The fatigue really starts to set in once the DJ and masseuses have finished for the night and most everybody else has gone home. The countdown to dawn offers the toughest challenge for the 30 or so brave souls completing 24 dunks in the frigid Chesapeake Bay in 24 hours as part of the annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge.
The Super Plungers ride out the night in a heated tent trying to get a little sleep between treks to the frigid water. That's when -- Donny Boyd says -- the group can most appreciate Steve Garland and the spread he brings across the Bay Bridge from his Big Bats Café on the Eastern Shore.
"By midnight, your body's done, but you persevere," said Boyd, captain of the Super Plungers. "The biggest thing that helps is getting those wings and thinking about those egg sandwiches for breakfast."
More than 10,000 people are expected to participate in the 21st edition of the Polar Bear Plunge from Jan. 26-28 at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, Md. Organizers hope to raise at least $2.5 million for Special Olympics Maryland, boosted by a few new wrinkles, including a Pride of Maryland Plunge with athletes who participated in the Rio Olympics.
Garland has never charged into the bay himself, but he's become an integral part of one of the state's biggest fundraisers. He'll stay plenty busy again this time, preparing meals round the clock for the Super Plungers and their supporters.
"It's hard work, but there's no whining about it," Garland said. "We enjoy doing it. You can't appreciate what goes on until you're actually there and seeing it."
Garland worked in construction before fulfilling a long-time dream with the 1997 opening of the baseball-themed Big Bats Café in Stevensville, Md. But it was more than proximity that pushed him to get involved with the Polar Bear Plunge two years later. He'd formed a friendship with Jimmy Myrick Jr., a regular customer active in Special Olympics and a founding member of the Super Plungers.
Garland started out hosting an after-party at his restaurant with raffles and a silent auction to keep the fundraising going, and eventually began taking his food over the bridge to feed participants. His staff catered the entire event for a couple years before it simply grew too big.
"Steve's just a great ambassador for us," Special Olympics Maryland president Jim Schmutz said. "He comes and supports us, and he's always asking us how he can help. I think, for us, it's a great example of how this [event] brings out the best in Marylanders across the state."
In recent years, Garland has focused on the Super Plungers. Each member raises at least $10,000 for the chance to spend a full day dunking. Organizers help make them more comfortable with a tent warmed to a balmy 95 degrees, a hot tub, a variety of entertainment options and plenty to eat.
Garland donates enough food to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a late-night snack. He estimates it at 800 meals in all.
The wings are the highlight. Or at least former Raven Haloti Ngata thought so in 2008. The hulking defensive lineman was excited enough he took a turn helping to serve them.
"I think he just wanted to make sure he had plenty," Garland joked.
Garland doesn't really have time to join in the icy fun. There's always something to do. He's lucky to get a few hours of sleep that night with a wing delivery around 11 p.m. and a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call to get breakfast sandwiches ready.
"He's our hero," Boyd said.
For Garland, the cause feels personal now. He's attended Special Olympics competitions and seen the joy it brings to everyone involved. That feeling is even stronger since Myrick died last February at 33 after a four-year battle with leukemia.
Garland sponsored a group of local athletes going to the 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Ireland, and holds a golf tournament benefiting the organization every fall and looks forward to dispensing free crab soup and wings at the Polar Bear Plunge.
Garland feels like he's got the easy job -- all things considered.
"I know exactly how cold it is," Garland said. "I've been around enough times at 2 in the morning and things like that. I'm always impressed. Once you've done it once, and then you still come back the next year and do it, you're definitely a dedicated and big-hearted person."
Issue 229: January 2017