by Flora Colledge, Patagonman 2021 Champion The Patagonman “Social Swim”, an informal event taking place two days before the race, was my first clue that this was not going to be a typical triathlon. Sure, I’d done Norseman, I’d raced duathlons in snow – but when I saw the Patagonman crew joyfully reporting on the “great conditions” as they pulled thermometers reading 10C out of the fjord, I started to have concerns. The Social Swim itself didn’t really help – after a couple of seconds fully immersed, my face was in agony, my thick gloves made swimming feel foreign, and getting out of the water offered no relief – the air was cool, how much cooler when I was riding in the TT position, cold upper body immobile in the face of the windchill? Fear not – that experience taught me a huge amount, and I’m going to share my tips, lessons (and mistakes!) with you now, so that you can embrace the Patagonman swim – or any coldwater challenge – for the joyful, wild adventure that it is, safe in the knowledge that you are prepared, equipped, and in the zone! 1. Acclimatization. My face hurt so much on that first dip because I simply hadn’t done a single cold water acclimatization swim in the race build. At the time, I did little open water swimming, and honestly had no inkling of just how cold the water would be on race day – very unprofessional! However, the good news is that this gasping-face-ache can be trained away quickly – and once it’s gone, your adaptation lasts for a long time! After a year of COVID-necessitated swims in as low as 7C, even after a break of 8 months, I don’t feel the cold when getting back into cold water. So – START NOW! While cold water swims are obviously ideal (more below), very cold showers, with water directly on the face, are a good start. Be aware, however, that the “cold water” of modern plumbing isn’t always that cold – adding some ice to a sinkful of water might also be valuable. Aim to build to 45 seconds of exposure (breathing allowed!) – after this point, your skin will start to adapt and the discomfort will reduce.
2. Open water practice. If you can get into cold open water before the race, do – you don’t want to be just hoping that your kit is up to the job on race day (trust me!). As with all of the more extreme adventures in life – prioritize survival. Many people report feeling numb, cramped or very dizzy when starting cold water swimming, and even highly experienced swimmers may have a bad reaction. Have someone watching you, use a bright swim cap and buoy attached to your waist – however, I would also suggest that you don’t need to go far out, or deep, to acclimatize and get the benefit of a session like this. Some back and forth laps parallel to the shore in waist-high water will do the job – now is not the time to be proving to yourself how tough you are.
3. Equipment. You may have a wetsuit and accessories already, be looking to add a few items, or just wondering what combination works – I’ll share my setup, which kept me warm(ish) through Patagonman 2019, and in even colder water since then:
- Swimming cap, neoprene cap or hood, second (race) swimming cap.
- Clear goggles. It’s dark.
- Baselayer – I use the DeBoer Polar Vest, which has a built-in hood. This has the huge added bonus of stopping cold water flowing in through the neck of your wetsuit, something I find very uncomfortable.
- Neoprene gloves – get swim specific ones. They will feel thick and strange – but if you don’t use them, you may not get far on the bike. Your choice. And tuck them into the sleeves, a piece of wisdom I learned AFTER the race.
- Wetsuit – thermal lining and 5mm neoprene on the body is ideal (arms are likely to be thinner to allow for smooth swimming). If your suit is ultra-thin on the arms and body, you may want to consider a thicker, diving-specific baselayer, though it’s likely to affect your shoulder movement a little.
- Socks – as with gloves – tuck them in, and don’t tell yourself you’ll get by without them. You won’t feel your feet for about 40k on the bike even with the socks – the alternative isn’t worth thinking about.
4. Priorities. If I could condense this into a single key message, it would be: know yourself, and plan for the worst. One to two HOURS in water of 10C might very well be in your future – now is not the time to be thinking about how to have a blazing fast T1 or a swim PR. Get as much of the best gear as you can, test it if possible, and remember that the swim is just a way to get to your bike. Once you get there, do you want to be ready to power through one of the most stunning rides in the world, or have to stop due to hypothermia less than halfway through? Xtri is about making wise choices – the swim at Patagonman gives you the opportunity to get the best out of yourself in the most challenging conditions, so get ready to feel proud that you got through it!