Where it started

A list going round on Facebook, February 2016: "which of these items have you experienced" etc. Some yes, some no, some didn't interest me. However, it put some ideas into my head, and I figured it was time I followed some of my friends in committing them to (virtual) paper. And then trying some of them out. The first challenge was undertaken on 1 March 2016, and I have no intention of ever completing the list: the more I tick off, the more I'll add.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Outdoor swimming: unexpectedly challenging

This might be the second day in May, but the temperatures are still unseasonably low (around 8-10 degrees C); so the waters of Whitlingham Broad were, in the words of the session leader, 'fresh'.

I met up with local friends Emily & Rebecca for this experience - this being Norfolk, they filter in to my circles from totally different bits of my life! Emily's an experienced open-water swimmer and triathlon veteran, Rebecca (shown with me below) is training for her first triathlon.

Photo: Rebecca Wass
I've been a confident but slow swimmer ever since I was very young; having a swimming teacher for a mother, I was introduced to the water when I was too young to be scared of it, and plodded through lengths of various swimming pools in school swimming galas - although I came last, more often than not (as explained here). Even today, although I rarely swim, I can still manage several lengths at a steady pace without feeling uncomfortable. So I reckoned that open-water-swimming wouldn't be too scary.

This turned out to be a very different kettle of fish. The hired wetsuit, to start with: much tighter-fitting than I expected (looking around at other swimmers, it was supposed to be), which gives one the feeling of constricted breathing even before getting into very cold water. (It's quite a workout just getting into the suit!) Then the suit gives additional buoyancy - a curiosity that took some getting used to in my scuba try-dive - although in that case, you have control over that buoyancy with inflation and deflation of the BCD.

In wetsuit, I stayed resolutely on the very surface of the water; my breathing was far more shallow than usual, due to a combination of the tight suit and the extreme cold; and the result was that the actual strokes I took, no matter whether breast-stroke, front crawl or (to a lesser extent) back crawl, felt as though I was fighting through treacle. After just one circuit (I later learned about 300m) I felt as though I'd done at least half an hour on a particularly vicious treadmill setting. However, I couldn't cope with the idea of giving up, so set off again.

Photo: www.triharder.co.uk
I found that I could keep going for longest using breast-stroke, breaking occasionally into a few yards of front crawl; when I ran out of steam, I would turn on my back, do back-stroke for a short way, and then simply use the buoyancy to float and kick my legs - and get my breath back. I reached the end of circuit #2 feeling slightly more confident. However, by the time I'd reached the end of #3, fatigue was really setting in, and I had to admit defeat. (I think the whole process took around 30 minutes.)

But hey: around 900m on a first try wasn't too bad, even though my technique was extremely questionable; I displayed at least the doggedness that I used to show as a child (never giving up until I finished the race, even though I might be several minutes behind the rest of 'em); and I came out feeling that great blast of adrenalin that only high-intensity exercise can give. Magic.

What this has demonstrated to me - and I already knew from the 'budgie-hooping' activities - is that my upper body and core strength need serious work. My main exercise is still my walking, which is great for the legs and a moderate amount of cardio, but some muscles are getting neglected. So next up is to develop a short routine with weights and own-body weight exercises - which will also involve work towards another of my life-list goals: "do ten REAL press-ups".

Huge thanks to Rebecca and Emily for their encouragement and company, and to the organising team at triharder, who made the whole event a real pleasure, with safety and encouragement being paramount.

I reckon I'll try this at a similar event later in the summer, and see if higher temperatures make for an easier swim!

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