Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Watch: Sunday Life reporter takes bone-chilling plunge and gets lowdown on ice-swimming

 

By John Toner

When the boss suggested I go ice-swimming for a feature article I thought he was joking.

I laughed out loud at what I assumed was office banter.

I started to fear the worst when I caught my colleague Christopher Woodhouse smirking in a way which suggested he'd escaped this time, it was my turn to suffer pain and indignity for a Sunday Life challenge.

Couldn't I just eat a huge steak or a giant pizza? I mean, I love curries too.

Meanwhile, the boss was reading out the details of where and when I could ice-swim. Woody was now laughing out loud.

After mumbling a few feeble excuses and desperately trying to remember the terms of my employment contract, I eventually decided resistance was futile, I was going to take the plunge, literally.

I certainly wasn't laughing as I grabbed my trunks and a towel and headed to Wild Water Armagh to try what is the increasingly popular pursuit of winter outdoor swimming, an apparently exhilarating experience said to be a treatment for everything from depression to the menopause.

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Numbness was creeping through my hands and feet as the thermometer flashed up five degrees celsius at the outdoor pool, just cold enough to qualify as ice-swimming.

The crystal-clear water lapped against the wooden decking as my heart thumped in my chest and my body began to shudder gently in the bracing wind.

As I stepped into the pool the near-freezing water cloaked my foot in pain and sent goosebumps racing up my legs and across my body.

John Toner Wild Water Armagh open air swimming pool. (Photo by Colm O'Reilly, Sunday Life)
John Toner Wild Water Armagh open air swimming pool. (Photo by Colm O'Reilly, Sunday Life)
John Toner Wild Water Armagh open air swimming pool. (Photo by Colm O'Reilly, Sunday Life)

The very real risk of going into cold water shock means this is literally not for the faint of heart but I pressed on, descending slowly further into the freezing depths.

It felt as if thousands of cold needles were being pushed into my legs and the blood in my veins was turning to ice. All before I reached the Jesus Step, so called because it drops you from thigh-height to chest-height causing many to invoke their Lord and Saviour.

As I plunged down over the step my body was enveloped in a blanket of raw, glacial water which pushed deep gasps out of my chest as I struggled to contain expletives.

Once over the initial shock of entering the icy water my mind quickly told me to push on and get moving for fear I might become paralysed by the extreme cold.

Entering into a front crawl stroke the sharp, stunning sensation of the cold water flashed down my back and along my flanks.

The water was so cold and my breathing so rapid, my heart was almost pumping out of my chest. I was physically incapable of putting my face into the water to carry out the stroke properly as my mind just wouldn't allow this to happen.

After completing two thrashing lengths my body began to adjust to the cold somewhat and I grew in confidence.

Thinking I had ice-swimming licked, I got into the front crawl properly and managed to put my face into the water, coming up for air every three strokes - that's when it hits you.

Cold water at this temperature enveloping your skull immediately begins to disorientate the mind and I struggled to maintain my rhythm and composure. As I progressed through lengths three and four the icy water felt like a frosty vice being tightened around my skull, numbing my face.

Determined not to be bested by mere water I pushed on for two final lengths despite the recommendation for a first attempt being four.

I'm a strong swimmer, capable of regularly pulling 40-length shifts in an indoor pool, but I was now very aware of fatigue after just four and the feeling in my arms and legs was rapidly retreating. As I laboured toward the end of length six, I was desperate to get out of the freezing torture.

Hauling myself out of the pool my extremities had become no more than fond memories, my legs and arms almost refusing to co-operate with instructions from my brain and I had to be helped out of the pool.

John Toner Wild Water Armagh open air swimming pool. (Photo by Colm O'Reilly, Sunday Life)
John Toner Wild Water Armagh open air swimming pool. (Photo by Colm O'Reilly, Sunday Life)

After pulling on a robe to help my body recover, I was overwhelmed with an intense feeling of euphoria as endorphins flooded my cerebral cortex.

Being ushered into the warming up shed I don't think I have ever been so grateful to see a glowing hot, wood-burning stove in all my days but the pain wasn't over. Far from it.

As the numbness slowly dissipated from my fingers and toes it was replaced with a powerful burning sensation as if my blood vessels were ablaze underneath my skin. Thankfully this feeling was fleeting as the warmth from the stove pumped around the wooden outbuilding.

Whilst shuddering violently under the robe I got chatting to a couple of other thawing souls who regularly dip into the icy water. I wanted to know what makes people do this regularly and what they get out of it.

David Rodgers (54) is a retired doctor and devout Christian who used ice water swimming as a form of pain relief while battling mouth cancer.

He told me: "I had been doing open water swimming before I got diagnosed with cancer two years ago and then I had surgery in December 2017. I had to undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy and the day before that started I came here and did a kilometre in 1.9 degrees and that was sort of my sign off from swimming.

"It was eight months until I was able to get back into the water again but the reason I was swimming at that time is because I had pain from the cancer in the side of my head. Getting into the water got rid of the pain for up to four hours afterwards.

"It was great to get in and be free of the pain for a few hours. It worked really well as a form of drug-free pain relief.

"I find being in the cold water very good for my mental health, partly because of the shock that it gives and because it's good for your immune system but also because of the camaraderie which goes on around it.

"For me it's a very spiritual feeling, my faith has been very important to me the whole way through the cancer journey and I see it as a way of me remembering that God has me in his hands. Getting back into the water has been incredibly important to me."

Alongside David and I in the blissfully warm shed was another man shuddering to recovery, Paddy Montgomery, a 34-year-old extreme sports enthusiast from Armagh who regularly plunges into the outdoor pool to help with muscle recovery.

He said: "I've been swimming outdoors for a while. I've been swimming in the highlands and various parts of Ireland including Donegal but it's only just last year about October that I got rid of the wet suit and just went skins.

"Since then I've competed in ice swimming championships and did okay.

"I just see it as another challenge. You get a real buzz, it's hard to explain but I do enjoy it, once I've defrosted I'm alright! You get a real high. I'm so used to it now when I get into a normal pool it's like a jacuzzi.

"There are some characters who do it and it's great meeting them and hearing their stories, it's very sociable.

"I like to do it in my personalised budgie smugglers as a bit of banter - I wore pink ones with pineapples on at the 1k championships recently and they were calling me Paddy Pineapple."

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