February 25, 2018

Subzero Swimmers

Our ode to those crazy local folks dedicated to the winter ritual of freezing their arses off.
By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 30, 2017


Taking a quick dip in the bay is almost de rigueur in the summer. In the off-season, when temperatures go from highs in the 80s to the 40s, 30s or colder, you have to be made of sterner stuff. Or almost crazy, you decide.

For your consideration, exhibit A: Evan Smith. He’s made it a practice to jump in the bay once a month, every month, a practice that started more than a dozen years ago. “I live on Washington Street, so I’d run the TART trail or at the Civic Center, and I’d finish at the beach and go for a swim,” he said. Then one day he decided to continue the practice year-round, at a time he said coincided with the bay was not freezing over. “I said ‘I think I could do this year round.’ It shows respect to Mother Nature and the big water, and how lucky I feel to be living here.”

He sees it is one way to ward off aging, both mentally and physically. “I look at it along the lines of refusing to grow old. It’s one thing you can still do that age doesn’t take away from you,” he said.

Smith also typically engages in physical activity before jumping in. “By going for a run first, it’s not unlike having a sauna and jumping into the lake or rolling in the snow afterward.”

Smith is not alone. There are a number of people in the area who take to the frigid waters of winter. Some do it on a dare, while others jump in as a fundraiser. Others, as Nike says, just do it. “It’s a birthday tradition,” said Hans Voss. Thing is, his birthday is Feb. 24. “I always include a jump in the bay.”

Other than that, Voss said his dips in the winter waters are “totally irregular.” He’s sometimes joined by others, but just as often it’s a solo endeavor. He says it could be after a long run or just on the spur of the moment, during the day or late at night. “When the spirit moves me I head to the freezing water,” he said.

Jacob Wheeler is another who has been known to jump into the bay when that same spirit moves him, no matter the time of year, sometimes in the company of Voss or Smith. “There’s no template. I don’t do it regularly. I did do it four weeks ago. It was 50 degrees and I went for a run,” he said.

So is it a good idea? A bad idea? Voss maintains it benefits him. “It gives you some kind of unusual power when you put your body in freezing cold water,” he said. 

Dr. Bruce Lirones isn’t so sure. The D.O. who practices in Alden says while a quick dip isn’t typically injurious, prolonged exposure to cold water is hazardous. “If you run and jump in and jump out and go home, it’s okay. It might be fun,” he said, though he sounded doubtful.

Longer than that, however, isn’t a good idea. “It doesn’t take long to lower your core temperature,” Lirones said, noting that water cools the body 32 times faster than cool air. He said engaging in physical activity like running or being in a sauna and raising the body’s temperature makes the prospect both more appealing and less daunting.

Dr. David Frid, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Time Magazine that people with a family history of stroke, aneurysm, blood pressure problems, hypertension, or sudden cardiac death should be extra cautious and should probably be evaluated by a doctor before jumping in near-freezing water. When people first immerse themselves in such frigid water, their bodies go into “cold shock,” and they start gasping for air, which puts a strain on the heart.

For those who are at a high-risk for heart disease, the blood vessels in the heart can constrict, leading to chest pains like angina or a heart attack. 

Many participants talk about facing the challenge and getting an adrenaline rush. Some studies suggest cold-water swimming could be a treatment for depression, as it activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases blood levels of noradrenaline and beta-endorphin, which play an important role in the functioning of the heart. Dr. Jonathan D. Packer, an assistant professor of orthopedics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told CNN in a story earlier this year that that endorphins release stress, with a variety of health benefits.

Smith said there are three factors that entice him to enter the water, though they vary in importance with the season. “Sunlight, wind and temperature – in winter if you can get two out of three you go. In February, if you get one you go. If not, I go the first week (of February) before the bay freezes.” And if he doesn’t make it before the water has a coating of ice on it, Smith heads to where the Boardman River enters the bay, which typically remains ice-free.

Not everyone is — or remains — a fan of cold water swims. Scott Howard used to partake of the tradition, but that ended during one particularly bitter season. “A couple years ago it was a brutal winter. There was so much ice and snow [I said] I can skip it,” said Howard.

Howard hasn’t been back in the bay since, at least not in the winter. He doesn’t completely rule out a return, but with a caveat: “The next step is to build a sauna.”



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