Tag Archives: Fergal Somerville

Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain

Part 1

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That penultimate lap hurt. So much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Given a choice between a "heroic" pic and this one, there was little option
Given the choice between a “heroic” image and this one, I think the truth is more important

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

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

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

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

The Ice Mile was awful, painful and horrible.

Cold is such an insufficient word.

*

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

Afterward:

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

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

*

Fergal’s  writeup is here.

Vanessa’s excellent video is here.

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.

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.

Lough Dan_IMG_1304.resized

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.

Ice in Lough Dan cove_IMG_1309.resized

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

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