EXPERIENCING HYPERPNEA DURING MY COLD OPEN WATER SWIM
Last week Sunday 21st October 2018 will be one I will recall for many years to come.
Darren, Brandt and I were out at the Ironman 5150 Triathlon here in Johannesburg, attempting to defend our title. The year before we managed a first place podium finish in the Fun Tri in the event. Super thrilled we signed up this year looking forward to defending our title.
The start of this event is normally chilly, but swimming without a wetsuit is achievable without any adverse effects to the swimmer. This year, however, it was 11 degrees celsius outside and 18 in the water apparently allowing for wetsuits to be used if one so desired. I don’t own one yet, so I was going to attempt the cold waters as I had the previous two years I’d swam in the lake, just me and my Speedo trunks.
7h30 am arrived and I was in the water soon thereafter. Edged myself into the water with my fellow three swimmers, all but me with a wetsuit. Ankle deep in water, it didn’t feel that bad. Avoiding to hold up the remaining swimmers, I ventured into the deeper waters of the dam swimming Freestyle to achieve more distance.
The first 100m swim wasn’t bad, I turned left at the first buoy and carried on. At roughly the 200m mark, I started to struggle to breath. Take a breath after either every stroke or fourth became a challenge. I slowed down, changing stroke style to Breaststroke. It didn’t make much difference. I was struggling to fill my lungs with oxygen.
I wasn’t feeling cold. I just started to realise I wasn’t able to breath as I’ve done so many other times open water swimming. I couldn’t understand why. I look at the shoreline. Although we weren’t that far out, at this point it felt far. Looking towards the lifeguards, I shouted “HELP” even attempting to lift my hand out the water so they see me.
He didn’t see me.
I look around me and everyone else is just focused on finishing the swim leg of the triathlon. At this point, I decide I’m going to give it another go and change strokes once more. I’m back into Freestyle. It wasn’t for long though. I’m still struggling to breath. I’m not panicking yet. I do realise I need to hold on and find a way to breath. I need to take a deep breath and fill my lungs. That’s how I’m feeling.
Again I attempt to shout… “HELP”
The lifeguard heard me! He’s paddling towards me.
I reach out to his board. I take a deep breath.
It’s not helping me.
I can’t fill my lungs. Every attempt feels like my lungs are already too full. It’s not helping. I decided, stuff it! I look towards the last buoy I need to swim past before the shore is a mere 50 metres away.
I’ve slowed my strokes now. Stuff the time. Darren and Brandt will have to make up the time during their leg of the triathlon. All I want right now is to survive the swim and see my boys again, ALIVE! I get to the last buoy and need to hold onto the lifeguard’s board again. I hear her say “You just need to swim around the buoy and you on the home stretch”.
I’m like, no I need to breathe. I just need to catch my breath.
30 seconds later I’m swimming again. This time all the way to the shore, and into the Transition Zone. Brandt takes the timing chip from me and is off for his 40km cycle.
I head to Darren, lay on the towel to see if I can catch a breath. I lift myself up to greet one of the sponsor representatives from Standard Bank, and I’m met by the worst headache I’ve ever experienced. Not even the hangover headaches could match it. I lay back down, and it’s refusing to go away. WTF is going on!
Paramedics are by my side doing their usual checks. I’m coherent. I’m breathing. Although not struggling as I was in the water just minutes earlier. I’m escorted to the First Aid tent just to make sure there’s nothing serious. Checks don’t reveal anything to be concerned about. However, the medic suggests I go to the nearest hospital just to be sure. In the meantime, one of the male nurses attempts to locate a vein in my left hand. He struggles for some reason. Let’s just say that a week later I still feel tender where he poked around my hand before finally being assisted by someone else who located a vein further up my arm successfully and painless to secure a drip. Not too long after I was on my first ambulance ride.
The ambulance got me to Netcare Union Hospital pretty comfortable. At one point my oxygen levels dropped below normal acceptable levels, leaving the paramedic a little concerned. Escorted into the Trauma unit of the hospital I was assisted by nurse Isadore Hoffman, who ran checks on my vitals again. Calling for blood and X-Rays to be done so the doctor could let me know if I was ok. Another nurse Hazel Mansoon took my blood from my right arm, clearly more experienced as I hardly felt it.
It felt like forever, but it was all probably an hour or two max. The doctor had received all the results and cleared me. The cold water caused my body to spasm as it tried to deal with the sudden cold.
Reading up seems I experienced Hyperpnea an increased depth and rate of ventilation to meet an increase in oxygen demand experienced during exercise. There doesn’t seem much concrete info on what actually causes hyperpnea, with some hypotheses even somewhat controversial. What I experienced wasn’t Hypothermia which is a physical condition that occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below a normal 37°C to 35°C or cooler. Cold water can dangerously accelerate hypothermia as the body heat can be lost 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air.
What an experience.
Glad to be alive!