I went to bed the night before the dip feeling very nervous. I had a bag packed with everything I needed to recover after. Thats the important part. Get warm after the swim/dip. I had my Jedi dressing gown so that must have been quite a sight for any random person walking by. I was technically prepared but not 100% mentally prepared.
7am. ALARM! I got out of bed as soon as the alarm went off. If you don’t do that and have a single second to think “5 minutes more” then you’re never getting up. So I got up. 5 minutes later I was thinking that I was mad for wanting to do this. I could get back into bed and cuddle up with my wife instead. 5 minutes after that and I was properly awake and had acclimatised to the cold. I knew that as cold as the water was I would acclimatise to that too. So I got my coffee flask sorted and off we went.
Dusk. Beautiful morning dusk light filled the sky. I still thought this was absurd and I was nervous as hell but at least it was a beautiful morning. At the very least I’d get some good photos. There was a good small crowd of people getting ready to go in. I spoke with a few about what the best approach was and the most important thing was to do your own thing. Don’t be an idiot and go diving in. Take it slow. Know your limits. Know yourself. If all you do is get knee deep then that’s perfectly fine.
People start getting in. There’s a diverse range from young to old. Some have swam the Channel and for others this is their first time. Everyone is accepted. It’s the strangest social experience I’ve had. I take my Jedi robes off and force myself in. I’m standing at the waters edge in diving shoes, shorts and my Snoopy beanie. There’s a photographer I know documenting the group. There’s a guy from the running group I joined before Christmas already in the water and there’s another photographer who knows my work already in the water. I’m surrounded by strangers, friends and people I sort of know and I’m just wearing shorts in a lake. It’s surreal.
10 years ago when I got into running I used to train around the back streets. I would hide away just in case I ran into someone I knew. I didn’t want them to see me sweating in skin tight running gear. It took me a long time to get used to running in public. I was very self conscious about my body. I still am. I bought a new jumper yesterday and while trying various sizes on I kept thinking “This really accents my man boobs so maybe not for me.” I’m pretty good at appearing tall and not fat. People are surprised when I say I’m 16ish stone. So even though I’m happy to run around in tight fitting running gear I still have image issues. But on this day I’m just in shorts. There is no room to hide how I look. I have to accept it and enjoy the morning.
I do accept it because at that moment I may look like a fat guy in a beanie but I’m doing something to better myself. I may look like a fat guy running and no-one wants to see bits jiggling but at least I’m out there trying to better myself instead of sitting on the couch eating Pringles. At the moment where I’m standing at the waters edge of the marine lake in just my shorts and a beanie being photographed by a photographer I admire and respect knowing that there’s a remote chance everyone I know in the photography community could see me like that I chose to feel that this is me at my best not my worst. It is by admitting that we are all flawed and imperfect beings that we can inspire others to have a go. You don’t have to have the body of a god to take up running or swimming. You just have to try and then try again and do a little bit more.
I walk in. It’s cold. It’s painfully cold but I’m ok. I get up to my knees and take in the moment. I see others going further in but I’m ok where I am. Some people simply walk into the lake and swim off. I’d like to do that too but today is all about testing my limits. After a short period of time I go a bit deeper in. The water and I make contact in a very refreshing way. It’s very very fresh. Someone makes a joke. We laugh. We’re all laughing. Are we mad? Maybe. We’re having a laugh though. The woman next to me says this is the coldest temperature she’s ever been in and she’s been doing it since November. I feel happy about my progress. I’m doing this on the coldest day possible. This is my introduction. So if I can do it today I can do it any day.
The woman next to me dips down and screams. It’s bloody cold. Strangely though the top half of me out of the water feels colder than the rest of me. I’m not sure I can feel my feet. Is that a plus at this time? Is it a sign I should get out? I can feel the sludge around my feet though and I’m very glad I had diving shoes on. I dip my hands in and take them out. They instantly feel like they’re twice as big. “What the hell just happened?” I think. They look the same size but they feel huge now. I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea of pushing myself, finding my limits and knowing the difference between being in trouble and waiting to acclimatise to the situation. The feeling in my hands really freaks me out.
I decide to be brave and go just a bit further out. I want to see if I can dip down to my neck. I drop down. “” I think. It’s so cold. Man alive it is cold. I breathe. The trick is to keep breathing. Don’t freak out. Just breathe. It’s all fine. “ it’s so cold.” After 30 seconds I decide to get out. The key thing is to get out while you’re having fun not when you’ve had enough. I’ve had fun. I’ve pushed myself. This is the first step. I’ll be back next week. I don’t have to swim a mile today. Just test the water.
I get back into my Jedi robes and get in the car. I’m not as cold as I expected to be but my feet feel odd. They were in the longest. I get changed. There’s no real time for modesty as I need to get warm and to be honest the cold has shrunken my manly bits so much that there’s nothing to be modest about. I change and have some coffee to warm me up before heading home. It’s been quite a morning.
“When you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything.” – George McFly
That’s the feeling I’m left with after my dip. The water temperature was around 5c. The outside temperature was 6c but felt like 1c. I stood around in that in just shorts and a beanie before getting neck deep into the water. I put my mind to it and accomplished it. I rarely get this feeling from running. Maybe when I do a 10k but it’s incredibly rare. I can see why people do this every day. Imagine starting the day with a sense of “hard parts over”. That if you just did that swim then everything else is a doddle. There’s every chance that how I feel now is simply because it is new. So I’ll just have to go back and keep going back.
I’ve been thinking about my lake experience from the perspective of mental health. I’ve seen some discussion that wild swimming is a cure for depression. I’ll be interested to see how this affects my mental health over the next few months. Will a weekly dip give me a weeks worth of energy? I’m not sure its a miracle cure but there might be something in it. Disconnection from other people and disconnection from the natural world can be causes of depression.
Ok sure this dip in the lake wasn’t like being in the mountain lakes of Snowdonia. The calm. The quiet. The stillness. The landscape around you. It’s a bit different to that. There’s the Burger King. The chippy. The doughnut shop. Hmm. This probably isn’t what Johann had in mind when he suggested people reconnect with the natural world. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction. I took to this more than I took to swimming indoors. While I enjoy swimming indoors I do wish they could renovate the building to take advantage of the location. It could have a cracking view of the river outside. If there was still a lido in New Brighton I would be there all the time. Indoor vs outdoor are worlds apart. At our pool it’s one big enclosed room with some absurd audio track playing. 5 minutes of ads and 5 minutes of cheaply licensed music. Repeat. Then there’s the chaos of every man for themselves swimming attitude. It’s just too chaotic but I make do because it’s all we have now.
Compare that to swimming outdoors. There was so much openness to our dip. Fresh air. I could see the pinkness of the sunrise in the clouds. The fading blue light of dusk. It was really stunning. I felt that connection to the outside world and here’s hoping I do get to go wild swimming in a vast landscape some day. It does wonders for your mental health.
I connected with people too. I don’t at our indoor pool. I’m not made for small talk with people in that way. I go to the pool to perform a task and leave. The staff are friendly there and the swimmers are nice too. There are regulars I recognise but I’m not one for “Hey how’s it going.” Occasionally men will make small talk in the changing rooms. While I’m butt naked is not a time for small talk. My autistic brain just isn’t wired to do those things. It’s a shame because it’s a great skill for a photographer to have. Who knows where a casual “Hello” might lead.
Today at the lake I had no such issues. Maybe it was adrenaline? Maybe because I was having fun in a strange sort of way? I was able to have a few sentences conversation with people. Not a lot but enough to make me feel like I connected with the people I was sharing the lake with. That’s really important. I hope I can build on that over the next few months.