The Polar Bear Challenge Gets More Challenging

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.

2 January

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.

19 February

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.

The Polar Bear Challenge

I’ve always been a seasonal swimmer. I grew up in Durban, swimming in unheated outdoor pools. We swam in the summer and we ran in the winter—perfectly logical. But this year, September came around and I carried on swimming outdoors. And then it was October and I was still swimming. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to swim through the winter, as simply not making the decision to stop swimming.

And then I did something foolish and impulsive. As I often do. I signed up for the Polar Bear Challenge. I didn’t know much about it but with supremely misplaced confidence I decided to go for Gold level and committed to swimming at least 250 metres outdoors, twice a month from November through to March, with a total distance of 5000 metres required. Swimming costume, cap and goggles only—no neoprene. Easy.

Percy the Polar Bear – my thermometer

The temperature in the river has fluctuated over the last couple of months but my first properly cold swim was on Friday the 2nd of October, a grey and blustery day at Hurst Park, with Rebekah—my regular partner in lunacy. (They now know us at Shepperton Lake as ‘the two Rebeccas’.) It was about 11°C. A parent and toddler, wrapped up warmly in their winter waterproofs, watched in astonishment as we walked down the slipway into the Thames. As I gingerly lowered my shoulders into the water and pushed off, the back of my neck was gripped in an agonising vice, a horribly painful, claustrophobic feeling, and for a moment I started to panic. I told myself to breathe slowly and calmly, and after several deeply unpleasant minutes, my body relaxed and the pain in the base of my skull subsided.

It was not a great swimming experience. The wind blew us upstream and then we fought the waves back downriver again. The whole way I was strongly regretting my decision to sign up for the Polar Bear Challenge and had just about decided to blow the whole thing off as a stupid idea. But two days later I had a swim on a sunny day, in the water exactly the same temperature, and it was a blissfully pleasant experience. And I haven’t felt that cold-water-panic to the same extent since then. 

Swim 1: Sunday 1 November

My first swim of the Polar Bear Challenge was at Shepperton Lake. The sun was breaking through the clouds. The water was a balmy 12.9°C degrees. The swim course had been reduced to 300 metres for the winter. We managed three laps of front crawl and felt fantastic. (Aided by the tot of Drambuie we were handed as we got out of the lake.) This whole Polar Bear thing was going to be easy. 

In between the first and the second swim, Lockdown Number 2 began. The swimming pools and the lakes closed. (While people some had their last hurrah at the pub, we spent our pre-Lockdown night at Hampton Pool. It was my first time in a chlorinated, heated pool this year.)

Then it was back to the river. We swooshed downstream in the Thames at Hurst Park on Monday (not an admissible Polar Bear swim as it was aided by the current) and the temperature was similar to the lake. But then the air temperature dropped below zero on Tuesday night, and Wednesday and Thursday were both very cold. 

Swim 2: Friday 6 November

Next to Shepperton Lake there is a small creek that branches off the Thames and meanders below willow trees with nearly no flow at all—ideal for swimming when the current is too fast in the main river. It was a beautiful morning with that hazy autumnal light and a striking cloud-dappled sky. We knew it was going to be cold. Very cold. Rebekah, who had been swimming in neoprene booties and gloves up until this point, decided, for some reason, that this was the day to shed her neoprene and go full Polar Bear. The slipway was appropriately slippery, so we had to sit on our bottoms and slip into the cold water, like we were on a dirty, mossy water slide. We didn’t dither about, shoulders in, and we were swimming. It was definitely cold. My hands started to hurt, and I felt pins and needles all over my body. It was painful and delightful at the same time. Percy, my polar bear thermometer, said it was just under 10°C—a drop of 3°C since our last swim. We’ve generally been managing 25-30 minutes in the water, but we decided to be sensible and reduce our swimming time. We climbed out after 17 minutes and 450 metres at a relaxed, heads-up breaststroke pace. We were both red all over. (As Rebekah observed—we matched the lobsters on her swimming costume.) Fortunately, at this spot you can park right next to the river, so our towels and warm clothes were close by.

The process of getting warm and dry after a winter swim is almost ceremonial. All of your clothes have been laid out in preparation, in the correct order. (There’s usually a ten-minute window to get dry and dressed before the afterdrop hits and you start to shiver.) After the swimming robe, the woolly hat goes on next to keep your head warm, then clothes, socks and shoes. Then, the most important part, tea and cake (Rebekah’s lemon drizzle, in this case). There should always be cake. While eating your cake and drinking your tea, it is compulsory to do the warming-up dance: a combination of foot stamping, bottom jiggling and uncontrolled shivering.

I don’t like cold water. Being forced to have a cold shower is on the list of my least favourite things. It reminds me of the time our local reservoir sprang a leak when we were living in Joburg. We had no water for a week, and I had to bath in the swimming pool every morning before work. (FYI: never shampoo your hair in a swimming pool—it makes the pool go green.) So I was extremely sceptical of this addictive ‘buzz’ that cold water swimming supposedly gives you, as outlined in this hyperbolically named article. Was this the same as that alleged ‘endorphin rush’ people get from running? (Other people, apparently. Not me.)

But, against all my expectations, I have been converted to the cult of cold water. It doesn’t make any sense but even as; the ice-cream headache strikes, your fingers and toes burn, your skin tingles all over and turns bright red; you somehow feel amazing—exhilaratingly, buoyantly alive.

Halloween Swim

I have completed my required Polar Bear Challenge swims for November, but of course I will continue to swim at least twice a week for the sake of acclimatisation. (I’m not sure if it’s acclimatisation or global warming, but these days I feel like the Dad in Friday Night Dinner—I’m always BOILING!) Of course, November is the warmest month of the challenge—February/March will be the true test of my winter-swimming allegiance. I have been googling minimum temperatures in the Thames and it seems that it could go as low as 5°C. I’m just taking it one degree at a time.