There is no way I can compare with the experiences of Sir Ranulph Fiennes. The man is a hero. But every morning that I push my cold water resistance that bit further, I have to endure not only that which seemed impossible to surpass the last time, but also a little bit more.
This morning I aimed for two km in the outdoor pool – some 600m more than I had achieved last week. On arrival to the lido, however, I discovered that the water temperature had dropped another degree.
Simply getting into water that cold requires mental strength and considerable practice. Sudden Immersion Shock Syndrome can kill. But believe it or not, you get used to it. At first, the contact of the liquid against your bare flesh confuses your senses, even though your mind is 100% aware of the actual temperature. Initially, it simply burns.
Reality sets in towards the end of the first 25m. The cold begins to penetrate. For me, it takes much longer to be able to keep my face in the water. Initial submersion of my forehead feels like being hit in the face by a steel tray. All I can do is wait for the pain to subside, then submerge again. Eventually, my face and head simply go numb. My jaw freezes. With no-one to speak to on these glorious morning outings, I can only assume I would be unable to talk anyway. Besides, rational though soon becomes difficult.
The latter part, that of not being able to hold a sensible thought for long, may be self induced. After all, the one overriding logical wish is to get out of the water. Yet the main thing I have to keep telling myself is to ignore that desire to get out, and to just keep swimming. And added to this, I need to ignore the cold and pain that is slowly penetrating through my wetsuit gloves and boots, and is eating its way into my flesh like an acid.
The pain at the extremities is physical and undeniable. What creeps up on you, stealthily, is the cold to your core.
At 400m shy of my target this morning (but still 200m progress on my previous best), I realised I needed to get out. I can’t say I left it too late, but neither do I think I could have left it much later.
To exit the water I had to roll onto the side of the pool. My legs could not support me properly, and though my arms could lift my body out of the water, they could not drag me to the showers. Some moments were spend on all fours, worrying that I was looking frankly ridiculous, whilst also wondering how I was going to proceed from here. I could see a lifeguard eyeing me with concern.
Determined not to look any more foolish, I hauled myself to my feet. Walking is sometimes referred to as controlled falling – my stumble to the showers was bordering on utterly uncontrolled.
I realised just how cold I was when, after two or three minutes of a hot shower, I was still completely unable to take off even one glove. A deep, uncontrollable shiver set into my entire body. Hot water was pouring over me, and though this was reviving me on the outside, my insides were not being penetrated by the heat. A flask of hot, sweet tea was available nearby, self prepared at 05:30 for this very eventuality.... except that I would not have been able to unscrew the lid, and nor did I want to step out of the shower to go and get the flask.
It was only after more than ten minutes that I could turn the water off. The shivering had subsided, but had certainly not stopped. Tea was self administered, but my hands were shaking in the most violent way. Simply bringing the cup of hot liquid close to my face warranted a dedicated insurance policy.
All in all, for around a 45 minute swim, it took well over half an hour to properly warm up. Even now, some two hours later, pin-pricks of sensation still cover my skin. It’s this ‘invigoration’ that keeps regulars going back every day. Except that they are currently only doing four or five minutes.
And the best thing about all of this: I have to do it all again tomorrow – plus a little bit more!