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The Boeing 737-800 made a low pass over the final resting place of the German battleship Tirpitz before making a skitterish jerky landing on the frozen snow packed runway at Tromso airport. We had arrived in Northern Norway to  join a select group of cold hardened swimmers to attempt one of the most exacting challenges for any cold water swimmer - an ice mile, i.e. a swim of one mile in water at or below 5 degrees Celsius.

Just 214 swimmers have achieved an ice mile since records began with Ram Barkai's inaugural swim in January 2009. As the popularity has grown, the International Ice Swimming Association, the IISA, introduced a further challenge - the "Ice Sevens" - which requires an ice mile to be swum in the seven continents, including the Polar regions, defined as above 70 degrees North or below 60 degrees south.  To date, no one has achieved the Ice Seven and just four people have achieved a polar ice mile, all of those in the South polar region. Our intention was to complete our swims 80km north of Tromso and become the first to achieve an ice mile in the North Polar region.

Ice swimming is a curious thing. The fear never leaves you, but the experience teaches you that it is never as bad as you anticipate and it gets easier with each subsequent swim. The water in the Sandnessundet to the west of Tromso was a breath snatching one degree Celsius and provided a harsh warning of the trial to come. We went back for a second swim the following morning to find the tide had receded leaving a frozen sheet of sea ice over the otherwise exposed rocks. Nevertheless, we persisted and were rewarded with water of unbelievable clarity which revealed an alarming submerged cliff edge that plunged into a black abyss below. My second swim was easier and recovery faster as my physiology adapted to the extreme conditions.

Joining the rest of the team later that day we travelled on to Mikkelvik Brygge, a picturesque bay and small harbour from where the Rebbenesoya ferry sails. A small island, Mariagardsholmen, provided some protection from the North Westerly winds with a 200m wide channel between it and the village.

We all tested the water and took measurements to establish a course of 1,609m which would neither be helped nor impeded by tidal currents. A convenient rocky islet provided a turning point some 350m to the west, whilst the harbour wall was a further 200m in the opposite direction. Various other standing buoys and features were marked and everything was set for an attempt the following day, Saturday.

Five of us were to attempt the ice mile. The water was measured at 2.5C and the two ladies, having already achieved two ice miles apiece, completed their swims with style. However, I, and the other two men, were forced to abort our swims as falling tide limited our course options and deteriorating conditions made any further attempt dangerous. We regrouped, shared what we had learned and decided to try again two days later.

Monday dawned overcast and windy. I was to swim first, three hours before low tide. Fear stole my appetite, but I managed to force down half a bowl of porridge infused with honey. The wind dropped, and without pausing to consider it further, lest I talk myself out of it, I made my way purposefully to the water's edge. This would be my last chance.

I waded into the frigid water by the pontoon and once waist deep, lunged forward to begin my swim. Surprisingly, it was much easier than I expected and the first 350m passed comfortably, the cold water causing a light burning sensation on my skin. My first turning point, the small rocky islet, was completely submerged but I saw it under the water and my escort, with a better view from his boat, signalled for me to turn. My hands started to lose feeling but I felt strong and stretched out back towards the harbour, using the ferry to sight. I could feel the tendons in my legs tightening with the cold as my feet lost all sensation and as I passed the pontoon, I was conscious of the whispy tendrils of cold starting to invade and explore my body. The fear that I might succumb to the cold was only partially allayed by the presence of my escort boat and unable to feel the water,  I was swimming on autopilot. I reached the ferry and learned that I had covered more than 900m, over half way and whilst the second half would be much harder, I really felt that I was on the homeward stretch.

I knew that one of the signs of hypothermia is confusion and that I might be the last person to know that I was succumbing, so I faced the conundrum of being lucid enough to know that my lucidity might just be an illusion. Hypothermia sets in when core temperature drops by just two degrees and the reason that hands and feet go numb is to prevent the flow of chilled blood from those extremities to the core. As I turned again for the final time with just 200m to go my arms and legs were completely numb and I sensed that my body had run out of tricks to keep my core warm. As I closed in on the finish I could hear shouts of encouragement and I kicked into the shallows, taking care to avoid stroking any of the spiny sea urchins, abundant at low water. I struggled to stand but managed to stagger out into the waiting arms of my support crew who whisked me into shelter and the recovery suite.

The risk of hypothermia does not disappear with the end of the swim. Core body temperature continues to drop for up to half an hour post swim as cold surface blood circulates back into the body. For this reason it is important to limit the reheating of hands and feet to prevent the opening of blood vessels in those areas whilst doing everything possible to heat the core. Our solution, adapted from the treatment we had received at an event in Russia, was to place hands and feet in a large bucket of cold water (which feels warm) whilst at the same time, warm, then hot water was played over our back, torso and groin. It is a little unpleasant, but lasts only a few minutes before the cold water starts to actually feel cold and can then be replaced by warm water.

The elation as warming took effect together with the realisation that we had achieved a milestone in ice swimming made it all worthwhile, and whilst I declaimed loudly in recovery that I would never, ever, do such a swim again, I am now thinking, "how do I beat that?"

 

The ice milers were:

Kate Steels-Fryatt         GB

Jaimie Monahan            USA

Rory Fitzgerald             GB

Ger Kennedy                Ireland

Patrick Bolster              Ireland

 

Supported by : Searon McGrattan; Mary Rose Burke; Alice Kelleher & Arik Thormahlen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Club Information Evening

Thank you to all who attended the Club Info evening last week. An excellent and informative presentation was given by Nutritionist Mark Green on the broad subject of nutrition for swimming performance. Mark's presentation and accompanying handouts are included below for the reference of all members. Many of you were able to speak to Mark afterwards in order to gain further advice and Mark has offered to take any additional queries which weren't covered on the evening. 

It was also an opportunity to get together to give information on the Club and the aims and activities for the season ahead. This presentation is also included below. As always we are looking for volunteers to undertake poolside roles of Team Managers and Officials, if you'd be able to do this then please get in touch with the contacts on the presentation. We are also looking for members who may be able to help with the administration of activities including our Open Meets Team, gala administration, and keeping our swimmer PB database updated. If you have other skills and experience which can help the club develop such as IT, fundraising and designing we would be keen to hear from you too. Please do get in touch if you are able to help; the more people we have involved, the more we can do.

 

Nutrition Presentation - session 1

Nutrition Presentation - session 2

Portion size handout

Reading food labels handout

Club Information Presentation

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