“What’s Wrong with Marathon Swimming” is the title of a recent op-ed/essay/rant by Scott Zornig, president of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. Zornig’s piece, distributed through the SBCSA mailing list and Facebook page, has sparked some interesting discussion – but frankly, I haven’t heard many opposing voices. Shows who my friends are, I s’pose.
Three issues, basically, moved Scott to wield his poison pen:
Scott isn’t the first person to have these thoughts - and it’s probably true that his views “overwhelmingly reflect the beliefs of most marathon swimmers.” The reason Scott’s letter struck a nerve, I think, is that he said it so publicly - as president of a channel swimming federation - and in such uncompromising terms. The community of open-water swimmers is quite small, the marathon swimming sub-community even smaller.
People are reluctant to ruffle feathers and alienate friends. So it took a certain quantity of cojones for Scott to write what he did. And I, for one, applaud him for it.
I have just a few things to add…
Marathon swimming isn’t just about the distance. After all, people run and ride long distances, too. It’s the other stuff that makes marathon swimming unique and special in the world of endurance sports.
These are fundamental elements of marathon swimming. Remove any one of them and you have a different sport.
So what’s the problem with wetsuits? Quite simply, all three of the above items become meaningless. They insulate swimmers from the elements, thus reducing the physical challenge. And they make failure less likely, thus reducing the mental challenge.
Personally, I’m not a fan of wetsuits even for short swims. I think most people don’t need them - or don’t realize they don’t need them - or could do without them with just a little practice. Wetsuits should be viewed as training wheels - a crutch. Instead, it often seems like they’re the default. Specifically, when race directors don’t distinguish between wetsuits and “skins” in the results. An unfortunate dynamic arises in this case: Swimmers are incentivized to wear wetsuits even when they don’t need them - just to keep up with the competition.
Arms races have no place in swimming, even at short distances. Wear wetsuits if you want, but- Separate divisions, Separate awards.
However, I recognize that wetsuits make open-water swimming accessible to people who might not otherwise try it - and that’s a good thing. I also understand that many open-water races are organized by triathletes, and I respect their right to write the rules according to the norms of their sport.
Marathon swimming is different, though. Purity is the point. So I agree with Scott Z.’s admonition that if you must wear a wetsuit, please don’t call it a marathon swim.
A few follow-up thoughts and clarifications on my previous post, “On Wetsuits in Marathon Swimming”:
What many marathon swimmers, including myself, have a problem with is people who specifically market themselves to the media as “marathon swimmers,” who claim to set records or pioneer new swims - yet who use artificial aids (such as wetsuits) during their swims.
In Scott’s words, it’s “wrong, wrong, wrong!”
A few more volleys in the debate, from:
In Dave’s response, he emphasizes maintaining a clear distinction between channel-rules swims and performance-enhanced (i.e., wetsuited) swims, but stops short of agreeing with Scott that wetsuited swimming “isn’t swimming.” An important question remains:
If wetsuited swimming is “swimming,” what specifically distinguishes it from channel-rules swimming, and how does this affect how we judge achievements in each category?
The dictionary definition of swimming - “to propel oneself through water by natural means” - does not appear to exclude the use of a wetsuit. A wetsuit, though “unnatural,” does not itself exert any propulsive force. Yet there are (at least) two important challenges involved in human swimming that aren’t included in the dictionary definition (because the definition covers swimming by any creature, not just humans):
Wetsuits bypass both challenges. So, then, how do we judge wetsuit-aided swims?
There’s probably not a simple answer. I like the analogy of supplemental oxygen in mountaineering, especially for expedition swims. It’s a free world; nobody owns the oceans. Or as Paul Lundgren says: “I swim in the wild because it’s wild, I do it the way I feel works for me.” Fair enough. If personal fulfillment is the aim, wetsuits are beside the point.
The mountaineering oxygen analogy breaks down at certain points, however. As far as I know, no records are kept for the “fastest ascent” of Everest. It doesn’t really have any meaning. If it did, perhaps mountaineers would care more about enforcing the distinction between oxygen-aided climbs and unaided climbs. In marathon swimming, “fastest” does have meaning, and records are certainly kept. That’s why many marathon swimmers view wetsuits as something more than merely a “personal choice.”
Personally, I’m not willing to call it cheating - unless it’s combined with deceit or misleading media campaigns. What I will say is that wetsuit-aided swimming is a significantly less challenging form of swimming, and should always be recognized as such. I’ll leave it at that.
Interesting side note: the argues that bottled oxygen actually increases the risk to climbers, by encouraging unqualified climbers to make the attempt. I believe Lynne Cox has made the same argument about wetsuits - but I can’t find a reference.
I suppose I should also address Dave: “It has nothing to do with elitism or excluding wetsuited persons from participation, but rather just creating clear categories so that we may choose who and what to follow based on our own interests and preferences.”
To which I will add: Defining a category in which assisted swim” category. Clearly, Philippe is in a category (by which I mean league) of his own, and doesn’t need anyone to defend his achievement. It is what it is, and it’s awesome and inspiring.
I’d also point out that it’s “in Dover, at the centre of the marathon swimming world” where it’s easiest to have faith in our “shared tribal history” - because that’s precisely where traditional rules and standards are most respected. So perhaps, from that exalted vista, this is all much ado about nothing.
But all the world is not Dover. Lake Tahoe is the example Scott uses, and it’s a perfect one. A site revered by marathon swimmers, yet without a governing organization to raise awareness about our shared values. In such places, it’s paramount to define clear categories and correct misleading articles like this one.
I’ll conclude by re-posting something from observer on my own Catalina swim:
My first attempt at swimming the Catalina Channel was in 1999, a “cold” year, when only three swims were successful. I had been “too vain to gain” and didn’t do enough cold water training to make it across in those colder-than-normal water temperatures we had that year. Did I don a wetsuit and try it again? Hell no, I grew my own!!! Two years later I was successful in my quest and swam the Catalina Channel, fifteen pounds heavier, in conditions that were so rough my crew and escort pilot thought it not safe to even allow me to try. The following year I swam the English Channel one-way and in 2004, five years after my unsuccessful Catalina Channel attempt, I became the 17th and oldest person in history to swim the English Channel both ways without stopping. That was my journey and it has meant the world to me, both personally and as a coach and mentor to people of all ages and walks of life. A wetsuit would have rendered it all meaningless and I would have missed the whole point.
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:
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.
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 Manhattan 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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.