A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)

A few more volleys in the debate, from:

First, thanks to Scott for the generous mention of my post from a few days ago.

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?

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Follow-up on wetsuits

See original post.

I think Gords makes an important point: that there’s a fine line between valuing the purity of “naked” open-water swimming, and self-righteousness. The latter alienates people, pushing them away when we should be welcoming them and trying to build our sport.

To be clear:

  • This discussion is primarily about marathon swims – which I’ll define as swims long enough to require a support craft. In practice, this usually means swims longer than 10K. Swimmers who attempt such swims are – or should be – sufficiently skilled and experienced that drowning-prevention is not a valid excuse for using a wetsuit. (Hypothermia is a separate issue.)
  • I have no problem with newcomers to open-water swimming utilizing wetsuit technology to ensure safety, to enhance comfort, and to develop confidence. I believe wetsuits encourage more people to try open-water swimming than would otherwise, and that this is positive.
  • I have no problem with wetsuits in triathlon. I’m not a triathlete myself, but they’re certainly free to run their sport however they wish.
  • I have no problem with swimmers of any ability using wetsuits in training swims, or leisure swims, to help them swim for longer in cold water than they would otherwise, or to extend the training season. I’ve done this myself – specifically, last December in Santa Barbara, with my friend Rob D. My cold-water acclimation has since improved, so I’d probably make a different decision now.
  • I have no problem with people using wetsuits in races in which wetsuits are specifically allowed (even encouraged) – such as many open-water races in the UK (including the Dart 10K, recently swum by my friend IronMike), and most open-water races in the US organized by triathletes. Again, I’ve occasionally worn a wetsuit myself in such races – including the Nite Moves swims in Santa Barbara. It’s annoying to lose to people just because they’re wearing a wetsuit and you’re not.
  • However, as I’ve said before, I believe the above policy creates an unfortunate arms-race dynamic, such that people who’d prefer not to wear wetsuits are incentivized to wear them in order to compete.
  • I also understand there are parts of the world (max water temp < 15C/59F) where significant “skin” participation is simply unrealistic. Frankly, though, if they can do it in Alaska, they can do it just about anywhere.
  • I have no problem with open-water races that offer separate divisions for wetsuits and “skins” – e.g., USMS-sanctioned events. In fact I think they’re great – they encourage participation by offering a wetsuit option, while avoiding an arms race.

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!”

On wetsuits in marathon swimming

UPDATE 9/8/2011. Please read my follow-up post.
UPDATE 9/12/2011.
Another follow-up.

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:

  • Wetsuits. Specifically, the use of them during marathon swims.
  • Bootlegging – i.e., attempting a marathon swim without paying dues to the relevant governing body to have it officially observed and ratified.
  • The misuse of the media. In particular, people who use the media to promote and glorify marathon “swims” in which traditionally accepted Channel Rules are not followed (e.g., wetsuits). Especially when such people claim to be the “first” to accomplish a swim, or to have set a record.  Or really, any claim to status, of any sort.

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Catalina, Part 2: Tracks & Splits

When I boarded the Bottom Scratcher the night of August 24, the first thing I did was plug in my phone and activate the Instamapper GPS tracking app.

Why was this the first thing I did? As most of my readers must know by now, I have as much fun (probably more fun, actually) analyzing marathon swims as actually doing marathon swims. Hence my six-part MIMS report.

As usual, the data tell an interesting story. The yellow path shows the GPS tracks of the boat which, except at the start and finish, was between 5-25 meters off my left side. The red line shows the straight-line “ideal” path between the start and finish. The white placemarks are self-explanatory.

I covered the first 5 miles in 2:06:50 (25:22 per mile), my fastest pace of the swim despite big swells and chop throughout the night. I was 12 minutes slower for the second 5-mile chunk (27:44 per mile), probably because I was plowing through the same waves and chop, but with substantially less fresh shoulders.

I hit the halfway mark (10 miles) at 4 hours, 25 minutes. So, contrary to our calculations at the time, I actually wasn’t on pace for a low-8 hour swim. In fact, I was on pace for pretty much what I ended up with – just under 9 hours.

In the second half of the swim I ran into the strong NW-to-SE cross current that had bedeviled many recent Catalina swims. Notice how my tracks “bow out” to the right of the “ideal” path, especially around 15-16 miles. The current is pushing me away from the finish (toward Long Beach), and the boat is forced to turn almost due north (against the current) to hit Point Vicente.

Despite the adverse current I held my pace steady – 2:13 (26:42 pace) for miles 11-15 and just under 2:17 (27:22 pace) for miles 16-20 — including some slow kelp crawling at the end. Indeed, my two 10-mile splits were within 5 minutes of each other: 4:30:28 vs. 4:25:31.

The difference between my slowest pace and fastest pace – about 2 minutes per mile – corresponds well to my subjective experience. Though, the pace itself (25-27 minutes per mile) is much slower than my typical pace in a pool (or neutral open-water conditions). For the first half of the swim it was the chop. For the second half it was the currents. In both cases I was slowed by, I’d estimate, 2-3 minutes per mile.

To be continued…