May 30, 2014

Barrington man takes on ‘Triple Crown’ challenge with swim around Manhattan

Don Macdonald Kayak's alongside Doug McConnell here pictured in the middle of the pacific ocean between Catalina Island and mainland California in 2013.

With Doug's swim, the third leg of the Triple Crown bearing down in several weeks, we have been focused on extending training time in open water. While Doug has the Yeoman's work in the water this time, Im in the kayak again, and support crew in the boat. Both exposed to the weather (what ever condition it is) for 9-10 hours. 

The biggest concern we have for Doug is safety. The rivers around New York Harbor are very congested and dangerous with large ocean going ships, ferries - docking, embarking at all hours. These ships also generate sizable waves that multiply both in height and length bouncing off sea walls causing both kayaker and swimmer tremendous stress to stay on course. 

The other challenge are the piers. These are not your standard piers but large loading docks, commercial businesses extending into the river sometimes 100 plus yards disrupting the flow of water, swirling ebbs, causing the kayaker and swimmer direction problems and immediate danger from a collision. 

"There's no room for error, the current never stops and at 2-4 MPH, you will get dragged into a pier pole, debris, or ship very easily", said Don Macdonald who recently went on a test run while in New York. 

As a marathon swimmer myself, I know its essential for me to remain focused on all aspects of Doug's safety but not outwardly show the slightest change in my tempo, direction and even mood as things happen. And they always do. 

As these swims progress, its not uncommon for swimmers to become depressed from the solitude of the effort coupled with the physical exhaustion. As the reach 6-8 hours mark, the swimmer hits "the wall" both physically and mentally. The slightest perception of stress can be detected from the swimmer, stress from changes to direction, hitting some debris floating in the water, swallowing some polluted water ... can weigh heavily on the swimmers mental outlook. 

For both of us, this will be another test of resilience, forged in the desire of pushing oneself to help others. 
Sometimes your simply alone

Article Reprinted from Sun Times
As harsh, cold and seemingly unending as the winter was, few were clamoring to take long dips in area lakes as of mid-May.
Doug McConnell, however, already was swimming about 20 miles a week, often in lakes registering thermometer readings in the 50s and 60s, including Lake Michigan.
No, he wasn’t wearing a wetsuit. And no, he’s not crazy. He’s on a mission.
On June 28, the 56-year-old will attempt what is known in marathon swimming circles as the MIMS, the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Swimming long distances in breathtakingly, bone-achingly cold lakes is all part of the training.
McConnell, of Barrington, already swam across the English and Catalina channels. Only the MIMS — a 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan through the Hudson and Harlem rivers — stands between McConnell and the Triple Crown of open water swimming. If he makes it, he’ll join just more than a dozen others who have completed all three while over the age of 50.
Perhaps equally as remarkable, through a fundraising organization he started with his swimming friend and fellow Barrington resident Don Macdonald, McConnell has turned pulling and kicking his way through waves into more than $225,000 for the Les Turner ALS Foundation.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, claimed the life of McConnell’s father, David, in 2006. Another of his relatives now battles ALS.
“It’s just dreadful,” McConnell said of the disease, which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. “It’s a slow motion shipwreck. To watch anybody you love go through that, to see them just go to pieces like that, it’s hard to watch.”
Proceeds from McConnell’s organization, A Long Swim, go to the Les Turner ALS Laboratory to advance treatments and find a cure. Researchers are making great strides, McConnell said.
“It’s a pretty gratifying and exciting time to be supporting research into a disease that has frustrated so many for such a long time,” he said. “There are drug trials going on. There are new discoveries about upper motor neurons.”
Dr. P. Hande Ozdinler is director of the Les Turner ALS Laboratory and an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
Support received through McConnell and A Long Swim has been vital, Ozdinler said. With it, Ozdinler developed a method of making corticospinal motor neurons fluorescent. The labeling makes it easier for doctors to discover what goes wrong in patients with ALS and other motor neuron-affecting diseases.
Because of the headway that’s been made, the National Institutes of Health has granted $3 million to further studies at the lab, Ozdinler said.
“Before we got the NIH money, the only support was from the Les Turner Foundation, which depends heavily on people like Doug,” Ozdinler said. “His efforts make a difference.”
McConnell, meanwhile, is focused on ensuring that his body is well-prepared for the MIMS. Though he swims throughout the year at Foglia YMCA, recent conditioning has meant 6 a.m. loops around Lake Zurich and adventures in Lake Michigan, as well.
“It’s just such a lift to be outside in the sunshine,” he said. “The water’s been cold, but boy oh boy, to be out there and watch the sun come up, it’s just fabulous.”
McConnell expects to encounter chilly waters in New York, which “had the same crazy winter we did,” he said.
“The only way to get acclimated to cold water is to spend a lot of time in cold water,” McConnell continued. “It can be unpleasant and so forth, but the acclimation really works.”
McConnell noted that hypothermia is not a condition to be taken lightly. His swims are monitored. The crew often includes his wife, Susan, and their four children, ranging in age from 16 to 26. Macdonald also typically is there, riding alongside in a kayak.
The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim will start at Battery Park, with a view of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. Twenty-three swimmers are signed up to participate on June 28, McConnell said. Others are swimming June 14 and July 12.
Start time is 7:20 a.m. Central time.
“They time it carefully around an incoming tide,” McConnell said. “It’s what pushes you north up the East River. You swim on the East River to about 120th or 130th Street, and then you cut left. You take the Harlem River northwest and swim that to 210th Street.
“That’s where the Harlem dumps into the Hudson, and you take that back to Battery Park,” he said. “This is 28.5 miles. However, because of the tidal push on the East River and the downstream ride on the Hudson, most people do it in eight or nine hours. It swims more like 17 or 18 miles rather than 28.
“That, of course, is all dependent upon the day and how well you’re able to hook into the currents.”
McConnell said he looks forward to the event, which also is a race. He crossed the English Channel — a feat that included 25-knot winds and 5-foot waves as well as pitch-black darkness — in 14 hours and 18 minutes. The Catalina Channel took 12 hours, 41 minutes.
McConnell said that turning a personal goal into a charitable endeavor adds to his motivation.
The response from both corporations and individuals has been tremendous. Minneapolis-based Medtronic is among his sponsors. The company makes medical devices, including the PRESTIGE disc, one of which was implanted in McConnell’s spine in 2009.
“From individuals, we had some $5 donations and one that was $5,000. The message and the disease really resonate with people,” McConnell said. “Many of the donations were from good friends of my father’s. I have another family member battling with ALS now, and a lot of old friends of hers are donating.”
Anyone interested in learning more or donating is encouraged to visit
“The funding that [McConnell] received has turned into something really big and really good,” Northwestern’s Ozdinler said. “Without him and the support of the foundation, I don’t think we would have been able to generate the tools we have today.”