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So, you want to swim 103 miles. What now? It takes more than the germ of an idea to carry Diana Nyad, a 61-year-old woman, from the shores of Havana to the tip of Key West.
Unlike running a marathon, climbing an awe-inspiring mountain peak or trekking the Appalachian Trail, there's no guidebook for this one.
When Nyad reached out to exercise physiologist Tim Noakes, Ph.D. at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa for advice, he was candid: Despite years of research on endurance swimmers and runners, there wasn't a lot he could tell her. Nyad's event, he said, what she's asking of her body, is as good as off the map. In other words, on paper, it falls under the heading of "not humanly possible."
Mark Sollinger, one of the boat drivers, agrees. "You've got to remember there's no roadmap for this kind of thing. She's writing the roadmap. It's not like we can go to some body of information and say this is what we need to do. Not only was she training, she was her own guinea pig at the same time."
Nyad's training started in secret about six months before she told a soul what she was doing. She began by testing the waters, swimming just 25 minutes at a time in a small country club pool with fins to take the pressure off of her shoulders. By October, about three months after she first dipped a toe, she was up to four- and five-hour pool swims and in January she made up an excuse to take a trip to Mexico for a frigid 6.5 hour ocean swim. Completing that test drive sealed the deal: She was going to do this.
The first person she told was Bonnie Stoll, her best friend and business partner (they own a fitness company, BravaBody, targeted at women older than 50) who would become her head trainer.
It's Stoll who sits on the lower deck of the boat, fixated on Nyad for every stroke of her training swims, watching for changes that could indicate danger. Stoll, who figured out the proportion of water, sports drink, protein and electrolyte gel that will keep Nyad hydrated and fueled, and hopefully prevent the violent retching that marked early distance swims like this. And it's Stoll who glops Aquaphor onto Nyad's angry-red, chaffed shoulders every hour and a half throughout the swim. The duo also works out together nearly every day, just as they have for much of their 30-year friendship.
On land, Nyad's workouts are simple and targeted, and work in opposition to the swimming: The more she swims, the less she does out of the water. At the height of her land training, up until about January, she'd do 100 burpees a day: a perfect-form military-style push-up paired with a vertical jump to engage and strengthen just about every muscle in her body. Early on she would bike 100 miles every Friday, but by April it was time to put the bike away. Too much of virtually any form of cardio other than swimming builds the legs too much -- counterproductive when you're trying to be as buoyant as possible over some 60-odd hours of swimming.
To train in earnest required searching for a body of water she could do eight, nine, 10 and up to 15-hour swims through the winter and spring. Along with her nephew, Tim Wheeler, a filmmaker who is making a documentary about Nyad's story, the pair researched as far as Fiji, but ultimately settled on St. Maarten. Over the course of the winter she spent 10 days at a time in St. Maarten, each time squeezing in two to three training swims before returning home to rest until her next trip.
If there is such a thing as "normal" in open-water swimming, this isn't it. Nyad is quick to clarify. Other swimmers who do long distance swims don't do multiples of the 10-to-15-hour swims she's done dozens of -- and she has the training journal to prove it.
"That's what gives me the confidence that it's not my body that's going to give out," Nyad said. "During the cross, God forbid there's a true shark emergency, God forbid there's some unexpected weather that comes, but you know I just think that I've put in the time muscle-wise and endurance-wise."
As the calendar flips to July, the training is behind her, and all that's left are the details. Short (by comparison) night swims to test out the boat's lights. Three hours here or there to finalize picks of swim caps, goggles (she'll rotate different pairs for day, night and dusk) and swimsuits. Visas need to be secured so the necessary crew and boats can make it to Cuba for the launch. And across the country from L.A. to New Hampshire, dozens of ears will be perked up, cell phones in hand and bags packed, waiting for go time.