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Mind over matter for Gilly as she completes ice swim charity challenge

When Gilly McArthur moved to the Lake District five years ago, her love of open water swimming was reignited.

The 46-year-old, originally from Scotland, has always loved  the ‘great outdoors’ – especially swimming, snowboarding, rock climbing and running.

In January, she set herself the challenge of swimming in cold or ice water every day of the month to raise money for the mental health charity Mind.

Her, Gilly shares her story of how she has raised more than £3,000 for the charity by swimming in 12 bodies of water, including the North Sea, a river in the north east of Scotland, lakes, tarns and waterfalls.

How did you start swimming?

Growing up in the North of Scotland, I was forced into the sea from an early age and I think that hardy Scottish blood stayed with me.

I swam in a club as a child but then took up curling! I don’t swim competitively now and prefer to swim alone or with one other.

I am a decent enough swimmer and there is something I just love about turning up on a shoreline and just going for an explore, whatever the weather.

What do you love about it?

It’s just so wonderfully freeing. It costs nothing, you need no kit and to be floating in the middle of a lake with wild geese flying low over head on a golden breathless morning, well, there is nothing else like it.

I love the submersive, weightless experience of the water – being held in this great element, just observing what’s going on around me.

Every day that I swim is different, and the water in different tarns or seas has different qualities too.  Being in the icy water brings a deeper challenge and if there is ice in the lakes, I’ll grab an axe and I will always seek it out!

Swimming in ice water requires a deep mental discipline and focus. So, as someone who is very interested in Flow State and mediation, I just love this.

Gilly McArthur during her ice swim charity challenge

Why did you decide to complete your January challenge?

I think after about the fourth swim I realised if would be a fun challenge and by the sixth, on a dark stormy winter evening, I realised it might not be!

I had procrastinated all day and by about 9pm still hadn’t swum. So getting away from a cosy fire, to drive 15 minutes to the lake and get in, when it was blowing a gale and raining, was pretty horrid!

There were only four times in the month that this happened and, oddly, even after the swims, I felt elated.

I’m still going and will continue to fundraise for a wee while yet! Mind is an incredible charity doing great things in a world where more and more people are needing help mentally.

Tell us how you swim safely?

So I always swim with someone else and on the days I have no one, I make sure I stay close to the shore, and make sure someone knows where I am going.

I use a tow float on some lakes if there is boat traffic and wear a hat/cap.

On the ice days, I swim with one or two others. We have a throw rope, rescue kit, warm clothes, mats to stand on and lots of hot drinks.

Those are the days that it’s really important to know what’s going on in your mind and breathe deeply.

For me, it’s really just mindset and about having fun. It’s really critical to remember that a spring day with a northerly wind can feel way colder than a winter’s day with no wind.

I check the weather – we only ice swim where we have recced the water before – and we always get out long before the requirement to get out happens.

Afterdrop (where you get cold after a swim, and the cold water in your extremities flows back into you body) is really unpleasant and dangerous. We avoid this at all costs.

Where there any days you felt it wasn’t safe and why?

No, none. The closest this month was when I spent over 10 minutes cutting a long ice channel with my axe and did get a bit cold before the swim, but even then I was sharply aware of where my body was at.

It’s really important to respect the water, much like in surfing, or the rock when climbing.

The more you do it, the better you get at knowing where the edges are and not pushing past them. That goes for any sport.

Gilly McArthur during her ice swim charity challenge

How have you found you’ve been able to help others in their swimming endeavours?

Since I started swimming in open water weekly, I have helped lots of friends discover this joy of being in the outdoors.

That’s really been the best bit, as I think in life we get quite narrow minded about what’s possible.

We set up rules as to things we like and don’t like and swimming, especially in cold water, really challenges this.

The mental and health benefits are huge and totally born out in my own direct experience.

If you are a competent swimmer, it’s brilliant to be able to just keep swimming and not have to turn round every 50m. And if you are a total novice, joining an open water swim group and getting taught safely with a pro is key, and so wonderful.

There is one woman who swims weekly at the jetty and has some mobility challenges so comes down in her wheelchair and her friends assist her into the water.

Open water swimming really is for anyone and the camaraderie is incredible.

What would be your advice for swimmers new to open water?

Find like-minded friends to join you in your adventures and make sure you stay safe by observing the water advice for the place you choose to swim at.

Ideally, find your local swim group near you (there will be one!) and go with them.

Entry points can be tricky – some tarns and lakes are off limits, some water sources might not be clean, tides can be dangerous and always collect some litter up as you go. The water gods will love you for that!

Finally I’d say, have fun.

Use the time outside to be more with yourself. There is so much beauty out there, and getting into open water brings this to you naturally.

Pictures: James Kirby