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Aquatic Chimp's Swimming Adventures

First Outdoor Swimming Session

AquaticChimpby AquaticChimpJul 11th 2012
As the planned swim was starting to draw closer, it was time to get into some open water. I've swum in the sea before, snorkelled around etc, but that was always with a view at going underwater. The more I thought about open water swimming, the more I realised that I'd never really swum on top of open water for any real distance.

Whilst searching for local open water swimming groups I came to find that Evesham Vale Triathlon club were starting open water training in the lake at Ragley Hall. I'd visited Ragley Hall quite a few times in the past, but had never had that calling I get from water, when I saw the lake there. Probably because every visit I've ver made the lake would have several row and sail boats going around.

As I prepared my trunks, wetsuit, hat, goggles for my first open water session I had several questions flying around my head. How would I cope swimming in a lake? How quickly will I tire without a pool end to push off from and have a couple of seconds to relax? What are they going to think of this chap just showing up in a thick surfing wetsuit, rather than a slick swimming wetsuit? How will I react to a fish brushing past me? What will I do if I see a bigger fish looking back at me? Several scenes from River Monsters were rushing through my mind. "Calm, Calm, stop being so bloody juvenile you pratt" I said to myself. Off I went to Ragley Hall.

I was more than pleasantly suprised, upon my arrival. The organisers were more than friendly, very approachable, open and talkative. I was immediately at ease. I looked over at the lake and could see it was rather murky, brown in colour. Well England being England in 2012, it had been a week of rain so plenty of mud etc had washed into the lake (not to mention whatever the adjacent sheep had left on the field they were grazing in on the banks of the lake. Not very inviting looking, but none the less it was open water, ready for a swim.

I went into the little changing room, pulled my wetsuit out of the bag, took a deep breath and got on with it. I walked out of the changing room, with my wetsuit on, zipped up, hat and goggles in hand. A small group entered the water in front of me, all wearing glistening, smooth, slick wetsuits, with the manufacturer names I see on the TV for the triathletes, open water Olympic swimmers etc."Just get in, get your head down, and swim".

I started to step into the lake, down a slip way for the boats, I had a quick look around the lake, picking out the marker buoys I needed to use to lap around. The bottom was a mixture of a gravel and mud, the water was cold, but the wetsuit was doing its job. I walked into waist deep and knelt down, get the water around the body, whilst I put my goggles and hat on. A quick wiggle to adjust the goggles as I looked around the lake. Now or never.

I slowly leant forward, pushed my feet off the bottom, to find them slip on the mud from under me, and let the buoyancy of the wetsuit do it's thing. Face in, front crawl away. The water was about three feet deep at this point, I could just make out the gravel bottom, with green weeds every now and then. The water was murky, with my hands standing out against the brown background as I pulled underneath me. Quick look up at the water, i'm heading the right direction. Face back in and look forward through the water. The lake was still hallow, as I stayed close to the bank initially. I was nervous for some reason, my heart pounding away. Every now and then my feet would catch the bottom as I kicked away. I moved over slightly into deeper water. I could no longer see the bottom, it was n't far away as I felt weeds every now and then. I could just see my hands as I bent my arm to pull down under myself. I looked up again, still heading roughly the right way. Face down again and looked up to see what was going on in front of me. Pointless, the water was so murky I couldn't see my hands out stretched in front of me. I'd read somewhere about swimming in these conditions, by just bringing yours eye line to the top of the water, to spot where your going. Gave it a go, strange sensations, but it worked. I rounded the top buoy and headed back down the lake, halfway around the first 750 metre lap. I felt OK, was trying not to think about what I couldn't see lurking below me. Then again, how deep was the lake? The first straight was fairly shallow form what I could feel and initially saw. I stopped swimming and thought a quick dunk under, and my feet would nudge the bottom. Nope. Swam some more and the thoughts of things watching me, lurking beneath came back. Heart rate increased, breathing quickened. "Idiot" I told myself. This time I would try to find the bottom, within reason. I am wearing open water goggles after all, so If it's deep they'll begin to put pressure on my eyes with no way to equalise it. 10 metres down and the water is twice ordinary atmospheric pressure. Down I went, feet first as I couldn't see more than a few feet in front. Not sure how deep I went, but I couldn't feel the bottom, and the surface seemed to be about 8 metres away. Oh well, just man up, stop thinking about what might be there. I started to think more sensibly, more rationally, I'm a big, cumbersome, splashing, bright red hatted chimp, in an alien environment. Whatever is in the lake, is more scared of what I'm doing, than what I am of them. I started to think more about the swimming and equipment I was using.

The goggles were great, loads of visibility, including peripheral vision. These are a keeper. The hat was comfy, not slipping up my chrome dome of a cone head, again a keeper. The wetsuit needed more of an evaluation. It was buoyant, good. My feet with getting cold, feeling stiff and slightly numb. My face was tingling away in the water, but the rest of me was comfortable. I could feel that the water around me was cold, but the suit was keeping me just warm enough. All good so far, how about swimming in the suit? Well arm movement was restricted by tight shoulders. The suit was very buoyant, so any movement of my legs and arms down through the water took telling extra effort, and I didn't feel like I was moving through the water very well. The group in front of me had separated slightly, I was keeping up with any of them. At the back was a female, swimming mainly breast stroke, but was moving away from me as I trundled along doing front crawl. Right. Maybe, I'm being lazy, not really swimming, not really pulling myself through the water. OK, head down, and bloody swim, catch her up. I sprinted for about a minute, expecting to look up and be right on her tail. Nope, had closed slightly but hardly at all. Maybe I'm putting her breaststroke down, but surely my front crawl sprint is quicker than breaststroke of another swimmer? I put it down to the lack of hydrodynamics of the wetsuit. One 750 metre lap completed. A look at the watch showed me the water was 12 degrees. WHAT!!??!! I'd been swimming for just over 20 minutes. 20 minutes for 750 metres!!!?!!! My feet were starting to tingle, slightly painful, I felt like I'd swum a mile.
I decided that my first open water swim was personally a negative experience, and decided not to do another lap. The wetsuit clearly wasn't helping things and I didn't want to break my will by carrying on struggling through the water. I got out to find another had swum enough and was starting to get out of their wetsuit. Again a friendly person and made me feel very welcome. I grabbed my towel and dried some of the excess water from me. I reached for my zip cord and started to undo myself. "If you need a hand, don't be afraid to ask" I was told. I turned to answer the kind offer to see a face of slight shock. I'd got my suit unzipped and peeled the upper half off of my arms and body. "That suit's too bog, or not right for proper swimming, if it comes off that easily". This was confirmation, if I needed it, that the wetsuit needed upgrading. I spoke to a few of the swimmers about wetsuits, and realised that part of the social nature of open water swimming was the need for a little help zipping up, or unzipping a correctly fitted wetsuit.
I was concerned about the water, the murk detracted fro the swim. Reassurance was given from those who swam regularly that the water is normally crystal clear, when the weather had been kinder. I spoke more about the lake, to satisfy my curiosity about depth, wildlife etc. "It's quite deep, I don't know exactly how deep, but when the water is clear you can see the bottom, just. There's some decent sized fish in there, but they stay away from us swimmers. They're petrified of us splashing around the top, so they swim about on the bottom beneath you." I must get back here, with a proper wetsuit, when the water's clear.
The swim itself wasn't great. It had, however, highlighted some important lessons for me. I stated to concentrate on the positives. I realised that I feel vulnerable somehow when swimming on the surface. More practice would easy this. I'd learnt how to control the cold water response, and how to make the Mammalian dive reflex work to my advantage in controlling the cold water response. Most of all I realised that being in the cold water, swimming around whilst looking at the wild life, the green back drop, the nearby woods, the island of the lake, the blue sky above, I felt great, invigorated, much more fun than trudging up and down a pool. Oh NO!! That's it. I've completely caught the open water swimming bug!!!
I got home and researched swimming wetsuits. I went and tried a few on for fit, and settled on an Aquasphere Pursuit wetsuit. It arrived soon after ordering it, and I couldn't wait to get it in the water, try it out properly. What difference would it make?
SwimBlogsby member: SwimBlogs, Jul 18th 2012 10:08
Great blog! Your first open water swimming experience sounds quite similar to mine, except I went off like a lightning bolt and then ran out of breath after about 20 meters. Properly fitting wetsuits do make a big difference and so does just getting used to the other distractions like the cold, the poor visibility, sighting and the aquatic life! Open water swimming also requires a slightly different technique but this is easily picked up with practice and it's honestly worth it for all the amazing places you can then go to swim!
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