Anatomy of a Cold Water Swim

The alarm clock goes off at 5 AM.  “Crap, what am I doing?” I question myself.  The bed is warm.  Just pulling the covers off a bit I can feel the colder air hit my skin and I pull them, and the warmth, back over my head and hit the snooze one more time.

The temperature in the Bay has dropped to 53 degrees, down from 57 just a few weeks ago.  It is cold!  I have no desire to feel that cold and I have no idea at this time why I’m planning to swim in it.  This is the tipping point.  I could easily just go back to sleep and stay warm.  However I have friends that I promised to meet.  They could vary well be laying in bed at this vary moment with the same struggle, but I don’t know that.  I just know I told them that I’d meet them … and I do enjoy seeing them.  Besides I know I need to keep an exercise routine going, especially this time of year with the holidays.  For some insane reason that is escaping me at the moment, I made open water swimming my exercise of choice.

I give into it and get out of bed to start my routine, packing my swim bag, making a smoothie for breakfast, getting dressed in the warmest clothes I can find and heading out the door for the 15 minute drive to the club.

I arrive at the club.  It is like a death march as I move forward towards something that I have no enthusiasm for, plunging my body into the cold water.  I hear the mumblings from the other swimmers in the locker room as they get ready for their swims, “Why am I doing this again” or “Someone needs to lock me up,” or something like that.  We are all in this together as we move forward changing into our swim gear, leaving the warmth of our bundles of clothing behind.  Somehow I doubt any of us would be doing this if we weren’t all there.

The anticipation is the hardest part … I think.  It can be akin to many things that I do not like to do, but am fine with once I get started.  Public speaking comes to mind.  Heading up to the podium is like a death march, the first few sentences I can hear my voice tremble, but once I’m started is usually goes smooth and I enjoy interacting with the audience.

Jumping into the bay off a boat or dock is much easier than walking in from a beach.  Like pulling a band-aid off in on quick pull, jumping gets it over with compared to letting the cold creep up my body inches at a time when I walk in from the beach.  Once submerged and swimming my first strokes the cold water bites at every inch of my skin.  My head aches like I’ve eaten ice cream too fast and my whole body tries to pull away from the cold that surrounds it.  There is no place for it to go, but forward as I swim and let my body go through its changes with the new environment.

Then after a couple minutes, something happens.  My blood pulls away from my skin into the core to keep it warm.  My skin goes numb and a kind of euphoria sets in.  Now I remember why I do it.  To those of you reading this that have never done it before, these are just words.  Words cannot explain the feeling of joy and refreshment of being in the cold water after getting past that first few minutes.  That is what keeps me coming back.  I want to stay in the water forever and live in it.  My body, however, has other plans.  Eventually I will start to feel too cold.  I do not want to stay in very long past that point, as hypothermia WILL set in.  I look for clues in my body like the inability to keep my fingers together.  That is usually the first sign.  Then I can start to feel the cold digging in a little deeper.  I last about an hour before it is time to get out.

Back on dry land mobility is a bit limited.  I shiver a little and it is difficult to speak.  Putting on clothing can be a challenge as fingers do not move well and limbs tremble with the cold.  After about five or ten minutes the shivering will increase as my body tries to warm up.  This shivering is very unpleasant and will last about twenty minutes unless I have access to a warm shower and/or sauna.  This is usually the case swimming at the club, but not if I’m on a boat.

The warm water of the shower heats up the skin and keeps the shivering to a minimum as it starts to thaw out.  My skin is pink an itches a little as the heat comes back into it.  As my mobility increases I can wash my hair and shave.  After I start to feel warmer I transfer to the sauna where I hear the laughter from the other swimmers.  Everyone is happy.  All those apprehensive faces before the swim are now smiling ear-to-ear refreshed and awake ready to start the day.

I stay in the sauna until I start to sweat.  I put on my clothes in the warm sauna to avoid the cold air hitting my skin when I exit.  Now I’m ready for a cup of hot tea.  I say goodbye to my friends and make promises to see them again … the very same promises I will be cursing myself for the next time the alarm clock goes off and I have to pull myself from my warm bed.

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