Two 'half mad' Limerick dads are to brave freezing temperatures in a Russian lake in the hope of earning a top place at the forthcoming ice swimming World Championships, run by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA).
Brave Mark Dempsey (43) and John Ryan (50) are to fly to the Arctic Circle, Tuesday, for the knee-knocking challenge, which will see them compete against 180 others in a grueling 1km race.
Wearing only their goggles, caps, and togs, the shivering participants will brave minus 20 degree air temperatures, as well as the zero-degree Celsius temperatures of Lake Semyonovskoe, located on the Kola Peninsula, north Murmansk, wearing only their goggles, caps, and togs.
The championships take place March 14-18 in an area home to walruses, where hardy locals apparently swear by the health benefits of regular bathing in its icy waters.
“It’s 22 miles inside the Arctic Circle. The air temperature will be minus 20 and the water will be zero degrees, and we have to swim one kilometer in only our swimming togs, and our goggles,” explains Dempsey, a father of two from Garryowen. “No wet suits allowed,” he apprehensively adds.
Both, who are members of Limerick Masters swimming club, agree to being “half mad”, but there’s “some sort of enjoyment in it” too, they laughed.
I wanted something new. I had done an iron man and I’m a sub three-hour marathon runner.
Dempsey has also competed for Ireland in two World Triathlon Championships, in Switzerland (2006) and in Hamburg (2007), and was an “assistant” to former Athletics Ireland endurance coach Chris Jones.
While competing in an international ice swim held at Clontarf Baths last month, in temperatures of 1.9 degrees Celsius, Dempsey’s body turned “black and blue” due to the cold conditions.
“When you hit water your body contracts, and you’re trying to stretch out because you’re trying to swim. So, my muscles were being pulled apart while they were trying to contract at the same time, I couldn't be touched for three or four days afterwards because I was so sore.”
On top of his grueling training regime, he also sticks to a surprising diet, which includes a pint or two “as part of my training”.
“I don't eat cake. I’m not into chocolate. I struggle to put on weight because I’m so active. After a cold swim I’ll go home and have four sausages, four rashers, four eggs, four slices of bread, a cup of coffee, and that’s just to fight off the cold,” he adds.
Dempsey and Ryan travel to Russia as part of a 20-strong Irish team including athletes, trainers, and family.
They admit they have yet to swim in zero degree temperatures, which can lead to a sudden onset of hypothermia.
However, despite the dangers involved, both were confident that, having spent the past seven months training progressively colder waters around Ireland, they have “acclimatised” their bodies for what lies ahead.
They have also regularly been joined on training sessions by the former Shannon, Munster, and Ireland rugby player Rosie Foley, a sister of the late Munster and Irish rugby star Anthony Foley, which has given them an added confidence boost.
Ryan, a father of three from Granville Park, says: “Initially you do get cold water shock, but you acclimatise your body to it, you just get on with it.”
“I actually go very red myself. Afterwards, I try and get dry as quickly as possible. There’s a bit of madness about it, but it’s good fun and its a good experience.”
“We’re not the greatest swimmers in the world, but to represent your country is a very proud thing to be able to do,” he adds.