I swam an ice mile. A mile in 41F/5C water or below and yes, it was cold. Really cold. Snowman status cold. I’ve been wracking my head around it, trying to think of what to write that is more meaningful than what I’m about to say. After all, it was a huge accomplishment that I worked hard for, but all I can think of and all I’ve been thinking about these past several weeks was how much I love it! I loved it, everything about it. The challenge, the cold, how it felt to have those same feelings of “will I make it” in a mile swim as I do during a long swim. To experience the involuntary muscle reflexes and shutdown of the body making the swim a very physical swim, much more than a mental effort. The challenge of location at a mile high, whew, altitude will get ya! Then the cold, the challenge of recovery, not knowing what is going to happen, and being cold. So cold you can’t ever imagine being warm again. I loved it, loved it, loved everything about it and would agree with every thought you’re having right now….. yes, I’m probably crazy. : )
I tried the ice mile last year in 2019, which is coincidentally funny because I saw the last blog post I had was from that attempt in the Enchantments, but the water was too warm. Then life happened, Covid-19 happened, work changed, routines changed, the pool closed, travel stopped, and I just felt like swimming to swim and not much more than that. The thought was still in the back of my mind, but it’s one of those things where one day you think you can for sure, absolutely, 100% do it. Then it’s cloudy outside and the water drops to 54F (now it’s in the low 50s versus being in the upper 50s), there’s a cold North wind, and all that courage and positivity goes away. What am I thinking? Am I really crazy? I can’t do this. It went on like that each time the Puget Sound dropped a half degree.
When Fall came and the air temperature dropped, as Glenn puts it, I came out of summer hibernation into my season. The winter season. My land activities increased the colder it got and my swim spirits were rejuvenated with several weeks of local travel, exploring new places with friends old and new. As the water got colder, I got more excited. One day after swimming through Agate Passage on the backside of Bainbridge Island with some friends, having the sleigh ride current assist swim of my life, I found out the water was under 50F. It was a beautiful day, I hardly swam, playing around taking video and pictures of the starfish and seals. I exited with zero shivers and thought huh, I think I can really do this. For real do this. I’m going to do it. One of the weekends shortly after, I was at Alki when the subject randomly came up about an ice mile happening in Colorado. Done, I’m in. I’m going. That was that. It was essential travel, and I understand there may be some disagreement here, but sometimes what one needs for their soul should be regarded as essential. I needed to do it, to get a little bit of my swim self back.
Over the next several weeks after my initial conversations with the event’s lead organizer, Sarah Thomas, she mentioned that it could be last minute as the temperature swings in the Denver area can be sudden. For all the rough that Covid-19 has brought and all the changes, one of the positives was a flexible work schedule in regards to location. I wasn’t worried about the last minute travel, so I said okay and asked to be kept in the loop. We kept in touch providing occasional progress updates and I knew it was getting close as Thanksgiving approached. With Alki or Lake Sammamish still not below 50F, Glenn and I took a training trip up to Port Townsend’s Fort Worden for a cold water test swim. Port Townsend sits at Admiralty Inlet, connecting the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Puget Sound. We swam three days in a row, but with temps still in the 48F range, we opted for longer swims as it wasn’t near the temperature needed. Though it was warmer than optimal, this trip provided the confidence I needed to know I could do the swim. I felt good after an hour, no shivering, coherent, I was ready.
I got back to Alki that weekend, did my qualifier swim signed off by ice miler, Jerome Leslie, and felt as ready as I was going to be. Although I don’t think I would ever feel ready for an event like this the same way I felt ready for a channel swim. That was honestly one of the primary contributing factors to doing it. What was I really waiting for? Would I ever “feel” ready? Probably not, so let’s just have a go at it and see what happens. My mom flew into Seattle the weekend after for Thanksgiving and we weren’t more than a few days into her being here when word came the temps dropped in Denver suddenly and the ice mile would be that weekend. Yes, five days from now that weekend. Talk about a whirlwind of travel, but luckily I am great with travel arrangements. We cancelled flights, re-booked, made new flights, arranged car, hotel, you name it. Picked up extra masks, hand sanitizer and reviewed all Covid-19 protocols for travel to ensure we were making the right decision to go. We were and it was an excitement I hadn’t felt in a long time.
When we arrived in Colorado, I was nervous THE. ENTIRE. TIME. My heart was racing, butterflies in my stomach, I had to pee all the time. I was just so nervous. It was something completely new that I had no experience in. It was a new challenge just the way Catalina was new as my first channel swim. We scouted everything out the day before, loaded up on a classic pasta dinner (Fazoli’s – if you every need a commercial or brand model, I’m your girl, I can eat 12 breadsticks plus my meal in one sitting), and went to bed. Normally I can’t sleep, but I slept great. I woke the next morning, put my suit on, grabbed my bag, and off we were.
When we arrived at Wolcott Lake, I still couldn’t breathe I was so nervous. There was the sound of the kayaks acting as ice breakers plowing through the ice that covered the lake overnight trying to make a path for the swimmers. Colorado Represents Open Water Swimming (CROWS) members and volunteers were checking the lake temp and it was cold, 3.75C degrees (38.75F), definitely lower than optimal, but the sun was shining and the air temp was no longer in the 20s, peaking slightly above. The other swimmers came who were also giving their shot at an ice mile attempt. We greeted each other, I met my crew, we went through my re-warming plan, pre-swim medical check with the medical crew, a safety briefing, and then we were off. There were two heats of two swimmers, three laps around the lake.
Cindy Hughes, who swam with me in my heat, got in so fast! It was unbelievable, they said to get ready and then she just whipped off her parka and was ready. I was rushing to get my stuff ready too and that only increased the nervousness. I finally set, got down to the lake edge, dipped my toe in, and holy sh*t, it was cold! I couldn’t help but say it aloud because it was cold! So cold that for a moment I thought it didn’t feel that bad or any colder than Alki, but then I realized my toe was probably instantly numb and the reason it didn’t feel cold was because I couldn’t feel anything.
I intended to get right in, which is something I’ve never been good at. It’s the one thing I haven’t been able to work through in all my training yet. Stop wading and just swim. I tried, I got in quicker than my usual 4 minutes 30 seconds, but it still took me a bit. I’m a stander for life or a Malinaker as my Alki peeps would say. I got going and decided to do breaststroke around each buoy turn to check in with my kayaker and catch my breath. Ice Mile Squared, an ice mile at a mile high, that elevation will get you! The water had warmed up about a half degree since the initial reading in the morning, which was good, but it caused the ice to shift. Half way through first lap and wham, I ran into my first patch of ice. I could feel it cut my arms. A few more strokes and then a huge hit on my head and face (I have an awesome battle scar on my cheek bone now to tell swim stories with). I started doing heads up free and my kayaker, Lynn Acton, told me we had a deviation in the course to get out of the ice. Little did I know it would add up to an additional 350m onto the course. No clue what the final distance was, but it doesn’t matter, all I needed was a mile.
On the second loop, I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I did breaststroke again, told my kayaker (half hoping I would get pulled), asked it if was normal, and when she said yes, especially at elevation, my heart kind of sunk because I knew I just had to suck it up then and keep swimming. I don’t remember exactly what my words were, but it was along the lines of “Oh [in the whiniest voice ever – which I forewarned her about], I guess I’ll just keep swimming then.”
A third of the way into my third and final loop, my ears started ringing a weird mechanical ring. It’s never happened to me in swimming before, but I kept checking in with my kayaker trusting that if something was seriously wrong, her experience would have had me pulled. I didn’t say anything on my medical because the only time my ears rang was on land, but unfortunately with stomach sickness, I have about 10 seconds before I’m going to pass out. Mistake #1, not mentioning it, but I never associated it with swimming before, so 50/50 hindsight. It scared me that that was exactly what was going to happen. It never went away.
As I rounded the last buoy heading into the finish, I kept thinking everything hurts. I was told I would be numb and I wouldn’t feel anything after 15 minutes of swimming. This sucks, why does it have to hurt? Oh, because its like under 40F and crap, remember to check your bikini top. Boobs stay in, boobs stay in, boobs stay in. The Covid-19 weight gain put my body in perfect shape physically, but the swim tops stayed the same size, so there’s that and I didn’t want to be drooling, frozen, incoherent, and give people a show. I hit that final finish buoy and promptly checked my suit top multiple times. Whew, they were in, I can stand now. Mistake #2, my normal routine at Alki is to do the boob check, take my cap, goggles, and ear plugs off while standing in the water so that when I exit, I can just get changed. With the water so cold, I didn’t even think to tell people standing is my routine and I couldn’t hear them telling me to exit, so it definitely worried some I was in the water too long after stopping. Next time I will tell them it is normal.
I stood up, wibble wobbled my way up shore with the help of Ryan and Adam holding on to my arms and bracing me so I wouldn’t fall until the transition to my mom and third, Rachel Petersen, took place. Here’s where it gets rough and yes, it was ALL about recovery. I was talking, but not well, slurred speech, and with my ears ringing still it was very hard to hear people. As we walked to the car, the medical team and Dr. Jim Janek, asked me what 5+4 was, confidently I yelled 7 (don’t tell people I work for an accounting company), but my auditing skills honed in and I quickly corrected my error. We got to the car and it was cold. A cold I had never felt. The car was already warm as my mom and Rachel got the heat going 15 minutes or so before I got it. They helped undress me, get me into warm clothes, and it was a pain I had never felt. It was cold through and through, like something you’re never going to recover from.
I shook. I shook. And I shook some more. Mistake #3, I underestimated the types of food and amount of sugar I would need to kick my metabolism and bring me out of a self-induced hypothermic state (and yes, that is exactly what it is). My muffins tasted horrible, just like some food you love in a channel swim tastes horrible, and I didn’t have a backup. I had a cake pop, but forgot in the moment where I put it so they couldn’t give it to me. Next time, multiple backup plans. It hurt so much. The pain was worse than anything I’ve felt in any channel swim. This mile was harder. Harder than my English Channel and it hurt 10 times as much. Finally, I started warming, was able to eat, burped and it was like the burped released all the cold. My head cleared and I felt immensely better. I had my sleeping bag wrapped around me (so thankful to have the foresight to bring that with me), I could eat, I could drink, I was getting warm, smiling, and laughing. I finally got to the point where I felt good enough to get out of the car to go for a walk and watch the other two swimmers.
Mistake #4, I didn’t tell people walking after being cold is my normal routine. Getting out of a warm space after being cold does drop your core temperature a second time. I know it does and I was prepared for that, however, this worried people I was exiting the car. Again, it was such a part of my normal routine, I never mentioned it. Going forward, I will. I exited the car, my mom never leaving my side, and we went for a little walk around a portion of the lake. The other two swimmers just missed the ice mile mark, but got their Ice K (1000m swim in 41F/5C or below)!
This next part is important, really important to know (LoneSwimmer is a great starting point for ice mile research). After getting back to the swim area, I was happy, so happy, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I must have told the same stories 12 times, chatted with people, the volunteers, and was smiling ear to ear. This is not the norm, or so I’ve been told, and just because there are pictures of me smiling in the sunshine, does not mean that my recovery time or method should be what anyone attempting an ice mile should expect. Everyone is different and there were definitely very different outcomes in terms of recovery speed and perception of the event among the four swimmers present. It is as close to a near death experience in sport as one can get. A self-induced hypothermic state that can leave some with permanent memory loss of finishing or the event, permanent nerve damage in the hands and feet, organ malfunction, complete incapacitation to function, spontaneous fibrillation, or in the worst case, death. You have to know yourself, your limits for swimming, your body, and how it reacts very intimately. Even then, you will never know everything. For me it was the swim of a lifetime, but for others it was just the opposite.
Despite all this, I loved it. I loved everything about it and what surprised me the most was that as soon as I was done, I wanted to do it more. I’ve never felt that way about anything or any swim. I loved my channel swims and was so proud of the accomplishment, but after each one, I know I said I never wanted to swim again. Though it was a lie at the time, it was also the truth at the time. This was different and all I could think of was Lynne Cox saying in reference to her first channel swim, Catalina Channel, in the Patagonia documentary Fish People, that “it’s where everything began.” I think this swim was where everything is beginning for me. There’s so much I want to do, so much I want to explore, and even though it was harder than any swim I’ve ever done (I’m still recovering physically from the muscle trauma… two weeks later), all I want to do is swim more ice miles, explore the cold more, and see where it can take me.
I was fascinated. I was happy. I was nervous. I was terrified. I was cold. I was colder and then my mind cleared. There are days I hate my body for the way it is, the lumps, bumps, jiggly wigglies, but then there is this. There is the cold, where I’ve never been happier and each time it gets colder, I become more happy with myself exactly the way I am with each swim. This was kind of my awakening that I was made to explore the water and my body has subconsciously been adjusting to what it’s destiny was all along. I just didn’t know my path, the plan that was laid out for me, and I still don’t. All I know is I’m going to embrace everything I’ve learned, the body I have, the work I’ve put in, the people I’ve met, and the friends I’ve made because all I want to do is swim. The ice mile for me was the experience of a lifetime and the gateway swim to a whole new world of winter and ice swimming. It’s definitely changed me as a person and I can’t wait to share what’s coming next. Your Mountain Mermaid is back!
Photos by: Jesse Smith, Ken Classen, and Rebecca Kegler
More pictures in my Ice Mile album!