When Dan says the water’s cold, you don’t argue with him. Nor when he tells you to wear two swimming caps on top of each other. I’d never done any wild swimming worth mentioning, so when I turned up at Dan’s regular river swimming haunt one December lunchtime and discovered that the water temperature was two degrees above freezing, I began to wonder if it had been such a good idea to accept his invitation after all.
I first heard about Dan Martin while I was on my way through Turkey in the autumn of 2007 and he’d just set off on a 30,000-kilometre bicycle tour from the Korean peninsular to South Africa. When I was on the road I tended to pick up on other long-distance cyclists who kept a blog or frequented message boards such as The Thorntree. Fourteen months later he’d arrived victorious in Cape Town, and I was – yet again – on my way through Turkey!
Little did I know back then that he originated from just down the road from me here in the East Midlands. Now I was home it would be rude not to go and see what all the fuss was about, I thought, as I had heard that Dan was planning something about as audacious as my imagination could ever hope to conjure up.
I stepped off the bank into the knee-deep shallows and my feet instantly froze solid, emitting an internal wail of protest. Ignoring this I waded out a couple of steps and launched myself in a kind of half-dive, half-flop into the gradual current, plunging my head beneath the surface. A million tiny cold claws gripped the back of my neck and my chest, and my fingers turned to ice. I ignored this too. I was used to the shock, being more than 11 months into a New Year’s resolution to take cold showers exclusively for a year. I began to swim rather frantically upstream, front-crawl, 3 strokes per breath, trying to fend off panic by pretending that I was in Corby’s indoor swimming pool. Strangely, I could hear yelping every time I rolled to the side to take in air, and wondered what it was as I continued swimming as fast as possible. Then I realised that the yelping was actually my own, and that I had lost control over my lungs.
Dan’s plan is simple: a triathlon, taken to its logical conclusion. Most triathlons begin with an open water swim of 0.5 to 4 kilometres, depending on the classification of the race. So Dan’s swim will be 5,400 kilometres in length. The next stage is a time-trial-style bike ride of 10km in the Sprint-distance to 180km in an Ironman-distance race. Dan is planning to ride something in the region of 15,000 kilometres. The final leg of a triathlon – a run of between 5km and a full marathon. Dan’s little jog? About 8,000 kilometres from start to finish. People are too soft, thinks Dan. It’s time to give society a proper kick up the backside by pushing the limits of what’s possible.
It had been about 20 metres’ swim from the point of entry to the far end of the jetty – about 25 metres’ swim against the slow current. I treaded water, shouted a profanity or two and attempted to bring my breathing back under control. My limbs, flailing underwater, had lost all sensation and I could no longer feel the water’s churn as I moved my arms and legs about in order to stay afloat. An overwhelming urge to escape walloped mightily the primal regions of my brain as the world slid slowly past. Dan had swum off upriver and Georgina, also unconditioned to this kind of temperature, was heading for the floating jetty, but I hardly noticed – the instinct to get the hell out of the freezing water had overridden all other thought processes. Next thing I knew I was hauling myself out onto the wooden planks – and directly onto a conveniently-positioned pile of watery bird poo.
It takes quite a bit of confidence to come up with a plan like the Global Triathlon and publicly announce that you are going to do it, but in this case there’s no arrogance on display. My puny, gasping beginner’s attempt at winter wild-swimming paled into comparison with Dan’s efforts, as I watched him calmly swim back to dry land from just past a moored boat almost a hundred metres further along the channel, get out, get dry and change back into his jeans and fleece while I was still staggering about trying to find my hat, restore feeling to my pathetic little white toes and work out whether I was supposed to put my socks on before or after my shoes. He does this at least once a day, regardless of weather or company. The very idea of a wetsuit is a source of much hilarity. Two days previously, the water temperature had been 0.8°C and he’d been swimming amongst crusts of floating ice.
“It’s a weird feeling when it gets super cold,” said Dan. “It was much worse on Friday – I came out with patches of dark blue all down my chest and legs.”
And if you’re interested in wild swimming (and you should be), you could do worse than take a look at the Outdoor Swimming Society or Dan’s own tips for your first foray. It’s really worth a try, especially since you probably haven’t forbidden yourself a hot shower when you get home.