Category Archives: Cold

Dealing with cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas – IX – Safety Is Everything

The Average Person?

As a responsible extreme cold water swimming promoting organisation, it’s frustrating that the IISA doesn’t seem to appreciate its responsibility in promoting safety and reducing risk. The three-article critique on the IISA rules comprehensively illustrate many of the inherent problems, omissions and contradictions. The concerns of my correspondents and myself with Ice Mile swimming are not a reflection of the fact that many of the existing Ice Mile swimmers are extremely capable, experienced and cold-hardened individuals. Instead, we are concerned that the IISA is not doing enough to uphold its own existing rules, and even less to protect the safety of less experienced individuals who may try an Ice Mile in the future.

The IISA can’t wash its hands by saying that people who aren’t experienced enough shouldn’t attempt an Ice Mile. They must have explicit rules about this. The point about safety planning is not to just say “I’ve swum x Ice Miles, you can tooas members of the IISA board are wont to do, but to actually plan.

One should be taking all that cumulative knowledge and experience of such a dangerous pursuit and putting it at the service of the people they are trying to motivate. The IISA currently assumes that everyone who will attempt an Ice Mile will be an experienced cold water swimmer, but it does nothing to ensure this will be the case.

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A couple of months ago, just mere days after I started writing the fourth part of this series, I received an email from a journalist with Outside Online, the online outlet of Outside magazine, one of the biggest of all adventure or outdoor sports magazines. He wanted to ask some questions for an article he was researching about Ice Mile swimming. I tried to give a pretty comprehensive response to the various questions as I had no idea which part, if any, of my response would be used in the final article, nor did I know with whom else they were talking. One question leaped out at me and I spent a few days deciding how to respond.

What are some insider tips for completing an Ice Mile that the average reader wouldn’t think of?1

That question startled me. It indicates to me that one Ice Mile friend (who I mentioned in the rules aspects of this discussion) who asserted that there’s no rush to swim an Ice Mile may not be correct. It also conveys to me that even a journal like Outside doesn’t comprehend the danger or risk of an Ice Mile. If the IISA doesn’t communicate this, then Outside or many others can’t be blamed. Once a pursuit is featured in Outside, one can guess that the numbers desiring to take on any particular challenge will increase. The Outside Online article is here. (The description of my Ice Mile that opens the article is derived by the article author from my blog article). In my interview I concentrated on the safety and danger aspects. It is now doubly ironic that the other person featured is one of the IISA founders, Ram Barkai.

This is exactly the scenario of which I and so many others are afraid and why the IISA must think ahead and more broadly. The Outside Online article and consequent exposure is likely to be a good thing for the IISA’s desire to increase the Ice Mile profile in their goal to have an Ice Mile included in future winter Olympics (which I think is ridiculous given their current inadequate state). Worryingly this question seems to imply that there might be some trick to completing an Ice Mile, in case “the average reader” might consider it. This question is the thin end of a wedge and has been on my mind almost the entire duration of these articles.

Promoting extreme events should require extreme attention to detail and safety. The CS&PF, SBCSA, CCSA, CSA, ILDSA, ACNEG and more all do so. Even local swim organisations such as Sandycove Island Swimming Club seem to have a greater appreciation for and attention to swimmer safety than the IISA.

The IISA does use a recurring excuse: That they are a very new organisation. But that’s only true to a little extent, and it’s disingenuous camouflage. No resources are required to initiate discussion, as I’ve done. They’ve existed for over five years, and count as members many very experienced cold water swimmers around the world whose cumulative knowledge and experience is quite considerable. It also uses International in its name and must live up to such an appellation, not forget those core objectives that it has espoused and then ignored, as demonstrated previously. The IISA has had more time and resources than I have, and yet with my contacts and a bit of time I can demonstrate the extensive omissions and contradictions in how the IISA operates and also what it endorses. If a section of the IISA membership can illustrate so many problems and if they spoke with me then two pertinent questions must be asked:

  1. What is wrong with the IISA and its communications with members that some members expressed these concerns to me and why is the IISA resistant to engage in discussion with its members?
  2. If some members can point out the problems, contradictions and omissions, why has the IISA failed to so do?

The IISA has it in its own hands to direct its future. It must think far more seriously than it apparently has previously about its stated objectives. Until it places swimmer safety and adherence to rules at its core, its ethos is debatable and its future is and should be at risk.

I honestly believe that the IISA still doesn’t understand this discussion. It’s not just about rules. Sure, where they are wrong or inadequate they must be improved. But the IISA must foster a public face in support of open and shared knowledge and experience that will improve safety for all, ESPECIALLY aspirants and those with less experience.

The IISA says: “The fact that IISA hasn’t got a detailed guideline for every eventuality and possible risk, doesn’t take the responsibility away from the swimmer. It is the individual responsibility to study and understand the risks before one embarks on an attempt in water of 5C to swim a mile. We will help and publish knowledge and experience but we will never be able to avoid stupidity or recklessness through pi[l]e of manuals”.

This is both entirely true and yet diversionary. Swimmers should and must be responsible for themselves, as I have always promoted by trying to share whatever I’ve learned. We learn this responsibility through experience and the teaching of others. But since the IISA places itself as the ratifying organisation it must establish consistent guidelines, to assist in this process of teaching and learning. Once again I repeat, the IISA cannot both promote and ratify Ice Miles, yet ignore the associated responsibility.

I am clear that my concern is less for the tiny few who have already repeated an Ice Mile, but more for those with less experience, and I believe the IISA has been negligent in encouraging Ice Mile swimming without adequate safety or medical guidelines or even a clarification of the actual dangers.

The IISA has relied to date on the aspirants being experienced cold water swimmers, but without taking any steps to ensure such. I am asking; what if the aspirants aren’t experienced?

Recommendations

If we look back over this series one can see that there are a range of possible recommendations, some of which are urgent.

  • Ice Mile swimming should immediately be suspended until the IISA updates its safety rules to place swimmer safety at the centre of its ethos.
  • Swimmer safety to be the core IISA value.
  • People with a history of cardiac problems should be immediately precluded from attempting an Ice Mile.
  • The IISA must publicly update any changes it makes in the future. (Bizarrely, it has told me it doesn’t plan to so do!)
  • Raise the minimum age limit to 18 immediately, pending published expert medical guidelines.
  • All Ice Mile aspirants should be required to first join the IISA. This will ensure better safety, organised swims and better data from attempts, incidents, and data retention for all Ice Mile swims in line with the IISA’s own objectives.
  • All Ice Mile attempts should be pre-approved by the IISA.
  • Aspirants should be required to provide proven experience and references.
  • Publish medical guidelines for aspirants and organisers from hypothermia experts and academics outside the IISA.
  • Aspirants must be required to provide a medical certificate as part of their ratification application.
  • All Ice Mile swim organisers should have relevant cold water experience.
  • Create an IISA committee of experienced Ice Mile swim organisers to codify their Best Practices into an Ice Mile event guideline.
  • Separate the new safety rules in the constitution from the mostly irrelevant articles of incorporation and other matters not related to actual swims.
  • Make the safety rules easily downloadable, with revision dates and change log.
  • Allow any person to submit a swim appeal over a fraudulent swim.
  • Guarantee the confidentiality of any person submitting such an appeal.
  • Initiate and maintaining ongoing discussion by canvassing existing IISA members to discuss and improve rules and guidelines.

Everything Is Okay, Until It Isn’t

I’ve written these articles to:

  • Attempt a serious dissection of the current state of the IISA and Ice Mileing
  • Educate about the difficulty and dangers of Ice Mile swimming
  • Help extreme cold water swimmers
  • Improve the current utterly inadequate IISA rules and communications
  • And as a consequence of all this to improve the IISA
  • And more importantly to try to improve safety for any future Ice Mile Aspirants.

As I have said directly to the IISA:

I think that the lack of appropriate comprehensive guidelines and missing and contradictory rules by the IISA organisation is irresponsible, given it has had five years to learn, analyse and implement improvements”.

To not implement known best practices when lives are at risk and when medical professionals agree is, to use the words of one IISA founding member denying such, “deliberately reckless and careless.

I’d contrast this with Senior CS&PF Pilot Mike Oram, who repeatedly stresses that Channel swimming is an extreme and known lethal sport.

I believe everyone is entitled to make their own choice about their sporting pursuits regardless of danger. But I also believe that they should also have as much information as possible about the dangers and the necessary safety guidelines. A couple of correspondents have raised the comparison of Ice Mile with Himalayan mountain-climbing or Polar expeditions and correctly said that all extreme sports include extreme or even the ultimate risk. While this is true, neither Polar nor Himalayan expeditions came about because of a few people who call themselves the founding, organising and ratifying organisation. When you take on the responsibility to motivate, you should also take on the responsibility to educate and to protect and to do otherwise is wrong.

Since I started this series, members of the IISA have been unhappy with the articles. However , quite tellingly, neither they nor anyone else has said anything to refute the main (or any) points of these articles.

Nothing that I nor any of my correspondents have said here will increase the danger to Ice Mile aspirants, but failing to adapt the current IISA rules to reality will certainly so do.

Thought there are still subjects I couldn’t encompass, (such as the risks involved in training for an Ice Mile), let me finish (finally) with that powerful quotation from a respected Channel and Ice Mile swimmer that I used to open Part 5: “Something terrible is going to happen”.

Is, not might. Time is short, IISA. Act now.

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Related articles

The list of cold water swimming articles I’ve written over the years.

Ice Mile Dilemmas I – The Trap

Ice Mile Dilemmas II – Surprisingly Cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas III – Black Rain

Ice Mile Dilemmas IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas V – Rule 1 – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

Ice Mile Dilemmas VI – Rules 2 – Safety and Experience

Ice Mile Dilemmas VII – Rules 3 – Failure To Apply Best Practice

Ice Mile Dilemmas VIII – The Dangers

1My full answer to the question was:

There are none. There are no tricks, no shortcuts, no way that doesn’t involve pain. It takes training, understanding and preparation and a rigorous adherence to safety and even then is still difficult and painful and dangerous.

In fact this question shows one of the biggest problems: This is a highly dangerous pursuit and most of the approximately 100 current Ice Milers in the entire world are very experienced. I thought long and hard about answering this. I was faced with a dilemma: answer and possibly encourage what is very dangerous pursuit which may kill you despite preparation or experience, or ignore it and be afraid the macho ideal would win out.

In the near future, less experienced people will try this without the requisite training, experience or confidence in themselves to abandon a swim if necessary. I believe, along with the majority of Ice Milers to whom I’ve spoken, which is about 20% of all Ice Milers, that a tragedy is increasingly a worrying probability. I believe the IISA needs to improve its criteria, safety recommendations and procedures. Attempts need to be more severely curtailed and only done by people who have prior permission from the IISA based on producing a verified training log, recognised experience, who are known to the organisers and have significant medical safety cover”.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VIII – The Dangers

I’ve said previously that open water swimming is dangerous. Ice Mile swimming is even more dangerous.

I don’t think the IISA website, which is how most people are going to interact with and learn about the IISA or Ice Mile swimming, is anywhere near as comprehensive as it needs to be on its message about the extreme nature of Ice Mile swimming and there are few locations where this message is noticeable. Mostly Ice Mile and extreme cold water swimming is merely described as some variety of difficult, rather than life threatening.

The IISA needs to categorically state that Ice Mile swimming is inherently dangerous and should also do its best to provide a suitable and comprehensive safety framework for Ice Mile aspirants, which as I write this does not currently exist as I have proven in the IISA rules discussion.

Danger, Danger

All this talk of danger but it hasn’t been quantified.

This is a significant list. Some items are extreme versions of similar risks associated with open water swimming, but exaggerated because of the extreme cold. This list has been reviewed by two experts in cold water and hypothermia (one M.D. and one Ph.D.).

  1. Drowning due to involuntary water aspiration. In the first couple of minutes of very cold water, Cold (immersion) Shock can promote hyperventilation and gasping and actually lead people to aspirate water in the lungs, and drown quickly. This is the absolute and essential reason why it is best to get into cold water slowly, to allow your body to control the gasp reflex. Images of swimmers diving into near-zero degree water absolutely send out the wrong message to aspirants. I’ve been writing now for years that people shouldn’t do it. This gasp-aspiration danger exists in all cold water (which in research terms is water under 15 Celsius), but at such cold temperatures as under five degrees the risk is greater. It’s just one of the reasons why experience is so important and why the IISA should immediately introduce prior experience requirements for Ice Mile aspirants.

  2. Initial cardiac arrest. The body’s cold protective system, peripheral vaso-constriction, because it reduces overall blood flow, consequently quickly increases blood pressure. A sudden jump in blood pressure could lead to cardiac arrest in a small number of cases. In younger people this may be caused by sudden-onset ventricular fibrillation. Older people would be more likely to have a myocardial infraction (heart attack) as a result of decreased blood flow to the coronary arteries.

  3. Acute hypothermia. This should be obvious. Acute refers to the time taken for the drop to occur. If lethal temperature is reached in an hour, which is a good rule of thumb for almost freezing waters even for most trained individuals, then being immersed for more than half the time leads to acute hypothermia. Hypothermia takes some time to kill you, it can’t kill you from heat loss in 15 minutes even in these temperatures but kill you it eventually will if you don’t rewarm. Simply standing from the prone swimming position will cause the very cold peripheral blood, which can drop to a mere ten degrees as it lays under your skin, to flow into your core. Another reason the acute aspect is important is because in chronic hypothermia, which develops over a longer time, the body becomes dehydrated, reducing the volume and constitution of blood. In acute hypothermia, since one isn’t dehydrated, the blood pressure increase and therefore associated risk is greater. The onset of acute hypothermia is time based and why time limits are extremely useful in Ice Mile swimming but they are not currently in the IISA rules.

  4. Loss of fine and later coarse motor control/muscle failure. Peripheral vaso-constriction is something I’ve been writing about on LoneSwimmer.com since the site’s inception. It’s how your body protects core temperature by shutting off circulation to the extremities. That means fine motor control is quickly affected. Moderately hypothermic people have real difficulties with or are unable to get dressed. With the extreme cold of Ice Mile swimming, muscle control for such simple tasks as walking can become difficult or impossible. Muscle failure is the term Tipton and Golden, best known for hypothermia studies, use to describe the loss of muscle motive force. One cannot speak, or know what to do. I don’t know numbers (neither does the IISA,) but my experience has shown that most Ice Mile swimmers are unable to dress themselves afterwards. My partner Dee has taken to occasionally calling me The Joker, because of what she describes as the manic rictus manifested on my face as muscle control was lost after my Ice Mile.

  5. Acute Pain. The pain experienced once a swimmer is well into an Ice Mile, particularly in the hands and feet, is significant and sustained, possibly seven on a pain scale. It’s a precursor to number six.

  6. Temporary or permanent nerve damage. Within the community of extreme cold water swimmers there are cases of nerve damage or loss of sensation, particularly in the fingers. This problem can manifest as lasting from a couple of weeks to two years in different people. One medical doctor with whom I’ve spoken, who has direct knowledge in the area of hypothermia primary treatment, says that this is the range from frostnip to frostbite.

  7. Cognition impairment and memory loss. As blood cools, it becomes more viscous. Combined with the aforementioned peripheral vaso-constriction, necessary oxygen flow to the brain is reduced. The person loses speed of thought, ability to verbally respond and their memory is impaired. I can remember the end of my Ice Mile, but as soon as I stood up, everything became hazy and a series of disjointed episodes. One Ice Miler who did their Ice Mile in a group of four, said three out of the four did not remember finishing. This isn’t Hollywood; severely hypothermic people don’t retain the ability to think clearly. It’s why assistants and safety personnel aren’t just important, they are essential. The most common test we use for moderate hypothermia in swimmers is simply someone’s ability to give their own name. Most people with no experience of hypothermia can’t imagine this being a difficulty.

  8. Muscle pains, swelling or bruising, chronic fatigue and lack of concentration. These are symptoms which are displayed after extreme cold water swimming and rewarming. They only show after rewarming is mostly complete or even from the following day and may persist for several days. While some are minor, they are indicative of the extreme effort. The chronic fatigue and lapse in mental acuity are not related to the swim distance but the cold and could have significant immediate impact for swimmers who is driving themselfaway from an Ice Mile swim.

  9. Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema, aka SIPE. Pulmonary edema occurs when fluid (usually blood) collects in the lungs and breathing is impaired to various degrees of severity. SIPE can be related to heart problems or infection, in the case of extreme cold water, while the mechanism isn’t fully understood, it’s likely that the increased blood pressure mentioned above is implicated.

  10. Cardiac arrhythmias. There are two types. Atrial fibrillation is irregular electrical activity which mainly affects the smaller upper chambers of the heart (atria) causing less blood to be pumped. It may even go unnoticed, or if noticed can result in heart palpitations and shortness of breath. One Irish swimmer who is already an Ice Mile swimmer wisely pulled out early in their second Ice Mile swim because of a sensation of heart palpitations. Ventricular fibrillation is also an irregular electrical activity, which affects the larger lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart. An incorrectly rewarmed person (such as through sudden application of heat or excess movement) will receive the full brunt of the almost ice-cold external blood into their core and around their heart too quickly. This can cause the heart to go into ventricular fibrillation. It is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death (SCD) and is the primary cause of death due to hypothermia. Stories of death through hypothermic ventricular fibrillation abound.

  11. Post-rescue Collapse/Afterdrop. With post-rescue collapse, the person can initially seem to be fine while exiting or after being removed from the water, but may later collapse or even expire. Tipton and Golden1 identify a number of post-rescue collapse deaths. In a study of 269 shipwreck victims, 160 were rescued. 17% rescued from water under 10 C. died within 24 hours of rescue whereas when the water was over 10 C. none died. One of many reported cases is the sinking of the SS Empire Howard. Twelve conscious survivors were rescued. The Captain reported that nine later died when taken into the warmth of the rescue trawler. In Ireland, three of the 15 fatalities during the infamous Fastnet Race disaster in 1979, occurred during rescue in water of 15 to 16 Celsius. The physiology has not fully been explained to date. Two of the all time great marathon swimmers, Ted Erikson and David Yudovin both suffered post-swim cardiac arrest from chronic hypothermia in water that wasn’t as cold, but in which immersion time was longer.

Ice Mile swimming is dangerous and so is post Ice Mile swimming as shown by numbers eight, nine and ten.

Items number nine and ten also portend something else.

Since SIPE, atrial and ventricular fibrillation can also be symptoms of heart disease or other coronary problems, the only acceptable standard that the IISA can set is to require a declaration of medical history and to preclude anyone with any history of coronary problems.

In Part VI, I mentioned that the IISA, which has a stated objective of promoting medical research, doesn’t even include any medical guidelines or medical barriers for an Ice Mile attempt it doesn’t even a require a medical application despite an apparent existing rule. In the light of these specific dangers, this is indefensible and must be addressed immediately.

Related articles:

Ice Mile Dilemmas I – The Trap

Ice Mile Dilemmas II – Surprisingly Cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas III – Black Rain

Ice Mile Dilemmas IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas V – Rule 1 – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

Ice Mile Dilemmas VI – Rules 2 – Safety and Experience

Ice Mile Dilemmas VII – Rules 3 – Failure To Apply Best Practice

References:

1 Review of rescue and immediate post immersion problems, prepared for the UK Health and Safety Executive, by the University of Surrey (Tipton & Golden, 1997)

 

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VI – Safety and Experience

As you will recall from the previous article the IISA says one of its primary objectives is:

Promoting Safety in Extreme Swimming Events.

Let’s consider that.

One overseas organiser of a reputable Ice Mile swim said: “We should be going above and beyond the IISA rule to make sure someone does not die from inexperience or neglect.

For both Lough Dan Invitationals in 2013 and 2014, Eastern Bay Swim Club added some local rules for extra safety:

  • All swimmers had to maintain a training log of cold swims, that may be requested. (In my case at least I did not have to present it, as Fergal and I chatted regularly, which covered my recent swims. I have also maintained a swim log for many years anyway, which includes sea temperatures and immersion time).

  • All swimmers were either known to Fergal or an existing Ice Swimmer who would vouch for them.

  • A clearly marked out course of minimum official length (in this case four 400 metre laps with swimmers required to swim around a buoy at one end and touch a pontoon with a turn judge and timekeeper at the other).

  • A course observer and a touch and timekeeping official.

  • Front crawl only. No treading water, no breaststroke.

  • Present were a Medical Doctor with defibrillator, a nurse and three paramedics.
  • Two time limits:

    • Swimmers had to be on the last lap by thirty minutes.

    • A cutoff time of 40 minutes, or swimmers to be making definite forward progress to the finish.

It’s not just Eastern Bay and Fergal that take extra precautions:

One American Ice Mile swim “follow[s] all of the IISA rules, but we also make sure the swimmers have open water experience and that they have trained (exposing themselves to cold water for increasing amounts of time). We have at least one paid, official EMT present before, during, and after the swims. The EMT has portable defibrillators and emergency transport. We educate swimmers and volunteers on the dangers of hypothermia and what should and should not be done with someone suffering from hypothermia. We have at least one kayak/swimmer as well as rescue swimmers (trained rescue swimmers in wetsuits) shadowing them along the shore. We have a warm room where the swimmers prepare and recover slowly (suffer through the “after drop”). The swimmers also have access to showers, a steam room and a sauna. We have at least 2 IISA members present to officiate and witness the Ice Miles”.

So the Lough Dan rules weren’t just a notional idea by Eastern Bay Swim Club. They came about from experience and lessons learned in previous swims, in personal and other organised cold water swimming events. They are very much in line with the thinking of other Ice Mile organisers, some of whom go even further.

In these cases the local organisers have more comprehensive rules than the IISA.

Taken as a whole these additional rules improved safety and swim integrity; monitoring swimmers, observing both safety and adherence to required distance. The front-crawl-only option works to keep swimmers generating heat and as an indicator of trouble should swimmers switch stroke or stop swimming. Having a time limit with a limited degree of flexibility removed any reason for indecision from safety personnel. The time limit can be adjusted based on organiser’s familiarity with the aspirants.

The original plan for Lough Dan 2014 was nine swimmers and had we not had one no-show, and two swimmers pull out on the day, then we could have had a greater number of severely hypothermic people all finishing within minutes of each other. IISA require one trained medical person per four swimmers. In hindsight, I’m no longer convinced we were right even with our reduced ratio of 8:5. Given my arguments here I will be arguing that if there is a Lough Dan Ice Mile Invitational next year, excepting any change in IISA rules, that the ratio of swimmers to medical personnel be reduced.

These are not the only possible improvements. One correspondent has argued cogently that by Ice Mile standards the large groups in Lough Dan (six and eight swimmers respectively each year) or elsewhere, are by definition dangerous and makes a very persuasive counter-proposal; “when I hear that people think these swims should only be done in big groups, I’m quite baffled! I don’t know that most hospitals have the resources to handle multiple hypothermic patients simultaneously. I also don’t know that eyes are really on the swimmers still in the water when one swimmer begins to need assistance. Having swimmers share safety personnel seems like it is relying on at least some of the swimmers having no problem at all. I’d prefer to have one EMT for each swimmer than to find that there weren’t enough trained professionals to help if multiple swimmers have emergencies.

In my email to my correspondents, I had argued against small group swims precisely because of the questionable swim we witnessed last year.

The argument of individual medical and observing staff is entirely reasonable, and I am now largely convinced, though in part for a different reason to which I will return in a later article.

Is ten swimmers too many? I now believe so. But is one swimmer too little? That’s dependent on the swimmer’s intentions and safety crew’s ability and experience. If the crew are experienced, there is adequate safety cover including the requisite medical support (and the swimmer isn’t planning deceit), then a one swimmer/one medical person swim is likely the optimal situation, though the companionship of others is often significant in sporting achievement.

Taking all this into consideration, despite my own experiences in a larger group, I am far more convinced that a small group is the best way to improve and promote safety both during and post swim. As I’ve said above there are reasons for this to which I will later later in this series.

Here’s another quotation:

I was so worried about [x] as [they] recovered— the leanest of the three swimmers, [x] was in for [n] minutes, and the water was just 3.5 C, with colder air. It was scary— I knew [x] wasn’t in [their] head at all for a solid 20 minutes as [they] shivered uncontrollable and flashed some of the scariest faces I’ve ever seen on a human. Now if I didn’t know [x] as well as I do (we train together all the time, right there in that water, so I had some idea of what to expect with [the] recovery process and was reasonably sure [x] was going to be OK, just having a tough go of it) I would have been frantic.

That’s quite a similar description to how I was after my 2014 Ice Mile. It’s not the only such comment I’ve heard; another told me that my description of black rain was uncannily like their swim. This also highlights another concerns of mine, that the actual difficulty of the Ice Mile is not being communicated.

Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the reputation system (as used in mountain climbing) is vital and fundamental in open water swimming even at short distances. It is up to everyone to build their own experience incrementally. The more you swim, the more you build reputation and a network of contacts, and reputation is literally priceless in open water swimming. There are circumstances where no money in the world should allow an inexperienced swimmer to tackle something beyond their capability.

I would never support an unknown swimmer who just showed up to do an Ice Mile. My email correspondence shows that this actual situation has already arisen at least twice, at two different organised Ice Mile swims, and that’s just with the people to whom I’ve spoken. In both cases unknown swimmers showed up wanting to swim, one even insisting they be allowed to participate. Both were refused but those people who refused were very experienced. In one case the Ice Mile swim was in question because the participants had decided to cancel if the unknown arrival had decided to continue. What would happen if an organiser hadn’t similar experience and judgement?

Any completely untrained and inexperienced swimmer can organise an Ice Mile so long as they adhere to the basic criteria. This may have been deemed valid (though I would disagree there also) when trying to build a coterie of Ice Mile swimmers but given the number of experienced cold water swimmers worldwide, and especially in the countries where Ice Miles are more likely, it should be possible to organise a network of knowledgeable and reputable individuals. However this may be just my small country provincialism speaking. As one correspondent says: “For [ ], which is a huge area, we have just 1 ambassador. If [they have] to be present at every swim and answer every request for information about swims, that’s a big burden.” Many Ice Mile swimmers are not doing so to have such a burden imposed on them: “its something I would not do myself.This may be a difficult problem to address, but the solution isn’t to ignore the problem.

I believe all these problems and shortfalls demonstrate the IISA’s failure to promote safety in extreme swimming events, one of their own primary objectives.

No Experience Required

One of, if not the single most agreed concern amongst all my correspondents is that the IISA has no guidelines or rules for training, or requirements for prior experience, or entry criteria and little about organisation of swims.

Organisers’ use of an Invitational system based on training buddies and logs and local reputation is one, but not the only solution.

Another solution and which was suggested by a few of my correspondents, is pre-clearance of Ice Mile attempts by either the IISA itself or a country or regional IISA Ambassador or a committee of Ice Mile swimmers. A person wishing to attempt an Ice Mile would have to submit an application, a medical certificate with ECG, including any previous or family history of cardiac problems, experience and possibly even training logs. I have in the past been critical of triathlons for substituting wetsuits for experience. The mortality rate in US triathlons is quite significant, twice as dangerous as marathons, with 30 out of 43 occurring during the swim leg. After a study one of the significant factors identified was a lack of previous experience. Here in Ireland open water swims of only 1500 metres often require prior experience. An Ice Mile that’s significantly more dangerous than a 750 metre triathlon swim leg or a 1500 metre open water swim currently requires no approval or proven experience beyond what local organisers may impose. Right now only those who complete an Ice Miles can become IISA members, which is contrary to how most organisations operate and allows the ISSA a deniability about its own place in promoting responsible attempts. It also means that any problems that arise in an attempt don’t fall at the feet of the IISA.

A person can currently attempt an Ice Mile without ever having swum in water colder than a hot bath or further than their local pool length. That’s the reductio ad absurdum conclusion used to demonstrate the insufficiency of the IISA rules. The primary protection for people right now is the organisation and experience of most aspirants, and insistence on safety by experienced swim organisers.

One organiser says it clearly; “I feel ice/winter swimming is a specialist pursuit; only to be attempted by those who diligently prepare through regular submersion in open water and acclimatisation over a number of months.

There are further possible solutions including an IISA-approved qualifying swim. The IISA has this year introduced a one kilometre swim. Currently this uses the same safety rules, but doesn’t result in IISA membership. A one kilometre organised swim would allow the possibility of a vetted and observed qualification swim. Yet another possibility is that Ice Miles are only attempted using a network of experienced local organisers.

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In the next article, which will be final part of this rules discussion as I move to other aspects, I’ll look at  some more serious flaws in current IISA rules,  briefly consider the ridiculous age limit, and ask why the IISA doesn’t require Best Practice in Ice Mile swim organisation.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – V – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

I’m with you in fearing that something terrible is going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon.

This is a direct quote from a well-known and respected Ice Mile and Channel swimmer in response to my own similar assertion in my introductory email. I’m putting it up front so you understand exactly the concerns of some of us. And it’s not the only such, I’ve got others. Another example from a different overseas Ice Mile organiser:

You are correct in thinking that at some point someone will [succumb] during or just after an ice swim. Just as important this person qualifies this statement; “as [x] mentioned it happens eventually in any extreme event”.

I’m writing this series for reasons I’ve outlined previously. When I said I wanted to write about Ice Mile swimming, it was because I am concerned that a tragedy will occur, sooner rather than later, and that if I said nothing, I would feel guilty. We all need to be doing our best to reduce potential problems in what is a very extreme event, which individuals have the choice and right to attempt.

I also said such in my initial email to the range of correspondents quoted here. It’s why I continued to complete an Ice Mile when I had lost any particular personal desire to so do. I am not great at anything, but for well over four years I have committed to writing abut cold water swimming. Anyone who doubts my motivations can see the extensive range of cold water swimming articles on this site. I have tried to explain the challenges, inspire people with the joys and rewards, add a bit of humour but also educate about the various dangers.

This rules section has became a hydra, growing beyond what I intended.

Because it’s the best article on the necessity for rules and the thinking of open water swimmers, though it applies to marathon swimming, I’m going to point you to Sarah Thomas’s article on MSF, so important we’ve given it a permanent page of its own. Rules are not just important, but essential. They are the flag to which disparate athletes of differing talents and motivations can all salute. They define, protect and unify.

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A read of the IISA website is essential for any discussion of Ice Mile swimming rules.

The IISA Constitution

The IISA website has a short menu page for rules which further references the IISA Constitution page for the full details.

The Constitution is contained in an embedded Scribd.com document  (Scridb is a document hosting website). This is unusual for something intended to be public. It means that an aspirant or organiser can’t download the contents for reference. It also means that it’s clumsy to read and navigate. Further, for these articles, I couldn’t copy and paste, as Scribd document contents are flash objects, not text, and so can’t be copied, requiring screen captures. This moves the Constitution away from being an open, easy-to-use document into a restricted  document.

The Constitution is without any changelog, revision or edit dates. So there’s no way to know when or if it’s changed, nor what amendments may have been made. One can contrast this with the Marathon Swimmers Federation rules and how we have released a version history  and change data in the process.

Section 3.3 sets out the criteria and rules for an Ice Mile. Matters such as distance, temperature measurement procedures, equipment allowed, etc. It’s all pretty straightforward.

Much of the constitution is given over to incorporation details and definitions that aren’t relevant to this discussion.

IISA Main Objectives

The Constitution also lays out a number of interesting objectives. It is best to investigate the rules through the IISA’s own stated objectives. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned Scribd problem, I can’t copy those over here. It’s section 3.1 and I will include relevant captures throughout.

Briefly the first three, which I address below, are;

  • To promote Ice Mile swimming

  • Provide recognition of Ice Mile swims

  • To promote safety in extreme swimming events (emphasis mine).

Along with these are two others which particularly interest me, (emphasis mine again);

  • Promote medical research on cold water swimming

  • Promote knowledge and understanding of swimming in ice and cold waters

IISA Constitution Objectives

Promotion and Recognition by the IISA

With respect to Ice Mile swimming promotion, I’ll refer to the retention of a current Irish Ice Mile Ambassador whose primary promotion efforts have been self-promotion rather than supportive of Irish Ice Mile swimming. (This assertion has also been made to me about the IISA itself in my correspondence, by more than one person).

Recognition of an accredited Ice Mile swim should be straightforward. On completion of a swim, having paid the fee and provided the necessary documentation and data, certification should be released. Since Eastern Bay Swim Club handled this last year and I didn’t complete the swim, and I haven’t yet received mine from this year, I don’t know how it relates to the Irish swimmers. However I can attest that in my email communications with overseas Ice Milers, two different Ice Mile swimmers in the US felt very aggrieved about their communications with the IISA: “When I got my certificate, not only did it look like it had been filled in by a 7 year old, it was mangled, because whomever slammed it in the post hadn’t bothered to put any cardboard around it.

There were other comments such as “hours of my life I can never get back” and more disturbing; “several of us in the USA get the feeling that the IISA is mostly concerned about the IISA membership fee“. Using the word several could be interpreted as exaggeration, except the number of Ice Miles is so low that most are completed in just a few locations. In this case the person making that assertion is highly reputable and involved with running one of the US Ice Mile swims, and does in fact know many of the others Ice Mile swimmers.

This Ice Mile swimming rules discussion requires three parts. In the next part I’ll look at the IISA’s key stated objective of promoting safety in extreme open water and how it significantly currently fails to meet that objective.

Related articles

Ice Mile Dilemmas Part I – The Trap

Part II – Surprisingly Cold

Part III – Black Rain

Part IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas – IV – Local Context

An Ice Mile is a one mile (1610 metres) swim at or under 5.0º Celsius with standard swim costume, cap and goggles. Records to early March 2014 indicate 116 recognised Ice Mile swims, with only about 80 Ice Mile swimmers worldwide.

In the context of these small numbers this continuation of the earlier series can be interpreted, depending on your viewpoint, as either:

A) A lot of noise about nothing.

or

B) An attempt to address some serious matters … before it is too late.

_____________________________________________________________

In the first part of my 2014 Ice Mile series, I had two primary motivations for returning to complete the swim, one of which was that only having completed it would I feel free to speak about Ice Mile swimming and its dangers and some associated problems.

Since the swim I’ve had a brief email discussion with the IISA (International Ice Swimming Association). I’ve also contacted about twenty Ice Mile swimmers around the world to canvas their opinions. I’ve also been in contact with three four different medical doctors, three of whom are open water swimmers. All the very thoughtful and cogent responses I received have helped shape this series and I am very appreciative of the time and effort that went into everyone’s replies.  You all know who you are and have my gratitude.

I’ve held back on completing this series until I’d received sufficient feedback, had time to ruminate and until I was sure my swim was recognised (Ice Swim Number 109, which makes me, I think, Ice Mile swimmer 75, or something).

InternationalIceSwimmingAssociation_logo

Let’s start with a recap. In 2013, at Fergal Somervilles’s first NIce Mile, we did not get the requisite 5º C. temperature. but along with five others, I finished the mile and suffered moderate hypothermia (a reminder that moderate hypothermia isn’t moderate but very pronounced). A sixth swimmer didn’t finish and was pulled from the water with  severe hypothermia.

A couple of weeks later, I swam half a mile at Fergal’s second Invitational Ice swim at Lough Dan. On the day I realised I did not have the full mile in me and only swam half the distance. I’ve never felt bad about not completing, it was the right thing to do.

In February 2014 I completed an Ice Mile with six others from a starting group of eight. Two pulled out themselves on safety grounds. I suffered worse hypothermia than I ever have previously. From my previous (significant) cold water experience I expected this outcome and forewarned one trusted safety paramedic.

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For the past couple of years I’ve had quite a few discussions with experienced swimming friends about the Ice Mile. Many excellent open and cold water distance swimmers have no desire to attempt the swim as many consider it either unnecessary or too dangerous. It’s the case from those discussions and the aforementioned emails that many, including multiple Ice  Mile swimmers, are of a similar opinion about the danger.

I’m going to address a number of different subjects in the latter parts of this series:

  • The Irish context
  • A discussion of the IISA’s rules
  • The IISA’s (lack of) messaging about the dangers of Ice Mile swimming
  • The inherent extreme danger of Ice Mile swimming
  • I will also, (as I did with my MIMS 2013 coverage), not just rant but I will try to make some useful recommendations.

The entire subject is a bit disjointed so I will first give some local contextual explanation for some of this:

The Irish Context

Ireland has a significant number of those who have completed an official Ice Mile. (I am only talking about official Ice Miles. People stupid enough to try to do this without sufficient experience, safety and planning are beyond any reason and what I write will have no effect on them).

I mentioned above that on the first attempt one person wasn’t successful, any more than I was. On the first Lough Dan Invitational that same person wasn’t part of the group. I was invited but I was not capable on the day. Some doubt exists as to why the other swimmer wasn’t part of the first Lough Dan Invitational.

However, on the morning of the first Ice Mile Invitational, I and many others were witness to the most dangerous swim attempt I’ve yet seen.

That same person attempted an Ice Mile without any medical cover of which I’m aware, and insufficient and inexperienced safety cover. At one point the swimmer, having been in the water well over 40 minutes and a significant time from finishing, progressed no more than five metres in five minutes. It was easy to judge because it was two sides of a stationary pontoon only about ten metres away from where I was standing. Four Channel swimmers at least, (myself, Fergal, Tom Healy and Colm Breathnach) were all standing shouting on the beach to the two-man kayak crew to pull the swimmer). No course was marked, no paramedics were available, there was no way to determine if the distance had been swum. Indeed the swim stopped short of the distance where the people on the beach had shouting was the aim. There were major discrepancies with reported start and completion times in various formats with team members claiming a different (later) start time than what one of our group had witnessed.

I don’t believe that the swim was completed or successful.

The International Ice Swimming Association had (until recently) two Ambassadors for Ireland. One is Anne-Marie Ward, English and North Channel solo,  for whom there is widespread respect and genuine warmth in the Irish open water swimming community.

Yet public online congratulations were given that day from the second IISA Irish Ambassador for what I consider to be an at best questionable swim. Those who were actually successful with a marked course and full safety procedures and observation (Colm Breathnach, Fergal Somerville, Patrick Corkery, John Daly, Carmel Collins) were completely ignored by that same IISA “Ambassador“, a pattern that has since been repeated for other swimmers.

Only a  few weeks earlier, that same IISA Ambassador was evacuated by helicopter from a mountain lake in Kerry after very poor planning of their own ice Mile swim, pulling essential coastal rescue services away to cater for reckless safety planning.

Both swimmers now claim they are Ireland’s best Ice Mile swimmers. Without any irony.

Fraudulent swim claims, rampant egos and poor safety planning are the bane of open water swimming. It seems Ice Mileing in its youth suffers the same problems.

These two swims contrasted with the superlative planning by Fergal and Eastern Bay Swim Club, which included three paramedics, a nurse and a Doctor, multiple kayakers and a boat, and almost five non-swimmers to every swimmer,  had a significant if unpublished effect on the many of the Irish cold water swimmers and all present at the Lough Dan Invitational that day.

The IISA seemed uncaring about both negative events. I say seemed because I can’t be 100% certain. What I do know is the IISA are aware of both swims but did not react. Having being unsuccessful, I was not a member and had no communication with them in 2013, but I do know they were notified of this event in 2013 and invited to ask any of the affidavit signatories for their report. The IISA declined.

When I wrote in Part One of my own reason for completing the Ice Mile in 2014, it was in part because of these two swims.

One minor item I didn’t mention until now about my own 2014 swim occurred as I was swimming into the beach after finishing the 1600m. I was still compos mentis at that point, before I stood up and crashed into severe hypothermia, I recall thinking “I’ll call my blog post on this: Ireland’s worst Ice Miler” about myself. I also recall immediately dismissing that idea, because while I may not have done it easily, still I did do it, with plenty of witnesses. I knew I wasn’t the worst, if such a term can be used to describe fully completing such  a difficult challenge: I’d swam the full distance after having previously deciding to abandon a swim, and I hadn’t been MedEvaced.

The more years of writing on open water swimming I’ve been doing the greater the problem of frauds and ego now seems to me. Years of swimming  lone, seeing and participating in many various swims have  given me an acute sense of the requirement for a commitment to safety in both words and deeds.

In my emails with the IISA following my successful 2014 swim, I decided to nominate Fergal Somerville as an Ice Mile Ambassador for Ireland. I clearly implied that the number of Irish Ambassadors should stay at two people with Anne-Marie Ward continuing in the role alongside Fergal. Fergal has organised both Lough Dan Invitational Ice Miles and therefore has done more for Ice Mile swimming in Ireland than everyone else in Ireland combined. He has, along  with Eastern Bay Swimming Club and all the people involved, run a very safety conscious and well-managed event. He is good for the IISA and the serious nature of the pursuit of Ice Mile swimming.

An Ambassador means a representative. The role implies attributes of respect, diplomacy, honesty and trustworthiness. Fergal, the record-setter for the coldest ever North Channel solo, has certainly demonstrated his qualifications for this role. An Ambassador shouldn’t be a divisive figure or someone who treats others with disrespect and consequently brings the organisation they are representing into disrepute. But this is exactly what has happened

However, since I wrote the above paragraph, I’m certainly pleased to hear that Fergal has just been added as an Ice Mile Ambassador for Ireland and I congratulate the IISA on their willingness to listen. However Ireland now has three Ice Mile Ambassadors. That the IISA continues to retain someone of questionable commitment to safety planning or to the IISA itself, or who demonstrates a noted lack of support for Irish Mile Ice swimmers, is lamentable at best.

In the next part I’ll once start a comprehensive critique of the IISA’s rules and stated commitment to swimmer safety through existing rules.

Edit: In my emails to the IISA I also mentioned I’d be writing about Ice Mile swimming and about some negative aspects. I’d said that it wasn’t my intention wasn’t anything negative about the the IISA. Since then however I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and to discuss with others, and to look at the wider aspects of Ice Mile swimming. This series now does include negative aspects of the IISA and Ice Mile swimming. I believe very strongly that  the IISA’s current rules are insufficient and could possibly lead to tragedy.

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.

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Fergal’s  writeup is here.

Vanessa’s excellent video is here.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – II – Surprisingly Cold

Driving to Wicklow that morning, it never once occurred to us that the water temperature would be cold enough. I was absolutely fine with that.

Here’s anther stupid thing we are doing on yet another early morning“, may have been something Dee said.

We passed over the Wicklow Gap pass, and there was no snow or ice on the mountain tops. The outside air temperature was about two degrees Celsius on the high pass.

We reached Lough Dan just after ten a.m. It’s the main outdoor location for Ireland’s Scout troops but there weren’t any present this weekend. Down at the lake edge everyone had arrived before us, and there were many people milling about, from kayakers and family, to support and safety personnel and half- and mile swimmers. North Channel “earliest, coldest and boldest” Fergal Somerville, the man behind the swim, and others were busy erecting a welcome new addition, a large tent for changing.

After 10 or 15 minutes of chat, I asked about the temperature and was surprised to hear it was somewhere around three degrees. I literally did not believe that but Fergal pointed out the four thermometers out on the rocks around the cove for me to check. They did indicate a range of temperatures from 3.0 ° to 3.5 °Celcius. So it looked like the Ice Mile swim attempt was on!

Four thermometers for certainty.
Four thermometers for certainty.

I did have an initial reaction that the water was again too cold for me. If an Ice Mile can be done at exactly 5.0 ° C., then honestly that’s the temperature at which I’d prefer to do it the swim. I am not in an ego match with anyone who can swim in even colder water. But such precision or luck is not in the nature of Irish weather and water.

Unlike last year though, once that initial reaction passed, I was always going to do the swim. If last year there was only a 25% chance I might do it, this year there was only a 25% chance I wouldn’t do it. To allocate a greater degree of certainty would be to ignore the ever-changing nature of cold and open water swimming and many lessons learned over years of open water swimming. 75% was what I needed.

Mentally I was engaged. After years of hurling myself into cold water, I’ve long ago shed fear and even nervousness and I’ve discarded negative pre-swim thoughts. I might have put myself into this trap, but that didn’t mean I was going to be negative about it. Such a mindset is not conducive to extreme cold water swimming. A swimmer needs to be positive and in control of their thought processes, because that is all they have power over. I was going to swim my way out of this trap.

There were originally ten swimmers planning to take on the full mile challenge, with nine present on the day of whom four were already Ice Milers from last year: Fergal Somerville, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery and Finbarr Hedderman.

To those were added the Aspirants; Moldavan Irish-based Ion Lazarenco, Swiss and also Irish-based speedster Sabrina Weidmer, Eastern Bay Channel Aspirant Paraic Brady, Waterford triathlete Donal Jacob, and myself. There was another group of swimmers who would attempt an 800 metre (half mile) swim.

Two-time English Channel swimmer Eoin Gaffney was on time and lap keeping duty out on a pontoon for the 400 metres laps. Five kayakers and a RIB. A medical Doctor (and swimmer) Nicole Gilliland. Three Fire Brigade staff, all extremely experienced and knowledgeable open water swimmers and paramedics, Tom Mr Awesome Healy, Irish Republic English Channel record holder, his partner Rachel Lee, holder of multiple Irish swimming records, and Alan Smith from Waterford, who had a big effect on the Sandycove Swimmers in his methodical planning. And more:  John Daly,  English Channel Solo and Ice Miler, Mark Lynch, Eastern Bay SC and organiser, Declan Proctor, Swim Director, Barry O’Shaughnessy, Lough Dan Scout Leader. Families and individual helpers and even multiple dogs.

Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing
Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing

There may have been 50 people present to help us out, to watch over us, to keep us safe. All necessary. All potentially essential.

In the last post I wrote:

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel.

Eastern Bay Swim Club’s Declan, Mark and  Fergal put on the safest, best planned and supported Ice Mile conceivable.

This was an Invitation Only event. The swimmers all had a record of recent cold water training, medicals, and all were known to the organisers and most of us knew each other and Fergal knew each of us. At the start of the winter he had requested we each keep training logs (which I do anyway). We all had recent medicals. I’d been swimming more than last winter, though the extraordinary series storms of mid-December to mid-February had severely impaired almost everyone over the preceding four weeks, when I’d only managed two ocean swims. At 76 kg. I weigh all of 1.4 kg more than last year. Not much, and not what I wanted to be (77-78kg) but more importantly, I haven’t had a recent weight loss like last year.

A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG!
A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG

The safety briefing was comprehensive and included all the important caveats which which open water swimmers should be familiar:

  • It’s only a swim. You can always swim another day.
  • You MUST obey anyone in a boat if told to get out.
  • You can always pull out and you are never more than 200 metres from land.
  • You can always swim another day. Always worth repeating.

A very important rule was added for this specific event:

  • Swimmers must be on the last 400 metre lap by 40 minutes or at least making steady progress to the finish. (Otherwise they would be too slow and too cold). Swimmers also could not stop, tread water or switch to breaststroke, all excellent local rules to ensure safety.

At about 11.10 a.m, as people drifted from the safety briefing to get ready, I spoke quietly in an aside with Tom Mr Awesome Healy.

Tom. I’ll get badly cold. I wanted to warn you, so it doesn’t come as a shock.

I think I may told him not to panic, which Tom with swim and Fire Brigade and paramedic experience was absolutely NOT going to do anyway. I’m sure he’ll forgive me.

It’s good you know yourself Donal. Thanks for letting me know.”

All the swimmers before the start.
All the swimmers before the start.

*

I hadn’t planned to split the account of the Ice Mile into two parts. However, I did not wish to de-emphasise the excellent support of and importance of Eastern Bay Swim Club’s pre-eminent support and the safety aspects of such a swim. Therefore the next part will cover the entire swim itself.

Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed
Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed

Ice Mile Dilemmas – I – The Trap

Sometime back in winter of 2010, Sandycove Island Channel swimmer and local legend Finbarr Hedderman and I discussed attempting an Ice Mile.  At the time the International Ice Swimming Association was very new and less than a dozen people had joined its ranks, and half of those were the founders. For those unaware of the Ice Mile challenge:

1) You are better off.

2) It’s a mile (1600 metres) swum in open water of temperatures of five degrees Celsius or lower, wearing only standard swim costume and cap. It’s pretty much as least as horrible as it sounds, and in probably worse. It’s governed by the International Ice Swimming Association founded in 2009 in South Africa by five swimmers. The goal for the IISA is to have the Ice Mile introduced to the Winter Olympics.

InternationalIceSwimmingAssociation_logo

In retrospect the best time for me to have done an ice-mile would have been the previous winter of 2009/10 when I was training for the English Channel and doing a lot of cold water and the Association had just been founded but unfortunately my time machine is temporally out-of-order. (Gee, I wrote a time machine joke.). 

I’m going to put an important disclaimer and reminder here early on, and a subject to which I will return. I cannot stress these enough.

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel. An Ice Mile should not ever be attempted casually, and for most people should never be attempted.

The temperatures here in Ireland are marginal in two ways: For most of the year the temperatures are such that only experienced open water swimmers are comfortable in our cool water. The other margin is that the cold winter sea temperatures usually hover about six degrees Celsius, just above the prerequisite five degrees to allow an Ice Mile attempt.

Therefore any Ice Mile attempt in Ireland usually requires co-operative (cold) weather and there are only a few usable locations, the most suitable of which are cold mountain lakes.

As those who read this blog last winter will recall, English and earliest-and-coldest-ever North Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville hosted on an Ice Mile attempt at Dublin’s North Wall in February of 2013. We didn’t get the necessary temperature, and I suffered significant post-swim hypothermia due mainly to a then-recent  weight loss of almost six kilos. I’m not a big person anyway so that was not insignificant weight loss. I turned down another opportunity just a week later to join others of my good friends and personal heroes Finbarr Hedderman, Ciarán Byrne and Rob Bohane in an Ice Mile swim in the Kerry Mountains.  A few weeks later Fergal again hosted another Ice Mile attempt, moving location to Lough Dan in the Wicklow Mountains.

That day in 2013, surrounded by snow and ice, my mind mostly elsewhere, I decided against swimming the full mile, ans swam half the distance, partly because of the very low temperatures; one point four degrees through surface ice at the lake edge. And partly because I was just wasn’t at all mentally engaged for personal reasons that weekend. I remember saying to Dee that I didn’t have it in me that day to mentally go where I would need to go in order to complete the mile.

Indeed I wrote here afterwards: “most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but [knew they] would come with a physical price. And I also know that sometimes pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do”. 

I’ve got a little thing I like to say when appropriate. It’s not poetry or memorable but I really believe it very strongly and it’s my own open water mantra:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

That day Fergal, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery, John Daly and Carmel Collins all completed the swim and became Ice Milers, all excellent cold water swimmers.

Glendalough log MG_1374_01 (Unsharp 3.0).resized
Taken at Glendalough Upper Lake, hours after the 2012 Lough Dan Ice Mile.

It was unexpected that afterwards people both commiserated with me and congratulated me on my decision, even at the CS&PF Channel Dinner in the UK. I wasn’t at all bothered by not doing the swim and was happier with making a personal educated decision to not swim the full mile, (despite irresponsible pressure from one swimmer). I made that decision based on knowing myself; my experience, my physiological state and my thought processes.

One year later, in this 2013/2014 winter, which isn’t as cold as last year’s bitter season, Fergal and The Eastern Bay Swim Club once again decided to host an invitation-only Ice Mile attempt in Lough Dan high up (relatively speaking, our mountains are low) in the Wicklow Mountains. The actual date stayed flexible to allow for weather and temperature changes. but the third and fourth weeks are usually the coldest water temperature here. The date was finally fixed one week beforehand and I indicated I’d accept the invitation and made my final decision to go only 24 hours beforehand. But honestly, with the milder temperature, I certainly did not think we would have the necessary low temperature, nor did most of the other attendees. And I wasn’t at all bothered. A swim at six degrees would suit me fine and I’d be hypothermic afterwards anyway.

Now let me say, and this is also important and key to this whole thing, that I’ve changed my mind about the Ice Mile challenge over the last couple of years since Finn and I first discussed it, starting before last year’s attempts and solidifying early last year. I was no longer particularly interested in the challenge for myself.  I’ll get into those thoughts about the Ice Mile challenge later in this series.

So this was the context of my first dilemma.

I write about cold water swimming. It’s my favourite subject, my favourite palette, and my articles on the subject (index on top right of the page!) are part of what define Loneswimmer.com.

I love cold water, love that bite. But it’s Hobson’s Choice: We don’t have warm water here so it’s cold water or no water, love it or leave it. I also believe in trying to help educate about open water and cold water swimming’s dangers and benefits.

And specifically, I also know that I like cold water, down to about six degrees Celsius (42.8° F).

Sure, I can and have, swum in water of five degrees and colder. But I don’t (always) enjoy it. The balance of reward versus difficulty doesn’t really work for me unless I also reduce the time commensurately. At five degrees, 15 to 20 minutes is fine. (For me). At four degrees, I don’t like swimming longer than 12 to 15 minutes. I also don’t want to increase my weight significantly, nor do I want to push the swimming time limit weekend after weekend, as I would need to do and have previously done, to increase my cold tolerance. For most of the coldest winter months here, I generally swim anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes depending on the day and conditions and month. I want to enjoy it, to explore my own mind while doing so, to feel what inspiration may come.

But there’s an increase in attention to the International Ice Mile Association and the numbers doing Ice Mile swims are growing, particularly in such areas of regular cold water swimming as Ireland, the UK, South Africa and the northern latitude American continent. I started to feel pressured.

How can we take Donal’s writing on cold seriously? He’s not even an Ice Miler“.

It was a mental construct and a trap entirely of my own making. Sure, I knew it for the fancy that it was. But I couldn’t shrug it off and I still felt I needed to do an Ice Mile, if only for the sake of my existing cold water writing, rather than any particular desire to achieve the target.

We do this, us stupid swimming apes, build imaginary mental obstacles and make them real, and sometimes impossible. I’m a master at it.

*

Allied with this was another dilemma, what I think of as The Paul Kimmage Effect.

Paul Kimmage was a Irish professional cyclist in the late eighties and early nineties. He was not successful and retired quickly and wrote a very good expose of his experience and the drug culture of cycling, including his own use of prohibited substances. He later became one of the long-term key anti-Lance Armstrong journalists and subject to one of Lance Armstrong’s more famous and vicious attacks.

Because Kimmage (of whom I am a fan) had not been successful in his cycling career and because he had exposed something that many cyclists didn’t want discussed, he was heavily criticised and even disregarded.

There are aspects of this challenge that I wanted to write about that I felt could be disregarded if I myself had not completed the challenge. Ironically, I had built that trap myself by completing the half mile swim last year. Had I said up front that I wasn’t at all going to even attempt that swim and proceeded from there, subsequent discussion may have been easier as I’d have just been an educated observer and commentator. Otherwise I’d have been one of the people who didn’t or couldn’t do it. So this really felt like a Catch 22.

I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I felt I would probably have to do it sometime.

Cold Water Acclimatization

This post was a companion to HABITUATION, both of which I wrote in early 2010. Since I revisited and largely rewrote that as Cold Water Habituation, my plan was to do the same in this post also.

Acclimatization (acclimatisation for those of us who forego the use of the z)  is a different factor to habituation.

While habituation is simply the process of adapting to getting into cold water, acclimatization is about a person’s ability to stay in cold water for longer.

(Acclimation is the same process but done in controlled or lab conditions).

In brief, as every open water swimmer knows, the more you train in cold water, the better you will be able to tolerate the cold, and the longer you will be able to swim in the water.

Acclimatization is a more difficult and often almost mysterious process than habituation. It takes longer to develop and longer to lose. It tests one far more, requiring a greater willingness to push ourselves.

I’ve luckily gotten to know a lot of cold water swimmers, originally through the Sandycove swimmers group, many of whom say you can think your way through cold, at least up, to a certain point. I know one swimmer and psychologist who helps people in this area, and stress overcoming the fear, that the swimmer should tell themselves that they are warm when they feel the cold, or to focus on different subjects, or to imagine they swimming in warm water, etc. These are classic sports visualization methods that are used to transcend different problems.

Guillamenes platform during winter storm, long exposure
The Guillamenes platform during a winter storm, (long exposure)

I have certainly found for myself that even getting into  6 or 7 º C., after the first minutes of pain, that I now have a definite whole-body feeling of warmth, (excepting feet and hands).

However, there is the problem that physics and the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. A favourite quotation of mine is  “eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over everything”. (Yes, I have a melancholy bent). However, this alludes to the fact that entropy increases and heat is lost in everything in the universe. As open water swimmers we are affected by such facts as:

  • One loses heat in water at 30 times the rate in air (thermal conductivity).
  • Heat loss is slower on sunny calm days than overcast windy days which strip body heat away even more quickly.
  • You lose 10% of your heat through your head, (in proportion with the rest of your body).
  • The ratio of heat loss is proportional to the volume and surface area, so larger people lose heat more slowly as the ratio of volume to surface area is increased.
  • Fat is an insulator and slows heat loss.
  • Insufficient food and fluids, alcohol intake, illness or not enough sleep all make one feel colder.
  • Pockets of changing water temperatures have a significant effect.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, entropy increases. In the case of swimming, the closed system is the body, the air and the water. heat will flow from the warm body to the cooler water. You lose heat unless you input sufficient heat energy.
  • No-one is immune to heat loss or hypothermia.

Put all that together and all you get is what you already know. You get colder quicker in water, but the rate of change is dependent on a range of factors.

One factor I didn’t put in there is the mental aspect, because it’s difficult to see how thought (Werner Heisenberg & Quantum Mechanics aside :-) ) can have any effect on the rate of change of the system, i.e. how can thought slow your cooling rate? Many experienced swimmers will say you can think your way into extending your time in the water. I’d never been able to say this. I do believe that you can stay calmer, and accept what’s happening, which makes it feel easier.

I think that you get more used to being in cold, and you recognise your early hypothermia indicators better so you can push your limits more. You learn to swim further into your own cold experience. You get better at preparing and recovering. Some of those very experienced swimmers I know have learned to accept and box off the cold, realise it’s there, know the efficiency is decreasing but at the same time know there can be a long gap between the early hypothermia indicators and remaining period during which much swimming can still be done.

The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability
The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability

There is also the case that with improving  habituation, that heart rate and stress hormones decrease, and therefore the person feels better about getting into cold water and less nervous. Less heat will be lost in the initial minutes, which also leads to greater capability. This is the positive adaptive feedback system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The small improvements drive confidence, the confidence allows the swimmer to push themselves while staying more relaxed. The mental aspect of cold water swimming was the single thing I most struggled to understand in my first few years of winter swimming. It seemed too trite, too easy, without really saying anything useful. It is easy to say that mental attitude allows one to swim longer but it has taken me years of winter cold water swimming to really realise this, to integrate it and to try to convey it. To understand what it means and to comprehend the effect that thought has on my own cold acclimatisation and ability, and not least to be able to explain that better for myself and hopefully others.

It has not been a short journey. If I could do it, so can you.

Cold Water Habituation

HABITUATION was one of my very first posts, and the first post I wrote about cold and cold water swimming, over four years ago, little realising it would become my favourite subject. Although it is linked in the Cold Water Articles Index, I decided to air it out and rewrite it. (And change those capitals).

Back then I mentioned how I  had progressed in cold. I used myself as an example to demonstrate progressive cold water ability. I was previously a surfer, wearing wetsuits year round and thinking I knew what real cold was. I later realised I had only ever once been close to getting as cold as I regularly get as an open water swimmer after 30 or 40 minutes. I had been surfing for six hours straight with no hood in winter that time.

 I started swimming open water during summer, but wore a wet-suit for the first winter for very irregular swims, and I was still surfing regularly. Toward the end of my second winter of swimming, which wasn’t as regular as I swim now, I decided to do my first non-wet-suit swim of the year, which was in late March I think, only a month after what is usually the lowest temperature of the winter here. March is still very cold water. 

Ballydowane Cove across to St. John's island
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John’s island

I clearly recall, will never forget in fact, arriving at Ballydowane Cove on a cold Sunday morning, with chest high waves, and feel physical effects of profound apprehension, even fear.

I recall that first experience of 7 or 8 degree water like it was yesterday, and I swam for 10 minutes. Disappearing in the waves, and ending up swimming the short length of the beach, and taking ten minutes to so do, and having warned her I’d only be in for a few minutes, Dee thought I’d been drowned. It seems a long time ago. The fear lasted for the next few swims before it disappeared.

The process of getting inured to getting into cold water is called Habituation.

It is not special, it’s not a reflection of an innate ability to handle cold. it doesn’t mean or signify anything. It’s a purely physical response and almost everyone can do it. (Excluding people with cardiac problems or certain circulatory or cardio-respiratory illness or other underlying contra-indicated health issues).

It will hurt for a few seconds or even a few minutes. Increased adrenaline beforehand may elevate your heart rate before you get in the water. You will find it difficult to breathe the first minute or so. You may flail about for the first one hundred metres. You can just relax and float in the water, you don’t have to swim. In fact that’s what King of the Channel Kevin Murphy prefers to do in cold water.

But, you will also settle and relax and get used to it.

coldI know it won’t kill me.

This is a primary mistake that some people make. They think that other swimmers, (more capable or tougher swimmers than them, in their mind), don’t feel it. They do. I do. It just matters less. Of course I also feel the same about other’s swimmers capability. Somewhere is a swimmer who really is better at cold than everyone. It make be Finbarr Hedderman. Or Kevin. Or Fergal, or Lisa or Alison or someone else. But we are all on the same spectrum of tolerance, just in different locations.

When I wrote this in 2010, I’d just met cold water Sandycove legend and Channel swimmer Finbarr the previous weekend, river swimming in Fermoy in 7½º Celcius (45½F) water, in October. At the time of writing, I wrote that seemed too cold for me as a sudden transition  from sea swimming in 10º Celcius. And I had a few years of cold water swimming behind me already.

It made me feel like he’s good at cold and I’m not. But Finbarr is much taller than I, meaning an overall greater heat retention.  He is also exceptional in his ability. He swam 35 minutes in that temperature. I was seriously impressed. I’m sure it hurt him too though, just as much as a 10ºC (50F) hurt me then.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.
Finbarr’s smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher’s neck. Underwater.

In 2013/2014, I don’t consider that exceptional, and regularly swim the same or longer in that temperature. Of course Finbarr is swimming an hour.

The first few times you immerse yourself in very cold water will provoke a fight-or-flight response, elevating heart rate and stress hormones, potentially leading to anxiety or even fear.

I saw this with a friend recently when we were going for a swim at around 7.5º C. He hadn’t been in cold water for a couple of months so he was very anxious beforehand. He was utterly fine during his swim and afterwards.

Habituation just means becoming accustomed. In our case become accustomed to getting in cold water. It only takes four to six repetitions before the pre-swim anxiety abates and your heart rate to stay controlled. It become easier. The pain of immersion will decrease, though never disappear, and cold shock response will also reduce somewhat. Indeed there are few physical activities from which we can have such a speedy response.

More importantly, is you will realise that it’s not going to kill you. All the pre-swim anxiety will start to diminish. That the pain is not what you anticipated, that your imagination is worse than the reality. That every time you experience that initial response, you are reducing the power that cold may have over you.

You will start to see Cold in a different way, as a more intangible ghost over which you also have power. Until you too are part of this cult.

Cold Shock Response and the Mammalian Diving Reflex in cold water swimming – Positive & Negative Feedback systems

I read a blog recently about cold immersion and cold baths, and cold swimming to a lesser extent. The author was speaking about the positive physical and mental benefits of regular ice baths. Similar benefits to what we as cold water swimmers regularly experience. All well and good. For aspirant Channel swimmers without access to regular cold water swimming, the recommendation for cold showers and baths is old and trusted.

However in his explanation of what was happening in the body the author focused exclusively on the Mammalian Diving Reflex as the primary response of the body when being immersed in cold water and completely ignored or didn’t understand the effect of Cold Shock Response and its place in the equation. (I didn’t save the blog link, sorry.)

That blog wasn’t the only place you see this. If you search on Mammalian Diving Reflex you will see it widely referred as the (only) process  in action when people are immersed or submerged in (cold) water. It’s a classic example of people taking all their knowledge from Wikipedia, because it seems the same Wikipedia core text is used all over the place.

I’ve covered both before and as a cold water swimmer, rather than someone sitting into a cool water bath, and I’ve focused as  much on Cold Shock Response, and the issue of Habituation, the process of getting used to getting into cold water, (not the process of staying in it).

The blog author just cut and pasted a Wikipedia article on Mammalian Diving Reflex, and while the Wikipedia article wasn’t wrong, both it and the blog were incomplete from the perspective of a  cold water swimmer.

So what are each of these and do they interact?

While swimming in Tramore Bay the other day, the water having risen by a degree in two weeks to about 7.5 Celsius, I got thinking about these two responses and how one, Cold Shock Response could be considered a positive feedback system while the Mammalian Diving Reflex could be considered a negative feedback system.

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered about Positive Feedback in a biological sense in open cold water swimming. Previously I considered that the Habituation/Acclimatisation process in cold water swimmers could also be a positive feedback system.

The simple process of improving cold ability
The simple process of improving cold ability

In Systems Theory (and elsewhere) a Positive Feedback System is where a small change causes a further bigger change. Therefore positive feedback is often considered a de-stabilising process. One example might be the international banking system that led to the 2008 collapse: Increased risks led to larger profits which led to larger risks until the system collapsed. However positive feedback can also be a process for change or improvement: If you swim more, you get fitter and able to swim even more, i.e. the training effect. Or the more you get in cold water, the better you get at getting into cold water.

Negative Feedback is often considered a stabilising process, the most common example is a thermostat which regulates heats by switching off when it gets too hot, switching on when it gets too cold: Negative Feedback acts in the opposite direction to the initial impulse.

Cold Shock Response is the bodies response to sudden cold water immersion. It results in varying degrees according to the person’s habituation experience, primarily in elevated heart rate, and elevated stress hormones. It is the elevated heart rate which is dangerous, to lesser extent in the increased chance of cardiac arrest, but more commonly in the chance of aspirating water due to shock and subsequently drowning. Less habituated or experienced swimmers will note an increased heart rate and nervousness even before immersion occurs if they are expecting the cold. I noted some years ago that the first time I ever swam during winter without a wet-suit, I was literally terrified beforehand. Then the initial cold shock drives the heart rate higher. This is a limited example of Positive Feedback, where the initial is destabilised by something (cold) that acts on the input.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is another innate biological response to immersion. As the name implies all mammals exhibit this, human to weaker extent, but it exists to extend the time that animals can survive while submerged by reducing the need for respiration. This occurs in swimmers through two main biological reactions; decreasing heart rate (brachycardia) and therefore slowing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the body, (as excess carbon dioxide is what cause us to have to breathe); our constant companion, peripheral vaso-constriction, where the capillaries and blood flow in the extremities is restricted to allow more oxygenated blood to be available to the heart and brain.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is initiated when the fact is submerged, and this is the reason I have previously written many times that you should splash your face before getting in the water, rather than the incorrect but widely cited slashing water down your back.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is obviously a case of Negative Feedback, where the body reacts in opposition to submersion to protect itself.

So we can see that there is both positive and later negative feedback in operation in cold water swimming, where the negative feedback occurs to stabilise and protect a human through adaptive physiological response. But the initial negative feedback of Cold Shock is very significant and should not be ignores, as so many non-cold water writers seem to do, as it carries its own significant risk factor.

The bottom line though, is that this is another way of saying, that ability in cold water swimming improves with repetition. Habituation improves much more quickly than Acclimatization. In a little as four to five repeats, people become much more comfortable with getting into cold water.

Now get out there!

The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.

The Reverie of Cold

Look away, look away.

My head whirls, sentences and clauses. Words and incantations. I need to hold the intent, remember the state. I need to write. I have swum, and now more than anything, I need to write. More than I need people or food, more even than I need heat, I need to vomit out the words.

This time we run
This time we hide
This time we draw
On all the fire we have inside.

My foot is heavy on the accelerator as I drive homeward, the car’s heater blasting warm air around me, an illusion of warmth, my core temperature still depressed, and dressed as I am in four layers of clothes with a heavy coat, gloves and a wooly hat over all. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

I’m in a fugue, and I know I will soon forget. I am one-millionth of a second displaced from the world and I am untouchable and redeemed. That one-millionth gap is a void. Lone swimming ninja ghost. Invisible, alone. I have tunnel vision and I feel like I’ve taken all the world’s narcotics. But I will warm up and then I shall be returned from the Fey Lands, rewarm and forget the connection. Forget the disconnection. Forget the Fey Lands, forget the fugue, start to distrust myself again. I will become normal and insufficient and lose the brief Redemption.

The Fey Lands. Jotunheim. Tír na nÓg. Tuatha Dé Danann and Lachlanach. Celts and Vikings, on the edge of the World. They knew. Earth, fire, wind and water. Cold also is elemental, a succubus. I can only get there in winter, in cold, through cold, with Cold. There is no map, no Google Earth, no App for the Fey Lands. When we leave the Fey Lands we forget their existence. To remember is madness. Others have found different entrances, different landscapes, different climates. Hell is ice not fire. I neither believe in hell nor heaven. Ascetics, hermits, ecstasists. All pilgrims to the Fey Lands. I’m a pilgrim of Cold. Holymad. I approach by swimming, in cold water, enrobed by cold, into Cold. Soon the Fey Lands will slip away, my memory of their existence will attenuate and dissipate, I will distrust my own words, you will think me cracked, the ecstasy of extremism lost to my mundane failed existence. I will forget the reverie of the Cold. Pools cannot ever do this. Other people are masking agents that stop me losing myself to the Fey Lands. Chlorine and warmth are bulwarks, palisades that stop me throwing down heaven, bar me from finding the Fey Lands. 

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

Do this. Don’t do that. Be careful of. You are not allowed. You will fail. You have failed. I am not capable. I couldn’t. I was not able. I failed. I’m embarrassed. I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t write it. Bollocks. Out there I am invincible, untouchable, inviolate.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

I swim to the edge of the Fey Lands. If things are sufficiently marginal, I will glimpse them from the water. I didn’t know, I never knew, I never know that I am swimming to the Fey Lands. 

Cold water. Cold isn’t cold. It’s fire. It burns your skin. Fingertips sting. The soles of feet excruciate. You feel the entire surface of your body at once, you feel the entire skin of the waters and the world. The Cold possesses you, becomes you. No. You become the Cold. The holy Cold. No synonyms are required, nor sufficient.

The currents were strong. Stronger than in years. Not as strong as me. Not this time. All my years there I never had to swim to avoid that reef. Swept past the steps and the concrete, the water still wants me but I turn back, fight back, swim back. I know, know it’s enough and the time doesn’t matter.

Then I broke loose
You weren’t around
So I raised banks
And trains until I tracked you down.

Out of the water, the first glimpse of the Fey Lands is gone. I only know later there was the glimpse. Or was there?  Illusion. Delusion. I get dressed and feel great, powerful, more alive, more life than one body can hold. I have a window of time. An absolute learnt span when I must get dressed before the Freight Train arrives. Grab my box, shamble up the steps.

Fifty steps. Sea to world. Why fifty? Why does fifty seem important? I know. But I feel great. I’ll go for a walk.

Open the lock box on the car. Fire my stuff inside the boot. It’s here. The Freight Train is here. The Freight Train always arrives, inevitably. No walk. I’ll just sit into the car, turn on the heater. Warm air, warm clothes. I’m on the Freight Train. I am in the fugue. Shivering and shaking, the Freight Train takes me. What will the ride be like this time?

We made some friends
But now it’s done
I always knew that we would
Never find the sun.

Short but intense. The Freight Train isn’t a commuter train. No light shivers here, it’s a ride of clattering shakes and chattering jaw.  I don’t feel cold. I never feel cold. I never feel cold. You misunderstand cold. You walked in the rain and got wet on a cold day? I am a connoisseur of Cold. The Fey Lands are different. Your commuter colours are pastel shades but my Freight Train is primary hues. I am alive on the Freight Train. No nodding off on the Freight Train. No mere commuters on the Freight Train. The Fey Lands are around me on the Freight Train. I see them. You cannot. Are you a pilgrim too? How long will I be on the Freight Train, this time?

Afterdrop. Hypothermia. Cold. Rewarming. Mealy words, accurate but inaccurate.

I just realised I am, what do I say, cool? Chilled is the word. Not cold. Cold, that cold, the Cold, the fugue, is a different state. Cold is sacred. The fugue is gone, I’m off the Freight Train. I catch a branch line back. I’ve left the Fey Lands. 

The words. The words weren’t right. I didn’t hold the intent. The fugue. The Fey Lands. The Reverie of Cold. So easy to lose, to forget. People, hot chocolate, fingers on a keyboard. I’m just a cuckoo again. What are these words about? They consumed me and I don’t know. Did I imagine it all?

I shall just have to swim again. In cold water.

Maybe I’ll stop. Maybe I won’t. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

__________________________________________________________________________________

* Words by Chowning & Randle

HOW TO: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer

[This is a repeat of a post from the last couple of years. This post is pretty popular at this time of year, some editing to previous versions. :-) }

With Christmas coming, many people who would never consider getting in cold water will be thinking of a Christmas or New Year’s Day dip.

If you are wondering WHY you might or should do it, apart from taking part in a local tradition in many places, the great craic of meeting lots of people having similar fun,  doing something that will add more flavour to your Christmas dinner than anything, having a hot punch at the Guillamenes and supporting a local charityand the club I love, then read this.

The experienced cold water swimmers will not need any of this information. And those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are enduring hot weather and warm water have my condolences. And there’s the South Africans, for whom the water can still be cold down there even in mid-Summer.

Guillamenes Christmas swim 2007

I’ll be down at the Guillamenes myself as usual, with the people who never normally go near the sea. The weather forecast for Christmas Day 2013 is pretty poor, winds and rough water, which will reduce the numbers but I’ll still be swimming unless it blows out.

The most important message I can give you is that cold is a skill, not a talent so it can be learned. But if your first cold swim is Christmas Day, you won’t do learn it on that one day. So instead plan and know what to expect. You cannot be too careful around cold water and rocks. Three days before Christmas 2013, the water in Tramore Bay was about 8.5 degrees Celsius, with a very cold strong wind, giving an air chill of two to three degrees Celsius.

PLAN and OBSERVE:

If swimming by yourself, make sure you inform someone where and when and preferably have an observer.

* If it’s an irregular visit, your most important pre-swim action to make sure you know where to exit the water safely. Do not rely on the wisdom of crowds. Many of the people near you will know nothing and some will be acting macho.

* Watch the water before you get in. Regardless of the amount of people in it, if the water is breaking or surging more than about a metre, on steps, rocks or a ladder, the exit will be difficult, dangerous or even impossible.

* If you have been drinking alcohol the night before, don’t do it. Alcohol seriously impairs the body’s ability to deal with cold. The same applies if you haven’t slept the night before. Bravado has no place around cold water swimming when you don’t know what you are doing.

* Consider putting your swimsuit on *before* you go to the sea. You will spend less time getting cold before you swim.

* Make sure you have: a swim cap (silicone or neoprene preferably). If you only have latex, wear a couple of caps; a towel; goggles. And plenty of warm clothes for afterwards. Including a hat and gloves. Warm clothes are many light layers rather than a few heavy ones.

* Bring sandals or deck shoes. Winter swimmer Jack Bright points these are nearly as important as the towel.

* Bring something to stand on while changing. A spare towel, a piece of cardboard, a car mat.

* Forget grease. It does nothing for cold protection and you won’t in long enough to worry about chafing. If you are in long enough to need lubrication, you need none of my advice.

* Neoprene (wetsuit) gloves and booties will significantly reduce the discomfort if you are not used to cold. Wetsuits are definetiely NOT ALLOWED.

Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011
Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011

BEFORE THE SWIM:

* If it’s windy, disrobe from your lower body first. Keep your torso and body warm for longer.

* Change as close to the water as you safely can. You want to reduce the time exposed before and after swimming. Make sure your clothes are above the high water line though.

* Wear the sandals as close to the edge as you can. The ground usually will be colder than the sea. Cold = numb = lacerations = blood.

* DO NOT STAND AROUND TALKING once you are changed. Get to the water.

* IT’S NORMAL TO BE NERVOUS. Your body is adapted to avoid cold. Just be positive. Accept the increased heart rate. Tell yourself you are a swimming god.

* It’s not a competition. Depending on your location there may be lots of people who don’t know what they are doing in the water that day. There will be 100s at my regular spot, whereas the weekend before there’s just me. Stay clear and watch everything. Move carefully.

* SPLASH WATER on your face before immersion. This indicates to your body extreme cold is coming (by which I include temperatures of up to 12C/55F. I can’t take someone calling 14C/58F cold seriously, no matter how I try). It will allow your heart rate to settle quicker.

* Just as you get in … tell yourself it’s warm. It doesn’t matter if you hear the sucking sound of body parts rapidly shrinking inwards. Cold is partially about attitude. Tell yourself it’s actually better than you thought: Hell, it’s almost warm. I was worried about this?

* DO NOT DIVE IN. Just don’t do it. I don’t care how tough you think you are. Unless you are a very experienced cold water swimmer this is a dumb thing to do. It causes heart attacks and rock impacts. But don’t stand there trying to get in either. Walk in to your waist. Splash the water. Then off you go. No more than one minute getting immersed.

RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim
RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim

DURING THE SWIM:

* Without experience it is difficult to get the face into cold water. This is normal.

* Cold stimulates the gasp reflex through increased heart rate. After the initial 10 seconds It makes breathing difficult for the first three minutes. This is also normal. And why you splash water on your face and get in slowly.

* STAY CALM.

* Change your breathing pattern to head above water or breathing every stroke or 2nd stroke.

* DO NOT STOP IN THE WATER

* HAVE A GREAT TIME. Feel like a hero. Do 10 metres. Or 20 or 50 or 500 metres. It won’t kill you. Probably.

After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.
After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, the Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.

EXITING:

* Watch your exit. Be careful. It is at this point most lacerations occur on the feet, legs and hands.

* Get your footwear on immediately and get to your clothes.

* If the temperature is below 10C, you will likely be a vivid lobster-red colour. Your skin will also be tingling all over your body. You will go from pain to numbness. There is no in-between.

AFTER YOUR SWIM:

* AFTER-DROP is dangerous. You have only a few minutes before its onset unless you only in a short time. After-drop is the body temperature dropping after you exit the water. It’s not a problem if you are only in a couple of minutes, though that time is less if the temperature is 5C (40F) or under.

* DO NOT VIGOROUSLY TOWEL YOURSELF. It speeds up the arrival of Afterdrop.

* Dry the torso first. Dress the torso.

* Then put on a hat.

* Then dress the lower body.

* Then and only then, have your chat, your hot chocolate or soup.

FEEL GREAT, job well done!

Go home and stuff yourself, secure in the knowledge you are a winter swimmer, at least once anyway.

Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012
Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012

Related articles

WHY would anyone swim in cold water? (loneswimmer.com)

Cold Water Swimming Articles Index

Snow & Ice on the platform
Once you’ve swum during snow, you’re a true cold water swimmer

This post is an index with a very brief explanation of each of the specifically cold swimming related articles I’ve written, so one can scan the entire list for what is most relevant for their question or area of specific interest.

I was a bit surprised to see just how many I’ve written.

Articles sometimes tackle a similar area from a different angle, some focus on one small aspect of the cold-water swimming experience. This is a body of articles with which I’m quite happy.

If I could impart one simple message, it’s this:

Cold water swimming is dangerous, difficult and requires repetition to improve. No-one does it naturally or easily and knowledge is your ally.

By exploring the many aspects of cold; environmental, physiological and psychological, I hope to help you understand cold better and therefore become a more confident cold water swimmer. These articles therefore are intended to help swimmers adapt to cold water swimming.

It is really important to repeat that most of us are not naturally good at tolerating cold. (I certainly am not). Cold should be seen as something you train for, the same as any other aspect of your swimming.

The Ten Commandments of Cold Water Swimming. I am a prophet of cold water! :-)

The Golden Rules of Cold Water Swimming. For when Ten Commandments are too much.

Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming
Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming

Habituation. The process of getting used to getting into cold water. This is where it all starts and was therefore the first cold water swimming article I wrote.

Acclimatization. the process of developing tolerance for staying in cold water.

Introducing a Precise Open Water Temperature Scale. This site’s most popular article.

The Reverie of Cold. What I consider the best article on cold or maybe ever, that I’ve written.

“What temperature of water is too cold to swim in”. The most common search term leading into this site.

“What temperature of water is too cold to swim in” Redux. An updated version of the above post with a fuller list of factors affecting the answer.

I just can’t handle the cold“. Part 1Part 2 (What is the Vagus nerve and why is it important?), Part 3 (Fear). This is a phrase I hear a lot. Why this belief is irrelevant and why you, or I, are not special when it comes to cold.

WHY would anyone swim in cold water? Trying to answer the LEAST asked question about cold water swimming.

One of my hypothermia experiences. It happens to us all. That’s part of the deal.

Cold water and cold immersion shock, the first three minutes. It’s really important to understand what happens the body in the vital first few minutes of swimming in cold water.

The Worst Three Minutes. A not-often acknowledged aspect of cold water swimming.

How To: Prepare for cold water swim. Practical precautions around cold water swimming.

Prepare, Monitor, Recover. A short article on part of experienced cold water swimmers’ ethos.

Men, women and cold. Understanding gender differences in cold water exposure and tolerance.

Brown Fat vs. white fat. Interesting and very relevant recent scientific findings that have direct relevance to cold water swimmers.

Brown Fat. A revised version of the previous post.

Merino wool, my favourite cold weather clothes for per & post swimming.

The cumulative effective of cold water swimming. How it feels to swim in really cold water for many consecutive days.

Six hour swim in sub-eleven degree water. The second toughest swim I’ve ever done.

Christmas and New Year’s Day swim advice. Comprehensive advise for irregular swimmers in cold water. Applies to any irregular swims and swimmers.

coldExtreme Cold Water Adaptation in Humans. A five-part series trying to tease out all the various factors  of cold adaptation: Part 1 Asking the questions about individual variability, Part 2 (habituation and acclimatization), Part 3  (metabolic responses), Part 4 (further physiological responses), Part 5 (conclusion).

How we FEEL cold water. Concerning the body’s thermo-receptive response to cold water.

Always wear a belt. A lesson learned (and sometimes forgotten) about cold water swimming.

Peripheral vaso-constriction. The bodies primary physiological response to cold, in picture.

Wearing a watch. The primary safety device on cold water.

The important of stroke and the deficiencies of Total Immersion type swimming in cold water. Following the wrong advice for cold water is dangerous. Stroke rate is very important.

“Is the water too cold to swim”? Another different take on this popular question.

Winter. I like it. I hate it. The dichotomy of a cold water swimmer’s thoughts.

Come with me on this cold water swim. As close as I can take you to my experiences of swimming in cold water during the Irish winter.

Cold water swimming and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Another experiential post of cold water swimming, with some musing.

Understanding the Claw. What is the Claw and why do cold water swimmers get it?

“Where did my Claw go?”  Further discussion on the Claw amongst experienced swimmers, the Claw being a common occurrence for cold water swimmers.

How To – Understanding Mild Hypothermia in swimmers. To address hypothermia, it is best to understand it. Mild hypothermia is more common than not amongst cold water swimmers.

How To – Understanding Moderate and Severe Hypothermia in swimmers. There’s nothing moderate about Moderate hypothermia.

How To – Diagnosing and addressing Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers. Understanding cold for support crew.

Speaking as a Coldologist… Analysing (and debunking) a claim to cold adaptation through meditation.

Cold water swimming and alcohol. They don’t mix and are a dangerous combination. This is important.

Ice Miles: My First Attempt, Part One (The swim). My First Attempt, Part Two (Post swim and analysis). My Second Attempt. Ciarán Byrne’s report of the successful Lough Iochtar Ice Mile.

What is Cold Water Diuresis in swimmers? Another physiological response to cold explained.

The relevance of shivering in cold water swimming. Yet another important to understand physiological response to cold.

The Magic Number. A consideration of transitional temperatures in cold water swimming.

The Magic Number

Cold water swimmers have a finely tuned thermo-receptive sense, an ability to judge water temperature reasonably accurately, just from how it feels on our skin. It’s something that develops with time, experience and swimming.

As an experienced pool manager my friend Clare told me that regular bathers will notice a temperature difference in warm water of half a degree. So you can imagine that cold water swimmers will probably have a similar ability.

I’ve written and often referenced my Precise Open Water Temperature Scale, one of this site’s most popular articles. It was a humourous attempt to convey some of that precision and personal experience. And the search term that still brings people in for this subject and is another of the site’s other most popular articles “what temperature of water is too cold to swim in“.

We refine this innate temperature-sensing ability as a result of regular immersion and the training of various aspects of the physiological response; habituation lowering our pre-immersion heart rate and eventually lowering stress hormones, and acclimatisation improving our cold exposure times, and we also get better at evaluating our thermo-receptive reaction. Of course you can only say that water feels like twelve degrees, if you have an actual thermometer so that you can do the comparison.

In those previous posts I’ve deliberately not put a precise figure on the question of what is too cold, because there are too many variables: the person experience, height and weight, the ambient air temperature and the local climate, the wind, the person’s drive to swim and more. I once read a Philippines swimmer say that water temperature of 21 degrees Celsius was too cold to swim. Of course the climate and ambient there is not just warm, but hot. Relatively cold water occurs at a higher temperature the higher the air temperature. The burden of constant cold for open water swimmers in Ireland, the UK and some other locations such as the Atlantic coast of South Africa, having no choice but to swim in cold water, is also an advantage, as we must acclimatise.

Nonetheless it is a fact that here in Ireland and in the UK and many other places such as the swimmers of San Francisco or Chicago, there is a Magic Number. That number is ten degrees Celsius, which (helpfully) is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 10°/50° we could call it.

The Magic Number comes and goes. It goes when we get it in November or early December when the temperature is dropping and there’s rarely any temporary recovery. Once the water drops to 10°C, winter is here and there is little impetus to try to extend swims.

On the other hand we wait anxiously for the Magic Number to arrive, for the water to reach that level after the six long months of cold. The cold isn’t gone but at ten degrees hour-long swims can occur, often much more. Ten degrees, fifty degrees tease us more. The Magic Number may slide up for a weekend or a week only for the water to dip back to nine degrees again. It will probably, in a normal year, make its first appearance in April and dip again in early May.

Cold Guillamenes.resized.rotatedLocations that were out of reach over the winter are once more attainable. Tramore pier and back or Doneraile Head laps can resume. I can start swimming to the Metalman or around Brown’s Island again, each year like rediscovering those locations anew. The Sandycove swimmers will be double-lapping the island. Our swimming range extends and the world grows large again. 

At ten degrees Celsius, fifty degrees Fahrenheit, the watery world is ours once again.

What temperature of water is too cold to swim in? It’s not 10°/50°. That’s the Magic Number.

The relevance of shivering in open water swimming

- Apologies to those email subscribers who saw this earlier in the week and are seeing it now again.

For this post, let’s take all the usual pre-swim and first three minutes stuff for granted.

You’re in the water. The water is cold. And you are cold. We start there.

Thermometer

The water is about 10° degrees and you’ve been in for say 30 minutes (without a wetsuit). I’m picking 10° Celsius for a very specific reason, that most people will agree it’s either cool or cold, but many people will still start to stretch out their swimming times at that temperature. So 10°C and 30 minutes is a compromise. It may require colder water and longer times for some, and shorter times and warmer water for others.

The day is overcast and a little breezy. Therefore you are receiving no external heat input from the sun or the ambient temperature.

Donal's Claw
Donal’s Claw

You have The Claw and can no longer touch your little finger to your index finger. You still have 500 metres to get back to your exit point and you feel you need to warm up. So you swim harder. You metabolise more ATP, some of which provides the energy to propel your arms and legs faster, and some goes to produce excess heat, which helps warms you slightly. But your limbs are really cold and it can’t warm you enough.

Brown Fat distribution
Brown Fat distribution

Luckily , you’ve been swimming in cold water regularly and you have built-up some brown fat (Brown Adipose Tissue, aka BAT)  on your shoulders and lower back. BAT doesn’t develop all over like ordinary fat but in those specific parts of the body. You don’t realise it, but the brown fat has also been burning calories specifically to provide heat for you, as unlike ordinary white fat, BAT is metabolically active. Ordinary white fat provides energy by being an ATP store and of course it also insulates. But BAT along with some insulation, burns ATP to produce heat, the blood flows through the BAT and warms up. This is known as NST, Non-shivering Thermogenesis. NST is not sudden, it starts when you are exposed to cold and the BAT is insulating and protecting you immediately, and also providing heat.

BAT ubduced denergizationMaybe you’ve forgotten your watch, or made a distance mis-calculation or the tide is stronger than you realised, and result is the exit is still 1000 metres away. And while the BAT is useful it also consumes your energy reserves more quickly.

A kilometre is a long way when you are really cold. Now you can no longer touch your little finger to your index finger. Your fingers are fully spread. You can’t swim at the same rate you were and start to slow down. And then you get a little shudder. And then another. And then you are shivering in the water.

Shivering is the body’s last attempt to warm itself. Like with any exercise, like with all your swimming, not just at speed, your body is burning more ATP again in a desperate attempt to warm you up. Like all your metabolic processes this is an ancient evolutionary step, from the eons  before we had mastered clothes and heat, even before we’d shed our fur, cold nights on the African plains. And here are, us stupid swimming apes, voluntarily shedding our learned advantages and protections and stepping into a lethal environment where we no longer have a natural protection. And all we have left to protect us from death by hypothermia is a desperate last little biological process. A biological process that evolved … FOR LAND. Not for water where direct conduction of heat away from the body is 30 times the convection heat-loss rate of air. This isn’t the normal shivering we experience during Afterdrop, because then it is helpful for rewarming.

In water, shivering is dangerous and accelerates remaining energy and heat loss.

Shivering will not heat you in water. It will not protect you. Every experienced open water swimmer will tell you, that once shivering in the water develops you are in real danger. (And that’s excluding the fact that you were already in danger merely by being in the cold water to begin). This on our scale, where cold water itself is low down.

If shivering starts, get out of the water.

If you have started shivering you should have already been out of the water. If it happens when you are in the water, you need to get out immediately. If you are crew and your swimmer starts shivering forget about stroke counts or cognitive tests or anything else, and pull them out immediately.

Cold water swimming ability comes from experience. It’s not a talent. It is a skill. Skills can be learned. Part of the skill is developing the knowledge and experience to avoid swimming until you start shivering while still in the water. The learning process for some people (like myself) is facilitated by knowledge.

Guest article – Ciarán Byrne – Lough Iochtar Ice Mile

As long-time readers will know, Rob The Bull Bohane, Ciarán Byrne and Finbarr Hedderman are all Sandycove Island Swim Club members, English Channel Soloists and very good friends. Ciarán and Rob are two members of our 2010 Magnificent Seven Channel training squad. All three are very experienced open and cold water swimmers, and are three of the people I most like and trust swimming with (when Finbarr is not trying to drown me). 

Recently all three took part in another ice-mile, the week prior to the Lough Dan Ice Mile and I’m delighted to have Ciarán’s account of the swim.  (I was to be part of the attempt but for various reasons decided against it). I’ll stress that these three swimmers have a wealth of cold water experience, and the helpers and assistants as you can see below also have great experience. The location was in the Kerry Mountains in the south-west of Ireland. (Lough is the Irish for lake, by the way and is pronounced “lock”).

*

Ice Mile Lough Iochtar, Kerry, 10th Feb 2013.

Ram Barkai from South Africa set up the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009. To become a member you must swim a mile (1609.3m) in water of 5.0°C or under. At time of writing there have been 51 recorded ice swims by less than 50 swimmers.

Sandycove Island Swim club decided to join the fun. We scouted the sea and lakes in Cork and Kerry. Through Rob’s Kerry connections 3 lakes about half way up Carrauntoohil (Ireland’s highest mountain at just over 1000 metres- Ed.) were identified which were accessible by 4×4 vehicles.

Lough Iochtar
The peak of Carrauntoohill on the bottom right, small Lough Iochtar on the upper left, Coomloughra Lough in the middle and Lough Eagher on the right respectively.

Rob, Finbarr and I agreed to try one of these lakes on Sun 10th Feb.

Leaving Cork on the morning of the 10th the weather was great. Clear blue skies ahead. We went first to Lough Acoose to meet the great support team from the Sandycove Island Swim Club. Lisa (English Channel Two-way swimmer), Eddie (Triple Crown Swimmer), Carol (Lake Zurich silver medallist and Irish Masters Squad member) and Pascal (Finbarr’s dad).

We met the Kerry Mountain Rescue team of John Dowd, John Cronin and Angela O’Connor near the water treatment plant. We headed up in two 4-wheel drive cars including the fully equipped Kerry Mountain Rescue Ambulance.

When we reached the first of three lakes, Lough Iochtar, we stopped for a look. Lough Iochtar is a small lake approx 300m long and approx 75 metres at its widest point. It’s at 440m elevation. There was a small stone beach near the road. It looked ideal.

The next check was the water temp. Below 5C. We were in business. The temperatures taken
during the swim were 4.5, 4.9 and 4.8C. Average 4.7C. The air temp was 3°C. There was a cold wind and the wind chill was -3C.

The altitude didn’t adversely impact our breathing. That was something that had concerned us about the location. We unloaded the jeeps and set to measuring the swim distance. We went for old school. Rob had brought a measured 50m length of line. Rob and John used it to measure out a 100M course. We marked the ends with fluorescent jackets.

DSCN0047.resized

The plan was to complete eight loops of the 200M course, which was marked 10 metres from the start, the ends of the course to be marshalled by observers. The wind was picking up so we got a group photo and then got changed.

Ice Mile team. Finbarr, Ciaran & Rob are the centre three
Ice Mile team. Finbarr, Ciaran & Rob are the centre three

Eddie and Carol put on their wetsuits in case they needed to help any of us out of the water.

Lisa helped set up the GPS tracker on my goggles. We were going for high and low tech on this swim. We each had an observer to count strokes and watch for signs of hypothermia. Eddie for Rob, Carol for Fin and Lisa for me. We had agreed that if there was a sharp drop in stroke rate that we’d be pulled. We pre-arranged a signalling system to warn us when we had to come out. The back-up was that in the event of no response Eddie or Carol would swim in to get us out.

We got changed on the beach. One standard silicon cap, ear plugs, one pair of standard togs and goggles. A little Vaseline under the armpits for chafing. Pascal gave words of encouragement. We shook hands and set off. The large stones were sore on the feet. The water biting at the feet.

DSCN0050.resized

The first couple of metres were shallow. There was then a sharp drop off so we slid into the water and into our stroke. The experience in the first 100M was not unlike our experience in Tooting Bec Lido at the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. The hands soon got icy cold. The arms felt tight at the stretch. The first 200M passed quickly. I had completed the Endurance swim (450M) at the CWSC so I knew I could go that far. However I was concerned that I was so cold so early. The next 200M were tough. My hands were as cold as they were in the endurance swim and I had another 1200M plus to go! Nothing for it but to keep swimming. Concentrate on the stroke.

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Eddie manned the nearest mark and Carol the far one. Turning at the end of the 100M was a
challenge. Once you passed the fluorescent vest you had to turn in deep water. I had a near collision with Rob after the 600M turn. He had turned ahead of me and I was breathing to the right looking for the mark. No damage done and quickly back into the swim. After 600M I started to settle into the swim. I was closing in on the half way mark. I wasn’t getting any colder. My stroke was holding up. The sun had come out and was very welcome. After 1400M my feet got very cold and borderline cramping – I knew if I kicked too hard I would cramp. We got the whistle for the final loop. Head down and go for it.

I came into the finish. Fin had finished first, well ahead. The Lough Iochtar Monster. He came into his own in the second half of the swim and left us behind. Rob was in next and I came in not too far behind.

After the turn
After the turn

I tried to get in as close as possible to avoid wading in over the rocks. They were going to be painful. I was very unsteady on my feet and Pascal helped me up and gave me my crocks. Lisa was waiting with my towel. Carol came over to help Lisa get my jacket on. Then straight into a warm Jeep to get dressed. Lisa was great, organising my clothes, getting tea and making sure I was ok. Once dressed I got into the front into the heated seat – pure luxury.

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We were all a bit unsteady on our feet when we go out. Fin didn’t need the car to get changed. He seemed unfazed by the swim and probably could have done a double. Rob got changed outside but soon joined me in the jeep and recovered quickly as well.

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After about 20 mins we were all in good shape. The wind had picked up and it was starting to rain. We certainly got the best of the weather for our swim. We decided it was time to get our gear together and head back down to Killarney.

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I’d like to thank the great support we got from our Sandycove friends, Lisa, Carol, Eddie and Pascal, Angela from Caherciveen and the two Johns from the Kerry Mountain Rescue. These events are not possible without volunteers who freely give their time to help others reach their goals. We believe this is the highest altitude ice mile in Europe.

Lough Dan Ice Mile Swim Attempt

Late last week the opportunity to make another Official Ice Mile attempt was offered by Dublin and English Channel swimmers Fergal Somerville and John Daly, this time the attempt to be made in Lough Dan, up in the Wicklow Mountains. Since the previous attempt I had already turned down another opportunity the previous week in the Kerry Mountains, (a report of which I’ll have for you soon).

I told Fergal I wouldn’t be able to make it, and that was still pretty much the case only 24 hours beforehand. However, after a night with four and half hours sleep, lying awake at five a.m., I decided I’d at least attend, and maybe consider it. And so it was that Dee and I left at seven a.m. for the estimated two-hour journey up. Passing Hollywood, (not quite like the better known, younger and more brash American version) we rose gradually up to the Wicklow Gap, and minus four degrees air temperatures with two inches of snow, staring down the long miles of the Wicklow Way to the dawn sun briefly breaking the clouds and shining on the distant Irish Sea. It was stunningly beautiful of course, and nerve-wracking to drive. We were driving almost an hour from when we encountered the first snow and ice before we arrived at Lough Dan just before nine-thirty a.m.

The Wicklow Way and the Irish Sea on the horizon
The Wicklow Way from the Wicklow Gap with the Irish Sea on the horizon

Lough Dan is a Scout and hiking centre and site for overnight camping in the snow, so there were many people about and most of the swimmers and crew were already present. One swimmer from the previous attempt would not be with us, having decided to attempt it by himself, and instead Carmel Collins, a Sandycove swimmer, joined us. We moved the cars down as close to the lake edge as we could, about a hundred metres, and proceeded to check the temperatures.

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3.7C
3.7C

The tiny bay from where we had lake access was about only ten metres across, and half-covered in ice. So it was immediately obvious the temperature wasn’t too high this time around. And there was no wind, which is important. My first measurement in the shallow water indicated the horrifically low reading of 1.4 degrees Celsius. I moved out along the rocks delineating the east side of the cove to get to deeper water and took a long measurement which read 3.7 º C.

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An Official ice Mile, as you probably know, requires water temperatures of 5 º Celsius or less, measured at three different locations, by temperature probes reading 30 centimetres below the surface. 

The swim course would be a 400 metre loop, beginning at a pontoon about 50 metres off the shore, and leading down into the lake and back, with four full loops required for the pre-requisite 1650 metres, with a little extra distance padding built-in for anyone swimming the full course.

RIB going in through ice
RIB going in through ice

We had a RIB (rescue boat) and a kayaker, a doctor and plenty of other helpers. Irish English Channel record holder and paramedic, Mr Awesome, Tom Healy, and his partner Rachel were also on-hand for extra safety along with others including Vanessa Daws, artist, open water swimmer and video documentarian of the Irish open water swimming scene.

(Note: I only met Tom for the first time in Dover when both he and Alan Clack were preparing to swim their respective solos on the same day). I met him and Rachel again the day afterwards, and I rubbed the tattoos on his arms. “No. they don’t come off” he said. “Actually“, I said, “I was checking if the awesome would rub off on me“).

Ice in Lough Dan cove
Ice in Lough Dan cove

We had to wait a while longer than expected before we could start, (and why that is, is a story I hope to return to soon in a separate joint-authored post with Finbarr Hedderman). I thought about the swim, thought about how little sleep I’d had in the previous 48 hours, about how my weight is only one kilogram higher than it was for the previous attempt, thought about how the water was colder than I expected or hoped, (4.9 to 5.0 would have been my preferred but difficult to achieve temperature). I thought about the 40,000 metre training week I’d just completed, without expecting this as the end and even the fact that I hadn’t been in the sea for almost two weeks, my longest absence in a year. I thought about my distracted mental state. And I thought most importantly about whether I wanted to actually to attempt the full swim, and decided I didn’t. I realised I was not capable of it that day. So I decided I’d (almost) certainly only do a half-mile. After all, it would still be a decent swim, in water colder than I’d ever had an opportunity in which to swim.

From left,Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel
From left: Vanessa, Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel

We had the safety briefing, and just after eleven a.m. Fergal, John, Patrick Corkery, Colm Breathnach, Carmel Collins and myself finally entered the peat-black water with Vanessa in her wetsuit and her trusty Go-Pro. I dislike slow entries, while I also don’t like to dive into cold water I don’t know. So wading out behind Fergal, I got my hands and face in for a good splash, let my breathing settle for a few seconds and then started swimming, while it was still shallow and everyone else started swimming virtually immediately.

Start, wading in, I'm into the water
The start, wading out, I’m swimming. The yellow pontoon was the start and turning point

As you’d expect, water somewhere between three and four degrees really hurts. I hope you didn’t expect me to say something more profound. As with all cold water it hurts most in the hands, feet and sinuses. It just hurts more acutely and more quickly. I seem to have control over the sinus pain this year, (I’ve only noticed in retrospect) and each year I’ve noticed some improved aspect of my cold tolerance. This water didn’t cause any stabbing sinus or face pain. But my hands and feet were immediately painful and the pain didn’t abate. And I was almost unable to kick from the start, as kicking when your feet are painful with cold seems to increase the pain. By not kicking, the blood also flows more slowly in your body. It’s not really a conscious decision, just one of those possibly individual quirks of cold water for me, though it’s then more difficult in the reduced buoyancy of fresh water lake to maintain a horizontal streamlined position.

Once past the left side of the tiny cove, I immediately went too far to the left, while most of the rest went too far right and we met at about 100 metres out half way to the buoy. Patrick, Fergal and I were together to the first turn, with the kayaker providing a watchful eye, with me inside on the turn. I came out of the inside turn somewhat at a disadvantage to Patrick, shall we say. I’m normally up for the full contact aspect of open water swimming, but this swim wasn’t one where I was so motivated. Patrick and I stayed together with Fergal in front pulling a few metres ahead. We touched the pontoon at 400 metres and turned back. Approaching the end of the third leg Patrick and I were still together and I was going to get caught between him and the buoy again, so I dropped back and swam over his legs to his right side to go wide around the turn, which allowed him to open up five metres. It wasn’t relevant, I was heading into my final 200 metres.

Donal finishing
Donal finishing

Approaching the pontoon again, I somehow got a mouthful of water, in flat water! Which made me splutter, and further confirmed my decision that today wasn’t my day. I swung right, and into the cove. It was very difficult to walk over the stones of the hidden lake floor with my painful soles and Tom Mr Awesome Healy waded out to assist my landing, such as it was. Dee and Carmel’s partner Gordon helped me get dressed, and we moved back the car. I’d swum somewhat over 800 metres, I was in the water for 16 minutes. I wasn’t obviously as hypothermic as I’d been after the previous attempt, in fact I was able to kind-of-jog back to the car.

Twelve minutes or so later Colm finished first, as always, followed by Fergal, Patrick, Carmel and John. Since we were back at the car however, we don’t have photos of the rest finishing.

It was a fantastic achievement for them all, and all deserve Congratulations: Fergal Colm, John, Patrick and Carmel. There were different levels of post-swim hypothermia but that is to be expected of course. The safety cover and assistance and help were excellent, top class in fact, with no worries about anyone. I recovered in about 40 minutes, unlike the much longer recovery of the previous attempt.

I have never been so happy with a decision to NOT complete a swim. I’ll repeat my favourite safety aphorism for you again:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

I’d left myself the small possibility of attempting the full swim but I knew before I started that it wasn’t likely. My weight hasn’t changed much, I’m still lighter than in three years at least, but most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but it would come at a physical price. And I also know that sometimes that pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do. The full mile would have been too far for me. It was a fantastic achievement for the five swimmers, as it is for all ice mile swimmers. By exiting to plan, I didn’t encounter, or cause, any of the safety issues that we’ve seen or heard about on a couple of recent ice-mile attempts in various location. I also had a fantastic experience by reaffirming to myself that I am capable of entirely making my own safety decisions for myself, regardless of what anyone else is doing and as such the day was an enormous success for me also.

You sometimes hear marathon swimmers say they swim to find their limits, and this was one of those times for me. I am very happy with the exploration.

Check out Fergal’s report on his blog.

(On the way home we stopped in beautiful Glendalough, where it almost seemed someone had helpfully placed a single washed-up log, ideal as a photographic focal point!).

Glendalough upper lake
Glendalough upper lake
Infrared hands

What is cold immersion diuresis in swimmers?

More clearly: Why do you have to pee more during and after swimming?

Diuresis is the medical term for increased urination. Cold immersion diuresis is common to cold water swimmers and is the strong desire to pee after (and sometimes during) swimming in cold water.

As we have now discussed many times, swimming in cold water leads to peripheral vasoconstriction, by the cold of the water leaching away the heat of the blood vessels closer to the surface. The blood vessels constrict resulting in reduction of blood flow in the body’s extremities to conserve heat in the cold.

This reduction in blood flow to the periphery therefore actually leads to a quick increase in blood pressure. The body attempts to compensate for this increase in arterial blood pressure by relieving itself of liquid elsewhere. The easiest, quickest and least costly expenditure from a metabolic (energetic) point of view is urine. So you will often find as cold swimmers do, that walking into cold water even before you are fully immersed, you will develop a sudden urge to urinate caused by this blood pressure increase. And during a swim liquid also builds up in the bladder but without practice, they are unable to urinate in really cold water while swimming, many swimmers, even very experienced cold water swimmers will have to stop or momentarily pause to urinate. Also when you exit the water the demand to urinate can reach quite powerful levels as the muscles finally relax.

A consequence of this increased urination often forgotten is mild dehydration. Marathon swimmers in cold water, such as the English Channel are taking most of their food as liquid carbohydrates. The volume of water needed or used is generally close to one litre an hour, and because of cold diuresis, more of the liquid processed by the kidney, instead of being absorbed back as is normal, goes to the bladder. Part of this mechanism is that the cold suppresses the production of ADH, aka vasopressin, the anti-diuretic hormone that suppresses diuresis (urination). The swimmer urinates more, so the swimmer needs more liquid to compensate for the mild dehydration. And you have a self-sustaining cycle as long as the swimmer is immersed in tolerable cold water.

Thus … the well-nourished high weeds behind the Sandycove Island parking spaces.

Related articles:

Hypothermia mortality rates in Ireland.

Mechanism of cold diuresis in rats.

The Eastern Bay Swim Club Official Ice Mile attempt – Part 2 Post-swim and analysis

Part 1.

Post-Swim Events

I struggled to get my sandals on, then climbed the steps to my swim box to get changed. It was another struggle, as my swim box wasn’t against the wall on the bench, as the other guys had filled up the space before me pre-swim. Instead it was balanced on the low wall above the steps. And there were people coming and going.

Struggling to get dressed
Struggling to get dressed

Many of my carefully learned post-swim processes and timing slowed.

I’d brought too many post-swim clothes. But I got dressed, putting on ski-pants instead of trousers, easier to pull on and very warm, then received some brief assistance from someone behind me to get the difficult first top base-layer on, as I was struggling with it, as usual. Afterdrop was coming on very hard, worse than usual. I may have taken ten minutes to get fully dressed instead of my usual five to six minutes and I only wore Crocs and Socks instead of shoes. Patrick Corkery shoved my woolly hat on my head.

A severely hypothermic Ger Kennedy being attended to by volunteers
A severely hypothermic Ger Kennedy being attended to by volunteers

The crowds and my position were very difficult, entirely my own fault. I noticed one swimmer being attended to, wrapped in thermal blankets and clothes, surrounded by people, but I didn’t see who it was and I wasn’t focused as I normally would be at such. Only later did Fergal tell me it was Ger Kennedy, who’d been removed from the water a couple of hundred metres from the end after he’d grabbed the kayak and asked for help, unable to swim the final couple of hundred metres.

Patrick Corkery’s brother John-Paul helped me back to his car to rewarm, my car a hundred metres further on must have looked too far, as I was walking somewhat unsteadily. I stayed there in the heat for about 20 minutes. I was quite hypothermic, extremely slowed speech and even cognition. I rang Dee to tell her I was okay, she later said I didn’t sound normal. But do I ever? :-)

Fergal was so comfortable after his swim he had time to speak with one of his fans. He was actually able to speak!
Fergal was so comfortable after his swim he had time to speak with one of his fans. He was actually able to speak clearly, unlike me.

Eventually I moved to my car. Fergal, apparently entirely recovered almost immediately, drove us back to his house for home-made soup and brown bread and cake from his wife Mags. (The joys of open water swimming include how we can eat, returning to that time when we were teenagers and food can at every meal or snack become your entire world, with no guilt, no long-term ramifications).

I left Fergal’s house about two hours from the end of the swim, completely recovered and I had plenty of time to reflect on the way home.

Analysis

As the blood cools, it thickens and slows, the increased viscosity therefore reducing the oxygen available to the brain. Cognition is impaired. It’s why I’ve previously stressed so often the importance of repetition, of learning what you are doing when you are really cold. It’s why we make out safety decisions outside the water, not when we are already cold. It’s why following a plan is important.

When you are hypothermic, you are still you, but you are also very distinctly not you.

In retrospect, it was the second worst hypothermia experience I’ve had, second only to the  Blackwater to Cobh swim in 2007, early in my cold water swimming, when I’d had brief memory loss for ten to fifteen minutes afterwards.

The value of most of what I write here, is that I learn it all myself the hard way, and often make mistakes. And we all know mistakes often have more value than success.

I did complete the swim but it was maybe ~7°, maybe as low as 5.6°, not the necessary 5°, so it wasn’t a failure for me per se, but it was more difficult than I expected. For anyone experienced with cold water, that’s a wide temperature gap, as we all repeat to each other; every degree drop brings a new level of difficulty. This left me asking the question:

  • Why was I so hypothermic afterwards?

At home I checked my swim log: On the 1st of December I’d swim in 7.2° Celsius for forty minutes, by myself, and not been as hypothermic, driving safely away from the Guillamenes after about 40 minutes. Not that I wasn’t hypo, after every swim at the Guillamenes I usually spend about 20 to 30 minutes before I drive home, including the very short but very useful climb up the steps to my car.

Pre-swim everything was done right, I didn’t get cold, I’d eaten enough, I was a little short of sleep but it shouldn’t have been a factor.

I have written on more than one occasion that you can’t out-think the Laws of Thermodynamics, heat will always leave the body in cold water, cold will always win. The rate that heat leaves is based primarily on body size, body fat, cold water experience and movement. The first two are obvious physically limiting factors, the third doesn’t seem to be but is also.

Recapping the three aspects:

  1. The larger the body, the greater the ratio of volume to surface area, so the slower the heat-loss. It’s why Polar animals are large, for example.
  2. Fat is obviously an insulator specifically designed by nature to protect from cold.
  3. As experience in cold water grows, heart-rate and stress hormones decrease, blood is not being pumped as quickly internally so heat loss is slowed.
  4. I was swimming hard(-ish).

Since I have plenty of experience, and I wasn’t stressed about the swim, the problem could likely to be in the first two items. And this is where the big change has been with me recently.

Loneswimming
Loneswimming

Here’s that picture of me from last autumn, pre-Coumshingaun swim.

I’m not the tallest of people, 170 centimetres. No change there except as I get older, I must be starting to shrink! No, the fact is that since November I’ve lost about seven kilograms. In fact I am lighter than I’ve been in at least four years, having dropped below my pre-Channel training weight. My winter swimming weight pre-Channel used to be about 75 kilos, whereas I’m now about 73 kilos.

No disrespect to my fellow swimmers, but I am somewhat significantly smaller than all of them. Only Ger is anywhere near my weight but probably still 10 kilos heavier. I’d guess the other four of them had 20 to 30 kilos of weight advantage on me.

IMG_0152.resizedAbove is a photo of me greasing-up taken before the Ice-mile attempt. Since I didn’t know it was being taken, there was no belly-sucking, though I guess my torso is stretched, but both photos are from the side. I was genuinely surprised looking at the second photo how apparent the weight loss was (to me anyway).

Checking my log again, five days before that 7.2° swim in December, I was still 76 kg, three kilos heavier than now.

The other significant difference with Saturday’s swim was that I was actually swimming harder than my usual winter swims. That meant higher blood flow. I don’t know how to calculate the offset there. Swimming faster burns more energy and therefore produces more heat. But ironically that could have meant a greater exposure of warmed blood at the surface so it would cool quicker. I have no idea how to calculate the balancing factor here, but my feeling based on experience is that it was probably the smaller part of the story but at the same time, still important.

There’s yet another important factor: Colm was first out of the water at about 26 minutes. I was about 34 minutes. 34 minutes for 1600-odd metres is really really slow and I was swimming fast. And 26 minutes for 1600m is slow, especially for Colm. The return leg had taken us twice as long into the flood tide as the outward leg. All this indicates the strength of the flood tide we were swimming back against. Not the very best conditions if I was marginal on cold-exposure at that temperature.There could have been ten minutes extra swimming time. And remember also that I missed the turn, which probably added at least a minute. At this temperature spending extra time in the water wasn’t the optimum situation for me.

And I made another mistake. Earlier in the week I’d hoped to stay in the Dublin the previous night and hopefully have my sister accompany me, but she was working. Prior to the swim I should have taken a better changing location, knowing how hard it can be from experience AND I should asked for a designated person whose function was to help me dress afterwards.

I said to Fergal on Sunday that it felt like low 6° to me. A few days later Patrick Corkery told me he measured 6.7° out in the water on his watch, and swim watches almost invariably read a degree higher, even in very cold water, due to body heat (enough that swimmers often adjust for this). This puts the temperature potentially much closer to 5.5°.

So there you have it. I did the swim. I struggled afterwards. I made mistakes. Some factors were out of my control, some weren’t. At my current weight swimming in a temperature of three or four degrees for a sustained time is probably beyond me, but five might be possible.  The official Ice Mile is still waiting for me. 

Next time?

Next time I’d designate my helper.

Next time I’ll be more sure of the turning point.

Next time I’ll avoid flood tides for this type of swim.

Next time. 

Thanks to Fergal and John, Eastern Bay Swim club, Dublin Sea-Scouts, the other swimmers and all the volunteers who assisted.

It’s worth closing with a comparison, and a warning. The day before this swim Finbarr Hedderman and Rob Bohane of Sandycove Island Swimming Club, two of the world’s finest *cold open water* swimmers swam 600 and 800 yards respectively in Totting Bec in 1.8C°. Speaking with Rob some days later, he’d suffered some nerve damage, having developed constant pins and needles in his fingertips. Lewis Pugh on his zero degree Antarctic mile suffered fingertip nerve damage that took 6 months to heal.

I’m not all about constant warnings here, I only give the occasional one. But cold water is dangerous. Almost all these people in Dublin and Tooting Bec are very experienced cold water experts . I try to give you as much information as I possibly can about cold swimming to help you. (In fact I don’t think you’ll find more anywhere else). But there is still risk. I’m not telling you shouldn’t take risks, but try to balance the risks with your capabilities. That point where risk and capability pivot about each is different for everyone.

Eastern Bay Swim Club Official Ice Mile attempt – Part 1, the swim.

Most of the Sandycove Island Swimming Club were away in London at Tooting Bec Lido for the British Cold Water Swimming Championships at the weekend, living it up in the 1.8° degree Lido water.

Earlier in the week however, Dublin English Channel soloist, and North Channel Aspirant Fergal Somerville circulated an email from himself and fellow Dublin English Channel soloist John Daly, looking for anyone who was interested in making an official ice-mile attempt in Dublin Bay run by his club, the Eastern Bay Swimming Club. (Anyone that is, who was regularly swimming in cold water and had a good swim record).

Along the Bull Wall, into Dublin Bay
Along the Bull Wall, into Dublin Bay

And so it was that six of us assembled, with a veritable army of helpers and Doctors, volunteers, Sea-Scouts and safety crew, film-crew and photographers, well-wishers and looky-loos, at the outermost shelter on Dublin’s Bull Wall in Dublin Bay on Saturday morning.

The requirements for an official ice-mile are pretty straight-forward: 1600 metres in water that must measure 5° Celsius or less, verified using three different submerged thermometers, 30 centimetres under the surface. Swimmers swim under English Channel regulations; single cap, goggles and swimsuit, with lubrication sufficient only to protect against chaffing. The swimmers also must provide an ECG taken within 30 days before the swim.

The weather was very cold here for the previous two weeks but water temperatures had risen on the south coast. The previous Saturday’s swim at the Guillamenes was 8.6° Celsius, but the east coast of Ireland is always colder, and Fergal and John had measured 4° C the previous Saturday. However during the week safety officer and English Channel soloist Ger Carty measured the water at 6° C.

The morning was bright and cloudless on the Bull Wall, which runs from out in Dublin Bay back along north-easterly along Bull Island, marking the northern edge of Dublin Port harbour. Across the harbour is Dublin Landmark the Pigeonhouse power station. Measurements on Saturday morning indicated a temperature of 7° to 7.2° Celsius, well above the required mark, but there was no thoughts of us not swimming, treating it at least as a training swim.

Pigeonhouse Power station
Pigeonhouse Power station

I’d slipped off a rock while taking a photo for my blipfoto account earlier in the week and bruised my ribs and hadn’t been able to swim much in the pool, as I was hurting on  tumble-turns, push-offs and  backstroke, all aspects of swimming which luckily I didn’t need for open water.

I’d eaten enough that morning, and while my night’s sleep was shortish, it should have been sufficient.

Looking south across the harbour from above the Bull Wall toward the twin chimney's of Dublin's Pigeon House Power Station
Looking south (up) across the harbour from above the Bull Wall toward the twin chimney’s of Dublin’s Pigeon House Power Station

The swim was to be back along the Bull Wall toward the city, to just past the Golf Club. There were plenty of Sea-Scouts on kayaks and a safety boat also, and volunteers walking along the path watching us. The turn was to be just past the Golf Club and indicated by a flag on the wall.

The swim route. Nothing much to see here.
The swim route. Nothing much to see here.

At 10am we assembled in the easternmost shelter at the end of the wall to get ready and assembled on the steps at just before 10.10 am. I’d greased slightly under my arms, something I’ve haven’t been doing for  my recent swims, I seem to have finally gotten over the need to prevent chaffing for swims under 30 minutes, but I didn’t want any possibility of getting chaffed if I was really cold. The six swimmers were organisers John and Fergal, myself, Ger Kennedy and Colm Breathnach and Patrick Corkery, (Ger being the only one I didn’t really know), but all experienced open water marathon swimmers. We lined up for a photo beforehand, I was on the far side of the railing and struggled to peek out from behind The Wall of Men.

A wall of men. Big men. Manly men. What the hell am I doing behind there?
A wall of men. Big men. Manly men. What the hell am I doing behind there? From left to right; Colm, Fergal, myself peeking out, Patrick, Ger, John.

The water down along the wall was rippley but fairly flat. The air temperature was 4° C but the breeze felt cold and the wind-chill surely dropped the perceived temperature to about zero.

I’d been a bit nervous for a couple of hours the previous day, before I got over it. Sure the local temperature I’d been swimming in was higher and I hadn’t been training specifically for this swim, but I was as always swimming in the sea every weekend and I’d wanted to try this for a few years with no opportunity. I’d even had a sketchy swim only two weeks previously when a combination of wind strength and direction, swell and tide turned a 30 minute swim into a stern battle, that had been an appropriate training swim for this.

I felt confident beforehand, nice and calm, no internals symptoms of anxiety that would elevate my heart rate and make me get cold quicker than normal. We all entered the water just after 10.10.

The water was cold of course but nothing exceptional. No searing sinus pain, which tends to happen me when the temperature is six degrees or lower. Hands and feet were cold but not immediately on fire, no extreme gasping. All was good.

The swim group IMG_0183-resized

The group stroked off down the wall, Patrick out in front, Colm, a former national 400m champion, and probably one of the fastest open water swimmers in the country, quickly catching and passing the group. Fergal, Ger, John and myself together in a group before Fergal and I went to the front of the four, and swam shoulder to shoulder for a couple of hundred metres.

On the Bull wall there were plenty of people, volunteers and helpers and bemused morning walkers.

Fergal and kayaker
Fergal and kayaker

I felt great, swimming nice and strongly, breathing only to my right instead of bilaterally, to allow me put a bit of extra effort in. When I swim by myself most winter weekends, I just cruise. I rarely swim for speed, except for the final few hundred metres sprint. This time, I had upped my tempo a bit. Fergal and separated and he swam closer toward the shore and we each had picked up separate Sea-Scout kayakers. The water was very murky and sandy and my watch wasn’t visible, so I hadn’t been able to check time for the first five minutes elapsed. I hadn’t even started to look for the Golf Club or turn flag, when I realised I had passed someone on the wall waving 25 or 50 metres, and had paid no attention. Now the kayaker was shouting at me, which of course I couldn’t hear with my ear plugs in. I’d swum right past the turn point. I stopped and checked with the kayaker, and turned back. That was fast! Fergal told me afterwards we’d reached the 800 metres turning point in less than 12 minutes. Now turned, everyone was in front of me, heading back to the shelter.

Donal, left, and Fergal, right
Donal, left, before the turn, and Fergal, right, after the turn

My hands and feet were by now feeling painful, but not to the extent of the almost unbearable pain that occurs to me at around 5 degrees, the thermoceptors, the cold-receptors in my skin enervated but not quite overloaded.

I paid no attention to trying to catch anyone, I wasn’t treating this as a race, just concentrated on swimming, in case I forgot how. I was still breathing to my right so now I looking across the bay past the kayaker to the well-known twin chimney’s of the Pigeonhouse Power Station and the city and Wicklow Mountains beyond, the peaks still snow-covered after the foul weather all week.

After a long period I decided on a forward position check. There was a changing shelter on the shore coming up. It wasn’t the larger one at the end of the wall that we’d started from, but there was another one a few hundred metres beyond, hopefully that would be the end. Head down again I swim on. Next check I had still not arrived at the next shelter. Another swim, another check. The shelter was clear but it  wasn’t the end.

What i hadn’t realised, and was only apparent afterwards when I looked at Google Earth, is that there are only three shelters along the wall. After the very quick first half returning toward the start was much slower, and just getting to the first of the three shelters, only 300 metres past the turn took almost as long as the first half of the swim. Usually you can feel when you are being slowed by a current, but when the location is new and the water is cold it’s not always apparent. I still felt I was swimming quickly, but didn’t realise how much the incoming tide had slowed my return.

Colm finishing first
Colm finishing first

The swim continued as a plod onwards, hands and feet still painful but still manageable, fingers still in control. The last shelter finally became apparent, the white vinyl banner of Eastern bay Swim club on the railings visible.

Fergal & Pat
Fergal & Patrick

300 metres, 200 metres. I engaged my kick a bit more strongly. Slow progress. My hands hadn’t Clawed, I didn’t feel blown. And then the strangest thing happened. I noticed what looked like black dots in the sky when I looked skyward on my breathing.  Calling them black spots in front of my eyes would a bit too strong but very definitely noticeable and they were there for the final 100 metres. So I reached the railings, and exited the water.

In Part Two, after the swim and post-swim analysis.

Donal
Donal, always wearing my CS&PF Channel cap
John Daly -resized
John – photo of the day I think, he looks totally unphased

The Golden Rules of Cold Water Swimming

Thanks the people who responded with their thoughts on this list, Finbarr, Lisa, Carl, Jack.

The post on the advice for Christmas and New Year swimmers, all the other posts on cold water, well, that’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much. So I though I’d try to come with a short list of essentials. Brevity is not my long-suit.

270px-Bernard_d'Agesci_La_Justice

1: Swim in groups.

That’s rule number one. But you’re an adult so if you MUST swim alone, make sure someone knows where and when.

2: Plan your swim and your exit.

Most safety decisions (and consequently mistakes) are made outside the water. Decide your plan based on current water and air temperatures and conditions, not what it was three weeks ago. Then stick to your plan. If you can’t be sure of getting out safely, don’t get in.

3: Watch the time.

If hypothermia starts to take hold, knowing swim time, stroke rate and time to exit can be vital. I’ve previously said a watch is my number one item of safety equipment.

4: Stay warm as long as possible before you get in.

Once you are ready to swim, swim, instead of standing around talking.

5: Get dressed and re-warming as soon as possible afterwards.

Exercise is the best way to safely rewarm. Have your clothes ready for immediately after your swim. Do it before you go for your swim. Multiple light layers are better than one heavy layer. Showers and sudden heat are to be avoided.

6: Don’t swim if you have been ill, or drunk alcohol in the previous 24 hours.

Macho idiots don’t impress. Tiredness also affects your cold-withstanding ability.

7: Splash water on your face before full immersion.

Or walk slowly into the water. This gives you a few seconds to adjust your breathing to the cold, this makes a big difference to your first three minutes which are the toughest.

8: Don’t dive in.

Concussed macho idiots don’t impress me.

9: Wind is dangerous.

It strips away body heat rapidly, changes water conditions and currents, and almost all the rules.

10: You can’t out-think the Laws of thermodynamics. Given enough time cold will ALWAYS win.

Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming
Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming, (and a nasty rash on his shoulders from not shaving beforehand).

Cold water swimming and alcohol don’t mix

A couple of days ago I noticed some incoming traffic from a discussion thread on boards.ie.

Swimmers there planning a pre-New Year’s swim mentioned drinking whiskey and swimming afterwards. I though they were saying they’d consider it. In the same thread they mentioned my post on advice for a Christmas and New Year’s swim.

I was annoyed by such stupidity. It turned out to be a misunderstanding. One of the posters contacted me to explain they also were neither condoning drinking alcohol nor irresponsible behaviour and were planning significant safety measures. Thanks to Paul for explaining.

This time of year remains a good time to repeat this reminder (along with the rare sunny summer holiday weekend).

I’ve probably swum skin longer, in colder water, than most people. I have repeatedly explained the physiology of cold water swimming. I didn’t write about not swimming after alcohol to fill space.

No whiskeyI have never, EVER swum after taking alcohol, not even once, nor has any other Channel swimmer that I know done so, (& I know a lot), and to do so is stupidity, not courage, and usually leads to someone more experienced taking responsibility for the person that does it.

I’m not generally about telling people not to do things, but in the case of mixing alcohol and swimming, think about the other people put at risk by doing so.

You can run across a road without looking and with your eyes closed and get across, but it doesn’t mean you’d do it every time. Most smart people would never do it.

And just because you’ve done it previously and been fine is not a meaningfull argument. If you do it, you also tarnish all responsible swimmers, because when the media covers your death, they won’t follow-up with the inquest results which will outline your stupidity as the cause.

Alcohol and water might mix, but alcohol and swimming never mix.

Why would you swim in cold water?

I’ve written so much about the mechanics, physiology and psychology of cold water swimming, but I haven’t addressed the underlying assumption thatare taken for granted. So why would you swim in cold water? (And let’s set aside any possible health impacts for this discussion).

In the middle of Irish summer when (or some years, if) the water reaches a glorious 16 Celsius, and hardened long distance swimmers can seemingly swim forever, it’s very easy to imagine swimming easily through the cold water of winter.

October passes with water temperatures between 10 and 12 degrees, where we still feel comfortable. An occasional day may even be warm.

November arrives with the first real days of winter from a sea-swimmer’s perspective. The water will almost certainly drop to under ten degrees, occasionally at first, clawing back above 10 C but inexorably the average always dropping. I’ve previously called the sub-10 degree decrease The Big Drop. If you are hardened though, ten degrees is still fine, you can certainly swim for an hour if you are acclimatised. But before the end of November at least one of the days that is real winter will unveil itself. Hard frost on the vegetation before you leave the house, or freezing fog. Having to consider ice on the drive to the coast.

The wind. That bitterly cold north or east wind that impales when you arrive and exit the car, instantly seeking out fingers, ears, exposed flesh. It leaves you cold and uncomfortable before you even get changed. The occasional visitor asks you in dumbfounded amazement if you are actually going to swim? I’ve had entire families stand around waiting to see me get in, assuming I’ll turn around and get out immediately, when in fact I swim off past the Comolees, out of sight, and they are long gone, back to their warm cars, before I finally emerge.

Years of cycling, running, surfing and open water swimming have left me convinced November is one of the worst months in Ireland. It is invariably one of the wettest of the year, (no mean feat in Ireland) and that couples with wind and cold, and suddenly shortened days to make it profoundly grim and grey.

The certainty of those summer days, when you’ve dismissed winter swimming as something you do with ease, evaporates. Each swimming day done becomes part of a year’s long process or project, but not easy. All the difficulties we forget, even in Ireland cool damp summers, return. We finally remember that there is a question that we don’t ask in summer: Why, given all the discomfort and even pain, would we swim in such horrible conditions, when the act of immersion carries actual physical pain, and continued swimming can (and probably will) lead to  hypothermia? Why do we put ourselves through that?

In summer and autumn we often even forget that question exists. But it’s manifest when you are balancing on a car mat trying to stay off the freezing concrete as long as possible, metres from a two metre choppy swell driven by an easterly wind, struggling into a pair of Speedos, while you keep a warm cap on to keep the wind off your head as long as possible.

December in Tramore Bay
December in Tramore Bay

There are two simple answers.

We’ve discussed the shutting off of blood in the skin and extremities; a swimmer who emerges from cold water will have the warm core blood flow back into those areas. While I’ve cautioned repeatedly about the dangers of Afterdrop, the sudden post-swim drop in body temperature caused by cold blood entering the core, the fact warm blood flowing back into your extremities also carries with it a sense of euphoria every time, the first powerful answer. Your skin and muscles tingle and feel powerful and you feel completely alive. And unlike any substance that produces a euphoric effect, you don’t need to keep upping the dosage. Once the water is cold, you will always feel a post-swim euphoria.

The second is also obvious in a way. Despite all the trepidation before a cold swim, the discomfort of those first few minutes, once those are past, when you are out there in the winter, knowing almost everyone else would never consider doing what you are doing, that itself is a powerful feeling. You feel strong, confident and even dare I say, invincible. Those are not insignificant feelings, and always easy to achieve. Something that makes us feel good about ourselves must be good, there are too many things in the world that make us feel otherwise.

In December the sunlight is lower, the light levels are poor on dull days, but some days dawn with a glittering intensity and the water is calm and cold and the air is clear and you are the only person alive in the world.

Why swim in cold water? Why not.