Cancer Research Cold Water Challenge

Cate Dudley tells us her experiences of doing the Cancer Research cold water challenge throughout November for 30 days.
Picture Cate Dudley

Back in unseasonably warm September I impulsively signed up to Cancer Research UK’s Cold Water Challenge. The task was to face 30 Days of cold water, however you wanted, for 30 seconds a time. Raising both funds and awareness, showering, dipping, swimming, in memory, in solidarity, in hope and celebration.

I knew this would be a personal challenge, to face the cold, the discomfort, the risk, and repetition. I wondered if there’d be any mental or physical health benefits. I thought I’d mostly cold shower, possibly brave feeling silly and dip in the salvaged builders tub in the garden, hopefully a dip in my local sailing lake… I didn’t know I’d swim wild in rivers, face storms and ice, or that I’d rarely wear a wetsuit!

I am 40 year old woman landlocked in central England. I love a splash in the sea, but I’d not swum outside past September before. Though I have recently learnt to sail dinghies including falling in lots, and I paddleboard with gusto even on colder days, my club is closed for the winter months due to the risks of cold water and bad weather.

Anything below 15º is defined as cold water. Below 5º is defined as ice water. CRUK gave warnings and advice, and I researched the risks. It’s not just about enduring the cold and warming up after, it’s balancing the numbness of extremities vs safely getting out, balancing endorphin rush vs risk of after-drop.

That’s a potentially dangerous condition where your core temp continues to drop even after you are out and trying to get warm. Cold water shock from sudden entry into cold or ice water, can make your blood pressure rise and heart work so hard it can cause a heart attack.

But it was a warm autumn, it wouldn’t get that cold, surely?

Day 1: Cold Shower.

Standing in a pink swim-hat in my bathroom, I feel silly and I’m now not certain why I thought this was a good idea. I’ve lost friends and family to cancer, but haven’t we all? I have friends who have been through the rigours of treatment and who are living with cancer. They don’t have a choice, they just have to face each day and get on with it. So, I get in the cold shower.

I scream.

Day 4: River Nene swim at Wellingborough

Today was not easy. Making plans to meet a group of strangers, going somewhere new, fear of the cold, and not knowing the exit points, water depth or current… I was very anxious beforehand.

Then all that mental noise melted away as I slipped in and the cold enveloped me. It was COLD. Making myself actually swim required effort and willpower. But I thought about why I was doing this and pressed on.

Others swam further but I was right to get out when I did as my fingers were numb and taking wet stuff off on the riverbank wasn’t easy. I warmed up fine, and several hours later I still feel fantastic that I achieved this.

Water temp: 10º

Swim time: 7-9 minutes.

Picture Cate Dudley

Day 12: Cold Shower.

These are definitely the worst. There’s nothing to distract you; no nature to look at or people to talk to, no primal priority to keep swimming. You’re just alone with the creeping, seeping cold, and your thoughts.

Day 12: the longest 75 seconds.

Day 19: Full moon swim in the River Nene at Northampton

I trusted. I walked down a lane, over a footbridge, across a field, and as the streetlights faded behind me and the foggy moonlight took over, the artificial colours muted into grey.

Just three women out for a full moon swim. Checking kit, no wetsuit tonight, piling up warm things, a little apprehensive but understanding we could do this, together.

Sinking in, I have to trust and will my limbs to reach further into the cold and just swim. Gloved fingers push through the flat-water creating ripples for the moonlight. It’s clearly cold. But it’s so much more. It’s everywhere, there’s no bottom, no edges; enveloped in inky darkness, there is only right now.

When flesh starts to feel prickly burning, it’s time to turn around, each in their own time, but aware of the others. It was good advice. On reaching our entry point the cold has seeped in, the weight of the water pulling, inviting, but it’s time to break free of the water tension and leave.

Get dry, get warm. Walk briskly, hot drink in hand, looking back at the moonlit river, absolutely still, unaware we were even there.

Temp: 10°

Swim time: ten minutes, in swimwear

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Day 24: River Ise, by the ford in Geddington village

Beneath a beautiful bridge, built in 1250. With the stunning ford and a famous medieval monument to love and loss just along the lane, it’s a popular spot for a stroll and paddle on a Summer’s day. The village is local to me, but I never considered if the water was deep enough for a dip until doing this challenge.

I certainly made several locals laugh – curious and entertained by a random woman submerging herself in their village stream. Part of this is to raise awareness of Cancer Research UK, so I pointed to my pink hat and explained. I never thought this challenge would see me trying things like this, it’s pushed me beyond my comfort zone in so many ways, and that’s a bit brilliant.

Air temp: 6°

Water temp: 8°

Dip time: 4-5 minutes, in vest

Picture Cate Dudley

Day 27: Salvaged Builders Tub in my garden, during Storm Arwen.

It was sleeting as I did today’s challenge, just before sunset. Technically temperatures have now dropped below ‘cold water’, making this an ‘ice bath’.  My amazing neighbour Irene, 92, has been a gleeful spectator to these cold plunges, mostly to a rousing chorus of “get out, get out, you’ll catch your death!”

Air temp: 4°

Water temp: 4°

Wind speed: 29mph, gusting 39mph

Day 28: Cransley Sailing Club lake

Today we had snow! The ground was frosty, even in early afternoon, and every bit of standing water was frozen solid. I felt the air temperature drop, the wind blew harder, and it started snowing as I dipped and squealed from the cold.

Had my first experience of ‘cold water slap’ afterwards, as my skin flushed bright red in reaction to the temperature changes. I am grateful to Cransley Sailing Club, where I am a member, for special permission.

Air temp: 2°

Water temp: 5°

Dip time: In wetsuit per club rules. I’m not sure how long but just a few minutes as those on the shore supporting me were shivering!

Day 30 of 30! River Nene at Wellingborough. CRUK Cold Water Challenge: Done.

A seven minute swim with two other ladies doing the challenge.

Celebrating 30 days of cold water, discomfort, mind over matter, shivers, a cold bum, and brain freeze, willing myself into showers and almost jumping into rivers, wind chill and Ready-Brek-toasty-feeling, shivers and giggles, nerves, and elation.

Stepping out of my comfort zone in pretty much every way, meeting strangers, asking for permissions and donations. No skips, delays or forgotten days. A month of planning, organising, drying, and remembering kit. My thanks go out to everyone who has cheered me on in whatever way. It wasn’t easy, but I’m so glad I did it.

This was for those who have fought cancer, are still, and those who are yet to fight. For those we’ve lost, and those who have kicked its arse. For vital research that will make a difference. And no, the showers did not get any easier.

Air temp: 11°

Water temp: 6.5º