Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Northern Exposure: A Deep Sea Diver's Story

Admittedly, this story has nothing to do with scuba diving -- despite its somewhat misleading title. However, it does involve swimming in the ocean and was just too darn interesting to pass up.

As looming icebergs blotted out the low sun, Lewis Gordon Pugh thrust his tiny craft into the Arctic pack ice 60 miles north of Norway. Spray kicked up by his paddles froze instantly against his wet suit, but the piercing chill didn't faze Pugh: Polar landscapes had been his proving ground before. In only a Speedo and a silicone cap, he had swum an entire kilometer among the great icebergs of the Antarctic and repeated the distance at the top of the world too.


Working with experts at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, Pugh began a punishing training regimen. Camping in the Namibian desert and sprinting up sand hills in blazing heat was the easy part. The real challenge was back in South Africa when he was attached to a harness and told to swim in place for 20 minutes in a portable pool borrowed from a fish factory. Every day more ice was added to make it another degree colder.

"It's easy for humans to adapt to heat, but cold is quite different," explains Tim Noakes, MD, director of the institute. "If you're tough enough, you can make yourself get used to it. And this is what Lewis does-it's amazingly unusual." Noakes was astonished to find that Pugh's core body temperature actually warms up by nearly two degrees as he concentrates before a swim. This defense mechanism, fueled by Pugh's adrenaline, had never before been observed in a human. On the spot, Noakes coined a term for it: anticipatory thermogenesis.

But that was only half the story of Pugh's unusual ability to withstand cold. "There's nothing superior about his physiology," says exercise physiologist Jonathan Dugas, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who helped with Pugh's cold-water training. "The big difference is that he adapts and copes better—and has an iron will. Once he's in the water, he can suppress any urge to get out." Or to breathe in: The man whom friends call "the Polar Bear" has also trained himself to exhale sharply on hitting the water, then to check his next inhalation so he doesn't hyperventilate. "Most people hitting cold water will die of drowning before they die of cold," Noakes explains.

Read the entire article...

How cool... err... how cold is that!?

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