Race Report: Tampa Bay Marathon Swim

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)

Posted 27 April 2011 in: swim reports Tags: Tampa Bay