I’m writing this because Diana Nyad asked me on Twitter to comment on her blog, after I’d previously commented on Twitter regarding the unveiling of the Heat Drip device being considered for her Cuba to Florida swim. (To be clear, other than that, I have had no contact with Diana Nyad and don’t know her).
So you need to watch this video first to understand the context.
When Diana called for respectful comments on her blog, in fact significant vitriol was aimed at the actual distance swimmers commenting about this device, by people who could not in one single case state that they were themselves distance swimmers. And it was based on that lopsided bias of blindly following someone rather than having an open debate by actual swimmers, that I decided to keep my response here, not wishing to add further to the circus over there.
If you want a one-line synopsis, I think it’s nonsense.
I also think the only people qualified to understand the context of the debate are other marathon swimmers and those involved in our sport. This probably applies to all sport of course. If you wish to see this as elitist, so be it, however, let me say there is nothing standing in your way of becoming qualified yourself, as all it requires is time and commitment.
I am an average Channel swimmer, nowhere near Diana’s capabilities with no desire to swim for 40+ hours. But I swim in and write mostly about cold water and Channel swimming, as you are all aware. But I have put in the time and the commitment which I believe gives me the ability and the right to comment. I sometimes feel like I’ve paid my dues to get to stand on the stage wings and see the greats from the perspective of an insider rather than just the audience. I can hold up my head in their presence but I never delude myself I am one of them.
I believe strongly in the 137 year old principles of Channel swimming but I accept and also welcome the place of some improvements to opens up swimming to others and I have written previously in support of wetsuits to allow people to pursue dreams (though in retrospect I realise I was arguing a point that Scott Zornig hadn’t been making).
What I dislike (and the point that Scott Zornig and others have made, and that I agree with) is the blurring of boundaries by the media and some other folk to equate assisted swimming with “traditional” marathon or Channel swimming. I dislike the traditional term as it carries other disputed connotations such as conservative, bureaucratic or exclusive. As swimmers we have a responsibility to be clear & honest in what we do, as non-Channel and marathon swimmers strive to understand our world.
Announcing to the world that you are doing a stage swim rather than a Channel swim, only after you have gotten on the boat, is an example of this. I wrote last year that I lost interest in Diana Nyad’s swims as I believed this had happened. I may have been wrong, it may have been clear to others that Diana’s last swim was a stage swim, with which I have no problem, but if I was confused about what she was attempting, then likely so were others. This blog also is not intended to be purist but to reflect my interests and I am be interested in some stage swims such as Dan Martin’s (still hoping it’ll happen next year) Atlantic swim, because Dan is transparent about what he is planning. It is the confusion I dislike and mistrust, especially when people are disingenuous about their methods and goals.
Having set out my stall, I’ll address some of the points raised by Diana Nyad and her crew, but my primary contention is; hypothermia will NOT always occur when swimming in temps lower than body temps, contrary to statements by Diana supporters.
Hypothermia is offset by
- Swimming, which generates heat (thermogenesis)
- Fuel intake (food)
Hypothermia is delayed in cold water by acclimatisation training. Cold can be relative and acclimatisation training is the process of increasing cold exposure ability and duration by increasing brown fat in the body, lowering of stress hormones and heart rate and learning to stay efficient at lower temperatures. The acclimatisation training process is the swimming Lisa Cummins and Kevin Murphy and myself and all Sandycove and Channel swimmers put in in the depths of winter, by swimming in water temperatures of five to six degrees Celsius (38 to 40F) or whatever cold water temperatures are available. It is painful and dreary and numbing and yet utterly necessary.
We train so we can swim in cold water. Water that’s at most 18C in the English Channel (that’s unusually warm for the Channel). Water temperatures in the mid or high 20s C (80sF) are not “cold”. If they were then indoor pools would be dangerous and it beggars my believe that this assertion can be made. Open water swimmers often have problems with dehydration in water temperatures in the mid 20s as Ciarán and I did in Manhattan.
“But Diana will be swimming longer from Cuba to Florida” it’s say. Well King of the Channel Kevin Murphy spent 54 hours in the English Channel at an average of 16C. Lisa Cummins spent 35 hours in water under 17C. Lisa trains up to 12 hour sessions here in Ireland in temps of 11 to 15C.
It’s the training, it’s all in the training. Preparation, preparation, preparation.
If you are going to be cold at whatever your relative temperature is, then you train to offset hypothermia at that temperature. Of course there’s no denying ten degrees Celsius is cold and hypothermia will always result given enough time. At twenty degrees Celsius though Cold is certainly more of a relative connotation since to many of us it is very warm.
Traditional rules specify a textile costume, hat and goggles. Nothing that aids heat retention.
On the practical side of this device, the idea of applying heat externally is, as others have pointed out and I have written about previously, actually dangerous to cold individuals, due to peripheral vaso-dilation, which will actually make someone colder as heat applied externally (except in a precise and controlled manner), will cause colder blood to flow to the core. This kind of puts the question to Diana’s assertion that her crew are “very smart”. They may well be but they obviously know little about cold if they think this is smart.
But that is a diversion. I assert that the expected temperature is not cold. To say temperatures over 20 degrees Celsius for a marathon swimmer is relatively cold is contrary to the experiences of the global community of marathon swimmers. Thermogenesis from swimming with constant energy supplied from food and liquid, (hot if necessary) is sufficient for swimmers of similar duration in far far colder water for over a hundred years. Also, contrary to what’s stated on the blog, there is no such thing as momentary hypothermia. Therefore I question Diana’s “very smart” people assertion.
Apart from the issue of the practicality of the device is the more fundamental problem of actually using it. This device, contrary to Diana’s anecdote says about Channel swimmers in the 70s having buckets of cold water dumped over their head, is outside accepted practices in marathon swimming. No discussion should be required from experienced marathon swimmers to understand this. This should be understood as a core aspect of what we do. Let me ask this question; if Diana was even considering the use of this device, anathema to Channel swimmers the world over, what other changes to normal practice could be compromised during her swim?
Not one Channel or marathon swimming association in the world would recognise Diana’s device as acceptable in a Channel swim under English Channel rules (or any variations thereof such as Manhattan, Cook etc) and senior and highly respected swimmers from these organisations have already spoken on this issue.
I wish Diana Nyad the best, I think pursuing a dream in swimming regardless of what it is is laudable and I’d encourage everyone to so do.
But let me just say: Stephen Redmond.
It’s okay to make up one’s own rules for new swims, just so long the public isn’t misled into thinking that those rules equate to the generally accepted rules by Channel and marathon swimmers worldwide.
- Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – Moderate & Severe Hypothermia (loneswimmer.com)
- Diagnosing and addressing Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers (loneswimmer.com)
- Wetsuits at Dawn. (loneswimmer.com)