RUth Walker: What it feels like to truly be alive

TWO middle-aged women wend their way along the East Lothian coast. The sun is shining, but it’s the middle of September so there’s a distinctly autumnal chill in the air.

Ruth Walker. Picture: Ian Georgeson

There are fluffy bathrobes in the back of the car, but they’re not headed for a spa. There’s a flask of tea and some chocolate biscuits in there too, but they’re not planning a picnic. They’re giggling excitedly, but there’s a sense of nervous anticipation; a fear that things might not go according to plan.

They arrive at their destination: Gullane beach. There are two other cars in the car park. And if they keep on talking, neither will know how uncertain the other one is. Because there’s no going back now.

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They unpack and head down to the sands, their presence doubling the number of bodies on the beach to four (five, if you count the dog). The sun has long since disappeared behind grey clouds, the wind is whipping up the marram grass and a dirty great oil tanker is inching along the horizon.

The tide is coming in – that steel-coloured water tipped with foamy white slowly edging towards them. But there’s no time for second thoughts. It takes just a moment for these women to rip off their jeans and jumpers, down to swimsuits, before they rush, screaming and laughing, into the surf.

It’s so cold it takes their breath away, icy water cutting off the circulation in their legs. They pad about for a few minutes, waist deep, shoulders hunched, standing on tippy-toes, not quite ready to go under – as if this alone will prevent them catching hypothermia. They squeal some more, attracting the shaking, bemused heads of passers-by wrapped up sensibly in quilted jackets, woolly scarves and walking boots.

Then, counting in unison – one… two… three – they’re down, cartoon breaststroking in fast-forward, gasping for each frantic breath, feeling the cold slice into fingers and throat and toes. They glance at each other with a look that says: “We must be nuts.”

Then, slowly, somehow, their bodies acclimatise. It gets easier, warmer, and their strokes slow and regulate. Bobbing through gentle waves, salt lapping into eyes and mouths, that nervous laughter turns into giggles of genuine joy. This is what it feels like to be truly alive. To be aware of all your senses, to feel your heart pumping hard, endorphins rushing.

Their swim doesn’t last long – 15 minutes maybe – and is only halted when the incoming tide threatens to wash away their things. But those 15 minutes are such fun, they vow to do this every month, at the full moon.

Snuggled into bathrobes and towels and sitting on a piece of driftwood, they open the flask of tea as the sun breaks through the clouds at last and they laugh some more. They feel invincible; like superheroes.

On this day off they could have 
done the housework, the shopping, cut the grass, washed the car. They could have gone for a pedicure or seen a movie or caught up on their paperwork. But they chose instead to go wild swimming. That’s just how they roll. n