In winter, the water in my lake is blue. This was a surprise to me. Through the years I’ve been swimming there, April to October, I’ve spent hours considering the proportion of green to blue in the water, mulling over the color: cyan, seafoam, peacock, turquoise, aquamarine. But in the winter, when the trees around the lake are bare, the water is blue and nothing else, the blue of a child’s drawing of a lake. In the sun, the top level of water is the improbable blue of icebergs, and on a cloudy day, the very edge of the surface is outlined in white, and then the color shades slowly down through slate into midnight blue beneath you.
This is the first year I have swum open water through the winter. I never sat down and decided to do it. Back in March 2020, a few weeks before I would have started open water swimming, the state parks closed due to the pandemic, and with them public access to the lake. I was bereft. It had never occurred to me that my lake could be taken away. When the parks reopened, I went to swim as soon as I could, and I swam through the summer and then through the fall and then, somehow, through the winter. I never thought, “It’s time to stop for the year.” It’s only now that spring has come around that I realize what was in the back of my mind: I couldn’t bear to lose the lake again.
I have nothing inspirational to say about cold water. I may be the only cold water swimmer who doesn’t. All winter long I kept running across articles (mostly from British and Irish newspapers) about swimmers flinging themselves into icy waves; those people spoke of the joys of the cold — how it cured their illnesses, gave them life again. The articles were illustrated with photos of wet people emerging from lakes and oceans, smiling widely. But I have no photos like that, and my notes from my swimming log have sparse descriptions: “cold,” “freezing,” and “MUCH SHIVERING.”
But the lake carried me in ways I did not expect and could not have asked for. Because the sun was lower in the sky, sometimes as I looked straight down, I had the illusion that light was radiating up from the bottom instead of down from above, holding me up from below. And the blue of the water — it was a blue I did not know was possible. I am an unlikely cold water swimmer. But the unexpected light and the improbable blue sustained me through the winter.
A few years ago, over the winter, I read a book called How to Read Water, a guide to the “rare art of natural navigation.” I enjoyed the book, but I was unsatisfied with it in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t until the next spring, when I swam in open water again, that I understood why: the book teaches how to read water from above it, from land or from the deck of a boat. I wanted to learn how to read water from within it.
It’s hard to navigate from the water. That’s why open water swimmers need kayakers to keep us on course during races (thank you, kayakers). But it’s not that we don’t see. We have a different view. I remember the first time AJ the kayaker and I went to the lake together. We were approaching a rocky point, and I had my head down, watching the bottom rising up beneath me until it was shallow enough to stand. When I did stand, AJ expressed relief. He said he was about to warn me to look out for the rocks. And I laughed: I had been looking at the rocks. AJ saw the water from the surface up. I saw it from the surface down.
In my day job, I often teach an Old English poem called “The Dream of the Rood.” The work exists in two copies: one handwritten in a tenth-century manuscript, the other carved into the sides of an eighth-century stone cross, five meters high. My students and I talk about the difference between reading while sitting in a chair, looking down at a book or a screen and turning pages or scrolling, and reading while standing under a tall stone sculpture, looking up and walking around it. In the first case, you read by moving the poem; in the second, you read by moving you.
That’s how it is with reading water: you read by moving you. I read the current from comparing how fast I’m moving to how hard I’m working. I read the depth of the water from its color darkening as I swim out into the lake and then lightening as I near land again. In Lake Jocassee, the water I know best, I can read how close I am to one of the cold mountain creeks which run into the lake from a drop in water temperature.
I want to learn how to read different waters. Last November, I went to Baja California, where I swam in a shallow cove in the Sea of Cortez, my husband watching from the beach. The first day I set out in bright sunshine through light green water. Then abruptly, maybe a half mile across the cove, the water turned dark brown. I stopped and stared in front of me. Incomprehension felt like fear. What did it mean?
Absurdly, I thought of a time, 30 years ago, when I got off a train in Brussels. I was meeting a friend, and I was nervous about my French. As I stood on the platform, a man spoke to me. I understood nothing — absolutely nothing. In that moment, my friend appeared, and looking at my face, he said, “It’s OK. He was speaking Dutch.”
I was alone, and I understood nothing. For all I knew, the water was speaking Dutch. But there was only one thing to do: you read water by moving you. Cautiously I started swimming forward. After fifty or a hundred yards, just as abruptly, the water turned green again, and then a bit later brown and then green as I moved across the cove. And then I swam back and met my husband on the beach.
Sometimes when you’re reading, you have to accept not understanding. You mark a line or a passage for later so that you can return to it and try again. That evening, I lay in bed and thought about the color change. Probably it was the effect of patches of dark volcanic rock on the sea floor. But I didn’t know. I swam across the cove next day, not knowing. Thinking back on it, I still don’t know for sure.
But I remember the blue of the sky, and the taste of the salt, and a little dot on the beach, my husband, waiting for me.
Last week, the world lost a great man. His name was Charles van der Horst. I met Charlie through swimming, but the more I learned about him and his life, the more I admired him. From his work caring for patients with HIV/AIDS to his advocacy for social justice to his articles about his own mental health struggles, encouraging others to seek help, he changed people’s lives. He made the world a better place. He saw what needed to be done, and he took up the work.
Charlie drowned during a swim, during a well-established, well-run, well-respected event. I don’t understand. Nobody understands. But I do understand that we can’t hold still, turning over the memories of his life. We have to act in the world, taking those memories with us. The way to honor him is the same as the way to read water: by moving ourselves.
Jellyfish. I had swum the Lowcountry Splash six or seven times, and I had never seen a single jellyfish. I had never heard anyone say they saw a jellyfish. There had never been any mention of jellyfish.
But three miles into the swim, I began to see . . . things . . . floating in the water. And then a blob the size of a baby’s head passed by my face. I was swimming through jellyfish.
I had focused my preparations for the 2019 Lowcountry Splash on hydration and nutrition, not jellyfish. Because the usual start location for the five mile race was unavailable, the race directors had found another site up the river, making the course six miles. Swimming five miles without food or drink is often a bit of a stretch for me; swimming six miles was too much.
Now, I should note that the race always provides water for swimmers: there are boats on the course with water. Plus, the boat at the halfway point would take any food or drink you wanted. But all boats look the same to me from the water, and I didn’t want to get lost or run into a dock looking for the right ones. I made plans to carry my supplies on me.
The week before the Splash, I did some experimenting. It was simple to carry an energy gel while swimming; the little packet would lie flat against my back, held in place by the strap of my suit. But energy gels don’t provide any hydration, and I was more concerned about fluids than food. So I turned to a tried-and-true open water staple: applesauce. Applesauce provides sugar and hydration, and it comes in squeezable pouches. Through trial and error (the details are best passed over), I found that the best place for me to carry it was in the back of my suit, angled so that the top was sticking out and the bottom of the pouch was pointed to the side. Here’s a photo of me from the start of the race rocking the look.
Not only could I carry the pouch this way, I could take it out, consume the applesauce quickly, and stick the empty pouch back in my suit to be thrown away on land.
The days leading up to the swim were unremarkable — except for the heat. The temperature in Charleston reached 101 a few days before the event, a record high for May. The morning of the swim, the race director noted that the water temperature was 82, which is well above average. We were all urged to stay hydrated. I patted the applesauce in the back of suit.
The course takes swimmers down the Daniel Island side of the Wando River to the shipping container cranes, where we cross the channel to the other side to continue down the Cooper River, under the Ravenel bridge, to the finish at Patriots Point. The water at the start was warm and still, but the current picked up as we went along; I could really feel it as I made the crossing. When I checked in at the safety boat on the other side, I took a moment for my applesauce and set off again. Everything was going according to plan.
I first noticed the jellyfish about a mile after the crossing. For a moment, I panicked — but only for a moment. Honestly, I couldn’t panic for very long; three miles into a six mile race, I just don’t have the biochemical capacity for panic.
Instead, I took stock of everything I knew:
The jellyfish seemed to be your standard South Carolina beach jellyfish.
I have been stung by jellyfish before, and while I didn’t like it, it was not the end of the world.
There were no emergency whistles being blown, and therefore this was probably not an emergency.
It occurred to me that getting tentacles in my mouth might be a problem, so I made certain my mouth was closed underwater, but otherwise I just kept going. I would swim a little while without seeing any jellyfish, and then another group would come along. But aside from a brief sting on my foot (I kicked the top of one), I was unaffected.
At the end of the race after we passed the bridge, the water became choppy. If there were jellyfish, I was too busy to pay attention to them. I was coming into the finish too far to the left, but a kayaker directed me in (thank you, kayaker!). And then it was a zip under the finish boom and down the chute to the ladders where a kind person hauled me out, and I was done.
When I got to the water station on the dock, I drank a whole bottle non-stop. Then I picked up a second bottle and drank it more slowly. Unsurprisingly, given the heat, I was a bit dehydrated. As I drank, I thought about climate change.
Warm water is dangerous for swimmers. In 2010, Fran Crippen died of hyperthermia at the age of 26 at a race in Dubai where the water temperature topped 88 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result of his death, swimming authorities have set standards for temperature; USMS, for example, says that an open water race of 5K or longer should not start if the water temperature exceeds 85 degrees F.
But the water temperature itself is not the only danger: warm water attracts jellyfish and other sea life. As our climate changes, we will face new challenges. You can stick an applesauce pouch in your suit to swim an extra mile. But what do you do to prepare for jellyfish?
The Lowcountry Splash is a well-run event in a beautiful location. I’ve swum it in fast years and in slow, in good weather and in bad. And now I’ve swum it in jellyfish. I’ll be back in 2020 to see what the river comes up with next.
If there is one thing open water swimming teaches, it is humility. I have heard plenty of inspirational speeches about the qualities that other sports instill: leadership, teamwork, persistence. But the key lesson of open water swimming is that no matter how important you think you are, the water is not impressed with you. It is not interested in your problems, your issues, whatever it is you are carrying around.
The water says, You need to drop that crap and swim.
And there is no event that makes all that clear to me more than the Lowcountry Splash. I have swum the Lowcountry Splash six of the last seven years, twice at the 2.4 mile length and four times at the five mile length, and every year I learn — again — to drop the crap and swim.
The day before the race, though, we weren’t sure we were going to get to swim at all. As K and I drove down to Charleston on Saturday, the event organizers were coming up with contingency plans for bad weather. Storms were in the forecast. We went to sleep not knowing whether we would swim in the morning or just head back home.
But the storms held off. So we got up at 5 AM Sunday morning and headed for Patriots Point, the race finish, to ride the buses to Daniel Island.
I love the five mile start at the Lowcountry Splash: 150 or so mostly naked people hanging around a park, slathering themselves (and sometimes others) with sunscreen and Vaseline. The Vaseline is important; the water is brackish, and any chafing is going to sting. Then we line up in our unclothed greasiness and jump off the dock, 10 or 15 at a time, and head down river back to Patriots Point.
I’ve swum the Lowcountry Splash in years when the current was strong and years when the current was weak. But this year presented a new challenge: while we had a strong current helping us along, we also had a strong wind blowing in our faces, directly into the current. And that kind of wind against current produces waves — big waves.
The first half of the course was a bit choppy. The second half of the course was more than a bit choppy. K says he saw white caps. I don’t doubt him. All I saw was water coming right at me — a wall of water in my face every time I tried to sight ahead. Some years the hardest part of the Lowcountry Splash is looking at the Ravenel Bridge in the distance and wondering how long it will take to get there. This year I barely saw the bridge at all.
It was the kind of swim that fosters humility. The water is all around you, both above and below. You are not in control of the situation. You’ve got one job, and you’ve got to do it.
It was a very satisfying swim.
The only disappointment was the food. In years past, there have been tables full of food after the race. But this year when we made it to the picnic area, those tables were mostly empty, with only a few sad trays of quartered bagels. Maybe the 2.4 mile swimmers were ravenous and ate everything. Unfortunately, we were ravenous too, and instead of hanging out the way we usually do, we each grabbed a drink and left to shower and eat.
On occasion, I meet someone who is impressed by my swimming. Just last week, I met a guy who burbled on about how incredible it was that I swam long distances. It was very sweet. I love flattery as much as anyone. But I take it all with a big helping of salt, the kind that you find in the water of the Charleston harbor. I’m a great swimmer. But I know my place in the world. The water is not impressed.
The first three days of SCAR are dam to dam swims. The swimmers are divided into three waves (slower, medium, and faster), and boats take swimmers to the dam at one end of the lake wave by wave. All the swimmers in a given wave put one hand on the buoy line and one in the air, and we set off together. At the same time, the kayakers are paddling up from a beach nearby to join their swimmers. Each of the first three courses finishes at the buoy line at the dam on other end of the lake.
For me, the temperature at Saguaro Lake was perfect: 70 F (21 C). Another swimmer, a person who usually trains in the Pacific Ocean, told me she found it a bit warm. It’s all what you’re used to. But the sky was blue, and the wind was calm, and the nine and a half miles flew by.
The Saguaro course is made up of a canyon section, followed a more open section, followed by a second canyon section, and lastly two open miles to the finish. Knowing that structure in advance, I always knew where I was on the course. My favorite part was a tremendous gray rock wall on one side of the lake right before coming into the last open section. I gaped up in wonder as we swam along it. It was like swimming next to a skyscraper.
Saguaro Lake is billed as SCAR’s warmup. It was a good solid swim all the way.
Day 2: Canyon Lake
Judging by the number of people who did not finish, Canyon Lake was the most difficult swim this year: 10 of 48 did not complete the course. The culprit was the cold. After the race, I overheard people saying that the water temperature was 57-58 F (14 C) at the start. Canyon is always the coldest lake, and it warms up as you go, but this year was colder than usual, and it took a good while to warm up.
All four SCAR swims are non-wetsuit swims, which is fine with me. I have no moral objection to wetsuits, but I don’t enjoy wearing them. But 57-58 F would be cold for me even with a wetsuit, though I know that for some ocean swimmers that’s just another day in the water.
I was not particular cheerful during the first three or so miles of the swim. My jaw clenched in the cold, and it ached. I was unhappy. But I was not afraid. This spring I started training in open water when the water temperature reached 50 F in the nearby lakes. The week before I left for SCAR I went out four days in a row, with three different friends who gave up their afternoons to come with me. So I had been in jaw-clenching cold, and I knew I could swim through it.
If I hadn’t had that cold water acclimation period — and all that help from friends — I don’t think I would have finished Canyon Lake.
During those first three miles, there was a lot of boat traffic on the lake, but I was too focused on my own misery to wonder what was going on. Later J, my kayaker (and my nephew), told me that those boats were pulling people out, but he’s a good man and a smart one, and he didn’t tell me that at the time.
Eventually the water temperature warmed up enough that my jaw unclenched, and I started to appreciate the stunning beauty of Canyon Lake. We were at the bottom of a twisting canyon for nine miles. As we moved along, I had the illusion that we were climbing up into the surrounding mountains. And when I looked down, the water was so clear that in shallower parts I could see my shadow moving on the bottom of the lake. I have long said that Lake Jocassee, my lake, is the most beautiful lake in the world, but Canyon Lake may be the other most beautiful lake in the world.
I wasn’t happy for the first third of Canyon Lake, but I’m happy that I swam it all the way.
Day 3: Apache Lake
This year’s SCAR was haunted by the specter of last year’s Apache Lake swim. I wasn’t there in 2017, but it was described to me enough times that I feel like I can see it: rough wind, cold waves, rescue boats going back and forth for hours picking up swimmers and paddlers from the 17 mile lake. Ten percent of swimmers who started Apache Lake in 2017 finished it — four people. One of those four finishers told me she went without food for two hours during the swim because if her kayaker stopped paddling even for a moment, he was blown backwards. And her kayaker told me that when they got to the end he was frozen in his seat, unable to talk or move.
But this year, the conditions were perfect. My only difficulty on Apache Lake was a problem of my own making: I forgot to put in my contact lenses.
If you are wondering how a person can forget to put in her contacts, read this paragraph; if you don’t care, you can skip it. It’s about my eyes, not my swimming. I have two problems with my eyesight. First, I am extremely nearsighted. I can’t see the big E on the top of the eye chart (in fact, I can’t see the eye chart). Second, I have complicated and atypical double vision. So, the first thing I do every day when I wake up is put on my eyeglasses for nearsightedness. If I’m not doing anything complicated, I can continue my day wearing those glasses. But if I am — especially if I have to drive a car — I put in my contact lenses, which correct for my nearsightedness, and then put on my second pair of eyeglasses, which correct for my double vision. I can function without double vision correction for a limited range of activities, like eating breakfast or folding laundry. On weekends sometimes I forget to put in my contacts because I can see well enough in familiar surroundings: when I have a pair of glasses on my face, I don’t necessarily think about which pair they are.
We were staying at a hotel at Apache Lake, having driven there the night before, and all I needed to do that morning was get ready, grab my stuff, and walk outside to the vans that would take us to the start. I didn’t have to drive. It wasn’t until we were eight miles down a dirt road and unloading the kayaks that I realized I hadn’t put in my contact lenses. There was no going back for them.
I froze. What would I do? But I didn’t take more than a second to decide. Of course I would swim. I’d come to Arizona to swim. My kayaker would be my eyes.
I told J that I wouldn’t be able to see where we were going; I’d have to sight off him all the way. He shrugged. He was setting the course; I was setting the pace.
For seventeen miles, the world was a blur of color: blue above, brown to either side, green beneath. But I could see J’s red kayak beside me. That was enough.
Several hours in, J said, “I can see the end.” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. There is no end. I will be swimming this lake forever.” But he was right; there was an end, and I finished the longest swim, Apache Lake.
Day 4: Roosevelt Lake
The night after swimming Apache, I slept twelve hours. I went to bed at 8 PM, slept till 5 AM, ate Breakfast 1, went back to sleep till 8 AM, and ate Breakfast 2. Then after packing up, I met J and ate Breakfast 3 with him, and we headed for the last swim, Roosevelt Lake.
Roosevelt Lake is big, and it only has one dam. The swim course starts from a boat dock, goes past a little island and around a peninsula, and then heads straight across open water to that dam. Of the four swims it was most like my experiences swimming back home in Lake Jocassee — with one important difference. It was my first night swim.
We began before sunset and swam about two-thirds of the 10K distance before the sun went down. Late afternoon wind made the conditions choppy. When the sun set, though, the water went still. The moon was almost full and the sky was clear. We swam under moonlight all the way in.
At SCAR I met people who have done absolutely amazing things. They swim with seals and sharks and jellyfish. They swim the English Channel and the Catalina Channel and channels I’d never heard of. I spent the four days in a state of awe at the stories I was hearing.
And all these incredible swimmers were free with advice and encouragement. People went out of their way again and again to talk to me and to pat me on the back. Before I knew it, I was talking to people and patting them on the back. The camaraderie was infectious. Kent Nichols, the race director, and his team deserve a lot of credit for creating such a positive environment.
Open water swimming looks like an individual sport, but every swim is a team effort. I could not have completed SCAR without my team, the friends and family at home who helped me train and especially my family in Arizona who picked me up and drove me around, early mornings and late nights, who housed me and fed me and lent me equipment. J spent four days taking care of me, in and out of the water. He was my eyes. Thank you all.
The SCAR website claims, “After completing SCAR you’re ready for any open water challenge.” I think I am.
Last week, an old friend and I had a conversation about swimming. We’ve been having variations on this conversation for years. This time, he asked me about the distances for the four swims that make up SCAR Swim. I told him.
Then he asked, “Can you rest during the swims?”
I said, “Yes. Of course. There’s nobody there with a cattle prod.”
He looked at me as if I were being deliberately obtuse. “Can you swim to the shore and sit there?”
“What?” I said. “Why? Why would I do that?”
It’s taken me a while to figure what people are talking about when they ask, “Can you rest?” Different people think about swimming in very different ways. When I talk about swimming, I am thinking of it as the process of using my body to move through water. In order to rest, I stop moving. When someone like my friend talks about swimming, though, he is thinking of it as a struggle, an activity in which you use your energy to stay afloat. In this way of thinking, swimmers can only rest on solid ground; if they stop moving, they sink.
Let me assure you: when people like me swim 5, 10, 17 mile swims, we are in no way struggling to stay afloat. These aren’t exercises in long-distance drowning avoidance. When we swim, we are using our energy to move through the water, not to stay on top of the water. We float.
I’ve done experiments. (You can try them too.) If I go under water and curl into a tight little ball like a doodlebug, I will slowly float up and come to a stop with my shoulders and neck breaking the water’s surface. If I put myself into a vertical position — as if I’m standing — in a deep pool or lake, I will float so that the top of my head will be above the water, with the water line going across my forehead at the goggle line.
I can float on my back for hours. I might be able to float on my back for days; I’ve never had the time to find out.
I can rest floating in the water.
In contrast, heading to shore and getting out of the water is a terrible idea. First, going off course (and then returning to it) wastes energy; you’ll swim farther than you need to. But more important, getting out of the water is dangerous. Gravity is out to get you, my friend, and when you stand up after a long swim, you are likely to fall right over. That’s why there are people waiting just past the finish line at long swims, to grab you and help you out. Combine the difficulty of standing up with the unknown dangers of a strange shore — slippery rocks, poison ivy — and you are asking for trouble.
There are a few reasons why you would head for shore, and they all involve serious emergencies: dangerous weather, a medical crisis, sharks. In those situations, the race director may need to clear the course, directing everyone to the closest land.
To rest, however, you don’t need to go to land. You can rest anywhere: lie on your back, look up at the sky, and float.
I have fat thighs. They are permanent. I know this because some time ago I injured my jaw and had difficulty eating. I lost a lot of weight; my hipbones and collarbone stuck out, and my face became thin. It was all very interesting until it became scary. But during the whole experience, my fat thighs did not budge. It was then that I realized there was nothing to be done about my fat thighs except to love them. They are with me for the long haul.
Swimming may be the only sport that rewards fat thighs. The number one problem I see in the swimmers around me is that their legs sink. From the next lane, these swimmers look like they are riding a bicycle, their legs much lower in the water than their torso. You can work to improve your body position, of course. But you have to admit, it’s much easier to position your body correctly when you have the advantage of fat thighs floating your back end up.
This is why so many people actually swim faster with a pull buoy stuck between their thighs. It seems impossible: shouldn’t immobilizing a swimmer’s legs slow them down? But the pull buoy compensates for their dragging legs, bringing their body into a more efficient position.
So this is a shout out to all my people with fat thighs. Don’t listen to those who tell you to hate your body. Your thighs are your strength. Make the most of your natural advantages. Come swim with me.
A few years ago, I learned that the pool for the 2012 London Olympics had reopened as a public swimming facility, the London Aquatics Centre. And I began stalking it online. I didn’t send it threatening emails or anything like that. But every once in a while, I’d go to the website and look at the photos, check the schedule, maybe review the prices. I’d plug the address into Google Maps and see where it was located and figure out how I could get there on public transportation — all perfectly normal behavior for a person living 4000 miles away from London.
Of course, when I went to London for a month in fall 2017, swimming at the London Aquatics Centre was very high on my list of things to do. I swam three times at the LAC, and each time it was fantastic: it is both an incredible world-class pool and an accessible public facility.
First, getting there: I was staying in central London, and I had originally planned to take the Underground to Stratford (special note for Shakespeare fans: this is Stratford in East London, not Stratford-upon-Avon). A knowledgeable friend told me to take the Javelin train instead. It was easy; you get the train at St Pancras and take it one stop to Stratford: seven minutes on the 140 mph train. You can use your Oyster card. Then follow the signs to the London Aquatics Centre.
At the time I went, one swim at the LAC cost £5 for an adult. You need a pound coin for the locker, but you’ll get that coin back. There is one large all-genders changing room, with cubicles for privacy.
I did two things wrong before getting in the pool. First, I tried to take a photo on deck. The lifeguard very politely told me that photos were not allowed on deck. That is a good rule, and I should have asked if photos were permitted before I tried to take one. Second, I tried to take my towel on deck. Another lifeguard very politely told me that towels are not allowed on deck. That is a weirder rule, but I was not going to argue with him. I left my eyeglasses in their hard shell case by the side of the pool, and they were fine.
In spite of my gaffes, I made it into the water. And after stalking the pool for years, I was not disappointed. I have a tiny bit of experience with quality competition pools, but this pool is on a higher level. The water is clear and deep and calm. The pool design minimizes waves, so even though there were multiple people in every lane, I felt as if I were swimming alone. The pool is set up for long course, 50m. I picked a center lane and pretended I was Katie Ledecky winning the gold in the 800.
I saw people of all ages and abilities in that pool, plus a bunch of children taking lessons in the warmup pool. If you find yourself in London without your swim gear, you can buy everything you need there for reasonable prices. They even have a vending machine that sells goggles. If you are a swimmer and you are in London, get yourself to this pool.
The London Aquatics Centre is the new must-do swim experience in London. The bathing ponds at Hampstead Heath are the classic must-do swim experience. People have been swimming there for over 200 years. They are an institution.
For all the times I had been in London, I had never been to the bathing ponds before. I once swam at a surprisingly cold Parliament Hill Lido, also at Hampstead Heath; I mention it here. But the bathing ponds are not really my style. You don’t swim in the bathing ponds in the way I usually swim. You bathe there. You take a dip. It’s like the difference between running and going for a walk in the park: swimming at the London Aquatics Centre is like going for a run, while swimming at the bathing ponds is like going for a stroll.
But I don’t mind strolling. Strolling is a fine activity. And I was in London; my free time was my own. I thought that I would go experience the bathing ponds.
I made it out to Hampstead Heath at the end of October, taking the bus. There are three bathing ponds, the Men’s, the Ladies’, and the Mixed, but since the Mixed Pond was closed for the winter season, the Ladies’ Pond was my option. I found the sign, went through the gate, paid my £2 at the ticket machine, and made my way back to the changing area. A chalkboard said the water temperature was 11° C, 52° F. I thought two things: it was kind of them to put the temperature in Fahrenheit as well as Celsius, and that’s really cold.
But I am older and wiser than I was at the time I nearly froze at the Parliament Hill Lido. I asked a woman in the changing room how long she thought a first timer should go in, and she suggested that 10 minutes would be enough.
There were three or four women in the pond when I got there, plus assorted ducks. The women were circling around, swimming breaststroke with their heads above the water. One was wearing a wooly hat.
I got in slowly, using the ladder. Not to be melodramatic, but cold water shock can kill you, and I did not intend to die in a pond in London. Then I started my own slow circle of breaststroke.
At first the water burned, but as I swam I become numb and relaxed. I stuck my head under, telling myself “Don’t swallow the water!” and promptly swallowed a mouthful of water. I swam a little freestyle. I swam a little breaststroke. I floated on on my back and looked up at the blue sky. After about 10 minutes, the lifeguard called out to two women who had been in the water before me, saying that they had been in long enough. I followed them out soon after.
In the changing room I took a shower. Other swimmers told me to fill a basin with warm water and stick my feet in it, but, unfortunately, the water was not warm that day. I got dressed quickly, pulled on my own wooly hat, and headed for the nearest cup of tea at Kenwood House, my feet completely numb as I walked up the hill.
I slowly thawed in a corner of the tea room, nursing my tea, surrounded by families having a Saturday out. I am not convinced that I need to swim in the bathing ponds again, but I don’t regret going. It was a must-do, and I have done it.
I am in training for a four day, four lake, 40 mile open water swim challenge in April. Due to factors beyond my control (i.e. I am not independently wealthy), I do 90% or more of my training for ultramarathon length open water swims in pools. That’s a lot of swimming in a small box of water. How do you design very long workouts for the pool?
An ultra length distance pool workout has to be satisfying for your mind and your body. Swimming seven miles straight in a pool is not going to make you happy. And simply multiplying your regular workouts by some factor is not good either: a 20 x 50 yard set is fine, but a 200 x 50 yard set (or a 20 x 500 yard set) is monotonous. In addition, swimming nothing but free (front crawl) for hours and hours is hard on your shoulders; I like to have some stroke work and drills in my workouts to give my shoulders a break.
When designing a very long workout, I keep two things in mind: structure and variety. Structure makes clear where you are in the workout. Variety keeps your mind engaged.
I love to swim pyramids. You increase the distance of each unit by even increments up to some point, and then you decrease back down. It’s useful to know that 100 + 200 + 300 + 400 + 500 + 600 + 700 + 800 + 900 = 4500. The last time I swam 10,000 yards, I did it like this:
400: 4 x 100 w/a moving stroke 25 (25 back, 75 free; 25 free, 25 back, 50 free; etc.)
600: 2 x (200 free + 100 back)
800: 8×100 alternate IM and free
900: 300 swim, 300 kick, 300 swim
Repeat backward, starting with the 900 and decreasing down to the 100.
It was a great 10,000 yard workout; I always knew how far along I was, and the whole thing flew by. If you add a second 1000 free in the middle, you have a 11,000 yard or meter workout.
If I can’t work out a nice pyramid for my distance, I like doing sets of some standard distance with variation within each set. So, a 12,000 yard/meter set could be 6 x 2000:
Or I do the beads-on-a-string workout, alternating sets of different sizes (big bead, little bead, big bead, little bead, etc.). Here is a 13,000 yard workout, made up of 2000 yard sets with 200 yard kick in between:
These last two workouts won’t give you the feeling of rolling downhill in the second half like a pyramid structure does, but you always know where you are in them. And you can play with fractions and percentages in your mind as you swim if you enjoy that kind of thing. I enjoy that kind of thing.
I’ve got a lot of swimming to do, and I’m always looking for new structures and sets. Please leave your suggestions in the comments.
This fall I spent a month in London for work. Before I left, I told a friend at the pool that I’d be away for a while. She said, “You’ll miss swimming while you’re gone.” And I said, “Like hell I will.” London is a swimmer’s city; there are opportunities to swim everywhere, from ponds to the Olympic pool, and I swam every chance I had.
In my mind, if you really want to understand how a place works, you need to eat there, and you need to swim there. You might think that with globalization every place is the same, with the same coffee shops on every corner. But one day in London, I stopped in a coffee shop and saw a man eating a jelly doughnut with a knife and fork. I watched him in amazement. You would never see an American eat a jelly doughnut with a knife and fork.
Maybe people eat jelly doughnuts in coffee shops all over the world. But we eat them differently.
And we swim differently too. England is a nation of breaststrokers. The pools are full of people swimming breaststroke, lap after lap of it. I met multiple people who swim nothing but breaststroke. As an American, I was amazed. Our pools are full of people swimming front crawl — freestyle.
From the perspective of the American swimmer, the most alarming difference between English pools and American ones is in the practice of circle swimming. In the U.S. we share lanes by swimming counterclockwise: up on the right side of the lane, back on the right side of the lane. This way of swimming is so ingrained that it would never occur to me to circle swim in any other way. But in England (and in Ireland, and for all I know in other places too), lanes are designated as clockwise or anti-clockwise, and you’d better be darn sure of the direction of a lane before you get in it.
Swimsuits are different in England too — or, more accurately, the suits are the same, but they mean different things. If you see a man wearing a speedo (swim brief) in the U.S., you know that’s a man who knows how to swim; in the U.S. a speedo is the sign of competitive swimming experience. On the other hand, if you see a man wearing a swim brief in England, you know almost nothing; all you know is that’s a man who owns a very small swimsuit.
Sometimes you only find out what your cultural assumptions are when they are not met. A man eats a doughnut with a knife and fork. A swimmer swims down the left side of the lane. And suddenly the world contains more possibilities than you knew.
I spent most of my swimming time in London at the Oasis Sports Centre, in the center of London. It was fifteen minutes’ walk from my hotel, and most days I could get there and back before I needed to get to work.
Here is the extraordinary thing about Oasis: it has an outdoor heated pool. It’s on the roof. I swam daily under the November sky, barely three blocks from the British Museum. On icy cold mornings, when mist floats over the warm pool, it’s almost too good to be real.
The one difficulty with the Oasis Sports Centre is that it is frequently crowded, with 7-8 adults sharing a lane. In a crowded lane, I return to my default settings: I swim like a swim team kid. When I see feet in front of me, I want to catch them, and I want to pass them. I want to lead the lane.
Day after day, I swam like I was ten years old again. It probably wasn’t good for my stroke technique, but it was a lot of fun.
Oasis has two pools: one inside and one outside. All things being equal, I would always choose to swim outside, but on days when I had to be somewhere early, I hurried for a quick swim in the indoor pool: it opened on weekdays at 6:30 AM, while the outdoor pool opened a half hour later. Both pools have three lanes, marked slow, medium, and fast. The indoor pool is 25 meters long, the outdoor 30 yards long. The lifeguards will tell you that the outdoor pool is 27.5 meters long, but if you can keep track of your distance in multiples of 27.5 while trying to sprint around slower swimmers and avoid colliding with people coming the other way, then you have better math skills than I do. Easier to multiply by 30.
When I was there in fall 2017, a swim was £5.80. You need a 20p coin for the locker. The locker will keep that coin, so start hoarding 20p coins if you plan to swim there frequently. There’s no soap or shampoo, but the showers were better than the one in my hotel room. And you swim outside in the middle of London. You can’t ask for more.
Oasis was my home pool in London, but I did swim in other places. Read about the London Aquatics Centre and the Ladies’ Bathing Pond at Hampstead Heath here.