October 1st. Welcome to it, the day when seasonal outdoor pools shut their doors to the public. Stoptober. It may not feel like it, I've barely put my Guardian-issue Birkenstocks away, but it's now officially the Winter Swimming Season.
"Don't race the season" is advice I got from Danny Baker's fantastic BBC London radio show, one of many pearls of wisdom that the BBC clearly felt were too dangerous to continue propagating. (He's a brilliant broadcaster; why they axed his show rather than feeling privileged to air it is a mystery I shall never understand, like Jedward.) I don't race the season. I am not one of those who prematurely unzip the bottom third of my trousers on the first nice day in April. I'm still only 'testing' the central heating.
I'm not racing the season, but the season is definitely racing me. Autumn came slamming in like gatecrashers at a Facebook party, and the water temperatures dropped like flies on a butcher's zapper. The sun may have nipped back briefly, but it made scant difference to the water temperatures – once they're down, it's pretty hard to get them up again (and I'm not even attempting a simile for that). For the unheated lido swimmer (like me), the temperature dropping matters. It means that the water starts nipping at your fingers and toes. That putting your face in is a slap rather than refreshing; your fillings start hurting and you need a blast of hairdryer up your shirt afterwards. And that's just the start of it; now we're officially on the 'Winter' schedule, it means you get asked 'that' question: are you going to carry on swimming out here this year?
The question implies several things. First that it was a fad, a crazy thing you do once and then see the light. It should read: are you really so mad that you're going to do that stupid thing again? Like you might have learned a lesson. Like it was a one-off thing, a dare, a test of endurance, for charity. Like there's no way that it might be enjoyable, or a choice – a preference, even.
It also implies that this is a decision you make far in advance rather than something that just …. happens. That there's a cut-off point. And it's true, there is an enforced cut-off for lots of folk. It's now, when most outdoor pools shut (even the heated ones, which baffles me) and finding somewhere to indulge your cold water lustings might require unfeasible amounts of travel. Obviously there's no closing date for the sea, and at 'my' pool (Tooting Lido) you can swim all year if you're a member. Sure, there are outdoor unheated pools where you can turn up ad hoc (I've also got Brockwell and Parliament Hill lidos to hand), but lots of folk, once Winter Season is declared, find the incentive to get in has magically, thankfully, disappeared.
There's a third implication. It's this: "Oh god. Do we have to go through this again? Are you going to bore us all stupid with your bloody photos of icy pools and stories of near-hypothermia and your attention-seeking screeches of 'Look at me! I'm so WACKY! It's snowing and I'm in the pool with a bobble hat on!' How many times can we all say, 'Wow. You're amazing. You wouldn't catch me doing that.'" It's like showing the same baby photo on repeat. Oh yeah, cute. Oh yeah. Oh … (Wanders off.)
I don't know, do other cold water swimmers do this, ask the question of themselves too: am I going to do this? Am I going to be a cold water swimmer this winter? If you've done it once, you know what it entails, the highs and lows. The way the warm air flies off with each layer of clothes. The sharp slap of ice water hitting your skin. The heart rush. The way pain builds along your fingers and toes until they feel like sausages about to burst. The exhilaration. The sense of achievement. The adrenaline coursing through your system. The feelgood endorphins. The way you feel so alive as if you've never been alive before. Like a drug. (Allegedly.)
So are you? Am I? My answer: I don't know. I can't imagine why I'd do it, but I can't imagine why I'd stop. I know it won't kill me, and it may indeed stop me killing other people. I know that I'll crave the cold water, I know it feels like addiction in progress. (Why am I getting in? I'm in! I'm never doing that again. When am I doing that again? On a loop … ) So I'll just do one more swim. Every swim is just one more swim. Stay in as long as I can, until that's only long enough to do one width. And then I'll just do that. I'll probably write about ice swimming in great detail on this blog. Then suddenly it'll be March and I'll be doing two widths, then a length and I'll have done it, swum through and I'll have the photos to prove it. Have I showed you them? Look, here's one of me, in the snow, with a bobble … Hey! Come back! There's thousands more where this came from …