In the beginning of May, I’m achieving one of my lifelong dreams and going on a trip to the North Pole. I thought, ‘Why not? You better do it while you can! Soon polar bears will show up in Edinburgh and we’ll all be underwater as the ice caps melt! Better go see the polar bears in their natural habitat before they become a normal sight going through the rubbish in inner city London, and it’s not that special anymore.’
I digress; but yes, I am going to the North Pole, which is conveniently placed over my birthday weekend. On the morning of my 27th birthday, I have signed up for an Arctic swim. Yes, me, who struggles to go swimming in the Coromandel (New Zealand’s tropical holiday destination) and screams and squirms if my shower water is under 30 degrees Celsius. I admit, I am a lily-livered, warm-watered, partial-to-tropical-sun-and-piña-colada’s coward. I had a little Google, and the temperature of Arctic water in my “holiday” location is -2°C. It seems that on the morning of my 27th birthday, I will be joining the infamous 27 Club immediately through a fatal case of extreme stress and excessive whining, and so snuffs the end of my glorious life.
In all my frantic research of how to prepare for such an endeavour, apart from the Wim Hof method (I’ll get to that), is to practice.
Since I’m too squeamish for a cold shower, I do crave validation and respect from complete strangers and people I will probably never see again – so I thought why not go to a public bathhouse, and peer-pressure myself into doing it.
Cut to yesterday, after a particularly burn-y Barrecore session the day before and a gruelling day of vintage furniture shopping the day of (lots of walking, rummaging, and bending over to see price tags in inconsiderate locations), it was a perfect day for a trip to the baths – which came with a 30-minute massage to the delight of my ill-used lateral muscles.
I went to AIRE Ancient Baths which, if you haven’t been before, is the modern and luxurious answer to what the Romans were doing way back when. Exposed brick, soothing music, flickering candlelight, and many, many couples frolicking in the pools behind brick pillars – it was the perfect location to peer-pressure myself into being the tough, cold-water-doesn’t-phase-me-in-the-slightest bitch, especially since said couples were already looking at me curiously, I guess wondering why I would go on my own, and how am I coping since I can’t watch Netflix or read my book in the bath like I usually do. Answer: pretty well actually!
Cold water swimming is world-renowned for being a miracle worker. I’m sure you’ve seen athletes submerge themselves in plastic rubbish bins full of water and literal ice cubes, teeth gritted, fingers clenching the sides of the tub as if to stop them from propelling themselves out of the discomfort as soon as humanly possible. Benefits include reduction of inflammation, reduction of stress, boosting your immune system, and improving your circulation.
According to Professor Mike Tipton, an open water swimmer and researcher into cold water immersion, it only takes 6 dips for the body to get used to the cold-water shock. In my AIRE spa experience, I could only get through to four, and the longest I could spend in the water at a time was 2.5 minutes. Now, before you roll your eyes at me and call me a wimp, in this particular spa, the cold pools, or Frigidarium as they were called, were only waist deep, and big enough for one person at a time. This meant I had to crouch down in the water (brutal), and there wasn’t enough room to move around – so I couldn’t warm up by swimming or treading water. You had to grin and bear it. Frankly it was more of an exercise in self-restraint and mindfulness, considering I couldn’t move around to take away the pain.
The best way to do it is to go from warm, to cold, to warm again. I spent at least 10 minutes sweating away in the steam room, only to plunge myself into the Frigidarium for my measly 2.5 minutes, of which I was counting down like a mad woman. Also, due to my need for validation and respect from total strangers, I saw one girlfriend pop in there for maximum of 12 seconds, and the boyfriend laughed a little at her for not braving the cold. Welp, I was triggered. After an acceptable waiting time so it didn’t look like I was showing her up (which I absolutely was, a pathetic attempt on her part), I hunkered down for my first immersion in cold water, and lasted for a good minute until my fingers started to ache – not go numb, that happens in the first 10 seconds or so – ache. As Rod Stewart knows, the first cut is the deepest, and it got marginally easier from then on out, but the fingers were always the worst.
Doing exactly what Wim Hof does not recommend, I practised his breathing in there – if not because I was basically hyperventilating already (please do not copy me, if you get light-headed and drown, I cannot afford to be sued – I would have to pay you back in vintage designer clothes and furniture). If you don’t know who Wim Hof is, he’s this enigma of a man who regularly swims in minus temperatures, is at one with the cold, and even ran a half-marathon over ice in nothing but a pair of swim trunks. Not even shoes. Essentially, he’s one with the cold, and what helps him is this breathing method he concocted, imaginatively called the Wim Hof Method. Benefits to his breathing practice are similar to cold water swimming, like stress reduction, faster recovery, and alleviation of depressive symptoms. My thinking was there must be a connection between his breathing and his capability to withstand the cold – I’ll continue on with this and let you know…
Unfortunately for me, the Frigidarium’s were only a pathetic 12ºC – so I’m really only halfway there. Presumably my birthday swim will be a little more uncomfortable than my solo spa jaunt – there won’t be any hot pools (or Caldarium’s) to jump into afterwards, and I’ll be stumbling over icy pebbles with my little frozen blocks of feet towards my Canada Goose Expedition jacket I bought especially for this occasion, to shiver in a jeep all the way home. I also recently had a dream that we all went swimming only for a polar bear to be standing over our clothes, so it was either get eaten by the world’s most dangerous apex predator, or die of hypothermia. I’m making it sound like a torturous endeavour – it’ll be fun, I swear!
Why am I doing this to myself, you ask? Honestly, it’s to prove that I can. I’m not sure I’ll be doing any open water swim relays in the near future, but I will be proud of myself that I achieved something wildly uncomfortable, and even a little dangerous – and I’ll have a great story to tell. 27, here I come – stress-free, anti-inflamed, and immune-boosted!