Ederle Swim tomorrow

UPDATE: Swim has been postponed to Sunday, due to high winds and a small craft advisory.

Tomorrow morning, while most sane people are sleeping in, a few friends and I will swim 17.5 miles from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and into New York Harbor, finishing at South Cove in lower Manhattan. The swim was pioneered by Gertrude Ederle in 1925.

This is the final event of the NYC Swim series, and my final marathon swim of the year. There are five waves, the first starting at 7:00am EDT. My wave (the fifth) begins at 7:50. Estimated finish time for the winner is 12:15pm.

The swim is timed during an unusually swift flood tide, so the winner will likely set a new record for the NJ-NY direction of the swim. The current record of 6:06 was set earlier this year by Liz Fry as part of her double.

The GPS tracking site is not yet available, but will probably be here. NYC Swim’s Twitter feed is here. I can’t guarantee either will be operational, but I hope they will be.

MIMS with French subtitles

Here’s a neat video by Paris-New York.TV (whatever that is) about the 2011 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

I make a brief appearance from 1:35-1:38.

I’m off to New York again this weekend for my final marathon of the season: the Ederle Swim. Check my Twitter feed for info on GPS tracking & other commentary.

Catalina, Part 3 – In deep water

San Pedro Channel - bathymetry by Scripps Institution of Oceanography

There’s no “going back” in a channel swim. No parallel shoreline to offer a mental security blanket and visual stimulation. No (predictable) current to artificially speed your progress. No intermediate landmarks for last-minute course adjustments; the stated distance is your best-case scenario. The only escape from a channel swim is getting on the boat – and even then it might be an hour’s ride to the closest shore.

So, starting a channel swim feels a bit like stepping into the abyss. That’s almost literally true in the case of Catalina, where the ocean bottom drops off to nearly 3,000 feet within 4 miles. Everything I said about the MIMS jump shots is true of a channel swim – but moreso.

Some people can swim through deep water without a second thought. I am not one of those people. No amount of rational thought can persuade my lizard brain that 20 feet of water is no different than 20,000 – I’m only swimming in the top 2-3 feet of it anyway.

This, for instance, is horrifying to me:

I know what you’re thinking: Marathon swimming’s a curious hobby for someone scared of deep water, right? But it’s just an obstacle-to-be-overcome, like any other. If you’re a slow swimmer, you can train harder or take stroke lessons. If you get hypothermic easily, you can eat peanut butter and ice cream.

How does one overcome a fear of deep water? I have a couple degrees in psychology, so I should probably know something about this stuff. Perhaps I should:

  • Take up SCUBA diving, as a form of exposure therapy?
  • Train myself to imagine swimming “through a pipe“?
  • Try to address the underlying cause? Which in my case is probably my first swim lessons, when the instructor forced me to swim in the “deep end” of the pool. (When you’re 3 years old, that shit will stick with you.)

Actually, I did none of these things. I still get creeped out by deep water, but I found a way to avoid thinking about it. I close my eyes. Seriously – I just close my eyes. I open them briefly for sighting, or to spot my paddler, but aside from that I keep ’em closed. The lack of visual stimulation allows me to focus on my stroke, my rhythm, the music in my head…. anything other than what the fuck was that down there?!?!

Again, I know what you’re thinking: But then I won’t be able to see the shark when it’s coming up from below to eat me. That’s true. On the other hand, if a shark is coming up from below, determined to eat me, there’s not much I can do about it anyway. And in the meantime, I avoid seeing all the other stuff (real or imaginary) that I might think is a shark coming to eat me.

Anyway, it works. You know the end of the story: I finished my Catalina swim – and managed to maintain a zen-like calm all the way across. Score one for denial.

Swimming the Suck… plus 16

I quite enjoyed this video of Hallie H.M. swimming 26.2 miles down the Tennessee River near Chattanooga.

Hallie, who I Swam the Suck with last year, retraced the scenic 10-mile course but started further upriver, and then kept on going several miles further into the Gorge. The video, appropriately backed by Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” (ha, ha), is pure joy. Makes me regret I won’t be returning this year.

Here’s what Karah (Swim the Suck founder & race director) had to say:

She is a REAL trooper. No touching another human, no standing, no wetsuit. She did the real thing.

Indeed. Congrats, Hallie!

This guy really likes sharks

Remember Scott Cassell, the crazy person SCUBA diver who was going to swim from Catalina to San Pedro, underwater, while attempting to attract sharks?

Well, he did it. Here’s a video, and here’s the story, according to Shark Research Committee:

On September 17, 2011 Scott Cassell completed his dive from Catalina Island to the beach in front of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. California Diver Magazine reported the following;

“At 6:15 PM Saturday, September 17, 2011, Scott Cassell arrived safely at Cabrillo Aquarium Beach in San Pedro Harbor after covering 30 miles in a single day of diving. He maintained an average depth of 20 – 30 from the water’s surface.

Using a computer controlled mixed gas rebreather, a DUI drysuit with an argon inflation system, 4th Element Halo 3D thermal protection, and dual Luminox dive watches, he completed the distance in less than 12 hours, after some technical issues delayed the planned 4:00 AM start time by several hours.

Scott’s journey was filmed by Global Reef to help raise awareness regarding the alarming state of our oceans. One of his primary missions during the dive was to attract as many sharks as possible to obtain an accurate estimate of how many sharks are still present in the area today.

Sadly, at an interview on the beach just after surfacing, he said he didn’t see a single shark over the 30 miles he covered. ‘I saw 3 Mola Mola, 4 Sea lions, about 6 Dolphins and a huge school of sardines. But I didn’t see a single shark – and that breaks my heart. It’s absolutely a tragedy.’

Scott then reflected on his dives back in the 1980’s and 90’s, where he would often swim with 60 or more sharks on a single dive. Currently, it is estimated sharks are slaughtered at a rate of about 100 million a year worldwide – more than 200,000 sharks a day.

After answering questions about his incredible dive, Scott elaborated on the state of our oceans. ‘Unfortunately, I’m the generation that has seen the ocean start to die. It’s a reality. And not understanding this is not okay anymore. We need to think and be a good, responsible culture.’

‘We’ve only explored 0.5% of the ocean habitat – over 99% of the ocean is left to be explored. That’s encouraging, inspiring – and frightening. Because if we have systems failing in the ocean, and we don’t understand how these systems work, how are we going to fix them’? California Diver Magazine will provide more in-depth coverage of the dive in a future issue.”

I just feel terrible for the guy. To go to all the trouble of attracting sharks, and then have to settle for a few measly Mola Mola… who do those sharks think they are, anyway?

Another article on Cassell’s attempt seemed to indicate he would be using a diving bell, which does make the whole “diving while attempting to attract sharks” thing seem slightly less insane.

The Shark Research Committee, incidentally, is one of those websites I sort of wish I didn’t discover…

A marathon swim checklist

In my experience, the day before a marathon swim is almost invariably a hassle. Just when you most need to be resting, you find yourself running around an unfamiliar town in search of various items you forgot to pack. From Tampa in April, to MIMS in June, to Catalina last month, I’ve gradually streamlined the process – but there always seem to be last-minute tasks. And even the most experienced marathon swimmers will tell you it’s almost impossible to pull it all together without the help of a friend or significant other.

Most people resort to writing a checklist at some point. The list will vary slightly between swims – and swimmers – but there are common themes. My list reflects hard-earned experience over three 20+ mile swims in a single season. For those tackling their first marathon swim, this might speed the learning curve a bit.

A note on formatting: Italicized items I consider “optional.” [Bracketed] items are products that I personally use.



  • high-calorie liquid feed [Maxim + apple juice or Perpetuem]
  • feed bottles
    • characteristics of good feed bottles: built-in loop (for securing to kayak), medium-sized spout (not too small, not too large), easy-flip top
  • thermos of hot water for warm feeds (unless boat has microwave)
  • bottled water
  • funnel (for pouring drink powder)
  • measuring cup (for mixing feeds)
  • solid food / snacks (very personal, but might include bananas, gel packs, watery oatmeal, Chicken McNuggets, etc.)

Discomfort Maintenance

  • lube [channel grease = 50% lanolin, 50% vaseline]
  • latex gloves (to apply lube)
  • mouthwash (for saltwater swims)
  • sunscreen [preferably long-duration waterproof, such as SolRX]
  • anti-inflammatories (e.g., ibuprofen)
  • anti-motion sickness (e.g., bonineginger products, scopolamine patch)
  • warm clothes (e.g., parka, wool socks, sleeping bag)
  • earplugs

Misc. Gear

  • rope & carabiners (for securing feed bottles)
  • zip ties
  • glow sticks (if swimming at night)
  • safety pins (for attaching glow sticks)
  • stopwatch
  • log sheets
  • dry-erase board + markers

Media & Communication

  • GPS tracker + batteries [SPOT Tracker, or if continuous cellular signal available, Instamapper smart-phone app]
  • mobile phone + charger (preferably smart phone w/ Twitter & Facebook apps installed)
  • camera or video-camera [Kodak PlaySport]
  • walkie-talkie + extra batteries (for communication between boat & kayak)

Finally, there’s the issue of whether and how to compensate “volunteer” crew and paddlers. It’s sort of an awkward topic, but one you should give some thought to before you arrive in town for the swim. Here’s my policy, for what it’s worth:

  • For non-family crew members, I take care of expenses incurred “on the ground” – i.e., everything but air travel.
  • For volunteer paddlers, I offer a cash tip over & above the expenses. For compensated paddlers, I offer a small gift (e.g., bottle of wine).

Reimbursing transportation expenses is a nice thing to do (gas prices being as they are), but just remember that regardless of reimbursement, your crew are still doing you a huge favor. Especially for an overnight swim like Catalina. The best way to return this favor is to return it in kind. For crew members who are also swimmers, offer to crew for them on a future swim.

On over-training

When I was younger, I swam in a near-constant state of over-training. To improve fitness, hard work is necessary but not sufficient. You also need rest – time for your body to recover and rebuild. Indeed, it’s during recovery that you get stronger. If you don’t rest enough, you don’t improve. If you’re over-trained – like I was for most of high school – increasing training load can ironically lead to decreased fitness.

My training load back then – 50K for an average week – wasn’t unusual for an elite age-group program. The problem was that I was only getting about 6-7 hours of sleep per night during the school year. (My natural sleep duration is 9 hours.) Over the course of a week, that produced a sleep debt that even a 14-hour “coma” on Saturday night couldn’t make up for.

I cut corners on my sleep because, well, I was busy. I don’t necessarily regret this choice… but I was naive about just how much it was affecting my swimming performance. When you’re that age, it easy to think you’re invincible. But over-training is very real – even for 16-year olds.

What are the symptoms of over-training? My intuitive sense is: If, for more than 30% of your training sessions, you feel crappy for most of the workout, you’re probably over-trained. For me, at times, that number was more like 60%. I didn’t understand how bad that was until years later, when I decided to respect my sleep needs and brought my “crappy workout ratio” down to 10-20%.

Dave Salo – legendary former coach of the Irvine Novaquatics and currently head coach at USC – is more scientific about it. To test for training adaptation (fitness improvements) vs. over-training, he recommends a set of 8×100 on a 4-minute interval. For the first 4, descending from 70-100% effort; for the second 4, ascending from 100-70% effort. After each swim, you take your pulse for 10 seconds, three times: immediately after finishing, then again after 30 seconds, then again after another 30 seconds.

Then, you take the sum of the three pulse measurements for each of the 8 swims, and make a chart like this:

From Salo & Riewald, Complete Conditioning for Swimming, pg. 16

The chart above shows three series of data, from three separate test sets. The circles show the baseline; the triangles show adaptation (improvement); and the squares show over-training.

I graduated college less than 10 years ago, but my sense is that even since then, swim coaches have become much more sophisticated about exercise physiology. One hopes these coaches are now more likely to recognize signs of over-training – leading to more athletes achieving their potential.

For more on this and other essential topics of swim training, I highly recommend Dave Salo’s book, Complete Conditioning for Swimming.