Stephen Gould

Ice Mile

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Due to Covid-19, this challenge originally planned for Winter 2020 was postponed to Saturday 22nd January 2022 at Hatfield Lake, Doncaster.


Meet the Ice Mile: the toughest swimming test on the planet

There's a new favourite pastime for swimming masochists: doing a mile without stopping in water colder than 5.0C. With pain a certainty and the danger very real, what's the big attraction?

By Stephen Gould - MD of Bear Conran Ltd

In 2018/19 I swam throughout the winter in the River Thames as part of my acclimatisation preparation for an English Channel relay swim which was successfully completed in July 2019. It was a mild winter in comparative terms and the coldest water I swam in was 2.1C. Like-minded comradery got me through this very brief immersion – but afterwards I felt like my hands had been slammed in a car door and that my feet had been pounded by mallets. It was in a word - brutal!

For the past 37 years I've been swimming competitively outdoors……a long time before it became super trendy. This has been mostly in the
British Isles, however, I have also open water swimming experience in Mallorca, Malta, Slovenia and Barbados. Until recently my winter swimming experience was limited to a charity plunge on Christmas Day for the RNLI, however, now I am hooked all year round. People ask me why I do it. I think it's a kind of invigorating, tingling, legal high without penance or side effects. I feel great (afterwards anyway) and I love it. Whilst it can be unduly daunting, at the same time it is also unashamedly life-affirming.

However, there is one thing I have not contemplated until recently. It's something that is gaining popularity among outdoor swimmers and endurance athletes around the world. It's a cold-water challenge called the “Ice Mile”.

The basic rules for swimming an ice mile are pretty straightforward. Find a body of water that is 5.0C or below and swim one mile
under carefully planned support supervision wearing only your swimming costume, a pair of goggles and one silicone swimming hat. There is a new organisation, the 
International Ice Swimming Association (IISA), of which I am a member, which is ratifying swims, although not everyone feels the need for officialdom. The IISA insists that swimmers have an ECG and full medical before any ice mile attempt, and to have an experienced trauma medical team on hand for the recovery phase at the end of the swim. It's a serious endeavour that should not be taken lightly and it is undoubtedly dangerous.

International Ice Swimming Association of Great Britain

Swimming a few hundred metres in water much below 10.0C is enough of a challenge to most regular cold-water swimmers and it hurts like hell. For every degree below 10.0C, your feet and hands hurt more, your muscles contract so much it's hard to make your arms and shoulders stretch out to pull your stroke. Your hands splay and then claw as you lose motor function. You can have massive ice-cream headaches and become disoriented. Jesting aside, you can also succumb to sudden cardiac death.

An ice mile is punishing in the extreme. Anything over 20 minutes in water of this temperature is cold enough to kill and an Ice
Mile for most cannot be done in anything less than 30 minutes at best. The last 400M is unforgivingly tough and when the swim is finished the roughest bit is still to come – the dreaded and somewhat unpredictable “after-drop”.

Once out of the water a swimmer has only 8 to 10 minutes of false euphoria, before the blood from the extremities re-circulates and starts to cool the core body temperature. Half an hour after the swim the swimmer will actually be colder than when they were in the frigid water. The recovery phase is slow, painful and also dangerous which is why it should take place in a properly set-up Recovery Room monitored by qualified medical personnel.

It does seem that a lot of ice milers are long-distance swimmers who, having completed the famous long swims, are casting around for something new. An ice mile, after hours of training in coldish
water, was a natural progression for myself. It will be intense. Probably the most challenging thing I will ever do but also the most rewarding. It is for sure an extreme test of physical and mental endurance. The physical of course is the cold. A head-crunching, painful cold. But it also takes incredible mental strength to overcome this and complete a mile in water colder than 5.0C when your body is screaming at you to get out. Nothing short of 100% mental focus will get a swimmer through it.

So is there something macho about ice milers? It's a level of punishment and pain that I too am about to fully embrace and experience. But ice milers aren't just burly men. A surprising number of women are embracing the combination of agony and ecstasy of ice miles as well…….indeed more women than men if truth be told!

Many people who swim a few hundred metres in cold water in winter are now contemplating ice miles. But the majority of the ice milers who have completed the challenge are worried that swimmers do not realise the extreme difference between dabbling in winter swimming and training for and completing an ice mile. You have to be realistic and you cannot do it without training. I did not realise it could be such an extreme threat to my health and sanity until recently. But I also think this is part of the mindset before the event – you have to think yourself invincible. Since September of last year I have been in cold water at least three times a week as the temperature of both air and water have dropped. It does become more tolerable with practice, however, the initial pain and pre-swim anxiety never diminish.

On the way to a training swim I am filled with dread and almost nothing but sheer determination (and having told someone else I'm going to do it) can get me to do it. When you get in you experience a cold shock response. You have brain freeze. You push on. For a few minutes the shock is very bad and you can hardly catch a breath. You concentrate on breathing out and relaxing. Panic grips the mind. This comes and goes throughout the whole swim. Your toes go numb, then your fingers, then feet and hands. After 7 to 8 minutes, the pain stops and you start to feel good. Soon feeling good is replaced by elation – you start to feel invincible. You feel crippling numbness travelling up your legs, down your arms and across your next and back. Legs feel like lead and arms feel like sodden baguettes. This is now the cold incapacitation phase. Sometimes your neck gets really cold and this is, of course, a worry. As the blood starts to be pulled from your head to your core, you can sometimes feel your consciousness dulling down. Sometimes you don't notice. Breathing becomes entwined with involuntary water inhalation as the stroke slows. There is a ticking time bomb as your core temperature drops and your body wants to stop moving. You know that your time is limited and with each swim you wonder where the limit actually lies. Welcome to the hypothermic state.

Having heard this, you ,may ask yourself: Why? Why are so many people trying to do an ice mile? It can't just be because there are more open-water swimmers around……currently the fastest growing mass participation sport in the UK.

For myself, ice miles are a great leveller. There is a place in the sport for all types of swimmer. You don't have to have the Olympic physique or be a particularly quick swimmer to take part. IISA swimmers range in age from late teens to late 60s and come from all walks of life in all shapes and sizes. As the water temperatures dropped last winter and before, I found myself thinking, 'I may have finally found the sport that my body type is built for.' I was never an elite sportsperson as I grew up but feel that I may have found a niche in the ice swimming world. Its not what draws me to the ice that is so amazing, but, rather how many others have also followed”.

When immersed and alone in water this cold for this long, one enters a zen like state of mindfulness and short-term well-being.

"We all want peace. We all want beauty. We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently". Octavia Hill, 1883, Co-Founder of the National Trust.

I will attempt to complete my first Ice Mile at Hatfield Lake, Doncaster. If the water is not cold enough, the attempt will be deferred
to another date at the same location and so on until the
environmental conditions allow. 

To date only 486 people from 38 countries worldwide have managed to successfully complete a formally recognised Ice Mile as ratified by the IISA and I certainly hope to join this elite group with a sub-500 number.

SwimYourSwim Event Report

It was worth the wait!

At 09:15 on Saturday morning at DCLT’S Hatfield Outdoor Activity Centre  in Doncaster, Sam Farrow became the first swimmer to attempt an ice mile with us since Helen Smith’s swim  in February 2019.

The ice mile is undoubtedly one of the most extreme events of physical endurance. Swimming one mile in open water below 5ºC wearing just one costume or pair of trunks, one hat and one pair of goggles.

Preparation starts well before the day, and must include a thorough medical check and ECG with a qualifying swim.

On Saturday morning a thorough briefing starts the process, a safety boat with two qualified safety crew supporting each individual swimmer, monitoring stroke rate and other indicators to ensure the safety of the swimmer. On completion a recovery team looks after the swimmer’s welfare until they are rewarmed.

All of this is made possible by an amazing team of volunteers, with experienced people working alongside newer folk to ensure safety throughout. What makes this Saturday even more special is the delay, winter 2019/20 was odd, the weather was warm and the temperature of the water never dropped below the magical 5ºC. Then winter 2020/21 we were unable to offer any swimming due to covid restrictions. Safety and recovery would have been impossible. But Saturday 22nd January 2022 all was well!

The temperature was 4.5ºC , the swim your swim team were on hand, and an incredible nine swimmers were ready to take on the challenge. Six swimmers were successful, with the remaining three calling their swims at around the 1400m mark, still a phenomenal effort at that temperature. This is a massive achievement by the swimmers, but also by the SYS team who are heading towards supporting their 100th mile next weekend.

Huge congratulations to –

Sam Farrow 29m.12s

Stephen Gould 33m.05s

Kate Hartwright 41m.27s

William Rylance 35m23s

Melanie Tyrrell 36m 27s

Derek Bissett 29m. 34s

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