Well the colder months are upon us and the water temperatures are falling, most triathletes have returned to the pool to start winter training, bears are hibernating the leaves are off of the trees and the frost keeps paying us a visit, some places in the UK have even seen snow.
For us all year round open water swimmers, new adventures open up to us during the winter months. Most of the other lake users have long since packed up and returned to the depths of warmth that they are accustomed to in the pool. For those of us that are left we have watch the heat dissipate, the weeds return to the bottom and the waters become clearer. Cold water swimming is not for everyone but it is increasing in popularity with many trying to stay in the open water for as long as their bodies can tolerate the sting of the cold on the skin.
For some its an exhilarating experience, the first time in, the water feels at best like you have rolled in stinging nettles, the breathing sharpens and becomes rapid, but once you get used to this and learn to deal with it, the experience is addictive. There is a growing awareness of how much the human body can tolerate and there are some that want to experience this thrill.
Three intrepid swimmers have been training for an ICE MILE, yes you read that right, an ice mile. Following the rules as laid out by the International Ice Swimming Association ( http://www.internationaliceswimming.com/) they have been permitted to wear one pair of brief shorts, one set of goggles and one swim cap...for many the mere thought of swimming without neoprene sends them shivering for more layers but for these swimmers its part of the challenge. As the temperatures have dropped the amount of noise made when entering the water has risen, its not for the faint hearted. But they have risen to the challenge, slowing immersing themselves, getting their breathing under control and then swimming, increasing the distance and the time spent in the water each time.
Until one cold but sunny mid morning on the 30th November 2013, the three gathered by the side of Treeton Dyke, having set out the equipment as needed, and with a team ready to witness and to support them, they took the first tentative steps towards the water. The ice mile attempt was due to start. The water temperature had been measured using 4 different devises, the coldest temperature read 3.8, it was enough to make you shiver just looking at it. But the atmosphere despite the seriousness of the attempt was jovial, the two kayaker's Jessica Zeun and Joe Davis, were in the water ready and waiting and on the swimmers signal the attempt would start. Now as much as you would think that having three swimmers in the water the logical thing to do would be to try to race each other and so in turn you would keep yourself warm, in fact this tends to sap your energy leaving you nothing in reserve for when you need it in the swim. However, there can be comfort knowing that you are not alone in the water, that there are others that know how you are feeling and what you are going through.
The swimmers knew the route, the kayaker's were ready to support, witnesses and first aiders were dotted along the shore ready to view and help if necessary. Cameras were ready to record the attempt and binoculars were in use by those at the start/ finish line. A deep breath by Alistair Beattie and he was in and off, James Brown and Leon Fryer soon following suit, even from the shore line the water did not look warm, but for those of us used to cold water swimming it did look inviting. The urge to get in and have a dip was immense but we were there to observe and record and once the swimmers exited the waters ensure their safe warming.
The swimmers being guided by the kayakers weaved their way across the dyke, their skin which once appeared as everyone else's, was now taking on a rather pink glow, the stroke after stroke they took heading towards the other side, Alison Darley the second official observer waiting to witness, observe and report via the walkie talkie to Pauline Squire, Coach, Lead Observer and Safety officer, so should any swimmer get into difficulty then the swim would be halted and all swimmers removed from the water. Conditions were good and what little warmth the sun afforded was welcomed.
However the swimmers in the water had no time to enjoy the rays, the continued envelopment in the cold water was sapping them fast of their body heat, there was little time for pausing to look around and enjoy the setting or the many wildfowl on the lake who appeared rather bemused the sudden additions to their aquatic setting. The distance had previously been gps'ed and one of the swimmers had a Garmin 910tx on to record the distance (and his swim), a mile ....its not that far is it....well in these temperature one mile can seem like a thousand.
Having coached the swimmers knew their form and we were now counting the stoke rate over a measured time to see for slowing down, there was little or no current to interfere with their swim, but the biting icy wind was no fun for spectator or swimmer
The breathing now laboured as they headed again towards the furthest point of their journey, it was time to ensure the camp was ready for their exit. The fire pit lit, and the warm it offered much welcome. Flasks of warm drinks placed by each swimmers chair with spares ready just in case, hot water bottles, heat pads were in their boxes ready for use and clothing laid out in order it would be put on. Blankets, towels, sleeping bags and foil wraps ready to be used, all we needed now were our swimmers.
The walkie talkie flared into life to let us know that Alistair had made his final turn and was heading back, his pace now slowing. James and Leon hot (or not so hot as the temperature told us) on his heels. Goggles fogging, but hands which now felt too thick and spongy to adjust them, legs that burned but were useless and thus just dangles and created drag. All the swimmers were tiring, it was painful to see, they were on the homeward straight but still had yet to make land.
With all three heading to the finish us observers and witnesses stood waiting, now was the dangerous part of the swim, the body tiring, the brain barely registering the route required, the mouth so frozen that words could not be formulated. Limbs now feeling like dead weights, it was a painful process to cover the last 500 meters. All three stopping several times, Alistair stated afterwards that he became so cold that he failed to turn to inhale and only became aware of it when he tried to do so under the water, the shock of which spurred him to the finish. Arms moving slower and ever slower, but glowing the most violent red colour, they made their way to the finish.
No time to waste the other two were heading in, Leon first then slightly behind him James. Leon standing and laughing, seemingly unaware that he needed to get out of the water, again this he managed on his own only to be grabbed once upright, wrapped and bustled towards sleeping bags and warmth.
Dressed and shivering badly the swimmers gradually became aware of their surroundings, it was time to feed them and get them moving around, the chatter that they had been unaware of before they started joining in, the banter between the swimmers continued just as it had been before they entered the water. The skin returning slowly to its regular colour, heart beats stabilising to a nice calm thump. The smiles, which a short while before had been unobtainable such were depth of cold in the lips, were now starting to form, and wow did they stretch...did we do it they asked....YES, YES, YES. Hand shakes and congratulations all round as each swimmer acknowledged the feat they had just performed.
Later that evening the data was collated. And within 48 hours it was on its way to Ram Barkai to moderate. Now the anxious wait, would the swim be accepted by the association. With another 48 hours it was confirmed, these three swimmers were now on the ice mile wall of fame, numbers 63 (James), 64 (Leon) and 65 (Alistair). There have been more successful attempts at Everest than have managed the ice mile swim. The full record of their achievement can be seen at http://www.internationaliceswimming.com/. To witness it was incredible, history in the making, to have taken part was a feat in human endurance and immense mental strength. Would they do it again....well there is a whisper they may!!!! So if you see three swimmers turning up to a lake near you wearing red jacket, yes its them...they earned them and will wear them with pride, UK ICE MILE SWIMMERS were created that day!!!
Who was there, well we can't leave them out without them it would not have been the same so here is the list, in no particular order:
Arron Fryer, Gemma Sherman, Jessica Zaun, Ian Pinchbeck, Pauline Squire, Alison Darley, David Brown, Jane Crosby, Becky Crosby, Shelby Donoghue, Sarah Gatland, Joe Davis, Jay Stocks, Jonny Ingall. Thank you to you all, without you it would not have been possible