Wild Water Armagh Ice mile

By | March 14, 2018

As the country braces itself for “The Beast From The East” this weekend, Blackwater Triathlon Club member, Frank Hallissey, recounts his recent adventures in the cold as he fulfilled his ambition to swim an “Ice Mile”.  

After recently competing in my second Irish National 1km Ice Swimming Championships at Wild Water Armagh, in a thoroughly respectable, and not last, time of 19:47:51, the opportunity arose to attempt my first official Ice Mile at the same venue. Wild Water Armagh is 25m outdoor natural freshwater pool run by the Conroy Family. After 3 seasons of serious winter swimming it was always my end goal to join the ranks of the Ice Milers, inspired by other Cork based swimmers such as Carmel Collins, my partner in crime in long training sessions in Knockannaig reservoir. 

For those unaware, the rules of an Ice Mile require the swim to take place in a body of water with a temperature of less than 5°C. There can be no tidal assistance (hence the use of lakes and outdoor pools) and the swimmer is only permitted to wear a standard swimming costume, a Silicone swimming hat and a pair of Goggles. NO NEOPRENE! The swims are ratified by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA). 

Matters were complicated due to my second (a safety requirement for all Ice Swims) dropping out at short notice, and my own family and work commitments requiring driving up and down to Armagh on the day of the swim. Undeterred, I set off at 7am last Sunday.  

Arriving in Armagh at 11:30, I was met by Ian Conroy, the owner of Wild Water Armagh and the IISA official observer for my swim. 7 other swimmers from Ireland and the UK were attempting Ice miles on the day. After a quick review of my Medical forms and ECG, a safety briefing was performed. All of the swimmers attempting the mile were highly experienced, so this passed off without incident. I was informed I would be going off in the fourth and last group. 

The adrenaline was kicking in hard at this stage, as the fight or flight instinct was kicking in. One of the main challenges with cold water swimming of any type is ‘Cold water shock’, on entering the water, the body reacts by causing the lungs to gasp and constricting blood vessels in the extremities to preserve core temperature, which can either cause you to inhale water (not good) or lose consciousness (even less good). Controlling this impulse is something that can only be achieved by constant training of the body and immersion in cold water, but it is always going to be something that causes a reaction. I took some time alone to focus on my swim, which always seems to help. 

Finally, my time came. The temperature of the water at this stage (measured at three separate points in the pool) was 4.13°C, with an air temp of 8.5°C and a wind speed of 14.5km/hr. These are nigh on perfect conditions for an Ice swim.  

Frank braving the cold during his Ice Mile attempt

On entering the water, I controlled the now familiar cold shock response, and on checking with the timekeepers, I began. Unlike other distances in winter swimming, an Ice Mile is not run as a race, the challenge is to finish. With this in mind I set off at a steady pace, aiming for around 55 seconds per 50m. The initial shock subsides after less than a minute, and then I settled in at my pace. The first 30 lengths were mostly uneventful, apart from my woeful touch turns. After this point my hands and feet were gone completely numb. At the 1km point, most of the feeling in my arms and legs were gone, and from this point on you are relying on muscle memory to get you through. I still felt comfortable at this point, due to my familiarity with both the conditions and my body’s reaction to them. Once I reached 56 lengths I knew I was home and hosed and cruised home in 31:16:17. Slightly slower than my target, but I was elated all the same to finally achieve my goal.  

But the swim itself is only half the story; the recovery can be even more challenging. Even exiting the pool with the assistance of a second can be challenging enough, so much so that they have to put your flip flops on your feet and your arms through your Dry Robe. Once out, I was brought to a warming area to begin my recovery.  

The walk to the warming area, still with assistance, is challenging enough, but remember earlier when I spoke about the circulation being cut off to your extremities to preserve your core temperature? Once you stop, the blood vessels dilate allowing the cold blood back into your core, causing a massive (up to 5°C) drop in core body temperature. At this stage you are incapable of even shivering, your memory gets hazy, and the most unimaginable pins and needles affect your hands and feet. I was wrapped in hot towels and my hands and feet were immersed in basins of hot water. The towels were constantly changed and warm water was poured over me for the next ten minutes.  

As a general rule of thumb, once you start shivering the worst of the recovery was over. I was then able to join the other swimmers in the wood fired hot tub to complete my recovery. Overall, my recovery took around half an hour. This is exceptionally fast, due in no part to the facilities at Wild Water. To compare, it can take me over an hour and a half to recover after a training swim in Knockannanig. 

And then, after all this, I had to drive home to Kildorrery, arriving back at 8pm. Some day out! 

The swim has subsequently been ratified by the IISA. I was the 363rd person ever to complete an ice mile and the 38th Irish person to have completed at least one. All the other 7 swimmers were also all successful on the day, with times ranging from 25:49 to 44:31. 5 swimmers were also completing their first ice mile.