Blue therapy · cold water · community · Cornwall · Devon · Healthy Ageing · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · swimming · well being · winter swimming

56: Last of the summer wine

To be sure of winning, invent your own game, and never tell any other player the rules.(Brilliant, 1933)

The end of September heralds the changing season and brings the shifting colours of the leaves, the cooler, misty mornings and the darker evenings. I am not a fan of the autumn equinox. I find, that as the daylight hours shorten and the temperature begins to drop, my mood begins to drop with it and my motivation begins to wane. I am always slow to adjust to the realisation that the days of long swims in calm waters are drawing to a close; to the acceptance that I need to start thinking about layers of clothing and hot drinks again; and to a shorter window of opportunity if I want to swim in daylight or sunshine.

However, one of the good things about September, to my mind, is that, despite the falling air temperature, the sea is still comparatively warm. The water temperature may have begun it’s downward trajectory, but ‘warmer in than out’ will always be the saving grace of autumn swimming and making the most of opportunities to swim in the sea, will always be my way of coping with that ‘September feeling’. If you are planning on swimming through the winter this year, now is the perfect time to start.

Different Ways of Winning

September also, usually, brings the last of the ‘events’ that have taken us on our trips around the South Coast, swimming in new and undiscovered waters and exploring the local surroundings (see You Are My Sunshine). This September we swam in two events in two glorious locations on spectacularly sunny days. Firstly, on Sunday 18th September we continued with our ‘return to Cornwall’ season of swimming events and swam in the Carbis Bay Swim Festival. Carbis Bay is part of an array of beaches that make up St Ives Bay, listed as one of UNESCOs Most Beautiful Bays in the World. The bay is served by the scenic St Ives Bay train that runs along the coast and is described as ‘one of the most scenic train routes in Britain’. It was a lovely, relaxed way to travel to the swim location – and a bit like a pre-event meet up, since just about every other traveller on the platform was heading to Carbis Bay to take part in the event!

The sea that day was challengingly ‘bumpy’ and cool and I was more than a little bit daunted by the numbers of truly fast, strong and experienced and enthusiastic swimmers taking part. I’m not really a fan of swims that involve multiple laps around a course marked out by buoys (especially when the sun in your eyes means that you (I) can’t see where you’re going. I inevitably get ‘lapped’ by all those fast, competitive swimmers and I prefer a swim that ‘starts here and ends there’, where I can feel ok swimming at my own pace. This was a 3k swim made up of 3 laps around the buoys and I struggled, I won’t pretend otherwise. However, I didn’t give up (some did) and I kept going until I completed the course – at which point it became clear that I was the last swimmer in the water!

The great thing about these se swimming events, I have found, is how friendly, supportive and welcoming they always are. Those fast swimmers waiting to take their place on the winners podium might have finished their swim almost an hour sooner than me – but they were all there, the whole beach, waiting to cheer me as I limped up the sand and was awarded a prize for being the swimmer who was ‘the longest in the water’! There is more than one way of winning, that’s for sure!

Yes, there were times I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall – and did it my way
(Sinatra, 1969)

Seven Years of Winning

The following week, Sunday 25th September, we took part in our final ‘event’ of the season, getting up at dawn and swimming in the early morning September sunshine in the ‘Dawlish Swim’ at Dawlish Warren. Dawlish Warren has a beach next to a National Nature Reserve and is a popular swimming location. As it happens this swim was exactly 7 years to the day, since I took part in my first ever sea swimming event (see It Started There) and there were some similarities between my experience of the two events.

Both events involved me lining up to start the swim in the very early morning when, despite the promise of the cloudless sky and sunshine, it was not yet warm (in fact it was cold!). Both events were designed to encourage people to try their first triathlon or their first sea swim – and there were many first timers taking part. Both events had me standing on the shore wondering why on earth I had let myself be talked into doing this. And by the end of both swims I felt exhilarated, proud and thankful for the opportunity – and for the sea.

I didn’t win an ‘official’ prize this time either, so I awarded myself one (quite legitimately I might add!). When looking through the list of other competitors, I confirmed that, although I wasn’t first or last, I was ‘the oldest swimmer’ in the event.

I am going to hold on to that! Oh yes! There will always be more than one way of winning!

Photo Credits: Beth Oliver (Carbis Bay) and Nik Langdon-Ward (Dawlish Warren)

The Carbis Bay Swim Festival was organised by Mad Hatter Sports Events

The Dawlish Swim was organised by Sportiva Events

Carbis Bay
Sea Temperature: 16 degrees celsius
Distance Swum: 3200 metres
Swim Time: 90 minutes

Dawlish Swim
Sea Temperature 17 degrees celsius
Distance Swum: 1500 metres
Swim Time: 39 minutes

References

Brilliant, A. (1933) Ashleigh Brilliant Quotes

Oliver, B. (2017) It Started There, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Sinatra, F. (1969) My Way, from the album My Way, Reprise.

bereavement · Blue therapy · community · Cornwall · Happiness · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · well being

55: You Are My Sunshine

You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy 
When skies are grey
You’ll never know, dear
How much I love you
Please don’t take 
My sunshine away
(Johnny Cash, 1969)

In early August, this year, I continued with my resolution to return to and to swim round Cornwall (see And The Sea Is Wide) by taking part in a 2.5km group swim around St Michael’s Mount, off the shore of Marazion. Unusually, for me and the events that I enter, the weather was hot and sunny and the sea was calm, blue and clear! In fact, the sea was so clear that the swim had the added ‘wow!’ factor of affording as much to see under the water as above it and I was absorbed by the variety of plant and aquatic life that we swam over, through and around. If anything, I would like to have swum the swim more slowly and with fewer other swimmers so as to have time to take in all that there was to see below the surface and on the island itself. That said though, it was a truly lovely, friendly, non-competitive and community involved event, organised and supported by The Chestnut Appeal, that left me smiling and wanting to do it all over again.

St Michael’s Mount

There are numerous sanctuaries and religious buildings, around the world, built in honour of the Archangel, St Michael. The Cornish St Michael’s Mount is reported to have been the site of a monastery from the 8th to the early 11th centuries, but the island seems to have been regularly fought over and occupied, since then, and finally, in 1659, it was bought by the St Aubyn family, who still live there, although, since 1954, it has been managed by the National Trust. An unbridged, tidal island, you can also walk to and from the Mount when the tide is out, but as Roger Deakin (2014:17) noted, it feels much more ‘adventurous’ to swim round it!.

It is, theoretically, possible to swim round the island on your own. However, not only are there regular small ‘ferries’ running to the harbour from the mainland, but also, once ’round the back’ of the island, you would be out of sight, and therefore more vulnerable, so it is preferable to attempt this swim as part of an organised group, with safety support. The Chestnut Appeal who supported the swim that I took part in, was founded in 1999 at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth and aims to support, through community fundraising, the latest treatments of, and awareness and support for Prostate Cancer, Testicular Cancer and Penile Cancer. As part of their fundraising, they organise a number of fun, friendly, community led swimming events in Devon and Cornwall, one of which is the annual swim around St Michael’s Mount.

Keep Swimming – Keep Learning

When I began writing this Blog in 2017 (It Started There) I wrote of how I was inspired by Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog in which he described his swimming journey around Britain and discussed the cultural history, literature, geography and natural history of the places where he swam. “It opened my eyes to the opportunities writing about a swimming journey can offer” (Oliver, 2017). In pursuing my own swimming journey, I have not only been amazed at how much of our own little British Island there is for me still to discover, but also, how beautiful and interesting so many of the places I have discovered are – and how much there is still to learn. I feel surrounded by endless opportunities – and that makes me feel rather excited.

While visiting that westerly tip of Cornwall, in order to swim round St Michael’s Mount, my companion and I took the opportunity to explore a little more of the coast around there. We not only managed to follow a beautiful stretch of the South West Coast Path and to find – and swim at – some pretty and surprisingly (for a hot mid-August) quiet coves, but we also found that so many of the places we visited offered plentiful opportunities for discovery and learning.




For example, at Porthcurno Beach, we not only learned about the unique sand that is made up of seashells pounded to smithereens by the sea over millions of years and which is partly responsible for the beautiful colour of the sea there, but we also learned about Porthcurno’s surprising history as a ‘hub of global communications’ and it’s role in communications history, from the first undersea telegraph cables brought ashore at Porthcurno 150 years ago to the development of fibre optics and today’s digital communications.

At Gunwalloe Church Cove we discovered the little medieval church of St. Winwaloe situated at the foot of the sand dunes, with only the rocks of Castle Mound separating it from the sea. It is the only church in Cornwall located on a beach and it has become known as The Church of the Storms, for having withstood the many fierce storms that have pounded that coast. To us, it offered a cool sanctuary on a hot day – and a place to light a candle and to sit and reflect.

The best laid schemes o’ mice and men (Robert Burns, 1785)

There’s so little time and so much to do
There’s so little time for dreams to come true
(Louis Armstrong, 1938)

That old adage ‘so much to do; so little time’ was brought into sharp focus for me on our trip to South West Cornwall. I recognised that I had completely over-estimated how much I could see and do in the time that we had there. Some time ago, I recognised that my overly ambitious intention to swim at every beach along the South Coast before my 70th birthday, was just that: overly ambitious! My 70th birthday is next year, in August 2023, and I have only just started ‘picking round the edges’ of my goal. The swimming trips I have made to Cornwall, this summer, have made me realise just how much of Cornwall there is, let alone the rest of the coast. This task is enormous! However, rather than this realisation causing me to feel daunted or disappointed, it has, instead, made me feel excited and energised. I am feeling inspired that there is so much still to do; so many places to discover; and so much still to learn.

I also ‘discovered’ on that trip, that there are places in Cornwall I am still not ready to revisit. At the start of the summer, I had thought that I might take the opportunity to ‘make peace’ with the past and to make a short ‘homage paying’ visit to some of the places I have been avoiding. However, I soon realised, that even the sight of a place name on a road sign, caused such a lurching of my stomach and heart and such a feeling of impending sadness, that I did not want to ‘break the magic’ of the this joyful, sunny weekend of discovery and companionship by going there.

There will be a more appropriate time for such a trip. And there is so much else to do and see. For now, I choose to keep moving forward, to keep discovering – to follow the sun.

So follow, follow the sun
And which way the wind blows
When this day is done…
(Rudd, 2012)

Photo Credits: Beth Oliver

Swimming round St Michael’s Mount



Sea Temperature: 17 degrees celsius
Distance Swum: 2,200 metres
Swim Time: 51 minutes

References
Armstrong, L. (1938) So Little Time (So Much To Do), Decca

Burns, R. (1785) To a Mouse, included in Burns, R. (1876) Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, first printed and issued by John Wilson of Kilmarnock July 1786

Cash, J. (1969) You Are My Sunshine, from the album Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Nashville Records

Deakin, R. (2014) Waterlog, Vintage Classics

Oliver, B. (2017) It Started There, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Oliver, B. (2022) And The Sea Is Wide. justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Rudd, X. (2012) Follow the Sun, from the album Spirit Bird, apple music

bereavement · Blue therapy · community · Cornwall · grief · mental health · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · swimming · Tides · well being

54: And The Sea Is Wide

The sea is wide and I can’t swim over it. And neither have I wings to fly. Oh, I wish I could find me a handy boatman, To ferry me over to be by your side.   (Van Morrison, 1988)

Most people, who want to cross the estuary from Padstow to Rock, in Cornwall, do it by ferry. There is an excellent, cheap, friendly and very efficient ferry service that runs back and forth every 20 minutes. However, once a year, there is a ballot to gain an opportunity to swim across this beautiful Camel Estuary – and this June, I was fortunate enough to be able to do just that.

The traditional Padstow to Rock Swim has been running since the 1970s and, since 2011, it has been a charity event, held in aid of the Marie Curie Charity. The Marie Curie Charity was established in 1944, initially to support cancer patients and later as a charity to support anyone living with a terminal illness. Marie Curie nurses and hospices support terminally ill people through the final months and days of life and are also there to support the people left behind after you die.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie herself was a pioneering scientist who discovered Radium and led ground breaking research into radioactivity, pioneering the medical use of X-rays and radiotherapy. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. To be honest, she sounds like she was an all round awesome, interesting, energetic, determined, focused and accomplished woman. She was one of the first women to wear trousers when mountain climbing. She was one of the first women to obtain a drivers licence. She led pioneering work on women’s health.

And she was also a keen swimmer! (see 10 interesting facts) – which makes her even more awesome in my book!

Cornwall

In 2020, (Somewhere Over The Rainbow), I wrote, that I had come to a point where I felt able to contemplate ‘returning to Cornwall’ to try to complete some of my South Coast swimming journey. I explained that, while for many, Cornwall is a ‘happy place’ of sunny seaside memories, quaint seaside villages and breathtakingly rugged scenery, for me it had become associated with despair, sadness, helplessness and death. I recognised that I needed to try to create some newer, happier memories and associations and to learn to love it again. But, just as I had made that decision, any hope of forward planning was taken out of our control and we were all told to ‘stay at home’. Social mixing was banned. Travel was banned. Even swimming was banned – unless you were lucky enough to live close to the sea. And ironically, I found that, having spent the past 5 years not wanting to ever set foot in Cornwall again, I now wanted nothing, more badly, than to go to Cornwall and swim!

“I want to run there, leap in, explore as much of the coast as I can, walk the coast path, find the wild flowers – and just swim and swim and swim”. (Oliver, 2020)

Finally, in September last year (I’m On My Way) I made my first, tentative – but successful and happy – ‘return to Cornwall’. And so, I decided that this year swimming will be ‘all about Cornwall’. And the first of these Cornish swimming events was the Padstow to Rock swim across the Camel Estuary, in the week that had marked the 7th year anniversary of my daughter Wendy’s death. In that 7 years, I have learned a lot about myself and about many other things. In particular, I have learnt a lot about – and gained a lot of experience in – open water swimming, and I have written about some of that in this blog. Importantly, for me, I have gained these experiences and knowledge together, with family and friends around me.

Growing Around Grief

Of the many theories, models and approaches to living with grief, the one that I have found most helpful, and has resonated with my experience the most is Lois Tonkin’s (1996) model of ‘Growing Around Grief’. Tonkin conceptualised early grief as a gaping chasm, a terrifying pit of despair that it is hard to avoid falling into, and which consumes your thinking and being, day and night. As time passes, rather than diminishing (as some would have you believe) the grief is the same size as it was at the start, but what has changed is that your life around it has grown – life slowly feels bigger. As life expands around the chasm you are able to feel less fearful of the grief enveloping you – and even able to look into the chasm without fear of falling in. Like all grief theories, this one works for some and not others. It resonates with me and I hope that some of the tone and content of these blog posts I have been writing have illustrated that.

Outdoor swimming has taken me to discover many different places, meet many new people and learn new insights into mental and health and wellbeing. My life has grown to include all these new skills, people and places – my family has grown too – and I now celebrate all the new things that have come into my life, and I am thankful. When my children were young, we had many, very happy holidays in Cornwall. The photo albums – and the memories – are full of sunshine, beaches and smiling faces and I find, now, that it is these images and memories that I can focus on and hold onto, rather than the more recent sad ones.

Padstow to Rock

And so it was, that on a cold, wet, grey and windy day towards the end of June 2022 I stood shivering, with a couple of hundred other swimmers (because the weather always seems to do this to me when we enter an event!), on the harbour wall at Padstow waiting for the ‘all clear’ to enter the water and swim across to Rock.

There is a strong tidal flow in the estuary and the swim has to be guided by the coast guards who patrol this area. They know the safest route around the tide and they set the course. My swimming buddy daughter was in the ‘elite’ wave who set off first and the rest of us stood anxiously watching their progress (not all successfully it has to be said) with the tidal flow. When the rest of us entered the water, it was almost impossible to find a ‘space’ in which to do your own swim. Most of us (me included) were so intent on ensuring that we had sight of the buoys and the pilot boat that keeping out of each others way felt like the least of our concerns. And then, suddenly, the landing slip at Rock was in sight and I staggered, a little dazed, onto dry land – to be reunited with my daughter – and onwards to receive a welcoming Cornish Pasty!

A celebration of Cornwall, of community, of swimming, of family – and of Marie Curie.

We need great courage and I hope we will not lack it. We must keep the firm hope that after these bad days, good times will return. It’s in that hope that I lock you in my heart, my beloved daughters”. (Marie Curie, 1914)

The Padstow to Rock Swim

Sea Temperature: 14 degrees celsius

Distance Swum: 1200 metres

Swim Time: 30 minutes

References

Curie, M. (1914) From Maries letters to Irène Curie, Paris, Monday, 31 August 1914,

Morrison, V. (1988) Carrickfergus, from the album Irish Heartbeat, Mercury Records

Oliver, B. (2020) Somewhere Over The Rainbow, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Oliver, B. (2021) I’m On My Way, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Tonkin, L. (1996) Growing around grief—another way of looking at grief and recovery, in Bereavement Care, Vol, 15. Issue 1

Anxiety · Blue therapy · cold water · community · Happiness · Jellyfish · Mallorca · mental health · mental health, community, · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · swimming · well being

53: Here Comes The Sun

In every life we have some trouble,
when you worry you make it double
don’t worry, be happy
(Bobby McFerrin, 1988)

According to Thomson (2022) we are living through an ‘age of anxiety’. Following the coronavirus pandemic, the cost of living crisis, invasions and wars and ongoing political chaos, we are all, apparently, feeling ‘frazzled and mildly hysterical, but with increasingly few grown-ups to calm us down‘. I can relate to this. Whether it is the age or my age, I find myself increasingly anxious and fearful when confronted with anything outside the comfort zone of my ‘normal’ day to day activity. I hate to admit it, but I have become well known within my family for ‘finding things to worry about’!

This year, as Winter has become Spring and the Summer beckons, one of my biggest worries has been the realisation that – in an apparent fit of hope and optimism – I seem to have entered quite a few long distance (for me) swimming events and that these are – this year – actually going to take place!

Over the past couple of years, events have been a bit of a hit and miss affair. So many of the events we had entered and planned for in 2019 were cancelled in 2020 and 2021. But as Winter turned into Spring 2022, I realised that I had booked a whole summer season of swimming events and I have to confess thought to myself ’what on earth was I thinking?’

Alarmingly (for me), the first of these ’what on earth was I thinking?’ events was scheduled for late May/early June and was in Mallorca. I had originally booked onto this event – the BestFest Open-Water Swimming Festival – back in 2019, when presumably I was a less anxious, more confident and much younger woman! Now I found that I had committed myself to both a 2k and a 3k sea swim – in skins (no wetsuit) – in May! I know that many travellers, who only visit Mediterranean countries during the summer months, believe that it is hot there all the time, but I knew that this winter was a very cold and wet one for Mallorca, with late snow, storms and a lot of rain. Studying the analysis of the sea temperature, I knew that the water was ‘colder than average’ and ‘slowly rising’ this Spring. By Easter, the sea temperature had only just reached 15 degrees.

In an attempt to try to deal with my anxiety, this Spring I became obsessed with ‘training’ myself to ‘just keep swimming’ further and further distances in the sea each week, in the hope that ‘if I can do it in Clevedon, I can do it in Mallorca’! In April, I was back to swimming round the Pier (water temperature 10, air temperature 11), much earlier in the year than I had attempted before. At the start of May I completed my first Ladye Bay to Clevedon Pier swim of the year (1 mile, Water temperature 13). And then, with a week to go before travelling to Mallorca, I ’made myself’ undertake the (almost) 3k swim to Ladye Bay and back again, in skins, with a sea temperature just about nudging 15 degrees. It wasn’t what I would call ‘enjoyable’, but it did give me a sense of achievement. I had done it and I set off for Mallorca feeling reasonably confident that, if I could do that at Clevedon, I should be able to do it, in skins, in Mallorca, where the sea temperature had just reached 20 degrees.

Just a Perfect Day

However, I would not be me if I didn’t find something else to worry about. And lo! Wouldn’t you just believe it, the weather in Mallorca turned stormy and windy just in time for our first (2km) swim! That morning the wind was blowing on shore and causing the sea to crash onto the beach and for enormous breakers to appear out to sea. It was so windy that the organisers chose to (for safety reasons) change the route and position the buoys closer to shore meaning that we would have to swim 4 circuits instead of 2.

And guess what! There were also jelly fish!

Of all the lessons I have learned, since I have been open water swimming, however, one of the most significant is, that, once I get in the water and start swimming, nothing else matters. All those extraneous anxieties evaporate and the ‘here and now’ is all that is important. The swim is the thing. Just keep breathing and just keep swimming: one arm and then another. Just keep going.

And as it turns out it was a lovely swim. Wind and waves? – I didn’t notice them! Jelly fish? – well, I did notice them (I got stung 3 times) but it didn’t seem as alarming as it might have done if I’d been swimming alone on a recreational swim. We were all in it together, and I just got on with it. And by the end of the 4th lap I thought ‘well that didn’t seem very far’ and I could have kept going. I knew now that I would be able to do the 3k swim. It had proved to be an excellent ‘warm up’ event. My confidence rose and my anxiety diminished. I relaxed.

And 2 days later, on 1st June, I completed the 3k ’point to point’ swim from the ‘virgin’ Es Carbo Beach in calm, clear, blue water, surrounded by hot sun – it was a perfect day and it was a glorious swim with a lovely friendly group of fellow swimmers.

I would like to be able to tell you that I now won’t be anxious about each of the other events planned for this summer, but that would be disingenuous of me! They are all challenges in their different ways and I know I will fret about ‘what on earth I have let myself in for’ in the weeks to come. But I also know, that once I am in the water those thoughts will wash away – and I know that I won’t give up. I will just keep swimming. And that’s what it’s all about.

It’s been a long cold lonely winter
It feels like years since it’s been here

but Here comes the Sun,
Here comes the Sun and I say
It’s all right
(The Beatles, 1969)

Photo Credits:  Iain Bourne

Local details

Sea temperature : 21 degrees Celsius

BestFest Open Water Swimming Festival, Colonia St Jordi, Mallorca

References

Beatles, The, (1969) Here Comes The Sun (Little Darling), from the album Abbey Road, Apple Records

McFerrin, B. (1988) Don’t Worry, Be Happy, from the album Simple Pleasures, Manhattan Records.

Reed, L. (1972) Perfect Day from the album Transformer, RCA

Thomson, A. (2022) Who Can Lead Us Out Of This Age Of Anxiety, The Times, June 7th 2022

cold water · community · Happiness · Healthy Ageing · Laughter · mental health · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · Social Capital · Social prescribing · swimming · well being · winter swimming

52: The Sound Of Laughter

“All the creatures in the sea, fish by fish they all agree, ‘Tis no sweeter harmony, than the sound of laughter” (The Little Mermaid, 1989)

At this time of year, when swimming in the sea is limited to between 5 and 10 minutes, the best part of the outdoor swimming experience can be the chat, gossip, warming up and laughter – with friends – that takes place afterwards.  This was one of the things I missed the most during the periods of lockdown and social distancing over the past 2 years, when I would feel I had to scuttle off, alone, to warm up in my car, or shout a greeting across the beach to a fellow swimmer (see blog 41). 

This year, though, as winter has begun to nudge towards spring, we have begun to allow ourselves to ‘huddle’ in little groups, clutching our hot drinks and hot water bottles and to stay and chat – and laugh – sometimes for up to an hour after a swim. It has been wonderful. It has made me realise how much I missed it and what a valuable part of the swimming experience it is. On some days – especially if the sun has dared to make an appearance – I haven’t wanted to leave. 

“Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand” (Mark Twain, 1916)

Laughter is good for you

We all know that ‘having a good laugh’ makes us feel so much better. Over recent years, research, has been trying to study why and how it is good for us.  Apparently (Martin, 2001), laughing helps to boost the immune system; it triggers the release of endorphins; and it relaxes the body. It also helps to protect the heart by improving blood vessel function and blood flow. Agarwal (2014) cites ‘evidence based data’ that substantiates the role laughter can play in reducing stress, anxiety, depression and pain. 

All of the above, sound remarkably similar to many of the research findings on the physiological and mental health impacts of cold water swimming on the body (Oliver, 2021). Therefore, if you add a good dose of laughter to your time in the cold water, I reckon, that we outdoor swimmers must surely be armour plated!

The Social Connection

As I have explained before, though, (Blog 48) it is not a simple matter of the impact of the laughter or of the cold water on the individual. As Coningham-Rolls (2020) found, one of the most cited reasons all year round swimmers give for why they swim throughout the winter is ‘because it is such fun’. As one swimmer explained: “In winter, swimming is my favourite social activity. Everyone is always laughing! – you can’t beat it. The high stays with you for the whole day”

The key words in that quote, in my opinion, are ‘social’ and ‘everyone’. A recent study by Van Vugt (2014) found that laughter acts as a ‘social lubricant‘ that enhances a sense of group membership, belonging and cooperation. Laughing alone can make you feel more cheerful, but it is laughing with others that seems to be the key to achieving all these health benefits. Tamada et al (2022) have been turning their attention to this social aspect of laughter and they have found that laughing, in a conversation, with friends, can significantly reduce the chances of developing health problems in later life. The focus of their research was not the frequency of laughter in an individual’s life. They were more interested in laughter in the context of social connectedness and social relationships. They found that it was this laughing with others that seems to offer the additional health benefits. 

What did the ocean say to the beach?
Nothing. It just waved.

It is not uncommon, on some of the greyer, colder and more dismal days of winter for me to arrive for a swim with an attitude of reluctance and a look of resignation on my face. As we have stomped our feet, rubbed our hands and looked at the sky, my fellow swimmers and I have shared ‘well, are we going to do this or not’ type mutterings. Some of us are of the ‘just get in and get it over with’ persuasion, while others procrastinate and faff until there are no more excuses. 

However, it is impossible, I have found, to complete a cold water swim without a big smile on your face. The one thing that we all share afterwards is the look of pure elation on our faces and the sound of laughter, joy, satisfaction – and optimism – in our voices. It brings us together – whatever our age or background – and opens up a rich seam of serendipitous conversation. We laugh with – and we also learn from – each other. And we leave the beach sparkling with energy and ready to take on the day.

As Goble (2017) has noted: “cold water swimmers are adventurous, full of life and quick to laugh. They sparkle like the icy water they inhabit” 

Her eyes will beam and sparkle
She will gurgle with delight
And then you’ll start her laughing
With all her blessed might 

(adapted from The Laughing Policeman, 1922)

Photo Credits: Neil Mehta and Sonja Nisson

References

Agarwal, S.K. (2014) Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter, in Medical Science, vol 12, no 46, 19 – 23

Bates, C & Moles, K. (2021) Laughter, Trust and Friendship in the water, on Orca Community Blog, June 17th 2021https://www.orca.com/gb-en/community/blog/20210617/frienship-water/

Blakely, R. (2022) Lower the risk of bad health by laughing with others, says research, in The Times, January 19th 2022

Butler, A. (1989) The Sound of Laughter, from the sound track to The Little Mermaid, Disney Enterprises

Coningham-Rolls, J. (2020) 3 Reasons Why You Should Keep Swimming Through The Winter – And How To Do It, in Outdoor Swimmer, 30th September 2020 https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/winter-is-coming

Goble, S. (2017), “10 Things you only know if you swim through winter”, The Guardian, 30th January 2017,

Martin, R. (2001) Humour, Laughter and Physical Health: Methodological Issues and Research Findings, in Psychological Bulletin, 2001, Vol 127 No 4. 504 – 519

Oliver, B. (2020) I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really, Want, at JustKeepSwimmingBillie.Wordpress.Com

Oliver, B. (2021) Cold Water Swimming and Well-Being, in Journal of Public Mental Healthvol 20, no 2, 105 – 110

Tamada, Y., Yamaguchi, C., Saito, M., Ohira, T., Shirai, K., Kondo, K., & Takeuchi, K., (2022) Does laughing with others lower the risk of functional disability among older Japanese adults? in, Preventive Medicine, Volume 155, February 2022

Twain, M. (1916) The Mysterious Stranger, (chapter 10), Harper & Brothers

Van Vugt, M., Hardy, C. Stow, J. & Dunbar, R. (2014) A Biosocial Hypothesis about the Pro-social Functions of Laughter and Humour, Researchgate.net

Agatha Christie · Blue therapy · cold water · Devon · Elbury Cove · grief · Happiness · mental health · New Year · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · Outdoors · Paignton · Sea Bathing · sea swimming · Sisu · swimming · well being · winter · winter swimming · Wintering

51: It Lies Within You

To casually throw one’s body into freezing waters is to begin to understand the Finnish word “sisu” (Åkerström, 2018)

I may be late to the party, but I have only recently come across the Finnish cultural concept of Sisu.  According to Lahti (2019) sisu has been used for centuries to describe the “enigmatic power that enables individuals to push through unbearable challenges”. It seems to me that we could all do with a bit more sisu in our lives at the moment.

Sisu is generally considered not to have a literal equivalent translation into English, but according to Lahti (2019) it shares aspects of ‘stoic determination’, ‘perseverance’, ‘grit’, ‘courage’ and ‘hardiness’ and is usually associated with a strong connection to nature. In this respect, it has some similarity to concepts of ‘wintering’ that have come to the fore over the past couple of years. May (2020), for example, has described ‘wintering’ as a process of learning to live with (and embrace) the winters in our life: “a lonely and painful time …the experience of change happening”. She argues that we need to “learn to accept and even welcome our winters” because “every time we winter, we grow in resilience and compassion, and we deepen our capacity for joy”.

At the core of sisu is the idea that, in each of us, there is more strength than meets the eye. It expresses itself in the ways we take action against the odds, and the ways we display courage and resolve in the face of adversity.

 “At the end of physical, emotional and psychological endurance … we have some kind of force that allows us to continue even when we thought we couldn’t.  For Finns, that ‘second wind’ of inner strength is sisu” (Lahti. 2019)

Whether you are feeling challenged by grief, by loneliness, by trauma, by the seemingly never ending pandemic – or simply by the time of year, by January and by winter, Nylund (2018) suggests that achieving sisu is “within the reach of everyone … it lies within you”.

Nylund (2018), Doherty (2020) and Odell (2022) are just some of the sources you could look at for ‘life tips’ on how to build sisu into your life. In summary (based on my own biased interpretation), they all seem to involve accepting, noticing and embracing your natural, winter environment; celebrating what winter offers, rather than longing for it to be over; getting outside and being active whatever the weather; and crucially – immersing yourself in cold water! So, if you want to develop sisu, if you want to embrace the (or your) winter my advice would be to take up year round outdoor swimming and “Just Keep Swimming”! In my opinion, it has it all!

Elbury Cove

The search for sisu can quite often be observed on January 1st. It seems to have become something of a tradition for people to start off a new year by running into the sea or jumping into a lake or river or generally immersing themselves in cold water.  I am certainly not going to knock this practice because, back in 2017, it was one of the ways that I got started with cold water swimming too (see The Day We Made It Into The Sun).

This new year, I also swam in the sea on January 1st. In fact I had two swims. The first, with a group of local swimmers at Paignton Pier Beach, was somewhere I had swum before, but the second beach (Elbury Cove), later that day, was a new discovery for me – and so it became one to ‘tick off’ on my journey along the south coast (see It Started There).

Elberry (or Elbury) Cove, is a small, pretty, pebble beach that can only be accessed on foot, along the coast path from Broadsands.  At one end of the beach is a ruined building that is apparently (Devonshire Association, 1997) the remains of Lord Churston’s ‘bathhouse’, built at a time when seawater bathing was becoming fashionable. It could be argued, that the fashion for sea bathing, in the 18th and 19th centuries, was also a time when people were seeking to achieve sisu, since the advice at the time, was to engage in this practice during the colder winter months (see Sink Or Swim). 

Elbury Cove also has associations with that famous, local, regular sea-bather, Agatha Christie, who lived locally and used to swim here at the Cove. Elbury Cove features in one of her crime novels: The ABC Murders (Christie, 1936).

“Suddenly, we came out on a grassy ridge overlooking the sea and a beach of glistening white stones. All round dark green trees ran down to the sea. It was an enchanting spot – white, deep green and sapphire blue. ‘How beautiful’, said Hastings to Poirot

On the day that we swam there, it was, according to another regular swimmer, ‘busier than usual’, and judging by some of the shrieking, not all of the swimmers were regulars! However, even on a ‘historically mild’ New Year’s Day, it wasn’t overly busy and I was able to swim around the cove without meeting any other swimmers or water users, enjoying the clear water and the view, from the water of the surrounding woodland. As Hastings said to Poirot: “Why do people want to go abroad….. when they’ve got this! I’ve wandered all over the world in my time and I’ve never seen anything as beautiful” (Christie, 1936).

Embrace the season. Embrace your surroundings. Just Keep Swimming. And all will be well.

If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”, (Seamus Heaney 1972)

References

Åkerström , L. A (2018) “Is Ice Swimming the Key to Finding Your Inner Sisu?, adventure.com/ice-swimming-sisu-finland

Christie, A. (1936), The A.B.C. Murders, Collins.

Christie’s Devon agathachristie.com

Devonshire Association (1997-1999) The Bathing House Elbury Cove, www.devonassoc.org.uk/special-publications/elbury-cove-bathing-house-2000.pdf

Doherty (2020) “How to bring ‘sisu’, the Finnish concept of inner strength and refusal to give-up, into your life”, www.countryliving.com

Heaney, S. (1972) quoted in an article entitled “New Book of Poems Launched” in the Cork Examiner, 22 November 1972. www.thejournal.ie/seamus-heaney-quote-winter-this-one-out-summer-5065553-Apr2020/

Lahti, E. (2019) “Embodied Fortitude: An Introduction to the Finnish Construct of Sisu” in International Journal of Wellbeing,  9(1), 61-82

May, K. (2020) Wintering, Rider Publishing.

Nylund, J. (2018) Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage, Gala

Odell, M. (2022) Have You Got Sisu? The Nordic Secret of Happiness in Winter, The Times, January 8th 2022

Oliver, B (2017) The Day We Made It Into The Sun, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Oliver, B. (2019) Sink Or Swim, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Christmas · cold water · community · New Year · New Year Goals · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · Outdoors · Sea Bathing · sea swimming · swimming · Winter Solstice · winter swimming

50: BINGO

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light (Judy Garland, 1944)

It’s traditional at this time of year to play games – party games, board games, ‘parlour games’, quizzes and the like. I’m guessing that this tradition dates back to times when people were spending more time indoors during the darker days of winter. Without TVs – or any other form of electronic entertainment – families and communities looked for fun ways to amuse themselves indoors, in the warm. In my family, we love playing games together, especially at Christmas. It is something that all the generations can enjoy together and is so much more pleasurable than looking at a screen.

As readers of this blog will know, however, I (and many others) have found another equally enjoyable way to get through the winter while having outdoor fun with friends and family – and that is outdoor swimming. And so, I offer you here, a game that you can play both indoors and outdoors!

Last Christmas I received a gift of a book called BINGO: Wild Swimming Game (Zawinski, 2020). The book has 60 pages of ‘pre-generated bingo sheets’ all featuring aspects likely to be encountered and experienced if you swim outdoors all year round.  In total there are 100 categories and these are randomly scattered through the various pages/BINGO sheets.

At the time that I received this gift, we, in the UK, were entering another period of coronavirus lockdown restrictions that meant that meeting up and socialising with others (either indoors or outdoors) was ‘off the agenda’. Fortunately, I was able to continue to swim outdoors at the beach. However, I was having to do this alone. If there were other swimmers at the beach, I found myself having to scuttle off hurriedly after my swim, waving across the pebbles to friends without stopping to chat. It felt all wrong. And it felt very lonely.

Instead of playing Wild Swimming Bingo with a group of friends (as this book intended) I used it as a sort of personal checklist – not dissimilar to way I had played i-spy wild flowers during the first lockdown. I did not ‘cheat’ by completing it retrospectively. I could have done that: gone through the book ticking off all the things I had already achieved in the 5 years that I have been swimming outdoors. Instead, however, I decided to only ‘tick it off’ if and when I did it this year. 

Due to the random repetition across all the pages of the book, I was able to cross off the same thing in many of the grids each time I achieved it. However, it still took me until early summer before I got my first BINGO (a completed line).  In total, throughout the year of 2021 I have managed to cross off 41 of the total 100 possibilities. There are still a couple of weeks to go before the year ends so I might yet get more (I am hoping to be able to cross of the the ones that involve snow, ice and sub 5 degree temperatures) but with only half of them completed, I think I will get, at least, another year of fun out of the book.  

In this grid I have put together 25 of my favourite ones that I ‘ticked off’ this year and I offer them to you as a festive ‘game’ to play yourself (alone or with friends).

HOW TO PLAY

If you can complete a line (vertically, horizontally or diagonally) by having done one of these this year – shout (in the comments section) – BINGO!

If you have completed all of them this year – shout (in the comments section) – SNAP!

If you haven’t done any of them this year, or you can’t complete a line – well, there is something for you to look forward to next year. Let me know how you get on.

Happy Christmas. Just Keep Swimming 

And may your days be merry and bright” (Bing Crosby 1942)

References

Crosby, B. (1942) White Christmas, lyrics by Irving Berlin for the musical Holiday Inn (1942).

Garland, J. (1944) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, lyrics by Martin, H. & Blane, R. 1943), sung by Garland, J. in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St Louis. 

Zawinski, L. (2020) BINGO. Wild Swimming Game, Wee Burst of Awesome

ageing · Blue therapy · Clevedon · community · Healthy Ageing · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · Social Capital · swimming · well being

49: I Must Go Down To The Seas Again

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide, Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. (Masefield, 1902)

This autumn, we lost one of our own. Doug Gregory, who has died, just short of his 88th birthday, was a regular swimmer on the beach at Clevedon. With his twinkling blue eyes, chuckling laugh (and selective hearing) he had the upright stature and core strength of a man half his age. He went for long walks every day and swam, in the sea, all year round, diving in and starting off his daily swim with a few yards of butterfly! Like so many other ‘older’ members of swimming communities at beaches around the coast, Doug had been swimming in the sea since he was a boy. For him, this was ‘swimming’ – not open water swimming or wild swimming – and he was always welcoming, chatty and encouraging to whoever turned up for a swim – young and old. 

Knowledgeable about the tides and the ecology of the sea, Doug also understood the healing and health giving power of the sea and the importance of the social connections that turning up at the beach gave him and others in the group. We are so lucky to have his words – and his laugh and his twinkling blue eyes – immortalised in the short film “Time and Tide”, that was made by Isabelle Rose Neill and Joshua Embury a few years ago. In that film he says: 

If you’ve got any worries, when you go down there … once you’ve been in the water there… and come away … it’s like taking a drug, it’s the adrenaline burst you get. So once you’ve been in and you come out the water … you’re on a high! It brings out the best in you and when you come out of the water you’re all jolly and laughing and joking. We’re a happy bunch and we bring out the best in each other.

Better than medicine

In recent years, there have been a few articles written and research studies undertaken into the physical and mental health benefits of swimming, of cold water swimming and of outdoor swimming. I have made reference to a number of these in previous blog posts that I have written. While thinking about Doug, and the subjects he talks about in the short film Time and Tide, I came across a paper by Costello et al (2019) which explores the ways that being part of a ‘self organised sea swimming community’ can contribute to ‘healthy ageing’. It resonates strongly, for me, with the words of Doug and the other Clevedon Swimmers – and with what I have experienced for myself by being part of that group. 

Costello et al (2019) found that spending time by the sea and feeling part of a supportive community contributed to these ‘older swimmers’ enhanced health, wellbeing, independence and resilience, through a combination of ‘physical activity, mental stimulation, social interaction and environmental engagement within blue spaces’.

“Group members shared pleasures, exercise, helped the less skilled and confident to become better swimmers, enjoyed each other’s company and engaged in voluntary, pleasurable and mutually beneficial caring and support activities. … They valued their groups for providing mental stimulation and social connection in addition to physical activity” (Costello et al 2019)

The ‘older’ swimmers, studied by Costello et al all attested to their conviction that their sea swimming practice as, part of a group, was beneficial for their social connectedness, wellbeing and physical and mental health. The swimming groups routinely provided ‘off-beach support’ and care for each other, particularly when members were unable to participate in the daily swims due to injury or ill health. 

These extended interactions provided further opportunities to develop a strong network of social support beyond members’ shared morning beach ritual”. 

The Sea Doesn’t Know How Old You Are

In (Blog 26: Forever Young) I referred to work by Katie Maggs (2019) who had been swimming with and photographing the “incredible group of intrepid older swimmers” who swim every day off Battery Rocks in Cornwall. In a similar vein to Costello et al she reflected on “not only the physical health benefits of regular immersion in cold water but also the impact it has on their ability to live longer, happier and more purposeful lives“.  She quoted swimmers Monique Thomas (aged 83) who said “It’s exhilarating … you feel so proud of yourself after doing it” and Jeremy Charles Gulliver King (aged 85) who described getting a “feeling of complete freedom and possibility” from swimming every morning in the sea.

Earlier this year, Doug was diagnosed with a condition from which he knew he would not recover. His love of the sea did not dim, and in many ways it sustained him. It was evident from the look on his face and the change in his demeanour, how important it was in helping him to live through these last few months. He would come to the beach, whenever there was someone available to bring him and he was assisted, when the weather was still warm, to have ‘one last swim’. As the summer drew to a close, he would still come to the beach, to sit in the afternoon sunshine, looking at the sea, listening to the waves and chatting to whoever was around. As he said on the film Time and Tide

“The last thing you want as you get older is to be locked in the house on your own. You need to get out every day because one day … which happens to all of us … we’re not going to be able to do it ….”

Doug, you inspired us all to ‘just keep swimming’ and you will forever have an inspiring presence on Clevedon Beach. Wherever you are swimming now, swim in peace. 

“And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over”. (Masefield, 1902)

In memory of Doug Gregory – 21st November 1933 – 30th September 2021

References

Costello, L., McDermott, M., Patel, P. & Dare, J. (2019) A lot better than medicine’ – Self-organised ocean swimming groups as facilitators for healthy ageing’ in  Health and Place , 60 (2019) 

Maggs, K. (2019) A Tonic For Longevityin Outdoor Swimmer, Issue 23, February 2019

Masefield, J. (1902) Sea Fever, in Salt Water Ballads, Macmillan

Neil, I & Embury, J. (2014) Time &Tide, Vimeo  https://vimeo.com/94518219  Time & Tide video

bereavement · Blue therapy · community · Cornwall · Covid-19 · Daphne du Maurier · grief · Jellyfish · mental health · open water swimming · sea swimming · Social Capital · Social prescribing · swimming · well being

48: I’m On My Way

“The moment of crisis had come, and I must face it. My old fears … must be conquered now and thrust aside. If I failed now I should fail forever.”  (Daphne du Maurier, 1938)

Way back in February 2020, in what now feels like a lifetime ago, when most of us were blissfully unaware of what a coronavirus was – or would become – I wrote (in Somewhere Over The Rainbow) that my goal for 2020 was to ‘return to Cornwall’ and to try to complete some of my South Coast swimming journey there. I explained how I had not returned there since my daughter Wendy’s inquest in 2016 because, for me, it had remained associated with despair, sadness, helplessness and death. I had decided that 2020, the year in which Wendy would have been 40 years old, was the right time to go back and face it – and to try to create some newer, happier memories and associations.

After I wrote that blog post everything was turned upside down. All the swimming events that I had entered were cancelled or postponed; we were locked down, unlocked and locked down again; and I found myself swimming alone in a paddling pool in my garden (see I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want). In the past 18 months, I have discovered that, for me, the geographical ‘journey’ of swimming was less important than the companionships, connections and community that outdoor swimming provides. I missed meeting up with other swimmers and having those gentle, serendipitous, short conversations that you can have while sitting next to someone, after a swim, gazing at the horizon. And I missed being with my family and with my friends. I found that I wasn’t in a hurry to resume my ‘South Coast Swimming Journey’ (see It Started There). What I really wanted to do was to swim – and chat – with friends, aquaintances and family. 

And so, mostly, that is what I have been doing for the past year. And it has been wonderful. And, every day, I count myself so lucky that I live close to the beach at Clevedon and for the warm and friendly swimming community who also swim there (see Go With The Flow). 

Social Capital

Social Capital (Putnam, 2001) can be loosely described as the ‘various connections that an individual might have that provide them with some kind of resource’ (Robson, 2020). The beneficial aspects of ‘Social Capital’ have been brought into sharper focus over the past couple of years. A lot of the recent research on well-being and loneliness tends to support the claim that individuals with richer social worlds may have better mental well-being and lower stress. One of the impacts of repeated and prolonged ‘lockdowns’, it has been suggested (Jones et al 2021), has been the impact on our health caused by missing out on our interactions with friends, colleagues and even shopkeepers. 

Robson (2020) emphasises the importance of one aspect of Social Capital theory: that of the opportunity to have “weak ties” and fleeting interactions with ‘vague acquaintances’. These types of interaction, he argues, were damaged by repeated lockdowns and he argues that we should attempt to ‘make the most of the chance encounters we do have’ and try to strike up a conversation with someone we might see regularly – on a walk or on the beach – as research suggests (Sandstrom, 2014) that you will feel much better afterwards. 

Open water swimming, I have found, provides a wonderful opportunity to be able to do that. You might turn up at any beach where swimmers meet to swim and instantly have a ‘connection’. The act of a “shared experience”, of doing the same thing at the same time appears to create a social bond that can be independent of any words spoken (Robson, 2020). And I have found that community swimming ‘events’ create opportunities to experience this social network connection on an even greater scale. Hundreds of swimmers, many of whom have never met before – and may never meet again – coming together to embark on a shared experience, laughing together, sharing anxieties together, celebrating together. And discovering together (and separately) a community network that may have a lasting impact on them.

The Polkerris Swim Festival

We’ll cross the Tamar, land to land
The Severn is no stay (from ‘Trelawney’ – the unofficial ‘national anthem’ of Cornwall)

This summer, most of our postponed swimming events began to be confirmed as ‘going ahead’ and one of these, The Polkerris Swim Festival, was the one that would take me back to Cornwall. 

Polkerris Beach is situated in St Austell Bay, in what is known as Daphne du Maurier country. du Maurier made this corner of Cornwall her home and wrote about the area countless times. Above Polkerris, is the village of Menabilly, where du Maurier rented the house that was the inspiration for Manderley in her famous novel, Rebecca

The Polkerris Swim Festival is an annual mass-participation open water sea swimming event organised by Mad Hatter Sports Events, who are based on the neighbouring beach of Charlestown. They have created a wonderful, strong and welcoming swimming community through their weekly social swims at locations around Cornwall and the events that they put on feel like one big local community day out. 

And so, the event at Polkerris Beach proved to be the ideal setting for my ‘return to Cornwall’. I found that being with other people, having fun, and focusing on the swimming helped me to overcome both the anxiety I had about revisiting difficult memories and even- surprisingly – my anxiety about swimming with all the Compass jelly Fish! 

I will concede, that this first foray back into Cornwall, was ‘only just’ in Cornwall – a ‘dipping a toe in the water’ sort of trip – but for me it has marked a ‘start’, a step in the right direction and I now feel able to ‘just get on with it’, travel further and to re-visit and swim at more of the beautiful beaches around the Cornish Coast. 

Tell everybody I’m on my way
New friends and new places to see,
With blue skies ahead, yes, I’m on my way
And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be (Phil Collins, 2003)

Photo Credits:  Beth Oliver

Local details

Sea temperature : 16 degrees Celsius

I swam 3000 metres

I was in the water for 1 hour & 23 minutes

We ate at The Rashleigh Inn, Polkerris

References

Collins, P. (2003) I’m On My Way, from Brother Bear Soundtrack, Universal Music

Hawker, R. (1824) The Song Of The Western Men , traditional

Jones, D., Joplin, K., and Kharicha, K. (2021) Loneliness Beyond Covid-19: Learning the lessons of the pandemic for a less lonely future, Campaign to End Loneliness 

Du Maurier, D. (1938) Rebecca, Victor Gollancz Ltd

Oliver, B. (2017) It Started There, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Oliver, B. (2020) Somewhere Over The Rainbow, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Oliver, B. (2020) I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Oliver, B. (2021) Go With The Flow, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com

Putnam, R. (2001) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster

Robson, D (2020) The Surprising Ways Little Social Interactions Affect Your Health, New Scientist, 12th August 2020

Sandstrom, G. & Dunn, E. (2014) Social Interactions and Well Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Sage Journals, April 2014.

Blue therapy · Catharthis · Covid-19 · Crying · Devon · grief · mental health · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · Paignton · sea swimming · triathlon · well being

47: I Cried Me A River; I Cried Me A Sea

‘Catharsis’ – the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions (Oxford English Dictionary)

Last weekend I took part in my first open water swimming event since 2019. I can only imagine that a ‘pre-pandemic’ version of myself had entered the ‘English Riviera Swim’ during a period of high optimism and confidence about my abilities, because, when it was finally confirmed that the event could go ahead this year (after being cancelled and postponed in 2020 due to the coronavirus), I discovered that I had entered myself for the longest distance – the 3 kilometre swim!

The past 18 months have been challenging, upsetting and difficult for so many of us, in so many ways and on so many levels. Quite apart from all the grieving, isolation, uncertainty and change, for those of us who find our solace in swimming it has been additionally difficult. For much of the pandemic the swimming pools have been closed and there have been restrictions on travel to beaches and other open water venues (see I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want). It has only really been since May this year, that being able to build up to any sort of distance swim – in pool or sea – has been possible. I had managed to complete a couple of 3km swims in the sea as preparation for this event, but I was not feeling confident.

In addition, probably related to the restrictions on our activities, the separation from friends and family, the impact of the on-going roller-coaster of news and the ever changing guidance about the virus, I have spent much of the past year feeling very anxious. I have not been sleeping well; I have found it hard to sit still and relax; I worry about minute details; I can feel my heart thumping and I have found it hard to keep my breathing slow and rhythmic. Generally, (and usually) I find that the sea has the power to soothe these anxieties. In the colder, winter months, when only shorter swims are possible, the ‘shock’ of entering the cold water, instantly erases any painful thoughts and feelings. The cold water quietens the mind, washes away the ‘butterflies’ and leads to a sense of achievement, of overcoming something – and of surviving. In the warmer, summer months, on longer swims I find that the sea can be comforting, enveloping, supportive and soothing (see Go With The Flow). 

The English Riviera

The ‘English Riviera’ – a 22 mile stretch of South Devon coastline – was first referred to as such in Victorian times, when visitors compared it favourably to the French Riviera.  Goodrington Sands, where the swim event took place, is a long sandy beach in Tor Bay.

England is well known for the vagaries of its ‘summer’ weather and the forecast for the weekend did not look good. Nevertheless, the day before our swim, it was warm and sunny and the beach lived up to its ‘Riviera’ reputation as we registered and collected our swim hats. After overnight rain, the morning of the swim dawned calm and sunny as the earlier waves of swimmers entered the water for their shorter distances. 

By the time of the 3k swim, however, the wind had picked up and the tide had turned and was rapidly coming in – and my heart sank as I squinted to try to see the distant yellow buoy, out at sea, that we had to swim to! The course had been altered (for safety reasons!) and instead of 2 laps of a rectangular course, we now had to swim 3 laps of a triangular course. That meant swimming three times out to that ‘far away on the horizon’ yellow buoy – against the incoming tide and against the wind and the waves.

I

It was the hardest, and the longest swim I have yet done. I felt exactly as I had felt on my first ever open water swim (It Started There). I found it really hard to get my breathing under control and to relax into the rhythm of my stroke. My swimming felt like I was trying to move in a dream sequence, where you are desperately trying to move but making no progress. I had to dig deeply into my reserves of resilience to keep swimming, to keep persevering, to keep focused on the next buoy, and then the next buoy … and on and on. I knew I was getting cold and I knew I was getting tired but I did keep going – and eventually, I had rounded that distant buoy for the last time and I could, instead, try to focus on the flags on the beach. When I emerged from the water I found that I was shaking and unsteady on my feet. And once I had crossed the finishing line I burst into tears and found that I could not stop crying. The sobs were just shaken out of me convulsively and uncontrollably – and I found I was unable to stop them for about an hour afterwards. 

Everybody Cries

When your day is long , And the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on (REM, 1992)

According to scientists (Weiner, 2019) this is, apparently, a not uncommon occurrence – and it has happened to me before (see Hot Stuff), but not in such an intense and uncontrollable way. We tend to associate exercise and achievement with positive emotions like enthusiasm, joy, and euphoria but it can also release negative emotions. There is some evidence (Smith, 2021) that when we exercise at a ‘moderate level’, we focus on positive thoughts, but once we push the intensity levels up, that disappears. Built-up emotions cause tension in our bodies that can be hard to release but high intensity exercise where your body and mind are brought to exhaustion, often ‘opens the flood gates’ and ‘the dam breaks’.

Many of us find it difficult to find a safe space to cry freely. And it can be hard, unless one is trained in this field, to sit, without discomfort and let someone we care about ‘just cry’. But crying is an important safety valve, largely because keeping difficult feelings inside can be bad for our health. Studies (Newhouse, 2021) have linked repressive coping (bottling it up) with a less resilient immune system, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, as well as with stress, anxiety, and depression. Emotional tears, apparently, release oxytocin and endorphins that help to ease both physical and emotional pain. Typically, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state. I slept very well that night.

Look Forward – Keep Swimming

So, you might ask. That was a really difficult swim and you ended up sobbing for an hour afterwards! Why do you do it? Why would you put yourself through that? Well, all I can say is that the sense of achievement, knowing that you looked your fears in the face and won, finding some inner strength, deep within that helped you keep going when you wanted to give up, just keeping moving forward towards your goal – however slowly – and the relief and pride when you know you have got there – well, you just can’t beat it. 

Keep moving forward. One day at a time. Just Keep Swimming.

Photo Credits:  Iain Bourne & Beth Oliver

Local details

Sea temperature : 14 degrees Celsius

I swam 3000 metres

I was in the water for 1 hour & 37 minutes

We ate at The Boat House, Paignton

C

References

Fitzgerald, E. (1961) Cry Me A River, from the album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie, Verve Records

Newhouse, L. (2021) Is Crying Good For You? March 2021, Harvard Health Blog www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-crying-good-for-you-2021030122020

Orioff, J. (2010) The Health Benefits of Tears, Psychology Today, July 2010 https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/emotional-freedom/201007/the-health-benefits-tears

REM  (1992) Everybody Hurts, from the album Automatic for the People, Warner Bros.

Shortsleeve, C. (2016) A Deep Dive Into the touchy-feely side of fitness , furthermore.equinox.com November 2016 https://furthermore.equinox.com/articles/2016/11/crying-during-workout

Smith, B. (2021) Why you might feel sad or anxious after intense exercise and how you can minimise it, January 2021 abc.net.au https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2021-01-12/exercise-emotion-mindfulness-anxiety-ventilatory-threshold-brain/13041918

Weiner, Z. (2019) Ever Find Yourself in Tears During a Workout? Here’s Why It’s Very Common, wellangood.com, April 2019 https://www.wellandgood.com/crying-during-workout/