Monday, May 12, 2008

Swimming With Crazies

The May bank holiday means a lot of things to a lot of people. To mountain bikers this year, it meant the Dyfi Enduro and SSUK - I partook in the former. To Channel Swimmers, it meant the start of their training in Dover Harbour. For weeks and weeks until their crossing, they head out from the pebbles and endure the chilly water for hours at a time. They build up physical and mental strength against the cold; they face boredom and discomfort; and they have their own community bound together by the innate looniness of their endeavour.

So for a mountain biker and a channel swimmer together it meant driving from Machynlleth to Dover for some endurance sport cultural exchange. The Dyfi was, as always, great fun. Laid back people, hard technical riding and a good vibe. For me, the scary event was the next day... My first cold-water swim accompanied by a plunge into a whole different subculture.

Arrival in Dover was extremely pleasant as the sunshine melted away what had been a brutally early morning to get there in time. Freda, the matriarch of channel training, seemed nice enough but her hard edge was clearly there inside. As more people arrived, they all seemed too nice to want to dive into that opaque chilly water. But as the time approached, swimming hats were donned, assignments given by Freda, and Vaseline applied. She'd given Emily and me 2km to swim and now the deal was done. I was really going in.

We walked down the beach hand-in-hand and I couldn't help remembering a similar situation in Goa, except that time the warm water welcomed us and we played around in the surf. This time the water was drawing back its palm, ready to deliver a slap. Putting thoughts aside, I got in and went quickly into a few strokes. Salt water hit mountain biking wounds. Cold water hit stressed muscles. But it was actually invigorating. My breath was shortened and it felt like a thousand tiny combs were being drawn over my muscles, but there was also a freedom. And with that freedom a liberating sense of the ridiculous - we could be comfortable but we'd rather be challenged.

As we swam out to the harbour wall, I concentrated on a small world. The strange feeling around my body and keeping in step with Emily. Sighting would have expanded my concentration beyond this little intense world that I could cope with, and into a larger one that I couldn't. So along I swam, enjoying the sun the novelty and Emily beside me. We reached the wall, exchanged a few words and turned back to our second target before the cold could reach bodies that dared to slow down. This leg felt more like a swim. I noticed how little I could see, thought about my stroke a little, and probed those weird muscular feelings with my mind. Some of the fear had subsided - it didn't look like everything was about to spasm and leave me helpless.

Finally we reached point two and just had to get back to the beach. End in sight, the strokes became monotone. A trudge, a thought about lunch, a mouthful of salt-water. But soon it was shallow enough to stand, so I did. And stumbled. And stumbled some more. As the blood rushed from my head, I flipped from feeling strong to disoriented and weak. Many hands helped me along and I tried to push them back a little - so used to coping alone. But this wasn't something to cope with alone. I can't even remember how much I dressed myself. Not much, I think. Minutes later, wrapped in many layers and still shaking from the cold, I could really appreciate why people come down here. They need each other to face these challenges, they're bound by something most people will never experience, and they're just damn nice folks who enjoy hanging out together.