Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The numbers, please...

OK. One of our swimmers, Jenny Birmelin, carried a Garmin GPS device while she swam. The resulting maps and stats are fascinating. The most interesting thing to me are the elevation numbers, which claim she climbed and than fell by about 38 feet during the swim. Where do they get the ability to look at elevation in the middle of a 14 mile swim? How can they be this accurate? I believe the 38 feet is a rounding error, but the numbers are still incredibly impressive. What the Garmin device doesn't portray, however, is the pounding she (and all of us) took while making this swim.

I swam a mile today - probably a 29 minute mile, which is moderate for me. My shoulder is still very sore, but I can find a stroke where it doesn't seem to bother me. I keep telling myself that means it is the correct stroke. And swimming in the pool is absolutely cake compared to the lake. The comparison to yesterday is astounding.

And I watched the wind sock on the lake change around a bit, but get as far over as eastnortheast, which would have made our lives much more enjoyable yesterday, and would have taken at least an hour off our time. See "" for the detail stats.

Into the wind...

We started at 8:45am and finished 14.21 miles and 8 hours and 40 minutes and about 125 energy bars and drinks later just off the seawall at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.

Mike Stevens brought a SeaRay40 - a gorgeous boat that was more than capable of handling the 13 swimmers we took on. We expected 11, but Derek showed up at the dock with 2 lifeguards who both resembled Michael Phelps - so we took 'em with us.

In addition, we picked up Bill Baedke and his 3 person Seadoo, which proved invaluable for the effort. Bill was able to corral all the swimmers who would get separated from the pack, which ended up being me quite often. Though I can swim a long way, it appears I can't swim straight very far and Bill helped to keep me on track.

The weather looked great - it was warm, the skies were clear and there was no sign of rain. The boat trip over was uneventful, but gave us a great opportunity to take photos, plot strategy, eat, etc.

Unfortunately, once we arrived at Gull Island, there was a steady 10-15 knot wind out of the southwest. Once we got out into the lake, the resulting 1-3 foot waves came directly at us and gave you the sensation of climbing up a 14 mile hill using only your arms. Whenever you would breathe, you'd come back down on the next stroke and slap the water - sometimes so hard your ears would ring. This happened to each swimmer on about every other stroke. Our ears are still ringing - its like getting slapped on the side of the head 10,000 times.

10 of us started the swim together, and after the first couple of miles we developed a pattern of about 6 people in the water at once. Again this year, almost every swimmer swam further than they had committed. The waves got bad quickly, and at the second break I had to come out of the water for a quick break. I was feeling disoriented and couldn't keep the boat in sight - even though they were traveling generally in a straight line.

Jenny and the lifeguards were setting the pace - with most of the rest of us somewhat bunched together at the rear. Bill and his Seadoo were close to us for much of the swim - proving a general feeling of comfort and a life-line to the boat, which almost always seemed far away.

This year something else happened that was different - I handed my distance crown to Jenny Birmelin. I got out of the water briefly several times in the first 3/4 of the swim, but after the 10 mile mark I took three 15-20 minute breaks, ending up at a distance of about 12 miles.

Jenny, on the other hand, stayed in the water the entire time, taking energy supplements and water about every 45 minutes or so. Here is a woman who has done numerous open water races and swims, including recently the Alcatraz swim, who can now add this 14.21 mile swim to her record of achievements. She was a rock - in an extremely difficult situation. It was honestly the hardest thing me or any of the other swimmers has ever done - including Jenny, who we now refer to as "La Machine".

The swim itself gets murky in the middle. It was just a tough, slug it out day. At times you'd get very frustrated with the waves and try to punch your way through. But they would always win. Sometime you could catch a little rhythm - for about 3 strokes and then you'd get slammed down on a wave and your ears would ring again. Pete seemed to be successful at doing the breaststroke, because he could go under the each of each wave, but that made breathing much more difficult and is a very tough way to get 14 miles.

Everyone was supportive and very helpful. It was a great, supportive, agreeable group. No one got upset about anything, no one complained about anything but the relentless waves, and no one took offense to the kidding that goes on all day. It would be a perfect team building exercise if you could find a group of execs who could all swim. And it would make a hell of a reality show episode...

This year was little frightening for me personally. Everything seemed generally OK until the final 3/4 of a mile when I took on a mouthful of water, and then 30 seconds later got slammed with another wave. I couldn't catch my breath for what seemed like an eternity. 200 yards from the boat and by myself, I struggled to get air. Slowly, I was able to force air back into my lungs one small gasp at a time. Finally I got my wind back. After a couple of minutes I was able to continue swimming, and I finished the swim about 30 minutes later. I would say keeping calm and thinking about Rickie were the two things that got me back.

We finished at about 5:30pm - thankfully the waves subsided for about the last 1/2 mile. Overall this was our most difficult swim to date. It will be known as the "year of the waves". I don't think we'll head into the wind again. If we get out there next year and face the same kind of wind, I think we'd make the decision to go from South to North, ending up at Gull Island instead of starting there. But that is difficult as well, since the Lake has about a 1/2 knot current that heads from the shipping channel and Gull Island down to the Detroit River.

We'll have better pictures soon. Check back in the next couple of weeks. Thanks again for all the support, encouragement and donations. It certainly is a great way for all of us to restore our faith in the human race and the ability of all of us to come together for a common cause. Now, if we could just fix Detroit...


At 8:45am we jumped into the water at Gull Island. 14.21 miles, 8 hours and 41 minutes, and about 125 energy drinks and bars later, we ended up at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. In the interim, we had the toughest, most rewarding adventure yet. We swam the entire distance into the wind and the 1-3ft waves that came with it. Check the next blog entry for details on the swim.

I want to thank a number of people for making this possible:
  • The Veterans; Mike Stevens, Greg McDuffee, Mike Hutchinson, Derek Weaver, Greg Erne.
  • The Rookies; Blake Kenny, Jenny Birmelin, Peter Stevens, Dave Draper, Tim Ross, Billy and Sebastian.
  • The Crew; Bill Baedke and his Seadoo, Vanessa Denha-Garmo and Stephanie Green for their wonderful PR assistance. They did an outstanding job of getting us recognized. Vanessa was especially amazing - I recommend her highly.
  • Organizations: The Detroit Athletic Club for their fabulous facilities, award-winning staff and constant support of our effort; and the Grosse Point Yacht Club - especially Fred Mihalik - for providing our starting and ending point and for their gracious support on the day of the swim. And thanks to the US Masters Swimming organization, for their national article in "Swimmer".
  • Media Sponsors: - We'd also like to thank our media sponsors for their coverage and articles: Fox2Detroit news, the Detroit News (Candice Williams), Paul W Smith and his crew at WJR, WDVD (Blaine and Allyson) in Detroit, and the Detroit Legal News. And finally, thanks to whoever sent the helicopter which hovered over us for 20 minutes near the finish. It certainly got our attention...
  • The donors: And finally, and most importantly, to all of you who have supported this effort. Many of you have donated to Rickie's Medical Trust Fund, which will provide him with much-needed financial support when his medical bills get out of hand. But many of you have also provided donations to the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation ( which supports people and programs all over our region. Next year we will put together a tax-free fund that will be used primarily to assist the University of Michigan's Mott's Children's Hospital and the Pulminary program under Dr. Nasr, whose doctors and staff have been so instrumental in putting Rickie on the path to good health.
  • Finally, I'd like to thank the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. This national organization works tirelessly to find a cure for CF. Three of the medicines Rickie takes daily came directly from this organization. They are one of the best run, most well organized disease oriented non-profits in the country and they deserve your attention and support. Even if you are not affiliated with them, you should check out this organization that has been written up in the Harvard Business Review as a model for others to follow. Dr. Robert Beale's "venture philanthropy " concept is what the strategists refer to as 'disruptive' in its ability to change the way new drugs are funded. They are worth your time.
Finally, Rickie says awesome job!! And he also says he’s in for next year – wants to ride in the boat. Thanks to all of you from the bottom of our hearts.

Monday, August 16, 2010


We've all been running around - getting the boat ready, getting snacks and food, getting our gear, etc. It is beginning to get crazy...

No swimming today - though I may just get in the water later and relax. We have also had a great response from the media - thank you all so much. Fox 2 this morning with Cam Carmen; Grosse Pointe Cable - thanks to Dave Draper; Radio station 96.3; the Detroit News; and tomorrow Paul W. on WJR. It's amazing how people are getting involved.

And the 11 swimmers? These 4 guys - Mike Stevens, who is both swimming and captaining the boat, Greg McDuffee, Mike Hutchinson, and Derek Weaver will have done all three crossings. This will be Greg Erne's second crossing, and this year's rookies are: Blake Kenny, Jenny Bernwin (swimming the entire distance), Tim Ross, Dave Draper, and Pete Stevens.

It's a great group - and I am looking forward to the ride over and the start. That's as far as I get - after the start, I figure it will all work itself out. We'll have almost everyone in the water for the start, swimming from Harsens/Gull Island to the old south channel lights. At that point the boat will pick up 5 of the swimmers and the rest of us will keep moving. Then every mile or so, we'll swap out the relay swimmers and Jenny and I will stay in.

It turns out we'll be swimming right into southwest winds, which are the prevailing winds for this course. We'll have to see how that affects us, but swimming with the current into 15 knot winds is not a recipe for a smooth swim. But hopefully the weather will cooperate. We could all use some wind at my back right about now.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Rickster...

Here is Rickie. He is the guy we are all fired up about for this swim. He is a normal, very active boy - he just turned 9 a week ago. He likes Pokemon, military games and playing soccer. He has been very healthy lately - his last PFT's (pulminary tests) came back almost normal. But this normalcy comes at a cost - each day he takes close to a dozen pills and endures two separate half hour breathing treatments, which include the ingestion of four different medicines through a nebulizer. In addition, he is checked over by a visiting nurse once a month and goes back to the hospital to be prodded and poked 2-3 times a year. And, in the first two years of his diagnosis, he also spent at least 10 days a year in the hospital. He was fitted with a port that allows him to receive IV fluids, etc directly into his chest as opposed to trying to find veins in his arms all the time. Five months ago he spent 3 weeks getting intensive doses of antibiotics, but thanks to his port, he was able to avoid the hospital and stay home much of this time.

A reporter for the Detroit News asked me recently why we had set up a Medical Trust Fund for Rickie. "Is it really necessary?". "Will he need a lung transplant?". How many people actually get them? How many people in Michigan have gotten them?

It is hard to explain to someone who has no idea what it is like to wake up one day and find out that your child is diagnosed with something as severe as Cystic Fibrosis. The decision to set up a fund was not a casual decision. It was as deliberate as the desire to make it across the lake every year. For those who are lucky enough to go through life without living with issues like this - that's great. But for people who have lived the uncertainty and worry that we have come to expect, things like this are easy answers. You do what you can. It may not be the best answer, but it sure beats the pain and frustration of doing nothing.

And next year, we will be setting up a 501 c(3), so we can help the University of Michigan's Mott's Children's Hospital and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation do what they do best - which is to make life better for kids like Rickie. More on that later. Right now we need to focus on the swim - and figure out where the article is that the Detroit News promised to print.

It's Sunday morning - 3 more days

Now it's just a waiting game with the weather. I tend not to check it a lot anymore - it seems to change so frequently - it is often different than what it reads. So, we sit and wait, praying for no wind on Tuesday.

I tried some new energy supplements yesterday - Clif "Shot Blocks". I think I will take them with me on the swim. The difficulty is getting food or drinks into the water - assuming we are staying in the entire swim. I may change my mind, but I'd like to try and do the whole thing. We'll see. I have a lot going on in my life right now, and I don't know if I need the added pressure of making the swim non-stop. Usually I get out of the water every 3-4 miles for a 5 minute break. On the other hand, if I can make it, it would make it that much sweeter.

Looks like we have 9 other swimmers this year - and there are others that wanted to join us. It is getting more important for us to find help to organize the event - if anyone is interested, please get back to us.

More later...

Friday, August 13, 2010

4 more days...

The preparations continue to progress. We are up to 9 swimmers, so we may need another boat at this point. Mike Stevens is again providing the boats, which is huge for us. We have gotten a fair amount of media - and a number of other outlets have promised to help as well.
We all seem to be kicking up our mileage - I did some 4 and 5 milers recently, though I haven't managed to get in the lake yet. All I remember at this point is how cold it feels. I don't wear a wet suit, so it gets chilly every now and then - the water temp bounces around a bit, from 65 to 72 last year. On the plus side, sometimes the cold spots are invigorating enough to instantly wake you up.
This is the time when you occasionally think to yourself - "Wow - can I really make it this year? My shoulder is sore, I'm old, and it is a long way"... But then I think about Rickie and the commitment on the part of those other swimmers who are joining us and the nervousness dissolves into determination.
The comraderie is the thing that keeps me coming back. Everyone who has been a swimmer in this event has commited to coming back this year. Friends are everything - they keep me going during these crazy times. Thanks again to all the swimmers for their support and commitment.
If you'd like to join us, please email me at ric[at] We can also use someone who can help us organize and potentially grow the event. This would likely be an internship or volunteer position.
More soon.

Friday, August 6, 2010

More bravado than brains...

We are now 11 days out and we've picked up another 2-3 swimmers. We've decided to try and do a practice run in the lake sometime next week - 2-3 miles, hopefully with a kayak escort.

We may need two chase boats this year. There are more swimmers who want to take part in the swim or the relay and one boat may not be enough to handle all of us. If you are interested in a description of the event - check out the old blog entries from the end of last year.

People ask us why we do this. I think it all comes down to the boat ride over to Harsen's Island from the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. We're all a little nervous, and we're trying to calm each other down. Like last year, when Greg Erne was telling Derek about the alligators in the water. Or when we told someone else that if they were too slow, we were leaving them behind. Or "you're only scared because you can't see land anymore". Reassuring comments from good friends.

You can smell the fish and the water, and the mist comes off the lake every time the bow hits the waves. As you watch the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club tower disappear, you realize we're out here a ways. The boat ride, at 25 knots takes a little over a half hour. Once we arrive at the southern end of Harsen's Island, we take 15-20 minutes to get suited up and then we take off. Some of us don't wear anything but a suit, goggles and a cap - others are covered in neoprene for flotation and have all the gear. Goggles are critical - I always use goggles and am amazed when I see people who don't. It makes swimming much more comfortable. We typically have 2-3 guys in the water at all times. We stop every now and then to get people in and out of the water. So far, I have managed to swim the whole thing both times. I expect to do the same thing year.

I want to thank all of you who have looked at the blog and who have donated either to Rickie's Medical Fund or the the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. is a fabulous organization - they are annually ranked at the top of the Charity Navigator lists and is extremely well run. But for me, the proof is in the fact that Rickie daily takes multiple medicines that have been developed by Dr. Beale, the President of the organization. They are relentless in their pursuit of a cure - and we are hopeful they will make even more progress this year.