Thursday, February 14, 2013

How I swim cold water

Today's temperature in Lake Natoma, which I swim at least four times a week, is 46.9 degrees Fahrenheit, or 8.3 degrees Celsius.

The temperature is rising, from a mid-January low of 44.3 degrees F (6.8 C).

To swim it this time of year, I imagine blue flame blooming from my arms, about 80 strokes in. The prickling becomes the delicate flames igniting and spreading, jacketing my arms. The stinging intensifies until, 40 or so strokes later, it levels off, the flames hold, their tendrils snapping off into the green water, and I can go on.

Except …

For some reason, I haven't needed to visualize the flames this winter, even though the water has been colder longer than the last two winters. Last year, the temperature dipped to 47 F for just one mid-January day before steadily rising. The same thing happened the year before, except the temperature dropped to 46.

Besides falling below 45 this year, the water temperature has held steady for more than a month, rarely rising above 47 before dipping again.

I don't know whether my mind has grown to know exactly what to expect when I dive in now, or I've gotten used to swimming immediately on entering the water (instead of wading a while, as I used to), but the low temperatures I had dreaded for two months don't bother me.

This is nothing, though. Through facebook™®©, I've come to know many swimmers — mostly in England and Ireland — who swim regularly in much colder water. Several of them abide by "channel rules:" Goggles, a single latex cap and a swimsuit, no wetsuit, as required of swimmers who brave the English Channel, the Mount Everest for long-distance swimmers.

I swim "channel rules light," with a neoprene cap and two slightly thicker silicone caps. No wetsuit, but my head is warm.

One London swimmer, John Donald, reports almost daily on facebook®©™ of swimming more than a mile, "channel rules," in his stainless steel community pool (or lido, pronounced LIE-doe … the things one learns on facebook™©®), where the temperature is 3 degrees Celsius, or 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

I encouraged him to get in touch with the International Ice Swimming Association (yes, it's a sport!), which has documented a small number of people worldwide who have swum a mile in temperatures 41 F and below.

It's a big deal, requiring a doctor's documentation of the swimmer's heart health, careful temperature readings of the watercourse, and layers of safety and recording and certification. Local long-distance swimmer Brad Schindler swam an ice mile unofficially last year at Lake Tahoe, and plans to repeat the event soon for keeps.

This London swimmer achieves this feat almost every day, apparently, with no attention save for a bitty post on a facebook®™© group page for swimmers.

The painting above illustrates, literally and figuratively:
  • I look at my hand too much. With my head positioned correctly, I should barely be able to see my arm pass in peripheral view, and I try hard not to look. But on a long swim, I can't help but imagine the world below the dark green of the water, and how clear my arm looks in the void;
  • I need to work on my watercolor skills. Or Photoshop®™© skills. Probably both.


  1. I really dig the painting! I occasionally get cool hand pictures when swimming, this one is a favorite.

    Are you going to take a crack at an Ice Swim? I think with your training it's well within reach.

    1. thanks, rob, and thanks for the photo — cool! i may try next year; schedules and life's flotsam and jetsam are gettin' in the way this winter. brad s. may this weekend; one issue is finding cold enough water, and neither tahoe nor donner are apparently cooperating very well.