The Polar Bear Challenge became even more challenging in December. On the morning I was supposed to be heading out for my first swim of the month, one of the children woke up with a mild fever and we ended up at a walk-in test centre instead. The test was positive. The virus had come home from school and within a few days all four of us had tested positive for Covid-19.
I spent a week in bed and was more ill than I’ve been in a long time, the loss of my sense of taste was particularly depressing, but I know I got off lightly. For me, the worst bit was the fear of the unknown. We know that Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for elderly people and people with weakened immune systems, but youth and health are no guarantee and little is known about the long-term effects of Covid-19 on the body.
17 December – Freedom
I went back to the river on my first day out of quarantine. I still had a slight cough, but I was otherwise symptom-free and itching to get back in the water. But leaving the house felt strange and unsettling. Even though I knew I was not contagious, I still felt contaminated. I also had no idea how my body would react to the cold water. My last swim had been on the 30th of November, theoretically two weeks wasn’t enough to lose acclimatisation, but I didn’t know. I went with my regular swim buddy, Rebekah, and we opted for a short swoosh in Kingston—close to home. It felt wonderful to be back in the water—an exhilerating release after being stuck at home for two weeks.
19 December – Christmas Swim
Two days later, we did our first official Polar Bear swim of December—a Christmas-themed event at The Haven. The lake was colder than the river, as I got in the shock took my breath away for a moment and I felt the fear, but the sun soon swept it away. We managed a jolly 450m loop of the lake—17 minutes at 7°C—with our festive hats on.
21 December & 29 December
We did two more Polar Bear Swims in the Thames at Shepperton in December: a Winter Solstice swim on the 21st of December—500m in 18 mins at 8°C. And a chillier swim on the 29th—300m in 10 minutes at just over 5°C. We were finally approaching the temperature of an official ice swim (less than 5°C). I watched a documentary called The Merthyr Mermaid about ice swimmer Cath Pendleton and her record-breaking ice mile in Antarctica. It was inspiring and terrifying. The kids told me not to get any ideas. I was intrigued by the idea of training for an ice mile, but I’m not quite ready for the sitting-in-a-chest-freezer-in-the-shed level of cold-water acclimatisation.
At the beginning of January, the country was divided into separate tiers with different levels of lockdown, and you weren’t supposed to cross the boundaries. Our New Year’s Day swim at Shepperton Lake was sadly cancelled. The Haven, fortunately, was in the same tier as us, although the parking lot was extremely busy, and we had to queue for a while to get a spot. The temperature was holding steady at 5.2°C for our first swim of the new year and this time we just did the small loop—300m in 10 minutes.
8 January – First Ice Swim
A week later, all the lakes had been closed and we were in full-scale lockdown again. Fortunately, we were still allowed to exercise with one other person, so I didn’t lose my swim buddy. (I wouldn’t swim alone in the river in winter.) Our first ice swim took place on a miserable day at Hurst Park in front of a crowd of incredulous bystanders. We swooshed for about 500m at 4.5°C. It was extremely cold and there was a lot of huffing, shivering and stamping around afterwards to warm up.
22 January – Sunshine
Though the cold water has its own benefit, we found that sunshine always makes a winter swim so much more enjoyable. I didn’t think that I would be able to swim through winter without the incentive of the Polar Bear Challenge. It was a surprise to discover that we did so many swims in addition to the ones documented here, purely for the irrepressible joy of it.
25 January – Snow Swim
I spent the rare snow day on Sunday 24 January, throwing snowballs in Home Park with the kids, but the snow hadn’t melted the following day, so we had an opportunity for a bucket-list snow swim. The water was 4°C, but the sky was blue, and the snow was sparkling white in the sun at Hurst Park. It was such a magical day for a swim, that I went twice!
5 February – The Flood
The beginning of February brought incessant rain and flooding to the Thames and it would’ve been too dangerous to swim in the river. Even our safe swimming spot, a creek out of the main flow, looked scarily unfamiliar in the sprawling floodwaters. We came, looked at it, and left once, but the second time we braved the swollen creek for our first Polar Bear swim of February. We managed a cautious 350m in 12 minutes at 5°C. But it was lovely to be back in the water.
12 February – Coldest Swim
It looked like a lovely sunny, day but when we got out of our cars, we realised there was a fierce wind blowing that gave the air a wind-chill factor of about -6°C. The water was 2°C. We swam into the wind—waves breaking in our faces. I lost a swim shoe, but I didn’t even notice. It was thrillingly, terrifyingly cold. I had to cuddle the cat for a long time afterwards to warm up again.
We swam our second Polar Bear swim for February in the creek at Shepperton. The water level was still high but much lower than the last time we’d been here. We managed 350m in 12 minutes at about 7°C—a lot warmer than our last swim.
24 February – Spring is in the Air
The last week of February seemed unseasonably warm by comparison and the river temperature was on the up. It felt like spring. It was amazing to realise how much we had acclimatised: at the beginning of October, 11°C had seemed unbearable, but four months later, 10 minutes at 8°C felt pleasantly manageable. We didn’t even have a shiver afterwards.
Despite the additional hurdles of lake-closures, lockdown restrictions, floods, catching Covid, and the coldest January in a decade, we managed to do all the required Polar Bear swims. With only two more March swims to complete the challenge, it’s a downstream swoosh to the finish line.