The Cost of My Badassery

by Lisa Martinovic

The wind is our enemy. Open water swimmers know this. We know it down to our marrow, the last refuge of warmth in a body as it descends into hypothermia. Scanning the shoreline on this bleak February afternoon I can think of little else. Rain clouds blotting out the sun have rendered the already sharp winds bone-chilling. And I’m going out alone.

The seaweed-strewn beach is deserted but for a young couple sitting on a piece of driftwood, swaddled in blankets and huddled close, heads bowed into the wind. I unload my backpack on the retaining wall and gear up. It doesn’t take long because I’m “swimming skins,” meaning no wetsuit. Two neoprene caps and a thin Lycra swimsuit are my only armor against the triple threat of cold, wet, and wind.

Intense weather makes for great photos so the camera is coming with, secured to my forehead. I drop my car keys into a small plastic fanny pack and cinch it around my waist. Even if someone were to steal everything down to my flip-flops — which happened to friends last year — I’d still be able to make it to the lifesaving warmth of my car before mild hypothermia turned critical.

I jog down to the shoreline, harried by gusts of wind and spooked by the view across the bay. On a sunny day, Angel Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Marin headlands are as majestic a vision as any on earth. But today, weighed down by a forbidding sky, and filtered through an anxious mind, they loom, ominous, as if warning: don’t venture into our domain.

My 98° body recoils in shock when my foot meets 51° water. Body screams: Don’t make me do this! Mind coaxes: You’ve done it before, you can do it again. The good mother in me whispers: You don’t have to. You can turn around any time. Even if you back out right now I will still love you. I have yet to put that love to the test.

Bouncing on tiptoes, I wade in up to my waist, the cold a thousand tiny spears stabbing my flesh. I gasp: What in the fuckety-fuck-fuck am I doing? Incredulity is a stage in the process and I don’t let it prolong the netherworld of half-in half-out. I splash a little water on my face, push off the muddy bottom and spring into a superfast freestyle, riding as high on the water as I ever will. These first few minutes are the most painful part of the swim as my body adjusts to the fact that, for the next half hour or so, this is her reality.

Months earlier, in late fall when the water temperature was plummeting, I stopped labeling it “cold.” Doing so only reminds my body of what she will soon be asked to endure. Instead of cold — a potentially dangerous state that humans instinctively avoid — I came to think of it as a sensation. There is no judgment in sensation. It’s neutral, open to interpretation. Sensation invites curiosity. When the temperature drops some 10° from its zenith, hovering at 57°, I launch into each swim with a mantra, one stroke per syllable: in-ter-es-ting-in-ter-es-ting-in-ter-es-ting. Until I’ve acclimated enough to be objective. Only then can I contemplate the sensation. Ah, so this is what we call cold. In-ter-es-ting.

Beyond Cypress Point, Mt. Tamalpais

After maybe a hundred yards I’m in the exhilaration zone, thrilled to be in the water in direct proportion to how mind-boggling it is that I can be in the water. I stop for a moment to get my bearings. The clouds have thickened, pushing south towards my little cove. Swimming in the rain is like receiving a benediction from the gods — but trying to dry off and get dressed in a downpour would be a very cold day in hell. I gamble that conditions will hold during my brief swim and continue backstroking towards Cypress Point. It’s choppy and the wind is driving whitecaps to choke my every breath. Bay swimming is sublime but hardly pristine. You don’t want to think about what all gets dumped in here, and you certainly don’t want to swallow any of it.

Between me and the heavens a lone pelican, aloft on thermals, appears motionless. I’m in a world beyond time. Rising and falling with an endless succession of swells, the sea is breathing me. When I reach the Point, the mighty landmarks to the west no longer appear menacing. It was fear that made them so, and in my triumph fear has evaporated leaving only awe.

There is an intimacy to being alone in the wild, one tiny creature in the immortal womb of the ocean. I feel mythic, a selkie who has escaped the limits of land and found her way home. I throw a leg up for the camera. One entire wall of my bedroom is covered with these photos. Lying in bed, morning and night, I savor the images, reliving every glorious moment of my aquatic communion.

A whitecap slap to the face cues me. I’d best not pause for long.

Between San Francisco and Marin, one chilly leg

Though a watch tracks my time, my body is the final arbiter of how long I can tolerate any given swim. There is usually a moment during winter swims when I feel a prick of alarm —have I stayed out too long? Am I risking the riptide of no return? I’m about a quarter mile from the beach so I crank up the pace to reassure myself. In the home stretch I notice my lips have gone numb, which is a very odd… sensation, and colder than I should allow myself to get, but the shore is well within reach.

In late summer when the water was its warmest, I swam in a darling little turquoise bikini. Emerging from the water I’d imagine I could rival Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie where she strides out of the sea in a white bikini with a scuba knife strapped to her thigh. I’m 65 years old, okay? But swimming in the bay makes me feel indomitable.

Apparently, anything is possible. Photo: Deb Kory

The bikini is a distant memory when all I can fantasize about is the electric blanket waiting for me in the car. The last moment in the water, before I stand up, I remember that actually this is warm compared to what I’ll feel wobbling up the beach drenched, the wind whipping at my skin. Even grabbing my towel I know I’ll get colder still before I reclaim my status as a warm-blooded creature—thanks to the dreaded Afterdrop. Confronted with cold water immersion, the body concentrates circulation in its viscera, at the expense of the extremities, which is why our hands and feet go numb first. Stepping out of the water the body reverses course, sending blood from the core to the periphery. As blood evacuates our torso, that’s when the cold really kicks in.

I struggle to pull the hooded terrycloth swim poncho over my head and peel off my heat-leaching swimsuit. Now comes the hardest part: opening the double zip locked fanny pack. Full manual dexterity won’t return for at least half an hour. The challenge is multiplied because my hands are quite impaired from the autoimmune disease that’s wreaked havoc on my bones and joints. I dig out a pair of needle nose pliers to tackle the zip locks, but I’m too cold to manipulate them. Necessity sends me scuttling across the beach towards the couple still pressed together on the driftwood. Shrouded in layers of soggy hoods, a raggedy old parka and facemask, I probably look like Neptune’s Grim Reaper.

“Would you mind opening this for me?” I ask, proffering the fanny pack. “My hands are too numb.”

The young lovers look up, so absorbed they haven’t noticed from whence I came.

“Were you just swimming out there?” the woman asks.

Y-y-y-yes, I stammer through chattering teeth.

She opens the pack with ease and hands it back. “Damn, you’re a beast!”

Why, yes. Yes I am.

I used to be so sensitive to cold that when I moved back to Berkeley 20 years ago and joined a swim team, I wore a wetsuit in the pool so I could tolerate water that felt Arctic. It was 78°. Over several decades a series of autoimmune diseases laid waste to my tissues, leaving surgeons to clean up the wreckage — and me without the energy to swim and stay warm at the same time. Slowly, painstakingly, I nursed myself back to some semblance of health. I was finally in a groove when Covid struck and the pools shut down. There was nowhere to go but the bay.

Prodded by an April heat wave I drive out to Keller Beach in nearby Richmond and am astounded to discover that I can swim in 62° water. My maiden journey, a mere 20 minutes, feels miraculous. Emboldened by my newfound capacity, I am brazen, going out alone at first, before I even know how to read the tides. A group of locals welcome me into their tribe, and help me orient to my new environment. I’m in the bay three days a week, gradually going farther and staying out longer. Within weeks I’m doing close to an hour in the aforementioned bikini. By midsummer the full moon swims are irresistible. With lights illuminating our multicolored buoys we glide like a flock of Japanese lanterns.

Full Moon swim photo: Beth Miller

What unfolds is an extraordinary summer. The beach is alive with families splashing, children squealing, boomboxes competing — hip-hop, R&B, salsa, and the occasional golden oldie. We are diverse as America itself, and the happy nonchalance with which everyone shares the beach is a model of what our nation can be, and a rebuke to those who would divide us. Though we’re in the throes of a pandemic, and still at the mercy of Trump, I’m lulled by the sounds of families at play and, lolling on the hot sand, I believe in the promise of humanity. Finally, if only for a couple of hours, I can relax. One day, against the backdrop of gently lapping waves, I hear a song that transports me to the 60s even as it evokes the languid grace of the moment and I fancy myself the Girl from Ipanema. In pandemic summer everything is up for grabs. I just reinvented myself as an open water swimmer. Who’s to say I can’t sway like a samba?

But always in the back of my mind I know winter will change everything.

Among my cohort everyone handles the cold differently. Some wear full wetsuits no matter the season, many reserve them for winter, and a few swim skins year-round. Throughout November and December I watch as one after another take to the relative comfort of neoprene. Squeezing into and out of skintight wetsuits is a bit of a wrestling match even for the fully able-bodied. Given the limitation of my hands no way could I make that happen with frigid fingers.

I approach winter as part dare, part science experiment: how low can I go? And every day when the NOAA app tells me it’s 1° colder than the day before, I say, well, I did 60°, why not 59°? And the next week it’s, why not 58°? In the battle between mind and matter I’ve won just by being in the water. My fellow swimmers take note. Weathering the cold is not easy for anyone, even those with the gift of insulating body fat, of which I have precious little. At 5” 9’, 115 pounds, I’m no pinniped.

I meet up with a pod I haven’t seen in a while. It’s a bitter January noon and they’re all wriggling into wetsuits. One woman turns to me in surprise: “You still swimming skins?” She looks me and my goosebumps up and down with an appraising eye. “You are such badass!” The warm glow from her acknowledgment stays with me during the swim, and I swear it heats the water around me a fraction of a degree.

Kay van der Have, Lisa Martinovic, Skip C. Photo: Anne Phillips

And yet the beast is only human. She has limits, which I discover when the water drops 2° overnight. In the last quarter of a mile swim my stroke gets sloppy, I’m having a hard time getting enough air, my arms are heavy as bricks. Coming out of the water I’m dizzy, dressing is a monumental effort. I stagger to the cocoon of my car, stopping every few steps to make sure I don’t topple onto the pavement. Ah, so this is what we call hypothermia. The incident gives me a new appreciation of my vulnerability, and for the next few weeks I cut my mile swims in half. But a beast is still a beast and within a month I work my way up to three quarters of a mile even as the temperature continues to fall.

With the mercury at new lows it becomes harder to pry myself out of bed. All I want to do is snuggle under quilts and hibernate until spring thaw. But I’m on a mission to swim through winter, abetted by my completion compulsion. My deeper motivation is a desire to impress and inspire one person above all others: myself. After decades of assault by scalpel and my own confused immune system I was sure my days of physical daring were over. The bay resurrected me. Once again I am the tomboy roaming the back alleys of San Francisco, the 20-something scuba diving with sharks in the Caribbean, the 30-year-old swimming solo in the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos, the middle-aged woman skydiving the Ozarks. This is who I was born to be: a bold, if slightly reckless, adventuress.

Much as I love embodying that self-image it doesn’t keep the afterdrop from becoming progressively more brutal. My swim buddy, Kay, sees the toll it takes on me. Getting dressed requires total concentration and every scrap of energy; I can barely speak. Kay opens my zip lock fanny pack, and she marvels, from the luxury of her wetsuit: I can’t believe you’re doing this. I can’t believe it either. After an eternity of extreme shivering and jaw clenching we scurry back to our cars. I plug the electric blanket into the cigarette lighter, turn the heater up full blast, and hunch over the dash, my hands cupping the vents. A stainless-steel bottle filled with piping hot water goes between my legs, resting up against my belly, so cold it chills steel. Only after defrosting for at least 20 minutes do I feel safe to drive. Back home a very long, very hot shower restores me. I eat a late lunch and am not good for much for the rest of the day.

Is it worth it — the excruciating start of each swim and the protracted recovery period? Absolutely. So says my mind. But between thinness and debilitating conditions I wonder if I’m asking too much of my body. My gut kicks out, further depleting me; my gallbladder generates screamer headaches and fatigue that lasts for days. Nevertheless I persist. I’ve begun dreading Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays because I know that no matter how bad I’m hurting, how much weight I’ve lost, or how little sleep I’ve had, I’ll force myself to swim. So where exactly is the line between badass and pathological?

In my defense, it’s hard to say no to something that feels so fantastic in the moment. But for those of us with a history of addiction, compulsive behavior, whatever the trigger, is a slippery slope to self-harm. I argue myself in circles, unable to fathom how something so life-affirming could ever be harmful. Then I remember: the dose makes the poison — and I have OD’d.

Throughout January and February I find myself in frightening new territory: my thinking is sluggish, I’m having difficulty articulating myself, and I can barely start much less finish a piece of writing. In recent years I’ve watched my mother flail against dementia, and now I fear my own brain has begun to ebb.

How could that even be possible? The science is unanimous: In addition to the obvious cardiovascular and fitness benefits, cold water swimming boosts the immune system, reduces stress, releases endorphins, builds physical and mental resilience, even stimulates libido. It’s a remedy for depression, and new evidence suggests it may prevent, even reverse, dementia. Why then — except when I’m in the water — do I feel emotionally flattened, exhausted, my mind murky as Keller at low tide?

Through the haze it dawns on me that perhaps I’m suffering the cumulative effects of taking my body to the edge of its capacity for months on end without adequate recuperation time. Maybe the extremity that could not be sustained was my brain. An explanation infinitely preferable to Alzheimer’s. And it makes sense. The body prioritizes the core during hypothermia just as it favors large muscle groups in fight or flight. So too, over winter’s long descent, my body—in a valiant effort to preserve the viability of the whole—has been drained of its dwindling resources, leaving little to spare for higher cognitive function.

I’ll do anything to salvage my brain, even sacrifice my rep as a badass. I start taking days off, and not staying out as long. Going against the current of my nature means exerting willpower to do less rather than more. The first glimmer of spring comes to my aid with warmer air and water. Suddenly, 58° feels almost tropical. My guts simmer down, vitality perks up, brain clicks into gear and I am in flow, relieved and elated in equal measure to find myself writing this essay.

As wind is the enemy of my body, so limits bedevil my spirit. I am an all or nothing person in a body pleading for moderation. I’ve pushed myself to the breaking point again and again, and every time my body pushes back harder. To balk at limits is to deny reality, and I can’t ignore my leaky vessel forever. I just had to pluck my brain from the abyss. Next winter, I vow, will be different.

And what could be more badass than freeing myself from a lifetime of compulsive, attention-seeking, body-trashing bravado?

Even if the only one I amaze is me.