After 42 Torturous Hours, Diana Nyad's Marathon Ends with 'Pains I Never Felt Before'

updated 08/28/1978 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/1978 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I'm scared," admitted Diana Nyad, 28, just before her attempt to swim 110 miles of ocean between Cuba and the Florida Keys. "Sometimes I think I've bitten off more than I can chew."

She called it her "personal Olympics"—a 60-hour ordeal that would, if she somehow beat the odds and elements, win her the world's distance record for open-water swimming. She had trained for months—running 12 miles a day, working out with weights, spending seven mind-numbing hours of every 24 swimming laps to get her heart in shape. It was that same heart that dashed Diana's dream at 16 to land a berth on the U.S. Olympic swim team. She was prevented from try-outs because of a temporary but disabling infection in a heart valve. Since then she had scored some spectacular successes (circling Manhattan Island in less than eight hours; crossing Lake Ontario in 20—the first person ever to swim across it at all) and some notable failures (three aborted efforts to swim the English Channel). Even Diana was at a loss to explain why she persisted at such a grueling sport.

But at last, having raised $150,000—$45,000 of it for the Cleopatra, a pontoon-mounted shark cage—she waded into the foul-smelling ocean at Cuba's Ortegosa Beach, some 45 miles west of Havana. The real pain held off until the 12th hour—the swimmer's "wall"—when she started using brief rest periods to float on her back and touch her toes. She began to hallucinate, seeing spiders in the water. The waves grew higher, rising some six feet over the Cleopatra's bow and backwashing hard inside the cage. "Why the hell did they lie to me?" Diana screamed at one point. "They should have known the waves would be this high the minute we stepped onto the beach." After that came acute seasickness—she dry-heaved nearly every hour—and the painful, toxic stings of tropical jellyfish. Worst of all, in the end, was the salt in the 80° water, which caused her lips, mouth and tongue to swell grotesquely and crack.

That night the seas grew worse still, and Nyad, her body temperature dropping, began to shiver uncontrollably. "This is your last swim, Diana," trainer Margie Carroll called down. "You'll never have to do this again."

Shortly after sunrise, 42 hours out, navigator Rich du Moulin checked his position, then stepped onto the pontoon. "We just discovered that we're way off course," he yelled to Nyad. "You've been swimming in circles—and there's no way you're going to reach Florida if you go on. It's time to call it quits." "I can't quit," she insisted. How long would it take to finish? "A 50-hour swim wouldn't make it," du Moulin said. She had swum some 70 miles—but covered only 50 or so of her planned route. As she was lifted in tears from the water, Diana offered no objection: "I'm glad it's over. I've never been so tired in my life. I'm feeling pains I've never felt before."

Her supporters and curious crowds waited in Key West. Other boats that had accompanied her made port in three hours. But there was no sign of Follow the Sun, which was bringing her in. Not until seven hours later, when she finally landed and was carried to an ambulance, did the reason for the delay come clear: Her boat, like her dream, had run aground.

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