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Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Updated: July 20, 5:23 PM ET
Diana Nyad's extreme-distance loneliness

By Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie

Diana Nyad methodically swims two miles per hour, 15 feet from the boat carrying a half-dozen members of her support crew, for nine hours straight. Loneliness may not even begin to define her complete isolation.

For nine hours, Nyad doesn't touch a single solid object, won't set foot on anything firm, won't even lay a hand on the boat that accompanies her swim. She comes up for nourishment only every hour and a half (or, sometimes, hour and 45 minutes) and otherwise spends the hours staring into the blank abyss of the open sea below.

This nine hours is no more than a medium-distance training swim -- a drop in the bucket compared to the expected 60 hours it will take the 61-year-old to complete her dream swim from Cuba to Key West.

Watching the lone figure in the water, one really has to wonder: Is this feat more of a physical or mental challenge?

"When you're running or cycling you always have a tree to look at as you go by, or you can chat with a friend. There's some visual input and audio input in everything we do," Nyad said. "In swimming you are truly in a state of sensory deprivation."

To keep her mind engaged, Nyad sings to herself as she swims, covering a repertoire that ranges from 4,000 cycles of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" (which amounted to about three hours) to as many Bob Dylan songs as she could think of (more than 30, which covered another three hours of swimming).

In past swims, Nyad has succumbed to the mind-numbing craziness that hours on the open water can evoke. In one race in Argentina in her 20s, she experienced an Alfred Hitchcock-style hallucination that a flock of seagulls was dive-bombing her, using their beaks to peck at the flesh on her forehead. Her crew, aware that there were no birds, but also seeing that they were losing valuable time, made the decision that it would be easier to go with it than to try to explain the reality. They got out their oars and made a show of knocking the birds away and patching up her forehead so the race could continue.

Thousands of repetitions of songs covering a range from kindergarten favorites to religious hymns to classic rock carry Nyad through a "short" nine-hour swim like the one espnW saw, but when she gets to 20 or 30 hours, things head into the existential.

"I'm just somewhere else," Nyad explained, describing her wonderings about the universe, the equally troubling choices of infinity versus an edge out there somewhere, Big Bangs and black holes. But there's also a meditative, magical aspect of it. "Many people on this planet are suffering," she said, "but the other 7 million people are looking each other in the eyes and holding our doggies and you know, to me its without being religious, but it's a privilege, a miracle that we live this life."