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Cath Pendleton: The Ice Swimmer

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Ice Swimmer

Cath Pendleton reveals how she trained body and mind to become the first person to ever swim a mile in the Antarctic Polar Circle

'I did my first ever no wetsuit winter swim with a friend in the local river. It was getting dark so we left the car lights on...'

Cold water swimmer, Cath Pendleton, is the first person to swim a mile in the Antarctic Polar Circle. We asked Cath to explain how she got into swimming in freezing cold water, and how she went about preparing for the mental and physical challenges of swimming in the coldest place on earth.

Before I got into cold water swimming I had already been doing triathlons for about five years, which got me comfortable with open water swimming. I had also started to do some standalone 5k and 10k swims, but I always wore a wetsuit for them.  

As the triathlon season was coming to an end, I had picked up a back injury and was thinking I wouldn’t be able to continue to run and cycle, but hopefully could still swim. I saw an advert for a winter swimming gala called Chill Swim; a 1km swim that takes place every February in Lake Windermere.  When I saw that swimmers could only wear a standard costume, hat and goggles, I was intrigued. As a wetsuit swimmer, I was thinking how on earth could they do that in the winter? I signed up for the event as I'm always up for new challenges.

On a Friday evening in late September, my training started. I did my first ever no wetsuit winter swim with a friend in the local river. It was getting dark so we left the car lights on and swam widths of the river, rather than upstream and back down as we would have done in summer months wearing a wetsuit. The water temperature was 12°C. We managed about eight minutes of swimming and were still frozen half an hour later. By the way, I must add this is not a recommended way to start and we did have a proper introduction to safe winter swimming shortly after. 

'It usually takes people two to three years to train for an ice mile, but I had done it in just a few months. I was hooked.'

By my second cold water swim, I was absolutely hooked. One of my friends I was training with told me about the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) Ice Mile challenge, which is considered to be the ultimate achievement of swimming in ice waters. You need to swim one mile in water under 5°C wearing a standard costume, hat and goggles. I knew immediately that was something I wanted to have a crack at.

I actually ended up doing my first ever Ice mile before the Chill Swim event that had piqued my interest in cold water swimming and that I had originally been training for. It usually takes people two to three years to train for an ice mile, but I had done it in just a few months. I was addicted. 

Not only that, I was the first Welsh woman to have ever completed an ice mile and the 147th person in the world to have done one. Since then, I’ve never looked back and have gone on to swim numerous ice miles. In March 2019 I was selected to represent Team GB in the World Ice Swimming Championships in Russia, coming away with a bronze medal in the 1km event for my age category. I’m now chasing a dream to complete the Ice Sevens Challenge, which is to swim an Ice Mile in each of the world’s seven continents.

As part of this challenge, I swam a Zero Degree Ice Mile in Antarctica, becoming the first person in the world to swim an Ice Mile inside the Antarctic Polar Circle. I’m so proud of this achievement. I even hold the Guinness World Record for the most southerly ice swim by a female.

'Some people tolerate the cold better than others, but it still takes lots of training to be able to swim in such cold temperatures.'

Some people tolerate the cold better than others, but it still takes lots of training to be able to swim in such cold temperatures. I’ve trained hard throughout every winter, mostly in Keepers Pond, which is at the top of a mountain in South Wales. Super exposed to the elements, you can experience all seasons of weather in one training swim.

I was so worried we might have a mild winter and not get water temperatures low enough to train for Antarctica that I built what I call my ‘Ice Palace’.  A small plastic garden shed with a 6ft chest freezer I filled with water and made into an ice bath, I would sit in the icy water for 5-15mins about three times per week. This was in addition to the four to five cold water swims I was doing and a weekly ice mile for the three months leading up to Antarctica.

'A huge pod of hunting orca whales went straight through what was meant to be my swim course.'

Ice swimming can be highly dangerous. Cold shock, cold incapacitation, cramp, and hypothermia are the main issues to deal with, while adverse conditions such as icebergs, floating ice, choppy water and wind chill also have to be overcome. Not to mention the leopard seals and orca whales. 

At one point, there was a huge pod of hunting orca whales that went straight through what was meant to be my swim course just before I was about to start. We had to delay until they had gone. They had moved some of the floating ice in the water and there was a worry that my swim course would not be clear enough, so at the last minute the route was changed.

Despite all that training, getting into freezing water still really hurts at first. My hands feel like they’re being crushed in a vice and my teeth even hurt sometimes too. First thing I have to do is control my breathing to overcome my body’s response to cold shock. For the first couple of minutes of my swim I concentrate on my breathing. Concentrating on that and good swim technique helps take my mind off the pain. Eventually, the pain has numbed and I enjoy the feeling of the water and just thinking about the swim, which completely clears my mind of all daily worries as I have to fully concentrate on how I’m swimming, if I’m slowing down, and whether I’m at risk of cold incapacitation. 

Antarctica in all its epic glory (image via Kelvin Trautman)
'When doubt and fear popped into my brain, I just kept thinking about the goal, how hard I had trained, the people who had made it possible, the pride of succeeding and the privilege to swim in such a beautiful place.'

In Antarctica, prior to the swim I had all sorts of thoughts going through my head. What if I can’t do it? What if I die? What if I experience cold incapacitation and they cannot get me out safely?  What if a leopard seal kills me? But once I got into the water, I just got on with the swim. In moments when doubt and fear popped into my brain, I just kept thinking about the goal, how hard I had trained, the people who had made it possible, the pride of succeeding and the privilege to swim in such a beautiful place. Complete focus and adrenaline are amazing tools when combined.

The recovery from ice swimming can be really tough. There are different methods and it had been agreed for the expedition that I would rewarm ithe same as they do in Russia. I had experienced this method twice before so had no concerns. The method involves placing wet towels over the body to rewarm you. They start off lukewarm and gradually get warmer and warmer. Then you would usually go into a sauna to complete the warming up process. Of course, there are no saunas in the Antarctic, so I started off with the hot towel method and then got dressed in lots of warm layers and had my favourite hot drink: hot spiced Ribena.

'It’s the best way to reset my mind when stressed out because when swimming in cold water it’s impossible to think about anything else other than how you are feeling in that moment.'

Despite the potentially deadly nature of ice swimming, I don’t consider myself a risk-taker. I trained my body and mind in preparation for the swim, I had an amazing team behind me and the swim was so closely monitored that if my stroke rate slowed significantly or my swim position was compromised, I would have been pulled from the water immediately. 

The staff from the ship of the Antarctica expedition were on continuous wildlife watch and had reassured me that if any orcas or leopard seals were spotted close by then I would have to exit the water immediately. Ice swimming can be an extremely dangerous sport if it is not treated with respect. I would always pull myself out of a swim if I was not feeling okay. For me, it is all about the enjoyment.

I’m still as addicted to ice swimming as I was when I started. It’s the best way to reset my mind when stressed out because when swimming in cold water it’s impossible to think about anything else other than how you are feeling in that moment.      

I have four continents left to swim for the Ice Sevens Challenge and I would also love to swim inside the Arctic Polar Circle. I love ice swimming so much I would love to continue exploring new challenges. I am also learning to free-dive and love the idea or ice free-diving. It’s a scary prospect, but I will definitely try it as soon as an opportunity arises.

Follow Cath on Instagram and watch her mission to Antarctica in this short BBC documentary.

Cath prepares her body for Antarctica in her homemade 'Ice Palace'