On Sunday 3 March 2013, at Loch Achilty in the Highlands of Scotland and with an amazing support team, I swam an Ice Mile in compliance with the International Ice Swimming Association’s criteria and I not only survived, but I really incredibly enjoyed it.
I completed a distance of 1.06 miles (1706m) in a water temperature of 2.8oC, in nothing more than a standard swimsuit, silicon cap and goggles. I’m not the fastest swimmer in the world, but this was a personal challenge and not a race. I concentrated on a steady and effective stroke rate to reflect a stoic determination in my head. Here’s my story.
Planning and Preparations
Getting to the start line of an IISA compliant ice mile takes an immense amount of planning and the input of a lot of folk whose prime thought is not ‘Hey, that sounds like a great challenge!’ but more along the lines of incredulity ‘Why on earth would you want to do a swim like that?‘
That’s hard to explain, but I have always enjoyed the buzz I get from cold-water immersion and I swim throughout the year in the Scottish Highlands wearing nothing more than my swimsuit, cap and goggles. This is a personal challenge, a goal to focus on, a means of affirming what I can do, how alive I am…. and it reflects the passion I have which grows with every swim.
The team has discussed the venue options, safety provisions, concerns and solutions over and over for weeks and eventually we are ready. Loch Ness, my preferred venue, stubbornly persists at a higher temperature (around 5.3oC) so we settle on Loch Achilty, a serene body of water about 2 miles in circumference.
The night before I sleep well for about 5 hours, but as soon as I wake my mind is asking questions of its strength, probing the depth of conviction to complete the swim. The adrenalin levels rise and with it the nerves arrive. To distract myself I set about helping my girls bake cakes to offer the team after the swim. It passes the time.
I understood there would be an element of faffing between meeting at the loch and me getting in to start the swim. I hadn’t quite allowed for how much. I want to stop the nerves by just getting in and swimming, but first I need to gather everyone up and have a briefing to ensure roles are known and the post-swim assistance is understood. Of course, everyone already knows what they are doing, what is needed of each individual. The process is more to satisfy my own emotional need in order that I can enter the water and focus on keeping the arms churning confident that the team is there for me.
In the van I lay out my clothes in order, ready for post-swim dressing. Methodical action calms my nerves. I don my swimsuit and cap and stand by the waters edge waiting for confirmation all are ready.
The kayak and canoe are already on the water. For two key reasons, the plan is for me to follow the kayak. Firstly it is to accurately record my swim route on the GPS Martin carries and secondly to minimise errors in sighting and allow me to just keep swimming, confident in the direction.
It is time. I put my goggles in place, pull my cap over my ears and step forward a few paces until the water is deep enough to dive into. Immediately the cold catches my attention and I focus on breathing out, making my arms rotate and then establishing a steady breathing pattern. Slow and steady, slow and steady, I tell myself. This is most definitely not about the time, there’s no race here, just a desire to complete the distance and walk away safely, recovery complete.
The conditions are near perfect for the swim. The air is a comfortable 8oC and calm with only a slight breeze and no wind chill to deal with. The day is bright but not blinding with a mass of white cloud that allows the brilliant blue sky to peek through in places.
I stroke out towards my first target, a small island thought to be a crannog, built and occupied in years long gone by. Fingers and toes are starting to nip, but there is no pain, just a calm acknowledgement that the process has started. My head is in a great place and it’s such a gorgeous day for a swim!
Normally during a swim I let my mind wander wherever it pleases, often simply relishing the freedom of swimming without walls and lane lines, appreciating the feel of the clean dark peat waters, the mood of the surrounding mountains and the incredible vistas at every breath. Sometimes it’s more mundane and I think about the long list of chores I am escaping from. This time was different. I think about my stroke, watch my hands, make sure every pull is effective. In no time I have completed the agreed loop around the island and am heading off to the wooden jetty across the loch. I can’t see the jetty as my goggles are beginning to fog, but I don’t need to. I am following a bright orange kayak.
Pat and Roy in the canoe alongside are taking the temperature of the water in this main swim zone and monitoring my stroke rate and coordination for signs of deterioration. The water is clearly below 5oC and I don’t really need to know more than that. I will hear the results later. Stroke, stroke, keep it steady, keep it together. I miss a stroke at one point as I swallow some of the icy water and hope no one is concerned enough to think of stopping the swim.
Near the jetty I pause to clear my goggles and look for Frances who was to be waiting on the jetty to check my progress. My shoes, robie and a warm drink are in the canoe and I can get out at this point, but I’m not done. On the contrary I feel surprisingly comfortable. As we turn to head back to the island I hear Martin shout that I’m half way, the GPS is showing 0.5 miles done. I mentally nod, quietly satisfied with progress.
During the return swim I become occupied with a need to pee. I have never been good at ‘letting go’ whilst swimming and the concentration required distracts me from all else. Before I realise it we are back at the island where I have to break my stroke briefly, sufficiently to allow the muscles to relax giving relief and a little warmth. However, by breaking my stroke I find myself weaving, over-rotating, fighting to regain the normal coordination, clearly feeling the effects of cold. Good job I can’t make eye contact with anyone. I get it back together after a few stokes just before I emerge around the front of the island and start heading for the finish point.
By now I am slowing down a little and experiencing the occasional shiver, very unusual in the water. I never use my legs much during a long swim and my feet are devoid of feeling. I keep watch of my hands to make sure they are paddle shaped and the pull remains effective. I talk myself through every stroke and during arm recovery I clench and unclench my fists in a bid to retain a connection with my hands. Nearly there now.
Hold on! Martin swings away to one side and Pat and Roy are yelling at me to follow him. I duly comply but my chilled brain takes a short while to understand there must be some concern the distance won’t be sufficient. I had been clear at the start that I would rather do 1800m than risk being short of the 1 mile target (1609.3m). Thankfully only a short dogleg detour seems to be required and as Martin swings back towards the finish I stroke out, confident that I am going to complete the swim.
I swim on into the shallows where I slow and change to breaststroke, wary of scraping my cold, numb skin on the stones below the water. A cheer goes up (or is that just in my head?) as I reach the finish, haul myself into a sitting position and carefully persuade my frozen tongue and lips to form words to request my crocs from the canoe. Rather than celebrate the finish, my mind switches to thinking about the next stage, the recovery. I know the most challenging part of this swim is still to come. The after-drop will be significant. I don’t normally begin to shiver, even a little bit, while still in the water and swimming.
Post-Swim Recovery and Reflections
At the finish I’m not given a chance to sort myself out. Hands reach out to put my shoes on, help me to the bank, swaddle me in my lovely warm dryrobe and almost carry me to the van which already has the big gas heater on and the soup warming up.
Fully dressed in multiple layers of thermals, a sleeping bag and blankets, the shivering feels quite violent at times and I appreciate Hilary sitting alongside me and holding the soup mug, giving me regular sips. Without this assistance it would have been all over the floor, my companions and myself. And I know from experience that taking in warm fluids is hugely beneficial to my recovery process. I am fed small pieces of mars bar and manage to communicate to my daughter that she should bring the cakes over for sharing. Every cold-water swim should finish with hot coffee and cake. After 45 minutes in the van the shivering subsides and I feel normal again and ready to head for home. A day later and I have some muscle aches I wouldn’t normally expect to feel after just a mile swim and which I put down to the long bout of shivering. It includes a tightness across the ribs on my back, stiffness around my shoulders and tension down my legs. I need to swim it out, but in a heated indoor pool.
Looking back my key memories of the swim are calmness, mental confidence, an awareness of being slow but steady and of being cold but not painfully so. It was tough, definitely, but I understood where I was going and what was happening throughout the swim.
Ratification of my swim by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) puts me on record as being the 59th person in the world to complete an ice mile, the 15th female to do so and the 1st representative of Scotland.
Will I do this again? Possibly. Probably. For now I’m looking forward to the waters warming up, a swim across Corryvreckan, my delayed English Channel relay, a Loch Ness relay, an attempt at Windermere and of course, regular open water swimming just to relax and appreciate the outstanding environment I live in.
The success of this swim would not have been possible without the support of an amazing group of people, most of whom are also cold-water swimmers, understand the risks and could not have looked after me any better.
Thanks to Pat, Roy and Martin for the water support and to the medics Hilary, Frances and Di who were shore support, dressers and recovery supervisors.
A huge thank you to Les for the video, and to Callum, Tally and Hilary for the stills which recorded the event for IISA.
Finally I am enormously grateful for the use of Pat and Roy’s big van to warm up in and without which the tough recovery would have been much tougher.