Monday, July 2, 2018

Open Water Ocean Swimming Hazards And The Triathlete




Setting out the buoys for the swim course

"The guy sure looks like plant food to me." Audrey II, Little Shop of Horrors
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I can't tell you how many times I've been "nipped" by jellyfish during an open water ocean swim.  More than 20 times I'd bet.  Kona, Boston, Chesapeake Bay, Florida, SC, come to mind quickly.  Many of us have run into a jellyfish or two either training or racing in ocean water. More of an inconvenience than anything usually, some poor souls have a more significant reaction. I received a note from an athlete a couple years ago who stated a jellyfish sting allergy and she wondered about the legality of wetsuits in an important ocean swim she has in her future, I suppose thinking the wetsuit a shield of sorts.  

Triathletes understand the significant differences between events held in a pool or lake and those in sea water.  Currents, waves, sighting,  etc., all are a little different and the triathlete who shows up event morning for their first effort trying to race in an ocean environment is not only stupid but risks both success and physical harm.  It's one of those times where the old adage of practice makes perfect has never been more true

Well, our athlete in question's race is the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii where wetsuits are not permitted. I've been stung in Kailua Bay a number of times, but it's always more like little needles that hurt/itch a little that day and then, like most of us anyway, it's gone. I've never even seen the ones that got me. If you're lucky, and looking ahead while you swim, which I know most of us don't do, and there's a big Portuguese man-o-war ahead, you can try and swim around it. Remember, it's tentacles can be 5-8 feet in length and have 100's of stinging cells on each. It's not uncommon after a stinging that some swimmers experience nausea, headache, muscle pain, etc.  After the initial welts subside a few are left with permanent scars.

In some locations, primarily around Australia, some jellyfish stings are so powerful that those who encounter them may need hospitalization with intravenous antivenom without which they suffer respiratory failure and and die.

So, if this summer you are stung while swimming, first (with gloves) peel off any left over tentacles and apply vinegar, straight from the kitchen. More involved stings may require medical attention and support from a cardiopulmonary perspective. Always be aware of the signs of an allergic reaction - difficulty swallowing/breathing/swelling of hands, face or tongue, etc.

Now how do we advise our lady with jellyfish allergy? First, I told her to contact the race director and race medical team well before the event.  I'm assuming that this condition has already been thoroughly worked up by a board certified Allergy Specialist.  The race medical guys need to know of the possibilities here. Second, there's a high likelihood that she can be "premedicated" before the race such that should a stinging event occur that she's covered. Sadly, in this day and age, I wouldn't be surprised if a special legal document isn't drawn up for her signature noting the risks she faces and accepts. Hey, it's 2018.

But, the take home message for most of those reading here is that most of us, when hit by that odd jelly or two in our morning swim, simply complain about it at breakfast - maybe lunch, a little - and then it's chalked up to triathlon experience.  They might even brag about it one day.

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