Redefining 50: I didn’t sign up for de­cline

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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

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