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Ice Mile By George

Courtesy of Jerry George, Prescott Athletic Club, Arizona.

Jerry George pushed himself and his masters swimming coach Joe Zemaitis to complete their first Ice Mile in 4.8°C water ratified by the International Ice Swimming Association this week.

The Iron Iceman completed a high-altitude Ice Mile in 33 minutes 41 seconds.

He explained how he transitioned from being an Ironman triathlete to cool pools and marathon swims including completion of the Great Moose Migration swim.

When I first started marathon swimming a few years ago, I joined the local masters swim class. I asked the instructor if he knew anything about marathon swimming and – with a smile – Joe Zemaitis said, ‘Yes’. Little did I know that he was one of the most prolific marathon swimmers in the country.

Joe has been invaluable with his advice and encouragement for my marathon swims.

Training for and swimming the Ice Mile with Joe was a lot of fun. I love setting a goal, making a plan, training, learning, improving, and then executing to see if I can do it. It really helped to have Joe as a training buddy for such an extreme and intense event.

I knew the Ice Mile was possible. Last year to train for S.C.A.R. Swim Challenge, I stood neck deep for 30 minutes a day in my backyard pool. The lowest temperature the pool got was 40°F (4.4°C) and that was at the Ice Mile level.

In early December, we were having breakfast after a masters swimming class and the subject of ice swimming came up. Joe and I fed off each other while the others were looking at us like we were crazy. After a few minutes we said, ‘Let’s do it!’ Our training was to get into the unheated baby pool after Master Swim for 10-30 minutes. We called it the Jacuzzi and invited others in the class to join us. Everyone thought we were crazy. Our coldest water temp was 35.6°F (2°C) and it hurt. But it was good training not only for our bodies to adapt to the cold, but also for our minds to know what to expect and to build confidence.

I intentionally ate junk food to put on weight for the swim. I ate double cheeseburgers, onion rings, milk shakes, and pizza. The weight came on slowly because the cold water training was burning a lot of calories.

Finding a location for the swim was a challenge. Joe had found an unheated pool in Kingman, Arizona, but the water temperature never dropped below the required 5°C even though there were several cold days and nights. We were worried that our window for cold weather in Arizona was running out. Then Joe found the Prescott Athletic Club which sits at 5,502 feet (1,677 meter) elevation and advertises an unheated pool. This proved the perfect venue because it met the Ice Mile criteria and the facility had a steam room, sauna, and jacuzzi to recover afterwards. We went there to check it out and the water temp was 2.5°C (36.6°F). Joe did a test swim and I did my qualifying swim. The next two days the weather warmed up with 54°F air temps and rain. We rushed back and found the pool at 4.8°C (40.5°F) and did the swim.

Unlike the Ironman triathlon, which is a long day of enduring physical exertion and pain, the Ice Mile is of short duration with intense and extreme pain. Your body is screaming to get out of the water the whole time and your extremities are shutting down. You lose your form and then your stroke rate slows down. It’s truly a race against hypothermia. When I did the Ironman, I would say at the beginning, ‘What a great day for a race!’ For the Ice Mile, I said, ‘This is going to hurt!’

At the start, Joe checks on his entourage. His parents are there, his brother is there, the observer and witness are ready as well as the lap counters. Everyone is ready to go. I raise my hand and shout, ‘I’m missing someone’. Everyone looks with concern on their faces and I say, ‘I’m missing my psychiatrist’. Everyone laughs and we start.

I told the Master Class swimmers that I had a better chance of swimming the Ice Mile than Joe. Joe is a dolphin, lean and fast. I’m a sea lion, heavy and slow. You don’t see dolphins in Arctic waters. The dolphin made it in 24 minutes. The sea lion took 34.”

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