Monday, October 10, 2016

Cold Water Swimming I: Self-treating Hypothermia

A few months ago, I committed myself to learning how to swim in cold water this fall. Or to state it more appropriately, to teach/adapt my body - and mind - to handle cold water while swimming. I gained advice from talking to people and reading blogs and online resources like these:
I decided to start my cold-water-acclimating-process with cold showers. If you know me, you know that cold showers are my Fifth Ring of Hell. The only things worse are vomiting continuously or having a root canal. In fact, my usual shower temperature is slightly hotter than "scalding." Obviously I had a big dilemma.

But a commitment is a commitment, so I started cold and went colder... until I could do it without screaming... and then without wincing... and finally, without even thinking twice before jumping in. It's hard to believe, but I even started to enjoy cold showers, especially after my pool swims. (It helped that the pool water was 83 degrees F.)

But cold showers last about five minutes, and I needed to be able to swim for hours in cold water. So I waited. And waited. And, atypically, it took until October this year for fall weather to come to Cleveland. Lake Erie water temperatures have finally begun to drop. (Seriously, we wore shorts to the first two Indians playoff games #goTribe).

I went for my first sub-70-degree swim on Saturday. There was only one problem - the lake was VERY rough. According to the NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), the wave height was close to 4 feet (I swim in a spot directly to the left of the date under Lake Erie Wave Height in the figure below):

I took some video to try and show how bad the chop was:

 And the water temperature - about 68 degrees F - was warmer than the air temperature:

The water was surprising comfortable, and I lasted 30 minutes before I got tired of swallowing (potentially contaminated) water and fighting the chop. When I got out, the wind and the mid-60s air temperature was enough to cause all my fingers to go completely numb in about 5 minutes. There were people on the beach who commented that I was "crazy" and that they "admired me" for my dedication. I laughed and quickly made my way to the car. I drove home with the heat on high and took a 30-minute hot bath as soon as I got there.

My next attempt to swim in cold water was Monday. I waited until Monday because I decided high surf AND cold water were one-too-many tough conditions to handle at this particular stage of acclimation. Lake Erie was much calmer on Monday: 

Here's vid:

But it WAS a couple degrees colder - at about 66 degrees F (you can see the little band of 66 near where I swim):

On Monday, I lasted 45 minutes. I started to note changes resulting from the cold water, and some of them were just a bit scary.

First of all, let me state the obvious: getting in cold water is never easy. The colder it is, the harder it is to jump in all at once because, as I learned in London last December, it feels like you've been punched in the chest. The two-degree temperature difference from Saturday was noticeable. I waded in to my waist slowly, then jumped fully in and started swimming. After about 30 seconds, I snuffed out a sense of panic by forcing myself to relax and embrace the water. It worked. In no time, I was enjoying my swim unfazed by the cold. My body actually seemed to get used to it quite quickly.

What I learned from reading was that in cold water, I must keep swimming and stop only momentarily. Since I was alone, I remained close to shore by swimming back and forth in an area about .25 miles wide. I only stopped to turn and sight. I didn't start feeling the effects of cold water until 30 minutes had passed when I started to notice I was losing control of my left pinky finger. But I wasn't shivering, and I didn't "feel" cold. 

I swam 15 minutes more then decided to pack it in when the water started getting choppier and I was having a little difficultly in both hands with keeping my fingers together. My feet felt fine and I still wasn't shivering, but I didn't want to push it while I was by myself. I swam to shore and immediately put on a sweatshirt.

It was at this point things went downhill in a hurry. The air temperature was in the low-60s, and I was in the shade. In a matter of minutes, I struggled with numb fingers to unscrew the valve on my swim buoy. I needed to get my car key! Shivering, I grabbed all my stuff and started running to the car. I stopped - in the sun - only to put my shoes on (also with much difficulty). When I got to the car, I started it and turned the heat on full blast and changed out of my wet swimsuit. I was seriously bummed to find I had left at home my thermos of warm apple-cinnamon Skratch hydrationBut I had stopped shivering and assumed I'd be fine, so I started the drive home.

But I wasn't fine. Something was not right. I felt disoriented. I felt like a I was in a fog. I started to panic. I called my husband Jim, but I could tell I was having trouble speaking and stringing words together. He said I sounded weird and "out of it." I pulled into a McDonalds parking lot. It didn't seem possible I might be hypothermic because the feeling had already come back in my fingers and toes. But I was having trouble keeping my eyes focused. And my increasing anxiety was probably making it worse.

I called Jim back because talking to him made me feel less "foggy." I noticed my hands were shaking. He told me to get some food - that maybe I was hungry. I sucked down two carbo gels that had been in my bag for ages, and then I sat and waited.

About ten minutes later, I started to feel a little better. The car had become a sauna and it made my skin feel hot, but internally I was still a little chilled. The important thing was that my brain began "working" again, and I was finally able to focus enough to drive home. I'm still not sure what made me disoriented, but I ate well before I swam, so I can't fully blame it on simple hunger or lack of nutrition. I think the cold had something to do with it - and I'm judging from my past experiences with hypothermia.

Two things are certain. I need a lot more practice in cold water. And I need to take quicker and better care of myself post-swim.

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