Swim Story

An interview with Cerys Thomas – Ice Miler #152

Cerys Thomas’ story is really the story of two ice mile attempts.  His first attempt, in January 2016, resulted in him calling a stop to his own swim after completing about 1300m.  But then, one month later, showing immense determination, Cerys re-entered the water at Harthill Reservoir in the UK, on 10th February 2016, and became Ice Miler #152.  

At Swimyourswim (SYS) we believe that Ice Miling is not an event or race, rather an endurance journey – a personal challenge that goes way beyond turning up, getting into the cold water and swimming a mile dressed in ‘skins’*.  An Ice Mile starts way before the edge of the water, and finishes sometime after crossing the mile marker once recovery is complete.  The training in the lead-up to the swim, and the understanding of your body’s recovery from such low temperatures are absolutely crucial to being ‘successful’ at this sport.  At SYS, and IISA (the International Ice Swimming Association) we understand a successful swim to be one where the swimmer completes any distance in ‘ice’ temperatures (under 5ºC), and recovers ready for their next swim with a smile on their face.  So you see, Cerys, who was pulled out of the water on his first attempt didn’t fail that day.  He succeeded in recovering and returning to swim another day.  It just so happened that on that day he made the distance… and recovered to continue his Ice Swimming journey – with a smile on his face!

Swimyourswim (SYS): What made you think about doing an ice mile?

CT: I started swimming with Yorkshire Outdoor Swimmers (YOS), who are based at Harthill Reservoir near Sheffield,  when I was training for my first Ironman. Back then, I stopped when the water got to below 12ºC. I then joined the Swimyourswim (SYS) coached lane sessions to keep up some structure over the winter and got to know Alistair and Leon really well. It was there that I kept hearing stories about these winter swimmers and a rare breed of swimmers called the ‘Ice Milers’. After chatting to Alistair and Leon about it I thought ‘hmmm, maybe..’ and put it to the back of my mind. Come August 2015 after my IronMan UK, I joked about having a go of swimming over the winter.  Alistair and Leon both said I could do it but I would need to be quick, as weighing in at 72kg I don’t have much ‘Bioprene’ and they estimated 35 minutes would be the longest I could be in the cold water.  So, towards the end of that summer season I competed for Great Britain at the Long Distance European Championships and then just kept on swimming without my wetsuit. I enjoyed the mental challenge; it was similar to Ironman where you have to keep telling yourself to carry on when it gets tough. By October I had decided to seriously give the Ice Mile a go. There were only 138 Ice Milers at that time and I knew I wanted to be a part of this exclusive club.

SYS: How difficult was it to acclimatise to cold water?

CT: Having never swum over winter before I knew I needed to get into the cold water as much as possible. Acclimatisation for me was simple -each swim meant getting in a bit more each time and pushing it a little further paying particular attention to my recovery. I adopted the same approach as my Triathlon training which was that everything was recorded so I was able to look at what was working and what wasn’t.  It wasn’t that difficult physically, but mentally it was a challenge to keep getting in and push that little further when all your body wanted to do was get out and get warm!

SYS: How often did you train? (both pool and open water)

CT: I was in the pool 2-3 times a week until October when I dropped my pool sessions to once a week as my target was to get in the open water at least twice a week. We are very lucky in Sheffield having three Open Water venues within 45 minutes of each.  [Harthill with YOS, Hatfield with SYS and Rothervalley with Sheffield Tri Club. Ed]

SYS: What food did you eat before your swim?

CT: I didn’t change anything from my Triathlon races. 75g of Granola 2-3 hours before my swims then a banana approximately 1 hour before and an energy gel just before the start. The only difference for swimming was that it was hot drinks before!

SYS: So, lets talk about your Ice Mile attempt.  Where was your attempt?  And, what temperature was the water when you swam?

CT: Now here is where we split this into two. My two attempts (the second one being successful) were made at Harthill Reservoir, near Sheffield.  The first attempt was at 2.4ºC, the second bang on 5.0ºC.

SYS: Tell us about the first swim then – what was the swim like mentally and physically? 

CT: 2.4ºC was a massive drop in temperature for me, the lowest I had previously swum in was 4.5ºC. A small part of me considered not starting the swim, but this was quickly pushed to the back of my mind. I followed through my prep, laid out my clothes etc., and ran through my recovery checklist with my team (Yes, I gave them an instruction list!). A quick word with my dad and I entered the water. I immediately knew this was going to be very hard. I am lucky that I have swum competitively since I was 7 and my stroke is ingrained (with a couple of issues) so off I went and was quickly into my rhythm. By the first bouy I could tell the water was significantly colder. Everything I had experienced in my training and therefore knew would happen to my body, happened far earlier than it had before. My fingers and toes went cold very quickly and along the back straight of the lake, that ‘familiar’ heavy feeling spread up my arms and legs which usually happened in the last 500m. I passed my supporters and some of the bank-side safety team after the first lap and genuinely though I had it.  Only one more lap to go! Unfortunately, this was a bit premature, as I didn’t have it in the bag!  As I got onto the back straight on the second lap I was finding it hard to focus on anything.  I simply resorted to keeping close to the safety  boat. I took the second to last turn, popped my head up to look for the next bouy and could not see it. My legs dropped and I ended up upright in the water.  Eventually I spotted my course and off I started again but within 20 meters I knew I had lost it. The end could have been 100m away, but it wasn’t going to make it. I know when I can push through, but something inside me said I wasn’t going to push through this time and I signalled to the boat that I was done. I was just able to help the guys get me in the boat but then I was done.

SYS: How did you cope with the recovery process? 

CT: In a word it was a nightmare. I remember being hauled into the boat and the guys telling me we would be back ashore soon – I really don’t remember much else for 2 hours from that point on. I don’t remember getting dressed, or should I say others getting me dressed. The recovery instructions went out of the window. I remember people talking to me and encouraging me to drink hot drinks and eat cake, normally not a problem but something inside me knew I didn’t want it. And when I did manage to eat something I was promptly was sick. It tool a further hour until I was ‘back in the room’ and in my normal recovery mode of serious shivering with plenty of layers on, and trying to crack jokes and cheer myself up and pretend it was okay.  Inside I was gutted, two others had been in that day and completed their miles during the time it had taken me to recover, but I had already started plotting my second attempt. I had asked for someone to video record all of my attempt and I have some video of me in a sorry state but it was plenty motivation for the next attempt.

SYS: So your second attempt, tell us about that – how did it differ from the first one? 

CT: So, one month later and I returned on a lovely sunny morning with the stillest water I have ever seen at Harthill. The thermometers averaged exactly 5.0ºC and we were off again.  My preperation was exactly the same, but this time I knew I would do it.  Twice the temperature of my first attempt and I knew I had completed approximately 1300m the first time. Stepping into the water with warm thoughts I set off and got into my rhythm. The first lap sailed by and I could hear the cheering as I went past the supporters on the bank. This swim I decided to swim a more rounded route around the bouys and I had no blurred vision as before. Going down the back straight I knew it was in the bag, genuinely. Passing the point where I was pulled out the first time was a massive boost. The last 150 metres or so my stroke was appalling but I didn’t care.  Alistair was pointing the way, giving the encouragement as always and I crossed the line and knew I had done it.  In the elation I lost my bearings a bit, but was able to stand up and walk out under my own steam, stopping to give a big hug to Alisatir along the way. If you watch the video, I shout ‘get in’ a lot and in my mind give a good fist pump, I had done it! I felt better getting out than I had done previously, even on my 1km qualifier.

SYS: What was the recovery process like this time?

CT: Second time round I was able to help the guys get me dressed before the shivers set in and I sat down and enjoyed my drinks and cake whilst the shivers took hold. I didn’t care, I had done it. I was up and walking around  – I was even able to watch a bit of Wendy Figure’s Ice Mile. During my recovery I was even able to telephone my wife Jo and convince her that this time I was in a fit state for her to come down with our boys to join in the celebrations. I even ordered my ‘red jacket’ before I left!

SYS: What was the reaction of your friends and supporters that were there on your attempts?

CT: With the problems in recovery on my first attempt I was unaware of peoples reactions really. As I came around that time, everyone was so supportive but my family looked a bit worried.  I realised the recovery had put them through the mill a bit and my wife Jo said she didn’t want to come down for any subsequent attempts as she didn’t want to see me in that state again.  My second attempt was very different – it was a mixture of relief, joy and achievement. My dad was with me both times as was Paul Powell along with a few others and it was great to laugh and joke whilst I shivered and let it sink in that I was an Ice Miler and had achieved something that few others have done.  Jo did eventually come down after I was able to speak to her on the phone!

SYS:  What was the best piece of kit you had that you couldn’t have done without?

CT: For me, it isn’t the Dryrobe or the crocs, for me it is a really good thick easy to get on Merino long sleeve base layer and trousers. It is easy to get on and stops the heat loss straight away. Then pile on the clothing over the top with as many hot water bottles you can get in! I do love my Dryrobe though!

SYS: What’s the best advice you could give to an aspiring ice miler ?

CT: I was keen to share my experiences as mine is not what you see in the photos on the magazine or the posts you see on Facebook showing swimmers smiling with that ‘just got out of the shower’ look.  The ‘Ice Mile’ is the culmination of some serious hard work, the training and acclimatisation, the research and the learning about your own body.

Firstly, my advice would be to speak to as many people as you can and get the benefit of their experience,  but ultimately, remember that Ice Miling is a very individual thing – from the food you eat beforehand, to your recovery and who is on your ‘team’.

Secondly, and this is something I am really passionate about and never shy away from letting people know: Ensure your safety team know you, know your swimming technique and your recovery.

And thirdly, probably the thing which is most important to me, especially after my first attempt – only attempt an Ice mile with one-on-one powered support boat. Leon and Alistair tell me they were seconds from pulling me out of the water before I decided to stop my swim on my first attempt.  They knew from knowledge of my swimming and watching me during training that I was in trouble. If the boat had not been so close I dread to think what would have happened, in reality I was out the water in a dryrobe and back to the shoreline and in the warm clubhouse in less than a minute. Okay, I was in a bad state but it was recoverable from and I went home later that day and returned to conquer the challenge.

Cerys’ successful attempt video is online if you search YouTube for Cerys Thomas Ice Mile. The video of his first attempt is not available yet – he’s been asked to keep it under wraps until the end of the season so as not to scare anyone off.  There were a few photos of him looking grumpy that we were hoping to show you – but it looks as though Cerys has hidden them from us!!!  As with all our Ice Swimmers – they are very happy to tell you their story and help you on your Ice Swimming journey – if you have any questions please email us!

If you would like to get involved in Ice Swimming – why not get in touch with us by emailing info@swimyourswim.com


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