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The One-member Polar Bear Club
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Since September, every morning I have driven to the beach, parked, walked to the shoreline, dropped my orange towel on the sand and jumped into the water. It’s northern California and the ocean temperature is typically 55 degrees. The first day I tried it, I submerged my body in the shallows and thought, “oh my God, I’m going to have a heart attack and die.” Then I immediately stood up and ran back to the shore. I had never felt anything so cold. Or salty. Or wonderful. Standing on land I clasped my hands over my head, looked skyward and claimed victory like I’d just won the heavyweight championship. The next day I went in again and counted to two before springing to my feet and hoofing it back to shore. I stuck with two seconds every day for the next week, and then raised it to three. Three seconds of total immersion. Three seconds of pure sensation, pure exhilaration, pure ego-less-ness. By the end of the week, three seconds felt like I was just putting my toe in. I needed more. The following week I was actually able to swim a few strokes in the shallow water and feel the green shreds of seaweed swirling over my face as I counted to four. The next week I did five. I always swam parallel to the shore, so I could always count on being in shallow water. I could have done more than five seconds, but I was careful to pace myself. I wanted to build this into part of my life, to make my body used to the sensation and numb to any pain. I figured if I kept it up, I would be up to sixteen seconds by Christmas and 17 seconds by New Years. Even as I progressed, every time I went in I had that same initial thought about having a heart attack. I couldn’t help it. As winter moved in, the water temperature moved down to about 51 degrees. Getting up to seventeen seconds meant I couldn’t just hold my breath the whole time while my arms and legs churned through the water. I would have to take a breath of air which at that point would be about 40 degrees. As we got closer to the start of winter, I added a warmup set of jumping jacks and a quarter mile sprint to the regimen so my heart was already pumping when I hit the water.

Everything went according to plan. On New Year’s Day I showed up at 8 AM as usual. It was foggy, and there was an offshore wind of about 20 miles an hour. The waves, which had been exotic and welcoming in the past, seemed menacing as if this were a new year and maybe would be different.

When I hit the water, I had my usual “I’m going to have a heart attack and die any second” moment. I righted myself and started to count and swim. The cold was pulverizing. My arms and legs moved into action as I swam parallel to the shore going up and down with the waves. Five, six, seven, I could feel the pain in my toes and my chest. At 10 I raised my head to gulp some air, but in the rough water, I inhaled some salt water as well, not enough to make me choke, but it made me start to cough. I kept swimming with my head out of the water, until the coughing stopped. 13, 14, 15. Two seconds to go, I put my head back under the water for the final push. 16, 17.

Out of breath, I put my feet down to stand up on the sand and start my run back to the shore. But my feet didn’t hit the sand, the water was too deep. I looked around and realized I hadn’t been swimming parallel to the shore, I had been angling out to sea. The shore looked far away, and my body was starting to freeze up. I started swimming to the shore, hoping that a wave would buoy me up and throw me into the shallow water. But no such wave emerged. At that point I’d probably been in the water for 25 seconds and pure fear kicked in. I made sure I was going in the right direction and started swimming like a windmill determined to keep my body warm and to get to the god damned shore. Every second I felt a seizure, or some other catastrophe was only a moment away, but I kept on, trying not to think. There was no longer any water or any air, there was just me pushing myself as hard and as fast as I could. I could have been in space or underground. I could have been asleep having a nightmare. I could have been coming out of the womb or fighting to push off a coffin lid. Pure experience had turned into pure action. Finally, a wave picked me up and dumped me in the shallow water. My knees hit the sandy bottom first and when I tried to stand up, I couldn’t, so I crawled on to the beach, and collapsed on the sand.

I lay there shivering and panting until I could catch my breath. I managed to stand up and saw, not too far away, my orange towel lying where I had left it just a minute or so before. I staggered over, picked it up and started to dry myself. I felt myself starting to warm up.

In two minutes, I was in my car with the heater on.

In ten minutes, I was home.

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