Jellyfish–not sharks–are normally the scourge of the open water swimmer. This weekend, though, Doug McConnell and several other swimmers will face a different challenge: the commercial waters around Manhattan Island.
“In New York, there will be dirty water to deal with, but the bigger worry for me is that there will be stuff floating in the water. Wherever you have commercial boat traffic, you have stuff falling off commercial boats. If you are swimming along, your speedo isn’t going to give you much protection from a broken up palette floating in the water.”
McConnell, 56, of Barrington, Illinois, is trying to complete the “triple crown” of open water swimming with the 28.5 mile trip around Manhattan Island on Saturday, June 28th, as part of a fundraising effort for the Les Turner ALS Foundation. Previously, he swam the English Channel in 2011 and made the Catalina Channel swim in 2012.
A lifelong swimmer who competed collegiately at the University of Illinois, McConnell made the decision to join his love of swimming with fund raising efforts directed toward the fight against ALS, commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”, after his father’s death from the disease in 2006. That journey is chronicled at his website, “A Long Swim.”
What goes into these open water swims? A lot more than you might realize, for a journey that can take over 12 hours in the water.
There are rules, regulations, and a crew to monitor the swim.
“The crew is critically important,” says McConnell, who relies on family and friends who are part of his swims. In addition to navigation across large open waters like the English Channel, to make sure the swimmer does not get lost or off course, the crew is responsible for monitoring the health of the swimmer and providing nutrition.
McConnell estimates a calorie burn of 1,000- 1,200 calories an hour while in an open water swim. That can’t be fully replaced as the swim goes on, but he relies on a high carbohydrate blend drink that is delivered by the crew, who also monitors his feeding cycle.
“The rules are pretty consistent. During the swim, the swimmer can’t touch the boat or anybody on it or its a disqualification,” says McConnell. “You stop and tread water, some people roll on their back and drink otter style. Depending on how wavy it is, they get it to you with a stick, or tied to a lanyard.”
Oh, and if you were wondering about other bodily functions over the course of a day long swim, you do as the fishes do when it comes to urination. Monitoring urinary output, though, is important over the course of a swim to show that the swimmer is still functioning.
The crew, in addition to providing musical distraction, is also responsible for counting strokes during time intervals over the course of the swim, to compare as evidence, to monitor for signs of hypothermia. “If you look at the reason most people will pull out of one of these swims, it is hypothermia,” says McConnell.
Oh, and those jellyfish.
McConnell avoided them for the most part on his English Channel swim because the waters were so choppy, but he got stung badly during a swim in Tampa (and learned to load up on over-the-counter antihistamines before a swim) and also encountered them near Catalina. “It looked like jellyfish soup,” McConnell stated, “and you could see them coming up at you. I would get stung about every 8 or 10 strokes.” He says that they ranged in size from a half dollar to a hockey puck, and that while the individual stings weren’t as bad as a bee sting, “they kind of wear you down.”
This weekend will be a different type of swim, though, as unlike others where you rarely see land, this will take the swimmers past skyscrapers, parks, and other landmarks. The swimmers will even go past Yankees Stadium while a game is in progress.
“July 4th will be the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man’ speech that he delivered at the original Yankees stadium. In the ALS world, this is a big year. To be swimming by Yankees stadium is pretty magical for me.”
Gehrig, of course, passed away almost two years after that speech, at age 37.
McConnell describes his father as an athletic guy, who worked as a veterinarian with dairy cattle, and had to use his physical strength. It was difficult watching that strength get taken away by the disease that gradually robs the body of the ability to use key muscles. He got a bit more time with his father after the disease onset, who lived for 12 more years after being diagnosed.
McConnell describes his motivation to do the open water swimming for charity as a “way to make it feel a little bit less selfish, and add another facet or element to the whole thing. Frankly, it has added far more than I have ever bargained for.”
On the day that he completed the English Channel swim in 2011, Northwestern University announced it had discovered the common cause of the disease, something McConnell describes as “karmic.”
McConnell sees parallels in the juxtaposition of the disease that he is fighting, and the long distance swimming. While those diagnosed with ALS lose their ability to use muscle, the swim requires the maximum use of all muscles and saps the body of its strength over the course of a grueling day.
He often wonders what his dad would think of his swimming now. His dad once told him, after attending a long distance swimming event, that it was the most boring thing he had ever seen.
“I often think about what we have done and the difference we have made,” says McConnell, “on the one hand, he would tease me and make fun of it.”
“On the other hand, he would be pretty proud.”