“Why are you here? What made you come all the way to Poland to walk into freezing water and hike a snowy mountain in only shorts and boots?”
Before answering this, I have an admission. I am struck with dichotomies. I live a life of dichotomies.
I love running races in the summer, and I hate cold weather. Yet, summer race finishes are earned in the winter. They are earned in the running on the dark, cold mornings and evenings during the bleak winter months.
I have multiple sclerosis which makes extreme temperatures an adversary. My trigger is radical temperature changes in a short period, such as one from a nice, warm bed in a nice, warm house to the frigid trail at 4:20 am.
I run trails over terrain for long distances. The temperatures can change over a distance and are inevitably impacted by the terrain, such as mountains and lakes. It’s no surprise that my first flare up occurred at the Clinton Lake Ultra as I was making my way around the lake. The temperatures rose steadily throughout the race. At one section around the lake, the winds shift, and temperatures dropped ~15F degrees in a few minutes.
I live in Saint Louis which has decided to embrace the temperature contrasts like a moth to a flame. In this case, it’s the flame of the ice dragon from Game of Thrones. It has brought these contrasts to the forefront with a vengeance this year. We have been struck with one of the fiercest winters in a lifetime. The temperature fell to -6F on January 30, 2019, which canceled schools, events, and any semblance of normal life. This insanity was then followed by a massive change in temperature. Temperatures reached 70F three days after this cold spell. (That’s not a typo.)
With this backdrop, it may be surprising that cold immersion therapy has captured my mind in the past 2 years. (Or depending upon how well you know me, it may seem wholly expected the I would run right into this fire.) It started when a fellow ultra runner recommended I research Wim Hof and his breathing techniques. The recommendation came with a promise that I would better be able to deal with elevation, cold temperatures, and extreme changes. I would be conditioned to mentally and physically manage my temperature within reason regardless of the elements. The idea of carrying less gear, such as jackets, gloves, and other cold-weather gear, over >50 miles was also very appealing.
Thus, I began my exploration into Wim Hof two years ago that led to me jumping in 24F streams in Poland and hiking up a mountain wearing shorts, socks, and boots.
The breathing techniques proved to be effective at both Leadville Run Camp in June 2018 and through most of the race 2 months later. I crossed Hope Pass in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt in both situations. It was incredibly comfortable even with temperatures in the mid-20s Fahrenheit and stopping for a bit at the aid station. For most of the race, I was able to maintain my core temperature when the weather was dry, especially with the Colorado sun beating down.
Around mile 65, the world turned on this idea. The sun had set hours earlier. The outside temperature continued to drop, and the misting drizzle had transformed into the pelting rain. Cold rain where each drop reminded me of my exposure. Trying to maintain my core temperature without gear became a double whammy on my energy.
I was expending too much mental energy on the task, and I was shivering which burned additional energy. Energy is always a precious commodity for me in races. It was worse at Leadville 2018. I was struggling to consume calories due to complications from suspected food poisoning the previous day. My calorie intact was half of what I had planned. I relented at approximately mile 65, and my pacer grabbed a hooded jacket and gloves.
After doing my post-race evaluation analysis, I had identified this was one of the challenges to fix in 2019. This decision led to further research into Wim Hof and the studies on him, his technique, and cold immersion therapy. I was delighted to learn about the positive impact on the neurological system and those with autoimmune diseases. In short, the results are promising, but more study is needed. More important, the risks and downside were minimal, if existent. (I am not a doctor nor do I play one on television. Do your research!)
Thus, my 2019 daily goal of performing Wim Hof breathing exercises was born. I knew it would be a struggle. I would often get distracted in the midst of performing breathing exercises. I would cut the cold shower short because I was in a hurry. I know evolution has trained the human brain to find the easiest way, especially when pain is involved. I would find a way to shortcut, if at all possible.
With running, I have both a running coach and strength trainer. I still have them as part of my team. They force me to be highly focused. I have an obligation to them. I needed to be highly focused
Why would this be any different? I needed a trainer. I needed a coach. And I saw an opportunity to train with the best… with Wim.
On October 2, 2018, I signed up for the Wim Hof Winter Expedition from January 29 to February 4, 2019. I signed up to travel to Prague then Poland where I would willingly choose to swim in freezing streams, walk into a half-frozen waterfall, and hike up a mountain in shorts.
This trip awarded me time in one of my favorite cities, Prague. A few years back, Courtney and I visited as part of our Oktoberfest trip. We still remark that this was the best part of the vacation. I relished the opportunity to spend some additional time in this beautiful city. Besides exploring, I used the morning of Day 0 to visit the Apple Museum which brought back memories to hacking on my Apple ][e as a child.
After spending 36 hours in Prague, I met with the Wim Hof team at Prague airport around 5 pm. I was surprised by how many people were there. I had imagined a more intimate gathering. The videos portrayed this as an intimate gathering rather than seventy strangers with visions of being Junior Ice Women and Men. Regardless of the size, I was there for the cold and my health. We boarded 2 buses at 6 pm for the nearly three-hour journey to Wim’s home town of Przesieka, Poland.
As we arrived in Przesieka at the hotel around 9:30 pm local time, we were greeted with the Innerfire (aka Wim Hof’s company) team welcoming us to the Expedition. The Expedition had taken over the entire hotel, including all the guest rooms, common areas, and the sauna. We would eat, sleep, and learn here. We would build a community in this hotel. The community would not have locks on the doors. The hotel would be my home for the next week, and twenty other participants would become close friends, including the two with whom I shared a large, four-bed suite.
Wim would not make an appearance until the next day. Instead, we were broken down from the seventy into smaller groups. Our group was around twenty in size. This would be our tribe, and our tribe began the expedition that night with the exploration of a single question – “Why are you here?”
My answer was two-fold. It was the two aforementioned tactical reasons – carry less gear in races and better able to deal with temperature swings. I would later learn I was in Poland for much more. It would become internal, personal, and profound.
Reflection: Day 1 was mostly introduction and getting comfortable with the group. The guided breathing exercises built into something different than I had experienced on my own. They brought forward an energized, almost euphoric, state.
Our tribe co-leader, Elee, shared with us that she has been learning from Wim for six years. He told her that the cold was part of it. It was not just the breathing. Thus, she wasted no time in getting us to embrace cold.
After breakfast, we were instructed to dress for a warm, summer hike despite it being in the mid-20s Fahrenheit. This meant only shorts for the males. Females added bikini tops. This hike was not the famed mountain hike. It was a jaunt of fewer than 90 minutes with learning mixed it. While we learned techniques to generate heat, such as the horse stance (aka haha), this hike was the beginning of a lifelong journey to learn about embracing the cold. I would need it.
I remember thinking that I should have worn Yak Trax and that there was absolutely no way I was making it through the week. As I reflect back, I realize it was fear of the cold and fear of falling that occupied my mind more than the cold itself.
Wim made his first (of many) appearances after lunch. It was inspiring to see and hear the man himself. His passion is addictive, and his knowledge of the science is undeniable. He is clear that it is correlation until studied and verified. He is extremely proud that this is beyond his belief and that he is being investigated. That does not stop Wim from occasionally yelling, “Just breathe, motherfucker!”
Recap & Reflection: Day Two began with more breathing exercises, reflection, and meditation in the morning. We finished by deciding the order of the future cold immersion. As we finished and prepared for breakfast, I decided to head for a run instead of eating. Cold immersion would be uncomfortable, if not painful. I wanted to do something comfortable, and running is always comforting even when it hurts. I was also attempting to push out of my mind that chattering whispers.
Chattering whispers are the default mode of communication at WHE. Schedules are communicated this way. It seems disorganized and, yet, highly orchestrated. It is almost by planned design. It forces people to connect and bond. As we headed toward the breakfast hour, the whispers began. The chatter was becoming clear right before the meal break. Elee was serious about embracing the cold, and we would be meeting promptly at 11 am donning boots and winter clothes.
Swimsuits should be worn underneath.
At 11 am, I had finished my run and met our group assembled in the lobby. We walked past where we practiced the horse stance and headed along the previous day’s hiking path. We stopped as we crossed the first bridge. Ice was still on the edges of the stream that intersected with the land. This would be where my fear of cold and temperature swings had to die. The water was approximately 24F.
I gathered with 3 new friends when it was our turn, and we walked into the stream. Walking into the water was not a single decision. It was a series of repeated decisions. Each step away from the land was a choice. As the water reached my torso, I started regretting the earlier decision to go for a run. Lactic acid had built up in my legs, and it was freezing.
The water reached my neck. My legs locked, and the early feelings of Charlie horses nagged my calves. I was actually warm until that moment. The fear of never being able to leave the water broke my concentration, and that broke the warmth. I began to head for the shore. After only a few seconds, I needed to get out of the cold. I did not care; it had only been a few seconds, maybe 30 seconds.
The reality was much different. When I reviewed the GoPro video, I had been in the water for approximately 2 minutes.
After lunch, Wim joined the group for a talk. He covered the science of breathing and cold while sharing his stories. Wim has a manner that allows him to be utterly charming and humble while being humorous, braggadocious, and sometimes vulgar. He’s also insightful into the soul of what comprises emotions, intentions, and the soul of humanity. He welcomes others to compliment and even challenge his learnings. This invitation included every instructor with us.
The most profound insight for me came during this session. It was unexpected in the midst of talk around science and university studies. It summarized my ungathered and unsaid thoughts and mantra over my life and over a body that could potentially betray me.
“You are the master of your fate. You are the pilot not the passenger.”
Before the evening could move into dinner, Elee had one last
surprise fun activity. We were instructed to dress for a winter hike to be held an hour before dinner. The walk would lead us to a beautiful stream that was entirely frozen just days earlier. The movement of water unthawed some with plenty of ice around the edges.
As we reached the stream, we removed our socks and boots for two rounds of ice extremities training. Each dip of the feet was 2-3 minutes in water below freezing temperature. Once our feet had endured this, it became time to do the same for our hands. In hindsight, it was the right order as tieing boots with frozen fingers is nearly impossible.
Recap & Reflection: Day Three was the turning point for me in regards to the breathing and the cold. We would oscillate between breathing exercises and cold immersion.
One of the claims around the Wim Hof breathing method is that it changes the pH of blood from acidic to alkaline. According to Wim and others, alkalinity combats inflammation, makes it more difficult for bacteria and virus, and decreases the sensation of pain. Wim states that studies have shown the blood to be alkaline more than five hours after performing the exercises. I had a chance to test this during the morning’s exercise thanks to another tribe member.
One of the other participants brought pH strips to test. Our pre-breakfast morning breathing exercises gave me an ideal opportunity to test this. I restricted food and minimized drink until afterward. I tested prior to the breathing and immediately after finishing. I cannot attest to the medical benefits of the change, but I can unequivocally state that mine changed from acidic to alkaline after ~35 minutes of performing the breathing exercises. I have repeated this test several times since Poland with similar results.
The first cold immersion was the jump in the stream. This is a >10 feet drop with only one decision – just take one more step. I cannot explain the beautiful sensation of joy and happiness that washed over me. The warmest point was during the complete immersion with the water over my head. I felt I could stay under the water for eternity. There was no struggle for air. There was no struggle for warmth. There was just peace.
I stepped up to the jump point and asked Elee a few questions. I was more fearful of the drop since water depth was difficult to see. I repeatedly asked where I should jump. Before I jumped, she asked one question, “What do you want to leave behind here in Poland?” My answer was left in that stream.
The afternoon’s cold immersion was the famous waterfall seen in numerous Wim Hof videos. The group held hands and walked into the pond below the freezing waterfall. We gathered and formed a circle.
After exiting the waterfall, we were treated with an afternoon at Wim’s house with Wim. Wim graciously welcomed us to his house and its amenities, specifically the ice baths and saunas. He answered questions while hanging out with us. Toward the end of our time at his house, Elee and Wim gathered us to teach the brown fat activation technique.
Day Three ended with an evening talk by Wim and then dinner. I estimate I spent over 35 minutes in sub-freezing water over the course of the entire day.
Recap & Reflection: Day Four is the second part of what most see as the Expedition. The first is the aforementioned jumping in streams and waterfalls. Today was the hike up the mountain.
Despite my feelings of accomplishment the previous day, I dreaded this moment. It brought back my thoughts from Leadville and needing to grab winter gear. Little did I know that the weather would exacerbate the challenge and elements with rain, sleet, and snow. The hike would be a light of truth whether this endeavor was leaning towards success.
As we boarded the bus, my nerves took over. I boarded the bus dressed in warm gear. It seemed insane to leave the warmth of the bus to strip down to shorts with the intent of hiking up the mountain. This would be a hike not a run. I would not have the benefit of an elevated heart rate to generate heat. It would be the learnings of this week or relenting to warm clothes just like Leadville.
The drizzle started as we took the first steps. Yet, the first hour passed with ease and the backdrop of laughter and conversation. People were gleeful. Why wouldn’t we be? We were living the images seen in those videos. The group mood was euphoric, but this would quickly flip as the weather rapidly increased its ferociousness in the second hour.
Wim led physical the charge up the mountain. Elee, Patrick, and the other instructors led the emotional charge up the mountain of our commitment and psyches. The uttered the drumbeat of reminders to stay focused. We were the pilots
After more than two hours, we reached the summit and the ski lodge where we would have lunch. I remember how warm I was and wondering how to transition to the warmth of the lodge. Clearly, Wim knew these people, and this group would be considered normal. Can I stay in just shorts? Is there a “no shirts, no shoes, no service” rule?
Then, I heard the cheering from the group. People wanted pictures at the top before settling down for lunch, and their excitement could not be contained. I broke focus. I broke concentration. That broke the warmth, and the cold flooded my blood and muscles. My question of whether to gear up had been answered.
Recap & Reflection: Day Five would be the final full day of the Expedition. It lended itself to being anti-dramatic. We had accomplished all we came to do and answered all the questions with which we came.
I regrettably cannot comment on the final walk and ceremony. The informal communication method failed me, and I somehow missed this.
I have continued the breathing exercises and cold immersion since returning from the Expedition. A few weeks ago, I laid out by the pool in a recliner covered in a foot of snow while on a ski trip in Park City. Yesterday, I completed a trail race and hung out for an hour afterwards wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, shorts, and footwear. People repeatedly asked if I wanted to borrow a jacket or if I was freezing. The idea of wearing more did not appeal to me.
Yet, I still do not understand what happened and how the transformations came about. I cannot explain it. That is perhaps the mystery and the benefit of the expedition and Wim Hof. It unlocks the capability without any need for explanation.
Somewhere in Poland, a monumental change in my mental strength regarding breathing and the cold occurred. My suspicion is that a physiological change has also, which continues to this day.
It has been nearly 3 weeks since I returned from Poland. I have spent hours putting together my thoughts, this blog post, and answering questions about the experience. The most important question needing to be answered was the opening one of this blog posted as it was the one asked by the tribe instructors on Day one.
I found the unstated answer to that opening question. Yes, I was there
I was also there to find something deep inside me. I was there to answer a different question.
How would I address the challenges, pain, opportunities, and uncertainties of my future? With the same joy and warmth that crashed over and enveloped me from a single step forward off a cliff and into the coldness.