Self-discovery and sisterly love

"Why Do I Do This?" is espnW's series based on the first-person accounts of athletes who do unusual events in the sports world. Kicking off the series is ultra-swimmer Elaine K. Howley, who tells us about finding out who she is -- and honoring her sister -- on her grueling swims.

I've been hammering hard in the 68-degree water for more than 10 hours, and that nice little current- and wind-assisted push back near Newport, R.I., is long gone. After making the turn at the bottom of Narragansett Bay, I am now on an ocean treadmill; I am swimming as hard as I can into a directly opposing current through sloppy, windy conditions and it feels like I'm not getting anywhere. Swells of four feet routinely steal strokes as I battle across the waves.

I've covered some 22 miles, but am still less than halfway to my goal of entering the record books with one of the 10 longest unassisted ocean swims in history, a 30-hour, 50-mile swim following English Channel rules.

I started out feeling like this goal would be easy to achieve, swimming in flat, 75-degree water. But now, with the unhelpful convergence of tide, wind and currents, my chances of completing the swim are not looking good. I doubt whether I have the will and the patience to endure for another 20 hours in these ugly conditions.

My inner ear betrayed me hours ago; I haven't puked yet, but I could at any moment. As a result of the seasickness, I haven't been taking in adequate nutrition. My neck is chafed against the wet suit as I turn my head to breathe a dozen times per minute, and I can feel the beginnings of a twinge in my right shoulder. How long before that whisper of pain turns into a steady, throbbing shout?

But I love everything about this swim, no matter how frustrating the conditions can get. I've been tackling progressively longer and colder swims for more than five years, and I'm often asked why. The answer varies somewhat from swim to swim, but there is always an undercurrent of self-discovery to this unusual passion of mine.

This 50-miler is an especially meaningful swim. I'm out here as half of a duo of swimmers raising money and awareness for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. My swim partner, Ray Gandy of Coventry, R.I., is about an hour behind me, fighting the same wind on his own attempt at a 50-mile swim. We hope to set four world records, and have raised nearly $12,000 for the LLS.

We are here to make a strident noise against a disease that has touched us personally. Gandy's wife successfully battled leukemia in the early 1990s and Gandy was a bone-marrow donor for another patient. In 1986, when I was just 8, my 3-year-old sister, Rachel, died of leukemia. She relapsed after a bone-marrow transplant in which I was the donor. Swimming became, and still is, an important coping mechanism for dealing with that loss. She's with me in spirit on all my swims.

I swim for Rachel, but I also swim for fun and because of an intense curiosity. Ultra-swimming sets me apart from most other people I know and defines me. My "hobby" is fueled by a basic curiosity about who I am and what I can achieve. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but I've found it helps me live a fuller, more interesting and vibrant life.

When the swimming is good, I am in a trancelike, meditative state that can be pure bliss and absolute hell at the same time, an oddly fascinating duality. I think about form, technique, work, my friends and my family. I sing songs to myself, practice German verb declensions and daydream. Time ceases to mean anything and hours drip past.

Sometime after midnight on Sunday, July 10, I learn a little more about what I am made of, and it isn't the lesson I was hoping for. With competing thoughts of my sister, the sponsors I don't want to disappoint and the press contacts who want a complete report in the morning, and missing my husband, who couldn't be a part of this swim, I realize I am spent and feeling just plain lonely. Too many spirits in presence and not enough in the flesh.

After nearly 15 hours of intense effort, I'm seasick and completely demoralized by my slowed progress. I am physically and emotionally exhausted, hopeless that I will get to Mile 50, which lies at least another 15 hours away. Rather than the triumphs of past long swims, this one ended with a whimper. I reach for my crew chief Tom's hand and end the swim. Quietly, tearfully, unceremoniously, we have reached the end of the road tonight.

We have come 27 miles. And today, it's far enough. Perhaps tomorrow we can go a little farther. But for now, I am comforted by the knowledge of all the good we did in raising funds and awareness for leukemia research. Rachel smiles down on me, and while I am disappointed, I know she is not. She is proud of her big sister for making the right decision and she is already looking forward to my next adventure, as am I.

Why do I do these things like marathon swims? Because this is who I am, and because Rachel never got the chance find out who she might become.

For more information about the 50/50 Swim Challenge, please visit: 5050swimchallenge.com.

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