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TAMS, PAMS & RAMS – Oh My! (MW Marathon Lap 6)

Part of being a student is having assignments to complete – even when you’re in a relatively “unstructured” program like the Masters of Wine. For Stage 1 this homework is “optional”, but as I mentioned in a previous post – the MW course fees cover these assignments.  Plus, students receive written feedback from MWs which, ideally, will help with preparation for the S1 Assessment. So, even though they aren’t mandatory, if you’re serious about the program – why wouldn’t you complete at least some of these?

Stage 2 students are required to complete at least 3 TAMS, 1 PAMS and 1 RAMS assignment in order to sit for the MW exam at the end of the academic year.  Since I’m aiming to sit in June 2023, that means I have a fair share of homework to finish in the upcoming months.

Having recently completed my first TAMS and PAMS for Stage 2, I thought I’d give a brief breakdown of these three assignment types and my experience (good & bad!) with each so far:

TAMS (Theory Assignment Marking Scheme)

What these are: actual theory questions from past MW exams. The TAMS questions are released after the beginning of the academic year and students can choose which one(s) they submit answers to on three deadlines. For Stage 1, questions come from Papers 1-4 only (since Paper 5 questions will not be on the S1A).  For Stage 2, the TAMS questions come from all 5 papers.

How many I’ve done: 2 during Stage 1 and 1 so far in Stage 2. Topics have ranged from vineyard labor shortage to bulk shipping to why the fuck aren’t consumers buying more fortified wine (ok, that last one isn’t exactly verbatim . . . but that’s the heart of the question IMO).

Experience/Feedback received: Several weeks after submitting their TAMS, students receive feedback along with one of the following hypothetical grades: Very high pass / High pass / MW pass / Just below threshold / Below threshold. While it’s easy to focus on that hypothetical grade, based on my personal experience and what I’ve seen from other students, I wouldn’t read TOO much into this being a definitive indicator of your likelihood of passing Stage 1. Some students who received high passes didn’t do so well on the S1 exam. Others who didn’t do great on the TAMS assignment ended up kicking total ass on the exam. Bottom line is to pay attention to the feedback and focus on your weak spots

My Gen X Gals will recognize this! Collecting stickers was probably a lot more fun than collecting MW examples . . .

Honestly, my TAMS feedback hasn’t been anything I don’t already know: sound structure, easy to read and succinct – but need more global examples. So, this is where I’m focusing a lot of my Stage 2 energy – collecting examples. Kinda like I did with stickers back in elementary school. It remains to be seen if trading will occur or if, like stickers, some individuals will refuse to let go of that sparkly, scratch n’ sniff unicorn. 😉

Per TAMS instructions, students are to aim to complete their essays “under exam conditions” and write answers within 60-75 minutes. Between you and me, I have not done this. In fact, every single student that I’ve spoken with has not completed their TAMS under true exam conditions (which IMO would include being unaware of the actual question asked until the clock starts ticking). Some students do hours of research and then try and write their essay under timed conditions. Others ignore the clock entirely and take their time both researching and writing. Perhaps some more experienced Stage 2 students are banging these essays out under true exam conditions, but I have yet to meet these individuals.

I haven’t completed my TAMS under exam conditions because right now I want to know if my “best efforts” would be passing answers on an MW exam. After researching and reviewing a topic, can I put together a coherent essay – including practical knowledge and examples – to achieve a Pass? I want to receive feedback on TAMS that I’ve taken my time with and feel at least somewhat confident about. And I fully acknowledge that I could not produce an essay of this caliber under true exam conditions . . . yet.

PAMS (Practical Assignment Marking Scheme)

What these are: essentially dry note exercises to help with preparation for the Practical (Tasting) part of the exam. A few weeks prior to the deadline, students are told what the wines are as well as the specific questions to address (i.e. identify the origin, discuss winemaking techniques, comment on style & commercial positioning, etc.)

How many I’ve done: 3 during Stage 1 and 1 so far in Stage 2.

Experience/Feedback received: While students receive feedback on their PAMS submissions, unlike TAMS, we don’t get an assigned grade. So, it’s usually unclear whether our answers would have been “passing” on an actual exam. After we receive our feedback, there is an online “recap session” with a couple of MWs who go over the questions and dissect a student’s answer (anonymously thankfully!) – and give suggestions as to what would make it a better answer.  During one of these sessions last year, a student asked why we didn’t receive an assigned grade on our PAMS. One of the MWs hosting replied that it’s probably because many (read: most) submissions would not be passing answers on an MW exam. So, to avoid completely gutting us, they only give feedback. Yikes.

This is where the thick skin comes in (see this video with Amber where I mention this is a necessity for being an MW student!) Last year upon receiving each round of PAMS feedback, I felt discouraged. I am someone who tends to overly focus on negative comments. So at the time, that was all that jumped out at me. But having a clearer head now, when I go back and review my S1 feedback, the majority of comments were constructive and things I needed to learn! Using evidence from the glass to make my arguments. Being more succinct in my answers. Using style to help justify origin.

PAMS are tough until you get comfortable writing dry notes. It’s confusing because you know what the wines are, yet you’re being asked “What’s the variety and origin?”  Dry notes also require moving away from the SAT that many of us learned in WSET and all that medium-minus and medium-plus terminology. Getting into the mindset of “how would I justify this was Syrah on an exam? What evidence would I use?” is challenging and it took several months of practice for this to click for me last year.  It requires consistent practice – and learning from feedback.

RAMS (Research Paper Assignment Marking Scheme)

What these are: a brief (1200 word) research paper proposal. RAMS are for Stage 2 students only.

How many I’ve done: ZERO to date

Experience/Feedback received: well, none because I haven’t submitted any!  But I’ll give you my thoughts anyways:

During Stage 1, I tuned out a lot of what was said about the research paper. Not because I was sticking my head in the sand about it, but because I was all about focusing on the next step in front of me (the S1 Assessment) – not the one that was several miles ahead of me. Students need to pass both sections of the MW exam before they write their research paper. But obviously this does not mean that’s when you first start thinking about it! For me, the timing needed to be a balance . . . and thinking about the research paper when I was stressing over the S1A was too early.

My plan is to complete my first RAMS after the S2 seminar in February. I’m still all over the place as far as potential research paper topics. I’d love to do something on my beloved Washington state. But am also very interested in wine education/certifications (how much do these help with future careers/advancement?) Or the role of social media/influencers in the wine industry (is it as impactful as we think?)

I’ll keep you posted! And I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think would make an interesting research paper!

Renewed for Season 2! (MW Marathon Lap 5)

I’ve been renewed for Season 2!

A few weeks ago, I received the news from the IMW that I passed my S1A and was progressing to Stage 2!  But to be completely honest, I had to read the email twice because I was expecting the delivery to be more in MY language with a lot of emojis and exclamation points about what fantastic news this was!!! The Brits are (obviously) a bit more subdued than I am.

While we students don’t get a ton of information as to how well we did (or did not do) on the S1A, thankfully we do each receive some feedback on our exam performance. What I did fairly well: essay structure, tasting ability and logical arguments. What I need to work on: sweet wines (identification and production methods), vintages and global examples. This was helpful feedback and wasn’t overly surprising – I’m well aware of my weak spots and also know that I can write a decent, logical essay (thank you law school!)

One key bit of advice I have for new MW students is to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses.  We each have our own individual strengths, so embrace yours and use them to your advantage wherever you can. Case in point: my attention to detail seems to serve me well on exams since one of the Examiners’ most frequent comments about students is that they “don’t read the question!” And while you may not want to EMBRACE your weaknesses, at least be aware of what they are.  Don’t bullshit yourself and pretend they don’t exist.  Because they DO exist . . . and they’ll probably show up on your exam.

This “Season 2 news” also made me think about the future of this blog.  What started out as a goal to document my “MW Marathon” – honestly and transparently – unfortunately fell by the wayside fairly quickly this year.  And by the time I felt up to writing again, I needed to turn my focus towards preparing for the S1A instead of journalling my experience with the program.

But I do want to share my thoughts with future MW students and, selfishly, I’d love to have a log of my journey so when I’m a much older vintage I can look back, read these entries and think “what an adventure that was!” So – I’m going to continue, but with a couple of adjustments.  First, I’m a perfectionist (shocker) and am trying to let some of those tendencies go. Especially when they aren’t necessary – like in a blog post.  Future posts might not have all their t’s dotted and i’s crossed, but they will all be authentically ME.  And second – I have somehow felt the need to write lengthy posts covering LOTS of details. But let’s be honest: I don’t have time to do that on a regular basis and you all probably don’t have the inclination to read long and rambling musings. MW students are encouraged to keep our exam essays under 1,000 words – and there’s no reason why my posts can’t be too. 😉

And if you’re more of a watcher than a reader, please check out Elevage Wine Coaching’s YouTube channel where we’ve posted some of my IG Lives on the MW program!

So . . . now what?!  Well, my plan for the next couple of weeks is to actually help OTHER students over their hurdles (lots of Diploma students with exams coming up). But I’m easing myself back into MW studies, my study group has started up again and reconnecting with my fellow students & friends has re-energized me. 🙂 And knowing me, I’ll need to get a plan in place next month (November) so that I have some direction these next few months before the S2 seminar in February. Not exactly sure what that’ll look like – but I’ll share it with you when I figure it out!

Emerging from the Obstacle Course (MW Marathon Lap 4)

Last week, I officially registered to sit the MW Stage 1 exam on July 25th.  Per MW guidelines, students must take this exam at the end of each year that they are registered in S1 unless they have “special consideration” approved. For a brief moment – I considered this. 

I am nowhere near where I’d planned to be in my exam preparation process.  Losing my Dad in January sent me off my carefully constructed path. Since then, I feel like I’ve been stuck on an obstacle course – and unfortunately it hasn’t been the fun, colorful type of course where everyone is laughing and covered with paint.

There have been a couple of times these past few months when I’ve felt like my “normal self” – motivated, focused and in study-mode.  During those times, I’d buckle down for a few days and start to get into a groove.  But then I would encounter the obstacle course yet again, and realize that my brain wasn’t ready for intensely focused study. And with my exam on the horizon, panic was setting in.

Thankfully, since attending my WSET Diploma graduation in London last month, I have felt a slow and steady rhythm building – and there are several people responsible for this. 🙂 I spent some unforgettable evenings (and bottles of wine!) with my Diploma study group – most of whom I’d met only virtually.  Throughout much of 2020 and a chunk of 2021, our group met weekly on Zoom to review an area of the wine world – and to share our struggles and support one another.  Although we were spread out all over the world, the D3 exam and the global pandemic brought us together.  Through births, deaths, new jobs, moves and divorces – our group was there for each other.  To finally see them in person and hug and laugh and raise glasses together was something I will treasure forever.

Members of my WSET Diploma Family!

Some fellow Diploma graduates . . . and hopefully future MWs!

While in London I also clicked with several new friends. These individuals know a lot about wine, but they’re also able to just enjoy and not overanalyze every glass – something all too rare in wine geeks (myself included!) A few are considering the MW program and I will do everything I can to help them succeed!

And I finally met one of my fabulous mentors – Jim Gore. His positive impact on students is something I aspire to have 1/100th of.  After briefly mentioning to him my struggles with the MW program so far, he’s already reached out and connected me with a small group of other MW hopefuls. Thank you Jim!

On graduation day, I introduced myself to several fellow graduates and was met with responses of “oh, you’re Outwines!” This brought a HUGE smile to my face! 🙂 Having worked so hard on social media to create edutaining content for a community of wine geeks, celebrating with them in person gave me such a sense of comradery.  We all managed to accomplish this huge goal – and during some incredibly fucking difficult years!

When I walked up, Paul Symington said to me “Sounds like you have a lot of friends!” And you know what . . . I think I do!! 🙂

There were times during my Diploma studies when I questioned why the hell I was doing the program and whether all the time and energy I was expending would be worth it.  My graduation celebration proved to me that indeed it was.  But not simply for the piece of paper, the friends I met on my Diploma journey are just as important to me as the certification itself.  So, to each and every one of you who I crossed paths with: from the bottom of my heart, Thank You for inspiring me, putting some wind back in my wine study sails – and helping me emerge from the obstacle course.

Most students will go through obstacle courses over their MW journey.  Some might be fun or adventurous: starting a new job, moving to a different city, having a baby, getting married.  And others will be more of a struggle: dealing with unemployment, suffering an illness, losing a family member or loved one.  So, after briefly pondering whether I should apply for “special consideration” for the S1A – I decided to go forward and sit the exam.  I have wind in my sails and I am confident that over the next 8 weeks I can get myself in a decent spot for success.  Plus – I have that pile of outlines I diligently researched whilst preparing for the entrance exam!

However, I’ve also reached a point of acceptance that I may not pass the S1A and move onto stage 2 this year.  Admittedly, this would be a bit deflating.  But I’m trying to change my mindset about this possible outcome and view it as an opportunity instead. Repeating S1 would give me another year to prepare for the HUGE leap to S2 and having (almost!) completed one year of the MW program, I have a better idea of how to more efficiently spend my study time. There are a number of repeat students in my S1 class – and whenever I’ve spent time with them, it’s clear to me how far ahead they are in their studies. I also know several applicants for the new S1 class, and I would love to be surrounded by these awesome individuals. And finally, repeating stage 1 would give me another chance to better document the first year of the program.  What I’d intended to be a detailed and transparent blog series to help future MW students, turned into an incredibly personal and emotional outpouring of the feels. 

So for now, I’ll leave you with this poignant pic I saw on Liz and Mollie’s Instagram account. Success and strength come not only from climbing mountains, but also from getting ourselves out of trenches – and out of obstacle courses.

Focusing on What’s Important (MW Marathon Lap 3)

This was a tough lap.  But I learned a lesson that I’ll undoubtedly keep coming back to during my MW Marathon.

Since the turn of the last calendar page, I’ve been gearing up for the Stage 1 seminar.  As newbies, this will be our first official foray into the MW program with several days filled with mock exams, tastings and panel discussions.  Other S1 seminars around the world have been postponed due to Covid, but the North America seminar (in my beloved Washington state!) is going forward. It also sounds like our S1 assessment exam (originally scheduled for early June) will be delayed as well.

We’ve also been given our first assignments! (yes, that’s an exclamation point because I am genuinely excited about them!) These aren’t mandatory per se, but based on what I hear through the grapevine these assignments can be taken into account in determining whether a S1 student is ready to move onto Stage 2.  The assignments are excellent exam practice and we’ll receive feedback from MWs . . . better to find out early on where you’re going wrong, right?  Plus, the assignments are part of the S1 program fees – so we’ve already paid for them.  Barring an emergency, why the hell wouldn’t I take the time to do them?!

I was mid-way through completing an assignment when I received a text that my Dad was going into hospice care. (I tried to come up with a smoother segue for this, but there really isn’t any). He’d had a recent bout with pneumonia and had been in the hospital for a few days.  At 90, we all knew that bouncing back would be a struggle, but many in my family were optimistic.  Including me.

Reality set in with that text.

After going on a walk with Hubs to calm down so I could make some clear headed decisions, I came back home and booked my flight to Washington state leaving the next day. I needed to pack for several days of cold weather, notify family and friends of my flight arrangements, and cancel appointments for the week. But instead of frantically tackling these things, I sat down at my desk and finished that assignment.  Obviously, my brain was not in the best space, but I wanted to complete it.  And I knew my Dad would encourage me to finish it . . . he’s been like that ever since I can remember.

Growing up, he constantly told me I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to.  And I know it frustrated the crap out of him when I didn’t give something my best effort (like the D+ in 7th grade science.)  I’ve never been a Sheldon Cooper, but I’m intelligent enough and fiercely determined. Which, much to my metallurgical engineer Dad’s dismay, was never in the science realm.  So even with everything else going on that day – I finished my MW assignment because I wanted to give it my best effort.

Last September, I visited my Dad shortly after being accepted in the MW program.  I explained to him what the next several years would entail for me, but he wasn’t fully able to process the magnitude of this program.  However, as a lifelong amateur astronomer, he DID understand that more people have gone into space than have become MWs!

This time, I brought along my MW study materials and trusty laptop because I knew I’d have a lot of downtime.  But I never touched them. Although I did have a lot of downtime, what I didn’t have was focus.  I wasn’t able to concentrate on anything other than what was going on with my Dad.  So, I sat with him.  Talked to him.  Held his hand. Gathered around him with family telling stories and sharing memories.

After being up in my hometown for nearly a week, I mentioned my “lack of focus” in an email to my business partner and amazing friend, Amber.  Her response to me was:

Noelle, you are focusing. You are focusing where your head and heart are and that is with your dad and family. Don’t beat yourself up over a distraction. We live in a world of distraction, every day of our lives. It’s okay to set that aside now. You are exactly where you should be and all your brainpower is exactly where you need it to be.

After reading her reply, I knew she was right (as usual!).  So instead of plowing through the rest of my emails that morning, I opted to head upstairs to see my Dad.

His room was quiet and peaceful and the morning sunlight had just started to peek in through the windows.  My wonderful stepmom was with the night nurse standing by his bedside.  I joined them and with our hands all resting on him, we chatted about how he was doing.  We noticed his breathing getting quite slow and then – it just stopped. 

Had I taken the time to read through my emails, I probably wouldn’t have been there for his last moments.

While my Dad wasn’t able to communicate very well during his final days, he knew I was there with him.  I have no regrets that I spent hours sitting with this wonderful man as opposed to cracking open my studies.  There will always be time to study, but I will never get time back with my Dad.  I’m so thankful that I focused on what was important for those days.

The MW program is a priority for me and will be for the next several years.  But it won’t always be my main focus.  Maybe this attitude will be my downfall, but maybe it will help me succeed.  In any case, I will give the program my best effort.  For my Dad – and for myself. 

Me & Dad ❤

The First 100 Days (MW Marathon Lap 2)

I’m just getting started on my MW studies and have found that (so far!) the most complicated part of being an MW student is explaining to others how the program works!  There aren’t required classes to attend or mandatory assignments to complete.  No assigned textbooks, set schedule, or instructors.  It is truly a self-study feat that will take around 3 to 7 (or more!) years and cost thousands.  So, I completely understand why I get some weird looks and lots of questions from friends and relatives outside the wine world – and from a handful of those inside the wine world as well. 😉

Thankfully, the IMW provides several opportunities throughout the year for more structured learning.  There is a weeklong seminar for first year MW students (we’re referred to as “S1” for “stage 1” – which reminds me of being labeled a “1L” in law school).  S1 students can chose from one of three seminars throughout the world: Austria, Australia – and my beloved Washington state!  What are the chances?!  The seminar takes place in February, so I’ll go into details about that week in an upcoming post. 

S1 students also have optional coursework assignments to submit for feedback (which I’ll obviously do, and which obviously doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this).  And there are “course days” to help students work on their theory and tasting techniques and, again, are optional to attend.  Course days take place all over the world – for me in the US, it looks like Napa and New York would be the closest locations. However, none have been scheduled . . . yet.

After finding out I was accepted into the program in September, I celebrated by spending a few heavenly, study-free days at a spa in Arizona.  And on the day after I returned home (which was exactly 100 days before the end of the year) – I hit the books.  So, I put together a “First 100 Days” schedule.

The phrase “First 100 Days” usually applies to a politician’s first 100 days in office.  It started in 1933 after Franklin D. Roosevelt made sweeping changes during his first few months as President of the United States – including getting the ball rolling on abolishing Prohibition.  Since then, U.S. presidents are often measured by how ambitious and successful they are in their first 100 days in office.

Obviously, I’m not a U.S. President. Nonetheless, I thought having a “First 100 Days” plan for my MW pursuit would be a great way to start off the program.  So, I created what I intended to be an ambitious, but realistic plan, to accomplish the following:

            Review of Viticulture and Winemaking.  It’s been a while since my Viti/Vini unit of the WSET Diploma so I need a thorough review of these areas.  And these are two of the four possible subjects that might show up on my S1 exam in June. I picked up ‘Vines and Vinification’ by Sally Easton, MW with the aim of reading it and putting it all into an (you guessed it!) outline that I’ll use as a base for future studies.  (BTW – I cannot recommend this book highly enough!  It’s super organized, detailed, and easy to follow).

Hands down the best book on viti & vini that I’ve found!

            Revisit Classic Wines (Blind and Open Label).  I drafted a list of around 50 wines with the goal of sitting down with 3 or so a week and sketching out tasting notes and answers to mock MW questions.  I also intended to research the wines’ tech sheets and use these to make links from viti and vini to what’s in the glass.

            Weekly Essay Practice. Part of the S1 exam (called “S1A” for “stage 1 assessment”) is based on past MW questions.  These are all published on the IMW website.  I tackled several in preparation for the entrance exam and wanted to keep up the momentum by researching and writing one per week.

So that WAS my “First 100 Days” plan . . . and you know what they say about the best laid plans. 😉  Needless to say, I’ve pivoted from this for a couple of good reasons:

Reason #1 is the launch of Élevage Wine Coaching with my good friend Amber LeBeau! Amber and I were in the same study group – meeting virtually every week with about 10 other WSET Diploma students from around the world.  We started in Summer 2020 and, in addition to studying D3, we became an incredible support network for one another. 

After completing the Diploma, Amber & I realized how fortunate we were to have had each other and our study group for support and encouragement.  So, we created Élevage Wine Coaching with the aim of providing students study support and helping them maintain their enjoyment of wine throughout their studies.  We’re just getting our venture off the ground – and I cannot wait to see where it goes!

My new business to help wine students succeed: Elevage Wine Coaching!

Reason #2 is that I realized I needed to ease into the MW program more . . . easily.  By trying to do all of these things right out of the gate in my “First 100 Days” – I wasn’t doing any of them particularly well.  I’m on my first steps of a very long program, pacing myself is key.

My “New and Improved First 100 Days” plan is a thorough focus on Viti and Vini review.  After I’ve completed the book, I’ll get on with blind tasting practice and essay writing in January.  I’m thankful for all that “extra” prep work I did for the entrance exam earlier this year – turns out my 40 or so outlines for past MW questions were definitely not a waste of time!

I fully acknowledge that in a few months I’m going to have to juggle many areas of study for the S1A. But that’s not right now.  The MW program is going to test my ability to focus on the “right now” instead of “what’s ahead.”  I worked a lot on practicing mindfulness at the spa in Arizona.  And it was pretty fucking easy at that time because . . . I was at a SPA IN ARIZONA!!  Keeping mindful in the real world is a bit more of a challenge.

But I’m up for challenges.

Relaxing Pre-MW Study Days, Being Mindful & Doing Nothing

“Welcome to the Program!” (MW Marathon Lap 1)

I got the news last week that I was admitted into the MW program! So (whew!) all that effort I put into my application and the entrance exam was worth it. 🙂

Since receiving this email, my feelings have been a blend of excited with a sense of accomplishment and a dash of nervousness. There’s a well-known saying amongst first year law students: “Look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year.”  And while this wasn’t an accurate statement about my law school experience, I suspect it might be about my MW experience.  More people have gone into space than have successfully passed the MW exam.  Although that exam is a couple years away, that’s still a rather daunting statistic for us Stage 1 MW students. 

When I started law school, I knew the bar exam was looming after graduation and that I would need to pass it in order to become an actual lawyer. Likewise, I know that there’s a Stage 1 Assessment exam (probably in June 2022), then the Stage 2 MW exam, and finally a 10,000-word research paper to complete in order for me to become an actual Master of Wine.

However, I’m not going to worry about all that right now.  I’m going to approach the MW program like I’m training for a race: I’ll keep the end goal in sight – but I’m going to focus my attention on the next step in front of me. 

Truth be told, I have never particularly enjoyed running.  However, there were a few years in my life when I was a runner.  It was good for blowing off steam and stress and many a flashcard was reviewed while putting one foot painfully in front of the other.  But I didn’t start off running a marathon – I started with a program called Couch to 5k.

The Couch to 5K program (or C25K) basically takes a non-runner from sitting on their ass to running a 5k (3.1 miles) in 9ish weeks.  The program starts off VERY slowly – something like 20 minutes total with alternating running one minute and walking for 90 seconds.  But by easing into it – you’re better able to avoid shin splints, burnout and aching knees.  And by breaking down the larger goal of 5K into smaller, manageable sized steps it made the whole process a lot less painful – mentally and physically.

So I’ll take the MW program one step at a time.  Sometimes I’ll be running fast, pain free and (hopefully) with that elusive runner’s high. But other times I’ll be walking . . . or even limping along.  And there will be times when I stop moving altogether so I can catch my breath.

But for right now, I’m going to treat these next couple of weeks as doing some really enjoyable stretching before my first laps.  I want to enjoy this moment – because I know I’ve got a long run ahead of me.

Me after finishing my first 5K – The Polar Bear Plunge in Seattle, WA