Looking back at the Iceman: Are limitations really just perceptions?

According to Anders Hofman, he is just an ordinary guy who, like many of us, often puts boundaries on himself, making up limitations and excuses for what is achievable.

This is our fourth time checking in with Anders. The last time was in November last year (you can read that story by clicking here). Since then, Anders has done something truly extraordinary. In February, before the world shut down, he completed an Ironman in Antarctica, or what he refers to as "The Iceman". An extreme experience that can hardly be compared to a normal Ironman.

"Compared to a normal Ironman, the preparations were totally different. It was an expedition. We traveled from Denmark 20 days prior to the day when I ended up starting the race. We went to Argentina and took a boat with ten people towards Antarctica. It took 5 days to cross the 500mi Drake Passage, which is the shortest way to get to Antarctica. I was throwing up for 3 days on that boat."

"The first hurdle was just to get to Antarctica. Second, the day we left for Antarctica it was the warmest day ever recorded down there. We had to change location due to the glaciers melting and the danger of hidden cracks in the glacier being exposed, which would be fatal if I was to get caught in one of these. Third, we didn’t have the required authorization to complete the Iceman in a new location".

Talking to Anders you get that feeling that "nothing is going to stop this guy". After spending 5 days trying to plan the race in a new location and hoping to get the proper authorization, he finally gets it and has less than 48 hours to start.

"On February 22, I woke up at 4 am. No one in the team had gotten more than 4 hours of sleep that night. I ate something, got in my wetsuit, and jumped in the inflatable boat which was supposed to take me and six other crew members out to the start line. It took us about 20 minutes and it was still dark so we had to use headlamps". 

"It was a crazy thought at that moment. This is it. It is totally dark I have to swim in ice-cold water for the next hour. It's not the moment most people dream about. The most I had ever done in cold water was 1.8 miles (3000m) in a small pool that we had cut up in a frozen lake at home. Not exactly the same conditions. I was secure that I was going to do it, but I also had some doubt as I was sitting that inflatable boat".

When you make an Ironman for the first time, it is often a learning experience. But when you make an Ironman in Antarctica the problems that arise are that much more significant. 

"One of those learnings I made real fast was that I was only wearing a wetsuit and a jacket on the boat ride. This meant that my toes were completely frozen when I had to get in the water. I was sitting for 20 minutes looking at all the distance I had to cover swimming back. That was already a mental test."

"When we made it to the start line, I wanted to get in as fast as possible. It was cold when I got in, but it was only my face that was uncovered. The wetsuit was 5.5mm and it kept the water out for the first 20 minutes. As I swam from A to B without turning, I always had Antarctica and this huge glacier on my left side. On my right side, I had icebergs and the waves coming in from the Southern Ocean. After 750 yards (700m) I get this feeling of nausea that I just couldn’t kick".

"Normally when you swim, you can swallow a bit of water. In Antarctica, the ocean water is very salty and I think that made me feel sick. My goal from that point was to not swallow any water and try to keep as much water out of my mouth as possible. After 1 mile (1600m) I get to try another obstacle that I never had to deal with: My swimming mask started fogging, but because the water was 30.9°F (-0.6°C) the fog started to freeze on the inside of the goggles, basically forcing me to swim blind. All I could see was the general shapes of my surroundings. Although there was a yellow kayak next to me that I could focus on, I suddenly find myself turning 180 degrees swimming in the opposite direction because I got so disoriented. I have two thick caps on and because of the wetsuit covering my ears, I cannot hear the whistle from the crew members. I was in a sort of limbo.

"My mind was telling me to stop the whole time. All I focused on was every 500 yards, hitting that next small goal. Telling myself: Every stroke is a stroke that brings me closer to never having to do it again. I had to accept the cold and how it moved from my face to my hands and feet and down to my back. I swam in a sort of trance at this point".

"Towards the end, I can see the Chilean base which is made of a couple of red buildings. I could see it on the horizon and fought for the finish the last 200 yards. I was pretty dazed when I got out of the water. My feet and hands were frozen and I couldn’t feel anything. My breathing was under pressure as I got out, but looking up at the mountains of ice in front of me I felt like the worst was behind me. The swim leg was the unknown, a question of whether that was even possible or not. As I walk out, I feel that I sort of already completed the Iceman. But as it turned out that was far from the case."

"I had to expect that nothing was going to be according to the plan and be confident that I would be able to deal with the situations that would arise and come up with a solution on the go. Not to be overwhelmed by the situation. Just one step at a time. Take a deep breath and continue".

Another thing to consider that I am sure most of our readers are not thinking about training for their next race... wildlife.

"I was happy that we didn’t meet any wildlife up close on the swim. Particularly leopard seals would have been a dangerous encounter around those parts. We did see 6 leopard seals on separate ice blocks about 100-150 yards from where I was swimming. We saw them when we went out towards the starting point for the swim but didn’t see anything of them during the swim itself. When we get home and look at the drone footage from the day, we see that a leopard seal had come up behind one of the boats and continued out towards the open ocean. No one saw it as it was happening, and today I am pretty happy about that because we had agreed that if we saw any threats from leopard seals, we would have to blow off the attempt - meaning it might never have happened".

"I did this to show that nothing is impossible if you want to achieve it but was often forced to question whether humans were supposed to be on Antarctica altogether. An Ironman is not meant to be done in those conditions, that is for sure!"

"When I was in the water, I had no energy left to prepare myself mentally for the cycling or the run. I was only concerned with ‘right now’. When I came back onshore and realized that I had completed the swim, I slowly had to think about the next part – 112 miles cycling. I was standing on a glacier with frozen arms and legs. A stark contrast to the lineup of bikes and cycling gear that meets most people when they do a normal Ironman. Normally you can change to cycling in no time. I had to take off gloves, shoes, the entire suit. I had to dry myself completely to avoid hypothermia. The problem when you are that cold is that your body cannot feel if your skin is wet or dry. Getting all the cycling clothes on took a long time. The transition ended up taking 50 minutes in total. I wasn’t trying to break any records. All that mattered was that I could finish".

"For me, the Iceman was just as much the whole process leading up to the race as the actual race itself. I had never been to Antarctica before, I had never been living on a boat, I had never met any of the team members that helped me during those days, and no one had any triathlon experience in those conditions. This forced us all to focus on the solutions rather than the problems".

"I am so happy that it was a success. After the race, I was completely drained from energy, both mentally and physically. I was ready to go home. It took another 16 days before I was able to set foot in my apartment back home. It was two years of hard work, money, and time being put into one project, and then suddenly it’s over. In the following months, it was surrealistic to think that I actually succeeded. Getting back to Denmark was a relief. We got back two days after the country was shut down due to COVID-19. We literally came home to a different world than the one we left more than a month prior".

For a person like Anders, this is just the beginning. He already has more plans to show that limitations are perceptions of what we can achieve, and why we must challenge those perceptions.

"I feel like that has become my purpose now. I want to start over and do something different. My next project will not be extreme in the same (cold) way, but there are many more ways to show that limitations are perceptions. I like to test the limits. I will never do something completely dangerous, although the Iceman probably was borderline that. My next project will be completely different.

You can follow Anders here and sign up for his upcoming Iceman Documentary:



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