It’s April and that means only one thing, the Polar Bear Club has finished and I’m very happy to report we’ve completed our winter challenge. Me, The Short One and six others (I think) swam 200m each month between November and March wearing only our cozzies. Thanks everyone for taking part and keeping the collective pressure on to keep us going.
It’s been a long and cold winter this year. When we started the Polar Bear Club I thought, perhaps naively, that by the last month of our challenge the water would have started to warm up by at least a couple of degrees. Alas this year the Beast from the East, parts 1 and 2, made its presence well and truly felt during March and water temperatures remained at a chilly 1-4C throughout the month. For a couple of weeks I wasn’t sure we’d manage our final swim. There was ice on the local reservoirs every day making it impossible to swim our 200m required distance. The wind chill was so extreme the water would have frozen on our bodies as soon as we got out. You might think we’re bonkers but we do draw the line sometimes!
However, thankfully, we managed it. Our last Polar Bear swim was on my Birthday, 24th March. The best way to start a birthday in my book and my badge is firmly on my dryrobe. With our last one out of the way I thought it would be a good time to sum up what we’ve learnt during our first proper winter of swimming outside.
- The human body is amazing! I’ve read lots of articles about how your body can adapt over time to tolerate the cold but I suppose I wanted to test it for myself. I think I’ve got a slightly dodgy thermostat. I don’t cope well with hot temperatures and I soon get very cold if I’m hungry or tired. I was curious to see if my thermostat could deal with winter swimming. Well, I’m still here so obviously it did, but I’m genuinely impressed by how, with regular exposure, our bodies really did adapt. At the start of our challenge in November, as the temperatures started to drop, we were shivery when we got out. However, as the temperature dropped further we got less shivery with each swim and our recovery afterwards improved.
- Everyone thinks we’re completely mad. I kind of knew this would happen, but counting up how many comments on a facebook post allude to our mental state has been highly amusing over the winter. Everyone needs a bit of entertainment in life, if I can make people laugh, smile or question what’s possible in life through what I’ve done then I’m happy. Who wants to be normal anyway!
- It hurts! Hands and feet are the worst, they hurt before they go numb then they hurt when they warm up again. Our whole bodies tingled as if we had pins and needles everywhere. Occasionally our faces went numb which made speaking somewhat of a challenge. Even once everything was warmed up the tingling continued in my finger ends for the rest of the day.
- The frequency of swear words is inversely proportional to the temperature of the water. The colder it got, the worse the language. Apologies to any passers-by. I think my swearing was as good a gauge of water temperature as my Aldi meat thermometer!
- Inhibitions go out of the window. When you’ve got numb hands and you need to get changed quickly you become significantly less bothered about who can see what. Thankfully there are fewer passers-by over the winter!
- It is possible to eat soup in the shower. Since I started swimming outside I’ve regularly taken my brew in the shower, safely ensconced in my thermal mug. Along with a hot drink, hot food is also one of my main ways to warm up after a swim so over the winter I’ve upped my game to include a number of food items whilst showering. I’ve learnt that it is entirely possible to eat a bowl of soup or a pot noodle whilst stood in a warm shower.
- My swim kit includes things I never thought it would. As the water got colder, so the amount of kit increased. Snuggled up in my dryrobe by the side of the reservoir the pile of clothing got bigger. However, my favourite things are my woolly hat, hot water bottle and an ice axe. The woolly hat to be worn before, during and after the swim. The hot water bottle as a source of heat to warm numb hands on and stick up my jumper for the drive home. The ice axe to, well, break the ice!
- Don’t be hasty and take all those layers off too soon. It’s just fruitless and I end up remaining cold for the rest of the day. Best to wait until you’ve started sweating under that quantity of fleece. To that end I’ve often been found cooking a Sunday roast in fleecy pants, jumper, sheepskin boots, gloves, woolly hat, scarf and dryrobe. I’m often still in my dryrobe when the first Yorkshire pudding hits my lips.
- Swimming in ice and snow is like nothing else. Vigorous hacking with an ice axe is a great way to stay warm when you’re wading into 1C water. It also takes your mind off how numb your body’s going. Swimming in heavy snowfall is just magical, everything’s calm and quiet and peaceful. I still maintain my best dip over the winter was a very rapid dunk through inch thick ice followed by a roll around in the snow when we got out. Serious zing!!
- Winter swimming isn’t about how long you spend in the water or how far you swim. A lot of people ask me how long I’m in the water for and seem shocked when I say about 5 minutes. “What’s the point of all the getting changed & warming back up for the sake of 5 minutes in the water?” they all ask. Well that’s it, the getting changed and the warming back up ritual is all part of it. The excitement before the swim, sharing the experience with your equally bonkers mate, the procrastination before you get in, the frantic changing afterwards, the snuggly feeling of wearing that much clothing, the odd feelings in your extremities for hours afterwards. And don’t forget the zing! The zing lasts all day, starting out as in immediate adrenaline rush that slowly fades to an inner feeling of contentment for the rest of the day.
- Air temperature is as important as water temperature over the winter. On a sunny, still day a swim in 4C water is great. An amazing zing and a bit of sunshine on bare skin is an amazing winter tonic. On a grey, windy, winters day with air temperatures around freezing a dip in 4C water is pretty grim. The cold air and wind whips away whatever heat you have before and after the swim. Your wet, cold, numb hands cool down even further as the cold air zaps away the remaining heat. In that minute it takes to get dressed with numb hands you move down another notch. It’s best avoided but sometimes our busy lives get in the way of the sunny spells so we’ve had to suck up the wind and the cold. It makes it feel like more of a challenge anyway!
- Finally, and most importantly, having someone to share cold water adventures with is both a necessity for safety and one of the best bits about it. The time spent chatting and questioning ones sanity in an attempt to delay entering the water is as valuable to improving mental state of mind as the swimming itself. Thanks Short One, none of this would be happening without you!
So, are we doing this again next winter? You bet we are…………we might just concede to gloves and socks next year though 😉