There is a horizontal rain blowing in squalls into our faces as we slosh down the well-worn path to the edge of the lake. The jetty is completely under water, grey, churned up waves erratically rolling over where it lies submerged, and battering the stone wall of the old boat house. We stand at the high edge of the water and look out. The laden sky bleeds seamlessly into the lake. Closer to, and the water is orange with mashed up, washed up leaves and scattered with debris; sticks and branches and a soft, ever shifting layer of tree dust. It is an unappealing view. And yet we are grinning, fizzing, happy. We are excited.
Like so many cold-water swimmers, I have spent a lot of time thinking back over my swimming journey, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when I became someone who finds joy in the prospect of getting into a storm-swelled lake on a windy, rainy day. Because, believe me, I wasn’t always that person. As a lover of cosiness and comfort above all else, I have spent the majority of my life with a deep aversion to being cold and wet. I love the outdoors and happily spend my weekends roaming the hills and woods of the Lakes in all weathers, but I can’t pretend that I didn’t curse and complain my way through many walks as I shivered in my waterproof and longed to be at home by the fire.
So, what happened? How did I end up merrily stripping off in the rain beside any lake or tarn I can find? I had heard people talking about the addictive nature of open water swimming and, obviously, I had scoffed (silently of course) and placed these people firmly in the crazy camp. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about wading into a cold lake in a swimsuit and weird booties and gloves appealed to me.
And then I tried it.
It was something that my husband and I could do together, we decided. He is super fit and loves to spend his Sundays running miles over mountains, cycling, skiing and generally being extremely and annoyingly active. I, on the other hand, roll out my yoga mat every day and would rather set my alarm in order to meditate and drink tea rather than go out for a run. There wasn’t much common ground. So, we thought it might be a leveller, an activity new to both of us and one in which, hopefully, I wouldn’t get left in the dust gasping for breath as I watched him disappear into the distance.
We started in September, fresh from a 6-week trip round southern France and desperately trying to stave off the return to real life. It felt good. We drank a flask of tea afterwards and talked. As soon as we got home our only question was, when could we go again? The speed at which thinking about water, swimming and lakes took over my life was alarming. And exhilarating.
Fast forward two years and I can safely say that swimming outside now shapes our day-to-day life. Not only that, but I have managed to evangelise so successfully that I now have a wonderful core group of girl friends who also think that a decent Friday night is not sitting in a steamed-up pub but sharing a flask of tea in the dark by a lake.
The physical benefits of cold-water swimming are well documented now. A few years ago, Wim Hoff was a curiosity. Now his ideas are becoming pretty mainstream, and you can find devotees of his practices everywhere. But what was so surprising to me was the mental and emotional benefits. Most amazing of all was the speed and efficacy of outdoor swimming on shifting my mood, anxiety and general wellbeing.
Cold water forces you to be mindful – instantly. In the water your breath is your best friend. Focus is not optional. In cold water there is no space for thinking, no place for a busy anxious mind. Laser focused, just you and your breath and the sensations coursing through your body.
Eventually, as you acclimatise you begin to look around you. The light playing on the water. The moonbeam turning the water to a silver, shimmering mercury. The mountains encircling you. The lone cry of a goose. Mother Nature holding you gently in the palm of her hands. There simply is no better way to connect yourself back to nature. Wind, rainbows, mist, waves – you experience it all. No filters. No buffers. Just you and the elements. And isn’t that the whole point of life? As I say to my students all the time, ‘Feel everything, miss nothing.’
Back to me and my swimming sisters on the shore in a storm. This is where MAGIC happens. When we meet to swim outside, we gather in a spirit of adventure, shared experience and support. We uplift each other, listen deeply and laugh hard. We bring our own sparkling energy, our ideas, our grief and our grievances and we give them space to breathe.
This is powerful stuff. Put together the sense of community, the space to be feely, unapologetically, powerfully YOU, the electrifying sensation of cold water, the total immersion in nature, the deep, soul’s exhale, the feeling of being joyfully, blissfully alive, tingling in every cell, and you have the recipe for a life well lived.
At the side of the lake, in laughter, tears, tea and tangled knickers we feel our most alive. We breathe it all in. We will keep gathering, keep coming together, keep uplifting, supporting and cheering each other on. And we will keep turning to each other, grinning, as we swim, knowing that there are no words needed. We’re all feeling it. We’re feeling it all.