a magic unknown current and after over 30 hours swimming somehow start swimming faster than world-record pace? Or did she make it all up for money and fame, following a lifetime pattern of attention-seeking? Is all this year’s maltodextrin, regardless of  vendor, bad and causing illness, or are more swimmers overfeeding?

It is certainly the case that something had happened that I haven’t yet told you. When mixing the feeds the night before the swim, Sylle had mixed the feeds to quadruple strength, so that when diluted with our warm water supply that was used each feed, the concentration was reduced to double. There was … discussion … of this, shall we say. Lest you think this was a crazy ad-hoc last-minute decision by Sylvain, it wasn’t. Sylvain was already a Channel swimmer. He is a very experienced swimmer, a very experienced open water swimmer, and he was following the feeding regime he always used, including his first Channel swim and which he had used for his long training swims.

The last feed before getting sick IMG_8825.resized

During our discussion I mentioned how last year during his English Channel solo, Alan Clack had wanted a double strength feed, and how without telling him, I’d changed it to single strength. In that case I was completely in charge of looking after Alan, and with more experience than Alan, felt sufficiently certain to so do. But I never told Alan, because I knew he needed to believe that I was doing exactly what he wanted.

It’s also the case that I’ve seen a document circulating on email which outlines double-concentrate mixing of feeds. But this document states that this is intended to be mixed to achieve single concentration.

Papillion Francais
Papillion Francais

Without actual details of the swimmers affected I can’t categorically say, but in Sylvain’s case, we know for a fact that he was using double-concentrate and that was the cause of his illness, rather than some manufacturing defect.

I use Sylvain to explore further this whole problem and the challenges of gauging individual feed requirements, and situations that can arise, even for an experienced swimmer and crew, and it’s not meant to reflect poorly on Sylvain.

We all make decisions and the Channel finds us all out one way or another.

Keeping the communications open and being receptive to Mike over the next couple of hours, we continued to watch Sylle closely. The tension for us his friends and the concern for him, was high. Over the course of a couple of hours, between four p.m. and 6 p.m. Sylle’s stroke rate dropped from 28, to 26, to 24. Not a cause for panic but needing to be watched.

This series finishes in the next and final Part.

The race that wasn’t

Finbarr started it with the idea of a Sandycove three-lap invitational race at the end of October. With two weeks to go and no mention, Carol Cashell and I raised the idea again and discussion ensued.

With less than a week to go the starting lineup was small. The forecast for the weekend showed the Irish south-coast would catch the spin-off of storm Saint Jude. (I know, I’ve never heard a storm called after a Saint either). Winds were forecast to be Beaufort Five minimum.

Excellent! A bit of rough water was ideal to level the field. After all the Sandycove locals have it too easy at times, when the weather blows out they just start swimming inside the island. Pfft.

The worse the forecast the better, as far as Carol and I were concerned. Although as the fastest of the group, it wasn’t like she needed an advantage. By Thursday the weather forecasters were all getting excited like we don’t have big storms every year. Jude would bypass Ireland and clobber the UK, and Ireland would be assailed by nothing worse than Force Nine or so. The worst of Saturday’s weather was due to hit before mid-day when the worst of the storm would arrive on the south coast. We were aiming for TITW at 11.30am.

Email negotiations about all the various safety requirements, race rules, evacuation procedures and volunteers led to a concise rule set:

  • Two laps, handicapped.
  • Cake to be proved afterwards by Carol.
  • No rubber knickers.
  • Finbarr was allowed to drown anyone foolish enough to get within an arm length of him (a rule on which he insisted, disguising it as English Channel Rules).

Despite beating Rob and Craig this year, I was due to get an excellent three-minute handicap over both of them, which i didn’t refuse. All’s fair. Rob Bohane is a member of the “M” 1000+ lap club, as is Finbarr and Craig Morrison is a member of the “D” 500+ lap club,. Eddie Irwin, Carol Cashell and myself are all “C” swimmers of 100+ laps. All highly experienced marathon swimmers with many and varied skills.

The local forecast for Sandycove showed winds peaking between 10am and 1pm, anywhere from Force 6 to Force 8.

Second Corner IMG_0094
Second Corner to third corner, buoy in the distance.

The second corner looked quite reasonable when I arrived, though the rain meant I could only take one quick shot. The wind was still rising. Down at the slipway, another M club member (1000+), Mags Buckley (no relation) said the water was lovely and warm but she’d stayed to the inside.

From the slipway we could see the waves breaking across the first corner, and the outside wave that only breaks when winds are getting high, reaching into the corner. The expert round beside the first corner was impossible. The normal route outside first corner was impossible. Even the cowardly route outside the normal first corner was … (f)risky. I like (f)risky.

At the last minute, the handicap and race was thrown out. Then the five others started swimming just as I was on the slipway. The water was indeed warm, an extraordinary for end of October fourteen degrees (57F).

Just getting to the outside was testing. The narrow point between the island and mainland produced an unpredictable wall to swim through, which ripped my goggles off. Going over the top resulted in a crash into the trough. Unlike a breaking wave, it wasn’t predictable. Meanwhile waves were peeling off the corner rocks where the expert Sandycovers normally cut inward. The first corner was froth but all the guys were waiting beside the outside break. I took a slightly inside line, watching for the rock that is only exposed to air in conditions like this, having seen it once last year from above in similar conditions, and therefore having its location well imprinted. I stopped to fix my goggles a second time, something that was to continue for the whole swim as they were constantly loosened by the waves. Then we were all off again.

The waves were about three metres, not at all unusual for a Tramore Bay swimmer, and in the “lumpy” category. But outside the island, things change. Apart from being in the direct path of the south-west wind coming over the Old Head of Kinsale, some wind was diverted at water level along the side of the coast. Waves climbed out of deeper water onto the island shelf to produce one of the most unpredictable of water states, that of reflected waves over rock.

First corner. Note the outside wave, which had grown by the time we started.
First corner. Note the outside wave, which had grown by the time we started.

The waves hit the island and bounced back, doubling up with incoming waves at different times and places, causing sudden occasional peaks of four to five metres or shelving waves to scend suddenly, like a punch of water. The 360 degree horizon was mere metres away for everyone, all of us sunken into watery bowls, except for the island’s grassy profile, the wind and rain and spume filling the air, grace in the water impossible even for a swimmer of Carol’s style.

It was excellent fun, that feeling of being hurled and thrown by an ocean that would be terrifying for beginners but feels like an opportunity to revel for a more experienced swimmer.

One moment we were two or three metres apart, the next we were thrown onto each other. I picked up a scrape, not from rocks, but from Rob being thrown onto me fingernails first.

The second corner is where expert Sandycovers risk the limit. The interface of gradually descending reef and pushing swell. How close? How much risk can you take? We love the second corner. Approaching out of the kidney bean shape, you can be too close or too far out, and even if you get a great line, you still have others to deal with. Others who put you on the reef, or risk the reef themselves, and laugh. People like Finbarr, Craig, Rob, or me. The second corner is a melee, a game of chicken played not with other swimmers but with rock. Unthinking, unmoving and therefore always triumphant rock.

But not that day. The second corner was instead a marine Jackson Pollock, the reef as canvas, the sea as paint, the wind as artist. From outside we could only see the precipice of the artichokey-feldgrau waves as they crashed onto the corner. We all went wide, to a greater or lesser extent. Carol and I cut in a little as we passed the first two hundred and seventy degrees of turn, catching a wave to pass the trailing end of the reef.

We stopped again to regroup. Past the second corner is a favourite spot of Sandycove swimmers, inside the mush, behind the reef, where if you are not racing, you can stop and chat, before you race back anyway.

Inside channel IMG_0101
Inside the island, deceptively calm an hour earlier

Assembled again we all re-started, as I grabbed the positional advantage. The visibility decreasing as the wind of the leeward side funneled around the low third corner. Then around into the inside. Sheltered from the outside storm, the visibility, already poor, actually decreased. The wind poured up the inside, driving rain and chop head-on. The Red House (now grey) took ages to pass swimming against the wind. Eddie passed on my left. Carol passed me on the right, their better strokes more advantageous in the lesser size of these conditions. Was I middle of the Channel or left of right? I couldn’t see. The water here lacked any visibility also. Any one stupid enough to be on a boat in the channel on the day better be keeping an eye out for the even-more-stupid swimmers.

Past the Red House eventually, the forward chop constantly slapping me in the face. Stay low. Get under it. I know where the slipway should be, but instead I swing left. The fourth corner seems miles away on my left. It’s an island though so I can’t get lost.

Had to line up for the first corner again. From this angle you normally approach really close in. But there are rocks beside the island between fourth and first so outward, back through the middle of the gap, once again getting hit by the waves of the narrow point. Further out this time, the waves looked bigger. Outside the corner, finally out of the head-on rain, I stopped and looked around. No sign of the others. Ha! Loneswimmer alone again.

No further waiting I set off again, enjoying the outside once more, watching for the pure white water indicative of a sub-surface reef, watching for square waves within two metres of me, sliding along the faces of the sudden peaks to surf in and swim back out, tacking and gibing my way around the island, going wider around the second and third corners to enter the inside channel again, and to cruise back to the slipway, the driving rain dropping but the water visibility still being impenetrable, until I crashed into the slipway, the other five already changed having only completed one lap each. Default winner of the race that wasn’t! Didn’t even bother towelling dry in the rain. Cakes and buns from Carol and Maura Morrison.

Thirty minutes later the wind had almost died, the rain was gone, and the water settled. We had got the timing exactly right. By accident.

I once suggested Mike Harris’s “It’s a bit lumpy, chaps” could the club motto, and this day was the epitome of that attitude. Rough water is fun (once you know you don’t have to swim through it for the next twelve hours).

How to be an open water swimmer …

I’ve had no time for writing recently. The huge effort of writing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim 2013 report series, long hours at night moderating the marathonswimmers.org forum during the Diana Nyad controversy, personal crises, trips to Dover and other things have meant the blog has been quieter than since I started, I’ve always previously been able to carve out time and desire to write.

Do I still want to write? I certainly haven’t recently. Though Sylvain Estadieu’s record-setting English channel butterfly solo is something I do want to write about and share. And since I was on the infamous “review panel” I need to set out my own thoughts and response here, away from the forum. So bear with me. And let’s see if the Sun is setting on loneswimmer.com, if it coming to the end of a natural lifespan, because I just don’t know.

In the meantime, as much for myself as for you, I went back to my first ever post here. I didn’t remember that the very first two words I wrote here were “lone swimmer“. I need to think about that. 

Things have changed. Things have stayed the same.

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Lone swimmer or solo swimmer?

We’re all solo swimmers.
I happen to like being a lone swimmer also, not that I have much choice.

Open Water swimming is an individual expression of freedom, challenging one’s physical and mental abilities in a dangerous environment. The activity does not damage any other humans or its environment.

Want to be an open water swimmer?

Go swim in open water. Rinse. Repeat.

(But some information would be helpful if you’re not sure. Loneswimmer.com is about trying to address that.).

Substance abuser

I have a substance-abuse problem.

Sometimes I’ve used it when I should have been doing other things.

I thought of it when I should have been thinking of other things.

I done it to extremes, by myself, often where no-one else can see me.

Sometimes I done it in full view of others and felt no shame.

I started casually. “This won’t cost much”, I thought.

But gradually it became more serious. I started doing more. I needed to satisfy the cravings and the craving got bigger.

I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. They led me further astray.

Then I started to push others into my questionable lifestyle. “More”, I said. “Do more. Get hard-core”.

I had no shame.

I’ve even enabled others.

And it’s worse, far worse…

…I don’t want to stop.

I’m a sea-swimmer.

I abuse salt-water.

MIMS 2013 – Part 3 – Water contamination and shared boats

Part 1. Introduction

Part 2. Start Timing & boat availability

In Part Two, I raised a question, a question that over-shadows much of the discussion of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and so needs to remain to the front.

What is the significant entry fee ($2150) per swimmer actually for, if not for a boat per swimmer? Why does the entire fee have to be paid in advance the previous year, if NYCSwim has not been allocating part of it to ensure a boat per swimmer? I know that swimmers believe they are paying for a service that includes boat support.

NYCSwims’s Response to Water Contamination

One part of NYCSwim’s three-fold Mission Statement is “creating stakeholders with a vested interest in the local waters“.

The first line on NYCSwim.org’s page on water quality reads: “The water quality of the Hudson, East and Harlem rivers is fine“.

This is a general assertion, and it’s likely true much of the time. But the water around Manhattan on the day of MIMS 2013 was badly contaminated by over ten centimetres (four inches) of rain of the previous day, Saturday July 7th by run-off and overflowing sewage. Contaminated water is always a factor for MIMS. The organisation has an advisory that swimmers  should get Hepatitis and Tetanus vaccines, which is great advice. Allegedly, the organisation introduced a policy in 2006, based on previous experience of the race being cancelled in 2005 over water contamination issues, and according to comments on the marathonswimmers.org forum, that should water contamination exceed safe levels the swimmers would be told before the swim and the decision to swim left to them. This didn’t happen. If as has been asserted that this is a NYCSwim policy, which isn’t outlined on the website that I could see, then NYCSwim would have violated its own rules. Surely swimmers in MIMS would be amongst the most vested-interest stakeholders that MIMS mentions in its Mission Statement.

One swimmer told me: “Swimmers were told after the event (at award ceremony) that numerous agencies did not want the event to go ahead“.

MIMS swimmers, marathon open water swimmers, are in the main less concerned by these issues than the general public (as any MIMS swimmer will tell you of the many times they’ve been asked if they knew the water was dirty). But that doesn’t mean swimmers are completely unconcerned or don’t want all the relevant information. Not every swimmer has the same health or immunity or preferences. Another swimmer has said they believed most swimmers were aware that of water contamination issues prior to the start. Levels of post-swim illness certainly seemed significant across the entire entry field this year. One participant has written that another swimmer was hospitalised after the swim. I wondered last year why MIMS can’t simply collate the information of sickness from each year’s swimmers, as Ireland’s Lee Swim requests from over 300 swimmers. I still wonder.

Sharing Boats

Another situation that arose as a result of NYCSwim’s ad-hoc approach to ensuring a sufficient supply of boats is that swimmers were asked if they would consider sharing a pilot boat with another swimmer. Should they so do, they would be given a refund of a portion of the entry fee.

Swimmers who agreed to share a boat were told they would receive a $400 refund. But at least one swimmer who did share a boat, only received a refund of $200, less than 10% of the entry fee and half what that swimmer and at least one other swimmer believed NYCSwim had said, that the refund would be $400 per person sharing a boat, NOT per boat. This fractional refund and confusion over such seems mealy-mouthed.

What would have happened at MIMS 2013 had none of the swimmers agreed to share a boat? This question is a corollary of the lack of boats, and one that would worry me if I were a prospective MIMS swimmer.

Amongst those swimmers who did take the option of a shared boat, (which is a possibility any swimmer might have taken to allow other friends to be able to participate), they were sometimes paired with swimmers of significantly mismatched speed, which could be put down to this being a last-minute decision.

A pre-swim risk assessment, based on the now-known fact that NYCSwim didn’t have a plan to ensure boats for every swimmer, should have included this possibility, and more closely matched swimmer speeds. Some swimmers on shared boats, though they all had individual kayakers, of whom reports and my own experience are universally excellent,  were without boat support for sometimes an hour at a time. Kayaker support for swimmers in MIMS is voluntary.

Everyone loves to see speed records and fast swimmers and great races. But it’s the majority of average swimmers that pay the majority of the funds, that make up the majority of any event, we are the cannon fodder. Our sport is unusual in that speed isn’t everything. We celebrate toughness, individuality, endurance and resilience just as much as speed.

It’s true that I’ve covered both speed and endurance on loneswimmer.com, because I believe that I both love and appreciate the full spectrum of the sport. I have many friends covering literally the entire spectrum of swim speed, from Trent to Jackie. But I’d freely admit to having greater personal appreciation for the slower or average swimmers, and those who swim with little chance of medals or glory other than completion, who swim for personal achievement, or the Jackie Cobells, Wendy Trehiou’s and Stephen Redmonds of the sport, who demonstrate that greatness can be achieved in ways other than speed.

I believe that it is the triumph of the ordinary and average person that makes marathon swimming so fascinating and compelling. Our sport is built on a foundation of toughness and determination, of an overwhelming inexplicable desire to participate, to overcome, to finish.

Everyone should understand that there is no speed record in the world that can substitute for overcoming the odds, for being tested and prevailing, for getting there using your own arms … for just standing up at the end.

*

In Part Four I will look at swimmer control and some miscellaneous items before moving to a conclusion and recommendations in Part 5.

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MIMS 2013 – Part 1 – An outsider’s opinion – Introduction

Very occasionally there are posts I don’t want to write. This is one of those posts/series. These posts include details that I would want to know if I was a prospective MIMS swimmer. I know that some people will be unhappy or angry about these posts, others will deny aspects herein. But I’ve always tried to be honest in my posts. Usually that’s at my own expense. If I am happy to tell you about the mistakes I’ve made and stupid things I’ve done in swimming, why would I avoid talking about other’s mistakes? Well, I’ve avoided it because I neither naturally seek nor enjoy confrontation unlike others  who seek to provoke confrontation. I wrote this because I felt it had to be done.

I’d prefer to be honest and trusted than to be politic and part of some clique. And if it does all go wrong, if I become this week’s global swimming bad guy, as seems possible, I can always go swimming on the Copper Coast. The jellyfish won’t care.

Background: MIMS is the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim: MIMS started in its current incarnation in the 1990′s; it’s currently the longest amateur swimming race in the world at 28.5 miles, current-assisted; run once a year; open to a limited number of applicants, (previously less than 40); who must undergo a lengthy application and screening process; and which places fill within 30 minutes of going live; to swimmers of a range of speeds from around the world; who must have a minimum of a six hour swim in their resumé. MIMS is also utterly unique in swimming in that its location is entirely in a spectacular urban environment. MIMS costs about $2100 to enter, with possible extra fuel surcharge fees on the day. MIMS is the flagship event run by a private organisation, NYCSwim, which also holds many other open water events of differing distances in the New York region, throughout the year. 

Swimming past the Empire State Building
Swimming past the Empire State Building

Disclaimers: I swam MIMS in 2012, and I have many friends who have also completed it over the years, of a range of speeds. I have friends on the selection committee. All may very well be angry at this post and me. I was contacted by the principle organiser apparently due to my criticism of how NYCSwim handled the dropping of CSA Channel Soloists from Event to Observer qualifying status, (an esoteric problem unless you are a swimmer who has vested interest in this argument). I was also tackled for writing “go as wide as is legal down the Hudson”, something over which I still stand. From the 2013 field, I know or have met fourteen of the forty entrants and had communicated with more. Many of the entrants, both official finishers and boat-assisted, I consider friends. However I am NOT speaking for any of the swimmers but myself and I have not been asked to write this, though I have received feedback and constructive comments for which I am grateful, from many people including swimmers, and others around the world who volunteered in MIMS, wish to swim MIMS in the future, have significant race event or other swimming experience and even other relevant areas of expertise.

The purposes of this series are to bring the issues from 2013 out into the light, and most importantly, to make MIMS better, safer and worthwhile for future swimmers.

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Lest you think otherwise, I congratulate all those swimmers who finished, regardless of designation, and applaud those who raced into place finishes.

*

MIMS 2013 was a fiasco for many involved. Thirty-nine swimmers started and eleven were official finishers, four were DNF, and most of the remainder were designated as “boat-assisted”.

Why so many “boat-assisted”? Because the race started late. I don’t think anyone is arguing this, though there is a less-than-complete explanation of what happened from NYCSwim.

I have spoken with many of the swimmers, not initially with a view to writing this, but because we are all swimmers and I’m certain people considering MIMS for the future will want to understand. It’s been said about MIMS 2013 that we don’t know the full story. That’s true. But that’s always true of everything and we do know plenty, much of which hasn’t been discussed publicly, and some of which goes to the future of MIMS as a globally important marathon swim.

  • Why is it important that MIMS 2013 is discussed openly?

Any swimmer wants to know that an organisation has due care and consideration for swimmer’s safety. Any swimmer wants to know they will be treated fairly. Any swimmer wants to know that the organisation they are entrusting is reputable. Any swimmer wants to know that the risks they are taking are understood and don’t include a significant financial risk. Any swimmer, like myself, wants to see MIMS continue as a properly-run event. NYCSwim must improve its procedures. No-one wants to see swimmers put at risk, whether their safety or finances, beyond the inherent accepted risks of the sport.

  • Why am I writing when others who were there aren’t writing?

Many swimmers who were caught by the late start are nervous to speak out because they fear they will be looked-over for entry should they re-apply next year. Some others are “disgusted” by NYCSwim’s repeated contravention of its own guidelines and a seemingly cavalier approach to swimmer’s stated concerns and formal complaints and have avowed to me no further support of the swim or the organisation, a very strong stance.

None of this year’s swimmers have asked me to write this, but many MIMS 2013 swimmers are friends, and we are all fellow swimmers. People occasionally tell me that they trust me to tell the truth about swimming, at least as I know it. I also feel both lucky and slightly guilty that I swam MIMS 2012 without these complications, without realising just how close to the edge of chaos the organisation had skirted. I’m pretty much sure based on lifetime of experience that when a situation arises where people are unwilling to speak out that something somewhere is wrong. A swimmer who has done nothing wrong should have nothing to apprehensive about, (though that may be naive). I use the words chaos and chaotic in these posts, partially because that how it strikes me, but also because almost every single person I’ve communicated with used one or both of those words, unprompted.

MIMS requires that swimmers pass Hell Gate on the east side of Manhattan at the junction of the East and Harlem Rivers or they will be caught in a turning tide and unable to progress. It also requires they be at Spuyten Duyvil at the northern tip of Manhattan within a maximum time to catch the tide back down the Hudson river. This means an important qualifying question for MIMS is the swimmer’s speed. Swimmers entered range from slow to elite swimmers, started in waves a couple of minutes apart, with the fastest last. NYCSwim can and has accepted slow swimmers that are supposed to be set off first to allow them to meet these critical points in time.

Here’s what NYCSwim’s email newsletter contained, sent two weeks after the event:

“June 8, 2013, also known as the day of the 2013 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, was a tough day. This isn’t to say it’s ever easy, but even by MIMS standards, this year’s swim was mighty difficult. Manhattan was drenched by over four inches of rain in the 24 hours before gunshot. Boats committed to the event had trouble making it in, resulting in a shortfall and a delayed start. All this, on top of already unseasonably cool water temperatures, compounded problems caused by Sandy last fall. On race morning, the NYC Office of Emergency Management considered canceling [sic] the race due to water quality issues. Despite the challenges, the race was held, with just one swimmer bowing out. That afternoon, 11 solo swimmers and one relay triumphantly finished the course straight through. [...] We’re looking at went wrong in 2013, both within and outside of our control, and we’re confident this knowledge will make 2014 a great swim. Still for all those involved, in water or on land: Good on ya! Thank you for your participation and your understanding.”

That’s pretty much the extent of NYCSwim’s public commentary on this year’s MIMS. It’ll be worth bearing in mind when we come to an example of direct communication from NYCSwim in a future post in this series.

In the next part I’ll interrogate various aspects of this year’s swim.

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Addressing my own stroke deficiencies

During the post about rechecking my open water stroke rate, I mentioned I’d been doing more technique work in the first half of the year, following attendance of a Swimsmooth clinic and seeing my stroke for the first time a couple of years. I’d made the mistake of taking my eye off my technique, or thinking it was better than it was, a problem, as I’ve said before, of being a lone swimmer.

Everyone looks more impressive when you freeze the action!
Everyone looks more impressive when you freeze the action!

I generally almost never cover stroke and technique work, except for one time about deficiencies of T.I. in open water. This is for a couple of reasons: I’m not a stroke expert: Technique and stroke are not the aim of this blog: There are enough people doing it already: I’m here to write about open water swimming. That said, it’s better to swim open water effectively by developing your technique.

Paul Newsome and Swimsmooth classify swimmers into loose categories and I was (to absolutely no surprise to myself) classified as a swinger. (Stop that sniggering down the back). The characteristics of a swinger include a higher stroke rate and certain stroke errors, some of which I exhibited, some of which I didn’t. I did have a crossover from my left arm, especially when swimming faster. I had delayed breathing on my left (bad) side and a consequent tendency to sweep that arm wide and make a slightly thumb-first entry on my right hand which worsened when swimming with a two-stroke breathing pattern over my usual three-stroke bilateral breathing pattern. And I was sweeping both arms wide on pull. All poor technique.

It wasn’t all bad. According to twice-World Silver medallist Cassie Patten, I had good rotation, good head position, little leg drag, a relaxed and consistent and even efficiant stroke on my normal bilateral distance pattern

Many of the worst problems therefore crept in when using breathing every second stroke.

Swimsmooth’s clinic includes a set of remedial drills for each swim type. Almost none of them are unique to Swimsmooth, experienced swimmers may have encountered each drill previously as I had. But the feedback did give me a good range of techniques and stroke flaws on which to focus without having to plunder the almost never-ending range of swim drills available. To these I added some drills I already knew.

Most important of all was going back to a consistent usually-once-a-week focus on my technique.

2012 FINA Number 1 and English Channel Record holder Trent Grimsey and his brother Codie have started a great new series of technique video drills.

Left-side, right side: There are many names for this drill. Left-side, right side (or even lhs/rhs) is what the Sandycove swimmers call it. It’s also known as a single side drill, rotation drill, lateral or even a kick drill. This is one of the most basic, and probably most fundamental of all front crawl drills. It’s also hugely useful as it drives balance, direction, body position. Done properly It will raise your legs,  keep arms forward and aid balance. This drill is quite variable, as it starts with doing a length on each side, then one can add a slow controlled rotation every half-length or quarter length or every 12 or 6 kicks etc. Adding rotations will really get you to focus on forward drive and help reduce crossover. The forward arm should be high. The arm not being used should be on your hip. I make sure the is vertical, thumb is resting on my hip little finger out of the water. It should also be done with an awareness, rather than as a lazy drill. It’s perfectly acceptable to do this drill and its variants wearing fins. I think I being completely aware of what you was doing during every stroke of every drill, would have the most benefit that goes across all drills. It’s all too easy to slip into just getting drills done.

Single arm drills.

These drills can be done with fins or without if you are more advanced. There are three variants that I use:

  1. The first is simply a length with one arm by my side, stroking with the other. This drill helps good rotation and balance and pull and you only breathe to one side to help you to learn to breathe to the “bad” side. The secret to doing it is to get full body rotation from side to side and make sure to pull straight through.
  2. The second variant is to keep an arm straight out and do the same. This will help you get a feel for your catch and high elbow  during the pull phase.
  3. The final variant is what I know as a Rhythm drill. This is two strokes on each side, breathing on the second, then switching to two strokes on the other side. The unused arm can then be held out in front or by your side (more difficult).

These single-arm drills, especially the rhythm drill, are not beginner drills for most people. You are trying to develop a nice even flow and steady rhythm on them all with a straight even catch and pull. You can expect these to take a while to get comfortable with.

 

Sculling drills. These are drills I’ve never been good at doing. Even now, I tend to completely forget them. The purpose of various sculling is to feedback how slight changes in pitch of the hand affects the catch. They allow you to feel and adjust the effectiveness of your hand position in the water. For most sculling drills, only the hands are moving you, so it’s best to use a pull-buoy. Short arm doggie paddle strokes could be called a type of sculling drilling, though this also uses forearm.

Along with these drills I also constantly do warm with paddles. You’ve already seen my bag of paddles, all used for different aspects of stroke. Paddles seem to work best as part of technique work for me when I use at least two different types during warm up.

Other: I made a few other changes. I started doing more long sets for time, working on holding and pushing the bilateral breathing to my maximum, without having to resort to the two-stroke breathing pattern. This only became possible because I was focusing more on technique all the time and once a week I either did a set of 400s for time, or repeat 1000s or 1500s for time, aiming to hold.

I’d like to emphasise two things here: These are the current drills and technique problems that I’m addressing. They may not be yours.

You may use these drills, but you need to be sure they are useful for your stroke problem(s).

While these drills are all good, they are used as part of a whole. Technique work is or should be ongoing for most of us, and no sooner do I think I have  handle on it, than something else slips without me realising. The most effective step to improving stroke is to have it assessed by someone who knows how to do so, or even better, to have it video recorded. If you are being recorded, make sure to get as many angles as possible: side, front, overhead and underwater. I recently was recorded myself with a simple compact camera.

I’d love to say I look much better, but now I see other problems: my left arm is now sometimes crossing over underneath the water, and when pulling it’s not vertical, while my right arms slips out too far before pulling. I am dropping my right hand at the wrist before entry, an old problem that seems to have deteriorated. Ah well, back to the drills.

Swimming is a sport with limited proprioceptive feedback. We should available of any external viewpoint or feedback and continually have our strokes assessed to pursue a pattern of continuous improvement.