Each one of ten billion single cells shivered to its own rhythm as the cold cartwheeled against my toes in more and more bitter waves of reality. I let my feet slip into Spring Lake against the better judgment of my unhappy nervous system.
My ankles and all of the hot blood moving through the passageways near them were aghast and withered at the sensation of the temperature. I found myself thinking that it wasn’t so bad. Not really. Not really. The throbbing would subside. It’s just the veins or arteries or something… they won’t hurt forever.
I walked in deeper, up to my knees, tossing the toy for my beloved, life vest clad puppy, Guri, to go bounding in after. She leapt from the dock like it was the summer and she had no mind for the cold I forged into so bravely. I realized that, with her life vest on, she was wearing far more for warmth than I was in my swimsuit and cap.
Once I got in up to my shoulders, I settled, letting my muscles relax. They were so tight, protesting the cold and clenching against it. But it was, really, the best day for an open water swim. The sun was hot on this fine October day. Hot like summer. But the frost and cold had left the water very, utterly, settles–in-your-bones cold.
The skin on my back was warm, burning like sunburn. I marveled at the strange sensation, knowing it was from the cold as I obviously did not have sunburn. I could feel my core engaging like somebody had turned up the thermostat and the furnace was kicking on.
When my arm muscles could move well enough, I dipped my head in. It wasn’t so bad, I thought to myself as I popped my head back out again. And, feeling limber enough, though my skin crawled like a ballet of pin needles and spider feet, I began my swim.
Placing my face in the water was different from just dipping my head in and it hurt. My cheeks, my forehead, everything – ached. I thought to myself that the water had to be very, very, very cold. It took a few minutes for the pain to subside and for my body to accustom to the movement of swimming. But I was on my way – however slowly – into my warmup.
I found that moving was better than not moving in such cold. I could feel the warmth of my core, it felt phenomenal. But the bitter discomfort of the cold against my skin never went away. Cold is cold. It is not comfortable. And I marveled at the thought of spending 20 hours in such discomfort and I thought to myself that I had to – if for no other reason than to avoid the cold for so long – learn to swim faster.
My toes did not feel like they would fall off – as they had in Lake Memphramagog. But, they were numb. I kicked harder when I felt the cold getting to me. That is what all of the books recommend. Kicking faster. I found myself able to operate smoothly. My muscles in my arms and shoulders did as they were meant to, though I did have to pay particular attention to my form to be sure that it was consistent. I was prone to want to take shortcuts, I guess because my arms thought that that would help them to stay warmer, somehow. Silly arms. Efficiency is the only thing that will speed this along.
Half a mile. That was all. I had no kayaker and did not feel comfortable being in such cold water much longer than that. I probably spent 45 minutes in the water total. I was proud of my body’s capability, though a little saddened to cut it short. But I was sobered by the cold and knew that I was pushing the boundaries of safety.
The young man I was swimming with stopped to help some people out of their canoe. I got my puppy out of her wetsuit and stood on the shore a little light headed and shivering some – I think. I don’t actually remember. I felt cold, though. Very cold.
“They had a thermometer in their canoe,” He said when he walked up from his selfless act of kindness.
“Oh?” I asked. I thought that it must be in the 50s, somewhere. It was so cold, burning cold. Not painful, really, but burning.
“Sixty- one,” he said.
My mind went blank. And Ireland will be 45 to 55? And the Channel is 55 to 65? I must be crazy. How am I going to get used to the cold? How am I going to build up an endurance in that kind of cold? How…
I stopped, and I shook my head. Then I smiled to myself. I will do it. One step at a time. I will. Because I just will.
Because I am going to swim that English Channel.