“The cold is the doorway to the soul”
Since the beginning of my winter swimming challenge I have taken a deep dive into my subconscious in a path of discovery. Up until I started my challenge to swim 5000 metres by spring in sub 10-degree water without any neoprene (including no socks/gloves), I was a fairly experienced and comfortable outdoor swimmer. However, I had never before swam right through a winter season in protective neoprene let alone without.
Prior to my “Ice Master” challenge which began on the Winter Solstice 2020, I’d commenced a process of connecting to the cold. I wanted the process to be as holistic as possible, so from late November, as winter started to bite I committed to no heating on in our flat, whether that be radiators, central heating, hot water bottles etc except for showers and washing hands. I had been building up my seasonal open water swimming progressively and used this period before the solstice as an experiment to see how I could cope after my swims without any artificial heating.
We live in a modern western world that is defined by artificially moderated heating. We rely on centrally heated homes, heated transport and workplaces in order to regulate our body’s temperature. In a relatively minutely short space of time in the chronology of human existence we have lost, or are losing, our natural ability to regulate our own body temperature amidst the elements of the natural world. A natural world that we are designed to be physiologically plugged in to and deal with. At the time of writing (mid-February 2021) I’m just over 2000 metres of ice swimming through my challenge and I feel like I’m well on the way to re-discovering my body and mind’s natural mechanisms in order to cope with and even thrive in freezing water temperatures.
During that period just before I started my Ice Master Challenge, and indeed since, I’ve felt so alive. With a combination of post-swim exercises I had developed and my focused mindset I could feel my body’s responses and resilience to the cold strengthening after every swim or plunge.
I always practice safe winter swimming and never swim out of my depths. Arguably the most dangerous point in my swim is the moments after I get out. The exercises I’ve honed and developed (I’ll go into more detail by using highlighted stories on my Instagram account within the next week - a physical demonstration would be easier than trying to explain in text!) are designed to gradually re-warm my extremities in order to stimulate dexterity so I can physically function. Cold water incapacitation is dangerous so once I’ve thrown on my robe to protect from the elements, I exercise all my faculties, both mental and physical, to get my stressed circulatory system back in the game. Crucially during these exercises, I am deliberately crossing my midline to stimulate a reaction from my body. I am also trying to engage every level of my body from fingers to shoulders and my lower half, whilst simultaneously testing my coordination and cognition. My spotter asks me general knowledge questions and observes my exercises for rhythm and timing. Once she and I are satisfied that I have fought off the surge of after drop and hypothermia, I can get on with drying properly and throwing on plenty of warm layers. At no point do I aim to use any artificial means of re-warming whether it be hand warmers, hot water bottles or a car heater. I also make sure I leave several hours before I have a warm shower. There is something very empowering about putting my body through an extreme experience and getting back to normal by utilising my body’s natural instincts (informed by practice), like its meant to. I am self-regulating my body temperature.
I used these weeks in early December to confirm if I was ready to take on the challenge. By the time the solstice arrived with the fire burning on the water’s edge to welcome in the new light, taking on the ice master challenge felt like a natural progression. I felt equipped and I backed myself. I’m now firmly of the belief that if I want to realise my potential in winter swimming, I need to continue to practice temperature self-regulation from what I do immediately after exiting the water to cutting out artificial heating on rest days.
As I suggested earlier this is the same temperature self-regulation that my ancestors practiced on a daily basis. My core DNA originates from the extremities of north west Scotland, the Hebrides and coastal west Ireland. Acknowledging my genetic and geographical context leads me to understanding what I am naturally pre-disposed to in the natural world. This knowledge and acceptance of my genetic disposition gives me strength and meaning when I’m preparing to take on an ice master swim. It makes me feel at one with my ancestral origins and gives powerful relevance to an activity, sport, hobby and passion that is winter or ice swimming. An activity which to many seems mad and eccentric!
Yet understanding who I am reminds me that the act of committing my body to ice cold water is a completely natural and necessary experience for me to be engaging with. This is not to say that someone with DNA predominantly from, say, equatorial areas cannot engage with cold exposure. But just like how certain crops are designed to thrive in certain climates, I am by design built to actively engage with cold exposure. Moreover, living on a northern latitude and enduring cold dark winters, I am programmed to extract my dopamine through cold exposure in a process known as cold thermogenesis. The other principal source of dopamine is sunlight, but of course Scottish winters are not known for their long sunny days!
The process of cold thermogenesis has been a pure experience for me during my swims as I’m not wearing any protective neoprene. From turbo charging my immune system (I haven’t been sick at all since February 2020), to resetting my metabolism and brown fat activation, stimulating my nervous system to re-wire its stress responses and the acute 350% dopamine hit that my cold water swims activate. It’s rarely easy to commit to open water in the depths of winter with nothing on but a swimsuit. But I always know that I won’t regret it and that powerful connection I have to the cold draws me in.
That same connection to the cold began much earlier than this year, during school holidays spent in an old house in a remote part of North West Ireland. I have vivid memories of when my mum took us walking barefoot through a windswept field, in the foothills of the Finn Valley, Donegal. It felt uncomfortable but the reason why it’s such a vivid memory is because this earthing experience ingrained a deep chemistry with the natural world. The cold yet charged sensation of peaty mud encircling my toes brought my young millennial mind instantly into the present. It was spontaneous, I can’t even recall the build-up to that memory of being plugged into the cold, wet earth. What happened earlier that day is a mystery, I can only recall the moment itself, in all its raw and intensified sensory perception. As a London bred and relatively sheltered eight year old, whose only conscious desires at the time were very much typical and normal, the experience was bizarre and I most likely moaned at some point; however, this is where my connection to the cold began.