Isn’t it reassuring that most things start with your toes? I mean, when you go anywhere, usually that big toe friend of yours leads the way. And the area represented by the surface of your feet sure isn’t a lot when you think about it in relation to the rest of your body… and yet it holds up the sum of your existence! I think that feet are amazing.
However, when your journey is into 42 degree water, your feet might not feel the same about you.
See at first they are in denial. And they really do tell you that they are okay. The first day I went into the water, the air temperature was approximately 22 degrees and so – at first – the water was warm. That is excruciatingly frightening to think about for long periods of time, so let’s just leave that thought alone for now.
So while my toes were in denial I moved rather quickly in, to the point where my ankles were submerged. Your ankles are one of the most sensitive spots on your body as far as temperature and water goes. There must be big veins or something in there, because once I hit my ankles, my feet started aching and screaming at me.
I guess because I just thought it would be better if I moved a bit faster, I urged my legs in more quickly. Goosebumps the size of small goose eggs were present. This is the first time that I actually voiced that it was cold. It was very cold. My feet started to hate me, and there isn’t anything like the ache that they produced.
As I moved more into the water, the pain spread throughout my legs. It was a sharp stinging and then just a tightening ache. The discomfort of my body was begging with me to get out; my blood was concerned for its well-being and my nerves and skin were terrified of dying. The pain was powerful, and then it faded to a grim grip of warmth. Numb.
That was okay with me.
As the water moved up my core I was afraid of what my core might think of what I was doing. Oddly enough, there wasn’t pain as I had felt in my legs. I just felt warm. Although reassuring, it was almost more distressing to not be in pain and to know that I probably deserved it.
Halfway up my torso, just below my rib cage – a strange feeling began fluttering somewhere inside me. It was too low to be my heart and I would have been running for the dock if my heart was doing somersaults like that. It felt like I had swallowed a very small, very happy lawn gnome and he was dancing in my chest. The leprechaun of the lawn gnomes. Dancing. In my chest. It was an intensely awkward feeling and I absolutely hated it. It felt like my internal organs were screaming at me. But I was at least glad to know that I do have internal organs. They are important.
Somewhere around here, I couldn’t hold my arms above the water any longer and I decided to stick them in it. If I thought the pain in my legs was bad, I was in for a real shocker. There isn’t anything like that ache. Nothing. It was all I could do to force my hands and arms to stay in. Just keep them in. Just keep them in. They’ll go numb. It will be okay. Oh… just keep them in. It’s only temporary.
In my discomfort, I took up wiggling to distract myself from the torture of the water. I found that moving was very strange in the state of frigidity that I was in. It was like my outer layer of skin was tighter than the rest of me and producing its own resistance to movement. It was bizarre, like some strange friction between my outer layer and the inside of me; as if my skin were lagging behind the rest of me in some strange space-time continuum dimensional warped-ness.
My arms ached more than my legs, probably because they have less fat. And my fingers ached something terrible. I worried for their safety, too, and wiggled them fondly much to their chagrin. My insides quiver and wither in fear at the thought of how badly it hurt.
Shoulders were tough as well and then the neck. By the time my hands and arms went numb the rest of me was warm – stinging and singing some mad tune of resilience. I haven’t gotten to the point of getting my head all the way used to being in such cold water, but I have gotten a headache from putting my face in.
The last time, I put my face in to swim for only a few seconds out and a few seconds back. My head and face burned and then ached so bad that my eyes stopped seeing. I had to stop swimming, the blind, splitting agony was so fierce. Perhaps I had shut my eyes. Perhaps I had closed them. I don’t know – the pale, freezing waves of misery took away all sense of control from me and all I had left were reactions. I wish it weren’t so – I have a lot of work to do.
When I had completed my allotted goal, I moved back out of the water reluctantly. It seemed that I had just begun to get used to it. The first day, when I pulled my cap from the dock to find it frozen in place, I knew I had been in long enough. Twenty minutes was plenty.
I felt fine standing on the dock toweling off. I was stiff, as I had been in the water, and could not get myself to move fast enough to get dry. I don’t know when I started shivering, but it was more like convulsing. My whole body would shudder and there was no help for it. During the car ride back, I began to feel water dripping down my legs and it surprised me to remember that I was cold and wet. It was so surprising because I hadn’t felt anything on my skin prior to that moment.
But in this, I have discovered something. As much as I was in pain and as much as I was so uncomfortable, I didn’t ever think that I had the choice to get out. The truth is that there is always an out. But I didn’t need an out, so I never saw that it was there.
You know, sometimes you see your demons and you hear their voices. They try to tell me that I can’t swim the Channel. They try to tell me that I can’t do a lot of things. But you know what’s funny? I no longer wonder, “Will I?”… now, I hear myself saying “How will I?”
I do not wonder if I will make my twenty minute goal of staying in the 42 degree water, I wonder how I will make it safely. I do not wonder if I will make my 250 mile goal, I figure out how I will make the time to finish it. I do not wonder if I can speed sets for 5 miles, I just wonder how many sets of 100 yards that will take.
I am not wondering if I will swim the Channel… I am wondering how to best execute a step by step process to make a destiny into a reality.
And if most journeys start with your toes, well, then this is my feet in the water. Small steps. We’ll get there. All the way across that Channel.