Ritually jogging up to the local lake, Sognsvann, at 6:30 in the morning, before proper sunlight, I for one wonder why I am doing this, and how I was talked into it, and what is keeping me from turning around.
Swimming in increasingly cold water to prepare us for ice swimming is a glowing goal in the distance, but it would be a lie to say I'm looking forward to the preparation.
The Norwegian on one side of me, Harald, sort of had the idea to start us doing this. The Australian on my other side, Chris, hasn't experienced weather colder than Oslo's September, when the wind starts to blow. It's not blowing right through my sweater, and the hyperthermic period jogging is supposed to induce isn't happening anymore.
We crack jokes, talk about our upcoming days, and think about only the water. For the uninitiated, the very idea of diving into icy water is a proper deterrent. Those I talk to sound interested by it, but even as spectators, they deem it too chilly for taste.
The temperature of the water we estimate to still be in the double digits, but it drops every day, and there are months of this to go before it freezes over. Traditionally, in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Northern Russia, and the Baltics, taking the icy plunge is paired with a long, relaxing sweat in a sauna. The Finnish have two million saunas for five million people, and they average from 80-110 celsius.
Some regions even go so far as to cut a hole in the ice and dive in through there, despite the danger of losing your way when under water and becoming trapped. By their talk, come December, I wonder if I will need to dissuade them from this, or if they will persuade me to it.
"Don't worry," Chris says, "we would have to stay in the water a full five minutes before hypothermia sets in." The list of bodily shutdown in this scenario is frightening: with the body's core temperature dropping below 35 degrees, the heart gives priority to pumping blood around itself and the brain to maintain survival, restricting use of the limbs.
Swimming becomes near impossible as arms and legs quit responding. The core temperature keeps lowering, and a person slowly freezes from the outside in.
Those who try to commit suicide by jumping off bridges count on this factor to make sure they succeed. I try not to think of this as we arrive at the dock and strip, psyching ourselves out to make the running leap off the pier. This time I've brought my swimming trunks, Chris his underwear. Harald brings nothing at all.
We are not uneducated as to what we are doing. We are simply young and exciteable and eager to make the most out of our time in Norway. Harald counts down from three and we begin to run towards the end of the pier. Every time, I truncate my jump, as if it will minimize the shock, but now I am too far to stop myself, and only the water lies beneath.
But the immediate shock can be a shock to the heart as well as the mind; it's said that this sudden shock is a mini-workout for the heart, and does its part to keep the body healthy. The body also releases adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster. With only a short dip, say 10 seconds, the immune system is energized.
What's more, the adrenaline can help kill pain, both in short and long term. There have been some cases of using ice swimming as a cure for the common cold. Doctors have said benefits range from respiratory improvement to digestive benefits, and even going so far as to help sleep and metabolism.
The founder of the Polar Bear Club in New York spoke of the health benefits of diving into near freezing water at least once a year, more if possible. I can think of at least one friend who believes it also helps fight cellulite. So far, she says, it's worked.
Whether the physically fit are drawn to it or created by it Everyone agrees on one thing: consult a doctor first.
As I splash down into the water, I feel the kick of the cold, and my body screams one thing: Get out. I feel forty years older as I weakly paddle to the edge of the dock. Inexplicably, however, as I raise myself up on the edge and climb out of the water, I leave this weakness behind in the water. I feel better, and not because it's behind me.
"That'll wake you up!" Harald laughs, and we dry off and begin to dress for the triumphant walk home. There may be health benefits and risks, but there is one benefit I know I've gotten. Others have reported it to: they overcame their fear of it.
And it is a good deal of fun. Having jumped once is insufficient in some way, and I know two days from now, the cycle will repeat. I look forward to getting breakfast and some days, going straight back to bed. But I also look forward to climbing out again.
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