I wanted to do something a bit different on Christmas day so when I heard about the Porthcawl Christmas day swim, a charity event on Christmas morning, it was just the thing. In fact I remember hearing about these chilly mid winter sea swims years ago, seeing events on the news and thinking I’d love to be part of one of those. Conveniently they always seemed to be in Scotland though so I never had to seriously consider it. I was stunned to find out by chance about the Porthcawl event – it’s been happening just down the road for 48 years.
This year over 900 swimmers took part. I say swimmers but it isn’t really a swimming event, it’s really about a quick dip and a splash around in the cold sea for a few minutes (which is as long as it’s safe to stay in unless you’re an acclimatised cold water swimmer).
The event is brilliantly organised, changing areas are provided, there are lifeguards and paramedics on hand and at 11.45 am a long line of swimmers, many in fancy dress, are led through the crowds of a few thousand who gather to watch.
I got there early on Christmas morning. I didn’t have a formal plan but it seemed a good idea to warm up before the event, so I walked briskly along the beach to pass the time. I got changed at the last minute and joined the huge line of swimmers.
As we waited for the off I did briefly wonder what on earth I was doing there, but it was really too late to be thinking about that. The majority of people I spoke to had been doing the swim a number of years. Many told me I should have worn something on my feet. Too late! It was cold underfoot as we walked towards the beach but I had already decided I wanted this to be a good experience so it was simply a case of keeping moving to keep warm. With the tide out a long way down the beach the line of swimmers broke into a jog and then a run towards the sea. This was a great plan both to warm up and to get into a ‘just do it’ mindset. The swimmers running to the sea were full of excitement, a mixture of bravado and trepidation.
One thing I did notice on the run down was the differing expressions of the faces of the swimmers who were on their way back after their dip. There were broadly two types; those who were shivering, hunched over, eyes down and looking a bit sorry for themselves and those who were standing tall, walking in big strides with huge grins and looking totally alive. I didn’t have to think about it, I knew which way I wanted to be walking back.
And so there it was the cold sea, around my legs before I knew it. And actually the cold wasn’t so bad. It was cold, yes definitely but that was OK. I kept moving and paid attention to the peculiar bodily feelings that were triggered off by the sudden temperature change. As I waded out to chest deep I was surprised to come face to face with a lifeguard, one of several who were stationed in the water in wet suits and breathing apparatus. Standing neck deep in the water, heads covered with safety helmets they looked like they had just emerged from the deep. I thought of twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.
After a few minutes I instinctively knew it was time to get out as I noticed my feet going slightly numb and the ice cold jabbing sensations in my legs getting noticeable stronger.
I stumbled my first few steps onto the beach, glad I had got out when I did, then remembering my plan to enjoy the whole experience I naturally began striding up the beach. I must have been about halfway back before I noticed I was grinning ear to ear. Cold and wet; it didn’t matter. I had a million feel good chemicals coursing through my system, and it set me up for a great Christmas day.
From the swimmers I spoke to either before or after the swim I’d be confident to predict which of them shivered their way back up the beach and which of them strode. Comments ranged from being scared, dreading it or talking about how cold it would be to’ it’ll be fine’ or ‘we’ll be back in the changing rooms in 15 minutes’ (beforehand) to ‘it nearly killed me’ (which I assume was an exaggeration as the person was back in the changing area and seemed to be OK) and ‘I’ll have to psyche myself up to do it again next year’ to ‘can’t wait for next year’, ‘will definitely do it again’ and ‘loved it’ (afterwards) .
Don’t get me wrong, I admire all those who took part. Many people raised lots of money in sponsorship to support the RNLI and I hope everyone who took part felt proud of themselves for doing so. It was a challenge and they all did it. My motivation for taking part was that I wanted to challenge myself. Not challenge myself to do something hard, no, I wanted to challenge myself to see how easy I could make the experience. And in the end I did make it easy for myself, and that decision to make it easy informed the rest of my strategy – from the hour long warm up walk to the post swim warm clothes and hot tea.
All the 900 or so swimmers did the same thing. The difference in quality of experience is a question of focus. Put simply some focussed on the difficulty and others focussed on the opportunity.
Whatever you’re doing today, this week or this year – what are you going to choose to focus on?