Tag Archives: ice mile

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VII – Failure To Apply Best Practice

Ice Mile Dilemmas – IV – Local context.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – V -  IISA Rules Discussion Part 1. – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VI - IISA Rules Discussion Part 2. – Safety and Experience.

This is the third and last part of discussion of the IISA rules.

Age Limit

I can’t let this rule (3.3.15) go without question. The minimum age limit for an Ice Mile attempt with parental consent is 16. The only thing I can say about this is that it is irresponsible madness. The only parents I can think competent to judge the difficulty of an Ice Mile attempt for a 16- or 17-year-old child are Ice Mile swimmers. They are the very ones who would almost certainly not consent to such. I have not heard from one single swimmer, doctor or Ice Miler who thinks this is a responsible rule. IISA, please remove this irresponsible rule immediately.

Best Practice

What we can see from the local organisation of Ice Mile swims in the UK, Ireland and the US is that local swimmers and organisers are implementing what each believe is Best Practice for Ice Mile swimming. As one Ice Mile and swimming organiser says: “We should be going above and beyond the IISA rule to make sure someone does not die from inexperience or neglect.Or another who says;the lack of oversight for these events is wholly irresponsible on the part of the IISA and is inviting disaster.

The IISA is the organisation which has promoted Ice Mile swimming worldwide. Currently, responsibility for safety falls more heavily on individual swim organisers rather than swimmers and allows the IISA to abdicate responsibility in ensuring responsible criteria, since as mentioned above that only those who succeed can actually become IISA members. A Channel Aspirant only becomes a Channel Swimmer if they succeed, but they must join the relevant association beforehand. The IISA procedure is hardly normal practice let alone Best Practice. In fact it seems more than just unusual. The current situation means the IISA doesn’t have to retain any data on attempts, success rate, safety data, incidents, accidents or even any possible tragedy.

I am counted as an Ice Mile swimmer though I took two attempts at the required temperature. But the IISA doesn’t measure success rates. This abdication is more than just an oversight. It’s a conscious decision and one that isn’t optimal for safety.

One of the most immediate ways to improve safety and to addresssome of the issues discussed here, would be to require IISA membership for all aspirants.

Given that the IISA promotes the Ice Mile, ignoring the wider aspects of experience, organisation, safety rules and lethal potential and only accepting membership from those who are successful is a significant failure.

Best Practice has been demonstrated by Fergal Somerville, Colin Hill, Greg  O’Connor and some others. They demonstrate that the IISA rules should be such that swimmers must provide a minimum standard of proven experience and competence in very cold open water and should be an IISA member before any Ice Mile attempt is made.

The rules about the organisation of events must be tighter, and the rules that are in place must be rigorous and consistent. As more people attempt an Ice Mile, more will want to try, and the overall experience level will decrease, and as seen above, there are indications this may already be happening.

*

Two of my correspondents disagree with me on this possible increase: One says “I actually have not seen a great rush to do this challenge from other swimmers, I think they realise the scale of the challenge, the obvious risks and the organisational effort to get it right. The other says “There are not many swimmers busting down the doors to do an ice swim.

I believe this is likely true right now. But that does not mean it will remain so, and the IISA itself wishes it to change. In the next article I’ll show something important that seems to confirm my fear. The increase may happen if the IISA promote their new 1K Ice Swim vigorously or if the push for Winter Olympics inclusion become more widespread. Horses and stables doors come to mind.

One correspondent goes on to say:Applying more stringent rules is not the answer, giving people best practice safety statements and swim plans so that they can learn from others would be a good idea. People have no excuses if they have been given examples of how it can be done safely. If they choose to ignore this then they will probably ignore more stringent rules too.

This shows that some of the suggestions I am proposing here may not be agreed. That’s fine. I want the best rules which enhance and aid safety, not my own rules. But I would also strongly advocate both better rules and Best Practice, which would be preferable to poor rules and lack of Best Practice utilisation.

Right now this debate is needed, and a public debate at that, not the behind-closed-doors previous practices of the IISA. The IISA could utilise the existing constitutional provision for a Member’s Meeting to draft better rules. I am arguing for open debate and to include the existing Ice Mile swimmers in the debate for better rules, better adherence to rules, and also Best Practices for qualification and swims. I am hoping others will join the discussion. But the previous quote, despite its disagreement with me on direction, also indicates an implicit similar concern about safety to every response I’ve received.

The extensive problems outlined in the rules, or the lack thereof, and the general agreement of almost all my respondents highlight that this review is necessary.

*

Ice Mile swimming is an extreme sport. As pointed out at the beginning of the article, extreme sports carry significant risk. I am not arguing against such pursuits. I am talking about vital issues intended to minimise the risk and improve safety for individual swimmers in a very marginal and dangerous pursuit.

One response that I’m putting here before I finish this series, is to categorically reject the only response I’ve seen from the IISA since I’ve initiated this discussion. The IISA have implied that I’ve personalised the discussion. Well, duh.

(Granted my name isn’t used, but since I restarted this series suddenly there’s a debate. Other Ice Milers have told me that is exactly what the IISA have said about this series. I’ve not had any direct response from the  IISA, who are always welcome to so do). Apparently without any irony, this is followed shortly thereafter by:

This series proves precisely that the IISA rules and guidelines are lacking, inadequate or even contradictory. As I write here,  I am aware of the many people, cold water and Ice Mile swimmers from whom I’ve heard, indicating support and agreement. Yet I haven’t received a single contradictory message. When the IISA (obliquely) dismisses me for getting personal, they are dismissing the concerns of many more people than just me.

I don’t know any of the IISA founders. The Irish Ice Mile ambassador whom I’ve mentioned (without naming) as indicative of many IISA flaws, has never featured previously on LoneSwimmer.com, and there is no record whatsoever of LoneSwimmer.com pursuing any personal agenda. To accuse me of a personal agenda is to avoid these other serious issues. (And as I’ve pointed out, the IISA has had more than a year to address that specific issue and failed to so do).

The IISA are using this accusation to divert this broader series on the IISA and Ice Mile swimming. To this diversionary accusation which avoids the very real dangers and risks being highlighted, I have only this to say:

Shame on you, IISA.

No sport can have a discussion of problems without exploring just how those problems can manifest in specific situations. UCI similarly used to dismiss discussions of Lance Armstrong and Hein Verbruggen. Any safety discussion now taking place is precisely because I and so many other Ice Mile and cold water swimmers are genuinely concerned, and if the IISA decide to ignore such a discussion that will be their burden and failure, not ours.

This consideration of the flaws of the existing IISA rules isn’t the entirety of this discussion. In the next and penultimate chapter I will discuss the very real dangers of Ice Mile swimming, which the IISA and others should be but aren’t talking about, and which illustrate just why better safety and rules are so critical.

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.

*

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 – 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.

*

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.

*

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.

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.

DSCN0070.resized

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.

DSCN0052.resized

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.

DSCN0056.resized

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.

Selection_057

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.

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