Chronic pain sufferer Katie Pumphrey completes 15-mile open water swim

Katie Pumphrey, 26, accomplished a double-crossing of the Potomac River despite weather delays, bringing her one step closer to her goal of swimming the English Channel in August 2015. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

 

The boat was chartered, the crew was on hand and Katie Pumphrey was trained and rested for her 15-mile swim in the Potomac, scheduled to begin in the darkness about 3:30 a.m. last Saturday. For the long-distance swimmer from Baltimore, who has suffered from chronic pain for most of her life, it would be the first test to approximate the rigors of her ultimate effort, a swim across the English Channel planned for the summer of 2015.

But the weather refused to cooperate. As Pumphrey prepared to step in the water in Point Lookout State Park in Scotland, Md., the wind whipping the river, which prompted a "small craft advisory," might have proved dangerous for the kayak that was supposed to accompany her and difficult for the captain of the 46-foot fishing boat that Pumphrey had hired.

After conversations with him and her volunteer crew--two friends and her father--about canceling the attempt, Pumphrey decided to wait until it was closer to sunrise, and got in the water around 5 a.m.

For the ensuing eight hours and 45 minutes, Pumphrey, 26, would fight fatigue and nausea in the water, pain in her back and, perhaps most difficult, the mental strain of trying to propel herself across the river and back. When she finished, she said, she stood on the beach and cried.

"It was the most epic experience of my life," she said. "There was just so much stress and coordination and patience and [it was an] emotional roller coaster."

We're following Pumphrey's progress toward the channel swim on Aug. 8 or 9, 2015 (she's already booked), checking in from time to time on her bid to tackle one of the most daunting challenges in endurance sports despite a disorder that has been diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Fewer people have made solo crossings of the 21-mile channel than have climbed Mt. Everest. Pumphrey views the effort, partly, as way of confronting chronic pain that has, at times, become an overwhelming issue in her life.

(I couldn't make Saturday's double-crossing, but our intrepid videographer, Whitney Leaming, was there throughout. Her video is atop this post.).

Long distance swimmers will want to know that Pumphrey got up to about 37,000 meters a week in a salt water pool in the weeks leading up to Saturday's swim. She stopped every half hour for food--vanilla bean GU packets and energy bars--and a liquid mixture of water and Hammer Perpetuem. Both were lowered from the boat in a basket by her crew, as required by the rules for a channel swim; Pumphrey will be immediately disqualified if she touches the guide boat that will accompany her next summer.

Until the last hour or so, Pumphrey kept up a fast pace of about 28 strokes per minute. She crossed from Maryland to Virginia in 3:38, and made the trip back in a little over 5:07.

Along the way, there were crab pots to avoid, and salty water in the high-60-degree range to endure. But it was the wind-whipped chop that bothered Pumphrey most, she said. Days after the swim she still felt as if she had been run over. Later in the afternoon, the wind died down and the waves diminished with it.

At times, Pumphrey said, her mind played tricks on her.

"The dark moments were, like, being in pain and getting upset about it," she said, "being nauseous and being tossed around."

"I was pretty confident, just because I'm so stubborn, I knew I wasn't going to let myself stop," Pumphrey added. "But I was getting so upset, just moments of 'I'm not sure I want to endure that.'"

Pumphrey, a swim coach and painter, continues to raise money for her self-financed effort and train for her next major goal, a 16.2- 15.5 mile swim across Long Island Sound in August. Later she will have to swim for six hours in 60-degree water, to prove to the governing body of channel swims that she can handle the cold.

We'll keep you posted on her progress.

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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