Blogs tagged with "hypothermia"

When Hurricane Irma hit Florida this year, my tiny view of the open water swimming world was drastically expanded. I wasn't directly impacted by the wind and water, but the chain of events following in the wake of that storm seemed to have an otherworldly hand at work, leading me right to the place I belong. 

It started with Irma's devastation in the Florida Keys forcing cancellation of the 8-mile Swim for Alligator Lighthouse in Islamorada, FL, an event in which I was registered. I set off on a desperate internet search for a way to capitalize on the months of training I did for that event. There were only a few drive-able options in September and October, but I was severely limited by commitments on several of those weekends. However, there WAS a perfect fit: a 10.5-mile swim in New York's Finger Lakes on the same weekend as the cancelled event. The hitch: event entry was already capped (at 15 swimmers).

I wasn't giving up so easily, so I wrote an email to the event coordinator, Bridgette Hobart Janeczko, in hopes she might accept my case. I offered to bring my own support kayak and kayaker (my husband, Jim), and she graciously accepted. I will never be able to thank her enough. This event would eventually be somewhat of a revelation to me - on many levels.

Friday morning, Jim and I packed up the car - kayak on top - and drove 4.5 hours to Watkins Glen, NY. We had no idea what to expect but it all started on Friday night with a course preview in Seneca Lake. With several of the other swimmers, we were given a tour by boat of the course and points of interest such as mile "markers" in the landscape. Bridgette explained areas of concern and gave navigation tips. I'm not gonna lie - while on that boat, I was beginning to feel like I was in way over my head. Listening to conversations, I realized I was surrounded by swimmers who specialized in distances much longer than 10.5 miles. I think I spent the entire boat trip cowering in a corner of the deck. But it was no fault of theirs. It was all me and my disaster-magnet insecurities. After the boat tour, Bridgette generously served a catered dinner to the swimmers and kayakers who came out that evening. We were also able to leave our kayak there overnight. I went to bed that night worrying about surviving the water temperature and being the last one to finish. I even considered not starting. I did NOT belong here.

Here are some photos of the Friday night tour:

Surprisingly enough, I was able to get some sleep that night, and the next morning, we did arrive at the staging site. I've rarely seen such great organization. Yes, the swim was small.. but every kayaker was given a radio and a whistle for safety. All kayaks had numbered flags on suction-cup bases. The biggest question everyone had was: "What was the water temperature?" A few of us (less hearty) swimmers still needed to decide whether to wear wetsuits. After last week in Lake Erie at 70 degrees, I was all but certain I could handle the cold, but a couple other swimmers put the temperature question back in my head. Seriously, I had not even brought a full wetsuit - all I had was a sleeveless neoprene vest. After the Ocean City wetsuit debacle, I decided on swimsuit only. The convincing argument was air temperatures forecast in the high 80s.

Some pre-race photos:

The kayak line-up:

Swimmers listening to instructions and being paired up with their kayakers:

Our little set-up:

Waiting on the dock and our boat shuttle to the start:

The swim start was in deep water. It was a beautiful cloudless morning and we were boated out to a jetty to meet up with our kayakers who launched about 15 minutes earlier. It all happened so fast once we arrived. Most of the swimmers jumped off the boat with gusto. I went the wimpy route and climbed down a ladder to slip quietly into the water off the back of the boat. (At least three of us chose this option, I think mostly fearing a "goggles" disaster.) 

Several people said the water was "perfect," but I thought it was ever-so-slightly cold. It wasn't necessarily worrisome-cold, but in the waaaay back of my mind, there was concern. However, swimming out to the kayaks relaxed me enough to put fear to rest and within seconds, Bridgette counted down to the start and we were off - headed due West to the shoreline. Once out of impending boat traffic, we made an L-turn and swam north along the shoreline of Seneca Lake. I swam relaxed and easy and the first two miles flew by. My 20-minute feedings went quick, and I felt very little cold. I glanced at my watch only during feedings to see my pace was around 1:30 per 100 yd (26.4 minutes per mile) - just where I wanted it. The water was calm and clear and, seriously, we couldn't have asked for better water and weather conditions.

It was all near-perfect... until I hit a warm patch of water near the salt factory (mile 2) on the shoreline. The warm patch was very deceiving. Once I felt it, going back into the cold water was disconcerting - it had a profound effect on my comfort level. I tried not to think about it. It was the same temperature as before - it just FELT colder. My fingers started getting numb and by the end of mile 3, I started to shiver. Yep, my core temperature was dropping. Anxiety was taking over.

I was only three miles in, but memories of two bouts with dangerous hypothermia sent me into panic mode and that old bugaboo - negative self-talk - sent me into a downward spiral. Some thoughts that went through my head: "Oh no, I'm not going to finish," "Holy crap, I'll be the only one that dropped out, and I'll have to face all the other finishers as a complete failure," "What am I doing wrong?," "Why am I colder sooner than last week in Lake Erie?" I was doing that THING. I wasn't fighting the urge to give up. I was giving myself permission to quit.

I HAD to fight this narrative. I decided not to tell Jim what was going through my mind. Telling him would give it a voice. I had to just keep swimming. Hypothermia was NOT inevitable! It COULD, and WOULD, get better. If other swimmers can do this, I can too! I fell back on things I knew: pick up the pace to generate some heat; take feeds as quickly as possible to keep moving; take deeper breaths to stay calm and ward off the shivers; think of warm fuzzy feelings (like my cuddling up to my cat).

And then my mind quieted enough to remember something - there was hot water in the kayak! Before the race, Bridgette had made available several airpots of hot water to those wanting them. Jim had carried one in the kayak just in case, and at the next feed, asked him for it to warm up my hands.

(Afterwards, Jim told me what a complete disaster it was for him to manipulate that big pot and not demolish or mix up his whole system in the kayak. But I was so thankful that he was able to work it out.) Once he had it out, Jim expressed concern - worried the water was too hot and it was a really bad idea to pour boiling water on my hands. I told him to DO IT!! I had no feeling in my fingers anyway. He obliged. It actually worked (and seriously, I wanted to take a shower in that boiling water). Some feeling in my hands returned, but I still had to fight, and I kept fighting.

And, while I battled my hypothermia demons, time kept ticking away... before I knew it, we were in sight of the 5.25 turn-around. And the sun was warming things up. And by the time we turned, I had almost regained all feeling in my hands. I was thrilled enough to wave to the people waiting for us at the turn-around buoy.

And a new thought creeped into my head... I began to believe I could, and would, finish.

That's all it took. The 5.25-mile swim back was mostly marked by the ability to watch things go by on the shoreline (since I breathe mostly to the right) and increasing fatigue. A couple major landmarks (the salt factory and the jetty) seemed to remain frustratingly far away no matter how long or far I swam (we all joked about that after the swim). Even when I eventually reached them everything went by in slow motion. Unfortunately, my Garmin watch lost GPS reception at 6.82 miles, so I no longer had any idea how fast or far I was swimming except when Jim clued me in. I focused on keeping my stroke long and relaxed and swam hard enought to catch the swimmer in front of us without blowing myself out. I kept the lead until the last few hundred yards when he and his kayaker cut the L-corner to the finish and beat me by about 30 seconds. I was surprised but I didn't care - it was over! I finished. Without a disaster.

Jim took video snippets from the kayak - shows how amazing the day was: 

I climbed onto a pontoon boat that took the latest group of finishers to the main boat where we could warm up and get dry while waiting for others. There, I found out I finished fourth (and first female). I'm STILL a bit shocked. We were eventually boated back to the staging area where we had time to hang out and socialize with swimmers and kayakers (most of the kayakers were from Nazareth College Swim Team - this event is actually a fund-raiser for them). AND Bridgette generously fed everyone again - it was one of the best post-race meals I've ever had.

It was at this post-race gathering that I had the opportunity to meet the remarkable people I swam with in Seneca Lake that day. They all have smiles a mile wide. They have swim stories that will blow your mind and make your hair stand on end. Collectively, they have done the events and big swims I've only ever read (and dreamed) about. And there was amazing camaraderie among these swimmers. 

There was Craig, the swim electronics geek - he and I accidentally swam three events together this year. (I may be his jinx because he came in second overall in most of them.) There was Mary and Eric (it appears they often come as a pair as she's his coach) - they have done more mileage in a year than I will do in a lifetime. Their collective stories involve a total of three collarbone breaks. I got the feeling that to know them is to "get" the true marathon swimming mentality. They were both only about a month after the 20-bridges 28-mile swim around Manhattan. Mary swims these (colder-water) things in a two-piece suit to avoid extra stress on her shoulders. Yep, that's bad-ass in my book. Eric pointed out a muscle spasm in his calf that would have reduced me to a screaming lump, and when I asked "does it hurt?" His reply was "it's not comfortable." (Pain doesn't even phase these people.) Then there's Steve. He just swims. And swims. And swims. In 2017, he completed one of my bucket-list events, the Hudson River 8-Bridges Swim - seven days of swimming more than 15 miles daily. He said he lost 17 pounds that week. There was Jia and Lyn who had stories (and gah!, pictures) of sea lice rashes from swimming in the Florida keys. There was Kim, who struggles with cold water, who, in the boat afterwards was in a state of shivering that bordered on full body shudders. All she said was "don't worry, this is normal for me." I hope she wasn't offended that I kept trying to put my arms around her to warm her up. There was Jane who did the eight mile Boston Light Swim in 65-degree water (warm for that event) and said that Seneca Lake was "almost too warm." And finally, there was Bridgette, who set up this race - an accomplished marathon swimmer herself - who ran a tight ship to make sure everyone had a support kayaker, was safe, had what they needed, and finished. She's the reason everyone who started reached the finish line. (Another thing I love about the marathon swimming world: time cutoffs for events are usually disregarded to let everyone finish. It happened in Key West. It happened in Seneca Lake.)

Seriously, I think the more we learned, the more Jim began to fear what I might ask him to support in the future.

I'm looking forward to 2018.

Here's a photo of me after the finish with my custom-designed shark suit (I had the design printed by Q Swimwear - very comfortable and well-made):

Review of 10.5-mile open-water swim event in Seneca Lake on September 23. I had to fight some demons in this one, but I learned a lot about myself. The event is incredibly well-run, and I had the fortune to meet some very inspirational swimmers.

It would be a lie to say I'm not disappointed with my race at Ironman Coeur d'Alene. My goal was to finish under 11 hours and hopefully qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Missing a goal in an Ironman race is particularly problematic because it is next-to-impossible to get a second chance until the next year unless you have the cash to enter several races in the same year. Ironman races sell out quickly and at $525 per race, my earnings make that scenario impossible.
But an additional, and perhaps more important, goal of every race is to learn something new, something that will make me a better runner or triathlete in the future. The reason I go back to triathloning time and again is because there is no such thing as the perfect race. If there were, I would have no reason to continue doing it. I must address what I did right, what I did wrong, how I might adjust my expectations, and how I can improve race strategy and prerace planning for future success. And, before I start my review, let me note that most of what went wrong was directly related to the ONE thing I had NOT planned for: the COLD.
Ironman CDA was not a complete disaster. I am not going to complain about how terrible I swam, biked, or ran. My mistakes were based on assumptions, and we are all familiar with the cliche: "Hindsight is 20-20." Had my assumptions been different, I would have executed my race differently. But my assumptions were based on a lack of information, and most of that information could have been gathered well before race day. The most important information was how the weather would affect me. We knew the morning would see temperatures in the low 50s and the afternoon would see the mid to upper 60s followed by rain and a temperature drop in the evening. I was lucky to have with me my husband Jim and my good friend Julie who somehow has managed to get away from her very busy life and support me whenever I've done an Ironman. Team J, as I call them, helped me immensely in deciding which clothes to pack for race morning.
I'll start at the start: the swim. The water was around 65 degrees F and comfortable with a wetsuit. I opted to wear my one-piece 2XU tri suit throughout the race. I expected to complete the 2.4-mile swim in 1 hour or less. My actual swim time was 1:05. Based on the conditions in Coeur d'Alene Lake that morning, five minutes is nothing to fret about - I was relieved to get out of the water in that time. The swim course was two loops and on race morning, the wind made the lake very choppy. We swam out against the current. The waves were a bit disconcerting and I swallowed water quite a few times. But worse than that was the thing I had forgotten in the six years since I did an Ironman: the mass swim start. 2500 people all in the water converging on a single point is no laughing matter. Bad swimmers get clobbered. Good swimmers get clobbered. I got clobbered. I got kicked and whacked in the face, pushed under, and grabbed (how is it that people's hands always end up wrapped around my ankle?). I have always been amazed that everyone makes it out of this mass chaos alive. By the back stretch of the first loop I was out of danger and swimming in my own space. My first loop was 31 minutes, the second was slower, due in part to what seemed like rougher surf by that time (confirmed by other racers the next day).
My Live-and-Learn swim lessons from this race would have to be the following:
  1. If your race is in a large body of water (such as a lake in which current or waves will be an issue), always practice swimming in open water, simulating race conditions the best you can. I did not have much opportunity to do this because my race was in June and I live in Cleveland - our Great Lake, Erie, has been too cold to swim in (or I was too much of a wimp).
  2. If you are a strong swimmer (and by "strong," I don't mean "fast"), start in the pack and muscle your way through the swim.
  3. If you are a fast swimmer, either start in the very front and sprint like hell to STAY in front, or make your way to the periphery, and angle in to the first turn.
  4. If you are expecting a time of 1:30 or slower, let the mass chaos begin without you, then jump in the water and enjoy your swim.
The bike leg was also two loops, nice and flat in spots, rolling in spots, and relatively hilly and technical in spots, but nothing to get too worried about. We drove the course two days before the race so I could see what to expect, and I read information online about how to approach it. Since the bike leg has always been my weakest, I planned to hold back for the first loop, go a little harder on the second loop, and save most of my energy for the run. That's exactly what I did. I let several of the women in my age group power by me early on the bike and thought to myself that I would see them either later on the bike or on the run. Before I saw the course, I expected to be able to finish the 112-mile bike ride in 5:40-5:50. I trained very hard on my trainer over the winter and did several long rides both indoors and out, three of which were over 100 miles. On hills. I finished the bike leg in 6:11, not even close to my goal. But the second half of each loop was into a stiff wind, and the hills seemed worse than they looked from the car so I took it easy. In retrospect, I think I took it too easy. When I got off the bike, I was feeling a little too good.
Based on the weather report, I expected the bike leg to begin in the upper 50s and end in the 60s. To handle the temperature range, in my transition bag, I packed both long and short sleeve jerseys, both wool and cotton socks, and gloves. And before the race, I bought a pair of arm warmers to throw in for good measure. All conditions covered. In T1, I went with the short sleeves and gloves which was perfect. I took off the gloves about 2 hours into the ride and had no trouble with cold. (It got quite sunny and warm at times). My nutrition and water consumption went exactly as planned. No nausea. No dehydration. No disorientation
Live-and-Learn bike lessons (without discussing the run yet):
  1. Learn more about the course beforehand -- perhaps ask someone who's done it before.
  2. Be willing to push it a little harder when you know you've done the training.
  3. Add a second mid-to-long, slightly harder bike ride to my weekly training schedule (most people do this already, but I wasn't able to train outside much this winter/spring because of extended cold/wet weather -- and I got sick of the trainer).
  4. Do more long bricks, with runs of at least 1.5 hours after a long ride (again, because of the weather, I had more difficulty with my brick training this year compared to the last time I trained for Ironman)
Which brings me to the run. As with the other two legs, the IM CDA run course was two loops. It starts with a short, flat out-and-back in the park that serves as the race site, passes the start, heads out of town via residential roads that are mostly flat, runs on a paved lakeside trail with long gentle hills (also part of the bike course), turns around midway up a steep hill, then goes back the same way. It's extremely spectator-friendly. Family and friends can cheer for their athletes three times without ever leaving their spot. With seven "blocks" to go, finishers are split off the main route and directed to the finish line. Not that I remember much about it. I do remember seeing the finish chute the day before the race. Thank goodness I took a picture of it.
I came off the bike leg as expected, feeling a bit stiff. Running in my bike shoes is always difficult, and although I was slow, I don't remember feeling the characteristic "wobble" from my Ironmans past. I grabbed my transition bag and headed into the T2 change tent. In my bag, I had dry shorts and a singlet, Gu, Gu Chomps, Hammer Endurolytes, vaseline for my feet, dry socks, and my trusty Adidas racing shoes. I put on the socks and shoes, stashed the food in the back pocket of my tri suit and took off. I never considered putting warmer clothes in my transition bag. I checked the weather that morning. Why would I need something warmer? It's a run. It's better to dress down. I'm going to sweat no matter what I wear. My singlet and shorts wouldn't be warmer than my tri suit -- I only packed them in case it rained and I needed something dry. But that's beside the point -- it was at least 50 degrees out there. I've run races in shorts and a singlet in 35 degrees! Running races. Not Ironman.
Here's where advance planning, knowledge about myself, and training in all conditions might have come in handy. I stress the word "might" because I can't say that I could have simulated in training the race conditions at IM CDA. Had I known that it would start raining and the temperatures would drop rather early in the evening, I might have put something warmer to wear in my run transition bag or my "special needs bag." (Note: Ironman events give you special needs bags that you may retrieve halfway through the bike and the run -- it's kind of like having insurance.) But, at 13.1 miles, I'm not even sure I would have considered putting on something warmer. I wasn't feeling cold.
Back to the run discussion. I left T2 feeling relaxed and very fast. I heard Jim yell: "nice and easy! you have a long way to go!" I heeded the advice and settled into a comfortable shuffle stride. I was surprised to see a 7:10 in my first mile. (Note: this is why I think I went too easy on the bike.) I backed off, but based on how comfortable I felt, a 7:30-8:00 pace was reasonable. At the half, my pace had slowed a bit, but I still felt good and had already passed many women in my age group. The only thing that was bothering me was a slight disorientation. When I saw Jim, I told him I felt a bit out of sorts, but after the short out-and-back in the park and increased calorie intake, it seemed to have passed. On the way back out of town, it started to rain, a cold wind kicked up off the lake, and my disorientation came back. To combat it, I began walking the aid stations to consume more gel/water/gatorade. It had no effect. Two women in my age group passed me. I let them go. Walking the aid stations caused my calves to turn to cement, and by the second loop turnaround, my mile pace had slowed by over a minute, I was in a dead spiral toward a 9:30 pace, and there was a new problem. I started feeling what can only be described as electric shocks in my upper arms and shoulders -- it was the cold.
Some runners were now wrapping themselves in those silver plastic blankets being handed out at the aid stations. With about 7-8 miles left, I waved them off. I was almost finished. I didn't need to stop for something ELSE, and least of all, a blanket(!). I kept moving forward, mostly running, and then I saw it. The sign. It said "Finish Line" with an arrow pointing to the left (I think). The course marshall said: "second loop this way! finish line that way!" I hesitated. She said it again. Louder. While pointing in the two directions. I knew my way was toward the finish line but I don't remember much after that. I rounded a corner and heard a spectator yell: "SEVEN BLOCKS TO GO!" I looked in front of me. Where was the finish line? If it's seven blocks away, why can't I see it? Where were the lights? Where was the crowd? I kept running. I don't remember much else. I don't remember the cheers. I don't remember the announcer telling the crowd to give me extra support because I was struggling coming down the chute. I don't remember crossing the finish line. I do remember wondering why I was being told to stop. Jim said I asked him if I qualified -- then I became blank and unresponsive.
I had hypothermia. The ONE disaster I had NOT planned for. I spent 2.5 hours in the medical tent. I don't remember much of it. I do remember people looking down at me and asking me questions. I do remember trying to answer them and that my brain couldn't form words with my mouth. I do remember being told my body's core temperature had dropped to 90.3 degrees F. Is that even possible? I don't remember getting an IV. I don't remember bleeding all over the cot after a bad IV stick. I do remember wondering what Jim and Julie were doing. Julie told me they were freezing and that Jim stood out in the rain for 2.5 hours with no update on my condition (although she tried desperately to get information). One of the volunteers offered his cell phone for me to call Jim -- he said they would pick up my bike. When I was finally sitting up and drinking warm liquids, I noticed my hands were shaking. I had warmed up to the point of shivering. When my blood pressure returned to normal, another volunteer walked me out, called Jim on her phone, and waited for him to come get me. It was over. We headed back to the hotel. It was almost dark. There were still people finishing.
So, what can we possibly learn from this run? A few things:
  1. When the temperature is in the 50s and you are doing an endurance event that will deplete your energy stores, respect the cold.
  2. In Ironman, make use of your "special needs" bags to pack something dry and/or warm, even if you don't think it's necessary.
  3. Disorientation is not only a symptom of dehydration. Don't keep running, get a medical assessment. (Had I done that, race medics may have told me I was struggling from cold and made me take a blanket.)
Would I have done things differently had I known the temperature would drop into the 40s or 50s on the run? Probably not. But now I have that data point. For next time
My time? 11:13.
My place? 6th in my age group
Not really much of a disaster afterall. But not what I had planned for either. I am just thankful to have finished and to have the greatest support crew ever: Jim and Julie. Team J! After they showed me my finish line photo, I wonder why they keep coming back to these things. But I don't think I could do it without them.

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