Winter swimming. Yes, this a sport.

1920266_10154162961370695_7395266859394118340_nThis week is the anniversary of the Antarctica Marathon, and it’s been full of joy and nostalgia. I have spent probably too much time looking through photos I didn’t remember and giggling out loud at the friendships and inspiration that sprang from that adventure one year ago.

Case in point: competing in a swim meet in a frozen lake.

I met Jaimie and Arik on the morning we left Buenos Aires for Ushuaia and I remember them saying over breakfast, ‘Actually we’re not so much runners as we are winter swimmers.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Huh?’ But I also remember thinking, ‘Damn, 3 a.m. is early to be eating breakfast, maybe I didn’t hear that right.’)

Later in the trip, Jaimie enthusiastically described the tribe of intrepid swimmers who seek out frozen water, cut swim lanes into the ice, and then compete in distances similar to regular swim meet. There is, in fact, a winter swimming event in Vermont, she said. ‘You have to do it!’

Fast-forward to December, when in the course of a 36 hours I found myself agreeing to all kinds of adventures for 2016: attempting another 50 miler, taking a train across Russia, Namibia stage race, anyone? And, winter swimming. (Note: it was around this time I formulated a resolution to make 2016 a year of doing big things, which I imprecisely referred to as ‘The Year of Saying Yes to Everything’, which a friend pointed out could get me in a lot of trouble.)

Fast-forward to March, and I’m standing in a heated boathouse wearing a bathing suit and goggles, about to walk onto frozen Lake Memphremagog to swim in 31-degree water.


High five for good luck at the start.

Here’s how this works:  A few days prior, race organizers chainsawed through the 18 inches of ice to create a 25-meter lap pool in the lake, with two swim lanes side by side. At each end of the “pool” they submerged wooden platforms, so that swimmers would step down a short ladder, stand on the platform in 3 feet of water, and push off from there to start the race.

The safety protocols were impressive, but also underscored the risk. No underwater swimming, lest you drift under the ice. An eagle-eyed rescue guy walked beside each swimmer who was in the pool, ready to yank out anyone who looked to be struggling. EMTs and an ambulance stood by throughout the weekend. (I can’t imagine the insurance costs of this event.)


Smile! There was also a hat competition.

But my worry about risk receded as soon as I watched the swimmers for the first time. They were full of joy and support for each other, and they reveled in their bravery and the absurdity of the challenge.


I intended to try it once, and signed up for the shortest distance in the stroke that I have the most confidence in: 25-meter breaststroke.  I was paired with the best possible partner: Katy had just enough cold-water experience to reassure me, but she shared my newbie, ‘We’re doing what?!’ adrenaline. And in an event that drew a few dozen people from Boston and New York, we were among the few locals in the pool. As we got in the water, the race director announced, “Let’s see what Team Vermont can do!” at which point my fear transformed to determination because, crap, now state pride was on the line.


Celebrating with Katy at the awards dinner.

The first several meters, I have no recollection of. Around half-way, I noticed Katy and I were swimming exactly the same pace and I tried to shout, ‘Good job, Katy!’ but it came out kind of strangled, which made me think, ‘Ooh, am I doing ok at this?’ With each breath I kept an eye on the shortening distance to the end of the lane,  and the water between me and the finish glinted with fragments of slushy ice. And then, improbably, I thought of Deena Kastor’s advice that smiling releases a hysto-chemical response that actually improves performance. So I smiled, and swam the rest of the way smiling. A few meters from the end, I thought, “I can see trying this again.” And then it was over! 32 seconds, 25 meters. Amazingly attentive volunteers helped me out the pool, and had my towel and warm clothes ready. Super-experienced winter swimmers were congratulating this rookie on a really average swim, but it felt FANTASTIC! I totally didn’t die, and it was exhilarating.

My one-and-done turned into ‘how about one more?’ when Jaimie and Arik’s relay team needed a fourth the morning. Mind you, they are really fast and really experienced. Whereas I swan a measly 25 meters and felt that earth should pause in its rotation to take notice, these two swam in every. single. event. all weekend long. 25-meter breaststroke, 25-freestyle, 50-meter breaststroke, 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter…. It goes on, and on, forever, culminating in the grinding, painful, long-exposure of the 200-meter races.


Arik, rejoicing in beef jerky.

The 200-meter relay was the last event of the weekend, just before lunch. I had planned to do a long run around Newport, but instead I got up early to get in 10 miles, then headed to the “pool” to join the relay team. They let me go first, and because I wanted to do breaststroke again, they turned their relay into a 200-meter IM: Talbot did butterfly, Jaimie did her first winter swimming backstroke, and Arik did freestyle. Swimming 50 meters was definitely harder and slower than swimming 25, but I happy I tried it, and so grateful for the supportive backup plans Jaimie thought through in case I chose to stop at 25. (When I told another swimmer I was worried about letting down a relay team, she talked some sense into me: “Please, do you see anyone here in line for the Olympics? We’re doing this for fun. So you stop after 25 meters. Do you really think anyone is gonna say, ‘I can’t believe that girl wasn’t willing to risk hypothermia for the team – what a wimp.’” Good points.)




So, winter swimming: thumbs up! I can’t say this is my new sport, but I can imagine doing this again for fun. The hardest part was worrying about whether I was able to withstand the cold. My “training” included laying in the shallows of frozen Lake Iroquois for 2 and a half minutes (thank you, Jess for breaking open the ice and being my safety chaperone!) and approximating a doggie paddle in 34-degree Lake Champlain for 45 seconds (thank you, Amy for standing by with the 9 and the 1 already dialed on your cell phone).


If you have more gawking curiosity about this sport, check out the Winter Swimming World Championships happening this week in Tyumen, Russia, where – not for nothing – the fabulous Jaimie Monahan is competing. Molodetz, Jaimie!


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