Diana Nyad, queen of the open seas

(Photo/Catherine Opie)

As I write this, Diana Nyad should be starting her epic swim from Cuba to Key West.  Yes, you read that correctly – from Cuba to Key West.  One hundred and six miles.  With no stopping.  And no wetsuit. And no protective shark cage.

What a BAMF.

This is the second time Nyad has tried to complete this swim.  The first time, which happened in 1978 (which means she has been swimming these crazy-long distances since before I was born), she had to call it off after forty hours because the currents and the winds had become too strong.

(I once took a ferry from Key West to Fort Jefferson, and I can attest that, even under the smoothest of conditions, those seas are big.  I was unnerved by them, and I was on a boat.)

Nyad blogged a bit about her training, which involved overcoming a torn tendon in her shoulder and a swim schedule that had her spending an increasing amount of time in the water.  If you’ve ever trained for a half-marathon or a marathon, you know what I’m talking about.  Except where we distance runners do eleven or twelve miles, she was spending fourteen or fifteen hours in the water.

She has a support team that will stay with her in a boat and on kayaks.  Divers will keep sharks away from her, and the people on the boat will make sure she has adequate nutrition and will not run into any strong currents that could make things dangerous – at least, more so than it already is – for her.  Check out her food plan:

This is where diana will come in to feed, every 90 minutes. We feed her a liquid concoction of nutrients, electrolytes and calories. We would like her to drink about 20-26 ounces of this concoction at every stop. She feeds through a Camelbak, as she is not allowed to touch the boat, let alone rest or relax. Diana might also drip some Hammer gel which is both thicker and filled with more nutrients and protein. Every three or four stoppages, diana may have a spoonful of peanut butter, pasta, or bite of bread.

Every 45 minutes, after each 90 minute feeding, diana will have a Camelbak filled with water pullied out to her. She will barely stop her stroke to sip down 10-16 ounces of pure water..

They will also be watching her to make sure she doesn’t get fatigued, and will help her reapply anti-chafing lanolin as necessary.  Plus – and this is one of those things you don’t really think about until you hear it and then you are like, oh duh – they’ll be giving her shot blocks to help with the swelling of her tongue.  If you’ve ever spent a day in salt water, you know how your mouth and nose and eyes can ache a bit from all the salinity.  Imagine how it would feel to be submerged in that for sixty hours!

Nyad had retired from distance open-water swimming several years ago, but according to this NPR profile, an impending age milestone caused her to decide she wanted to go after the swim that had eluded her:

After retiring from distance swimming, Nyad spent the next three decades pursuing a career as a radio and TV journalist. During all that time, she stopped swimming. But then, two years ago, faced with her impending 60th birthday, she decided to begin training for one more big swim.

She was ready last year, but permission from Cuban and U.S. authorities came through late in the summer — and the weather didn’t cooperate. Now, within the next few weeks, she expects to complete her dream — and at the same time set the record for the world’s longest unassisted ocean swim.

I spent the past couple of weeks reading everything I could find about Nyad, and she’s a fascinating woman.  Here’s some of what I found:

  • She was expelled from college for jumping out of a fourth-floor dorm window while wearing a parachute.
  • She was sexually abused at some point in her life, the anger from which fueled her early swimming career.
  • She is openly gay.
  • She once swam around Manhattan in less than eight hours.
  • She celebrated turning 30 by swimming 102 miles from Bimini to Florida.

Can we talk a bit about these kind of ultra-endurance sports?  It’s very easy to hear about someone like Diana Nyad or Dean Karnazes or any number of ultra-endurance athletes and dismiss them as lunatics with too much time on their hands, and I don’t know, maybe that is the case, but I find them admirable.  They look at their bodies and their abilities, and they see challenges laid out before them and they say, why not?  Why not run fifty miles in the woods?  Why not run 100 miles across the desert?  Why not swim across the English Channel?

Obviously most of us can think of a million reasons why not – it is painful, it takes a lot of time, I might get eaten by a shark, I’m not interested in losing toenails – and that’s fine.  I doubt I have much of a career in ultra-endurance sports in my future (although one day I would like to run an ultra-marathon), but it doesn’t mean I can’t offer my deepest respect and awe to those who choose to go that route.

Ultra-endurance sports hold a special place of honor in my pantheon of athletics because I think that these sports, more than any other, go beyond pure physical ability and into the realm of the psychological.  As a result, you don’t see young men holding all the records and winning all of the competitions in these sports.  Sometimes you see women winning these big races, and sometimes it’s women who hold the records.  And sometimes those women are sixty-one years old.

Yes, you have to have strength and ability, but when you are facing down an event that has you covering that kind of distance, it’s no longer about your muscle mass or your ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibers or your body fat percentage.  It’s about your willingness to push on despite crushing pain and fatigue.  Most of us have this ability (don’t believe me?  watch a woman in labor, then get back to me) but we don’t use it unless we have to.  The ultra-endurance athletes not only freely choose to use it, but they nurture it and develop it until they become almost superhuman in a way.

In Nyad’s case, she’s not only pushing her limits, but she is doing so in a realm where we humans are not really equipped to go.  In fact, not only are we not water-based creatures, but many of us find the seas to be a source of abject terror, a place where we can face any number of horrible deaths.  That she’s preparing to face up to all of these challenges is awe-inspiring to me.

Diana Nyad, I hope that you make it to Key West, and that you are greeted with mojitos and conch fritters and the satisfaction that comes from achieving a long-held goal.  I hope you get that world record that you’ve wanted for so long.  I hope that when your feet hit the sands of Key West, that record is yours.

2 responses to “Diana Nyad, queen of the open seas

  1. Hey. I’m just de-lurking to say that I’m a feminist runner and writer trying make sense of a lot of the same things that you are, here. I wanted to say that I’ve been reading your blog for a couple months, and it makes me happy. I wish perspectives like yours were more ubiquitous, but mostly, I’m just happy you’re here.

    • Hi Andra! Thank you so much for your comment, and for your kind words! You pretty much nailed the entire reason why I decided to start blogging about running and fitness with a feminist, body-positive perspective. Hopefully with time it won’t be such an unusual perspective, you know? Thanks again for reading. 🙂

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