“I just can’t handle the cold”. Part 1

The most common problem I see with cold water is the fear of cold or the lack of belief of being able to deal with it.

“I just can’t handle the cold”, as so many people say to me.

It is more a belief or perception though, often extrapolated from other factors, (like how much a cold shower hurts), than a fear grounded in knowledge.

Here’s a point though: None (almost) of us like cold. (I have met one swimmer who says he prefers it, but just one). It’s just that cold is something to deal with. For marathon swimming it often becomes THE thing. And an aspect of open water swimming that’s often missed is the challenge, not the race. In fact I personally think the mental challenge, of everything, not just cold, is THE challenge of Open Water, as it is with every sport.

I’m almost never going to be the fastest (unless I choose the event carefully). But I want to be the best I can be. For an ok swimmer like me, it can be something that levels the playing field. I’m swimming against myself instead.

I went for my first non-wetsuit swim in May 2006. I’d been in the pool about 6 weeks at that stage.
Remember, I’d been a surfer for about 7 years at that stage, and since it’s Ireland, most of my surfing was in the winter. Wearing a wetsuit. But I thought I knew about cold.

I remember the extreme nervousness I had before getting in that first swim without the wetsuit. I was almost hyperventilating prior to entry. My chest was heaving. However I know myself well enough that I generally handle physical fear by throwing myself into whatever causes it. “Don’t be a sissy”, I told myself.

I guessed it was around a mile or so around the Island. I had no idea if I could make it out to the first corner of the island, about 300 yards away. I was wearing a sleeveless 1mm neoprene which I thought was a good intermediate step. I didn’t know if I would drown or die of hypothermia.

But it was warm sunny day, with no wind, and it wasn’t too bad. Quick submersion and a sudden rise in adrenalin and I shot off for the first 50 yards but then I settled and it was OK. I made it to the first corner and decided to go another bit. I actually went around the island and was delighted. I think it took around 35 minutes. It’s actually 1900 metres give or take depending on tide, I got dressed and don’t remember recall suffering any cold after-effects. I wasn’t sure how much the neoprene vest contributed to feeling OK.

So it wasn’t that big a deal in the end. That said at that time I was about a stone lighter than now and much less fit. But getting in the same time that day was another chap maybe a few years younger than me, with a body like a whippet. No body fat, ultra-fit. Maybe a serious tri-athlete? I took no notice but my girlfriend told me he made it about 50 yards before turning and getting out. I guess the shock was part of the problem. He didn’t give it those few vital extra seconds to let the heart rate slow, but I guess he was also much more vulnerable to the shock.

Looking back, it’s hard to guess the temperature that day, but I’d guess 13 to 14 Celsius, as the weather had been good a few days. Which is of course, by Irish standards, actually pretty decent!

A few weeks later the local pool manager, who became a good friend, and is responsible now for all this swimming lark, invited me out for a 1 mile sea swim, (Baile na Gall, Dungarvan). It was cold. Very Cold. No neoprene vest this time. Slow entry because it was low tide on a flat beach with stones underfoot. But it was OK a couple of minutes after I got going again. This time I noticed how hard it was to get my face in the water. I did the full swim and I think it took about 45 minutes. That was it for me. I found my new thing.


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