Went to the lake on Monday. It’s been cold as hell here lately and I don’t really know what I was thinking, what any of us was thinking, as we jogged from the car park to the edge of the water wearing nothing but flimsy swimsuits and silicone caps. I did two laps and towards the end of the second lap I became aware of an unfamiliar numbness in my fingers and my toes: not something I’m accustomed to noticing when swimming, except in the ocean at home in the winter, and I tend not to stay in so long then. I thought: I’ll never again take for granted the 28°C of the pool. Though of course I will, I already have, this morning, standing at the edge of the water, resenting having to get in, anticipating the initial shock.
While I was in the cold lake on my cold second lap, I got a phrase lodged in my head, related to swimming in pools: an abstraction of distance. It means: when you’re in the pool, distance is abstracted, divided, always measured or calculated rather than deeply felt. You do your 8x200m main set, or your 4x25m kicking, or whatever, and maybe it all adds up to 1k, 2k, 3k, but the distance is piecemeal. You feel it in the burn of your muscles, maybe, but have no conscious sense of it. Whereas a 1 kilometer loop around the lake, especially when it’s cold and your skin is exposed, really feels like 1 kilometer. Or feels differently like 1 kilometer, anyhow. Distance in the lake is unbroken.
I mention all this because I’ve partly found the lake a useful point of comparison. Because in many ways my physical actions there are the same as my physical actions at the pool: I undress, I get in the water, I move my arms and legs (and without a wetsuit there’s little difference in the way my body feels in the water), I get out, I get dressed again, I say hi to people I recognise, my ears are full of water and my hair is wet. So it’s interesting to see how the environment of the pool makes these actions different, or differently meaningful. How differently I feel time, and distance, for instance. How reliant I am when I swim on the distractions of the pool; I find it difficult to quiet my mind in the lake, and I hadn’t realized until recently how much I rely, in the pool, on visual stimulation to keep me mentally occupied at just the right level. People say it must be boring to swim laps, as opposed to, say, running or riding your bike or climbing a mountain, because what is there to look at except the tiles on the floor and the black line and occasionally, during backstroke, the ceiling? And I guess I went into this project thinking that, while I don’t necessarily find tiles and ceilings boring, this was essentially correct: the visual environment of the pool is limited; we don’t swim laps to look at things, although looking is an integral part of the overall experience of being at the pool (we look when we pause for breath at the wall, when we stand trying to decide which lane to get into, when we see a particularly competent swimmer, or a flashy one). But now, having spent some time in the green-black lake, where all you can see is nothing at all, punctuated by the flash of trees as you turn your head to breathe, or the glint of a red buoy in the distance when you sight, I’m aware of how much there is to look at in the pool, even underwater, even when you’re just going up and down, up and down. Your own hands; the movements and bodies of other swimmers in other lanes; legs and torsos stretching or resting in the shallow end; cracks and scratches and stains on the floor; things floating ominously below you - a plaster, a ball of snot. I mean, true, it’s not a stunning mountain vista, but it’s something.