A POLAR BEAR IN THE BATH TUB?
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
It was the start of Lockdown Three, and I was determined not to take it lying down. Facilities across the land closed down, and when outdoor swimming became limited again. Today, Pauline and I went to Hardwick Lake to find the lock to the gate wouldn’t open. “It’s frozen”, said Pauline, as the electronic key to the gate refused to click open. “No, it’s locked” I said several times, in different tones of voice, and once more at the end for emphasis. “Can I try your electronic key?” said Pauline, refusing my explanation, determined that her view, that minus three degrees Celsius would freeze an electronic lock. I remained doubtful but respectful, knowing what it means to not be able to have a winter swim first thing in the morning for the first time for a while. I was feeling what Pauline was feeling - how was I going to get my Polar Bear Challenge swims done this month and then the next? There wasn’t time to drive to Port Meadow, in Oxford, to swim so today, in Lockdown Three, we had to make do.
Which in my case was going home and pouring myself a nice cold bath to lie in. Which meant that I would be taking Lockdown Three lying down after all, at least today. I fanned and splashed cold water across my trunk to try to get as full an exposure to cold water as possible. I gasped as I when in for the first time – not exactly Wim Hof breathing, but good enough to make do. Not elegant in the way that Wim’s daughter Laura makes it look – in an ice bath on a rooftop in central Amsterdam, she is cool in more ways than one. The cold water bath wasn’t exactly cold water immersion Wim Hof style, as my knees poked up when I lay down on my back, and as I straightened out my knees under the water as I sat up. Lying down and sitting up; sitting up and lying down, it wasn’t swimming, at least not as anyone knows it now.
I counted to a hundred lying down in my cold-water-bath, and then another hundred – there is nothing else to do when you are just lying there, not swimming. I haven’t tried or practiced cold water immersion beyond standing in cold water after swimming at the Lake, or at the Serpentine, enjoying just being there, so this was a different experience. After several minutes I felt comfortable and my mind started to drift, then I became very comfortable – was I adjusting to the temperature, or was the bath water warming up? Impossible to know, without a thermometer. Or was it something else?
Every day is different with winter swimming. Now I have found a new cold water challenge in my own home, even if it can’t be counted towards my Polar Bear Challenge. A polar bear in the bathtub, would I be able to get out? Get out I did, even if the timing of the immersion was a little bit uncertain, too long. Get out I did, carrying the pink of a winter swimmers’ ‘tan’, feeling comfortably pink. Feeling comfortably pink and a little mindless, I wandered around the house in my togs as though it were summer, that is until Pauline told me to get dressed. The last time I had someone with authority tell me to get dressed was at last years' Venice Biennale, when a very stylishly uniformed policeman booked me for swimming in the Lagoon. As my mind and body drifted around the house only in swimming togs, I realised I wasn’t really thinking, couldn’t really think, but I knew I had to get ready for work soon – I couldn’t take a Zoom call in my dry robe. Well, I could, but really I couldn’t. I thought of wearing my Japanese yukata – the call was to Tokyo. They would understand, I thought, as I started to shiver gently. “No they wouldn’t” I thought, my sensible brain now reasserting itself. They would laugh on the inside and be polite on the outside. Or they might see me as disrespecting the Yakuta. But it is a bathing robe, I thought. "But you are not at a bath-house", came in sensible-brain again. They might feel they were learning something new of the European character. But then again, they might find me not serious enough to work with – and was it worth the risk? Sensible brain commanded me to shower – “the Japanese are very clean” sensible brain convincing me to get washed. Hot or cold shower? "It’s a no-brainer", I thought with my no-brain brain, the brain that was currently in opposition to my sensible brain. I now had a delicious gentle shiver going for me. Cold shower on lobster pink flesh, hair wash and ice-cream headache, all at once. My head was raspberry ripple with blueberry stripes by the time I got out. What brain I had was no-brain in pain. And a Zoom call to Tokyo in twenty minutes time.
Needless to say it all worked out fine and in time, even as faint desperation set in there and then in the shower. I got out, dried and then fumbled with zippers and stumbled into trousers not even sure whether I was fumbling when I should be stumbling or the other way around. The shivers had paid their visit, and decided to stay for tea. I dressed in black, the one sensible decision I actually made there and then. You can’t go wrong with black, and it takes away all the colour coordination choices that would otherwise have to be made. Choices I would in other circumstances scroll through in my mind while showering, weighing up what to wear with what. Weighing up what to wear with what I was doing that day, who I was seeing, with whom I was meeting, on Zoom or Teams, or even face to face. This morning I had no mind to scroll with when in the shower, but a raspberry and blueberry ripple cone-head in place of a mind.
In retrospect, cold water immersion in the bath-tub was something new for me, and there were lessons learned. The most important of these was that I was a poorly prepared polar bear in the bathtub. I didn’t know how long I was in for, nor the temperature of the water. I was part-immersed all the time, moving the parts that needed immersion every minute or so. And once I got out I noticed my arm-pits were warmer than the rest of me. Then I chose to go in again for a moment’s extra immersion because it felt good. Then I started to get a little shiver, one I chose to ignore, probably because I was at home and I could see no risks attached to what I had just done. I double-dipped and wandered, having overcooked the lobster, having overdone the cold - yes, even in teh bath tub at home. Then I got washed, and shivered some more, then stumbled and fumbled and got dressed, and eventually warmed up again, after holding down a serious discussion with a Japanese colleague on Zoom. He not knowing that just an hour previously I had been a lobster-pink polar bear in the bath tub, taking Lockdown Three lying down.