The Pyramid of Death - a 25km pool set

Last weekend I did the longest pool workout of my life. An unexpected excuse came up for a quick trip to Santa Barbara, and given my current lack of long course or open water options in Chicago, I decided to use the opportunity for a pre-Tampa training swim. The Rec Center at UCSB has a beautiful outdoor 50m x 25y pool that – conveniently – is open for LCM lap swimming from 9am to 8:30pm on the weekends.

Despite a chilly morning, it turned into a gorgeous day. With cloudless skies, a light breeze, and mid-day highs in the 60s, I actually worried about getting sunburned. When the front door opened at 9am I went straight to the pool to claim my lane - second from the bottom of the picture, with the best viewing angle to the pace clock. Incredibly, nobody joined me in that lane until the last 15 minutes of the swim.

In designing the workout, I aimed for something that would challenge me in terms of distance, time, and pace, but without boring me to death. So I ruled out a long continuous swim, or something overly repetitive like 15×1000. I aimed for something I could realistically do, but that also offered a not-insignificant chance of failure. My previous longest swim/workout in terms of both time and distance (including my club and college swimming days) was Swim the Suck last October - 10 miles (effectively ~8.5 given the favorable current) in 3 hours, 7 minutes.

I eventually settled on a 25,000-meter (15.5-mile) set that, at a constant interval of 1:30 per 100m, would take 6 hours, 15 minutes. This would approximately double the Tennessee River swim and put me within spitting distance of the current-assisted length of TBMS. While a 1:30/100m is a conservative interval for me under most circumstances, at marathon distance I knew it would pose a challenge. As a point of reference, a 1:30 pace for 10K is 2 hours, 30 minutes - no slouch of a time. It’s also interesting to note that only 4 of 45 competitors in the last USMS 25K National Championship finished under 6:15.

And remember, a 1:30 interval means my actual pace must be faster than 1:30, so I have time to feed between swims.

Anyway, here’s the set:

I maintained my normal training volume going into the swim, though I did take off the day before. My energy level and general “feel for the water” during warm-up rated about a 6 on a scale of 1-10 - not ideal, but good enough.

After a quick 500m loosen-up, I did the first 1000m swim in 14:05 (pace of 1:24.5) - right on target. I managed to hold this pace for the first 10K (3×500). On the first 2000m swim (10-12K) I started hurting a bit and my pace deteriorated slightly; but I was still getting plenty of rest between swims. The second 2000m (14-16K) was slower still, and hurt even more.

By the “downhill” portion of the set (1500, 5×300, 1000, 5×200, etc.) I was fully ensconced in the hurt box. I experienced what I can only describe as a “narrowing” of consciousness. I had no idea what was going on around me; my stroke was on autopilot; I was aware of only the pain. But I kept making my intervals. Not by much - especially on the shorter swims - but I made them.

I finally did cross over the 1:30/100m barrier on the final round of 10×100. I started feeling dizzy and thought I might puke, so I just swam a straight 1000, alternating 50 back / 50 free. In the end I finished the 25,000th meter (excluding warm-up) a few seconds shy of 6 hours, 16 minutes.

Then I pulled myself out of the pool, chugged a quart of chocolate milk, and took a hot shower. I had entered the water a few minutes after 9am. It was now almost 3:30 in the afternoon.

That evening I felt like I’d been run over by a truck, but I washed down some ibuprofen with a few glasses of wine (probably not the healthiest combination), which numbed me up pretty good. The next day my shoulders were still a bit perturbed, but I was better. Two days after that: as good as new.

25K training swim: check.

Posted 07 March 2011 in: training , swim reports Tags: sets , Tampa Bay