Mountaineering or Marathon Swimming?

I previously alluded to a “spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers,” in describing Jen Schumacher’s back-to-back Mt. Whitney/Lake Tahoe adventures. To illustrate what I mean, consider the following book quotations. Do they refer to mountaineering or marathon swimming? I’ve redacted any clues that would make it obvious.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

There were many, many fine reasons not to… but attempting to [climb Mt. X/swim Channel Y] is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

By this time [so-and-so] was a full-time professional [climber/swimmer]. Like most of his peers, he sought funding from corporate sponsors to pay for his expensive [climbs/swims]. And he was savvy enough to understand that the more attention he got from the news media, the easier it would be to coax corporations to open their checkbooks. As it happened, he proved to be extremely adept at getting his name into print and his mug on the telly. “Yeah… he always did have a bit of a flair for publicity.”

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

To continue receiving sponsorship from companies… a [climber/swimmer] has to keep upping the ante. The next [climb/swim] has to be harder and more spectacular than the last. It becomes an ever-tightening spiral; eventually you’re not up to the challenge anymore.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

The possibility of danger serves merely to sharpen his awareness and control. And perhaps this is the rationale of all risky sports: You deliberately raise the ante of effort and concentration in order, as it were, to clear your mind of trivialities.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

[Climbing/swimming], she understood, was an essential expression of some odd, immutable aspect of my personality that I could no sooner alter than change the color of my eyes.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

[Mt. X/Channel Y] has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

She’s interested in publicity. If she had to do it anonymously I don’t think she’d be [climbing/swimming].

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other [mountain/swim]; I quickly came to understand that [climbing Mt. X/swimming Channel Y] was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to…toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing… is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

This is an activity that idealizes risk-taking; the sport’s most celebrated figures have always been those who stick their necks out the farthest and manage to get away with it. [Climbers/swimmers], as a species, are simply not distinguished by an excess of prudence.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

If [so-and-so] wanted to be considered among the world’s truly great [climbers/swimmers], he would need to shift his focus to [steeper/longer], very difficult, previously [unclimbed/unswum] routes.

As it turns out, each of these quotations are about mountaineering. In fact, they’re all from the same book: Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about a disastrous 1996 Mt. Everest expedition. (Great book, by the way.)

But they very well could have been written about marathon swimming, yes??

The “Freshies” – My 10 favorite open-water happenings of 2011

End-of-year list-making: It’s not just for music aficionados, film buffs, and the New York Times Book Review. Why not open water swimmers, too?

So, here are my 10 favorite open-water “happenings” of 2011 (“happenings” because they’re not all swims).

The list is, admittedly, U.S.-centric – America is where I live and what I pay the closest attention to. While I greatly admire (for example) Nejib Belhedi’s 1400K Swim Across Tunisia, I have no unique insights to add to what others have already said. Perhaps Donal or somebody can make an international list.

The list also reflects my own personal biases. I readily admit, I couldn’t care less about “stunts” in which the promotional efforts are more impressive than the swim itself. Sorry, but I find such things distasteful and think they degrade our sport.

With that in mind, here are the winners of the inaugural “freshies” (in no particular order):

Rob Dumouchel: New Year’s Day Polar Bear 10K.

6 miles through sharky 53F (11.6C) ocean, from Avila Beach to Pismo Beach, CA. Quite possibly, the northern hemisphere’s first marathon swim of 2011. Long live the adventure beard!

David Barra & Rondi Davies: 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.

A 120-mile expedition stage swim from Catskill, NY to the Big Apple. Earned a feature in the New York Times while still seeming under-promoted. A surprising omission from the WOWSA nominations.

Jen Schumacher: Mt. Whitney & Lake Tahoe Back-to-Back.

Day 1: Climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. (14,505ft / 4,421m). Day 2: Swim across Lake Tahoe length-wise (21 miles at 6,225 ft elevation). A lung-busting feat of cross-training. A tacit acknowledgment of the spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers.

Forrest Nelson: Catalina Circumnavigation.

Forrest doesn’t call the L.A. Times. He doesn’t hire a camera crew to film a made-for-TV special. Forrest lets his swimming do the talking. The most impressive marathon swim of 2011 by someone not named Penny Palfrey.

  1. Roger Allsopp: English Channel at age 65.
  2. Pat Gallant-Charette: Catalina Channel at age 60.
  3. Elizabeth Fry: Double crossing of the English Channel at age 52.

Three heroic swims, three new age records.

NYC Swim: A re-written record book. The first double-Ederle swim, by Elizabeth Fry (and along the way, new one-way records in each direction).
Then, re-broken one-way Ederle records, by Lance Ogren and myself.
Best of all: Rondi Davies’ and Ollie Wilkinson’s incredible MIMS match race, with both swimmers breaking Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary 16-year old round-Manhattan record.
Morty Berger isn’t someone who seeks out attention, but I’ll just go ahead and say: He deserves a lot of the credit for these record-breaking swims.

Penny Palfrey: Cayman Islands Swim. If this wasn’t the greatest feat of endurance swimming in history, it’s second only to the English Channel triple-crossings (Jon Erikson, Alison Streeter, & Philip Rush).

Petar Stoychev. Not a terribly original choice, but you can’t under-sing this guy’s praises. Petar is, it would seem, immune to water temperature. He already holds the fastest English Channel crossing (6 hr, 57 min). This year, he won the FINA 25K world championship in 32C (90F) water. He has won the FINA Grand Prix circuit 10 years in a row, and is still going strong at age 34. At some point soon, he will probably be acknowledged as the greatest open water swimmer…ever.

USA Swimming 10K Open-Water National Championships. Rough-water swimming at its finest – and the most exciting open-water race I’ve ever seen. For 9,800m, Andrew Gemmell, Sean Ryan, Arthur Frayler, and Mark Warkentin battled it out in insanely choppy conditions. Swimmers were colliding with each other from opposite directions on a rectangular course. Alex Meyer slipped in for the win, to qualify for World Championships (and eventually, London). Here’s a video.

State of California: Shark fin ban. Because shark-finning is barbaric and shameful. Sometimes, government can make a difference.

For what it’s worth, I endorse the following nominees for the WOWSA awards:

  • Man of the Year: Simon Griffiths (publisher of the new H20pen Magazine)
  • Woman of the Year: Penny Palfrey
    • Note: Penny is listed in both this category and the “performance of the year” category. As I predicted, she is splitting her own vote.
  • Performance of the Year: Forrest Nelson
    • Need another reason to vote for Forrest? I haven’t gotten a single email or Facebook post from him, begging for my vote.

Marathon swimming and low-carbohydrate diets

Following up my previous post on channel swimmer/physician Peter Attia’s webinar about “Nutrition for Open Water Swimming”…

Peter Attia

As you may have heard, the topic of the webinar was broader than the title indicates. In marathon swimming, “nutrition” typically refers to the stuff consumed during a swim to provide energy. But Dr. Attia was more interested in what people eat when they’re not swimming – i.e., diet.

If I could summarize his point, it would be this: Endurance athletes are asking the wrong question. Sure, Maxim is probably better than Gatorade during a swim. But the more important issue is: How best to train our metabolism through diet so it will most efficiently convert fuel into energy. According to Peter (who now has a blog), the ideal solution is a ketogenic diet.

The ketogenic diet is a type of low-carbohydrate diet that restricts carb intake so severely (less than 60 grams per day – equivalent to a small-ish bowl of pasta) that the body is forced to burn fat for energy instead of the “easy” glucose offered by carbohydrates. I won’t get into the theory and biochemical justification for the diet here, but if you’re interested you might consider checking out (in order of sophistication):

The low-carb/paleolithic/ketogenic diet has been around a while – some might even argue, for several million years. (Note: There are subtle differences among the terms low-carb, paleolithic, and ketogenic, but for our current purposes we’ll ignore them.) But what’s intriguing about Peter’s argument is that he’s promoting this diet as an endurance athlete. Even Mark Sisson is quick to note that he’s a former marathon runner.


I actually read The Primal Blueprint a couple years ago – and found it quite compelling. But in the end, I decided against “going primal” because it seemed totally impractical to train for marathon swims without eating lots of carbs. Sounds like bonk city, right? According to Dr. Attia, however, not only can you train for endurance events on a low-carb diet, but you actually have an advantage over your carb-addicted competitors.

The key is being keto-adapted – being able to burn ketones (a byproduct of fat metabolism) for energy instead of glucose. While most people’s bodies are reluctant to transition from glycolysis to ketosis (the scientific term for “hitting the wall”), people who are keto-adapted do it seamlessly. This has important implications for endurance athletes because eventually, all endurance athletes have to burn fat for energy. After 2-3 hours, glycogen stores are exhausted. But if you’ve already trained your body to readily metabolize fat, your energy levels should be steadier through a long swim. At least in theory.

So, will I be hopping on the low-carb bandwagon? Meh…

I’m of several minds about this. On the one hand, I do find the science behind low-carb diets – the benefits for general health and sustainable weight loss – to be compelling. And I do think “primal foods” are delicious. Fresh, organic veggies… free-range eggs… grass-fed beef… dark chocolate… bacon…. What’s not to love?

On the other hand, I really like carbs, too. I’m not sure I want to give up my heaping plate of pesto pasta; an oven-fresh loaf of French bread; tabbouleh salad, hummus, and pita bread; pizza! I’ve also never had any trouble digesting grains – which is a common reason people turn to low-carb diets. And on a practical level, it’s difficult to avoid carbs in most modern societies.

Ultimately, diet is a very personal choice. I wouldn’t advise quitting carbs just for its potential benefits in endurance sports. Personally, I’m not convinced on that point. I used my custom maltodextrin formula on four swims this year, totaling almost 31 hours and more than 90 miles of swimming – and my energy levels stayed consistently strong (shoulder pain was a different issue).

Jonas Colting

Peter presented some interesting data on his own performance benefits from keto-adaptation – but as he freely admits, that’s just one data-point. Ultraman champion Jonas Colting is another interesting data-point. But as far as I know, there have been zero scientifically rigorous, large-sample studies of low-carb diets among endurance athletes.

It’s certainly worthy of further study.

If you do decide to follow in Attia and Colting’s footsteps, you may find the following articles at Mark’s Daily Apple helpful:

One final issue, regarding the weight-loss benefits of low-carb diets. There’s a funny thing about marathon swimmers… many of them actually don’t want to burn off all their fat. Some of them are (the horror!) desperate to gain weight! A little bioprene goes a long way in a cold-water channel. Apparently, Peter Attia has chiseled himself down to 7.5% body fat. Very impressive in most contexts, but probably not ideal for cold water.

Has anyone out there tried low-carb diets? What about during heavy endurance training? What have been your experiences?

Catalina Channel swim (final report)

My Catalina swim has been marinating for more than three months now, so I figured it was time to put this one to bed. Previous posts have covered my star-studded crew, a video, my GPS tracks, and my fear of deep water. Now to the swim itself.

You may have already read Rob’s account, but here it is again for those who missed it.

A Long Swim: View of San Pedro Channel and Catalina Island from Pt. Vicente. The island is barely visible in the distance. The white speck shows my location at 8:06am (an hour before I finished). Photo Credit: Mom

Continue reading “Catalina Channel swim (final report)”

Banquet day in San Pedro: Celebrating a big season of California channel swimming

And now, a few words about the CCSF and SBCSA annual banquets (before the memories are too far from mind). Rob already wrote a fairly authoritative recap – to which I don’t have much to add.

(L-R) Anne Cleveland, Marcia Cleveland, and Cindy Cleveland. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Despite the recent surge of interest and participation in open-water swimming, marathon swimmers are still a rare breed – and our efforts are distributed across the globe. It would be unusual for more than a few of them to be in a room at the same time. How often, for example, would you be able to get a picture of the three great Clevelands together? (No relation – see picture at left.)

November 5th at the San Pedro Doubletree (a place I’ve come to know rather well this year!), the CCSF filled a large conference room with marathon swimmers (past and present) and their families. In a classy, inspiring ceremony emceed by Forrest Nelson, the Federation celebrated the successes of 26 solo swimmers, several relays, as well as Forrest’s own epic circumnavigation of the island.

List of successful 2011 soloists

It was a moving tribute to the courage of channel swimmers: the courage required to jump off a boat in the middle of the night, to leave the safety of land and offer oneself up to deep, dark, unknowable waters; swimming for as long as it takes to reach the other side.

Lynne Cox. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Lynne Cox – perhaps the most courageous among us – gave a keynote speech without notes, holding the room spellbound for a solid 45 minutes.

Cindy Cleveland was finally recognized for her pioneering circumnavigation of Catalina in 1979. Here was this petite, unassuming lady… one of a small handful who might be included in the “greatest marathon swimmer ever” conversation. She got a spontaneous standing ovation – and I think she almost melted on the spot. It was adorable.

And so, with a certificate signed by Forrest Nelson, Paula Selby, and John York, I officially became the 212th person to cross the Catalina Channel. It was the 263rd successful solo swim (accounting for multiple crossings by the same individual) and the 24th-fastest in the C-M direction. The full, updated list of successful solo swims can be viewed here.

Official certificate

When things started winding down at the Doubletree, Rob and I headed across town to Acapulco Restaurant to attend the board meeting of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. I’m super-excited to serve this organization, and mark my words: There will be some interesting things happening in the Santa Barbara Channel over the next few years.

Following the board meeting was the banquet, celebrating 7 solo successes – 6 from Anacapa and one from Santa Cruz. It was the second-biggest year ever for the SBCSA, behind only 2008. Many of the same faces were in attendance – a benefit of having the banquets on the same day in the same town.

SBCSA board of directors (L-R): Jim F., Jane C., Dean W., Evan M., Dave V.M., Lynn K., Scott Z., Dale M.

Rob and I polished off the day at the Crowne Plaza bar, where we ran into Captain Bob and Three-Ring Mike. We reflected on our experiences and discussed the future. In marathon swimming, the end of the season can mean only one thing: Time to plan for next year!

It was a good day.

More coverage:

Lessons in pool etiquette: Masters edition

Rob and Donal have already said what needs to be said about lap swimming etiquette – and with great style, I might add.

What I’d add to the discussion is this: The importance of etiquette is not limited to lap swimming! It’s not just the noodlers and resolutionistas. You might think Masters swimmers would pick up the basics of pool etiquette pretty quickly. It’s tougher to get away with being oblivious and/or rude in a team environment. You might even think more experienced Masters swimmers – those who, by virtue of their proficiency, have obviously been swimming for many years – would be least likely to offend.

Which leads me to a funny story. On my Masters squad, we recently had a new person join, who just moved from out of town. We’ll call him/her “Pat.” Pat is an excellent swimmer – most likely, (s)he once competed at the college level. Nonetheless, here I am, writing this post…

With a tip of the hat to Bill M., here are five New Rules of Etiquette in Masters swimming:

  1. When you join a new Masters team, join the lane you can keep up with… without equipment. Do not join the lane you “aspire” to swim in, but can only make the intervals with the assistance of gigantic flippers.
  2. If, on your previous team, everyone used gigantic flippers on all the main sets, do not assume that on your new team everyone will also use gigantic flippers on all the main sets – and that therefore, it is still OK for you to use gigantic flippers on all the main sets.
  3. Do not leave five seconds apart when everyone else is leaving ten seconds apart. Especially in a long-course pool with only three people per lane.
  4. When politely asked to leave ten seconds apart, do not petulantly ask at the next break, “Is it a crime to leave five seconds apart?”
  5. When it is explained that, “Yes, sometimes people get annoyed when someone pushes off right on their feet in a long-course pool with plenty of space” — do not, in response, say, “Well, I like chasing after bubbles – it makes me go faster.” Um, no. See, here’s the thing, Pat: It’s not about you.

Actually, that’s a pretty good rule to live by when swimming with a team: It’s not about you. 

Rob‘s guidelines for lap swimming etiquette boiled down to: Don’t be a dick. 

Donal‘s guidelines boiled down to: Be aware of what is going on around you.

To these I would add:

When you join a new team, pay close attention to the prevailing norms. Everywhere is different. What is normal in one place might be unbearably annoying in another. It’s your responsibility to figure that out – not your teammates’.

In praise of backstroke

photo credit: Santa Barbara News-Press, 1997.

Is there any good reason for a marathon swimmer to train strokes other than freestyle?

It’s fairly uncontroversial, I think, that training in multiple strokes makes one a better athlete, in a general sense. Each stroke works a unique set of muscles, giving swimmers more “balanced” power in the water. Eddie Reese (multi-time U.S. Olympic coach) is well-known for promoting IM training for all swimmers, including sprinters and single-stroke specialists. Multi-stroke training is also less likely to lead to over-use injuries.

Think of it as in-water cross-training.

What about open-water and marathon swimming? Or triathlon? Is there any point to training other strokes when you’ll never race anything but freestyle? If (like most working adults) you have limited time to train, isn’t that precious time best spent optimizing your freestyle? That certainly has been my approach. Not surprisingly, since I started focusing on open water, my other strokes have suffered.

Recently, I’ve been rethinking this position – especially with regard to backstroke. For one, there are technique benefits. The principles of balance, body position, and core rotation are much the same between backstroke and freestyle. To the extent you can develop efficient backstroke technique, your freestyle should benefit.

But I’m thinking of a more practical reason. Specifically, backstroke is a natural recovery motion for freestyle. While similar muscles are engaged in the two strokes, they’re moving in opposite directions. After a hard freestyle effort, backstroke helps you almost literally “unwind” your shoulders.

At Point Vicente. It was all I could do to raise my arms even this high...

How is this relevant to marathon swimming? Two words: shoulder fatigue. For me, this was the limiting factor in all my big swims this year – Tampa, MIMS, Catalina, and Ederle. My cardiovascular fitness was never an issue; my energy levels stayed high, thanks to a well dialed-in nutrition plan. The only thing holding me back was shoulder pain.

(Re: shoulder “pain,” I should clarify: I’m not talking about rotator cuff inflammation, which is dangerous and typically the product of technique flaws. Just fatigue/over-use of the shoulder muscles.)

This is especially true for shoulder-driven swimmers such as myself. So… what can I do to get beyond the brick wall of shoulder fatigue? A few obvious ideas:

  1. Train more – so my shoulders are better able to tolerate the abuse. (But do I have time?)
  2. Take more (or stronger) drugs. (Is that safe?)
  3. Develop more of a hip-driven stroke – distributing the effort away from my shoulders, toward my core and legs. (But how much speed will I sacrifice, given my short stature and weak kick? — not ideal for hip-driven technique.)
Backstroking somewhere in the Harlem River. Photo credit: Hannah B.

Here’s another idea: do more backstroke. I already do some backstroke during marathon swims – usually a few strokes after each feed. At MIMS, I backstroked under every bridge.

How far can I take this idea? What if, instead of just a few strokes per hour, I swam on my back for an entire feed cycle? Unnecessary for a 5-10 hour swim, perhaps, but what about a 15-20 hour swim? Could I extend the useful life of my shoulders by “unwinding” them for 20 minutes each hour?

It seems even more relevant in my case, because I used to be a backstroke specialist. In my younger, pool swimming days, my main event was the 200 Back. Compared to most, I give up relatively little speed on my back.

To quantify this, I went through my results archive and compared my backstroke and freestyle times through the years at the 100 (yards+meters) and 200 (yards+meters) distances. At both distances, I consistently gave up about 6% of my speed in backstroke, compared to freestyle. (This estimate includes a 2-second correction for the disadvantage of an in-water start in backstroke.) By comparison, the difference between the world records in the 100m freestyle (46.91) and 100m backstroke (51.94) is 9.4%.

6% is really not that much. If my ultra-marathon freestyle pace is 2.5 mph (just under 1:30 per 100m), that means theoretically I should be able to swim backstroke at 2.35 mph – still a very reasonable pace. I give up 6% of my speed, but I’m willing to bet it’s more than offset by delaying shoulder fatigue.

Food for thought…