Blogs tagged with "cold"

Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.

In a year of environmental, political, social, and economic uncertainty and my second year focusing on open-water swimming, I already committed (read: paid entry) to two races, both in Maryland and both I've done (well, started) before: the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 4.4-mile and the Ocean Games 9-mile. Neither was a resounding success last year, and thus, I have two goals so far for this year, i.e., do better than last year.

Speaking of goals, the more I delve into the realm of open-water swimming, the more interested I get and the more pie-in-the-sky goals I tentatively set for myself. I've even become interested in this crazy sport called ice swimming (Google it). But I'm currently struggling with a big mental setback: coping with the physical changes (and challenges) of going from a runner/triathlete to just a swimmer (who runs and bikes occasionally).

With football-player shoulders (30 yrs ago)
With runner shoulders (2 yrs ago)

Let's get the first one out there: the weight gain. Yep, I know, I know. It's muscle (for now - it may very well be fat when I start back into cold water swimming). But I've been longingly staring into my closet afraid to even attempt putting on clothes that might be tight on me. Back in high school and college, I weighed 20 pounds more and the only shirts I could wear were large - I had this crazy, unwieldy, oversized upper body. All my long sleeves were short. I always felt like a freak even though I probably wasn't as freaky-looking as I imagined.

Surprisingly, I'm really struggling to accept that this is what it will take - these body changes - to do what I want as an open water swimmer. My former runner body will not last long in 55-60 degree open water. After all these years and all the positive body image messages out there, why does this still bother me? Why am I struggling to rise above it? Obviously, I have a LOT of work to do before I can look into the mirror and say that I like myself no matter what I look like. But I'm trying. And hopefully, my passion for swimming and drive to achieve far-reaching goals as an open-water swimmer will win out over something as petty as body image.

But I do love this new sport and I can't wait to get back into lake swimming once the water warms to at least 50 degrees. In the meantime, I'm taking cold showers after my pool swims and reading Becoming the Iceman by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales.

I've also been doing a lot of drawing lately, some realistic, some not-so-realistic:

Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.

A few months ago, I committed myself to learning how to swim in cold water this fall. Or to state it more appropriately, to teach/adapt my body - and mind - to handle cold water while swimming. I gained advice from talking to people and reading blogs and online resources like these:

I decided to start my cold-water-acclimating-process with cold showers. If you know me, you know that cold showers are my Fifth Ring of Hell. The only things worse are vomiting continuously or having a root canal. In fact, my usual shower temperature is slightly hotter than "scalding." Obviously I had a big dilemma.
But a commitment is a commitment, so I started cold and went colder... until I could do it without screaming... and then without wincing... and finally, without even thinking twice before jumping in. It's hard to believe, but I even started to enjoy cold showers, especially after my pool swims. (It helped that the pool water was 83 degrees F.)
But cold showers last about five minutes, and I needed to be able to swim for hours in cold water. So I waited. And waited. And, atypically, it took until October this year for fall weather to come to Cleveland. Lake Erie water temperatures have finally begun to drop. (Seriously, we wore shorts to the first two Indians playoff games #goTribe).
I went for my first sub-70-degree swim on Saturday. There was only one problem - the lake was VERY rough. According to the NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), the wave height was close to 4 feet (I swim in a spot directly to the left of the date under Lake Erie Wave Height in the figure below):

I took some video to try and show how bad the chop was:

 And the water temperature - about 68 degrees F - was warmer than the air temperature:


The water was surprising comfortable, and I lasted 30 minutes before I got tired of swallowing (potentially contaminated) water and fighting the chop. When I got out, the wind and the mid-60s air temperature was enough to cause all my fingers to go completely numb in about 5 minutes. There were people on the beach who commented that I was "crazy" and that they "admired me" for my dedication. I laughed and quickly made my way to the car. I drove home with the heat on high and took a 30-minute hot bath as soon as I got there.

My next attempt to swim in cold water was Monday. I waited until Monday because I decided high surf AND cold water were one-too-many tough conditions to handle at this particular stage of acclimation. Lake Erie was much calmer on Monday: 


Here's vid:


But it WAS a couple degrees colder - at about 66 degrees F (you can see the little band of 66 near where I swim):


On Monday, I lasted 45 minutes. I started to note changes resulting from the cold water, and some of them were just a bit scary.

First of all, let me state the obvious: getting in cold water is never easy. The colder it is, the harder it is to jump in all at once because, as I learned in London last December, it feels like you've been punched in the chest. The two-degree temperature difference from Saturday was noticeable. I waded in to my waist slowly, then jumped fully in and started swimming. After about 30 seconds, I snuffed out a sense of panic by forcing myself to relax and embrace the water. It worked. In no time, I was enjoying my swim unfazed by the cold. My body actually seemed to get used to it quite quickly.

What I learned from reading was that in cold water, I must keep swimming and stop only momentarily. Since I was alone, I remained close to shore by swimming back and forth in an area about .25 miles wide. I only stopped to turn and sight. I didn't start feeling the effects of cold water until 30 minutes had passed when I started to notice I was losing control of my left pinky finger. But I wasn't shivering, and I didn't "feel" cold. 

I swam 15 minutes more then decided to pack it in when the water started getting choppier and I was having a little difficultly in both hands with keeping my fingers together. My feet felt fine and I still wasn't shivering, but I didn't want to push it while I was by myself. I swam to shore and immediately put on a sweatshirt.

It was at this point things went downhill in a hurry. The air temperature was in the low-60s, and I was in the shade. In a matter of minutes, I struggled with numb fingers to unscrew the valve on my swim buoy. I needed to get my car key! Shivering, I grabbed all my stuff and started running to the car. I stopped - in the sun - only to put my shoes on (also with much difficulty). When I got to the car, I started it and turned the heat on full blast and changed out of my wet swimsuit. I was seriously bummed to find I had left at home my thermos of warm apple-cinnamon Skratch hydrationBut I had stopped shivering and assumed I'd be fine, so I started the drive home.

But I wasn't fine. Something was not right. I felt disoriented. I felt like a I was in a fog. I started to panic. I called my husband Jim, but I could tell I was having trouble speaking and stringing words together. He said I sounded weird and "out of it." I pulled into a McDonalds parking lot. It didn't seem possible I might be hypothermic because the feeling had already come back in my fingers and toes. But I was having trouble keeping my eyes focused. And my increasing anxiety was probably making it worse.

I called Jim back because talking to him made me feel less "foggy." I noticed my hands were shaking. He told me to get some food - that maybe I was hungry. I sucked down two carbo gels that had been in my bag for ages, and then I sat and waited.

About ten minutes later, I started to feel a little better. The car had become a sauna and it made my skin feel hot, but internally I was still a little chilled. The important thing was that my brain began "working" again, and I was finally able to focus enough to drive home. I'm still not sure what made me disoriented, but I ate well before I swam, so I can't fully blame it on simple hunger or lack of nutrition. I think the cold had something to do with it - and I'm judging from my past experiences with hypothermia.

Two things are certain. I need a lot more practice in cold water. And I need to take quicker and better care of myself post-swim.

A few months ago, I committed myself to learning how to swim in cold water this fall. Or to state it more appropriately, to teach/adapt my body - and mind - to handle cold water while swimming. I gained advice from talking to people and reading blogs and online resources like these:

Number 52: not my age, but close enough!

My last open-water swim event this year was Epic Racing's "Swim to the Moon," an event that takes place somewhere near Hell (Hell, Michigan, that is). I suspect the reason I chose this event was because I loved the name. It's actually several swim distances - one-half mile up to 10K - that take place in a chain of lakes near Ann Arbor (Jim, with his two degrees from Ohio State University, in fact, finds this region of the USA to be his personal version of Hell, as he is surrounded by Michigan fans).

I chose the 10K... because.. why not? It was a lake swim so the water would likely be calm and warm, unlike the ocean in my last one.

We stayed overnight about 30 minutes east of the starting line, which was at Halfmoon Lake. The 10K swims across Halfmoon Lake and through channels and small lakes connecting it to Patterson Lake, where it turns around on private property, and goes back. There's also a 5K that starts at Patterson Lake and goes to the same finish line as the 10K. At the turn, 10K swimmers are required to exit the water and can partake of any nutrition or other items they stashed there in a special-needs bag.

I got very little sleep in the two nights before the race because I've been battling anxiety issues (which, incidentally, have nothing to do with pre-race jitters... just dealing with health problems and family issues). When the alarm clock rang race morning (Sunday), I could barely open my eyes, and the last thing I wanted to do was deal with a race that might take about three hours. But I had made a commitment, and I reminded myself how much I love swimming. I would make the best of it.

That morning, unlike the two weeks leading up to it, saw a drop in temperature into the low 60s. This meant that the water temperature, at 76 degrees, actually exceeded the air temperature. It also meant I didn't bring warm enough clothes to wear that morning. All I could think was: Oh great! This time I'll get hypothermia BEFORE I even get in the water!

But there wasn't a lot of time to wait around, and by 6:30, we were standing on the small sandy beach being accounted for as we were shuffled through the starting line arch to wait for the gun.

Early morning start under the moon.

Everyone was mumbling about the cold. Some people were actually getting in the water to keep warm. My fingers started to get numb. It took a little while to count everyone - so long that I decided to put my raincoat back on to keep warm. I was told by one group of men that I "could use a little more weight in order to stay warm" (I assured them I'm trying, maybe swimming in progressively-colder water next month will take care of that).

One way to keep warm.

After a quick singing of the Star Spangled Banner, we were finally off. Here's a video of the start:

In about five minutes, I had completely forgotten about the cold and was now in the melee of arms and legs and people all trying to spot buoys in dim morning light. That didn't last long (the dim morning light or being stuck in the melee), and before I made the turn into the first inter-lake channel, the sun was out and illuminating the far side of Halfmoon Lake. It was quite beautiful - I was no longer feeling tired but just happy to be swimming along at a speed that allowed me to appreciate the day.

Just before we took that turn - and based on my swim the day before, I determined the distance to be about a mile - I settled into a pace that had me swimming steadily alongside two others: a man and a woman. I would go into the first channel with this little group.

Before the race, a guy had told me the channels were shallow and you could walk through them. What he really meant was you might HAVE to walk through them. I found myself completely tangled up in weeds and trying not to run aground. I had to keep my underwater arm-pull against my body just to avoid punching the ground below. Unfortunately, the woman swimming next to me occupied the slightly deeper water, and I couldn't force myself into her space without sending her into another bank of weeds. I had to back off in order to get into her wake and avoid beaching myself or slamming into the wooden uprights of a foot-bridge over the channel. The two of us also had to stop a few times to find course-marker buoys.

Once we cleared the first channel, as long as I stayed close to the course markers, it was smooth swimming. I had only one or two run-ins with weeds until the second channel. Our little group stayed together through the second channel as well, which was equally shallow and treacherous and included swimming through a huge-diameter metal pipe (that had another bridge over it).

I found myself actually grabbing onto the weeds a couple times in a desperate attempt to pull myself forward. The first time I did it, the image that leapt to mind was one of standing on the pool deck and yelling at my swim team kids for grabbing onto the lane-lines during backstroke to pull themselves along. (They always think I don't notice that.) Hey, it works! I will have to come clean when I see them again.

When we finally reached Patterson Lake, the sun was well up. I stopped for a moment to free myself from a weed that had wrapped itself around my neck. My watch had us at 2.29 miles. Swimmers would now be on their way back. I got my bearings and started swimming toward the next bright orange buoy, only to have a stand-up paddler blowing a whistle at me and pointing me in the perpendicular direction. Swimmers were being directed to swim "directly into the sun" (what kayakers were telling us). By the time I was able to see the next marker, I had almost burned out my retinas, and spotting anything was now an issue. I almost had a head-on collision with a swimmer going in the opposite direction.

Finally I stopped. The girl next to me stopped. The guy next to me stopped. We had to flag down a kayaker to give us directions. It was then I saw the boat with a guy on the back carrying one of the big orange markers. Apparently the buoys had blown off course. He dropped this one directly in front of me and just like that!.. we were back on course.

When I made it to the beach turn-around, the first thing I saw was the time-clock. It said 1:19:something. Before the race, I told Jim that the 10K would probably take me close to three hours - at best, 2:45. This was very good news indeed. I was half-way through and under my predicted "fast" time. A volunteer handed me my special-needs bag containing nutrition.

The woman I had been swimming with gave me the slip on the beach and got back in the water well before me. I had a 21-oz bottle of SkratchLabs hydration mixed with Carbo-Pro, and I needed those calories. But I also didn't want to just "swim through" the second half of this race, so I drank only 3/4 of my bottle and ran back into the water to chase her. The guy from my original group was right alongside me.

He was the clobbering-type swimmer and his stroke was so strong it was like he had a tractor beam - I kept getting pulled toward him as though I was stuck in a gravitational pull. I had to get out of that influence so I swam hard and fast and pulled out in front.

Swimming the flip-side of Patterson Lake was easier because we were pointing away from the sun, it was a clear day, and the markers were now obvious. When I reached the channel, I realized that I was right behind the woman in our original three-some. I did not want to lull myself into swimming her speed again, so I worked hard in in the channel to get ahead. Instead, I swam off course and ended up in that group again - the three of us with me stuck smack in the middle.

Upon exiting this channel, I finally had enough. I swam hard to wrestle myself free of the group and the weeds.

I got out ahead and finally had the last two miles of this race all to myself. There was a lifeguard on a paddle-board who kept coming around to make sure I stayed on course, but I had no problem whatsoever spotting buoys and enjoying swimming hard to the finish. I stopped a couple times when we got back into Halfmoon lake to check my watch. With about a half-mile to go, my stroke finally started falling apart. Overall, I wasn't really that tired, I was just having trouble getting enough strength to keep a strong underwater pull. But I was alone in the water, and I told myself to enjoy it because it was almost over. I did backstroke just to look up at the clear blue sky, and then I flipped back over and pushed to the finish.

Getting out of the water after swimming for that long was a weird experience. It felt a lot like "the wobble" when you first step off the bike in an Ironman. I almost fell. I was disoriented for a few moments. Embarrassingly, it was caught on video, and since I have no shame to speak of, here it is:

My finish time was 2:39:03. And even though I swam hard, my second half was less than a minute faster than the first half. Awards-wise, I finished second in my age group (33rd overall) but the first female masters swimmer was also in my age group, so my time was actually third in my age group. I have a long way to go because there are some really fast women over 50.

Beer glasses are always the best trophies.

And I'm still loving this swim thing... and ready for the next one.

Just for kicks, here's the GPS plot from my Garmin:

Last Saturday, I decided to attempt my first real solo open water swim - from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores in southern California.

It wasn't significant because of the distance. It was a mile - a distance I've swum many times in the past, in many bodies of water.

It wasn't significant because it was open water. I've swum many open water swims before - in triathlon races and in triathlon training.

It wasn't significant because it was in the ocean. I've swum in oceans all over - the atlantic coast, the gulf coast, the pacific coast, the Hawaii coast.

It wasn't significant because the water temperature was 57 degrees F. If you read my last blog post, you know I've swum in water more than 10 degrees colder.

It wasn't even significant because of the waves. I've survived swimming in chop so bad that other people drowned the same day.

No. It was significant for ONE reason. I wanted to conquer an irrational fear of swimming alone in the ocean and prove to myself that I would not have an irrational moment of panic.

You see, I grew up in the water. I may have swam before I could walk. My childhood friends called me a fish because I never got out of the pool. On summer days at ocean beaches, I would rebel when my parents dragged me out of the water to eat lunch, or rest, or (God forbid) go home. And I've never been afraid of open water. Well,... except for a little while after I saw Jaws at age 10. During that time, I wouldn't even put my feet in a wading pool lest there be sharks that were somehow transported there (and survived). In my defense, I was 10! And I was not allowed to see scary movies after that.

But, to get back to my story - it's true, swimming in open water, especially the ocean, was something that did not strike fear into my heart as it does many triathletes who stand on the beach in their first ocean swim triathlon. Many times at race starts, I've even found myself talking people through their fear of the ocean and the waves and everything that goes with it. Don't worry, have fun, dive through the waves not over them, try to swim with the swells, and capitalize on the current when you can. But mostly, HAVE FUN.

Because - that's what I always do when I get to swim in the ocean.

But to be fair, I've never really swum in the ocean - or open water for that matter - alone. By myself. I've always been with other people in races or in training groups. If I needed to swim alone, I would parallel the shoreline under the watchful eye of my parents or my husband.

The only time I remember being in open water completely alone, I had a bizarre experience. I was in Utah Lake during the ill-fated inaugural Ironman Utah in 2002. It was my first Ironman. A freak morning windstorm came up and blew swimmers all over the lake - and suddenly I found myself completely alone in the water. When I realized this, I was dumbstruck with panic for about half-a-second. That momentary lapse into fear has never completely left me. Mostly because it baffled me. Seriously, it made no sense whatsoever. I'm one of those people who feels more at ease in water than on land. I even dream about being able to breathe underwater. Why, then, was I so scared?

I've processed this so many times, it's burned into my brain. Was it the cold water? Was it the being alone? Was it the fact that my first Ironman would be a complete fail? What. Was. It? Even weirder, I recovered from it so quickly that the moment became a mere blip on the radar that day. However, lately there's a nagging feeling that somehow, that moment of time would eventually hold me back from the solo open water swimming that I'm hoping to do in the future.

I had to conquer it. Clear and simple. I chose to attempt that in La Jolla last Saturday.

The reason I was there was to meet up with my husband Jim on the tail end of his business trip to San Diego. Before the trip, I told him I wanted to swim in La Jolla Cove because it's a well-known open water training and racing location. So, we booked a the weekend at a hotel only a few miles away.

Saturday morning, I got up and went on a running reconnaissance mission, hoping to find some swimmers at the cove that day that might answer any questions I had. As luck would have it, there was a guy in a full wetsuit just finishing his swim when I got there. I asked him about the water and if he could tell me something about distances. Here's what he told me: the water was about 57 degrees F, lots of people swim in the cove and they swim all day long. He was surprised there were only a few there at the moment, but it could have been due to rough surf. Then he pointed to two tall cylindrical buoys to the left - he called them the A and B targets - and said they were about .25 miles and .45 miles respectively. To the right of them was a round buoy - also at .25 miles - and off in the distance was another stick-like buoy at .75 miles. The far beach past that buoy (La Jolla Shores) was a mile. Here are two photos that Jim took:

This is La Jolla Cove. If you enlarge the photo, you'll see two little
white buoys between the vertical centerline and the left edge of the photo.
Those are the .25 and .75 markers, and the beach is right above them in the
 distance, where the water meets land (to the left of the reddish structure).
Here's a view of La Jolla Cove from the other direction.
La Jolla Shores beach is behind the trees in the front.

My mind was instantly made up. I wanted to swim to the beach, point to point. I decided to run there and scout out a place for Jim to pick me up. On the way back, I saw a lifeguard/fire-rescue guy and asked him about safety. To summarize answers to my questions: it's the ocean, so (1) it's cold, (2) it's rough water and (3) yes, there are sharks "out there" - but there have been no shark attacks in La Jolla. I did a little googling on my phone and found out that in 2015, the beaches were closed after a kayaker had a close encounter with a hammerhead shark. I stopped reading. No Fear.

When I got back, I told Jim my plan. Surprisingly, he didn't even flinch. (I think he's beginning to accept how serious I am about this swimming thing, and, between you and me, I think he's being a saint about letting me drag him to pools and lakes and coves on our trips.) To save space in my luggage, I only packed my wetsuit top, but I wasn't sure I needed it. I saw a guy go in that morning with only a jammer-type suit. We prepped and then drove up to the cove.

The first thing I did was look for other swimmers for final advice. To my relief, there were three swimmers - members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club - getting ready to swim. They confirmed what I had been told about the distances and the temperature. They also advised me to wear a wetsuit if I wasn't sure about the cold. Then they gave me a quick review of the dangers and told me how to get "out there" (you know, out past the waves without dying):

  • Know the stages of hypothermia. (got it - I told them I had been through those stages once in 2009)
  • Swim out towards the left so that you don't get caught up in the current and smashed to pieces on the rocks to the right.
  • Don't swim too far left because there's another set of rocks there. However, stay close to those.
  • If you have a neoprene cap, wear it. (I didn't. But I had two latex caps and was told to wear them both.)

I noticed they were all putting on swim fins. Did I need fins? The woman said "do you HAVE fins?" like it was a matter of life and death. I said no. They said some people can make it just fine without fins.

Like I needed something ELSE to worry about.

The two men were wearing full wetsuits. The woman was wearing what looked like a neoprene (or thick material) swimsuit and a neoprene cap. After a mental debate, I decided to wear my wetsuit top, only to avoid hypothermia because Jim would be waiting for me at the beach and I'd have no way to contact him if I was going into shock from the cold. I didn't want to ruin our vacation by being stubborn and doing something stupid just to prove a point. Besides, there will be plenty more opportunities for me to tempt hypothermic fate.

The last words I was told by one of the swimmers: "We're spoiled. Once you swim here, you'll never want to go back to pool swimming."

Making our way down to the cove - I'm in the yellow cap.

I walked down to the water with them, and just followed the first one out into the water. It was nothing short of amazing, and actually, surprisingly easy. The waves were not scary - they were fun! I didn't really feel much of a current pulling me to the right, and once I was out in the cove, all I noticed was how great the water felt and how sunny and blue the sky was. I said thanks and goodbye to my new friends and aimed for the beach.

The cold water was a non-issue. This still surprises me as I had once gone swimming in 56-degree water with a wetsuit in the Outer Banks, and I remember it being painfully cold. I expected 57 degrees to feel the same. It makes me wonder if (hope?) I'm starting to get more comfortable in cold water. I reached the .25-mile buoy and signaled to Jim that I was, indeed, good to go and would make my way to our meet-up on the beach.

And then I just swam. And it was good. And there was no panic. None. I even did some backstroke to appreciate the sky.

When I got closer to the beach, I swam into a group of kayakers and waved, and then started to feel the current and the waves pushing me ahead. I was disappointed it ended so soon, but it was time to body-surf my way in. Amusingly, surfing the waves was the only point that I got myself in trouble - I got caught up inside a wave and struggled for few seconds to reorient myself and come up to breathe. It would have been ironic if I made it all the way to the beach and then drowned in standing water.

Yippee!

When I finally stood up on the beach sand, I heard the following (very geeky) thing in my head:

"You've taken your first step into a larger world."
These are the words Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) speaks to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) following his first lesson in using the Force. It's true - I WILL have a hard time going back to a pool. I'm a salt water animal. My La Jolla swim was the closest to heaven I've ever felt.

Here's the video. I swear the waves on the way out didn't look as big to me as they do in the vid. (Again, I'm the one in the yellow cap.)

Last Saturday, I decided to attempt my first real solo open water swim - from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores in southern California.

2015 ended with some new art and five straight days of swimming (which might be a record for consecutive days of swimming since 1987). 2016 began with a moment of insanity.

The art: I finally got around to executing and printing two collagraphs that were planned sometime in November. The first one is a stalk of grass that I picked up on one of my runs in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Here are the print and the plate:

Winter Grass, (unsigned) collagraph print, December 2015

Un-inked plate for above print.
The second print is more of an experiment, or, perhaps, it's more of a conceptual piece. I want to print water, but that's impossible, so I tried to print water's effect on sand. I put an acrylic plate in a bin water and then added sand, swirled it around, removed the plate and let it dry. Once it was dry, I sprayed it with clear matte spray which sort of acted like an adhesive. I couldn't paint it with acrylic gloss medium because that would have disrupted the sand on the plate. I'm going to try some other methods on larger plates in the future. I think this could be something really awesome... eventually. Or maybe it's already awesome as a sort of conceptual dada piece. Well.. whatever, here are the print and the plate.
Sand and Water, (unsigned) collagraph print

Un-inked plate for above print

The insanity: a bike ride with my great friend Sam in 30 degrees with 20mph headwind followed by a "polar plunge" in Lake Erie. It's been quite balmy on the north coast this winter - not the frozen tundra of years past - so we have no right to complain. Here's the video.

2015 ended with some new art and five straight days of swimming (which might be a record for consecutive days of swimming since 1987). 2016 began with a moment of insanity.

I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery. We chose to use it on a trip to the UK in December.

Besides experiencing the holiday season in London, the other reason for this trip was to see my favorite band, Turin Brakes, play in Liverpool December 4. It was also a reason to visit Liverpool - birthplace of the Beatles - a city we have never been to.
Before the trip, I had been swimming regularly. I didn't want to lose all my swimming fitness while in the UK, so I started researching potential swimming locations. During this research, I learned something I didn't know about British culture.
There are a lot of swimmers. Many of them swim year round. Outdoors.
If I really wanted to "make like a Brit" while in England, I would have to learn how to swim in cold water. How cold? All I knew was that I once saw people swimming without wetsuits in the Serpentine while I was running in Hyde Park in December. Having raced a triathlon there in 2013, I already knew the Serpentine could be frigid even in September. My research also taught me swimming in cold water required acclimating your body over time. Since proper acclimation was not possible, my swimming plans would need modification. I wanted to get a couple real workouts in, but I also wanted at least one attempt to swim in cold water. I would pack my wetsuit just in case I needed it. 
Another thing I learned was that England has recently undergone a sort-of outdoor pool-culture renaissance with the refurbishing of a large number of huge outdoor swimming pools, called "lidos." The "lido culture" was enormously popular in the 1930s, and many of the pools were updated before reopening in the 90s and 00s. Mostly popular in summer, some of the lidos are open all year. A select few of them are even heated. It would be nice - and my plan was - to experience both types while in the UK.

My goal (or hope), then, was to swim in five different locations on this trip. Before we left, I made a list of possibilities. Of course, as both a swimmer and a lover of the sport, I also included the pool built for the 2012 Summer Olympics, located in London's Olympic Park complex (after learning it is open to the public).

On to the trip.

Monday, 7 December was the first day we had no specific plans in London after arriving from Liverpool. After some thought, the location and time available made the Olympic pool the one to do first. It required no acclimation and Jim also viewed it as a tourist destination. We did laundry that afternoon and then headed to the Olympic Park.

The 2012 Olympics took place all over London, but the pool and the stadium complex were in one location, now called Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When we arrived via the Underground, we were surrounded by shops and restaurants. Walking to the pool, we were surrounded by construction areas with billboards heralding a coming active residential and working community.

The pool building - the London Aquatics Centre - was expectedly grand - it was dark, but we tried to get some photos (below). The cost to swim was £5.20. Swimmers had their choice of the warm-up pool - 50m in length but split into 25m lap swimming - or the competition pool - 50m long by 25m wide by 3m deep, with ten lanes.
Which one would you choose?

The competition pool was quite busy, but not as busy as I expected. (The clerk at the entry DID say they get approximately 20,000 people weekly). There were five or six swimmers per lane with three occupied by a youth swim team and another reserved for a group. The first thing I noticed was the lanes were circle-swimming in the other direction - clockwise. Whoa! So it's not just driving on the left! But after closer inspection, I realized each lane was alternating direction: even lanes were swimming counter-clockwise (here, it's "anti-clockwise"), odd lanes - clockwise. There were marked "slow" lanes and unmarked (fast?) lanes. I wanted to circle-swim clockwise since I've never done that, and Jim told me to get in one of the faster lanes. So I jumped in lane 5 and started swimming. To my surprise, I was one of the faster swimmers in my lane - and in the pool. The swimmers around me were incredibly friendly and polite and slowed down or stopped to let me pass when necessary. It was one of the nicest, cleanest, and fastest pools I ever swam in.

I swam for about 40 minutes - about 2500 meters. I want to note that above the diving well at the far end of the pool were two huge digital pace clocks - not with numbers but with digital clock "hands" - it was all.. just.. so.. state of the art. When I jumped out, I told a fellow swimmer in lane 5 that I was visiting from the USA and would love to dive off the blocks just once. Another swimmer heard me and suggested I do it even thought it was against the rules - he said the lifeguards may yell at me but what's done would be done. They egged me on, so I climbed up on the block and instantly drew a whistle from the lifeguard. I pleaded my case but was denied. Thus endeth my quest for the Olympic starting blocks. (I was also told the pool has never been drained, and it's entirely possible that Michael Phelps' DNA is still floating around in it.)


Pool swim 1 accomplished. Afterwards, I was buzzing for the entire evening. Jim kept asking me what made this pool so great? I guess you'd have to be a swimmer to understand.

Here are a video and some photos that Jim took:

Check out the digital pace clocks!
In there is the warm-up pool, also 50 meters but set up for 25-meter lengths.
Check it!
Michael Phelps might have stood here too.

Diving well
London Aquatics Centre from the outside - looks wavy.
The Olympic stadium.

The next day - Tuesday, 8 December - I set my sights on a second pool. I didn't want Jim to have to spend our entire vacation on a swim search, so I found one near the day's planned events and carried my swim stuff with me. That day, we had a late-morning reservation for the Crime Museum Uncovered at the London Museum. It was a fascinating exhibit of crime history, noteworthy criminal cases, and the Metropolitan police, and by the time we got out, it was well after 2pm. We grabbed a late lunch and hurried to take photos at St. Paul's Cathedral before it got dark.

It was still early, and even though I still planned to swim, we were very close to a pub recommended to us in Liverpool - The Old Bank of England. The interior was beautiful and their menu looked amazing. But I promised myself only one pint, and then we made our way to one of the best-rated outdoor pools in London - the Oasis Sports Centre in Covent Garden. Jim could hang out and/or shop in Covent Garden while I was swimming.

The Oasis Sports Centre was about an eight-minute walk from the pub. It was cold and rainy, and the closer I got to it, the less I wanted to swim. The thing that kept me going was the knowledge that this pool was heated. The Oasis pool cost £5 to swim, and there are TWO pools - one inside and one out. Both were a good size with three lanes each.

I gathered my strength and walked outside in my swimsuit. The outdoor pool - 27.5 meters in length - was busy with four or five people per lane. I noticed swimmers were huddling down in the shallow end to stay warm. When I got in, I understood. It was warm water! I swam laps in the middle lane - they were also alternating circle-swim direction per lane. Again, I was one of the fastest people in the pool. I swam for about 40 minutes and found I was never conscious about the water or air temperature. About halfway through my swim, a new lifeguard came out and started shouting and moving people into different lanes. I got moved to the "fast lane."

Overall, the swimmers in Covent Garden were not nearly as aware of other swimmers' speeds as they were in the Olympic pool. One male swimmer with a horrible stroke refused to back off every time I tried to pass him. He would just clobber me until I could get in front of him. It seemed a bit rude, but everyone was speaking different languages in this pool, so maybe I was having a bit of a culture clash.

Getting out of the water was a shock. The air was in the 50s but it felt frigid - thank heavens for hot showers! I changed quickly, and before I left, I took a quick photo of the pool from inside the building (Note: the lifeguard yelled at me for taking this photo but no-one in it is recognizable.)

It doesn't look big, but this pool in Covent Garden is 27.5m in length.

Pool swim 2: done. My hands and feet took a while to warm up after getting chilled from the air after my swim. Jim and I ducked into several bookstores before I could feel my fingers again. I now started to question whether I really wanted to swim outdoors in an unheated pool.

Wednesday, 9 December, we planned to visit the British Library - a place Jim has been promising to take me ever since he went there a couple years ago on a business trip. Our good friends Andy and Caroline would also be arriving in London that day so we made plans to meet them at the Library at noon. Thus, I would have to swim that morning. And, it just so happens that there is a unique swimming location just up the street from the Library.

This next swim would be so much more than just a swim. It was an opportunity to be part of a living art installation. It's called King's Cross Pond Club, and it's a temporary man-made pond in the middle of a very busy construction zone. When I first googled "winter swimming in London," this place came up at the top of the list. As a location, a work of art, and a swimming destination, it didn't disappoint.

We arrived shortly after 10am, but no one had been swimming yet. I asked the ticket-taker/lifeguard if people really swim in December - he said they did. The cost was £3.50. The water temperature was 7 degrees C. I looked at Jim - he did the calculation in his head (one of his many talents): "45 degrees F." I looked at the lifeguard again: "Can I wear a wetsuit?" He said "Sure. I recommend it." He also said all I would need was a five-minute dip to get the "full effect."

(Whatever THAT meant.)

I paid my entry and went to the changing rooms. While putting my wetsuit on, I heard someone in the changing room next to me. The person was there for only a few seconds and then left. I yelled to Jim, waiting outside the door, "Is there someone else here?" Jim said "Yes, there's a guy." He changed pretty quickly, so I asked: "Is he wearing a wetsuit?" Jim said "No, he's just in swim trunks." Yikes! My first encounter with one of these crazy cold-water-loving English people. I thought about it for a second... and then remembered the lifeguard's recommendation to wear a wetsuit. I, for one, certainly wasn't going to question his expert opinion. That other guy wouldn't last more than a couple minutes.

At least five minutes had passed by the time I walked up to the pond. I even put on two swim caps to avoid head freeze (remembering how bad my face hurt when I swam in 56-degree Atlantic water). When I got up there, the crazy English guy was actually swimming - in 45-degree water without a wetsuit. He wasn't just in for a dip. He swam around and around and around... moving normally - you know, as though he WEREN'T actually submerged in icy water. Was I a complete wimp? I put my foot in. Yep, it was an ice bath. Wait, no it wasn't. It was MUCH COLDER than an ice bath. I rethought the wimp statement and climbed in.

The first thing I noticed - besides the unbelievable cold - was that this was THE cleanest, clearest water I've EVER swam in. Even now, I can still taste it. It was extraordinary. I swam around a little, not quite ready to put my head in (just a note: crazy-English-guy was not submerging his head either). I had to work up to it... and then I was able to swim for a bit. The pond is oval-shaped - 10m wide by 40m long - with plants on one side and a main swimming area. We asked a lot of questions, impressed with the lifeguard's knowledge of how it all works (more information online). The plants actually act as a filter for the pond, and there's a limit on the number of swimmers daily so that this small ecosystem continues to work. I imagine it will attract crowds next summer, and I really hope it becomes a permanent fixture. Despite the cold, this place is a treasure, and I'm unable to conjure up the words to fully describe how completely amazing it was to swim there. The water was so so SO beautiful.

The cold eventually started to get to me - my fingers and feet were not going to last long. I was determined to stay in at least as long as crazy-English-guy-without-a-wetsuit. I can say that after being in the water for a bit, my body didn't go into shock. In fact, I started to get used to it. It hurts for the first couple minutes and then everything starts to feel ok. Numb fingers and toes were the biggest issue for me and I lasted about 12 minutes - for the record, I'm saying I got out because we needed to get to the Library.

While changing, I saw another swimmer on her way to the pond - she wore swimming gloves and booties and a neoprene vest over a regular bathing suit. Now THAT was a SMART crazy-English-swimmer. Surely, I could have been in there for HOURS had it not been for my extremities. Anyway, Jim took some photos and video at King's Cross Pond Club. I highly recommend going there before it closes if you get the chance. Maybe wait until it warms up... like in February, perhaps?

The water was ridiculously clean and clear.

The plants are not only filters, they provide natural beauty to the installation.
From the observation deck.
Zoomed out to show the entire set-up
I like the striped motif on the temporary buildings too.

There it was: three swims in three days. We spent the rest of the day catching up with Andy and Caroline and visited the Natural History Museum. I didn't even TRY explaining to the bag inspector at the museum what I was doing with a wet wetsuit in my backpack.

Thursday would be difficult to get in a swim. We met Andy at the Imperial War Museum while Caroline had a work meeting, and by the time we said our goodbyes and saw them off on a train back to Exeter, both Jim and I were exhausted from being on our feet for so long for two days. We had plans to have dinner with another great friend - Sam - who lives in London (she writes a very interesting blog about London cemetery residents). Thus, my goal of five swims in five days came to an end. I wasn't too disappointed after a four pints and two pubs and great conversation with Sam.

But Friday morning, I was determined to do the one thing that would haunt me if I didn't do it: act like a proper Brit and swim outside in an unheated pool in December. I had to find the right place - something within walking distance from anywhere we needed to go that day. Friday had been set aside for shopping and the National Gallery. But my swim was first priority.

There were three places I had in mind, but only one of them would actually be feasible. The first was the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park. It wasn't possible because I was not a member of the Serpentine Swim Club (and it took more than a morning to join). The second was the Tooting Bec Lido - the most historic (built in 1906) and second-largest (91m long by 30m wide) of the outdoor pools in the UK. Again, not possible - besides being over an hour away, in the winter it was only open to the South London Swim Club. The third was Parliament Hill Fields Lido on the outskirts of Hampstead Heath. Score! This one was possible - less than an hour away and I could swim for a measly £2.50.

Jim figured out how to get me there in 40 minutes: the Tube and a bus to Parliament Hill, then walk to the Lido. I packed my wetsuit but on the way, I told Jim I made a decision: "If just ONE person is not wearing a wetsuit, I'm going in without it." My fate was sealed, because... you KNOW there would be at least one crazy-English-swimmer. In fact, there were several. And yes, some were men in only Speedos.

Parliament Hill Fields has the true "Lido" experience. It's a huge outdoor pool surrounded by a concrete deck with a cafe. The lifeguard told us the pool is 61m long and 27m wide. This is what we saw when we arrived:

Chilly and rainy. Not really swimming weather - but this is England.
That's Celsius - pool temp in Fahrenheit was 48 degrees.

This experience would be one for the ages. In the change room, I met a girl who was donning a full wetsuit. She told me she swims for 30 minutes and just a week ago she switched to a wetsuit because she couldn't take the cold anymore. I put on my bathing suit (here they call them "swimming costumes") and walked outside to meet Jim on the deck. The air was chilly enough.

The lifeguards at Parliament Hill Lido were the friendliest of all - they were all smiles and gave me tips on how to get in the water. In a nutshell: "start at the shallow end and do it very gradually." They also told me not to overdo it since I had not acclimated yet. The lifeguards were dressed more for winter than for pool weather, and they stayed inside. They were definitely the smart ones, I noted, as I began to doubt my intelligence - or maybe my sanity - when I stepped into the water.

The water was ice-cold, but the pool was gorgeous and really clean and clear. It had a stainless steel liner with little perforations so you didn't slip. I got in up to my knees at the shallow end, and slowly walked towards the deep end. It hurt. Once I waded in up to my thighs, I had to wait for about a minute for the pain in my legs to go away. Then, I took the plunge.

I was in up to my neck for a split second before I lost my breath. It was like having the wind knocked out of me - like being punched in the chest. I remembered the same feeling when I jumped in the reservoir at Ironman St. George in 2011. That water had been in the high 50s - and I was wearing a wetsuit. This was MUCH colder. And there was no neoprene to save me. It took a bit of time, but I was finally able to swim - actually SWIM - for six laps before my fingers (yep, fingers again) had enough. I was actually getting used to it, and, surprisingly, my face didn't hurt this time. While getting out, I looked around. There were women and men in only bathing suits, some with neoprene gloves and booties, the girl in just a wetsuit, and an elderly lady with a full wetsuit, neoprene cap, gloves, and booties. All types. All crazy English swimmers. I loved them all. And I was one of them.

I swam. In London. Outdoors. In December. In an unheated pool. Without a wetsuit. Mission accomplished. Jim took a few photos and video at Parliament Hill Fields Lido.

It's hard to see, but that is me in the shallow end.
Yep, I'm swimming.
I can't talk because my lips are frozen.
I can only gesture. This means "I have NO feeling in my hands."

After my London swimming experience, I understand how people who swim in winter can do it. They swim year-round and slowly acclimate their bodies to colder and colder water. I like to believe they do it because they love swimming. But there may be some benefit to this cold-water life. I found this notice on the way into the locker/changing room at Parliament Hill Fields Lido:

Maybe the winter swimmers are not crazy after all. Maybe, just maybe, they're the smartest ones among us.

I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery.

My 2013 (new) Specialized Tarmac (my husband Jim referred to this
photo as "transportation upgrades" - the 2014 Outback replaced
my 1999 Rav4 totaled when I was rear-ended last year)

I bought a new bike. Not because I needed one (although this can always be argued). And not because I wanted one (although doesn't everyone?). No I just wanted to find out what it would be like to be a real road biker for a change. And - because I want to get faster and I found out the best way to do that.

So, then, why can I not get faster on my TT bike, you ask? I can. In fact, it appears that I already have. After riding with faster bikers from my triathlon team for several weekends, I went out for a solo 100-miler and found that I covered the distance (and course) faster than I ever have before.
So, then, why do I need a new bike, you ask? I don't. But I want to ride with the fast people and the fast people are road bikers who ride from my the bike shop every Wednesday evening. And they frown on riding in a group with a TT bike. 
So there it is. Reason enough to get a (road) bike.
There were a few conditions. The price had to be reasonable. Let's be serious - if I were going to drop several thousand dollars on a bike, I would be looking to replace my racing bike, the P3 (which I love, so that was not an option). And I wanted to buy it from my team sponsor,

And for those who've not heard of Elbow - well, even for those who have - here's a video I took of the song "The Birds" that might explain why we were (and are) willing to drive five (or more) hours to see them live. I'm still not mentally recovered from it: 
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