Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain

Part 1

Part 2

Ten minutes after briefing and the swimmers were lined up on Lough Dan’s so-called beach for the group photo seen in the previous part.

Sometimes writing about the minutiae of swimming is really boring. Sometimes such reportage can mask some other truth. Sometimes I think that the more I try to explain the less I succeed.

Unlike a marathon swim that can take multiple hours, the Ice Mile swim was short enough to recall detail of each of the four 400 metre laps, especially for someone who is used to trying to capture sensations for writing. But an ultra-detailed analysis can often be to see the paint on the building rather than the architecture.

Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws

Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws

The entry and swim out to the start pontoon was fine. I can get into extremely cold water comfortably after years of winter swimming and the 3 degrees Celsius (37.4° F.) at the edge was better than wading through ice as we had the previous year. Entry is easier when there is no wind or rain and you are swimming with others.

I relaxed through the first two laps. Almost certainly too much in retrospect. I was much slower than normal for the first 800 metres.

At the start of the third lap, I allocated part of my awareness as a monitor. Its only job was to check myself, my perceptions and reactions for as long as was possible. Cold slows and thickens the blood, cognition becomes impaired but the hypothermic person doesn’t realise this. Those movies where a hypothermic person clearly realises they must get moving or they will freeze are mostly nonsense.

By the third lap I had developed extreme pain in my hands and feet. Please remember I am used to really cold water, and I don’t describe that pain lightly as extreme. I began to get nervous about one of the lesser-known possible side effects of extreme cold water swimming, that of nerve damage to fingers (not frostbite). So I started clenching my fists and fingers hard during stroke recovery. I also put the pain away, walled it off. It was severe, but I’m a distance swimmer so it wasn’t relevant and I ignored it.

That penultimate lap hurt. So much.

Finbarr passed me. Everyone else had already moved in front of me though I’d been first to swim away from the beach. (I had swum to the pontoon to start, which wasn’t necessary, but I had wanted to so do). On the third lap I had reached the 75% distance that mirrored my 75% pre-swim confidence. I touched the buoy on the pontoon for the seventh time and started the last lap. I never took any notice of Eoin Gaffney on the pontoon or the kayakers or the RIB crew for the entire swim, except for the occasional taste of diesel in the water.

I was cold, then colder. Into hypothermia. As you know, cold is a word that holds no meaning in this situation, but I don’t have a better one. Unless you are cold water swimmer you have no idea what I mean, you just think your experience of an ordinary cold winter day is analagous.

There was pain, present but also distant because I disregarding it. Still swimming. Still focused. Hands quite extraordinarily not in The Claw. Still slow. I tried increasing my stroke rate. I couldn’t hold it for long.

Going down the seventh leg in the last 400 metres, the Black Rain developed.

The Black Rain. I have not heard any other cold water swimmer describe this. I have suffered it once previously. Spots before the eyes is a poor descriptor. It is more like a shifting rain, starting very light, almost imperceptible. Varying sizes, speed and seeming distances in front of me.  Just like rain, except its colour.

I touched the far buoy for the last time. 200 metres to go. Then the swim in. Okay, just the 200 metres to worry about. I knew I would make it.

The RIB was near. There was a kayaker beside me. I could not tell what or if they might have been saying. I didn’t really focus on them, and didn’t think to try. I didn’t think of anything beyond monitoring myself. Swim in. That was all. That was everything. The Black Rain was heavier and I was developing tunnel vision. Not a metaphor, but actual vignetting of my sight. The boats were near but felt far away, not really having anything to do with me, on the far side of a veil. Head for the beach.

Cold blood. Cold enuf blood becomes viscus blood. Viscous. Swim. Thick blood. Thick blood flowz slowly. swim. coLd blub blood Passes oxigen 2 ur brain slowli. always swim. keep swim. Your thinking. ur Thinking gets slowly. never stop swimin. never stop, never stop. never stop cccold. izh beach. shallow. stand. colm’s son. Mr Awesome. OUt. Dee. gEt Drest.

I didn’t need to touch the pontoon at the end of the 1600 metres. Since the beach was further away I had de facto completed the distance. Warren Roche and Tom Healy helped me once got into shallow water and stumbled semi-upright.

*

Despite the ever-encroaching cold, I had never stopped swimming, never stopped making forward progress, never lost sight of what I was doing. Years of cold water swimming makes a difference. Deeply ingrained habits and patterns and thinking mean everything.

The last two legs of the swim had taken both zero time and infinity. Time travel jokes become inessential when time itself ceases to have meaning. Cold is the universe’s ultimate time machine encased in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Time, like my trap, is a mental construct of swimmers. Time is a beast, or a wall, something huge, not the little parasites of seconds and minutes. If we are close enough we can’t see it all and it either slips away or fills our sight and becomes meaningless.

Immediately afterwards the freight train of Afterdrop took me harder than it ever has previously. Many people helped me as I was virtually unable to dress myself, but especially Tom Healy. I was almost unresponsive. My memory of the fifteen or twenty minutes post swim is hazy at best.

I’ve had mild hypothermia more times than I can recall, like most cold water swimmers. We don’t call it hypothermia of course, we just say chills and shivers. It sounds safer, doesn’t scare others. I have been in serious hypothermia (by my scale of experience) twice before. I’ve had memory loss. Loss of motor control. Inability to speak, to walk, to drive. So I can with confidence say that this was the worst hypothermia experience I’ve yet endured.

I am thankful specifically for the help of Mr Awesome Tom and his partner Rachel, Nicola Gilliland, Alan Smith, Colm Breathnach’s friend Warren Roche whom I thought was Colm’s son. (Should I apologise to Colm or Warren or both?)

And of course my regular accomplice Dee, who didn’t panic either and is still making fun of what she describes as the manic rictus of my face post-swim. I think she’s mixing it up with my regular face.

For reference, you have seen me write many times that I am an average range speed swimmer. The Sandycove Island Challenge each autumn is a similar distance when including the extra Ice Mile start and finish portions, about 1750 metres when the water is flat.

My time for the 2013 Sandycove Island Challenge, which had similar flat conditions and was maybe 14°C. , and my best ever race lap, was 25:30. Course record is held by Irish International swimmer Chris Bryan at 19:40 or thereabouts. My time for the same distance Ice Mile was astonishingly over 37 minutes. That’s what cold can do to a really experienced cold water swimmer. For reference I am 171 centimeters tall and weighed 76 kilos for the swim and my resting heart rate the previous morning was 53.

I had stopped shivering and was recovered and was out and about for photographs in under an hour, thanks to heat, hot water bottles applied correctly, glucose, rubbing and all the techniques used on a hypothermic person. Core temperature took a while longer to recover, until about the time we were half way home, two and half to three hours after the swim.

Seven of the nine Ice Milers finished. Colm Breathnach and Donal Jacob pulled out at 1200 metres due to not feeling right during the swim. You should recall that Colm is already an Ice Miler and a faster and better cold water swimmer than I. Fergal says, and I agree, having done the same myself last year, that for a swimmer such as Colm to pull out during a swim displays self-knowledge, confidence and experience that others should take note of and emulate, and hopefully indicates to others just how seriously this swim should be approached. I have great respect for both swimmers for the decision they made on the day.

*

Given a choice between a "heroic" pic and this one, there was little option

Given the choice between a “heroic” image and this one, I think the truth is more important

Did you think it might be different? More macho or inspirational?Something with less…pain?

I can’t do macho. Don’t know how. King of the Channel in the late 70’s, Des Renford used a phrase “Doing It Tough”. I did my Ice Mile tough. Frankly and honestly in my opinion this stuff is too dangerous to load  macho bullshit onto it.

Winning ugly” according to DeeNot pretty”, she also said, (though that may have been a general observation about me).

Getting it done. No need, no plan, to do it again, I swam out of the trap. I wish I could swim out of other traps.

The Ice Mile was awful, painful and horrible.

Cold is such an insufficient word.

*

Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before leaving the surface. Be afraid!

Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before departing the surface. Be afraid!

Afterward:

Later after warming up my heart rate was elevated for a few hours. Two days later I developed muscles pain for 24 hours almost identical to what I experience after the first five or six-hour pool swim of winter similar to what Colm reported after his Ice Mile swim last year. It felt like lactic buildup aches in my triceps, lats, pecs, along with lower back and thighs. The aches over the kidneys lasted another two days. I had an unidentified bruise and swelling on one finger, when I rarely bruise even after impacts. Minor issues and otherwise I am perfectly fine.

Here at the end of Part III, I’m taking a temporary break from the subject before returning with reflections and thoughts on the wider context of Ice Mile swimming, with the challenges, dangers, frauds, difficulties and some recommendations.

*

Fergal’s  writeup is here.

Vanessa’s excellent video is here.

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17 thoughts on “Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain

  1. Pingback: Ice Mile Dilemma – VIII – Safety Is Everything | LoneSwimmer

  2. Pingback: Ice Mile Dilemmas – VIII – The Dangers | LoneSwimmer

  3. Pingback: Ice Mile Dilemmas – V – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen | LoneSwimmer

  4. Pingback: Ice Mile Dilemmas – IV – Local Context | LoneSwimmer

  5. I have been following along for awhile now. I have really enjoyed it and you have most definitely inspired me. I have dual citizenship, Irish and American but I have spent only about 2 months in Ireland. It was 2 summers ago and mostly on Achill island. I had some great swims and the jellyfish did not surprise or scare me so much thanks to following you. You tell the cold so well. I don’t know if I’ll ever do the Channel, but I will keep swimming. Thanks.
    Kevin Scott
    PS. If you ever get to Montana, you will have a place.

  6. Great article Donal. I think it’s really important that the pros in this sport portray the realities of it for the safety of all those who are inspired by you guys and follow in your footsteps. Was v impressed by this approach, your great article, and Donal and Colm’s safe and professional decisions on the day. Well done to all of you. Attitudes of good leaders IMO.

  7. “black rain” is such a great way off describing that visual impairment. Do you have a name for the grumpiness one might get immediately after an ice swim, or is that just me?

  8. Thank you Donal. This article is fascinating and I identify completely with the trap. Your blog continues to expand my open water education and this series in particular has made me more mindful of the importance of calling a halt when necessary even when in the grip of a self made trap

  9. Pingback: Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain | Wanaka Lake Swimmers

  10. So much of this account is uncannily similar to my own ice mile (and stated more eloquently than I’ve managed to do). I’ll surely be referring the curious to it to help them begin to understand and appreciate the experience.

    Congratulations on your swim, Donal, and thank you for all your cold water writing that has proved invaluable to me.

    • You know, I think there’s sometimes too much posturing involved in open water. I am delighted that at least one other person echoes my ice mile experience. Much thanks for that!

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