Nobody wants to look like a beginner. In a world of experts, there’s something scary and vulnerable about making ourselves appear foolish or asking an obvious question.
Once we leave education, we tend to focus on getting better at the things we’re already good at and leave our naïve optimism behind. Fear of failure or perceived judgement can stop us trying new things to start with, or stop us persevering with them after the inevitable mistakes.
But what if babies threw the towel in when they fell over trying to walk? We’d still be crawling everywhere.
This summer I found myself forced into this position. Not crawling everywhere – but unable (still) to run thanks to Long Covid. To quote our late great Her Majesty, it was becoming my ‘annus horribilis’. I quickly needed to think differently and find another tool to maintain my mental well-being.
I’ve enjoyed the odd spontaneous mid-run jump into a tarn, but always shivered at the thought of going any further. I’ve always hated being in open water. I’m a qualified PADI Open Water diver and don’t mind being able to see 30 metres below, but having a murky abyss beneath is a different story. I hate the cold too. Best of all, I’m also a hopeless swimmer. My unique front crawl technique, with my head out of the water and no goggles, has already been the target of some hilarious WhatsApp memes.
So, it seemed fitting to set a challenge of open water swimming every day for 30 consecutive days. Convenient, in a heatwave. At the low intensity it’s one of the few things that doesn’t seem to cause post-exertional symptoms and provides the same time outside in nature for my well-being.
There’s no shortage of trite quotes about being a beginner, but I wanted to share a few things I learnt along the way…
The 30* days were a brilliant opportunity to catch up with old friends, and make new ones who weren’t runners, or were also out of action. This connection was a saviour at an otherwise isolating time, detached from my usual running community and identity.
I quickly discovered a wonderful community of people who use the water for their own reasons: ultra-endurance and Iron Man training, for grounding themselves, reducing anxiety, or simply for the post-swim socials, cake and hot chocolate. Everyone is welcome.
I’m grateful for the countless laughs, meaningful conversations and the strange magic of meeting someone who know someone who knows someone. Whilst eagerly learning from the people who actually know what they’re doing.
Sharing this journey also inspired others to join in the fun, and I managed to recruit plenty of willing volunteers/victims. A special shout to Peter a.k.a Toddy – I think he enjoyed it, afterwards at least ?
Even for an amateur runner, it doesn’t take long to hit a plateau and enter the pursuit of marginal gains, where the amount of effort required to shave seconds off your PB increases exponentially.
In just a month, my strength, pace and confidence has notably increased, along with my tolerance of the cold, and being alone in the centre of a 63-metre deep tarn.
Last year I never managed my goal of swimming Buttermere in one go (approx. 2km). Now I’m swimming this distance comfortably on a weekly basis. I never imagined I would be voluntarily immersing myself into sub-10 degree waterfalls on a Friday morning without a wetsuit. Even on holiday in Canada I couldn’t resist jumping into glacial-fed lakes and amusing the locals. Just can’t get enough.
Things quickly become habit. We can almost do them in our sleep. We come to see what we expect to see, and maybe even get bored. A beginners mindset allows us to see things with an exciting novelty. Instead of looking at another day without running, I was curiously researching my next swimming location. The more I focus on my illness, the worse my symptoms get.
Usually I would be running along the fell tops, ridges and lakeside trails. Now I was looking at them horizontally from the middle of a lake or tarn, spotting details and intricacies I’d never appreciated before.
Normally I’m rushing: watching my feet and the terrain in a focused bid not to fall over, maintaining a pace and intensity. Swimming has forced me to slow down and quite literally, be IN nature. I’ve experienced countless moments of awe – floating just feet away from a Kingfisher perched on the riverbank, feeling waterfalls in my face and turquoise water so clear I could have been in the Maldives.
Drowning the Perfectionism
Getting comfortable with mistakes is an alien process for perfectionists. Once I got in the water, I had quickly devised a list of challenges, trying to race up the ranks and withhold my own high expectations of a record-breaking ultrarunner. But sadly, there’s more to swimming than fitness alone. Over-exerting myself defeated the object and would only hamper my recovery. This was a different kind of challenge.
Not being burdened by these expectations has been refreshing and allowed me to enjoy the process. I never expected I’d be booking another swimming lesson after primary school. You don’t get badges when you’re 27, either… but we’re never too old to learn.
Keep It Simple
It’s easy to get lulled into buying the best gear and expensive equipment, but sometimes that can become another barrier itself. I was envious of my friends in their fancy DryRobes, swimming socks and micro-fibre towels, but ultimately we only need a few basics to get started and staying safe:
- A tow float – a small flotation device tied to your waist that makes you visible in the water, can store a few small items, and can support you if you need a rest or suffer cramp
- Shorts (always appreciated in busy areas) –
- Dry clothing
- A towel
And of course, it didn’t stop there. Common rule says it takes 30 days to build a habit. 30 days of consecutive swims became 32 days, and I had a brand new hobby and tool in the wellbeing kit. Going out of my comfort zone has given me the confidence and motivation to try new things in other areas of life. Whilst in Canada I spontaneously decided to try paddleboarding for the first time too. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.
And I decided to finish in style – swimming the length of Buttermere at sunset with friends. It was a highlight of my year, and hopefully the start of many more adventures.
We made a video about the journey too. I hope you enjoy watching it!
Sometimes we need a guidebook or coach. Sometimes we just have to throw ourselves in the deep end and learn to swim.
When was the last time you tried something new?