A lunatic polar plunge for the ages
As our merry band of nearly 150 colorfully clad runners blew noisemakers, sounded a bugle and shouted New Year’s greetings to passing motorists on Noank’s Groton Long Point Road Monday afternoon, a blast of Arctic wind roared through a break in the trees just as the frigid waters of Fishers Island Sound came into view.
“Uh-oh,” I said to a guy loping next to me wearing red long johns. “No turning back now.”
In a few moments, I realized, we would be stripping down to shorts and bathing suits, scampering across snow- and ice-covered Esker Point Beach and leaping headlong into near-frozen Palmer Cove.
With the air temperature dipping perilously close to the single digits and buffeting gusts plunging the wind chill below zero, this would be the bitterest New Year’s Day run-swim since the madcap holiday tradition was launched nearly a half-century ago.
Back on Jan. 1, 1969, four friends, including Amby Burfoot, who the year before had won the Boston Marathon, more or less spontaneously decided to ring in the New Year with a swim, and since then the event has grown into a popular annual festivity that attracts hundreds of boisterous participants and crowds of cheering spectators.
Amby, who has missed only a couple of the run-swims since that first event, was back at the starting line at noon in downtown Mystic, in front of the statue of his beloved high school coach, the late Johnny Kelley, also a former Boston Marathon champ.
I asked Amby if he ever thought that nearly 50 years later he and so many others would be continuing the ritual.
“I didn’t think we’d even be doing it the next year,” he replied.
Informed that about a half-dozen other “polar plunges” scheduled for Monday, including one in Groton, another in Westerly and several in Rhode Island, had been canceled or postponed because of savagely cold conditions, Amby noted those events all were sponsored by various charities and nonprofits whose lawyers evidently feared litigation if someone developed severe frostbite, or worse.
“That’s the beauty of our group — no organization (and therefore nobody to sue),” Amby chuckled.
The event has no official leader, no formal structure and no stated mission other than to proclaim shared celebratory lunacy — particularly fitting on Monday, with a super moon about to rise.
For the record, there were no reports of accidents or injuries, either along the 3.5-mile run from Mystic to Esker Point or during the icy swim.
As a longtime enthusiast, I’d frequently complain year after year about relatively balmy conditions on New Year’s Day, when warm fronts brought temperatures into the 50s and even the 60s.
Only in 2009, reported decades-long celebrant Bill Billing of Mystic, who keeps meticulous records, did the temperature dip to the previous low record of 18 degrees.
“That was a tough one,” he recalled Monday.
“One year,” I would say each Jan. 1, “I want epic conditions. A real test.”
As the old saying goes, be careful of what you wish for, and by the time we runners approached the water Monday I was having second thoughts.
“Well, Steve, looks like you're finally getting your wish,” my pal Jim Roy remarked.
“I just changed my mind,” I joked.
The pack broke into a jubilant cry and sprinted toward the water, flinging garments onto the frozen sand.
I struggled to pull off my mountaineering expedition mittens, balaclava and double layer of polypropylene.
There was Carla Thompson, still looking exactly the same in a bikini as she did more than three decades earlier, and her husband, Curt, who could be cast for a leading role in “The Viking,” happily frolicking as if were July 4th; Way Hedding bellowing; and Jeff Billing, whooping in delight during his 25th plunge, alongside his dad, Bill, who has him beat by 22 years.
Bill’s wife, Natalie, has the record for being the only person who has attended the event every single year, though she never has jumped in the water.
“I’m the one who carries the towels,” she explained.
Next year, Nat: No excuses.
As for me, I finally got my shirt off, raced into the water — low tide, yuck — and dove.
“Aaagh!” It was as if a ball-and-peen hammer clobbered my forehead. My arms and legs felt like frozen oak limbs. A piercing, penetrating numbness enveloped the rest of my body.
Thrashing like a wounded porpoise I wriggled to shore, staggered to my feet and lumbered to a waiting gym bag. Somehow I managed to tug on a hooded fleece anorak and lumber to my car.
At that point, some people started running back to Mystic, but I along with a handful of others had left our vehicles earlier at Esker Point. Then, after running to the start in Mystic, we joined the group ramble to Esker Point. That way, at least, we wouldn’t have to run into the wind while soaked.
Driving back home with the heater on full blast, I told myself, “That wasn’t so bad. Maybe next year there’ll be a blizzard.”
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