Friday, October 24. 2008
A Lovely Night Spent on the Water, October 2008
Right after our Catalina Island Swim in 2005, David Blanke started asking me about what “our” next swim was going to be. Our Catalina swim had come together when a common friend suggested we do it together. Liz Fry, a long-time friend from Connecticut asked to swim with us, and we became a trio. Our crew for this swim included a highly seasoned group of open water swimmers and kayakers. We were lucky enough to secure kayak escort extraordinaire, Richard Clifford, for the journey. (Visit DoverSolo.com/whatsnew for details of this swim.) I love swimming with David and Liz. Our speeds and personalities are comparable in the water and our crew members are fast friends.
After Catalina, I knew my next major swim was going to be the Chicago Skyline Swim, mainly because I could sleep in my own bed and didn’t have to travel. However, because of the details of my life, I couldn’t commit to when. Between my two young children, my husband who travels often for his job, my current position as Chair of the USMS Open Water Committee, and my own personal business, I finally stopped delaying a date, threw caution to the wind, and told David in the fall 2007, “We’ll do it in the summer of 2008.”
Our Catalina Swim had been the first time 3 swimmers had done Catalina in tandem. Boat pilots are reluctant to allow such swims because the swimmers must stay together, meaning swimming stroke for stroke. Each of us agreed to check our egos before we got on the escort boat to start, and thereby allow the slowest person to set the pace with the realization that this “slowest person” may change throughout the swim. Chicago would be no different except that Liz was in England making a 2-way attempt in the English Channel. In steps Chris Layton, now of Chicago and formerly, like me, from Connecticut. The two of us had swum on the same age group team in the 1970s, the Sharks, and in a pretty amazing coincidence, reconnected at a swim meet in Chicago shortly after I moved here in 2003. He and I started to swim weekly at Ohio Street beach on Saturday mornings three seasons a year, and became quite compatible in and out of the water. Chris was game when I broached the idea of this swim to him in 2006, knowing that we had lots of details to work out, but all in all, “it sounded like a good idea” at least at the time.
As I was well-aware, Chris could, would, and did blow by me in the pool but the Energizer Bunny and I have a lot in common. My moderate speed does not waiver. More importantly, I knew how David swims and I knew Chris would be a good all-around fit as both a strong swimmer and a very pleasant, agreeable person. He had some justified worries that needed hashing out (How am I going to stay up all night? Do you think I can make the distance? What will I eat?) but all in all, I sensed he would be ok.
In my regular life, I usually swim 4 to 5 times a week for a total of 15-20,000 yards week. This keeps me in decent shape and allows me “life balance.” At this point in my life, with each long swim I do, I need to do 30-35,000 yards a week for a sustained 5-6 month period. (For the sake of comparison, when I swam the English Channel in 1994, I swam 45,000 yards a week for nearly a year but that was before I had children.) When I set up my training plan in fall 2007, I planned to sustain my 15-20K through December then ramp it up weekly in January until I was at 30-35K. Ouch. It hurts getting there every time. The fatigue generated from my increased swimming wasn’t something negated by even the largest cup of high-voltage coffee. When Mark was in town, I often went to bed before the kids did. It was funny having my 7 & 10 year olds kissing me good night but then they were still snoozing when I got up at 4am to train. When Mark wasn’t in town, I went to bed about one minute after our children and swam when they were in school. When I trained for Catalina, I was able to go “doubles” (2 practices a day) one to two days a week so each individual session wasn’t super long. This time I didn’t have such a luxury of time so I swam long on two to three days, meaning (7-8000 yards), medium on 2 or three days (5000 yards), and as long as I needed to on the fifth or sixth day to obtain my weekly yardage. It usually worked out as Monday & Wednesdays were 8000 yards, Tuesday, Thursday, and Fridays were 5000 yards, and Saturday was 3-4000 yards. I also stretched and did abdominal/core work daily, or at least that was my intention. (It worked out to ~4 times a week but I should have been more diligent in this department.) Our household help during this training period was limited to a cleaning service every 8-weeks so I was getting plenty of “cross-training” in as well.
Since I do on-line coaching for other aspiring long distance swimmers, I signed myself up as a client and gave myself challenging workouts when I wasn’t working out with the master’s team at Northwestern University. Erica Rose, an American standout in open water swimming who participated in the 2008 U. S. Olympic Trials, told me she did much of her training with fins. Although I had always used fins sparingly, if it was good enough for Erica, it was good enough for me. On my long swim days, I used fins for at least half of my yardage, and occasionally on my shorter days. True to her word, Erica told me that I would be able to get my yardage in faster and there would be less stress on my shoulders, both which proved to be the case. I also started using a swimmer’s snorkel in November 2007 to adjust my head and neck position into a straight line with my spine. Both of these training aides proved essential to the success of the Skyline Swim. I could feel the enhanced power developed in my legs from all the fin work. Every time I started to slip into a less-than-perfectly straight body position, I would assume “snorkel position” from all that practice with that danged plastic tube in my mouth.
The longest swim I did in preparation was 4 hours on July 5th. My swim partner that day, Mike T-H, and I began in 62F rough seas at Foster Beach in Chicago. Bring it on. If I could work out in a washing machine, I would. Neither of us had any difficulties with this course, as we did “gerbil” laps along the beach, laying our minds as ease that boredom would be a factor to overcome. Most weekends, Chris, Mike, and I swam 2 hours in Lake Michigan, along with all the training we were individually doing during the week. During one of my mid-week sessions, when my Gal Friends were done and I still had several thousand yards to go, they were sitting poolside, sunning themselves, chatting it up, and sipping cool drinks. With great amusement, I yelled to them, “Come August 1st, I’m sitting right beside you.” For now, every single yard was important and necessary to me; hence I enjoyed it, well, most of the time.
Between February and July, I trained hard, took care of my family and home, kept up my chairmanship, worked with my clients, and had time for little else. I also began to tell people outside my close inner circle about my summer swim. I’m always careful about such disclosures because I want to do it close enough to the swim date that I am not driven crazy by well-intended questions. To the good fortune of our family, the friends we have made in the Chicago area are salt-of-the-earth, supportive, generous folks. We support one another in so many ways, regardless of whether there is only a vague sense of the subject matter at hand. Several of these great friends showed up at either the start or the finish of the swim, giving us a wonderful exit then entrance to the real world.
The weekend before Showtime approached, I packed for the swim and went over with Mark where everything was. Since Mark and I have done many of these swims together, we determined a feeding schedule. I was confident that he would be fine as my crew and clearly understood the directions. Although David just takes Gatorade during these swims, Chris and I ate the same thing. After the first hour, and every 30 minutes thereafter, I would receive a water bottle with Endurox and a Hammer Gel. As backup, I wanted peanut butter sandwiches. On every 4th feeding, I would receive a scoop of protein powder in my food. For the first few hours, I drank about ¼ to ½ of each presented bottle, ate the gels, and I was fine. After about 4-5 hours, the Endurox was feeling “heavy” in my stomach so Mark began to water it down. I also desired peanut butter sandwiches so Mark gave me ¼ sandwiches in lieu of the gels. I munched a few bites, let the rest fall away from my mouth and got back to swimming. When asked, Mark also delivered Tylenol or Motrin like a Mama bird feeding her babies. The feeds for the three of us took between 1-2 minutes, not lightening fast but not glacially slow, especially with three of us to feed.
Before the swim, I volunteered to make the necessary arrangements with the city authorities so our swim would be “legal,” and we wouldn’t be hauled out down to the police station in the middle of the night in our dripping wet Speedos. I had been in frequent communication with Nial Funchion who, in 2003, became the second person to do this swim. I had spoken with Kevin Murphy about logistics as well; in 2002, Kevin became the first person to do this swim and is the reigning “King of the English Channel,” having completed this famous lap 34 times. Both Nial and Kevin were supportive and helpful, steering our swim right every time I asked for help. We had secured two extremely competent and caring kayakers early on, Richard and Tom. Tom came with the added bonus of being intimately familiar with the coastline of Lake Michigan, especially in Chicago, and he had been Kevin’s escort in 2002. Eventually, we would veer about 50 feet off the course he meticulously plotted with GPS. Swimming alongside his kayak during our trek made me feel like I was following the stripe along the pavement of a running marathon.
Now all we needed were two escort power boats. We had a large Zodiac, piloted by one of Mark’s closest friends, Rob, and his son, Max. David confirmed about a week before our swim date that we could use his sister’s 19’ ski boat, docked in Madison, Wisconsin. The day before our swim, David and his 2 nephews, Paul and Dan, would trailer this final puzzle piece to Chicago from Madison. Getting the two boats we needed was incredibly stressful, time consuming, and potentially expensive. We were all thankful it eventually worked out as well as it did. And boy, were we ever blessed with first-rate boat pilots and kayakers.
Our crew proved to be excellent, both on the water and on land. Since no marathon swim would ever happen without a competent crew, the success of a swim can often be attributed directly to the skill of a crew. From having been in both positions way too many times to count, the job of the swimmer, that is (to shut up and) to swim is a heck of a lot easier than any other position. A crew is collectively responsible for feeding the swimmer the correct food in a timely manner, monitoring the swimmers’ mental and physical condition, keeping a log, tracking the course, dealing with all sorts of weather, receiving verbal abuse from a myriad of sources, conversing with the authorities on the marine radio, and being head cheerleader & chief bottle washer.
Chris volunteered his local teammates to support us on land and we could not have been in better hands. They chauffeured us to the start, carrying gear and keeping us calm. Coupled with my local friends, all of them gave us a wonderful send off from Juneway Beach. I was nervous about staying up all night but I felt very serene as we stepped into the water. Even more comforting was the blessing of several of these same and many new friends came to support our finish and called the boat while we were in the water. Finding Calumet Beach from a land point is no easy feat and I simply didn’t ask how they did it. I just figured that such top-notch friends would have the ability to find us wherever we landed.
Tom’s 5-star wife, Peggy, was incredibly supportive. She drove Mark, David, Tom, and me back to our car parked at the starting line. I have no recollection of the route we took, since I was zoning in and out of exhaustion then suddenly we were at Juneway. She thanked us for being prompt; with Kevin, she had had to wait around in Hammond, Indiana for 8 hours!
Our boat crews were on us the whole night. From the Zodiac, Mark, Rob, and Max handled the feedings and direct contact with us swimmers. When it was time to feed us, Tom and Richard would stop us, the Zodiac would zoom in from behind, feedings prepped and ready, and the pit stop would begin. All the while on the other boat, Joe, Cooky, Dan, and Paul were watching us and listening to the open walkie talkie for what was transpiring. Into the official log, they recorded what each of us ingested (or refused), how we each felt, our position in the lake, and the general happenings occurring at that exact time. A copy is now permanently housed in the International Swimming Hall of Fame as the record of our swim. The collective efforts of these seven crewmates were a major component of our success. To view our complete log, please visit DoverSolo.com/whatsnew.
Before we began, the local ABC TV station interviewed us and we appeared on the 10pm news, then again at 6:45am, via the traffic helicopter, and again at noon, when the newscasters reported our success now nearly 4 hours old. The local paper, Winnetka Talk, also covered the story and ran a front page photo and story in the next issue. What I liked best about this media coverage was that we are normal people, all in our 40s, with jobs and lives and families, and we managed to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to accomplish this goal. It took a lot of planning and even more training but we did it.
Starting the Friday before the swim, I started to get as much sleep as possible. Going from my regular 6+ nightly hours to 8 or 9 felt every bit like the vacation it was intended to be. Over the weekend, I swam at Tower Beach each morning. When Laura Slevin Moriarity caught up with me in the water on Sunday, surprised to see me topless, she laughed when I told her I was doing some “drag training.” On Monday and Tuesday, I swam only for an hour each day, then hung out on my bed and worked on my laptop computer the rest of the day. The plan was to stay off my feet and I actually did, allowing Jessie, our very capable and experienced summertime babysitter, to take over. I loaded up on the calories also, with daily milkshakes of chocolate milk, peanut butter, and bananas. Each and every one of those calories and grams of fat in those special shakes made so much of the previous training worth it.
When I got back from picking up or dropping off someone somewhere, I knew David, Dan, and Paul had arrived on Tuesday afternoon when I saw the boat in front of our house. As difficult as it was to secure a boat, it proved surprisingly easy to launch it from Lloyd’s Beach in Winnetka on Wednesday, a very good sign. Richard and Cooky joined us for dinner on Tuesday, and I really felt like things were falling into place. That night, Chicago had a typically dramatic Mid-Western thunderstorm that probably would have thwarted our efforts if we had been in the lake that night. The same thing happened on Thursday night, leading me to believe that the open water weather gods had sent us an apparent message by granting us clear skies and fairly calm winds on Wednesday night.
For the two days before the swim, I had deprived myself of all caffeine sources, making myself miserable in the process. Therefore the Starbucks Venti (XL) latte two hours before the start truly hit and stayed on the spot for the next 14 hours.
On Wednesday, Mark covered the AM household shift so I could sleep ALAP (L= Long), which wound up to be 8:30am. I ate a regular breakfast and lunch at the appropriate meal times and a PBJ sandwich before we left. Since we were feeding every 30 minutes through the night, there was no need to carry any extra food weight in my stomach. Many marathon swimmers choose to overlook this fact and gorge themselves beforehand and afterwards, something I don’t agree with at all.
It’s always a good sign when one is bored before a swim and that is exactly how David felt on the morning of the swim. His sole amusement seemed to be watching me dart about our house, dealing with my family and home, swearing under my breath, “This is the LAST time I do a swim at home and have to take care of other people on swim day.” Between meal preparations, carpooling, and making sure the kids had what they needed for the next 24 hours, rest I did not. That afternoon, before we took off, I attended “Family Day” at Sam’s camp, drove him home, changed into my suit, packed up the car, and Mark and I set off for the start of this marathon swim; all without the benefit of 48 hours worth of caffeine.
A lot was coming together. David and “the boys” were piloting the boat south from Winnetka to the start. Coming from across the lake, Rob and Max’s were nearly in Chicago, and would anchor at the starting beach. Tom and Richard had worked out the kayaks, gear, and course. Chris and Joe had been picked up at their home by the “Land Crew” and would be at the start when Mark and I arrived. Cooky, blank log in hand, was ready to go for this Chicago night boat cruise. Mark and I made a stop at Starbucks – PHEW! As everyone who wasn’t swimming bustled about, Chris and I were allowed to wait; David was on the boat getting ready.
The kayakers, boats, and crew suddenly all appeared on the water in front of Juneway Beach. It was now time to begin. After the media interviews and the magnificent send-off from friends, David, Chris, and I united on the shore line and marched into the water together to begin our Chicago Skyline Swim. It was 6:52pm on Wednesday July 30, 2008.
Often during the first few moments of a long swim, I ask myself if I really want to be doing this and do I think I can make it? (Truthfully, it often comes out, “What the (insert expletive of choice) are you doing here?”) With all the training and preparation I had done, a serene “Yes” to both is the only answer. (Actually, the answer is really “Shut the (insert expletive of choice) up and swim.”) For those first few hours, the sun was still up in the sky and we were swimming in relatively shallow water so the sandy bottom was clear below us. There was still plenty of “life” happening on the waterfront at this hour so we garnered many waves and cheers from curious onlookers. Tom’s course took us on the straightest tangent possible so we did get close to many piers early on. I looked at the landmarks as we passed: Loyola, several apartment buildings, Hollywood Beach, Foster Beach, gradually shifting my brain from land to water, getting into the non-stop, forever pace.
We also used those early hours of the swim to get everyone situated: boats, kayaks, and swimmers alike. Initially, the ski boat was on the east side. Tom came next and flanked us three swimmers: Chris, me, and David. Richard was on David’s right (west) side, and the Zodiac rounded out our flotilla on the west side. Aside from Chris and me changing places because he preferred the middle, we kept this formation for the duration of the swim. Later into the swim, when not feeding swimmers, the power boats would lag behind to confer and monitor boat traffic, as Tom and Richard competently shepparded us swimmers southward.
Throughout this entire swim, I felt fine. My left shoulder did start to bother me after several hours but it was not unbearable pain and regular Motrin kept it operational. My feeds agreed with me and I felt that they were of the right consistency and coming at the correct frequency.
Around 8:30/9 PM, the sun started to dip and every stroke taken was in one more gradient of darkness. I wanted to hold on to the sun for ALAP (L= long), but letting it go now meant we’d see it on the other side. Even better was the fact that we’d start to see the Chicago Skyline from a night-lit perspective. I also knew that Chris was worried about swimming in the dark so by David and me not deviating from our plan in any way, Chris’s fear could be kept at bay. At our next feeding, Mark gave us all light sticks to put in the straps of our bathing caps in order to track our whereabouts in the dark. Chris and David never touched theirs but leave it to me to fiddle with my equipment if I can. Within an hour, I had maneuvered my light stick right to the bottom of the lake so Mark gave me my next light stick with a safety pin attached, instructing me to attach it to the back of my suit, “And keep your hands off it.” All better and no more fiddling, darn it all.
By 9 PM, it was good and dark. We were north of Navy Pier and had a unique seat to the Wednesday night fireworks. A few hours later, we would swim through the area where the firework ashes had fallen; I like that charred, smoky smell. After the fireworks, we were into the heavy lifting of this swim. For the next 7 hours, it would be very dark. Time to get it done now.
About 4 ½ hours into this swim, Chris started getting sick. His feeds weren’t agreeing with him and combined with the slight chop we had encountered, he felt seasick. So for the rest of the swim, David and I encouraged Chris at every feeding as he either took in a little bit of something, even water, or declined his feed. We told him often, “Just make it to the next feeding. It’s only another 30 minutes.” Then we would set off to swim again. I would usually watch Chris feed the fish in the next few minutes, knowing how mentally and physically badly he was feeling. Both David and I have been there, done that. It’s such an ironic position because here you are, the Superduper Swimmer and something like an upset tummy is defeating you to the point of rock bottom, in your very own element. Cold water can do the same thing; fortunately for us, the water temperature held steadily in the low 70s, making hypothermia a non-factor.
At our feeding sometime around 11pm, Richard became the town crier.
“Chris, Joe says you have to eat something.”
“Marcia, just keep doing what you’re doing.”
“David, Leslie called and said to eat more protein and she’s going to bed now and will call again when she wakes up in the morning.” (Leslie is David’s wife and often accompanies him on his long swim but stayed home in Austin, Texas this time with their children.)
I marveled at how technology has allowed so many people to be involved from afar.
One the great things I like about swimming in Lake Michigan is that there is relatively little in the water that one is going to run into when swimming. When I swam in New York and Connecticut, we were forever dealing with seaweed, fish, sea lice, jellyfish, and occasionally, trash in the water. In Chicago, I primarily focus on just the swimming. Mark told me that a large school of fish, possibly perch, was picked up on the radar passing directly below us but that was about as exciting as it got all night. After the swim, one of my east coast friends asked if I had been inundated with jellyfish on my swim, like they were experiencing that summer in the Atlantic waters. I couldn’t resist telling him about the fresh water jellies and the great dark sharks.
“In Lake Michigan, the only jellies to worry about are the 10-foot monster fresh water jellies with 50-foot tentacles that only come out at night. If they sting you, a perverse reaction causes you to sing the Chicago Bears fight song over and over for the next 4 hours. ("Bear Down Chicago Bears…") If you escape these jellies, you must be able to outswim the Great Dark Sharks, the lesser known species related to the Great Whites but far more dangerous due to their voracious appetite for Lycra and Latex. It was a very very dangerous swim and we barely escaped with our lives.”
We were settled into a routine of feedings and swimming. We all swam freestyle but occasionally, I threw in a little backstroke, especially after a feed in order to finish what was in my mouth. Immediately after a feed, we swimmers would set off south without any escort for about a minute. The kayaks would reload anything they needed from the boats then catch up to us. I always felt safe because in those dark waters, it would have been easy to see approaching traffic. The boats would confer together and trail us for about the next 28 minutes when it would be time to feed again. Thus is the exciting life of an open water swim.
After we passed Navy Pier, Tom plotted us to start veering away from shore, following the most direct tangent of the swim. The lit up buildings started to get lose detail and look more like those professional panoramic night shots. I was loving every stroke of it, so appreciative of my ability to be in this spot at this time. It occurred to me that many of the current Olympians in Beijing at this time would not be able to do this swim since it is so different from pool swimming. When we were 8 hours into the swim, I happily informed Tom that I felt sufficiently warmed up and ready to go now. He just smiled at my goofiness.
South of Grant Park, the buildings disappeared and only the dark parkway loomed to our west. Not a problem because I now had in my sights what I thought was an enormous cruise ship. It took me a long while to conclude that #1) people do not take enormous cruise ships around Lake Michigan, #2) this was the water intake plant, visible as only a speck when viewed from South Lake Shore Drive. It was gigantic and had a lot of red lights in grid-patterns. We came within 500 yards of it and I got to wondering if I could be sucked into it, like the Sewage Treatment Plant south of the George Washington Bridge in the Hudson River leg of the Manhattan Island Swim. Since I was on the most eastern side of our assemblage, this was a possibility, especially when you consider that my brain wasn’t functioning at its optimal coherent capacity right now. David was wondering the same thing too but told me later, “I figured you’d be sucked in first so I was safe where I was.” The bottom line here is that we were always safe.
One of the best parts of our swim was just about to happen: DAWN! Watching the sun rise from the water never ceases to amaze me. Today’s day break event didn’t disappoint. I knew we had a very good chance of being successful as a group once that sun rose and pumped some energy into us. Chris was still nauseous but steadier now. He asked for feedings to be every 20 minutes since half hour intervals were becoming unbearable for his arms and stopping felt so good. Of course, the painful price was to start up swimming again after a break. I bargained with him for 25 minutes since David and I could have gone to a 40 minute feeding schedule. When he declined his feed at the first 25 minute stop, I told him sternly that we were stopping for him and therefore he HAD to eat something; he complied.
When we were fed around 5:45am, Mark announced, “Traffic Chopper will be here in 15 minutes.” The Channel 7 ABC newsroom had called to find out if we were still in the water and if so, where were we. Mark later said that giving these directions was one of the highlights of his summer! When the helicopter arrived, I expected it to hover close above us but it was way way up there. They must have some mega-zoom camera since the footage they showed on TV a few minutes later showed us up close, swimming in tandem, and looking strong.
Richard specifically told me, “We are going straight towards the split in that breakwater.” After being called many endearing terms over the years directly linking me to the phrase “Stop looking around, you tourist. Swim!” I took this opportunity to inform Richard, “Looking around isn’t my job, I’m just here to swim.” Smarty pants. To reinforce this descriptive, just before we went through the breakwater, I told Tom, “I’m ready for the main set now.” He laughed out loud.
The breakwater area is like a huge playpen. I knew beforehand that there are some military bases just north of this spot but I had forgotten such trivial information over the past 12 hours. If by chance they were doing underwater testing on explosives that morning, we would have received quite a lift but no such chance today. Within the breakwater, the water temperature went up at least 2 degrees. It was fine for the 1 ¾ miles we had to swim into the beach but such a temperature for the full swim would have been too hot.
There we were: taking stroke after stroke just as we had been doing for the past 12+ hours. Each stroke was bringing us one stroke closer to the beach. Chris thought we would never ever get to the beach. Soon, the sandy bottom appeared again and sea plants were trying to tickle our torsos. The biggest satisfaction and relief was getting inside of the “Swim Area” buoys at Calumet Beach since I knew now that we would finish. Our ground crew was standing in front of the flag pole and the closer we got, the easier it became to distinguish faces. When Chris, David, and I stood up and exited the water, following Channel Rules (“You have to get to where there is no water in front of you”), I was euphoric that we had made it. Our entire armada had worked as a team all night, stayed united, and made this happen.
I didn’t feel tired while we were swimming but once I had walked up the beach then come back into the water to “wash off”, I felt the fatigue. The past 25 miles of swimming and staying up all night caught up in an instance. Heidi, Liz, Peggy, Chip, Jacob, and a few other friends, made sure we were ok and helped us shower and dress. Everyone was fine, just feeling the effects of the effort expended. I vaguely remember Peggy driving us north as I was fading in and out during the drive.
In the afternoon, we took naps then had enough energy to go out to dinner. It was there that David started talking about “our next swim;” I just looked at him amusingly. Who knows when; first we have to figure out the where.
Thank you to all of you who made this swim happen:
Our crew, Mark Green, Rob & Max Carstens, Joe Gray, Cooky Donaldson, Dan & Paul (David’s nephews)
Our Kayakers, Richard Clifford & Tom Heineman
Our amazing Ground Crew and well-wishers, Heidi Kafka, Liz Kooy, Chip Gray, Jacob Karaca, Peggy Heineman, Laura Slevin Moriarity, Kaari Reierson, Susan, Kyle, & Kelly Bertram, Kris Rutford, Julia Green, Leslie Blanke, Robert Zeitner, and everyone else out there cheering us on! All of your support really mattered. Thanks!!!
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