Night swimming and a spot of fundraising

It’s been an odd few weeks since the Hurly Burly. The event was promoted as an end of season jaunt, a last hoorah for a great summer of swimming. An event at the beginning of October, as the summer ends and the autumn finally gets into full swing, was always going to be part of that “switch”. Having spent all summer swimming outside, without the confines of the pool walls or the close proximity of other swimmers, it was always going to be a shock to the system. I was, and still am reluctant about the pool. I didn’t properly swim in a pool between May and mid-October this year. Almost 6 whole months! My local reservoir became my swimming pool. I’ve got so familiar with it this year that, occasionally, I’ve felt happy swimming alone. I feel like I know each corner and each bank so intimately that I feel safe, knowing that I know my limits in there. I know where all the potential get outs are, I know where the cold patches are likely to be, I know where the herons like to hang out and I know the best spots to stop and enjoy the birdsong and the view.

As the open water season progressed the number of swims per week and time in the water on each time increased, in part because I’d entered the Hurly Burly, but also because I just wanted to be in the water. These dips were regular early morning swims with my bestest swim buddies (both triathletes). These swims were never that long, squeezed in before the normal stuff like work and getting the kids to school. They were often early though and we peaked at 5am (!) in the middle of summer. Yes, we regularly questioned our sanity at that hour of the day but it was always worth it for the day long buzz that early morning swimming provides. Add to that the more leisurely swims on a weekend or evening when we had a bit more time to spare. When September rolled around and my youngest started school I even found myself nipping in for a sneaky dip after the school run before I got on with the boring bits of normal life.

These were my real happy, free times of the summer. It’s understandable that I feel a bit deflated now. I’m no longer meeting friends at some ungodly hour in the morning for a quick chat before we start the day with a cold dip. Our longer sessions have finished and that camaraderie that seems to inherently come with open water swimming has eased off. With the changing of the season the days have got shorter and the temperature’s dropped, both in the air and the water. Our early morning dips are no longer quite so appealing and, for a while at least, we weren’t brave enough to swim in the dark. It’s an odd time of year. It felt the same last year when we stopped for the season. The problem is, this year I’ve swum so much more outside that it’s been a bigger shock to the system having to migrate back to the pool.

Well, I say I’ve migrated back to the pool. I haven’t entirely. My bestest swimming buddy and I had an understanding early in the season that we would try and swim properly through the winter this year. We’d attempted last year but I think we only averaged once a month between November and March. With a bit more experience and understanding of our limits under our belts we’re determined to do it.

First things first was when do we swim? During the summer we regularly went in early morning or late evening. This allowed us to fit swimming around our busy family lives. It also meant we could avoid any other water users in our local reservoir and dodge awkward questions from the locals. Obviously, as the days have shortened it’s dark at the times we’d normally swim. For the first couple of weeks of darkness we tried to catch what bit of light there was or try and squeeze a dip in over the weekend. That left us struggling to fit it in. So we realised we needed to toughen up and just brave the dark! We’d done it once before, just before the Hurly Burly, when we both needed a bit of a blow out after a hard week but that was very much a quick 2 minute dip. What we needed was to properly swim.  Face in, front crawl for more than two minutes.

The first time we went we took a couple of glow sticks and cautiously did a lot of heads up breastroke to keep an eye on each other. It was an evening and the lights from the nearby multi-sport pitch shed quite a bit of light over the reservoir. Our second dark swim was an early morning. We’d forgotten glow sticks but we figured we’d be OK. There were enough lights on nearby houses to be able to navigate our way up and down the dam wall. I breastroked for a good while, getting used to the cold and keeping an eye out for my buddy. Then I braved it and got my head in. I kept looking for the buddy but couldn’t see her in the dark. I figured I’d just swum past her or maybe she’d decided to head back as she was too cold. I wasn’t worried. I know she’s perfectly competent, we were both in our wetsuits and, like me, she knows our reservoir like the back of her hand.

I made my way back to our get out. Her dryrobe was still there and there was no sign of her. I wandered onto the dam wall but still couldn’t see her. There was enough light in the sky to be able to see anyone if they were near the dam wall, which is what we’d agreed to swim. But there was no sign of her. Cue the start of that mild sick feeling. Had I lost her? Was she floating somewhere face down? Had she sunk? I started working out who I’d call first for help. Working out those awkward conversations I’d need to have.

I’m not a big panicker. I like to think I’m one of those “calm in a crisis” type people. I always think things through in a logical manner before coming to conclusions. However, the panic was starting to bubble up! Then, finally, I saw some splashing and a hint of a white hat. Phew, she was still alive!!

It turns out she’d got quite disorientated in the dark and ended up sighting off the wrong lights. Rather than swimming along the dam wall she’d ended up swimming pretty much into the middle of the reservoir. D’oh!

My frantic searching probably lasted for less than two minutes but I didn’t fancy it again. It therefore became apparent we really needed some lights if we were going to carry on. We didn’t want to swim in head torches. We don’t really need our way lighting, there’s enough ambient light from houses nearby and they’re too bulky and likely to flop around when we’re doing front crawl. Besides, when your head’s in there’s no point having a light shining into the inky black water in front of you. Ideally it needed to be something small and light that could clip onto the back of our goggle straps. Most importantly it needed to be waterproof. Cue extensive searching of the internet.

I had no idea there were such variations in waterproofness!  Most outdoor kit is splashproof or water resistant on the basis it needs to deal with a bit of rain but it’s never going to get properly submerged. We needed proper, submerged for extensive periods of time, waterproof. Eventually I was guided towards diving equipment. In amongst the £100+ dive lights I found some small coloured mini lights. Designed as marker lights, they were prefect. Completely waterproof with a little clip and a lanyard so we can securely fasten them to our goggles. They’re not massive floodlight-esque beacons but for £10 they’re just what we need! I can see Amanda from miles away. Her little green light bobs backwards and forwards as she swims. I have a red one to match my dryrobe.

And so, our early morning and evening swims are back on the agenda. We’re not going in for that long. The water’s dropped to 10.5C now. It’s more than bearable but our hour long leisurely swims are behind us for now. But, most importantly, that camaraderie is back. In fact it’s possibly even more heightened as we question our sanity that little bit more for wanting to carry on swimming through the winter AND in the dark.

What I’ve written above makes it sound like the idea of night swimming was a new idea to us. Actually I already had a night swim planned anyway, just not in the low key way that I’ve talked about so far!

Throughout this summer I’ve been helping out with organised open water swimming sessions. The sessions are part of Glossop Triathlon Clubs programme of activities and we’re called Toddbrook Open Water Swimmers (TOWS). We’ve run two sessions per week from our local sailing club with kayak based safety cover on the water and a team of safety people on the shore. It’s a non-profit venture run entirely by volunteers. Our aim is to give swimmers the opportunity to swim outside in a safe and supervised environment. We haven’t run any formal training sessions but there are plenty of experienced swimmers about to help any newbies out. Everyone’s welcome and we’ve had a wide range of people coming to join us. It was a very successful summer and we were sad to stop as the temperatures dropped in late September.

However, one of our swimmers works at a special needs school. They have a hydrotherapy pool but it’s in desperate need of refurbishment. He’d asked whether we could run some kind of fundraising event through TOWS and we decided on a night swim. It gave us an opportunity to have a fundraiser for a very worthy cause and to have a little end of season send off. So, on Thursday 2nd November our hardy core volunteer crew set about running our last swim of 2017. Cue glow sticks, waterproof lights, fairy lights, pumpkins and lots of good food.

The swim was a great success. We had nearly 30 swimmers in the water over the space of an hour swimming a course approximately 300m long. It really was quite a sight seeing glowing arms and heads bobbing about in the reservoir accompanied by our glowing swim buoys and trusty safety kayakers. I’m sure all our spectators thought the same too. I managed to spend 50 minutes in the water. I intended to get out after every lap but kept bumping into people I wanted to swim with!

A massive thank you needs to go out to all of our safety volunteers without whom we couldn’t have run the event. But also to all our lovely swimmers who came and took part, not just that night but throughout the season too. It was a real treat getting to chat to a lot of our regulars after the swim with some food and a brew. I’m usually sat out in the reservoir in a kayak during the sessions so it was great to actually get to chat to people rather than the usual quick “hello” as they swim past.

So far we’ve raised over £1000 towards the hydrotherapy pool. A very worthwhile event all round.

TOWS pumpkins

And so, open water swimming is continuing despite the dark and cold and I’ve found yet another thread to open water swimming that I absolutely love. Swimming in the dark is, at first, an odd experience. Obviously you have less visibility of your surroundings, but what I’m beginning to realise is that your other senses pick that up. In the quiet of the very early morning I can hear so much more. The splashing of my friend as she swims past, owls hooting, fish jumping, the gentle lapping of the water. Because you can’t see that far the vision you do have is focused much closer, on the ripples gently ebbing away from you, the sight of your hand pushing forwards in the inky blackness as you swim. And of course, that little green light of my bestest swim buddy.

An added bonus for me is that it also seems to be easing my fear of the dark. Yes, I’m scared of the dark! Of those monsters that could be hiding in the inky blackness, waiting to chase me, catch me and possibly eat me. I know it’s entirely irrational.

We swam in a local reservoir over the summer which is particularly black due to heavy peat run off from the nearby moors. The first few hundred metres in were swum with my eyes closed! Every time I put my head in I just panicked at the darkness. I eventually got used to it but I wasn’t a massive fan. What I’ve realised about swimming in the dark is that when everything’s dark it’s less of a shock having to put my face in inky black water. I’ll see how I manage over the winter but I’m hopeful the dark might break my fear of the unknown. At least in our local swimming spots.

And so, open water swimming is continuing despite the dark and cold. I might not have chance for a dip next week but I’ll update you on why that is in another post.

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