Eight take part in 'polar bear' race at Great Salt Lake

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 1 2013 4:46 p.m. MST

GREAT SALT LAKE — As Goody Tyler tells it, what brought this group of 50 to the shores of the Great Salt Lake began about two years ago.

It was then that Tyler and three friends, all avid swimmers, thought it would be "fun" to do a cold water swim. It was March at Bountiful Lake and the water came in somewhere around 45 degrees.

"To us now, that seems like warm water," Tyler said.

They loved it and began to swim almost weekly, year round. They formed the Wasatch Front Polar Bear Club and on Tuesday, Tyler and those friends, plus some new ones and genuine newbies, joined together for the club's first New Year's Day Open Water Race.

Eight took to the water around noon Tuesday in four heats of two, some of them in the club's bright red swim cap that reads: "When the cap matches your skin, you're in." The water temperature was 31.4 degrees. The route spanned 400 yards.

"This is bigger than we'd imagined or hoped for," Tyler said.

There was a gathering of family, friends, and a few true spectators. An ambulance was also parked at the top of the ramp and kayakers with life preservers were at the ready in the water. Rick Edge and Jim Hubbard prepared to take off first.

One little girl gasped as the swimmers stripped from their jackets and sweats to Speedos.

"He's taking off his clothes!"

A woman on the microphone asked that the crowd to join her in a countdown. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. On and down until the swimmers mostly bare bodies made contact with the water.

"The initial shock — you get used to that," Hubbard said. "You get to the end of the dock and about a minute in you start to ease off that first, initial pain. You set your pace and your breathing. By the time you get to the end of it you don't feel your hands and feet anymore. They're just blocks of ice. Coming back, you feel all frozen. I heard you burn 500 calories a minute, just trying to generate enough heat."

Hubbard is 62 years old. He swims these 400 yards almost once a week, but it's never been this cold. He finished the race in about 11 minutes.

"He was nervous before this race and that made me more nervous," his wife, Connie, said. "I just didn't want him to want to finish so badly that he doesn't listen to his body. But how can you listen to your body when you can't feel it?"

When Hubbard did finish, he went about what he thinks is the most difficult part of the cold water swimming warming back up. A jug of hot water is poured on him and he steps into sweats, a down jacket, a knit cap. He drinks hot apple juice.

"The warm up is the hardest," Jim Hubbard said. "The pain in your hand and feet, it gets too hot and it burns."

He is shaking as he talks and warms his hands on the heater inside his car. It typically lasts about 25 to 30 minutes before it subsides.

"The shaking freaked me out at first, like, what are you doing to yourself?" Connie Hubbard said.

Jim Hubbard's son, Jared, came to watch his father swim for the first time Tuesday. He said, half-joking, that his real perceived utility was his paramedic training.

"He's just crazy," Jared Hubbard said of his dad. "It's fun and exciting to see him swimming. He loves to do new, challenging things, being outdoors. I like to see him accomplishing things, but it's still crazy."

Edge held the lead until the last heat with a time of six minutes. He said he is not "one of the regulars," but his wife, Collette, said he is drawn to the absurd and so his decision to swim in the race was no surprise to her.

Gordon Gridley, one of the original Polar Bear Club members, ultimately won with a time of five minutes and 24 seconds. His reaction to the swim came in two words.

"Good," he said. "Numb."

Sue Frehse's first cold water swim was two months ago, but she took to the water to compete in the second heat Tuesday. She said she thought it would be nice to start the new year with a good challenge and that the race was both challenging — and fun.

"My hands and feet felt like hammers, so you want to move. … You have to make it back," she said. "Just the mental challenge. Anybody can do this, but mentally you've got to have it."

Tyler didn't swim Tuesday. He was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer and it has spread throughout his body. He said he is stage three and just finished his first round of chemotherapy treatment.

But before that treatment began, just last month, he swam an ice mile. A full mile in water that cannot measure higher than 41 degrees. It took 40 minutes.

"Considering all I'm going through and thinking about my first treatment cycle and how horrible it was for the two weeks, it feels good to do something on my own terms."

After the final heat and Gridley had won, Tyler took off his sweatsuit and entered the water for a quick plunge.

"Ahhhh," he sighed, contentedly. "Brisk."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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