Fibromyalgia sufferer takes on her chronic pain, training to swim the English Channel

Baltimore artist Katie Pumphrey has begun training to swim the English Channel. She shares what she thinks it will take to swim the dangerous crossing and what is driving her to take the plunge. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

When the drugs and the doctors and the physical therapists failed her, Katie Pumphrey had one choice left: She could run from pain or confront it, curtail her lifestyle or push it as far as pain would allow.

Pumphrey, a 26-year-old swim coach and painter who has been in chronic pain for nearly two decades, had discovered along the way that intense, exhausting exercise brought some relief from the strange symptoms of her fibromyalgia, a controversial neuromuscular disease with no known cure. And so she decided to go for broke.

The Baltimore woman is now preparing to swim the English Channel, a physical and logistical undertaking so enormous that pain will just have to get in line with the other challenges she has decided to take on: hypothermia, tides, oil tankers, wind, waves, saltwater, jellyfish, injuries, the financial cost and many more.

“Controlling [pain] is such a strange power trip,” Pumphrey said. “It’s also being proud of yourself. In the past year, I’ve just surprised myself.”

Fewer people (1,429) have crossed the channel solo than have climbed Mount Everest (more than 4,000), and only 446 of the swimmers have been women. Eight people have died trying since Matthew Webb first accomplished the feat, in 1875 — though the success rate, which was tiny in the early 1900s, has risen sharply in recent years.


Katie Pumphrey, artist and open water swimmer, works out at the Merritt Athletic Club as she prepares for her upcoming attempt to swim the English Channel. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

If all goes well, Pumphrey will enter the water in Dover, England, on Aug. 8 or 9, 2015, and emerge in Cap Gris Nez, France. The distance is 21 miles, but the shifting tides guarantee that few swim directly across. In July 2010, 56-year-old Jackie Cobell reached Calais, France, after swimming 64 miles in nearly 29 hours.

The rules set by the two groups that govern channel crossing attempts require that Pumphrey wear only a swim cap, goggles and a bathing suit, one that offers no extra buoyancy or warmth, despite water temperatures that will hover around 60 degrees. She will be immediately disqualified if she touches the 33-foot vessel that will accompany her or the hand of any member of the crew of volunteers she is assembling to aid her. Food and drink will be lowered to her in the water. An observer from the Channel Swimming Association, one of the governing groups, will be on the boat to ensure she follows the rules.

Pumphrey hopes to make it in 12 to 14 hours.

“I do think I can do it,” she said. “I like the reality [that] there’s still a chance that I can’t. That’s the monster of the channel.” But she added: “I feel very confident about my plan. And as I develop more of my plan, I feel more confident.”

She has raised and spent about $2,000 to reserve the services of skipper Fred Mardle and his boat, the Masterpiece, for her neap-tide swim 17 months from now and believes she will need $15,000 more to see the swim through. She is soliciting money online and seeking sponsors.

But some in her family are still not enamored of the idea.

“Ugh. I’m not happy about it. I’ll be honest,” said her sister, Laura Madoo, a 31-year-old medical resident in Fairfax. “I feel it’s my life’s mission to talk her out of it.”

Her father, Jack Pumphrey, said he is “absolutely, positively confident that she will swim that channel. There’s worry, but there’s not a doubt in my mind. Worry and doubt are two different things.”

Artist and athlete

Katie Pumphrey’s artwork, which until last week had been on display in a gallery at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson in Baltimore, also explores movement, competition and intent, tying in nicely with what she is trying to accomplish in the water, said Jeremy Stern, the alliance’s exhibitions and programs manager.

She has been an artist in residence there for three years, living in a small studio that provides her room to work. Often it hurts to paint, especially during a long session.

Pumphrey is the youngest of four siblings in an athletic, competitive family from Jefferson, Md. By the age of 8 or 9, her speed in the pool began to attract notice, her father said.

“Everybody was an athlete. Everybody was involved in a sport, an organized sport, from very early on,” he said. But “nobody liked swimming like Katie.”

When she was about 9, her right shoulder began to hurt. Everyone thought it was tendinitis from swimming. But the pain would mysteriously appear in different parts of her body — one day in her back, another in her hips, another in her ankles. It traveled up and down her spine, making it difficult to breathe. It left her nauseated.

There were countless MRI exams, visits to rheumatologists, physical therapy, massage. She spent her teenage years on a regimen of painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs and anti-seizure medication.

She said she felt “powerlessness, even hopelessness. You’re dealing with all the emotions of a 15-year-old, plus this.”

Still, she played three sports in high school, running cross-country and track as well as swimming, and often excelled.

“From 9 to 19 or 20, all I wanted was a word,” Pumphrey recalled. “I just wanted something to call it.”

Once her strange ailment was diagnosed, she was sure, some doctor would know what to do.

Pumphrey stopped swimming when she went to the Maryland Institute College of Art, but the pain continued. The word she was looking for came during her sophomore year, when a doctor began to suspect fibromyalgia.

By then the diagnosis meant little — nothing, really. Pumphrey had decided to handle the pain her way. She had saved her money for a painting trip to the Bahamas. She spent one day alone, painted the sunrise, swam in the ocean, painted the sunset.

“I kind of just made this pact with myself,” she said. “And I just said: ‘Okay, it’s not going to be in control anymore. I’m not going to be in pain anymore.’ ”

About 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine, the independent health arm of the National Academies. On average, people with fibromyalgia go nearly seven years from the onset of symptoms to diagnosis, because many doctors know little about the disease and some do not believe it exists, said Christopher L. Edwards, a medical director at Duke Pain Medicine in Durham, N.C.

When no cure is immediately available, physicians and therapists often try to help patients recognize that their only choice is to manage their pain, possibly for a lifetime, Edwards said. Accomplishing that transition without professional help is less common, he said, but it does happen, sometimes with the kind of epiphany Pumphrey described.

“This is someone who has taken quality of life into her control,” he said of Pumphrey’s outlook. “They’re not waiting on a doctor. They’re not waiting on a clinician. They’re simply taking it upon themselves to give themselves quality of life.”

Many miles to go

After graduating, Pumphrey began to swim again, this time in open water. In 2011 she raced 7.5 miles in the Potomac River Swim, and in 2012 she won the women’s division. In May, she plans to compete again, but with an extra challenge. First she will take off from the finish line about 3 a.m., swim to the start and then participate in the race across the river, one of a series of monthly 15-mile efforts she has planned for this spring and summer.

In the fall, she must swim for six hours in water that is 60 degrees or less, to prove to the Channel Swimming Association that she can handle the cold.

On a recent Thursday, Pumphrey swam 7,500 meters in the saltwater pool at the Merritt Athletic Club in Baltimore’s Canton area. She is putting in 25,000 to 30,000 meters a week now, plus running, core exercises and yoga, a training program she expects will peak at about 60,000 meters of swimming each week as the channel crossing nears. Though the workouts are taxing, the exertion actually helps reduce her pain, Pumphrey said. Staying in shape and producing endorphins and other natural painkillers by working out are two common strategies for addressing fibromyalgia, according to Edwards.

Pumphrey trains with Joe Mahach, a powerfully built triathlete who plans to be part of her crew for the channel crossing. In the next lane that Thursday, coincidentally, was blind Paralympian Brad Snyder, who won two golds and a silver in 2012.

Broad-shouldered at 5-foot-51 / 2 and 140 pounds, Pumphrey swims efficiently, with little wasted motion, building power and endurance for the variety of conditions an open-water swimmer might encounter. She also will begin a regimen of ice baths to condition herself to cold. And despite her grueling training, she must take care not to lose too much body fat, which will help keep her warm in the water.

Kevin Murphy, a British national who holds the men’s record for crossings with 34, said in an e-mail that “the best advice is simply to keep putting one arm in front of the other. Don’t think about what lies ahead. . . . Don’t worry about tides or the weather — that is for the pilot to worry about. Don’t worry about the temperature of the water — it is what it is and others are okay with it.”

He added that “50 percent of what she has to do is down to willpower. Her stroke technique, fitness and speed through the water are obviously important, [but] secondary to her determination to succeed.”

No one was able to duplicate Webb’s swim until 1911, and although there are no good statistics on failures, only about one swim in 10 was successful for many years, said Murphy, honorary secretary of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, the other governing body of channel crossings. Today, with better training, nutrition, equipment, navigation and weather forecasting, about six in 10 swimmers succeed, he said.

Pumphrey’s day in the channel is still a distant dream, with many obstacles in the way. For now, there are only the long swims in Merritt’s 25-meter pool, 7,500 and 8,000 meters at a time, distances that many people would consider ambitious goals by themselves. For her they are small steps on a much longer journey.

She envisions a day in the summer of 2015 when she will climb, exhausted, above the water line on the coast of France and hear the horn that signals a successful swim across the channel. Then she will find her way aboard the Masterpiece for the trip back to Dover. There she will sign the wall of the White Horse Inn, a centuries-old pub, like hundreds who have crossed the channel before her.

But she does not envision a life without pain. “It’s just not worth it to focus on why,” she said. “It’s just worth it to focus on how to deal with it.”

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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