My breath rose in clouds in front of my face as I rubbed my double-mittened hands together and looked up at the enormous digital clock above the city buildings: 10:45am. Fifteen minutes until the race start. Then…the time display was replaced by the temperature: 5 degrees.
It was December 31st in 2013, and I sat in the parking lot of the Back Cove Trail in Portland, Maine waiting to run a 5k race ending in a plunge into the Atlantic Ocean at East End Beach. At this moment, I fondly remembered the day I registered for this race. In July, I sat on the deck of my apartment in Bedford, Massachusetts sipping a smoothie in track shorts and sports bra trying to keep cool in the midsummer heat. While planning my fall and winter race schedule, I came across an interesting looking 5k in Portland. In that moment, sweaty, sticky, and red-faced from a grueling morning run, jumping into the ocean seemed like a fantastic idea.
As I rounded the final bend of the Polar Bear Dash, I saw my family and friends cheering me on at the finish line. But my eyes were set behind them on the true finish: the shoreline. 3.1 miles was barely enough to warm up, and there was still plenty of time to cool down before the actual plunge. But I am a long distance runner. I am stubborn. I have grit. “Mind over matter” I kept telling myself. It’s the only mantra I know to prepare myself for this race. “Mind over matter.”
When the racers had all crossed the finish line and we congregated on the beach for the Plunge, I forced myself to enter autopilot. Hat and mittens off. Shoes and socks. Pants. Sweatshirt. Running top. I stood in my sports bra and Nike pros with my toes in the cold sand while my supporters surrounded me in their down jackets and giant wool scarves, blankets, and towels at the ready.
Mind over matter. Mind over matter. Mind over matter. I charged towards the water with a wild determination and an iron resolve to get my whole self beneath the surface of the water. I remember screaming from the moment I resurfaced from the swells to the moment I catapulted into the blankets held out my family and friends back on the shore.
This was uncomfortable, challenging, and even a little terrifying. But it only lasted for a moment. When it was over, I was able to change into dry clothes. Hop into a heated car. Drive down the Eastern Promenade to Silly’s and treat myself to a giant mug (okay, decanter) of piping hot coffee and a stack of warm vegan French toast. I was able to go to my boyfriend’s apartment mere miles away and cozy down in a nest of blankets in a heated room until I was warm again.
The animals suffering from human-induced climate change and pollution do not have this luxury. Because of our actions, our choices, our planet is suffering. Animals and plants are the voiceless, and those are the living things I run (and swim) for. NRCM is working towards a more sustainable future, and this is a cause I want to be in the ring fighting for. We must protect, conserve, and restore our home. It’s the only place we have to live, and we are the only ones who can make the changes necessary to turn down the thermostat on this planet. Organizations like NRCM and the “crazies” who plunge alongside me at the Polar Bear Dip and Dash inspire me. They help me to believe that one day we can do more than protect the environment. We can actually create a world in which the environment does not need protecting because we can change the way we interact with our one precious planet.
So I keep plunging. Year after year. It’s invigorating. Humbling. It challenges mental toughness and the strength of my values. It’s my way of showing others what is important to me, and it reminds everyone of the global issue of our time we often neglect or choose not to see. I raise money for NRCM through the simple act of reaching out to the people I come into contact with every day, and they continue to support the cause because they know how important it is to me. They see it when I bike or run to work instead of drive, when I made the transition to a vegan diet from a vegetarian one, and when I strip down on the beach and jump into the ocean on New Year’s Eve.
A polar plunge is an incredible way to start a New Year. Nothing else makes you feel quite as alive, refreshed, and reawakened in all of your senses. But NRCM’s Polar Bear Dip and Dash is so much more than a “New Year, New Me!” hashtag. It’s an affirmation to give our planet back its voice.
– by Emily O’Donnell, NRCM Polar Bear Dip & Dash participant