Saturday, February 23rd, 6:00 AM. I was thinking back to the day I registered for the plunge. Over a month has passed. I met my goal for donations, posted about it on Facebook, and spoke to family and friends about it. I cleared my schedule for the day. I had done everything to prepare, except for actual preparation. Later that day, I was going to willingly walk into the Atlantic Ocean as a participant in NJ’s Annual Polar Bear Plunge to support NJ Special Olympics, and I had no idea what to expect, what to wear before, what to wear after, or what to bring.
I spent the next 30 minutes on Google, looking for advice from previous plungers. There was not much out there. I was a dozen articles deep, and the only advice that I had seen more than once was to wear warm socks, and drink lots of Bourbon. Although temping, the Bourbon was not an option as I was driving myself. Socks—that left me with socks. I could do socks, but what else? I thought for a moment, got dressed and packed. Here is what I wore: Bathing suit, sweats, thermal, tee shirt, sweat shirt, a water resistant hooded jacket, sneakers, and heavy wool socks. Packing was light: two towels, extra socks, flip flops, and an extra sweat shirt.
I arrived at Pier Village in Long Branch around 10:30. It was 44°, windy, rainy, and the water temperature was 37°. As I pulled in the parking lot, I could see many had read the Bourbon articles. I did not realize that tailgating was a part of this event, but tailgaters were out in full force with food, drink, and music. The poor weather did not dampen the spirits of the crowds of people that were coming in. Registration, and picking up the sweatshirt I
qualified for with donations was easy. The polar bear mascot was taking pictures with anyone who wanted them. There were groups of fraternities, sororities, friends, families, police/fire departments, and other organizations. I was plunging with team HATR (Hamilton Area Trail Runs). They describe themselves as an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life and running experience, brought together by their love of running and fitness. However, they are much more than a group of runners, sponsoring relay team last year and always looking for ways to combine their passion for fitness with good causes. I only knew the organizer, but would soon meet the whole “team” of plungers.
Once all the members of the team arrived, we met in the lobby of a hotel on the beach. I was introduced to them one by one. They all immediately made me feel welcome, and a part of the group. Conversations centered mostly on the craziness of what we were about to partake in, and whether to go in all the way or not. I made some casual jokes, and tried to play it “cool”. However, in all honesty, I was nervous. What if I chickened out? What if I fell? What if I couldn’t get out of the water? As my nerves were starting to get the best of me, it was time to head out to the beach.
I headed out wearing flip flops, my socks (I wore them as long as I could), bathing suit, and my thermal and tee. I tied my sneakers to my bag and loaded my sweatshirt and jacket. The atmosphere on the beach was amazing. A group of people gathered together, with a common goal to have fun and support a good cause. There were groups carrying Irish and American flags, chants of USA, and yes, men in coconut bras…lots of men in coconut bras. We set our spot for the clothes and a place to meet after. It was time to lose the socks and get ready to go!
There was no sun to warm the wet sand. I cannot describe how cold my feet were. There I was, in a crowd of about 4000, ready to go, and all I could think about were my freezing feet! As we went to plunge, most people stopped at their knees and headed back. I could not stop there—no guts, no glory! I paused at the water, looked for an opening, and ran straight in. At about waist deep, I thought “this isn’t that bad” and proceeded to dive in. WOW…That thought quickly fled as my head went under. Unbelievably cold, so cold it burned. My breath became short, and my strength was fleeting. My first attempt back to shore was unsuccessful. A wave pushed me back down and I was floating again. The cold seemed to make me hyper sensitive of everything going on. Instead of panic, I waited for the next wave and used that to push me back to shore.Once on the shore, my number one priority was to get those socks back on. I got back to my bag, toweled myself off, and dried my feet as best as I could. I got the socks back on—my feet were actually in pain from the cold. I immediately felt better. Now, I could take a moment to soak in the moment. It was surreal. I felt great! The rest of the team made their way back to our bags, gathered our belongings, and headed up to change. Changing was an experience in and of itself. There was a tent on the beach with no light except for a few plastic windows, and it was packed with naked, cold men. Balance while you change is key, as there is nowhere to sit, and falling would be awkward to say the least. I changed successfully and headed to my car. At my car, I swapped my socks out again. The original pair had wicked the water out of my feet and they were now getting warm. After a few minutes the new pair just made them toasty. Thirty minutes after being in a 37° ocean, and I felt no different than when I arrived.
Our team met up for a celebratory drink at the hotel bar, and headed to Bobby’s Burger Palace for lunch. While eating, we shared our individual experiences and what we saw. I only met these people a few hours ago, but we now shared a common memory that will last a lifetime. In conversation, I was already discussing next year’s plunge as a foregone conclusion, and what I might do differently. After thinking about it for a few days, I don’t think I will change much of my preparation (except maybe some Bourbon!).
Check out a head cam video one of my teammates shot! Polar Bear Plunge Team HATR
If you live in the Mercer County, NJ area, and are interested in joining the HATR’s on Saturday runs, contact them here.
Over and above my personal accomplishments, the NJ Plunges (there was one in Atlantic City also) raised over $1,000,000 to support the NJ Special Olympics! To donate to the NJ Special Olympics through my plunge page, click here