Race Report: Tampa Bay Marathon Swim

Part 1: 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. Continue reading “Race Report: Tampa Bay Marathon Swim”

On “ultra”

NOTE: I wrote this as preface to my Tampa report, but it got a bit long so I decided to put it in a separate post. It’s not really specific to Tampa, anyway.

What’s a marathon swim? Without any historical reference point (as for marathon runs), there are various definitions. The official FINA and (as of 2008) Olympic distance is 10K – which has the virtue of similar finish times as marathon runs. Penny Lee Dean sets the bar at 16 miles. Ted Erikson says 10 miles. Steven Munatones, as usual, wrote a nice overview of the issue.

I’m not really interested in debating what is or isn’t a marathon swim, though I do think:

  • It must be in open water.
  • It should be nearly impossible (or at least very difficult) to finish without refueling mid-swim.
  • It should be very difficult to accomplish without support.

So, I’m fine with calling 10K a “marathon swim.” What about 24 miles, though? Typically, that’s described as an “ultra marathon swim.” My reason for discussing semantics here is, there’s something about a swim of that distance that’s not captured by merely adding the word “ultra.” A 24-mile swim is qualitatively (not just quantitatively) different than a 10K.

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.

My training partner Jared wrote a great piece on this issue from the perspective of a triathlete.

Second, 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 any case, Tampa was my first ultra-marathon swim. I’ve never attempted anything like it; not even close. And the word “ultra” doesn’t quite communicate what a quantum leap it was.

Tampa, in brief

I thought I should get something out now (however brief), with a more comprehensive report to follow. Yesterday was an experience that… will take a couple of days to process.

I fulfilled my goal of finishing the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. The time (8:59) and place (1) were nice, but finishing was the hard part.

A few stats (some actual, some approximate):

  • water temp: 80F
  • air temp: 70F (low) to 88F (high)
  • wind speed: 15 mph (morning) to calm-ish (afternoon)
  • calories consumed: 2,800
  • calories burned: 5,000+
  • fluids consumed: 320 oz (9.5 liters)
  • strokes taken: 33,500 (a few on my back, for various reasons)
  • pace per mile: 22:27

Here are the data from the GPS transponder on my escort boat (ignore the blue line):

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

If you’re wondering about the detours at the bridges, 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.

A few good links:

A nice moment:

On motivation

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.

Moral of the story: Whatever it takes!