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A test of endurance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I think he likes swimming," Jill Attia says of her husband, Peter, whom she married one year ago, "because he doesn't have to wear his wedding band."

Jill is kidding. Not that Peter would know. He didn't hear a word she said, even though he's only five feet away.

Peter is in his aqua bubble, busy swimming laps across Lake Barcroft in Falls Church, Va. He has covered about three miles so far on this sunny Sunday afternoon and intends to do 13 more, a total of eight uninterrupted hours in the water.

Ducks don't spend that much time in Lake Barcroft.

Jill is paddling alongside in a kayak, helping to keep him on a straight-line course, fending off wayward boaters, monitoring his snack intake. After all, they vowed to stick together in sickness and in health, plus months of marathon-swimming training.

The Attias live in Canton. Both work at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Peter, 32, is a surgical resident and Jill, 28, is a nurse practitioner. They try to make the three-hour round-trip drive to Falls Church once a weekend so he can do a long workout without going buggy swimming circles inside the pool at his Baltimore health club.

He's a relative newcomer to the sport, having taken up swimming in medical school after concluding his knees could no longer handle the strain of running and cycling. It was simply a means to a fitness end.

"My goal when I started swimming," says Attia, "was to be able to swim a mile."

That was then. This is now. Late Monday night, he is going to attempt to swim some 26 miles (which could stretch to 30 if the weather and currents don't cooperate) from Catalina Island to the California coast, America's answer to the storied English Channel. Only 114 people have ever done it.

Open-water distance swimming is an endurance contest that appeals only to a small subculture of athletes. It requires more than superb physical conditioning, says Cheryl Wagner, who organizes an annual swim across the Potomac River in Washington.

"It takes a certain mind-set and patience. It teaches me a lot of life lessons," explains Wagner. "There's always something happening: a stomachache or sea sickness or your goggles break or the weather changes."

"That's the cool thing about open-water swimming," adds James Kegley, a six-time winner of the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. "It's not you against the clock. It's whatever Mother Nature throws at you."

The best defense against unexpected obstacles is preparation, which happens to be a Peter Attia strong point.

Buying Jill an engagement ring, for example, wasn't a matter of whipping out a credit card. Attia first read a book about diamonds. Then he insisted upon going to a jeweler who would let him look at prospective rings through his surgical loupe.

"I think in general," says Attia, "that's a good principle in life: Do your research."

Thus, he has become a student of swimming technique, studying how fish move through water, boning up on buoyancy and proper body balance.

He has learned to slightly lift his eyes to sight the horizon, rather than crane his neck. He has learned to stroke using his shoulder, back and side muscles to supplement the arms. He'll ball his hands into a fist, stick them in surgical gloves and then go for a swim -- it helps develop a smoother, unified stroke.

While vacationing at the Grand Canyon this summer, he took daily dips in the 49-degree Colorado River, steeling himself for what he'll encounter in the Catalina Channel.

"Your immediate reaction is one of profound heat," he says of plunging into icy water. "You feel like your body's on fire."

Attia, a muscular 5 feet 10 and 177 pounds, glides effortlessly across Lake Barcroft, riding low in the water. His legs seem to be on a work slowdown. They flutter rather than kick, and only come to life about every other stroke. "Efficiency," he says, is the key to marathon swimming success.

His prep work also includes immersing himself in history. Attia knows that actor Matt Damon's uncle, at age 70, recently became the oldest person to ever swim the English Channel.

He knows that in 1927 George Young became the first to conquer Catalina Channel, taking home the $25,000 prize in a winner-take-all race organized by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.

Some 15,000 spectators gathered to watch Young wade ashore, guiding him in the dark with their car headlights, the sole entrant to finish from a starting field of more than 100 swimmers.

Why follow in Young's wake? Part of the answer is Attia's competitive, perfectionist personality. But the primary motivation, he insists, is hero worship.

Attia grew up in Toronto. As a boy he recalls being mesmerized by fellow Canadian Terry Fox. In 1980, Fox, a 22-year-old, curly-haired cancer patient who'd had his right leg amputated above the knee a few years earlier, embarked on an epic "Marathon of Hope" to raise money for cancer research.

Fox's plan was to run 26 miles a day for as long as it would take him to get from eastern to western Canada. He never made it coast to coast. The cancer migrated into his lungs a few months into the run, and he died shortly thereafter.

By then, however, Fox had hobbled 3,339 miles and captured the attention and the hearts of his countrymen. Twenty-five years later, runs continue to be held in his honor worldwide. To date, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised nearly $400 million.

"I want people to know about Terry Fox," says Attia, who hopes to generate $10,000 in foundation pledges with his Catalina swim. "Swimming 26 miles in a day is a joke compared to running 26 miles a day for 143 consecutive days."

He often thinks of Fox during workouts -- when stomach cramps hit or a shoulder hurts or the notion rears up inside his head to quit early and go eat Chinese.

He keeps swimming.

The alarm is set to go off on Jill Attia's wristwatch in 15-minute intervals: feeding time.

She eases her kayak close to her husband and tosses overboard a small plastic bottle tethered to a rope. The bottle contains exactly 125 milliliters of Gatorade. Every other break, he also gets to eat a packet of energy gel.

"Good job, babe!" says Jill. "How do you feel?"

"Adequate, but sore," he replies.

Attia rolls onto his back like a sea otter, tears the top off a gel Jill hands him, squeezes the goo into his mouth, and washes it down with the Gatorade.

Then he rolls over again and gets back to work.

He moves with metronomic precision, 48 strokes per minute. He cannot hear because of the rush of water, cannot see well through tinted goggles.

He is alone with his thoughts -- of Catalina Island, of sharks and ships that frequent the channel, of relentless Terry Fox, of ways to swim more efficiently.

Fifteen minutes later, the watch alarm goes off again. Jill paddles close. Attia rolls over. He chugs his Gatorade -- and unveils a possibly better way to eat energy gel while swimming.

"I've been thinking of a new delivery system," the doctor tells his wife. "I've been thinking of a Toomey syringe, 60cc, straight into my mouth."

CATALINA CALLING

Johns Hopkins Hospital surgical resident Peter Attia will slip into the 60-degree water of Catalina Channel around midnight Monday. If all goes well, he'll hit the beach near Point Vicente, Calif., 12 to 15 hours later.

One of his swim coaches will kayak next to him. Attia is required to hire a charter boat to accompany him for safety purposes, plus pay for a neutral observer to monitor his attempt.

According to the rules of marathon swimming, Attia is not allowed to make physical contact with anyone during the swim. He can wear a single latex cap, but no wet suit. He must be able to stand unassisted at the finish.

The problems Attia could face include hypothermia, nausea from ingesting salt water or boat fuel, a shark or barracuda encounter, getting tangled in kelp, bad weather and exhaustion. Only 114 people have ever completed the swim across Catalina Channel.

For more information:

If you're interested in open-water swimming, either as a fitness activity or competitive sport, the best way to get involved is through a local masters swim club.

The United States Masters Swimming Web site (usms.org) has a list of clubs nationwide. Distance swimmer Cheryl Wagner is the contact person for Terrapin Masters Swim Club (terrapinmasters.org), which practices at the University of Maryland, College Park.

To learn about the Catalina marathon swim, check the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation Web site, swimcatalina.org. On the East Coast, the 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is held every June. Details are available at bayswim.com.

Peter Attia is swimming Catalina Channel to raise money for the Terry Fox Foundation (terryfoxrun.org), which supports cancer research. Contributions can be made directly to the foundation or through Attia (3407 Harmony Court, Baltimore, MD 21224). Attia says he will personally acknowledge every donation he receives.

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