Saturday was a landmark to me: a return to the pond and to running after a three week gap because of illness. I think jogging and brisk walking probably more accurately describes my journey up the hill, but I ran all the way back. The interesting thing about the break from the pond was that I had lost my sense that getting into a very cold pond when the air temperature is freezing is a normal thing to do. And maybe it isn’t, but after the initial shock and tingle, I remembered why I do it. The cold swim managed to uplift my very gloomy spirits in a way that nothing all month had managed – not even cocoa, buttered toast or rose-scented baths. Incidently, I don’t actually know how cold the water was. The blackboard said it was 5 degrees but when I mentioned that in the changing room, two women laughed and said ‘it always says that, they just aren’t measuring it anymore’. On another note, I was gratified to see that my name is now on the register IN PRINT, but slightly perplexed by the fact that somebody had marked me present at several occasions in January when I know quite well I wasn’t there. And believe me, there’s no-one else in the UK with my name, never mind North London. But I’m strangely flattered that someone wants to pretend to be me!
Since I started to reconsider my own approach to breast stroke last year, I’ve kept an eye out on how other swimmers do it. There’s a variety – heads in, heads out (ooh, doesn’t it hurt their backs?), heads in but body propelled wildly out of the water with each stroke (quite slow and uses up a lot of pool real estate) and of course the people who do ‘proper’ breast stroke legs and those who don’t (like me). But on Wednesday, my first swim in a fortnight, I saw something I’d never seen before. A man at the Oasis was swimming breast stroke, head of out of the water, no apparent out of breath-ness (barely turning a hair) taking over everyone in the lane. Not in a rude way – he even thanked me when I let him in front – but he simply couldn’t help himself as he was making such amazing progress through the water (I don’t want to describe him as ‘fast’ as that would imply a kind of flash and splash that he simply wasn’t displaying). He was faster than some of the people doing crawl in the fast lane. I have no idea what kind of dynamo leg action was going on underneath his calm surface stroking. In fact, maybe I should have taken a closer look, and I’d have spotted a pair of green, scaly, amphibious flippers. It’s the only explanation.
My local paper, the Ham and High (Hampstead and Highgate Express properly called) published some fairly horrible pictures last week of what the various ponds on Hampstead Heath are likely to look like after ‘essential’ dam rebuilding work from 2013 onwards. This is the article, although the pictures are only in the print edition. In addition to being closed for two years, the work will transform them into fairly stark reservoirs. They estimate it will take around 10 years after that before plant regrowth will give them something of the feeling of natural beauty they carry now, although they certainly won’t look the same. The work is planned just in case of serious flooding (on the Boscastle type of scale) which would mean the dams would burst. It is described throughout the article as ‘set to’ or ‘going to’ happen, rather than something ‘threatened’ or ‘under discussion’.
I’m well aware that, like most of England, the ‘natural’ beauty of Hampstead Heath is fairly artificial and certainly have no illusions about the maintenance required to keep the ladies’ bathing pond looking like it does. And of course, I’m not an expert in flood risk and, indeed, am in an area which would be severely affected if the flooding would be as bad as the Corporation of London suggests it would. But I can’t help feeling that it’s quite a radical option for an uncertain risk. This is, after all, one of the highest areas of London, nowhere near the sea and not particularly near any overground rivers (and the Fleet’s been confined to a sewage pipe for the last 300 years for heaven’s sake). This isn’t like Boscastle or the areas of Gloucestershire which have been severely affected by flood recently (unlike many of the residents of Tewkesbury, I don’t have a river view). I’m obviously biased, but I’ll be interested to see what the reaction will be from local swimmers. Those ladies aren’t for messing with, believe me.
I’ve had a succession of lurgies the last couple of weeks and not done any swimming or running for nearly a fortnight. Last year, when hit by similar bugs, I must admit that I found consolation in the fact that I suddenly had lots more time. It was a bit of a relief not to have to fit in swimming between work and whatever I was doing that night. This year, my germs have hit me in a January when I not only have I forced myself to stop filling up my diary with arrangements (for the forseeable), but also given up the booze from Monday to Friday (for January). So not only can I not look forward to having fun nights out with friends (or even consolatory solo glasses of wine) but I’m not getting the benefit of exercise either. I was so looking forward to that part-smug, part-drugged feeling of a healthy liver and stomach combined with exercise endorphins. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that I’d still get ill. So with the flawless logic of what Ben Goldacre calls a ‘Humanities Graduate’ I’m now convinced that my return to alcohol form in February (if not insane diary commitments) will herald my return to health. And while it doesn’t match the hubristic ‘I am INDESTRUCTIBLE’ feeling which comes with serious healthy living, curing a hangover with a nice swim is a very nice feeling of its own.
Since I’ve been back in public pools, the old issue of lane speeds has returned to my swimming life. There is no avoiding the fact that between very slow and very fast there are an unlimited range of speeds at which we swim and everyone’s definition of the right speed for fast, medium and slow lanes will vary. Add to that the fact that some people will always prefer to swim in the medium or fast lane when they are just a little bit too slow for it, either out of pride or to help push themselves, and others will swim in a lane for which they’re too fast rather than feel outclassed by the big boys.
Last night I moved from the slow to the fast lane, although I was trying to avoid feeling pressured, because I felt that my speed was too fast for the slow lane and, after all, it’s not like my fellow-swimmers can move to a slower lane. Of course I was occasionally overtaken (not easy at Kentish Town where the lanes are very narrow) but then sometimes I got stuck behind people myself. At the moment, I’m erring on the side of slowness because I’m trying to ensure I don’t tense my shoulders as I swim, and bring as much power as possible from my legs and core. But of course, I speed up in the course of swimming and it’s impossible not to be influenced by the speeds of other swimmers.
I don’t actually think there’s a solution to this perennial pool problem. My only recommendation is to be flexible and considerate and try to remember that other swimmers aren’t actually kicking off in front of you and holding you up specifically to annoy you. And after all, if everyone swam as fast as you did, whom would you be faster than?
I’ve really enjoyed looking at everyone’s pictures and videos of festive winter swims and part of me would love to have the flexibility to attended at least one (eg the one outside my house, but I was in the library). The atmosphere looks great and there’s lots of mulled wine! However, I’m actually the last person to take part in one. For a start, I hate hanging around. I want to rush straight into the water and the idea of standing in my skimpies at the side anticipating the dip is completely offputting. Secondly, I can’t dive and all the mass swims which are at pools seem to involve diving. And thirdly I don’t normally want to stay outside after I’ve been in cold water. In fact, I’m not very good at remaining stationary outside even when I haven’t just dropped my core temperature by ten degrees.
All of which makes me sound a right old grump, and I really am quite sociable. And very patient (you trying singing in a 200-person choir without the gifts of silence and patience). But I need to handle my cold swimming on my own. Can I meet you in the caff afterwards for a nice hot cup of tea?