Blogs tagged with "pool"

Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events). After reading a little article on SwimSwam about the lessons we learn from our swim coaches, I began thinking about all the things I've learned, not only from my swim coach, but from swimming itself.

Swimming is the great teacher. In the pool. With teammates. And especially in open water - where we are always only one breath away from drowning.

I now believe most of my mental control in long distance events like marathons and Ironman races can be traced back to my swimming roots. And having been a competitive swimmer before anything else is likely what influenced me to (prefer to) do most of my long training sessions alone. For many, many years, people have asked me how and why I do it alone: "How do you handle 6-7 hours on the bike all by yourself every weekend?" I have no idea. I set my mind to it, and do it. After all, running alone had always been therapy. It cleared my mind. It made me less anxious. When I started doing longer triathlons, it never occurred to me to subject people I knew to MY long rides (even people who DO long rides). OK, so I'm an introvert. But don't get me wrong. I've truly enjoyed running and riding with others. It's just that I never actively seek out company. And it never bothered me to be alone hammering away for all that time.

How did I get this way? 

Swimming. Every day. Swimming twice a day three times a week. At times, swimming more than ten-thousand yards a day. Swimmers remain swimmers because they don't flinch when the coach says we're doing 10x1000s for a single workout. Surviving those workouts in college made me mentally tougher than that week I had four final exams in two days.

From the moment I walked onto the swim team at 14 years old in high school, never having been coached, never having experienced a single swim workout in my life, everything in the pool was a progressively harder thing to do. After every workout of my freshman year I vowed I would quit. But I didn't. And by sophomore year, I was swimming in Lane 1. With the fast kids. And I had great friends in my teammates. But, unless you're at a swim meet, swimming is not a social sport. You get a few moments to commune (or commiserate) with your lane-mates before the next interval. There's no time to talk, or laugh, or enjoy the scenery (what little of it there is on a pool deck).

It's all mental. Some people compare its boredom to treadmill running.

I remember my first 1650. In practice. I was terrified. I didn't think I could swim that long without stopping. One of the swimmers on the boys team told me something I would never forget. He told me to detach my brain from my body. To imagine I was a machine. And that's what I did. And, whoa! It worked. No pain. Three years later, I would be swimming the 1650 in competition. And loving it. It WAS all mental.

But swimming long distances is also a very, very lonely thing. It's quiet. Like I said earlier, you can't have conversations. You can't even smile if you're enjoying yourself. (To be fair, I HAVE smiled "inside.") Losing focus for a second means you'll suck down water, ram into the wall, or, if you're like me in open water, swim in circles. That's another reason swimming is a mental sport. It's not natural. We were born walkers. Runners. Bikers. Air-breathers. Surrounded by air, not needing to "think" when we breathe. When we're swimming, we're surrounded by water and have to consciously take a breath. We battle an element we're not built to thrive in. Yeah, our bodies may be 90% water, but we don't have fins and/or gills. There's a reason more people have climbed Mount Everest than swum the English Channel. Humans are not made to be swimmers.

But some of us are drawn to water. And that's where I find myself now. Trying to conquer the water again. Trying to rekindle the mind-control I once had. Once again, I'm learning to appreciate the quiet. To nurture the solitude of longer and longer sessions in the water. I'm learning to rein in my enthusiasm at the start and prepare myself mentally for spending more than three hours in the water. I KNOW I can do it. And most of the time I really enjoy it. But, like my younger days, my mind gets in the way when I think too much about it.

And the quiet in a pool is one thing. The quiet in open water... well, that's something entirely different. It can be deafening if the fear seeps in. Fear of currents. Fear of the cold. Fear of weather changes. When I go back to the lake in the next month or so, I'll face a whole new set of conditions under which to practice mind-control. And I will need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It's all mental.

I find that the best way is the old way. Each time I conquer a goal, it's one more thing to convince my mind of the next time. Just don't give up, and eventually, all the mental obstacles will give way to knowledge - knowledge that anything is possible. You just have to train for it.

Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events).

I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently. When all lanes are taken, I usually ask someone if they wouldn't mind sharing - but this is only to be courteous and avoid someone getting hurt. I don't HAVE to ask.

Good pools usually don't give people the "no sharing" option. They make all lanes circle-swim and people are expected to choose lanes based on their speed. By "good pools," I mean pools where the lifeguards and most people know the drill (and will help new-comers), and swimmers are lane-sharing is expected. "Great" pools go the extra mile and mark the lanes with signs indicating circle swim direction and swimmer speed.

My local community pool is neither good nor great. Unless I swim at 5:30 in the morning with the "regulars," when asking to share a lane, I tend to get refused more often than not, and even the lifeguards are reluctant to help. And the excuses are hilarious. One guy said "you don't want to share with me because I'm not a good swimmer," to which I offered "no problem, I'll stay to one side" and he said "no, seriously, you DON'T want to share a lane with me."

(Um.. YES, I do. Why the hell would I ask you if I didn't? I don't have time to waste while you lolly-gag through your floating workout.)

One lady started to say it was ok to share, then she decided not to, and yelled at me: "I can't share because I'm not a good swimmer like you," to which I offered, again: "I will stay out of your way." Then she put up a fight: "No! I swim into the lane-line when I share. I'm not trying to make it difficult, but..."

(Um... yes, you ARE making it difficult. Lady, you don't have that option. EVERYONE wants to swim today.)

The next time.. two lanes, four people swimming, two in each lane. I stopped one of the better swimmers and asked: "can we do circle swims?" He said "NO! [seriously, he yelled at me] I CAN'T do that." I was dumbfounded, so I said "you can't?" and he said "NO I CAN'T. But I'll be done in 10 minutes." And then just turned, ignored me, and started swimming again.

(Um... I don't HAVE 10 minutes, I'm on a tight schedule, dude. Seriously, what makes people act this way?)

I posted the story on Facebook and one of my friends suggested next time I simply just show them how to circle swim.

(NOW WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?? It's brilliant. Next time for sure.)

I was beginning to think it was me, but then I spent a week away from home and swam in a "good" pool (in Brookline, near Boston), and I found that circle-swimming didn't upset swimmers there. They just do it, no complaining.

So, chalk one up to the pool environment. Or maybe it's living in an affluent neighborhood in the midwest. Who really knows?

Just remember, everyone wants to swim and you can be nice about it or you can be a jerk. I say: choose to be empathetic - understand we're all in this together.

I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently.

Once a swimmer:
1980 OH Platt High School Girls Medley Relay
(yes, I'm the one in the hat)

As you know, I recently became a recovering triathlete. After 15 years of chasing some kind of redemption for every unsuccessful race, I got tired of comparing myself to everyone else (EVERYONE is a triathlete these days) and always coming up short - in speed, strength, body image, and gear. I had become the very thing I hated: a slave to consumerism - especially involving the Ironman brand - and a very unhappy person who no longer enjoyed anything about the sport that had become so important to me that it was a part-time job.

Thankfully, my wake-up call didn't turn me into a non-athlete, but instead sent me back to the sport that started it all: swimming. It was my first competitive athletic pursuit, and after 30 years of denial, it finally came back around to offer me joy in its purest form. But I struggle to write something new about swimming. I'll never be an expert. Everything I know about swimming has been said, so what could I possibly pass on as knowledge in my blog? I kept coming up empty-handed until yesterday's swim.

While I was doing laps in the pool, I realized that the way I'm swimming now is both completely different and, at the same time, exactly the same as I did 30 years ago.

Let me explain.

First, I need to add that I've become a swim coach - yep, a certified USA Swimming coach. I've been assistant-coaching a Cleveland-area team - the Westside Waves - for six months now, and I'm hooked. I've already learned a great deal about swimming from a coaching perspective, and it has had a profound effect on both my love of swimming and my love of mentoring a younger generation of swimmers.

Geeking out with Theoretical Hydrodynamics

The rules and practice of competitive swimming have evolved quite a bit from when I was in a racing suit on the start blocks (coincidentally, even starts are different). But one fundamental idea has not changed. The fastest swimmer in any race is the one who is most efficient in the water. The race will never go to the strongest swimmer. The race will go to the swimmer who is the most hydrodynamic. Show me a swimmer that can bench-press 200 pounds, and I will find you a swimmer who can only bench-press 50 but can beat your guy in the water.

This is swimming in a nutshell.

What does this have to do with me? Well, funny you should ask....

I was never an efficient swimmer. I started swimming competitively at the age of 14. Most of my cohorts had been doing it for eight years by then. The only reason I was any good was a hard-work ethic, my genetics, and my natural ability [to float fast]. Because I grew up in the water, swimming came naturally and water wasn't scary. I eventually gravitated toward longer distance swimming because I never learned how to kick efficiently or with propulsion. (I dragged my body through the water, and I had the football-player shoulders to prove it.)

My natural kick in freestyle was what they call a "two-beat" kick, i.e., I kick twice for every stoke revolution. Today's swimmers do not know that term. They are taught a six-beat kick whether they swim 50 yards in competition or the mile. It was one of the first thing I learned as a coach.
After a few more "lessons," I made a conscious decision to start using my new tools in my own training. I couldn't advocate one type of swimming to my swimmers then get in the water and demonstrate something else. I wanted to be an example to my swimmers as well as a coach. And, as a former triathlete, I always said that to train for triathlon, you need to swim with swimmers, bike with bikers, and run with runners. I denounced any triathlon-style swimming and would often rant about the way I saw triathletes training in the pool or being coached differently than what works for competitive swimmers. I repeat: the best swimmers are the ones who are most efficient in the water. End of story. Similarly, I also rant about running shoes marketed to triathletes as though they different from running shoes made for runners. It's genius marketing as triathletes are willing to shovel out twice as much cash for them. (Even more if they sport the Ironman logo.)

But I digress.

In trying to embrace new breakthroughs that science has given us about swim speed (and what I'm teaching my swimmers), I've struggled like a first-year swimmer. I've had to teach my body to dolphin-kick off the walls (we never did that in the early 80s), take full arm-strokes underwater, and - *choke* - do massive amounts of backstroke (because if anything makes you a better freestyler, it's becoming a better backstroker, and the kids learn backstroke almost as early as they learn the crawl). And, I've had to learn - *gasp* - to six-beat kick.

Even though I always had a good stroke, doing these things in combo with my scrawny running arms made it very difficult to get my daily yardage in the pool up over 4500 yards. It took about two months and everything hurt every day. But by the time I was comfortable at 5000, my whole view of the process had changed, and I could talk to my swimmers with a better understanding of what I was asking them to do. And I found that, unlike coaches who didn't swim regularly, many of my sentences were starting to begin with "I know this isn't easy, but it will make you a better swimmer...." Yep, I KNEW of which I spoke.

And, it paid off. I got faster. I got more comfortable and I stopped hating backstroke. Some of it was due to strength. Most of it was technique. My husband Jim took video recently of me swimming, and the first thing he said to me was: "your stroke is mostly the same, but you look stronger and you're kicking [more]." I'll take it!

Here are two videos for comparing the difference four months makes (unfortunately, it's not a huge improvement): the first one is from December 2015, showing my horrible [non-]kick, and the second one is from March 2016 showing a slightly improved, noticeable kick (and it's more streamlined too).

December:
March:

I guess it's all about problem-solving. I've once again learned to embrace my first love without judging myself. I'm far from perfect, but I also found I'm not too old - or set in my ways - to learn and apply new lessons. And that may be the most important lesson of all.

I'll attempt to share more of my trials as both an old and new swimmer and any upcoming open water swim races that I do. Hopefully it won't be too boring to my readers.

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.

Photo borrowed from moviehole.net

It's September, the month during which my local recreation center pool is shut down for maintenance and servicing for three weeks. The search for somewhere to swim in my local area sent me right to the door of a big chain health club/gym. Now, I know I should be thankful for finding a nearby place to swim, but after my workout this morning, I'm feeling judgmental (please note the term "mental" in there), so I'm going to make fun of health clubs (and by default, health club "types"). Any resemblance to actual persons or places, real or in the movies, is strictly non-coincidental.

Here's a little background information: I break into a cold sweat every time I get near muscle-bound body-builder types. It has something to do with my first experience in a fitness facility at age 15 when I was strength training at my swim coach's request. At that age, there were a thousand things I'd rather be doing in the evening than being scrutinized and chastised during workouts by men with giant muscular bodies and tiny heads who missed their calling as drill sergeants and whose only job qualification was to use the word "reps" in a sentence.

Thus, in case I collapsed from repressed fear, I made my husband Jim meet me at the health club. And it was indeed a good idea, because as soon as we walked in the door, I was struck with the inability to speak. I know this because when I finally worked up the courage to make eye contact with someone there, Jim was already pointing at me and saying (to the receptionist): "She's interested in seeing the pool." Within moments, I was being handed a clipboard and giving away my email address and phone number. All this just to look at a pool?

After signing on the line, the next step was to "take the tour." (But, seriously, can I just look at the pool?) We were greeted by a dark-haired muscular, well-groomed, bearded young man wearing the required slightly-tight polyester clothing that conforms oh-so-subtly to muscle curves. Yes, I notice these things. Yes, I'm stereotyping. I looked back at the sign on the door to make sure it didn't actually say "Globo Gym."

To be fair, this particular fitness center/health club/gym was not populated by beautiful people with tight bodies like in the TV commercials. The population (and cost) actually did look a lot more like Average Joe's -- the numbers occupying treadmills and machines were sparse at best. And they do have a boxing ring. But what about the pool?

We went to look at the pool: "It's 25 meters, a mini-Olympic size pool. It's three feet deep at one end and slopes to five at the other."

Me (mini-Olympic, wtf?): "Really? Wow! That should be great. I'm not used to swimming meters."

Gym guy: "What size pool are you used to?"

Me: "25 yards. Will it be difficult to get a lane? Are there usually a lot of people using the pool?" I note to myself that there are four lanes, not all occupied, each less than half the width of my rec-center pool. The lanes are so narrow I've decided butterfly is an impossibility unless I chop off my arms at the elbows. There will be no sharing of lanes here unless one person has gills. One lane is occupied by non-swimmers, and the club's whirlpool is adjacent to the pool (they could almost share the same water).

Gym guy: "No, I never see people waiting. The only time you'll have trouble is during water aerobics classes." He then assures me that morning and after-work hours will be no problem. And... "people can share lanes." Hmmm, has he actually seen that? I'm guessing he doesn't go near the pool often, but I could be wrong.

All things considered, I decide on a month-long membership to start, if just for the pool. And cool, they throw in a free session with a trainer. Maybe, just maybe, this will be my big chance to learn about strength training for the winter. And for the bike.

Fast forward to this morning -- my first workout at my new pool. I grab a locker, get out my pull-buoy and hand paddles and walk onto the pool deck. I'm instantly aware that this is NOT a place for someone as self-conscious as I am. I may be the first person who knows something other than sidestroke to step foot in this pool. I start swimming. I'm instantly aware that three feet is barely enough depth for my hands to clear the bottom. Flip turns at this end will be interesting, if not painful. I come to the wall at the far end. I'm instantly aware that this is NOT a 25-meter pool.

Ok ok ok ok (spoken like Joe Pesci's "Leo Getz") -- call me a POOL SNOB, but here's where the tiny heads come in. Do NOT tell me a pool is 25 meters if it isn't even 25 yards! I can understand the meters vs. yards mix-up, but come ON! This pool is not 25 of anything! Maybe this place has no concept of measurement units unless they involve weight.

I get over the frustration quickly and regroup. I need to get my workout in. On the return lap, I am instantly aware of being watched. A man in the whirlpool is half-way out of the water, bent over the lap lane watching me. This is a little too close for comfort. I decide to breathe on the other side. I get on with my workout, keeping an eye on the people who come and go to the pool. I mean, the whirlpool. And the steam room. And the sauna. It's 6:30 a.m., is this a pre-workout steam? I decide to stop looking.

It's going to be a long September. Do you think they have a dodgeball team?

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