May 17, 2014 

Things are really starting to come into focus now.  The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) is six weeks from today, and lots of moving parts are gradually beginning to rationalize.

I got an email yesterday from the good folks at NYC Swim, which is the organizing group for MIMS.  It was a newsy little note that told us about the logistics of the swim and other key information.  Scattered bits include:

  • On June 28th we will be starting our loop around Manhattan at 8:20 EDT in the morning.  Compared with many open water swims, this is a highly civilized time.  I am aiming for a nine-hour swim, which will put us back at the finish at South Cove of Battery Park after 5:00 p.m.
  • We also received an update of the solo swimmers for that day.  Twenty-two other souls have committed to this swim, 17 of whom are men and 6 are women.  Of the 23 swimmers, there are 9 states and 9 countries represented.  It starts to make you realize that MIMS is a Big Deal when you realize that folks are coming from Australia, the UK, Italy, Spain and Finland.
  • I am geared up for some vaccinations to ward off any nasties that I might encounter in the rivers around Manhattan.  It was recommended that I be inoculated for hepatitis, typhoid, yellow fever(!), tetanus, diphtheria, and polio, and that I also take an antibiotic called rifaximin to anticipate a certain unpleasant gastrointestinal bug.
  • In addition to dirty water, there will be stuff floating in the water that we will have to dodge; nautical buffs call it flotsam and jetsam.  The reality is that, wherever there are commercial boats, there is stuff falling off commercial boats.  Before that stuff gets swept out to sea, it floats in the rivers and awaits unsuspecting swimmers wearing the traditional outfit of a Speedo, cap and goggles.  That outfit may comply with the rules of these marathon swims, but it doesn’t provide much defense when it comes to boards with nails in them.  I am comforted by the fact that I will be in good hands – between Susan and Meg on the escort boat and my training partner, Don Macdonald, in the kayak – lots of concerned eyes will be watching for junk in the water.

One thing that I had been concerned about was cold water, but it seems to be getting better.  By late June, the rivers around New York are normally around 70 degrees.  This was a crazy winter, though, and all of New York State was hammered with the same deep-snow-and-deep-freeze that we had in Chicago.  Susan grew up in a small town in waaaayyyy Northern New York, and it seemed like we were seeing photos of shoulder-high snow on the ground as recently as a month ago.  The Hudson River is the ultimate destination for all of that snow and ice, and it is the Hudson River that we will be swimming in come June.  My fear was that the rivers wouldn’t warm like they should, and I was starting to brace myself for water temperatures in the high 50s.  As it turns out, the NOAA publishes real time statistics on all of this stuff, and the water at Battery Park was 55 today.  That is up from 50 degrees about ten days ago, so while it will still be colder than in years past, it is really trending in the right direction.

The only way to acclimate to cold water is to spend a lot of time in cold water, and it can be unpleasant.  To prepare for the cold, I have been very eager to start swimming in our summer venue, Lake Zurich.  For what seemed like weeks, Lake Zurich was stuck on 49 – 52 degrees, and warmed to 57 all of a sudden a few days ago.  Don Macdonald and I wanted to get as much time perfecting the swim/kayak coordination as we could, so he has been the paddling escort for these swims.  When the temperature hit 57, in we went, and have been training there ever since.  It is so nice to be outdoors after a long winter of training at the YMCA, feeling like a hamster on a wheel.  Swimming outdoors is like making the switch from black-and-white to color; the sun is up, the sky is blue, the air is clear, and it just makes you feel alive.

I have written about cold water before, but it still requires some real fortitude to hop in when you know the temperature is below 60, because your body reacts to cold water in some scary ways.  First, the shock of the cold “takes your breath away,” by temporarily paralyzing your diaphragm.  It is the same feeling of panic you’ve felt when you’ve had the wind knocked out of you.  The cold water bites at your skin for a while, especially with this weird pins-and-needles feeling you get in your face.  If you can force yourself to push through it, it gradually comes under control.  I have discovered that after 200 strokes, your breathing is mostly back to normal, and the biting cold gives way to a weird sensation of heat all over your skin.  By the end of your swim, you will be amazed to find yourself standing around in water that cold, just visiting with your training partners.

The next day, you do it all over again.  This time, though, you know what is coming.  You hop in and you gasp as you try to draw breath.  There is no panic, though, because you know that you’ll be breathing normally again in 200 strokes.  You feel the pins-and-needles again, and it is almost like it is your friend.  You put your head down and swim with the knowledge that the wave of heat is coming and that the rest will take care of itself.  Acclimating to cold water is a perfect example of what happens when your body becomes the teacher, and your brain becomes the student.  Our bodies can tolerate so much that our minds don’t trust that they can.

Overall, I have been very lucky with my training.  Swimmers are accustomed to training early in the mornings, so I am able to get 90 – 120 minutes in the water and still have a full day in my office.  During most of the winter, I have been able to swim 5,000 – 8,000 yards per day and 30,000 – 35,000 yards per week, which is 18 – 20 miles, and have tolerated it pretty well.  One thing I worry about is overuse injuries, particularly to my shoulders, and particularly at my, ahem, age.  If my stroke gets out of whack, I am liable to hurt a shoulder.  If I hurt a shoulder, the only way for it to get better is to stop training.  Stopping training is not a good option, because that will set you farther back.

So, injury avoidance is a key concern, and I have been very fortunate.  One week, it felt like I was getting a bit of a pinch inside my left shoulder joint, but it wasn’t bad enough to stop altogether.  I dialed down the yardage that week to a little under 20,000, and my shoulder was fine.  Presto.  For the last few days now swimming in the lake, I realize that the stroke adjustments that I make to accommodate for the new environment causes some soreness, but I am sure that it will pass as well.

To borrow an analogy from today’s Preakness Stakes, we are heading into the final turn before the Manhattan swim.  Along with that, people are really responding to our donation requests and the money is flowing in.  In one bucket, we have the folks who have donated online through this website, and we’re at about $2,500 there.  In addition, a number of people have sent checks right to the Les Turner ALS Foundation; including the very generous gift of $10,000 from Medtronic, that total is about $15,000.  Between the two, I am hopeful that we hit $20,000 this week, and am thrilled with the momentum we have going into the home stretch.  I am writing thank-you notes to donors every evening, and I hope that process never ends.

Unlike today’s winner of the Preakness, we won’t receive a blanket of Black Eyed Susans, but the generosity of people is so much more – and so much more important – than that.  The pace of the ALS research that is being funded by these donations is accelerating all the time, and there are some really promising opportunities for a cure that are on the horizon.

Six weeks to go.  Twenty-eight miles around Manhattan.  Lots of work to do between now and then.

See you at the beach.  I will report back.