Curing Leukemia...One Stroke at a Time!

These are some of the "hurdles" Ray & Elaine will face:

Physical Exhaustion is certainly at the top of the list. Doing anything for more than 24 hours will take its toll on anyone. This event will be a physically demanding effort. While being in shape and physically prepared is half the battle, how does one mitigate complete exhaustion? Through energy management and mind control. It takes energy to swim, energy to stay warm, energy to digest food, and after a while, it feels you even need energy just to think! Elaine and Ray will burn approximately 600 to 800 calories per hour, a steep deficit that could leave them “bankrupt” of useable energy after just a few hours. In order to keep swimming, they need to consume that many calories on an hourly basis just to stay even. This is done via “feedings” that occur per the swimmer’s instructions. Typically, Ray and Elaine consume liquid-based, easily digested carbohydrates (maltodextrin) and other foods that are easy on their stomachs every 30 to 45 minutes. Eating and drinking in the water is not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish, especially in light of English Channel rules that stipulate the swimmers may not touch the boat, touch another person, or make supporting contact with anything during the course of the swim. When it’s time to eat, Elaine and Ray’s crew will signal to them to swim up closer to the boat. There, they tread water (which is harder than swimming) while consuming the all-important fuel. The feedings last approximately 30 seconds. After this brief stop, they toss back their water bottles and get back to the task at hand: swimming to the finishline! Sensory Deprivation is a relatively common practice for controlling prisoners when they get unruly and it’s something that every long-distance open water swimmer gets used to over time. While it is not considered “torture” in this instance, the effects are not pleasant and require experience and a strongly conditioned mental outlook. In sensory deprivation, all the senses are involved and can leave the swimmers feeling out of sorts, if not out of body.

·  Sight. Wearing goggles for more than 24 hours can lead to issues of skin irritation and salt water burns around the eyes. If they leak, salt water can cause the eyes to water or even swell shut. Even when things are going well, sight becomes something of a secondary sense in the water because the swimmers can only see rhythmically; looking down while swimming freestyle, they usually only see the endless depths of blue water below them and when they breathe they see the boat. This alternating view of boat, sky, and water will continue for 90,000 stokes. At night, the swimmers will lose all visual stimuli and may feel very much alone in the big, black sea. While the boat will be lit and there may be stars and a moon, the swimmers will have virtually nothing to look at for the whole night.

·  Hearing. To keep the cold water out, long-distance open water swimmers often wear earplugs, which block out almost all sound. Even if Ray and Elaine opt not to wear earplugs, the constant slosh of the water and chug of the support boat’s engine is all they’ll be able to hear. Imagine muffled and gurgling sounds for over an entire day and night. It can become maddening.

·  Touch. In the cold water over long distances, swimmers’ extremities usually go numb. Being submerged and wet for a whole day or more would cause most people to go into hypothermia, and Ray and Elaine are not immune to some of the common symptoms including hand and leg cramps. Their skin will also take a beating; over many hours, the salt in the water begins to act like sandpaper, rubbing raw spots where their bathing suit straps and waistbands meet flesh. Sunburn is a whole other problem, and while a thick slatering of zinc oxide helps, over 30 hours even that will likely wear off.

·  Smell. Some open water swimmers prefer to wear nose plugs to keep the water and any allergens in it out. Nose plugs will filter out most smells, but one smell is likely to bother the swimmers no matter what: Boat diesel. Fumes from the support boats’ engines will waft over the swimmers no matter where they are in relation to the boat, and over time, those noxious gases can cause the swimmers to feel sick. They may also experience seasickness from the motion of the water, and vomiting on ultra-long-distance swims like this is not uncommon. The problem with being sick, though, is that the swimmer is losing precious fluids and calories each time he or she vomits, which sets him or her up for dangerous depletion.  

·  Taste. While it might sound like a picnic on wheels with all these food stops, eating in the water is anything but fun. The swimmers usually can’t taste the food they are consuming, as the salt water causes their tongues to swell up, sometimes to more than twice their normal size. That swollen tongue makes eating very difficult. Their lips may also swell and crack, particularly if they’ve been sunburned. Some swimmers use mouthwash to mitigate the burning effects of the salt water. But even that can’t hold off the strange cravings and daydreams the swimmers may have for real food, which can become a major obsession and mental stumbling block. When they do finally get to sink their teeth into that coveted burger and fries, they probably won’t be able to taste much for up to a week after the swim is over.

The Mind Game is just par for the course. The enormity of such an event, combined with the physical challenges and the effects of electrolyte imbalances (potassium, sodium, etc.), can produce mood changes or distorted perceptions, including hallucinogenic experiences. The crew must be alert at all times to evaluate this. The crew will quickly size up the swimmer’s condition during their brief feed stops and assess whether the swimmer is alert and responding appropriately to basic questions. Elaine’s husband typically asks her questions like, “what year is it?” and “what’s our home address?” if he is in doubt about her condition. Elaine usually tries to tell her crew jokes while she’s eating or answer crossword puzzle questions during these brief interactions to prove that she’s feeling well and still has her wits about her. The crew will also look for odd behavior, such as not stopping for a food break or swimming away from the boat, which may be signs of hypothermia or a dangerous level of exhaustion. If one of the swimmers starts to exhibit signs of hypothermia or delirium, they will be pulled from the swim immediately and transferred to the nearest hospital for treatment.

Severe Weather can be the fatal blow! Imagine swimming for hours and hours only to have bad weather force you to quit! (Especially when you think back on all those beautiful days you spent training, training training…)  The swimmers are prepared for nasty weather at all times. Cold, rain, wind, waves, and currents are not a problem, but the one thing that will cancel the swim is lightening. The captains are responsible for overall safety and they will make the call when the going gets rough. Hopefully, the weather will be clear, warm, and calm, but with Mother Nature in the driver’s seat, anything is possible.

Sea Life is always a possibility. We’re hanging out in their living room after all! Limited visibility and an inability to shift course quickly means that the swimmers often bump into marine life while on a long swim like this. Elaine and Ray have encountered everything from jellyfish, to sea lions, and even sharks during previous swims. Knowing what might be down there but not being able to see it can weigh heavily on a swimmer’s mind. This picture of a jellyfish under a dock (below) was taken on the Seekonk River near Narragansett Bay in April, not far from where Ray and Elaine will be swimming. The jellyfish in this picture, thought to be a “misplaced” Pink Meenie (global warming is real, folks!), is estimated to be 2.5 feet across by 6 feet long. Jellyfish stings are fairly typical in these events, but this one could prove quite punishing!