Toronto Star: Ice swimmers defy death for the thrill
Published on August, 3rd 2016
By Dr. Greg Wells
Ryan Stramrood’s “ice mile’” in sub-zero water off Antarctica set the standard for ice swimming.
As he swam against the current in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean among leopard seals and icebergs, Ryan Stramrood’s body went numb.
He looked down, pulling his arms one stroke at a time through the -1 C water, and he thought about how clear the ocean was that day.
“You don’t want to see very far down. It can be quite eerie,” he said.
Stramrood is a motivational speaker and co-founder of the International Ice Swimming Association, the governing body for a breed of extreme athletes known as “ice swimmers” who do the front crawl sans-wetsuit through lakes and oceans 5 C and below, risking hypothermia.
They do it for the high, what Richmond Hill’s Chris Criswick calls “nice free legal drugs.”
“When you come out of the water and get that dopamine rush, you feel like a million dollars,” he said. “You’re on such a high, you feel like you can climb Mount Everest.” He says the swim before the high was “12 minutes of pure agony” at 6 C in Richmond Hill’s Wilcox Lake on Dec. 22.
He did it anyway.
A shock to the system
As an ice swimmer dives in, everything turns to pins and needles. The body is confused. Panic sets in and hyperventilation threatens their survival. An inexperienced swimmer could go into cardiac arrest. Though it’s a passionate hobby of his, and hundreds of others, Stramrood, who has been completing “ice miles” since 2009, when the IISA was formed by fellow founding member Ram Barkai, admits it’s a “massive shock to the system.”
“If you or I were to try it, I’m sure we would be at risk of dying,” said Greg Wells, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto. “But because these individuals trained themselves up for an extended period of time, they’re able to circulate blood very effectively; they’ve probably developed a bit of a fat layer to protect them.”
In “winter swimming,” another name for the activity, the maximum distance allowed for cold swims (as per International Winter Swimming Association rules) is just 200 metres. That length was “nowhere near challenging enough,” Stramrood said, so he and the other founding members of the IISA created the “ice mile,” which requires — among 27 rules in the ice swimmers “Constitution” — a length of 1.6 kilometres in water measuring 5 C or less by multiple thermometers.
The Everest of ice swims
So naturally, Stramrood went to Antarctica, perhaps the Mount Everest of ice swimming feats. There, he spent 32 minutes in the -1 C water to complete the first official “ice mile” in 2014 — the ultimate accomplishment for an ice swimmer, and a nightmare for anyone else.
A team of eight people sat in inflatable boats and kayaks, scanning the surface for dangerous leopard seals as Stramrood and the two other men he swam with pressed on.
His legs felt like dead weight. “Like they were hanging at 90 degrees,” he recalls. As the warm blood rushed to his core to protect his vital organs, his extremities intensifying in their numbness, he began to lose power and co-ordination. “It was an absolute nightmare.”
The two other men swimming with him had to be pulled from the water, unable to overcome the panic and disorientation.
“You start to doubt very seriously whether you can take one more stroke,” Stramrood said. “You start believing that you can’t go on, that you’re dying.”
Stramrood began to lose his focus as he neared the end of the Antarctica swim. His mind drifted for a few seconds at a time, more and more often as hypothermia likely began to set in, he said.
He calls ice swimming “extremely mental.” He means psychological, not crazy, though some would disagree. An ice swimmer begins with a clear, focused head, but as the cold moves in it begins to affect the mind. Confusion sets in with pain, fear and panic, which all come together to “accentuate self doubt,” he said. “Human bodies have evolved to avoid the cold, not withstand it, and our minds will do everything in its power to convince you to get out of the water.”
When he made it half way and turned around, he caught a glimpse of the passenger liner where they started, half a mile away, and he had “a fleeting moment of ‘yikes!’ ” fearing how far it seemed. “I knew my body was rapidly shutting down,” he said.
As he approached the gangway where he had jumped in, his stroke was an uncoordinated mess. Through the crystal water he could see the underbelly of the ship. Stoke by stroke, he pushed forward. The last thing Stramrood remembers, after more than 30 minutes in -1 C water, is putting his foot on the gangway. That’s when he blacked out. He didn’t faint or fall over, but has no memory of the “re-warming” process that followed.
The deadly “afterdrop”
The most dangerous part of cold-water immersion is when you’re out of the water, Wells said.
“Re-warming after a hypothermic episode is extremely delicate and very dangerous,” he says. The phenomenon is called the “afterdrop.” It’s when warm blood in your core starts to release and go back to your extremities, where the blood is cold. As it circulates, that cold blood may shock the core causing one’s temperature to drop even further.
To keep this from happening, Stramrood was massaged and given a blanket and warm beverage he can’t recall. When the shivering started — a good sign, said Wells — he began to “turn the corner,” a swimming phrase for the euphoric feeling of recovery, cited by many as the reason for swimming in the first place.
Oakville’s Madhu Nagaraja has felt the euphoria. He had spent 37 minutes in Lake Ontario when he finally came out of the water at Toronto’s Coronation Park on the first day of winter in 2014. The water was below 1 C. But he “loved every bit” of what he called “a fantastic swim,” his first official ice mile.
Even though one swimmer came out of the water screaming and another was pulled into a boat, New York’s Jaimie Monahan too finds ice swimming thrilling.
“It’s an addictive feeling,” she said. She completed her first official ice mile in Reykjavik, Iceland, when the water was under 4 C.
“Other people have described a lot of pain or numbness, which I tend not to have, at least in the distances I’ve done,” says Monahan. The key, she said, is “acclimating gradually.” She swims year round in New York, shortening the distance or time as the water cools.
Stramrood and his team prepared by sitting in ice baths of 1 or 2 C for 10-minute periods. He suggests starting with a short swim in 10 C water to see how the body responds.
Stramrood, who hopes to see ice swimming at the Olympics one day, admits that he actually hates the cold. It’s the challenge — and the end-of-swim euphoria — that keeps him going. The swims push him out of his comfort zone, a concept he’s taken to motivational speaking at business conferences.
His next ice swim planned is a competition in Germany next year. But will he dive into the Southern Ocean to swim among the leopard seals and icebergs again?
“I really pushed limits in Antarctica’s deadly cold water,” he said. “I won’t go out of my way to top that.”
How low can you go?
As temperatures dip towards freezing, the difference between each degree intensifies. It becomes a percentage game, says Ryan Stramrood, co-founder of the International Ice Swimming Association. “Four degrees is not one degree colder than 5 — it’s 20 per cent colder than 5.”
28 C (82.4 F): The maximum temperature for an Olympic swimming pool as per International Swimming Federation guidelines, 23 C warmer than the warmest temperature allowed for an official ice swim.
23 C (73.4 F): The surface temperature of Lake Ontario at its warmest in September 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
15 C (59 F): The surface temperature of Lake Ontario on July 1, 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
5 C (41 F): The warmest temperature allowed for a certified ice swim as per International Ice Swimming Association guidelines.
-1 C (30.2 F): The water temperature during Ryan Stramrood’s “ice mile” in Antarctica.
-2 C (28.4 F): The lowest temperature permitted for a maximum 200-metre swim with The International Winter Swimming Association, a different group than Stramrood’s, who swam eight times that length in -1 C.
Where to swim
The Lake Ontario Swim Team (LOST) was formed in 2006 by Oakville’s Rob Kent. It’s the only open-water swim team in Ontario, he says, with more than 150 paid members every summer, and more than 60 every Saturday morning swimming at Navy St. pier near the Oakville Museum. Many LOST members swim through the winter in water temperatures hitting 0 C.
Learn more online at LOSTswimming.com.