The Pains of Marathon Swimming

“It is going to hurt. It is going to burn. It is going to be hard. If it isn’t hard, you aren’t trying hard enough.” — Mike Thornton, my friend Steve Walker’s 8th grade math teacher and LMYA swim coach.

Four hours into my Catalina Channel swim, my right shoulder started feeling a little sore. The pain increased over the next 4 hours until it became a serious problem. I knew that the best thing to do when a body part is hurting during a marathon swim is to switch to another stroke. I snuggled up close to Neil’s Hobie so I could sight off of it and switched to backstroke during the 8th hour. Backstroke was my preferred stroke in high school. After three hours of backstroke, my crew chief Peter jumped in and convinced me to switch back to crawl “for awhile.” I’d end up swimming crawl for the rest of my swim (6.5 more hours). My shoulders were so flared up by the end of my swim that I needed help to take my swimsuit off. I needed help changing clothes for the next couple of days as I couldn’t rotate my right shoulder to lift my arm. My best friend Susie had Diclofenac that I took for the next few days. My shoulder felt like it was on fire so I iced it as much as possible.

Backstroking across the Catalina Channel

My sinuses also got severely inflammed around my 13th hour and I was begging for more ibuprofen. My crew said that they’d already maxed out the 8 that they could give me within a 24 hour period. I really didn’t care what happened to my liver tomorrow as I was in so much pain today. (Note: I later learned from Gracie van der Byl that she has antihistamines in her swim pack for moments like this).

I still do not know how I was able to swim with that much pain for so many hours.

Neil van der Byl watching over me on kayak while crew Howard Burns and Cathy Harrington swap out buddy swimming with me (legal in 2015).

I was having dinner with my friend Romy and her husband one evening several days later. Romy is a fellow swimmer and a physical therapist. She had me lie down and was able to fit her entire hand under my shoulder blade. She said “I’m not supposed to be able to do this.” She taped up my shoulder and gave me some physical therapy exercises to do to help stretch my right shoulder back into position. I did the exercises for several days and as most people do when they don’t have a medical professional watching them like a hawk, I stopped doing them when my shoulder started feeling okay.

My friend Romy taped my shoulder to help support the impingement.

I finally saw my sports physician, Dr. Van Pelt, at the Center for Sports Medicine at St. Francis Hospital about my shoulder last Wednesday (better late than never?). I could still feel that it was pitched forward and tight over a year after my Catalina swim. There are certain upper body exercises that I do that cause discomfort and wanted his input. Dr. Van Pelt said that I have “shoulder impingement syndrome” and luckily there is no rotator cuff tear. His best guess given the situation is that the coracoacromial ligament thickened which narrowed the subacromial space in my shoulder, which impinges the supraspinatus tendon right there. Of course the first thing I asked him was how long would it take to snap my shoulder back into place and he said 3 to 6 months (ugh). He gave me a couple of exercises to do to help stretch it back out again and told me what to avoid (bench presses, butterfly stroke which I can’t do anyway, and anything else that involves pressing away/down with your arms out). He told me to do his recommended exercises as often as I can. One involves leaning into a corner and he said I can stop doing them when I can touch that corner with my nose. I have my work cut out for me!

I plan on putting traditional Pilates back into my exercise routine regularly since one of its focuses is strengthening posture and opening up the chest and shoulders. Pilates also works on strengthening the core muscles which will help with both my swimming and cycling.

Recently I started reading my friend Steve’s book Where the Crazy People Swim. Why do a sport that is so demanding of the body with the additional factors of sharks, boats, currents, hypothermia, hyperthermia, salinity, wind, jellyfish, etc.? Can’t we do something safer like rugby? Artists suffer for their art and marathon swimmers suffer for the love of being in the water. If any of us die during it, at least we died doing what made us happy (as painful as it may look or be). It’s a calling though which is also why one may gravitate towards one path and not others. I have no interest in doing the English Channel. There are others that call me though that I want to try which are of the same caliber or harder (longer and/or colder) than EC. I don’t know how my shoulders or the rest of my body will hold up and I won’t know unless I try. I learn something from each swim though and take it into the training and attempt of the next swim. I’d rather be doing physical therapy exercises as a result of a marathon swim than 100% healthy for not even trying. It’s just not staying true to my spirit.

I understand now what exactly I did to my shoulder on 15 August 2015 and how long of a recovery is really involved. I’m not going to stop marathon swimming and need to take care of my body more. I could have done more damage to my shoulder if I had decided to just jump into doing another marathon swim this year. I’m lucky that I didn’t damage my rotator cuff. I know that I need to focus on the health and strength of my shoulders during my training. I can use the next several months to finally fully recovery from my Catalina swim, just in time to start training for the next one. 🙂

Neil van der Byl watching over me and my buddy swimmer Cathy Harrington.

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