Tag Archives: Tom Healy

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.

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