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Getting Steve Walker To Smile After The Drop

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Steve Walker did an ice mile in 2.7°C (37°F) 20 years ago in 1996.

With an attempt at the North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland coming up in August, Walker attempted a swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca between America and neighboring Canada.

But with the water dropping to 46°F (7.7°C), Walker only managed 10.8 miles instead of accomplishing the entire crossing of 13.8 miles.

Walker recalls the experience. “The water was nearly flat, just small texture and almost no wind – which is rare for up here. I didn’t know the water temperature until after I got out. It felt cold from the start and I knew it was cold, but I had been assuming it was 49°F (9.4°C). When I got in, I was not confident that I’d make it, but it wasn’t my mind that stopped me. The first three hours were just cold.

I did pretty ok in general. Although my hands and feet hurt, I was doing well. Feeds were well, averaging about 20 seconds. Sun was out. My stroke count was very high for me — averaging around 72 strokes per minute. I’m usually in the mid-50s. I think [my stroke count] was just so I could keep my core temperature up. I was pushing a lot of water and moving at a fast clip – at 23-minute miles.”

But after three hours, problems started. “My arms started hurting. They were not sore, but they just weren’t responding well. My brain was doing fine, and I was OK mentally, so I just pushed harder. A little while later, maybe around 30 minutes later, I realized that I couldn’t eat or drink. My stomach wasn’t upset and I wasn’t seasick; my stomach was just no longer working. It was likely it getting no blood/oxygen. Also at 3.5 hours, I took about 3 ounces of liquid – warm 50/50 Snapple – which ended up being my last real feed.”

At four hours, pain set in. “I felt pain in my lower back. Not muscle pain, but a deep pointed pain on either side. I realized that my kidneys were shutting down.

Then the pain in my arms came back. It had never really left, but I was just noticing it a lot more. It was mostly centered on my wrists. My hands had been fixed and not really movable for more than an hour, but I’d just ignored it. About the same time, my legs started seizing up, not cramping. It was coming from the top front of my thighs near my hips.

I tried to stretch out with some backstroke and took a feed at 4 hours 23 minutes when I spilled most of the drink. I did a little breaststroke. Then I took a few strokes of freestyle and realized that my muscles weren’t responding properly. It wasn’t a matter of just telling them to do something; my forearms were seizing and my upper and lower legs were seized. I couldn’t control them. I was all done.”

Even with his body at a standstill, his mind was still sharp. “I was cold to be sure; my core was probably at 91°F (32.7°C). I was shivering and my teeth were starting to chatter a little, but my mind was clear. I never didn’t know what was happening and was analyzing my how my body was reacting.

Once the swim was called off, he looked back on his effort. “I do wish I had finished, but I was actually quite happy with the swim. 4.5 hours at 46°F (7.7°C) is more than I would have expected I was capable of. I will be back to do this again, hopefully at 48-49°F (8.8-9.4°C).

When I got back on the boat, my core started warming up immediately. The boat was protected from the wind, so I tried something that has been working well last year — warming up slowly over a half hour. I’ve noticed that the drop seems to come when you warm up your skin. Your body feels it is safe, and it stops shunting blood away from the skin. The skin is still cold, though, and the blood from the skin causes the core temperature to drop.”

He drip dried on the boat about 3-4 minutes. Then he dried off with a towel for a few more minutes. “My skin was cold, maybe 50°F (10°C), but it was slowly warming up. I was still shivering at this point, but my teeth stopped chattering as soon as I was out of the water. I then put on a pair of light pants; next was shoes and socks, then a short sleeve shirt over a span of 15 minutes. I was still cold, but no longer shivering. I’m guessing my core temp was around 94°F (8.8-9.4°C) by this point. Then I put on a sweatshirt. My skin was slowly coming back up from what was probably around 50°F (10°C). By the time I got my jacket on after 25 minutes, my core temperature was getting closer to normal to 96°F (35.5°C).”

It took the escort boat an hour to reach Port Angeles. By that time, Walker’s hands and feet still felt cold, but he was warm. “I was still wearing a jacket, but it came off 20 minutes later. I felt a little cold for the next few hours, but the cold came on in full force that night. I didn’t sleep at all that night — between twitching and the head cold. The head cold lasted about 3 days.”

Back on the boat, observer Scott Lautman told him that the water in his upcoming North Channel attempt will be 8°F warmer.

That made me smile.”

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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