The Polar Bear Challenge Gets More Challenging

The Polar Bear Challenge became even more challenging in December. On the morning I was supposed to be heading out for my first swim of the month, one of the children woke up with a mild fever and we ended up at a walk-in test centre instead. The test was positive. The virus had come home from school and within a few days all four of us had tested positive for Covid-19.

I spent a week in bed and was more ill than I’ve been in a long time, the loss of my sense of taste was particularly depressing, but I know I got off lightly. For me, the worst bit was the fear of the unknown. We know that Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for elderly people and people with weakened immune systems, but youth and health are no guarantee and little is known about the long-term effects of Covid-19 on the body.

17 December – Freedom

I went back to the river on my first day out of quarantine. I still had a slight cough, but I was otherwise symptom-free and itching to get back in the water. But leaving the house felt strange and unsettling. Even though I knew I was not contagious, I still felt contaminated. I also had no idea how my body would react to the cold water. My last swim had been on the 30th of November, theoretically two weeks wasn’t enough to lose acclimatisation, but I didn’t know. I went with my regular swim buddy, Rebekah, and we opted for a short swoosh in Kingston—close to home. It felt wonderful to be back in the water—an exhilerating release after being stuck at home for two weeks. 

19 December – Christmas Swim

Two days later, we did our first official Polar Bear swim of December—a Christmas-themed event at The Haven. The lake was colder than the river, as I got in the shock took my breath away for a moment and I felt the fear, but the sun soon swept it away. We managed a jolly 450m loop of the lake—17 minutes at 7°C—with our festive hats on. 

21 December & 29 December

We did two more Polar Bear Swims in the Thames at Shepperton in December: a Winter Solstice swim on the 21st of December—500m in 18 mins at 8°C. And a chillier swim on the 29th—300m in 10 minutes at just over 5°C. We were finally approaching the temperature of an official ice swim (less than 5°C). I watched a documentary called The Merthyr Mermaid about ice swimmer Cath Pendleton and her record-breaking ice mile in Antarctica. It was inspiring and terrifying. The kids told me not to get any ideas. I was intrigued by the idea of training for an ice mile, but I’m not quite ready for the sitting-in-a-chest-freezer-in-the-shed level of cold-water acclimatisation.

2 January

At the beginning of January, the country was divided into separate tiers with different levels of lockdown, and you weren’t supposed to cross the boundaries. Our New Year’s Day swim at Shepperton Lake was sadly cancelled. The Haven, fortunately, was in the same tier as us, although the parking lot was extremely busy, and we had to queue for a while to get a spot. The temperature was holding steady at 5.2°C for our first swim of the new year and this time we just did the small loop—300m in 10 minutes.

8 January – First Ice Swim

A week later, all the lakes had been closed and we were in full-scale lockdown again. Fortunately, we were still allowed to exercise with one other person, so I didn’t lose my swim buddy. (I wouldn’t swim alone in the river in winter.) Our first ice swim took place on a miserable day at Hurst Park in front of a crowd of incredulous bystanders. We swooshed for about 500m at 4.5°C. It was extremely cold and there was a lot of huffing, shivering and stamping around afterwards to warm up. 

22 January – Sunshine

Though the cold water has its own benefit, we found that sunshine always makes a winter swim so much more enjoyable. I didn’t think that I would be able to swim through winter without the incentive of the Polar Bear Challenge. It was a surprise to discover that we did so many swims in addition to the ones documented here, purely for the irrepressible joy of it.

25 January – Snow Swim

I spent the rare snow day on Sunday 24 January, throwing snowballs in Home Park with the kids, but the snow hadn’t melted the following day, so we had an opportunity for a bucket-list snow swim. The water was 4°C, but the sky was blue, and the snow was sparkling white in the sun at Hurst Park. It was such a magical day for a swim, that I went twice! 

5 February – The Flood

The beginning of February brought incessant rain and flooding to the Thames and it would’ve been too dangerous to swim in the river. Even our safe swimming spot, a creek out of the main flow, looked scarily unfamiliar in the sprawling floodwaters. We came, looked at it, and left once, but the second time we braved the swollen creek for our first Polar Bear swim of February. We managed a cautious 350m in 12 minutes at 5°C. But it was lovely to be back in the water. 

12 February – Coldest Swim

It looked like a lovely sunny, day but when we got out of our cars, we realised there was a fierce wind blowing that gave the air a wind-chill factor of about -6°C. The water was 2°C. We swam into the wind—waves breaking in our faces. I lost a swim shoe, but I didn’t even notice. It was thrillingly, terrifyingly cold. I had to cuddle the cat for a long time afterwards to warm up again.

19 February

We swam our second Polar Bear swim for February in the creek at Shepperton. The water level was still high but much lower than the last time we’d been here. We managed 350m in 12 minutes at about 7°C—a lot warmer than our last swim. 

24 February – Spring is in the Air

The last week of February seemed unseasonably warm by comparison and the river temperature was on the up. It felt like spring. It was amazing to realise how much we had acclimatised: at the beginning of October, 11°C had seemed unbearable, but four months later, 10 minutes at 8°C felt pleasantly manageable. We didn’t even have a shiver afterwards. 

Despite the additional hurdles of lake-closures, lockdown restrictions, floods, catching Covid, and the coldest January in a decade, we managed to do all the required Polar Bear swims. With only two more March swims to complete the challenge, it’s a downstream swoosh to the finish line.

The Polar Bear Challenge

I’ve always been a seasonal swimmer. I grew up in Durban, swimming in unheated outdoor pools. We swam in the summer and we ran in the winter—perfectly logical. But this year, September came around and I carried on swimming outdoors. And then it was October and I was still swimming. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to swim through the winter, as simply not making the decision to stop swimming.

And then I did something foolish and impulsive. As I often do. I signed up for the Polar Bear Challenge. I didn’t know much about it but with supremely misplaced confidence I decided to go for Gold level and committed to swimming at least 250 metres outdoors, twice a month from November through to March, with a total distance of 5000 metres required. Swimming costume, cap and goggles only—no neoprene. Easy.

Percy the Polar Bear – my thermometer

The temperature in the river has fluctuated over the last couple of months but my first properly cold swim was on Friday the 2nd of October, a grey and blustery day at Hurst Park, with Rebekah—my regular partner in lunacy. (They now know us at Shepperton Lake as ‘the two Rebeccas’.) It was about 11°C. A parent and toddler, wrapped up warmly in their winter waterproofs, watched in astonishment as we walked down the slipway into the Thames. As I gingerly lowered my shoulders into the water and pushed off, the back of my neck was gripped in an agonising vice, a horribly painful, claustrophobic feeling, and for a moment I started to panic. I told myself to breathe slowly and calmly, and after several deeply unpleasant minutes, my body relaxed and the pain in the base of my skull subsided.

It was not a great swimming experience. The wind blew us upstream and then we fought the waves back downriver again. The whole way I was strongly regretting my decision to sign up for the Polar Bear Challenge and had just about decided to blow the whole thing off as a stupid idea. But two days later I had a swim on a sunny day, in the water exactly the same temperature, and it was a blissfully pleasant experience. And I haven’t felt that cold-water-panic to the same extent since then. 

Swim 1: Sunday 1 November

My first swim of the Polar Bear Challenge was at Shepperton Lake. The sun was breaking through the clouds. The water was a balmy 12.9°C degrees. The swim course had been reduced to 300 metres for the winter. We managed three laps of front crawl and felt fantastic. (Aided by the tot of Drambuie we were handed as we got out of the lake.) This whole Polar Bear thing was going to be easy. 

In between the first and the second swim, Lockdown Number 2 began. The swimming pools and the lakes closed. (While people some had their last hurrah at the pub, we spent our pre-Lockdown night at Hampton Pool. It was my first time in a chlorinated, heated pool this year.)

Then it was back to the river. We swooshed downstream in the Thames at Hurst Park on Monday (not an admissible Polar Bear swim as it was aided by the current) and the temperature was similar to the lake. But then the air temperature dropped below zero on Tuesday night, and Wednesday and Thursday were both very cold. 

Swim 2: Friday 6 November

Next to Shepperton Lake there is a small creek that branches off the Thames and meanders below willow trees with nearly no flow at all—ideal for swimming when the current is too fast in the main river. It was a beautiful morning with that hazy autumnal light and a striking cloud-dappled sky. We knew it was going to be cold. Very cold. Rebekah, who had been swimming in neoprene booties and gloves up until this point, decided, for some reason, that this was the day to shed her neoprene and go full Polar Bear. The slipway was appropriately slippery, so we had to sit on our bottoms and slip into the cold water, like we were on a dirty, mossy water slide. We didn’t dither about, shoulders in, and we were swimming. It was definitely cold. My hands started to hurt, and I felt pins and needles all over my body. It was painful and delightful at the same time. Percy, my polar bear thermometer, said it was just under 10°C—a drop of 3°C since our last swim. We’ve generally been managing 25-30 minutes in the water, but we decided to be sensible and reduce our swimming time. We climbed out after 17 minutes and 450 metres at a relaxed, heads-up breaststroke pace. We were both red all over. (As Rebekah observed—we matched the lobsters on her swimming costume.) Fortunately, at this spot you can park right next to the river, so our towels and warm clothes were close by.

The process of getting warm and dry after a winter swim is almost ceremonial. All of your clothes have been laid out in preparation, in the correct order. (There’s usually a ten-minute window to get dry and dressed before the afterdrop hits and you start to shiver.) After the swimming robe, the woolly hat goes on next to keep your head warm, then clothes, socks and shoes. Then, the most important part, tea and cake (Rebekah’s lemon drizzle, in this case). There should always be cake. While eating your cake and drinking your tea, it is compulsory to do the warming-up dance: a combination of foot stamping, bottom jiggling and uncontrolled shivering.

I don’t like cold water. Being forced to have a cold shower is on the list of my least favourite things. It reminds me of the time our local reservoir sprang a leak when we were living in Joburg. We had no water for a week, and I had to bath in the swimming pool every morning before work. (FYI: never shampoo your hair in a swimming pool—it makes the pool go green.) So I was extremely sceptical of this addictive ‘buzz’ that cold water swimming supposedly gives you, as outlined in this hyperbolically named article. Was this the same as that alleged ‘endorphin rush’ people get from running? (Other people, apparently. Not me.)

But, against all my expectations, I have been converted to the cult of cold water. It doesn’t make any sense but even as; the ice-cream headache strikes, your fingers and toes burn, your skin tingles all over and turns bright red; you somehow feel amazing—exhilaratingly, buoyantly alive.

Halloween Swim

I have completed my required Polar Bear Challenge swims for November, but of course I will continue to swim at least twice a week for the sake of acclimatisation. (I’m not sure if it’s acclimatisation or global warming, but these days I feel like the Dad in Friday Night Dinner—I’m always BOILING!) Of course, November is the warmest month of the challenge—February/March will be the true test of my winter-swimming allegiance. I have been googling minimum temperatures in the Thames and it seems that it could go as low as 5°C. I’m just taking it one degree at a time. 

Wild Swimming

Yes, I know everyone’s going on about wild swimming at the moment. I’ve always liked the idea of being a wild swimmer—but I wasn’t one really. I was an ‘outdoor swimmer’ in Hampton Pool, an ‘open water swimmer’ at Shepperton Lake, an occasional paddleboard dipper—but I wasn’t a wild swimmer. 

I should’ve been—a long time ago. I live a five-minute walk away from the Thames. I’ve swum from Hampton Court to Kingston in the river twice, in organised open water swimming events. But outside of these strictly controlled conditions, I have been waiting for someone to give me permission to get into the river. It took lockdown and the closure of swimming pools for me to finally make the leap.

I began swimming twice weekly at Shepperton Lake at the beginning of June, as soon as it reopened after lockdown, but the river was calling to me. I’d been a lurker in the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers Facebook group for a year, but I’d never actually joined them for a swim. But then Rebekah, my swim buddy (who had always been extremely reluctant to swim in the river), began swimming in the river on Tuesday mornings with the SOS crew and invited me along. My first swim was on a cloudy day at Sunbury. Rebekah’s friend Sue had organised it, and we were joined by Judith and Diana. I had all the gear: goggles, hat, tow float, swim booties, and I was excited. The water was cold at first, but I didn’t feel cold while we swam. It was a relaxed, sociable meander upriver, and then back down again. It was free from chlorine, lane-rage, timekeeping and entrance fees. I was hooked.

The Downside of Wild Swimming:

I have discovered something called duck mites (alternatively called ‘swimmer’s itch’ which sounds like a venereal disease). This is an allergic reaction which causes itchy welts on your arms and legs, like mosquito bites. You are more likely to get these from swimming through weeds, like the thick tangle of waterweeds we swam though in the River Wey for a beautiful view of the ruined Newark Priory. It was an (itchy) sacrifice I was willing to make.

And yes, there are things in the river. There is a lot of plastic litter—particularly after a sunny day when people have been picnicking on the shore. On a swim from Teddington to Twickenham we encountered a children’s solid-plastic sandpit in the shape of a turtle floating in the middle of the river. There are also grumpy fishermen, flotillas of SUPs, drunken Go Boat pilots, and sometimes there are aggressive swans with cygnets who will hiss at you in warning and then give chase. There are also fish in the river. The intrepid women I’ve swum with (no names mentioned) are not immune to the occasional acrobatic ‘what just touched my leg’ leap—which is always highly entertaining to everyone else.

I did not swim the Hampton Court to Kingston race the notorious year when everyone got sick, but many people’s first question is whether the river is clean enough to swim in. Fifty years ago, the Thames was declared biologically dead, but it is now apparently the ‘cleanest river in the world that flows through a major city’. But it still doesn’t have the ‘bathing status’ protection that many rivers in Europe have been given. Swimming in the Thames is a calculated risk. With heavy rain, contaminants can wash into the river and sewage is occasionally released—although it seems unbelievable that Thames Water is allowed to do this. There are campaigners working to prevent this—or at least to force the water companies to provide information about when and where this is happening. I try not to swallow the river water, of course, but when you’re swimming the water does go in your mouth. I have been swimming in the river all summer and I haven’t been ill. Fingers crossed.

The Upside of Wild Swimming:

The positive effects of wild swimming on mental health have been widely documented. In the early days of lockdown, many people felt anxious and claustrophobic. The outside world was out of bounds—or at least any part of the outside world that required a car journey to get to. But when I gave myself permission to get in the river, new vistas opened up. I began to feel guilty that I was feeling so positive and cheerful during a global pandemic. 

And I have never felt so confident wandering around in a swimming costume. The online wild swimming community is a powerful advocate for body positivity. It is all about celebrating and enjoying the outdoors, rather than worrying about what we look like while we’re doing it. It’s brilliant to see the way that swimming costume advertising and sizing have changed over the last few years to incorporate different body types. 

Wild swimming is also an extremely sociable activity—the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers are a friendly, inclusive bunch who embraced me with open (socially distanced) arms. I’ve been part of a regular swimming group who have become friends, but I have also turned up to swims organised by people I’ve never met before and been welcomed and included—our common passion giving a group of strangers something to talk about while we swim.

I finally felt like a true Wild Swimmer on the day I organised my own swim. It was a night swim from Canbury Gardens to the Hawker Centre—with an exit point known only to me. Fortunately, I did manage to find it in the dark. As we all walked back along the Thames path in our robes and headtorches, I know we must have looked like members of some strange cult. But then again, that’s probably what we are.

But within the wild swimming community exists an even more niche subculture—tail-swimming. AKA mermaids and mermen. Yes, really. Did you know that you can buy a mermaid tail on Amazon—a monofin with a tail covering that you can actually swim in? My inner ten-year-old freaked out and immediately put it on my birthday wishlist. As a joke. Sort of. Of course, then my sister actually bought me the mermaid tail for my birthday, and I participated in my first mermaid pod swim in the Thames near Hampton Court, in front of a disbelieving crowd of onlookers. It was deeply embarrassing but also kind of awesome. As the world begins to look increasingly dystopian—a little whimsy makes life a lot more enjoyable. 

The next challenge is whether I will continue to swim in the river into the chilly winter months with the hardest of hardcore SOS-ers, to experience that cold-water buzz I’ve heard so much about. We’ll see.

The Bantham Swoosh

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Rebekah and I at the finish of the Dart 10K in 2015.

We leave Kingston at 11:30am on Saturday the 24th of June to drive down to Devon for the Bantham Swoosh, a 6km swim down the River Avon estuary, culminating in a final ‘swoosh’ up to Bantham Beach as river becomes sea. Rebekah and I have done several swimming events together, including the Dart 10k in 2015, but this is our first swim together this year.

There is already a queue for the parking at Bantham Beach when we arrive at 4:30pm. We have a walk down to the beach to see the finish. It’s a grey day, but at least it’s not raining. Despite the weather, the prospect from Bantham Beach is spectacular: the rugged hills of Bigbury on the opposite bank, Burgh Island and its iconic art deco hotel where Agatha Christie wrote two of her novels, and of course the estuary itself—a deep blue stretch of choppy water, surging and foaming on the shore.

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We walk over the headland for the view downriver, the final stretch of the swim where the estuary widens, the boats are moored and the river edge is lined with boathouses. The walking route is marked out with flags, bunting and cheerful retro signage.

IMG_1702Back in the parking lot we change into our costumes, take an obligatory unflattering selfie in our wetsuits and swimming hats, and make our way to the swimmers’ pen. We have our briefing and then pile on to the buses—a surreal sight: a procession of retro-style ‘Tally Ho’ buses, full of adults sitting in pairs in wetsuits. It is an image in keeping with the friendly and charmingly-whimsical ethos of the Outdoor Swimming Society, which prizes the joy of swimming above any physical fitness challenge. Rebekah and I agree to stay together and take it easy and enjoy it. It’s a swim, not a race, after all.

We drive to the start at Aveton Gifford and unload.

“Does anyone want a banana?” A marshal waves a single, solitary banana in the air. Why is it all alone, what’s wrong with it? We wonder.

“The start is over there,” another marshal waves us in the direction of the water.

It’s about 7pm when we crack each other’s glow sticks, not a euphemism, and wade down a boat ramp into the river. The water is cold but not heart-stoppingly cold. Just finger-chillingly, toe-numbingly cold. We politely breaststroke across the river with some ooh and aahs to signal that it’s a bit nippy. I gently lower my face in the water and then hurriedly retract it as I swim into a large snarl of seaweed. I do the seaweed-clearing breaststroke for a few strokes, but then since it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better, I put my head down and start doing a seaweed-clearing front crawl instead. The scratchy fronds drape over my head and frame my goggles like a witch’s wig. I do a little duck dive to try and dislodge the river flora. The water is extremely salty.

It’s busy but not excessively so, there are just over 400 swimmers registered for the dusk swim, much fewer than the 1600 swimmers who swam the Dart 10k the day we did in 2015. It’s relatively easy for us to swim together. I keep an eye on Rebekah, she has less natural insulation than I do and she battles with the cold. Today she looks extremely pale, although I am looking at her through my blue-tinted goggles so that might have something to do with it.

I’m feeling good. I was worried that I haven’t been able to get to the pool for the last three weeks, but it seems the hours I put in before that crawling up and down at Hampton Pool, while not doing much for my cold-water acclimatisation, has accustomed my shoulders to the long haul (and given me a lovely bottom tan.) I fall into an easy rhythm and I am also breathing bilaterally without having to think about it too much.

In the briefing we were told we would be able to see the bottom of the estuary while we were swimming. This seems unlikely at the beginning, it is murky and full of seaweed. But at some point I look down and I can see the sandy riverbed below me.

“I can see the bottom.” I tell Rebekah.

“Where?” She asks.

“Down there,” I point. I try to work out how far down it is, as though this would help her to find it. The cold water has clearly gone to both of our brains at this point.

From about halfway I can feel the wetsuit chafing the back of my neck. I have slathered it in Body Glide, which has served me well in several other long-haul open water swims. (It has also caused a teenaged shop assistant to snort at me when I asked for it in Sports Direct—helpful tip: order it online.) But it’s not doing the trick today. I wonder if the salt water is dissolving the Body Glide faster than fresh water. Because it’s salty I realise how much water I habitually swallow when I swim. The inside of my mouth has puckered up like a bashful snail retreating into its shell.

I zone out a bit and I start thinking about a character in my novel—a robot who likes to swim. To start with she would have to be well-sealed. I think about the mechanics of a robot swimming. It would depend on what materials she was made of. Plastic or rubber would float but a solid metal robot would sink like a stone doing the front crawl. She would have to develop a specialised swimming stroke. I imagine my robot curled in a ball on her back, like the hull of a boat, flapping her feet extremely fast like some sort of motorised engine. Or perhaps sculling on her back like an upended turtle. I enjoy the thought of my upside-down turtle-sculling robot.

By this stage, the water is a lot clearer and we can see the bottom easily—no confusion about where it is. It’s also quite shallow, as evidenced by lots of swimmers standing up in the water.

“Why is everyone standing up?” We ask each other. Rebekah and I stand up too, just to see what the attraction is.

“Ooh it’s all slimy,” Rebekah says, lying down again.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” says a man standing near us, grinning manically.

“Are you walking?” Rebekah asks me.

I realise that I have started walking downriver. She has a point, this is supposed to be a swim. I lie down again and carry on swimming.

At this point I spot a crab scuttling over the sand I was quite recently walking on. I see a crab burrowing in a billow of sand, and then another one. My toes shiver and curl up on themselves.

“Crabs!” I tell Rebekah, “lots of crabs,” just to warn her in case she feels like having a walk too.

She dips her head down, “Large crabs!” she confirms.

There will be no more walking for us.

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Our route, courtesy of Rebekah’s swimming watch…

Then we start to see boats and the river opens. We must be nearly at the end. I start looking for the pink boathouse that signals the start of the swoosh, but I can’t remember which side of the river it’s supposed to be on. We swim through the middle of the boats and I narrowly avoid several buoys.

When we get past the boats the current picks up and suddenly we’re getting pulled along. I put my face in the water and do a few strokes. It’s like when you walk on the travellator at the airport.

“I feel like Michael Phelps!” I tell Rebekah.

“But does Michael Phelps feel like he’s swimming fast, or does it just feel normal to him?” asks Rebekah, helpfully. She has clearly acclimatised to the cold water by now.

We finally spot the pink boathouse and prepare ourselves to be swooshed. I try to lie on my back with my feet in front of me like an otter, as the woman at registration told us to, but the waves are quite big and it’s tricky to float over waves feet-first. I resort to bobbing upright like a cork instead, turning to look at Rebekah and the other swimmers enjoying this moment as we’re swept along. There are big smiles all around and couple of whoops. Too soon we see the beach and the cheerful volunteers waving us in. Reluctantly, I swim for the shore. It’s still light, not even nine o’clock yet. We’ve been in the water just over ninety minutes.

The marshals and spectators welcome us up the beach, over the line and usher us towards the steps up the hill. At the top of the steps we’re handed something really useful—a beautiful dark blue ‘Swoosh’ towel. (I like a medal but there’s a limit to how many days after a sporting event a 36-year-old woman can wear her medal before people start to give her the side-eye.) A towel is a fantastic medal-substitute and it keeps us warm as we walk over the dunes and back to the Bantham Beach parking lot. The sandy pathway is lit by twinkling strings of bulbs, a magical gauntlet, and ends with the Swoosh sign and hot chocolate.

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IMG_1699We retrieve our bags and go straight for the pasties and pints. There are no tables or chairs left so we collapse on the grass, our wetsuits peeled to our waists and set about answering that age-old question—can a pasty ever taste better than it does after a 6km swim in cold, salty water? The answer is no, of course.

At home I observe that my neck has chafed in a pleasingly symmetrical manner, which proves I was swimming straight and consistently doing bilateral breathing. Result.

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The merch: a good haul.