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Polar Plunge Cold When You Think About It

Date: 
01/23/2018 - 17:07

By Teri Saylor

Lisa Garrity.jpgThe line of shivering, swimsuit-clad bodies behind the giant slide at Lifetime Fitness in Cary, NC was a short one. It was New Year’s Day, after all, and the outdoor swimming pool was a beautiful, frosty sight with a thin sheet of ice floating on its surface. There were more spectators lined up in heavy coats armed with cameras and mobile phones than there were polar plungers on this day of new beginnings. The squeals and shrieks started before anyone ever put foot to ladder for the long, cold climb to the top.

I am not ashamed to confess to my own wimptitude – which isn’t even a word – but when you are considering going down a 10-foot slide into a pool of icy water when the air temperature is hovering around 23 degrees, I own that. So I stood poolside, wrapped up in a warm coat heckling the plungers from the peanut gallery.

I did go down the slide two years ago, and was quite proud of myself, even though we were in the middle of one of those miraculous winter warm spells. The temperature had been in the upper 70s for almost two weeks, and while that year’s Polar Plunge made for a good photo op, it almost felt like cheating. Think a mid-winter swim in Florida.

On this day, the Polar Plunge was just one in a series of activities some of my friends conjured up for our little dream team – dubbed Team Mimosa. Yes, we have the tee shirts, hats, koozies and banners. A series of 5K runs spanned three days, culminating in the bone-chilling slow slog down that slide and into the drink. Then we went to a local lake to take the plunge all over again.

But as our do-it-yourself New Year’s Day polar plunges often go – the lake was perfectly imperfect. Peering across a wide expanse of frosty sand, we could see the water level was down about four feet – meaning our “plunge” into the lake was only knee deep. I had forgotten my bathing suit bottom and had to take the plunge wearing my running tights with the top. But that was good enough, because we froze during the extra-long race across the beach to the water. Our most hardy compatriots – those who had gone down the slide, jumped over a boom into deeper waters in the lake and dunked all the way under. I settled for wet feet and ankles.

Did I mention I am a wimp?

For years, the Special Olympics organization has been staging local Polar Plunges all over the country as fundraising events, usually sponsored by local law enforcement officers. There is even a Polar Plunge in Hawaii -- my kind of plunge -- where plungers swoop down Mount Kilauea, a 95-foot long, 36-foot high inflatable water slide, into a pool of ice cold water.

There is a famous Coney Island Polar Plunge and large Special Olympics Polar Plunges at Isle of Palms near Charleston and in four locations across Virginia, dubbed Polar Plunge Festival. But no matter how cold the water is for us here in the south, the plungers up north in frigid Wisconsin or Michigan likely would scoff at our feeble efforts and self-described bravado.

Russians cut holes in the ice for their Polar Plunges. The Internet is filled with pictures of hardy swimmers in bathing suits, as they sprint barefoot across wide expanses of snow on their way to visit King Neptune under the icy depths.

In Siberia, for example, there are outdoor swim clubs, where speedo and bikini-clad bathers frolic and relax in ice baths as if they were hot tubs in the swankiest tropical resort, instead of minus 30 degrees Celsius, which translates to minus 22 Fahrenheit. Our 23-degree polar plunge temperature would seem like a downright heat wave in Siberia.

Polar plunging remains a curiosity and I went online to seek answers to the burning questions:

Are polar plunges hazardous to your health?

According to an article in Outside.com, while they may be hazardous to some people with heart conditions, they are generally safe –- except when they’re not. Plungers should be careful if they dive in too deep or to suddenly. When a person is suddenly submerged in cold water, a cold shock response occurs -- gasping for air, hypertension and increased cardiac output. Cold water can also cause incapacitation after about five to 10 minutes in the water because it causes blood to rush from appendages to the core, weakening limbs and impairing motor coordination. There is also the danger of hypothermia. But many runners do enjoy cold water immersion after long runs, so plunging safely is not usually a problem. If you decide to take the plunge, make sure you have folks who can come to your aid in case of an emergency.

What do you wear for polar plunging? Some people wear funny costumes. Some wear triathlon suits, and others go full on with swim suits. The website cooleysanemia.org suggests that no matter what type of plunge attire you choose, wear it under your clothes so you can pull a quick-change act before taking the plunge, the quick change act comes afterwards, when you are wet and freezing. Having a nice stack of dry towels and fresh clothes nearby is always a welcome relief. Also, it’s not cheating to wear something on your feet. Sneakers or water shoes will protect your feet from whatever lurks at the bottom of lakes, ponds and oceans during freezing temperatures. Also, avoid wearing costumes that are too heavy, and even though you may be tempted, don’t wear your winter coat.

How far can a real polar bear swim? Here in the south, where we like to swim in more balmy temperatures, the thought of swimming in frigid water without a wetsuit sends well, chills down our spines. But real polar bears can swim incredible distances in search of food, even though they may not like it. But they and are having to swim more now than ever, due to shrinking sea ice in their habitats. The Canadian Broadcasting Company reported in 2016 that scientists have discovered bears traveling more than 50K in a single swim session and can often go for several days without stopping.

Finally, here are a few corny old sayings about cold weather that you can use as a mantra, whether running, biking or swimming out in the elements this winter.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

Colder than a polar bear’s toenails.

Colder than a polar plunge in Siberia.

Colder than moonlight on a tombstone.

Colder than penguin snot.

Colder than a witch’s tittie.

So cold that when the police tell a robber to freeze, he does.

Enjoy the cold while it lasts. We’ll be sweating to our mantras in a few months and dreaming of polar plunges to come.

(Teri Saylor is a columnist for Running Journal. She runs and plunges when the water is not too cold in Raleigh, N.C. Contact her at terisaylor@hotmail.com)

Photo: On New Year's Day, 2018, Lisa Garrity takes the plunge down a giant slide into a pool full of freezing water. Note she's trying to stay warm wearing socks and a long-sleeved shirt. The air temperature was 23 degrees.

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