They say write what you know. In my life at the moment, which resembles a shaken blanket, still and aired out, my ripples of excitement are less. They still arrive, but in a more formulated and predictable way; a night out planned for weeks, a long work project being released to the world. This January, which I had been dreading, I decided I would attack the gloom with endorphins. To clarify, I never get excited about exercise, but afterwards, it can genuinely turn my day around. Enough days turned around can change the whole feel of a month. But god, does the exercise you choose really force you to confront where you are in your life.
I have an episodic history when it comes to working out. In my late twenties, I once joined a gym just to get away from a particularly incompatible flat mate. I’d spend entire evenings on the exercise bike, watching music videos on the gym screens, until it was late enough to go home and go straight to bed. When I started TV presenting I got a personal trainer. After babies, there was a brief yoga phase. Then the Frame gym phase where I did group HIIT classes. When the kids were older, the Parkrun phase. In my late thirties, a long kettlebell phase (they make great door stops now). Towards the end of Covid, I signed up to Joe Wicks Bodycoach app and threw myself around the garden, mountain climbing, sideways lunging, groaning through press ups, measuring my body parts with a cloth measuring tape at the end of every month. After that phase fizzled out, I downloaded the Nike Run Club app to partake in running challenges. For this year’s action plan, I’ve taken on two new and very contrasting types of exercise.
The first is the Peloton. The Peloton is a static exercise bike, with a big touch screen over the handlebars, where you can access all sorts of classes. Some of these are with lone instructors, guiding you through a work out, some are filmed real life classes with loads of other people in a room and an instructor at the front. The definition of the word Peloton is the group of cyclists all bunched together in a race. When you cycle in a huddle in a race, drag is reduced dramatically. You perform better in a crowd. Get it? You can access Pelotons in public gyms. Log in to your account on any peloton and off you go. But if you want to own one, they are irrefutably expensive. Since the end of last year, we own one.
Now let me precede this by saying that I am very aware of the big clanging cliche bell, in me, a forty four year old well off woman writing about Peloton. For some reason, it’s important to me that you know that I did not buy this Peloton. Nor was I gifted this Peloton. Nor is this article some dark targeted advert for Peloton. My husband Tom bought the peloton second hand, from a friend, for his studio where he works as a music producer. My husband has ADHD and anyone who knows the headline characteristic traits of ADHD will know that impulsivity is up there with the most recognisable. Tom loves an impulse buy. He did the peloton a few times in the studio, but there’s a window and he got paranoid with all the passers by looking in at him, tomato faced and dripping with sweat. So he brought it home and put it in our small office room upstairs.
I, like many of you, immediately associated the Peloton with Bigs’ untimely death in episode one of Just Like That. What a way to go. So New York. My friend who lived there for ten years, talks about the Peloton in bored tones, but it was all very new to me. When I climbed on and started cycling for the first time, I couldn’t get over how oddly luxurious it felt. So low impact! The extreme opposite of a burpee. The only way I knew I was exercising was the calorie counter going up and my heart fluttering, then thumping, then sweat dripping off my head, so it was working, but It was so… smooth. So effective. It just knew what to do. Like a vibrator. Or an automatic car.
T told me to seek out a particular Peloton instructor that he loves. Her name is Hannah Frankson. When I found Hannah Frankson I understood. Hannah Frankson is so gorgeous she looks like an avatar. Her body is insane; tall, lean, toned, broad shouldered, the human equivalent of a race horse. She was an athlete in the past. I know this because she talks about it a lot. I’ve been spending a lot of time with her, because Hannah, unlike the other instructors I’ve used, is real. She speaks London. She loves grime and funky and rap. Her body is hijacked by the music and she skanks on her bike like she can’t help herself. She screwfaces. She’s got this way of looking into the camera, and holding her gaze there, so that when you’re looking back, it’s like she’s speaking to your soul. She loves an inspirational quote, but she does it in a way that doesn’t feel practiced or levered in. Occasionally she gets over-excited and curses, which I love. She has great taste in music and likes to reiterate her favourite lyrics. Sometimes when she sings along, she gets the lyrics wrong - like yesterday when the Will I Am mix of Break My Soul came on and she shouted “ you won’t unbreak my soul!”. Through the course of a class, depending on how much sweat is shed, I can go from liking Hannah to being in total awe of Hannah, to being overwhelmed with gratitude for Hannah. On that bike, in that instructor mode, she’s untouchable.
I’m three weeks in now, and there’s no sign of getting bored yet. The bike is just the beginning. I can do a twenty minute shadow-boxing EDM class, an eighties hip hop HIIT, a twenty minute peace meditation, or a thirty minute focus flow Yoga class. Whatever time parameters, whatever mood, whatever ability, there’s something there. I have to admit this whole thing is indisputably convenient. But when the phase ends, It’s going to be hard to move on, because the bike is bloody enormous and it’s in my house.
Far far away, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is the second action in my plan. At the start of the month, I signed up to do a weekly excursion to Kenwood Ladies Pond in Hampstead Heath. It involves cycling for half an hour in the freezing cold, first thing in the morning, up and down steep hills to meet my friend, strip into a swimsuit and plunge into an icy lake.
It’s divisive, this world. Just last weekend Eva wiseman the Guardian journalist talked about how the hype is over around wild swimming, due to sewage being released into England's rivers and seas, and the issue of pulmonary oedema; ‘a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause them (swimmers) to “drown from the inside”, owing to increased pressure on the body’s blood vessels as a result of exertion, immersion and cold.’
A few weeks before that article was published, Times Journalist Caitlin Moran posted a photo of herself on Instagram pulling herself out of Kenwood ladies pond, glowing pink in her bobble hat, having just had to break the ice before she took her swim. She describes it as making you feel “Capable of doing new things. Also, it makes you high as balls?”.
I hard relate. In the spring and summer months, I like to get high as balls at the mixed ponds which is mixed gender and closer to my house. But the mixed pond closes for Winter, so the Ladies it had to be.There’s a specific type of woman that frequents the Kenwood ladies pond through the Winter months. Because of its situation, nestled between the very well-to-do villages of Highgate and Hampstead, we have a lot of middle aged rich women. Ruddy faced and hiking booted, these are the pre-dryrobe women, the stalwarts, neoprene gloved and socked, who glide through the ice cold water, sedate and slow, as if it were a hazy Summers day. These women do not worry about swimming-induced pulmonary oedema. These women live close and come nearly daily. They comment on the Kingfishers. They come in groups, but mostly they are alone, and in their heads, which I like to imagine are busy with mental load to do lists at the start of their swims; vet appointments, the teenage daughter’s ski trip, the mother in laws next visit, and cool and blank by the end, the shock of the cold having drawn a curtain across everything but the feeling of their hearts thumping in their chests like Lambeg drums. Afterwards, they allow you a smile, a comment, but it’s all very industrious in the changing rooms. Busy busy busy. Showers on. Plastic basins of warm water for feet to thaw. Daunt books tote bags everywhere. A feeling of quiet satisfaction permeating the steamy air.
My first excursion was on the third of January. Three days into the year and I was ready. My body still hot from the cycle, I flung myself into the water and doggy paddled breathlessly around the circuit. I lost the ability to speak halfway round and had to short-cut my way straight to the ladder where I could hardly pull myself out. It was my chest you see. I wasn’t expecting to feel the searing pain across my chest. I couldn’t get warm again all day. The second week, a lot less gung-ho about the whole idea, I got some advice from a Kenwood regular. She had all the gear, even a fold out mat that you put your feet on so they don’t get cold on the ground. I told her about my disastrous swim last week and my chest pain. She said it’s because all your muscles seize up in panic. She said breathe deeply and breathe through it. Stay calm. Think of it as a dip and not a swim. So I did. I stayed in for about forty seconds. By the time I got to the ladder it wasn’t fun anymore but I was able to pull myself out, just. Afterwards, I had to rush to get my clothes on before my fingers start trembling so much that they didn’t work. But fucking hell. ENDORPHINS. What a rush. I whizzed home on my bike and posted a picture of myself on Instagram, wrapped in a towel, bobble hat still on my head, all pink glowing skin. I did it. It was helped, I wrote, by the ‘golden, early-morning, life- affirming’ Winter sun. Reading it back now, it’s like looking back at a drunk text. Except this time I was drunk on endorphins.
The following week the temperature had halved. I woke up in the night and started dreading the swim. It became a terrifying thing. In the morning, I looked out the window, saw the frost on top of the cars, and cancelled. I felt wracked with guilt all day. I cursed myself for publicly announcing my weekly swim plan on instagram the week before. I had failed on my third week in. My friend who I was supposed to be meeting went anyway. She said the heath in the frost looked like a Bronte novel.
‘My hands went numb on the cycle home and were incredibly painful but aside from that it was gorgeous’.
And herein sums up the Winter wild swimming argument. If you’re not willing to endure the ‘incredibly painful’, you won’t experience the ‘gorgeous’. As I write this, staring out the window at my frost covered garden, I'm not sure I’m brave enough for ‘incredibly painful’, this week either. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a Kenwood cold water swimming stalwart. Maybe I never will. Maybe I just need to live longer, or to have experienced some more pain at least. Yes. The late forties, early fifties is the time. Those sweaty menopause years where you’re dealing with hot flushes and tantrum-ing teenagers and elderly parents. Mortality rearing its ugly head. There’ll be rage to dispel then, that kind of blind rage that needs to be sizzled off in icy waters. Or maybe this is just me procrastinating.
In the meantime, the Peloton is upstairs, waiting to purr into action. I have a 30 minute disco ride saved and ready. It’s me and Hannah against the gloom, one endorphin at a time. This is who I am now. This is my truth.