Tuesday 21 May 2019

Redefining 50: I didn't sign up for decline

'There's only one answer, show up, get in the water, and keep moving'
'There's only one answer, show up, get in the water, and keep moving'

Last weekend was when I really noticed the change for the first time. I had been away from the sea for three weeks, which didn't help. Regular immersion is key to not realising that it is in fact a mad thing to be doing. When you take a break and you come back, you see it clearly, and you realise that it is daft. You ask yourself awkward questions like, 'What am I doing here?' 'Why am I doing this?' and 'What's the point?' It is somewhat of an existential crisis, whatever that is.

Better to be the boiled frog, and to regularly immerse, so it almost seems normal, a mindless habit.

The first few minutes were pain. Actual pain. It was biting me. I wanted to get out. It would have seemed very easy at that point to just get out and walk away, to come back next summer when it is a pleasure again. But I powered through, and put my attention elsewhere. Don't think about the biting on the extremities. Don't think about the gradual shrivelling and numbing of other parts. Look at the sky, focus on reaching out and pulling. Focus on the rhythm. There are all kinds of things to be learned here. Like that you can choose where to direct your attention, that even if you are swimming in the gutter, you can be looking at the sky.

Monday morning was worse. It was before seven, and the sun hadn't come up yet. The air was bitter. I was actually shivering before I got in the water. There was one other person there. She was getting out and she told me it was lovely. One little lie can be so powerful in these situations, even when you know it is a lie. It reminded me that everyone's duty out here is to lie, that the ones who have had their beating and are getting out, must encourage the others with barefaced lies, enormous lies, lies that we laugh at because we know they are such whoppers, but somehow they work. Fake news. And you know it's fake news, but somehow it's something to cling to.

The upside of finding it so hard and really feeling the cold and the upside of being away for a while is that you get a really good buzz when you're finished. I come out on fire, brain and body and spirit tingling.

But I worry I'm finding it harder. I think I'm finding the pool harder too, the water heavier and slower. One guy says it's age. He says that we cannot deny now that as we approach 50 we will slow down a bit. I don't buy it. I can't buy it. Having come from a very low base of quite fat and no exercise, the last five years or more have been an upward trajectory for me. Getting faster and better and thinner is pretty much the only way I know. I didn't sign up for decline. I'm only getting started.

Another guy, who is a year or two ahead of me, says we are redefining 50. He says we would have been old men a couple of generations ago. But now it's all different. We can cheat time he says. Age is a cultural construct he says. The human body, he says, only has one limit. Apparently it cannot really live beyond 125. Physically impossible. But for the first 125 years, you can be as young or as old as you want.

But what if he's not right? What if 50 is just 50? And it's coming down the tracks for me in less than two years. What if I've peaked now?

But then, there's only one answer. Show up, get in the water and keep moving. And as impossible a mountain as the winter seems to be to climb now, I'll eat the elephant in bite-sized chunks.

The idea of swimming for the next six months, while it gets colder and colder, is all too much. But I got in today, and maybe I'll get in tomorrow, and the day after, and before we know it, summer will come again.

Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge returns to RTE 1 next Wednesday night at 10.05pm

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