When Lockdown began in March 2020, pools in Illinois, where I live, were shuttered for the unforeseeable future. Lake Michigan would be the only available water most of us had access to for quite a while. In early May, when the water was “warm enough,” i.e. just below 50°F/10°C, several of us intrepid swimmers took the plunge at Gillson Beach in Wilmette, Illinois, regaining our feel for the water. Most weekends during the Summer of 2020, about 100 swimmers gathered at Gillson Beach, with appropriate social distancing of course. On one particularly nice weekend, about 200 swimmers were in the water. The beach was somewhere all of us could exist more closely to “normal” than in the current craziness of the Pandemic world.
As Lockdown continued and pool space was still extremely limited in Illinois, many of us Beach Swimmers kept at it well into the Fall. Around mid-October, I came up with the brilliant idea of “Hey, Let’s do an Ice Mile!” Four of us completed this Ice Mile on Sunday December 6, 2020, in 38°F/3.3°C water, but it was certainly a much larger group effort. To be recognized as an “Official” Ice Mile, swimmers may wear only one regular silicone bathing cap, one pair of goggles, and one regular bathing suit (i.e. a “Speedo”.) No wetsuits, gloves, booties or thermal caps are allowed according to the official Rules. www.internationaliceswimming.com However, participants may wear earplugs and nose plugs. Our “Official” group included Ted Baumgartner, Marian Cardwell, Andy Walberer, and me. Everyone who started finished; a 100% success rate!
There were a few others who were qualified to do the swim but in the climate of COVID that existed at the time, they did not feel comfortable fulfilling the various requirements, one of which was having medical check up conducted indoors. It was a time of rampant COVID and no vaccine had yet to be developed. Everyone involved fully understood and there was no judgement.
So, what is involved in an Ice Mile?
The two most important elements are the training and acclimation to the water temperature. Our training group always swam the full length of the course regardless of the water temperature. This allowed each of us to learn how the cold would affect us at various points along the course. Although we trained as a group, it was ALWAYS ok for someone to get out if they needed to. (No one ever did need to get out, thanks to the acclimation we continued to do but the option remains, without judgment.) Throughout the Ice Mile training time, which was the six weeks from mid-October until “Race Day” on December 6th, 2020, all the swimmers I trained with finished the course every time. Granted, we progressively felt colder and the “After Drop” time was increasingly brutal, but knowing that we could cover the distance was a real coup. At Gillson, we are fortunate that our swimming course stretches along a flat beach that gradually slopes downwards. You can often still be in waist-deep water 100 yards from the shoreline. Our Ice Mile course was intentionally set only 50 yards offshore so if anyone had to get out or be rescued, help was very close by.
Our training group consisted of competent swimmers, meaning they had good endurance and form, had been training consistently all summer, and were going to be able to proficiently handle most water conditions. As the water temperature dropped, so did the number of swimmers willing and/or able to continue to swim safely in cooler temperatures. I encourage people wear what makes them feel safe in the water. Those who still wanted to swim started to don wetsuits and other warming apparel. We welcomed them to do so since we were all having so much fun swimming together and many of these folks would become Safety Swimmers during our event. We are greatly appreciative to everyone who helped with this training, especially Michael Bailey, Karen Lundgren, Boyd Black, Eric Eshuis, and Joe Lunkes, who were our regular “Safety Swimmers”. As the water cooled, they kept a close eye on those of us who were still just in our regular swim suits. Their supportive presence provided continual comfort. Having my daughter, Julia Green, monitor us from the beach, and then help us get dressed and warmed up after our swims was crucial. When you’re in water that’s in the 40s, it’s like being in another world and certain body parts don’t work like they are supposed to so support is essential.
As the water temperature dropped, we just kept getting in. I wore my two-piece training bikini until race day (when I wore a one-piece Speedo), and until the water temperature dipped below 46F, I wore a single latex cap. At that point, I switched to a silicone cap because my swimming partner, Michael Bailey convincingly told me, “I don’t know if I can help you if you get into trouble so please wear a silicone cap.” Michael was completely right and I obliged.
This straightforward acclimation helped me know that I could handle the diminishing temperatures well. And all those Oreos and wine I packed onto my “Bio-preen” during the Pandemic really paid off for this Ice Mile. (I don’t recommend such a diet for obvious reasons…) As the water temperature dropped below 50F, we couldn’t believe that we were still swimming in The Lake. In a few weeks, we pined for “warm 50F water”, but the water temperature continued to march down degree by degree through the 40’sF.
Throughout the Fall, magnificent light bounced off the water in the late afternoons weekdays when we swam, and the changing colors of the leaves were especially vibrant during our noon weekend swims. This is just one of the many reasons why I love Fall Swimming! One afternoon, we happened upon a Boy Scout troop kayaking near the rocks at Gilson. They almost jumped out of their uniforms when they saw us swimming towards them because the water temperature was 42°F at that point.
An ”Official” Ice Mile must be swum in water measuring 41.0°F/5.0°C or lower. Because we didn’t know for sure when the water would be at this temperature, we couldn’t pinpoint a date until a few days before our actual swim. Despite Lockdown, people still needed to work, albeit from home, so we were aiming for a weekend day. At one point in early November, the water started to drop fast. It looked like our swim might happen before Thanksgiving but then we had a “heat wave” and the water warmed up to the mid-40°s, before starting to drop again. That’s a weird perspective!
On Wednesday, December 2, the water temperature registered 37°F. Chris Layton was the appointed Race Director for our official Ice Mile swim so he came to the beach that afternoon to make sure everyone was capable of completing the Ice Mile on the upcoming Sunday. This was the coldest water I had ever swum in, and I was still in my two-piece training bikini. When I finished the swim that afternoon, I knew that we had just completed a real Ice Mile; Sunday’s swim would be a simple formality. As I was led out of the water, I kept saying to Michael, “We did it! We did it! We did it!” Walking up the beach to our changing area, my field of vision started to narrow. For about an hour, I could only see images on the periphery of my vision and couldn’t focus on images directly in front of me, especially faces. Chris was directly in front of me and I could hear him clearly but his face was a complete blur. So went my perceptual intake of everyone else around me. This “Optical After Drop” reaction must have been some sort of “eye” reaction to the water temperature, and it went away once I warmed up.
When the water temperature dropped below 50°F, I usually start shaking uncontrollably after our training sessions. This “After Drop” shaking is a completely normal reaction and one I have experienced countless times in my 30+ years of Open Water Swimming. It hits me about 10 minutes after I exit the water, but the shaking became more drastic that Fall as the water plunged into temperatures I’d never previously experienced. It became blatantly apparent that it was not safe for me (or anyone else in this situation) to drive myself the 15-minutes it took to get home since my violent shaking didn’t allow me to have full control of my car. This “Impaired Driving” could jeopardize someone else’s safety (or my own) just so I could obtain my wacky goal.
Ted started driving to my house since he lived a little bit further away, then Julia would drive us to the beach. While we were in the water, she walked along the beach, helped us get dressed afterwards, and drove us home. By the time we got back to my house, Ted and I had done our major shaking while in the car - and it was MAJOR! This shaking allowed us to warm up sufficiently, so Ted was then able to drive home safely. This is an extremely important consideration to plan for with Cold Water training: how far you have to drive before the After Drop shaking sets in and what support you will need to ensure that you can get home safely. We decided that if we did not have a driver, we would sit in our car at the beach – with the heat blasting - for at least 15-minutes until our most intense shaking subsided. We complied with our own rules and did this a few times that Fall.
On the actual day of the swim, December 6th, 2020, I knew we were all going to make it. It was an overcast day with very little wind and the water was flat calm. To make sure we were all ok throughout the swim, Eric Eshius was in the water at the start buoy, Karen Lundgren was at the northern first turn by the Water Treatment Plant, and Joe Lunkes was at the southern turn by the rocks. At each of these points, we had to give a verbal “OK” so the Safety Swimmer could hear and see that we were physically and mentally ok. Each Ice Mile swimmer also had a “Safety Swimmer” walking the beach in a wetsuit and carrying a Rescue Tube. If there was any sense that one of the Ice Mile swimmers was in trouble, this Safety Swimmer would be able to rescue them immediately.
Ted and I started in the first wave. We entered the water and walked out to the Start Buoy. Within a minute, Chris started our event and we were off. Andy and Miriam started in the second wave shortly after us. We heard later that the people watching from the beach were surprised that we all got off so quickly. That’s an indicator of good training! A little less than 33 minutes after we started, Ted and I crossed the finish line, completing our Ice Miles! A few moments later, Andy and Miriam finished their Ice Miles too! The swim on the previous Wednesday had been much harder; today’s event was so gratifying, especially in light of the fact that about 100 volunteers and friends attended. The open beach was a place our community could safely gather amidst life’s current chaotic situation. One of the onlookers exclaimed, “This was so much fun! Can you do it again next weekend?”
There are a lot of things administrative things that need to be done in an Ice Mile and you have to complete each one of them in order to have your swim ratified. The application reminded me of a college term paper and I kept careful notes, which allowed Andy, Miriam, and Ted to complete their applications quickly. If anyone has questions about the necessary administrative steps, please contact me separately. I'm so happy to have completed this Ice Mile. I can say with complete confidence that without the Pandemic, it never would have happened. Now when we get in The Lake and the water is in the low 50s, there are so many of us that say “I can't believe we did an Ice Mile!”
Chris Layton gives the Pre-Race Briefing (L-R:Andy Walberer, Marcia Cleveland, Ted Baumgartner, Marian Cardwell)
Ready to Go!! (L-R: Marian, Marcia, Ted, Andy)
Ted & Marcia just before the start of our Ice Mile, with Eric Eshuis at the Buoy
Ted is just ahead of me, after about 600 yards
Big Beach Turnout, watching the four of us do our Ice Mile. Marian and Andy are heading to the Right (South, 2nd Turn at the Rocks) while Ted & Marcia are heading to the Left (North, Finish.
Eric helps me to shore after I crossed the Finish Line
Michael Bailey Walks with Ted to the shore after Ted’s finish
A Very Satisfied Ted