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.

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. I ran into this dynamic myself when I took on Terry Laughlin last spring about stroke rate & length in open water. 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.

  • The tradition. The knowledge that when we enter the water to begin a long swim, we’re using the same simple technology (textile suit, cap, goggles) as those who came before us, as far back as the 19th century. What other sports can boast as level a playing field over time?
  • The elements. Marathon swimmers face down large bodies of water, as they are on a given day. The water may be cold, choppy, perhaps even full of scary marine life. The swimmer is vulnerable, “naked” in the figurative (but almost literal) sense. But she faces down her fears and vulnerabilities, and jumps in anyway. Marathon swimmers overcome the elements through physical acclimation and mental fortitude – not technology.
  • The possibility of failure. One of the foremost mental challenges of a marathon swim is the knowledge that you might not finish. You might get hypothermic, no matter how well acclimated you are. Rough seas or adverse currents might make it impossible to continue. Or perhaps your nutrition doesn’t work out and you run out of energy. Failure is always possible, no matter who you are.

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.

26 thoughts on “On wetsuits in marathon swimming”

        1. In that case, I recommend the Blueseventy Helix or, if you’re on a budget, one of the XTERRA suits (don’t settle for anything less than a 50% discount).

  1. Well said. My only issue with the topic is the percived attitude of some fellow OW swimmers is the “holier than thou” attitude, and almost antagonistic approach with wetsuited swimmers. I totally agree that it’s better to go without them and have been fully converted to skin swimming for 15 months.

    However I try to be gentle when talking to locals who still choose to wear wetsuits. My goal is to get them to convert, not hate me for what they may perceive as self righteousness.

    Leading by example and friendly conversation will win more people over than an attack-like stance. OW swimming in its pure form is definitely something worth promoting with vigor.

    1. Hi Gords; thanks for the comment. I certainly agree that a friendly & welcoming attitude is more effective than self-righteousness in converting newcomers to the joys of “skin” swimming. In fact I’m all in favor of offering wetsuit divisions in shorter, mass-participation OW races (separate divisions being the key).

      I hope my post didn’t seem overly vitriolic, but to the extent it did (and to the extent Scott’s letter did), the vitriol was directed not at beginners, newcomers, and wetsuited OW swimmers generally… but rather at marathon swimmers who know better. How would you feel if someone came along and broke one of your GSL world records – in a wetsuit – and then went to the media and claimed to have done so? Such things have actually happened, and that’s where the anger comes from.

  2. i look forward to the era when channel swimmers are forbidden to use the escort boat to block winds and settle chop, and when they do their own real-time navigation, swimming in out front.

    1. What a naive comment. I’ve swum downwind and upwind alongside an escort boat on numerous swims over 10 hours. The boat and swimmer are rarely in position to have the wind blocked significantly, and the boat position never settled choppy seas. If the swimmer is downwind from the boat, he/she must be further away from the boat to prevent the boat being blown into the swimmer. Also, if the swimmer is downwind, the boat exhaust could be a factor. In that case, he/she may have to swim upwind exposed to the full forces of the elements.

      1. Jim, you wrote “he/she may have to swim upwind exposed to the full forces of the elements.”

        full force as compared to what? swimming in the lee?

    2. Anonymous Wetsuit Fan, i could read you post either way. Fan perhaps if you are writing sarcastically. Non-Fan if you are straight, saying the sport should evolve towards fewer and fewer aids — which i’m for too!

      1. That’s an interesting perspective. So you’re saying marathon swimmers should navigate themselves? Have you tried this yourself? How did it go?

        1. Well, I should not have used the word ‘should’. But yes, the general trend in adventure sports is to use less and less aid. Everest with oxygen, then without. Routes with aid, then free’d. And, yes, I’m all for that. Personally, I don’t see the point in following a boat (essentially a black line) or swimming around buoys. Self navigation gives a swim a strong sense of place. With exceptions of salinity/pollutants/marinelife and probably some others I’m not thinking of, the water itself doesn’t provide a sense of location other than being in water, at least for me. 60 degree water here is the same as 60 degree water over there. Choppy water here is the same as choppy water over there. But then many OW swimmers are heavy into competitions and speed. A record (short) channel time is a qualitatively different goal than being the first (or subsequent) to cross it under self navigation, and I would not expect either aspirant to give too much heed to the other. They are even more different than, say, suited vs nonsuited, in my anonymous opinion.

          1. Anonymous, it appears I was unfair to you, so I apologize. Your original post seemed snarky and sarcastic, especially given your veil of anonymity. But I appreciate your persistence in commenting here and making yourself more clear. I can see the appeal of self-navigation in areas close to shore AND without boat traffic. However, for offshore swims and/or places with marine traffic (i.e., most places), your idea runs into problems of not just practicality, but safety. Would you seriously suggest people try to navigate busy shipping channels themselves? What if you couldn’t see the horizon?

  3. My opinions: The accomplishment of a given swim increases with colder water temperature, rougher surface conditions, heavier currents. It is not increased by crossing in heavier traffic, larger oil spills, littered with more floating construction debris, etc. Nor is diminished by swimming in their absence. Lynne Cox’s Nile River swims as a teenager come to mind, for example. I would rank North Channel greater than the Cook Strait greater than the English Channel, for example. The ethic of self-navigation, or more generally the ethic of striving for less and less aid, does not change this. Requesting your escort kayaker to remain close when in recreational boat traffic for visibility does not violate free-swim ethic. Consulting your escort boat captain about the where-abouts, speeds and headings of freighters does not violate free-swim ethic either.

    I am always aware of sun/moon position, swell direction and chop direction. Letting go of land in this manner is the essence of true open water swimming, in my opinion. Other swimmers, of course, hold their own truths.

    1. I respect the ethic of self-navigation; it’s a noble ideal. I just don’t know that it’s feasible to codify that ideal into an unambiguous set of rules that everyone can agree on – and that everyone can trust when they haven’t witnessed a swim firsthand. So, according to the ethic of self-navigation, the swimmer must lead the escort boat. How does this ensure the swimmer actually self-navigates, though? I can still gauge my line just by watching the heading of the boat’s bow, even if it’s behind me. Maybe I wouldn’t do this out of honesty, but how can I trust that others would do the same? It’s too ambiguous.

      The existing set of “channel rules” have the benefit of unambiguity – textile suit, cap, goggles; no touching other humans; no touching any watercraft. It’s easy to ratify (i.e., trust) swims like that. The existing rules also reward, as close as possible, the things that actually matter to most marathon swimmers – swimming skill, mental fortitude, and physical acclimation. Skills such as being able to navigate by the location of the sun/moon are cool, but perhaps less relevant.

      I acknowledge your point that no marathon swims are truly “pure,” in the sense that Webb didn’t have a modern suit, cap, or goggles, and drank brandy instead of Maxim. Whatever – you have to draw the line somewhere. My TYR jammer is faster than the wool atrocity Webb had to wear, but in the big picture our sport does a better job of leveling the playing field over time than just about any other.

      Let’s not forget the original topic was wetsuits in marathon swimming. The fact that modern channel swims don’t precisely replicate Webb’s swim (even if they come pretty close) doesn’t mean that therefore “anything goes,” including wetsuits.

  4. I respect your aversion to self-navigation. It’s not for everyone, anymore than channel-attire is, even though navigating off the sun/swell/chop/wind direction is not difficult. I’d encourage you to try it sometime. Eventually it becomes second nature. I suspect most zigzagger would swim straight(er) if they tuned in. Less relevant? Maybe, maybe not.

    I’m not denying that channel swims are a heroic feats. They are that by all accounts. Even more so if done in channel attire, and even when done using the boat to provide navigation, etc…. Heroic feats. But that is not to say that present conventions are the end-all.

    The method of cheating you have proposed would fail. True, a swimmer would be able to site the boat’s line, and that would reduce zigzagging, but the boat will always be pointing at swimmer because that is how the boat is navigating. If the swimmer’s heading is off course, the boat’s heading will be off course too.

    Here’s how your method would fail. With every sighting, the swimmer would be making random errors and systemic errors. Random errors would cancel left for right over the long run. Systemic errors would continually add over time, creating a circular route. For example, suppose the swimmer’s systemic errors netted 16 inches to the right over 25 yards, which is equivalent to 1 degree, 360 of which make a circle. 360 of these right-tendency errors would occur over the course of 5 miles, yielding a circular swim of radius 0.8 miles. Or suppose a smaller bias, of only 8″ over 25 yards. That’s half a degree. After 2.5 miles the swimmer would be heading 90 degrees off course and starting to swim back toward the starting shore.

    … unless you meant a cheating conspiracy between the swimmer and wheelhouse. If concerned, the CSA observer could require that the boat’s tack sway randomly from directly behind, behind+left, behind+right.

    Accepting for the moment your list of ‘things that actually matter’ (swimming skill, mental fortitude, and physical acclimation), well, these can be measured by buoy laps and a pair of dice, with the dice standing in for the unpredictable details of currents encountered in a channel crossing and their effect on time/distance in the water. Not too sexy, but that just reveals a bit of truth about following a boat around. Somehow, the site-specifics need to enter into the swim in a more substantial way than as spice for a long paddle tagging a boat, though I realize for many that that is enough.

    Back to your list … consider the English Channel CSA’s records for the 10 years 2000-2009, published online. The difference in minutes between the two fastest swims were 22, 58, 33, 59, 8, 68, 73, 28, 23, 22. What do these deltas reflect? Skill in weather prediction? Skill in predicting the day’s currents? Skill in choosing the most efficient route on that day? Under present day convention, these skills and decisions are the pilot’s charge. What about pure luck with the day’s weather and details of the current? Does the swimmer appear anywhere on the scale of the distinction between 1st and 2nd fastest?

    Yet more than half of the EC-CSA’s swimmer awards are for fastest crossings: 18 awards each year for speed. Eighteen! Compare that to the number of awards that actually link to the swimmer/OW. There are four: Greatest Feat, Earliest or Latest, Most Arduous, Highest Tide. Only the first of those has male and female divisions, bringing the total to 5. Why is the channel community so obsessed with speed, as vacuous of meaning as it is in this context? It’s kind of like ranking poets based on their penmanship, or on their writing speed.

    So I disagree with your list. I would agree, however, with you that the majority of channel aspirants probably just want to show up and paddle, and let someone else handle all the site-specific issues and decisions – the things that make an EC an EC-crossing as opposed to 21 miles plus dice somewhere else. The two factions on Everest, commercial clients vs. mountaineers, is not disimilar and it ought to be clear by this point which camp I fall into.

    And I agree with you that the masses likely will hold back the sport, though I acknowledge that you phrased it as a glass half full. Their numbers likely will keep various organizations from forbidding boat-following, chop-blocking, etc… at least in the way they currently forbid wetsuits. In fact, your point probably underestimates the weight of the masses (as well as the promoters desperately trying to commercialize OW). Just as relays have become acceptable on the White Horse walls, so too will wetsuit crossings. All it takes is for some organization/company to start keeping track, to initiate a list. People will want to get it on it.

    This is the pitfall of codification. It focuses many people to do just the minimum necessary to get on the list. How fast a suit is legal? bodysuit? legsuit? jammers? speedo?

    Yet it’s inevitable that the free-swim ethic will be advanced because in a given field there exists a small group of people that works at expanding the envelope of possibility. Compared to conventional crossings, free-swims are more difficult and require a deeper connection to the water, the venue, and the environment. It definitely is not tourist swimming.

    You brought up Matthew Webb. Webb was a remarkable man, a larger-than-life pioneer who proved the basic feat was possible, not how far it could be taken. I do not consider Webb’s swim to have been the ultimate in any other sense, particularly not in ‘standards’. It was an era preceding the illegalization of many drugs, e.g. cocaine. Disregarding alcohol and tobacco, was Webb WADA compliant?

    On the pre-original topic of correcting ‘What is Wrong’, a better place to start would be the health of channel swimmers. At the forefront there ought to be publication of 1) the mortality rate for channel swimming (very high, though not quite as high as Everest’s mortality rate), 2) the prevalence of life long (shoulder) injuries following attempts and successes, 3) case histories and analyses of major en-route problems (such as being run over by your escort boat) and post swim medical issues. Do OW websites and CSAs have this information on their website under “Tips and advice to aspirants”? If not, do they really have the aspirant’s best interest in mind?

    1. This is the most thoughtful comment I’ve ever received on this blog, by a substantial margin. I deeply appreciate you taking the time to write it. I’m not sure how much further I want to engage on the topic – if/when I do, it will probably be in a separate post. What I will say for the time being is: You have changed how I think about marathon swimming. So thank you.

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