Three months ago I set out with the intention of swimming through winter without a wetsuit. The intention being to stay in water under ten degrees for ten minutes each time and to donate ten pounds to Cancercare every time I managed it. I would start on the 1st December and end on the 28th February, meteorological winter. I resolved that it would be the usual wet winter, it would get cold every now and again, but that would be fine. I’d have cold showers every day, swim at least once a week, stay acclimatised and enjoy having a fun project to look forward to during the dark nights. The North-West of England hasn’t had a serious period of prolonged cold weather for ten years, the average sea temperature was unlikely to fall beneath 5c and lake temperatures were likely to be similar. Lots of people do this, I would learn from them and try not to look too daft floating around whilst they did serious swimming.
Most of this happened as planned, except for the temperatures. It got very cold. I waded in to an ice filled pond quietly pleased with myself, before wading out again covered in a peaty mud that turned everything I touched a burnt amber colour. This was simultaneously pleasing to look at but smelt awful. I swam in the sea for ten minutes at 3c and lost the feeling in a couple of finger tips for a few days.
Friday nights became opportunities to listen to webinars about the physiological intricacies of what the cold does to your body by brilliant science communicators like Mike Tipton and Heather Massey. One day the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion turned up on the sea front and asked me how I could stay in for ten minutes when he could only manage ‘a tenth of a second’? Cheers for that Tyson, you made me feel tough for a day.
Everyone told me about Wim Hof, so I ‘breathed’ a lot and found some Dutch anarcho-hippie magic that meant I learned to hold my breath for four minutes and do more press-ups than I imagined were possible. I still have no idea why breath-holding is so important in this method, and I’ve read the method, and the science, and watched YouTube videos of Wim playing guitar whilst his dog impersonates the breathing of those in his workshops. Now I tell others about Wim Hof, or at least ‘the method’.
In between the science, the cold weather and the breathing, there was the getting in to the water each week bit. Of course when you’re trying to raise awareness and money for something, this is the bit that’s meant to be difficult, an activity which you endure to show your commitment to the cause, to inspire others and intentionally or inadvertently create a moral obligation – ‘well if he can do that then maybe I can chip in a couple of quid to the cause’. Except of course, this was the easy bit, I chose to do this because it turns out its fun, and that was the inkling I got doing it throughout the Spring and Summer.
Some weeks I even cheated and went twice, occasionally three times. I’d even wonder how it was that I ended up doing the ‘difficult’ thing more than I needed? It’s as if you’re planning on sitting in a bath of beans for a TV show and then find yourself doing it anyway on a Tuesday evening. What then is the relationship between this activity and raising money for a local organisation, why am I doing it, nearly everyone else manages without asking anyone to donate anything.
There’s an easy answer to this, and its unremarkable. Three years ago I was outside a breast clinic, it was February 14th – Valentine’s Day – and Gwyn and I had just been told that she had breast cancer. We left through a side door because we were both upset, and we were stood in a car park. The everyday mundanity of the moment was what stuck, trying to figure out what this diagnosis meant, as people passed a short distance away, unaffected and happy. How to be at this moment, what to say and do? My Dad had died of cancer a couple of years before, I knew lots of people who had been given similar diagnosis, but somehow saying ‘we’ll get through’ and ‘we’ll be strong’ etc, although well meaning, felt inadequate. Just as in many a frightening moment, the combination of shock, a withdrawal from the certainty of diagnosis, and the flight rather than fight impulse all manoeuvre for prominence.
I would like all services to be publicly funded, and believe we should fight for the extension of public funding for services such as those offered by Cancercare and countless other forms of health and wellbeing provision. Unfortunately, at present that’s not the case. I also believe we should help support, organise and show solidarity to those who are working for such organisations and where possible we should support them with our time, energy and resources.
I could write about all the ways in which Cancercare supported my family and still do. It turns out we were ‘strong’ and we did ‘get through’, but not because of who we are as individuals, excepting perhaps Gwyn, who it turns out is nails hard and mentally tougher than anyone I know. The care we received came from friends and family and the wider community, of which Cancercare is an essential part. These were the people who had no obligation but cared anyway, who provided for us in thoughtful ways through their solidarity and support. This project then, is just an attempt to participate in that community and a means to ask those who feel inclined and have the means to contribute to continue their support. It’s been a privilege to have people near and far respond, nearly all of whom I know are already working hard for change, to provide care and to participate in this and other communities. So thank you.
Of course, I will keep swimming and I will try to get better at it, out of admiration for those who do this and don’t make a fuss about it!
To that end I’ve registered for the Great North Swim. So expect to hear about me coming last in my group whilst swimming a mile in the lake I love, sometime in June.
I am completing this project to swim in water under 10C for ten minutes throughout the winter, donating £10 every time to Cancercare, a wonderful local charity that has supported thousands of people in North Lancashire and Cumbria, including my own family.
Should you have the means and feel able to donate to Cancercare, you can do so here: