Posts from Apr 2011

On fighting the water

Apr 05 2011

To swim well is to move efficiently and harmoniously through the water. Fast swimming naturally follows from efficient swimming - thus fulfilling more traditional criteria of “good swimming” (as measured by the clock).

The opposite of efficient swimming is sometimes called “fighting” the water. Beginning swimmers often fight the water (almost by definition), but advanced swimmers aren’t immune. I often catch myself doing this when I’m fatigued and trying to hold a pace slightly beyond my comfort zone. I’ve paid much more attention to not fighting the water since I started doing marathon swims. You might be able to get away with fighting the water in a 50, or even a 200, but in a marathon this is death. A relaxed, efficient stroke is essential.

On days when I’m not feeling so hot, I try to forget about going fast and just focus on relaxing and swimming efficiently. If I’m working out with a team, this may require slight adjustments to sets.

For example, say the coach assigns a descend set - 4×200 descended 1-4. Instead of trying to go faster on each 200, I’ll try to hold the same pace on each one, but with progressively less effort. The only way to hold pace constant while using less effort is to become more efficient. Incidentally, I think these types of sets are useful as a warm-up to a long swim - or during the few days leading up to it.

Race Report: Swim Miami 2011

Apr 11 2011

Pre-race with college roommate and swim team-mate John

My second visit to the Nike Swim Miami went much better than the first, even if my time (2:27:51) didn’t really reflect it. I felt strong from start to finish and held my stroke rate consistently in the high 60’s / low 70’s. Even accounting for slight navigational errors, 2:27-high seems way off - even more so considering the favorable (if somewhat warm) conditions and buoyantly saline water.

The course was probably a bit longer than 2K - and then compounded over 5 laps. But that’s just the nature of the game in open water. Who knows what times mean. Even, apparently, with a closed-loop course under neutral conditions.

So how else to judge my swim, if not by time?

mmm, delicious sugar and electrolytes

Did I forget to mention they separated USA-S and Masters swimmers into different waves? Last year, everyone started at the same time - which is a big part of this event’s appeal. When else can you race (or get lapped by) the likes of Alex Meyer and Eva Fabian?

This year, they announced 5 minutes before the race that USA-S men would start, followed by USA-S women, followed by Masters swimmers (men and women). The division was based purely on registration. So if I had registered with USA-S the day before the race, then signed up for the 10K using my USA-S number, I could have swum with the USA-S wave. And had I known, I would have.

But alas, I’m only registered with USMS! The result? I led the Masters wave from the start, swam by myself for about 9K, and finished almost 4 minutes ahead of the next person. Sully mostly about motivation.

Am I the only one frustrated by this decision? Would Eva Fabian have preferred to swim with the men? Who knows. But I didn’t come to Miami to swim a time trial.

Let’s see, what else… I got some great navigation practice. There were moored boats everywhere - often blocking lines of sight to the buoys. These boats tended to drift slightly with each lap, so the “sighting landscape” was constantly changing. Not a big deal if you’re making 90-degree turns (as indicated on the course layout posted on the web). But on race day, the course had all sorts of strange angles, while still being vaguely four-sided. I assume this was due to boats obstructing the pre-planned path. I guess that’s what happens when you decide to hold a swim race in a marina.

An only slightly exaggerated representation of the course layout

When I crossed under the finish banner for the 5th and final time, I checked with the nearest race official to make sure my timing chip had registered. When it fell off my wrist in the first 500m, I had stashed it down my suit (basically in my butt crack) rather than trying to re-affix it while treading water. Ordinarily I’d prefer to wrap a timing chip around my ankle (and the person handing them out pre-race had said this was OK), but the starting official insisted on wrists. Anyway, when I explained this to the official at the finish, his response was, “If this were a FINA race, you would have been DQ’d. If the chip falls off you have to stop and put it back on.”

Really? What if the chip fell off and I couldn’t find it? What if I stashed it in my suit at the start and then put it back on my wrist after the finish, but without telling anyone? How do you enforce something like this? As it turned out, the chip (despite sitting in my butt crack) registered all 5 laps.

(Incidentally, I heard others had problems with their timing chips falling off. I’m guessing this is because the straps were designed for ankles, not wrists. The wrist-chips I see in photos of FINA races are much sleeker.)

On a different topic, I heard the “live feed” was an epic failure. Sorry to those of you who tried to watch, especially those who may have gotten up early on the west coast to do so.

That evening, my wife and I had a wonderful evening in Coconut Grove with some friends we don’t see nearly often enough. I had succeeded in baiting John (an attorney with the Coast Guard) into swimming the 10K, despite minimal recent training. He has a knack for these things, though. He and his brother Matt completed a 60-mile circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe a few years ago.

On the flight home I caught a glimpse out the window of Tampa Bay. Even from 30,000 feet, it fills an airplane window. I could easily spot Pinellas Point, the St. Petersburg pier, the Gandy and Frankland bridges, and Rocky Point. And I wondered what they look like from the water.

Swimming vs. Tide Surfing around Manhattan

Apr 14 2011

It’s well known that Shelley Taylor-Smith holds the record for the fastest swim around Manhattan: 5 hours, 45 minutes, 25 seconds.

What’s not quite as well known is that she achieved this feat on a special “fast tide” - a convergence of maritime conditions in the East, Harlem, and Hudson Rivers that occurs only once or twice a year, if at all.

With the founding of the modern Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race in 1982, and more sophisticated understanding of tide cycles, a string of specially planned solo “record attempt” swims were undertaken in the ’80s and ’90s, all on fast tides. After Diana Nyad‘s 1975 swim in 7 hours, 57 minutes, the record was lowered six times by four different people over the next 20 years:

Her record has stood ever since, despite an assault last year by world-class marathon swimmers Petar Stoychev and Mark Warkentin.

To give a sense of how much the tides matter in these swims, Taylor-Smith’s 5:45:25 works out to a pace of 45.2 seconds/100m (12.1 minutes per mile - almost 5 mph). If you assume a 20 minutes/mile average swimming pace (world-class for marathon distance), that means she derived 40% of her overall speed from the river currents!

All this is by way of saying: There’s a reason nobody ever comes close to 5:45 in the annual race. MIMS is never held on the special “record attempt” tides. Why not? Though I haven’t seen this stated explicitly anywhere, I assume it’s because while the “record attempt” tides may push a fast solo swimmer around Manhattan very quickly, it may not be suitable for getting a group of swimmers (of varying speeds) around Manhattan in a reasonable amount of time. The “MIMS tide,” as I understand it, is actually selected to punish the fastest swimmers with head currents (they arrive at Spuyten Duyvil ahead of the tide change ). As a result, the MIMS field tends to compress much more than would a current-neutral swim of similar distance.

So basically, the MIMS race and the special “record attempts” are two entirely separate categories of swims. We all know that 5:45 is the fastest overall swim, but that was on a “record attempt” tide. What are the fastest swims on the regular MIMS tide?

NOTE: Much useful information in this post was gleaned from Capt. Tim Johnson’s wonderful History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming.

The fastest swims around Manhattan

Apr 16 2011

As discussed previously, Shelley Taylor-Smith recorded the fastest swim around Manhattan (5:45:25) in 1995, but it was a special “record attempt” swim scheduled on an unusually fast tide. What are the fastest swims in the regular Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race, which is typically held on a slower tide? Over the 29 years of the modern MIMS, the 10 fastest swims are as follows:

  1. Tobie Smith, 1999, 6:32:41
  2. Tammy van Wisse, 1999, 6:51:31
  3. Rob Copeland, 1999, 6:52:49
  4. Susie Maroney, 1990, 7:00:27
  5. Matthew Nance, 1990, 7:04:53
  6. Jim Barber, 1991, 7:06:34
  7. Kris Rutford, 1991, 7:06:44
  8. Matthew Wood, 1990, 7:07:32
  9. Susie Maroney, 1994, 7:08:10
  10. Igor de Souza, 1991, 7:08:20

Interestingly, 9 of the 10 fastest times happened in just 3 years - 1990, 1991, and 1999. The 3 fastest times were all in one year - 1999. Perhaps these years were “stacked” with outstanding swimmers. Another possibility is that these years saw especially favorable conditions (faster currents, smoother water, warmer water, etc.).

One simple method of estimating the effect of conditions is to find the median time in each annual race - and compare each individual to the median of that year. The fastest swims relative to the median would therefore be judged as the “most outstanding” swims. Here are the top 10 swims, compared to the same-year median time:

  1. Shelley Taylor-Smith, 1989, 7:32:34 (84 minutes faster than the median)
  2. Shelley Taylor-Smith, 1998, 7:18:07 (-77 minutes)
  3. Jay Benner, 1998, 7:19:40 (-76 minutes)
  4. Chris Derks, 1998, 7:24:02 (-71 minutes)
  5. Jim Barber, 1989, 7:45:15 (-71 minutes)
  6. Shelley Taylor-Smith, 1988, 7:27:44 (-71 minutes)
  7. Susie Maroney, 1990, 7:00:27 (-70 minutes)
  8. Penny Palfrey, 2007, 8:36:01 (-69 minutes)
  9. David Strasburg, 1989, 7:51:10 (-65 minutes)
  10. Matthew Nance, 1990, 7:04:53 (-65 minutes)

And… there’s Shelley Taylor-Smith again! In fact, 3 of her 5 swims (all 1st place overall finishes) are among the top 10 “most outstanding” swims. In other words, she was demolishing the field.

No matter how you look at it - solo “record attempt” swims or regular MIMS races - Shelley Taylor-Smith is the greatest Manhattan swimmer of all-time. It’s not really even close.

How to stay motivated for distant goals

Apr 19 2011

A friend asks:

How to stay motivated for races/events in the distant future. I’m going through a low motivation point now. Don’t really want to swim on my own, don’t want to watch what I eat, looking for excuses to pull out of [upcoming race].

The answer to this question could fill a dissertation… but here are some thoughts:

I’ll start with something obvious: If your goals or target races are too distant, set intermediate goals. If you don’t have time and/or money to travel to races, attend all the races in your area. If there are no races in your area, sign up for one or two “destination” races and supplement with local pool meets. Set a goal time for your 500 Free. If pool meets aren’t an option, do a 500 Free time trial in practice once a month. The important thing is to have something - anything - you’re aiming to achieve in the near-term.

An aside on goals: Goals can be both positive (“I want to do X”) and negative (“I want to avoid failure”). For ultra-endurance athletes, failure-avoidance can be a potent motivator. While “failure” in a pool race might mean going a slower time than you desired, the “failure” that marathon swimmers want to avoid is a DNF - literally, failing to finish. DNF’ing haunts my dreams in a way that pool swimming never did.

But goals are sort of obvious. If I could add something non-obvious, it’s this: The key to consistent training is “tricking yourself” into it. In other words, distracting yourself from the drudgery. Especially in endurance sports - because much of it is, in fact, drudgery.

When I was growing up, swimming was my social life. My teammates were my closest friends, and I loved being around them. That was what got me into the pool at 5:30 each morning (and then again after school). I had goals, of course. Some of them were even important to me. But on a day-to-day basis, I tricked myself into swimming 20 hours/week because that was where my friends were.

Masters swim teams tend to not be as close socially as age-group teams. People have their own lives and families. Still, I find swimming in a group much easier than swimming solo. About half of my workouts are solo, but less if I’m going through a low-motivation phase. Sometimes the team is the only way to “trick myself” into getting in a full workout.

Alternative to a team: Find a training partner. My best workouts this year have been with my training partner Jared. Mainly because we can do faster intervals than even the fast lane at our Masters practice. And because he’s a great guy. Thanks, Jared.

Other ways to trick oneself? Get a mesh bag and fill it with swim toys. Paddles, buoy, fins, snorkel, kickboard, tempo trainer, lap-counting watch, waterproof music player. I even have two different kinds of paddles (red Strokemakers & FINIS Freestylers) depending on my mood. Why does this help? 5×100 swim, 5×100 pull, 5×100 kick, 5×100 w/ fins is much easier (psychologically) than 20×100 straight free. Using toys makes the time go by. It just works.

Cross-train. It won’t help your swimming much if you do it instead of swimming, but it certainly helps as a supplement, and it’s better than sitting on your ass.

Another strategy I use: Aim to swim for time rather than distance. I’m not sure why this works, but for me it does. If I aim to swim 5,000 yards, I often find a way to convince myself that I’ve done enough after 4,000. But if I say, “I am going to swim for 90 minutes,” I almost always stick to it. And the distance takes care of itself.

I have an old friend whom I’ve mentioned here a couple times before. He’s training for the 2012 Olympic open-water event, and he trains enormous, unfathomable distances. And he uses almost all the tricks I’ve mentioned. Starting at 5:30am, he swims for two hours by himself. At this hour the lanelines haven’t been set up, so he swims long-course. That’s the incentive - the rest of the day the lanes are short course. Then, at 7:30am he “rewards” himself by joining the college team for their 2-hour practice. During the day he works, but fits in a run and a dryland session. In the evening, he coaches an age group team, but swims along with with them, thus fitting in another 90-minute practice. He loves pulling gear - paddles and buoy - and uses them liberally. He owns several pairs of paddles, one of which is made of fiberglass and feels like having bricks attached to your hands as you swim.

Whatever it takes!

Race Report: Tampa Bay Marathon Swim

Apr 27 2011

Part 1: “Ultra”

If 10K is a “marathon swim,” what is 24 miles?

First, it’s different physiologically. In a 2-2.5 hour 10K, you’re still within the range of your pre-race glycogen stores (perhaps topped off with a couple mid-race feedings). Which means it’s possible to swim at near-threshold pace for the entire swim. In a 24-mile swim, you burn through not only your entire cache of muscle glycogen (perhaps 1,500 calories), but you’re burning through more calories per hour than you can possibly consume. Which means you must start metabolizing fat - a plentiful but less rapidly mobilized energy source - and swim at a substantially slower pace.

Even more important, a 24-mile swim is different psychologically. I’m thinking of two big issues here. First, failure is a distinct possibility, even for the best swimmers. Seasickness, digestive problems, hypothermia, tide changes - all can potentially end a swim. DNF’s happen in 10K’s, but as long as you’re a reasonably good swimmer and the water isn’t below about 16C, they’re pretty rare. In a 24-mile swim, you’re truly at the mercy of the swimming gods, no matter who you are.

A swim this long is almost inevitably a struggle. There will be dark phases, and you can’t avoid them. You’re standing on the beach before the start, staring out at the water, and you know what’s coming. Maybe not the specifics of it… but you know there will be pain and doubt and frustration and possibly thoughts of giving up - but that you must try to push through them - to endure. This simply isn’t comparable to a 4-5 loop 10K (not to mention any pool race).

In the running world, distances longer than marathons are called “ultra.” But I’m not sure that communicates the quantum leap of going from 10Ks or a river-assisted 10-mile swim… to 24 miles.

Part 2: The Team

Without a team, a 24-mile swim doesn’t happen. Simple as that. And the swim’s success - it’s efficiency - depends on the quality of the team. Long swims are isolating experiences: A swimmer and his thoughts. But there’s an irony: The longer the swim, the more you utterly depend on your support team.

So any discussion of my experience in Tampa Bay must begin with my team.

The Team (L-R): Kathy, Carl, Pat, Michael, Kim... Frankland Bridge in the distance. (Photo Credit: Distance Matters)

It’s tough to overstate how fortunate I was.

I’m grateful to them all.

Part 3: The Data

A few stats (some actual, some approximate):

GPS Track

Credit my boat pilot for that incredibly true line. More on him later.

Re: the detours at each bridge, that’s because certain portions of those bridges are too low for the boat to pass under. Specifically, the parts crossing over the shortest path to the finish. So the boat went around to find higher clearance, while my kayaker and I went under.


First, the splits. Splits, of course, are in the form of [time / distance]. I got times from the GPS timestamps, and I got distances by using mapping software to calculate the length of each straight-line segment in the course taken by our excellent pilot. Here are the results:

time location total time total dist split time split dist pace
7:17 start 0:00   - - -
8:00 14 St S 0:43 1.7 miles 0:43 1.7 miles 25.6 min/mile
8:20 Bay Vista Rec Ctr 1:03 2.5 0:20 0.8 25.2
8:51 turning North 1:34 3.8 0:31 1.3 24.0
9:29 Lewis Blvd, Coq.Key 2:12 5.5 0:38 1.7 22.3
10:47 St. Pete Pier 3:30 8.9 1:18 3.4 22.9
11:57 Venetian Isles 4:40 11.8 1:10 2.9 24.0
12:45 Weedon Island 5:28 13.6 0:48 1.8 26.7
13:54 Gandy Bridge 6:37 16.3 1:09 2.7 25.5
15:14 Frankland Bridge 7:57 19.7 1:20 3.4 23.3
16:16 finish 8:59 22.4 1:02 2.7 23.1

Lots of interesting stuff here! I could have told you:

  1. I was absolutely flying through about the St. Petersburg Pier - though my actual progress was slowed in the first 4 miles by a 12-knot headwind and relentless chop.
  2. The segment from St. Pete Pier to the Gandy was tough, both physically and mentally. There’s nothing to see and you think the bridge will never come. This is where the demons rise up from the depths (well, actually Tampa Bay is pretty shallow) - and you must beat them back!
  3. I got a second wind after the Gandy, and another one after the Frankland. Also the flood tide was nearing its apex around this time.

I could have told you all these things, but I don’t need to - it’s all there in the data.

Speaking of the flood tide, here’s what the current looked like at the Frankland Bridge that day:

Current at Frankland Bridge. Max flood: 0.23 knots, 5:08pm

So the flood tide maxed out at 5:08pm - 52 minutes after I finished. Those under the bridge at that point were getting a 0.23 knot push - not much, but better than nothing (about 7 meters per minute).

The data also tell you things you didn’t know. For example, it seems we managed to shave 1.6 miles off the official length of the course. Did I mention my pilot is a genius?

Stroke count. I was really proud of this. Surely, I was pulling less water in the latter part of the race, but in open water I prefer to sacrifice a little efficiency in favor of maintaining rhythm. 

Strokes per minute

Nutrition & Hydration. Nailed it. 311 calories and 36oz of fluids per hour. Maxim at the :20 and :40; Perpetuem at the hour. Advil at 5:20 and 7:40.

Down-time. Because I wasn’t in a close race, I took pretty leisurely feeds - especially in the dark phase between St. Pete and the Gandy. It was comforting to exchange a few words with Kathy. I didn’t ask Kim to time my feeds, but she estimates I averaged about 30 seconds per. Over 26 feeds, that’s 13 minutes of down-time. If I reduced my feeds to 10 seconds, I’d save 8 minutes, 40 seconds - or about 600m of swimming. In a race like MIMS, that could be decisive.

Part 4: Hail of Bullets

20 minutes at a time. In marathon swimming as in life, projects that seem impossibly large can be reduced to a series of smaller, achievable tasks. Don’t think about swimming for 9 hours; think about swimming for 20 minutes - and then rewarding yourself with a tasty drink. Rinse, repeat. My feeds were refueling stops (104 calories each), but also a destination - something to look forward to.

Discomfort maintenance. A 24-mile swim is bad enough. Sunburn, chafing, saltwater mouth, and even seasickness - all are avoidable problems. The first three may not be swim-enders, but they certainly affect how you’ll feel the next day. Sunscreen, grease, mouthwash, and ginger - they are your friends.

Coppertone and Banana Boat probably won’t cut it. It doesn’t matter if it’s SPF 100 if it’s only waterproof for 2 hours. I used Solrx (8-hour waterproof) and it worked like a charm. Don’t forget the bottoms of your feet!

And Body Glide definitely won’t cut it (for 2+ hour swims). I use vaseline and lanolin in a 50/50 mixture.

Marine life. I heard reports of dolphins, but alas, I wasn’t so lucky. I had fish brush up against my legs every so often - harmless but definitely startling. And I had an unfortunate dust-up with a bed of oysters. Rounding Pinellas Point we were surprised by some sudden shallows. I took a quick glance at my lacerated hand… and hoped the sharks wouldn’t be next.

A few minutes before the start (Photo Credit: Distance Matters)
Video from 15 minutes after the start.

Past St. Pete - approaching the dark phase.

Flavia Zappa. Truly, the story of the day. She’s entered TBMS as a solo for the past seven years. 2005 - DNF at the Pier (7 hours). 2006 - DNF between the bridges. 2007 - another DNF. 2008 - DNF at the Pier. 2009 - DNF after rounding the Point. 2010 - DNF at the Gandy (12 hours).

2011 - finished in 15:10. A new course record for endurance! That’s just incredible, folks. Is there anything more important in marathon swimming than persistence and stubbornness? She’s got ‘em in spades. Congrats, Flavia!

Part 5: Wrap-Up

A few good links:

Thanks to Ron and Rebecca Collins for organizing a memorable weekend.

Coming up in 7 weeks: MIMS.

Did that really just happen? (Photo Credit: Distance Matters)