I’ll stand my ground, Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground, And I won’t back down (Tom Petty, 1989)
My final open water swimming event of the year, this season, was at the end of September, in Wimbleball Lake, Exmoor. It was a stormy, wet, windy, cold and grey day as the remains of a tropical storm passed across the UK, dropping a month’s worth of rain in two days (Smart, 2019). Many other events, that same weekend, were cancelled because of the weather – and I found myself, the day before, secretly hoping that ours would be cancelled too! But all credit to the organisers, who decided to go ahead, despite the conditions, enabling the 450 swimmers to successfully complete their swim and to emerge from the water “positive and elated” (Smart, 2019) – me included!
I have noticed that, every year, around this time my mood and my motivation take a bit of a tumble; I feel tired and I struggle to find much to be joyful about. I find myself not looking forward to the prospect of a swim in the cooling water. There are a range of reasons for this, I believe: the end of September brings, for me, some emotional anniversaries that coincide with the change in the season. This autumn we have not been lucky with the weather. It has mostly been wet and windy and it seemed to happen suddenly and before I was emotionally ‘ready’ for it. The days seem to have got suddenly shorter, darker and colder and I succumbed, inevitably, to the first of the winter viruses, which I have found hard to shift. I know that the water is only going to get colder and I have started to experience the anxiety about getting into the water that I wrote about in my blog Sing, Sing A Song.
Friends and family say to me: “well don’t go if you don’t want to”; “Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it”. But the fact is, that once I am in the water, swimming, I do enjoy it. And I always emerge “positive and elated”, and more particularly, proud of myself that I did it. That I didn’t give in.
We will not be defeated
I know I am not alone in this, as all the outdoor swimming discussion groups on social media are currently full of swimmers chatting about the sudden drop in the temperature of the water and the need for the addition of extra post-swim layers of clothing together with tips on acclimatisation and the emergence of supportive groups and challenges to encourage us to swim through the winter together. This is because we believe
cold water endurance swimmer, Sally Goble (2019) wrote recently: “Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard”. She admits that, sometimes swimming in cold water at this time of year “is blooming hard” and sometimes she chooses to swim – not because of the endorphins and natural high – but because “I will not be defeated”.
I know what she means! I feel the same! It would be easy to give in, to feel sad, to feel lonely, to feel tired, to stay under the duvet – but I won’t. I have realised that it is important to me that I don’t give in, or give up. I need to just keep swimming.
And so, like many others around the country, I have entered the winter Polar Bear Swimming Challenge this year. The Challenge is to complete a set number of swims and distances outdoors in the sea, river or lake (in the UK) from 1 November to 31 March. I have entered the ‘Gold’ category, which is to swim 250 metres twice a month AND to complete a total of at least 5000 metres total distance during the challenge period. The Polar Bear challenge is run under the clothing rules of the International Ice Swimming Association which means we can only wear one standard swimsuit, one standard silicone swim hat and standard swimming goggles.
As the water temperature (and the air temperature) continue to drop, and as November rapidly approaches, I have begun to feel a bit nervous about this commitment – but (at this moment in time at least) I am determined that I will not back down! I will not be defeated!
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” (
As if the thought of swimming through winter is not hard enough, it feels even more challenging following a recent ‘restorative break’ swimming in the, still warm, Mediterranean Sea and the, still warm, air and blue skies of Mallorca. I know that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to do this and – on just about all counts – it was a positive, enjoyable, relaxing, healing and interesting trip.
However! I have found that it is not just the thought of getting into cold water that makes me anxious. I now, also, have a new anxiety – about swimming with jellyfish!
I last experienced swimming with jellyfish in Australia and I wrote about this in my blog Down Under. While that was a terrifying, jellyfish soup sort of experience, I can honestly say that the sting from a Barrel Fish Jellyfish is not painful – no more so that a mild nettle sting. Since then, I have occasionally spotted one or two little ‘Moon Jellyfish‘ and ‘Fried Egg Jellyfish‘ while swimming off some parts of the coast in Mallorca, but they always managed to stay out of my way – and I have never been stung while swimming there – until last week when I was stung by the pink jellyfish known as Pelagia noctiluca.
This is a fairly small jellyfish but (unusual among jellyfish) both its tentacles and bell are covered in stinging cells. The sting (as I can attest) is very painful and the swelling can (and did) continue for a considerable time after the encounter. A week later I still have a scar!
There has been a reported increase in sightings of jellyfish around the coast of Mallorca this year – and around UK waters for that matter. The general consensus seems to be that it is due to global warming boosting the water temperatures by a couple of degrees, together with the presence of increased pollution-derived nutrients and reduced cool freshwater entering from rivers. However, overfishing of tuna fish and the reduction of the number of marine turtles – which eat the jellyfish – has also been blamed.
Apparently, Jellyfish have been living in the sea for millions of years. They are invertebrates and are not very good swimmers – usually just drifting around on the sea currents. They (usually) float, suspended in the water at a depth of about five metres where the light is brightest and the food abundant. They are actually quite beautiful to watch (from a distance) and the lack of a brain means that if a jellyfish stings you it really can’t help it.
But I did get stung! And it was quite a shock how painful it was. However, I was determined not to allow them to defeat me and I made myself get back into the water the next day – and every day – and I continued to enjoy some lovely swimming locations. However, I found that it is very difficult to relax and to settle into a swim once you have been stung! Whereas previously, when I saw jellyfish, I would swim away from or around them, I am now constantly looking around, and if any jellyfish are present I would shorten and curtail my swim.
It is sometimes harder said than done, to keep going, to overcome your fears – but I know that I would feel worse, would feel disappointed with myself if I hadn’t got back into the water and kept swimming.
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive (Gloria Gaynor, 1978)
On 17th September, Sarah Thomas inspired us all by becoming the first person to swim across the English Channel four times non-stop – that is, from England to France and back – twice! The swim was due to be about 80 miles but because of strong tides she ended up swimming closer to 130 miles. It took her just over 54 hours.
This tremendous feat of mental and physical endurance is almost incomprehensible by any standard. And yet, Sarah Thomas did it just one year after she had completed treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer. She claims that planning for, training for and completing this swim kept her going during her treatment and recovery and gave her something other than her cancer to focus her mind and her determination on.
Among the many mental and physical challenges that she faced during her swim she was also stung by a jellyfish – in the face!. And she did not stop. She didn’t give up. She kept going. And s
I promise that I will try to hold on to that inspiring thought when I stand by the water’s edge contemplating my swims this winter! I will keep swimming. I will not be defeated!
Photo Credit: Howaboutdave Photography.
Essex, The, (1963) Easier Said Than Done , Roulette.
Gaynor, G. (1978) I Will Survive, from the album Love Tracks, Polydor Records
Goble, S. (2019) Let’s not kid ourselves: sometimes it’s hard, from Postcards From The Pool, Medium.com
Perraudin, F. & Ingle, S. (2019) Cancer Survivor is First Person to Swim the Channel Four Times Non-Stop, in The Guardian, 17th September 2019
Petty, T. (1989) I Won’t Back Down, from the album Full Moon Fever, MCA Records
Smart, M. (2019) Hundreds beat the weather to take on Exmoor Open Water Swim, in North Devon Gazette, October 3rd 2019
My jellyfish encounter happened at Cala Llamp on the South West Coast of Mallorca.
Sea temperature : 23 degrees celsius
Air temperature: 24 degrees celsius
Distance swum: 750 metres
Swim Time: 22 minutes
Post Script: In case it ever happens to you, you might like to know that the best way to treat a jellyfish sting is to soak it in sea water – and never with fresh or bottled water which will aggravate the stinging cells. Just soak it and do not rub or scratch the stung area. There is, apparently, no scientific evidence that urine disables the stingers. There is some disagreement about whether vinegar is helpful (just in case you happen to carry vinegar with you when you to the beach)!