Posts from Dec 2011

Banquet day in San Pedro: Celebrating a big season of California channel swimming

Dec 04 2011

And now, a few words about the CCSF and SBCSA annual banquets (before the memories are too far from mind). Rob already wrote a fairly authoritative recap – to which I don’t have much to add.

(L-R) Anne Cleveland, Marcia Cleveland, and Cindy Cleveland. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Despite the recent surge of interest and participation in open-water swimming, marathon swimmers are still a rare breed - and our efforts are distributed across the globe. It would be unusual for more than a few of them to be in a room at the same time. How often, for example, would you be able to get a picture of the three great Clevelands together? (No relation - see picture at left.)

November 5th at the San Pedro Doubletree (a place I’ve come to know rather well this year!), the CCSF filled a large conference room with marathon swimmers (past and present) and their families. In a classy, inspiring ceremony emceed by Forrest Nelson, the Federation celebrated the successes of 26 solo swimmers, several relays, as well as Forrest’s own epic circumnavigation of the island.

List of successful 2011 soloists

It was a moving tribute to the courage of channel swimmers: the courage required to jump off a boat in the middle of the night, to leave the safety of land and offer oneself up to deep, dark, unknowable waters; swimming for as long as it takes to reach the other side.

Lynne Cox. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Lynne Cox - perhaps the most courageous among us - gave a keynote speech without notes, holding the room spellbound for a solid 45 minutes.

Cindy Cleveland was finally recognized for her pioneering circumnavigation of Catalina in 1979. Here was this petite, unassuming lady… one of a small handful who might be included in the “greatest marathon swimmer ever” conversation. She got a spontaneous standing ovation - and I think she almost melted on the spot. It was adorable.

And so, with a certificate signed by Forrest Nelson, Paula Selby, and John York, I officially became the 212th person to cross the Catalina Channel. It was the 263rd successful solo swim (accounting for multiple crossings by the same individual) and the 24th-fastest in the C-M direction.

Official certificate

When things started winding down at the Doubletree, Rob and I headed across town to Acapulco Restaurant to attend the board meeting of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. I’m super-excited to serve this organization, and mark my words: There will be some interesting things happening in the Santa Barbara Channel over the next few years.

Following the board meeting was the banquet, celebrating 7 solo successes - 6 from Anacapa and one from Santa Cruz. It was the second-biggest year ever for the SBCSA, behind only 2008. Many of the same faces were in attendance - a benefit of having the banquets on the same day in the same town.

SBCSA board of directors (L-R): Jim F., Jane C., Dean W., Evan M., Dave V.M., Lynn K., Scott Z., Dale M.

Rob and I polished off the day at the Crowne Plaza bar, where we ran into Captain Bob and Three-Ring Mike. We reflected on our experiences and discussed the future. In marathon swimming, the end of the season can mean only one thing: Time to plan for next year!

It was a good day.

More coverage:

Swim Report: Catalina Channel

Dec 06 2011

The Jump

A few minutes after midnight, I stood on a platform off the Bottom Scratcher’s stern and eyed my destination: a small cove on the west side of Catalina Island, 100m or so distant, illuminated only by the boat’s spotlight and the soft glow of a crescent moon. The night was warm (69F), the wind calm, and the sky clear; the water (I was told) a benign 68 degrees. Against the engine’s soft murmur, I heard small waves lapping at the nearby shore. My crew surrounded me - quietly, supportively. It was time to begin.

Photo Credit: Rob Dumouchel

I didn’t pause to contemplate the gravity of the moment. Let’s do this thing. The longer you stand there and think about it, the scarier it gets. So I jumped, or rather dove - head-first - into the inky sea.

I started stroking toward shore. Neil, already on the water in his foot-pedaled Hobie, followed alongside. I clambered over the thick kelp guarding Doctor’s Cove and found shallow water to stand up… then kept walking ’til I found dry rocks. I turned around and raised my arms above my head. Crickets chirped in the nearby brush. The stars shone startlingly bright. Offshore, Anne, Barb, Gracie, Neil, Amanda, Garrett, Mark, and Rob yelled some encouragement. I gazed across the vast, black expanse of water. Don’t think; just swim.

Doctor's Cove in the daytime. Apparently a nice snorkeling spot. Photo credit: sorfinablyhemy

A Running Start

For the better part of the past year, I had been scared of this swim; but right now I wasn’t scared. Oddly, my thoughts turned to Pete Huisveld and Chad Hundeby. Pete and Chad swam two of the fastest Catalina crossings in history, but that’s not why I thought of them. Instead, I recalled a seemingly inconsequential detail from Penny Lee Dean’s History of the Catalina Channel Swims: When they began their swims, Pete and Chad literally ran into the water. For whatever reason, I found this hilarious.

So, I ran - and everyone got a good laugh. In retrospect, it was also a clever little mind-hack. I’m not scared of you, Catalina Channel. In fact, I’m so not scared of you that I’m going to run into the water to start a 20-mile swim. They say you should stand tall and confident when confronted with a mountain lion or grizzly bear. The same could be said of a channel swim.

After climbing once again over the famous kelp patch, I was soon on my way - head down, 65 strokes per minute, toward Point Vicente.

An Angry Ocean

The ride over on the Bottom Scratcher had been bumpy. So I wasn’t surprised when an angry ocean greeted us in the channel, beyond the protection of the island. Some Catalina swimmers luck out with calm seas; apparently I would not be one of them. I wasn’t happy about it, but there was nothing I could do.

I locked onto Neil, paddling a few feet to my right. Now was the time to find that zone - a zone of effortless speed, a focused mindlessness - and put as much distance between me and the island before the pain arrived (as it inevitably does). I swam “from feed to feed,” and the 20 minute intervals vanished into nothingness, like the phosphorescent bubbles trailing every arm-stroke.

At One with the Channel

There was a moment… I don’t know when, exactly - but it was O’Dark Thirty or thereabouts. I was settling into a comfortable rhythm and was coming to terms with the ever-increasing column of water beneath me. On my right, Neil paddled silently, stoically. On my left, most of my crew were either asleep or throwing up. I looked up for a quick “sight” to see if I could see any lights on the mainland. Nope - nothing but endless rolling swells. Above that, the stars seemed to shine brighter than ever before. In this moment, I had two thoughts.

First, I was struck - not for the first time, just more powerfully - by how utterly insane channel swimming is. Seriously - what the heck am I doing out here? It’s the middle of the night, and here I am, ploughing through whitecaps in the open ocean, wearing nothing but a speedo.

Second - and I think most channel swimmers will understand why this isn’t a contradictory thought - I was struck by how… beautiful it was. The image will last a lifetime: The moon, the stars, the swells, the chop… the black depths and fleeting phosphorescence.

I actually felt… comforted. As if the Channel were a living being, protecting me and willing me to shore. The Channel breathed through its swells, and laughed through its chop. The water itself - literally floating me above the inhospitable depths. It wouldn’t be easy, but right then - I knew I would make it across.

Photo credit: Rob Dumouchel

Here Comes the Sun

People say the toughest part of a Catalina swim is getting through the night. Once the sun rises, the glory of the day takes over - raising spirits and pushing you to the finish. I had the opposite experience. The night was the easy part! My shoulders were fresh, and there was nothing to see (around me or below me) to distract from the task at hand.

By nautical twilight (5:25am) I had been ploughing through chop for more than 5 hours. As the sky turned from black to grey, the ocean mercifully began to lay down. But the damage was done: My shoulders were spent! I asked for a hit of ibuprofen and went back to work. Around this time, Capt. Greg broke out his bagpipes - a traditional dawn ritual on the Bottom Scratcher. I didn’t hear it, but I think it was a welcome sound to my crew, who had endured a rough night on the sickeningly swaying boat.

The Coach

Shortly before 6am, Mark was launched on the second Hobie kayak, and paddled alongside Neil for a few minutes. Then, Neil dropped back and re-boarded the Bottom Scratcher, where a well-deserved nap awaited.

At a time when I was really descending into the hurt box, I can’t over-state how much it raised my spirits to see Mark. He’s my oldest friend, and a fellow marathon swimmer. I’ve swum more miles with him than any other single person. Actually, without him I probably wouldn’t have been there that day. It was Mark’s run for the 2008 Olympics that inspired me to give open-water swimming a try.

Photo Credit: Rob Dumouchel

In his list of pointers for marathon swim crews, Rob described the importance of having someone on the boat “that knows you well enough to know when you’re doing good or when things are going badly. They should have enough of a grip on your personality to know how to motivate you when things get hard.” For me, Mark was that guy.

Mark was a constant source of encouragement. At 6:10am I took my 18th feed. Word from the wheelhouse was that I had 5.42 nautical miles remaining - almost exactly 10K. Mark translated this information as, “All you have left is a long workout. 10K is just a long workout - and you’ve done a lot of them.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. Later, when my technique started slipping, Mark reminded me to drive more with my hips to take some of the burden off my shoulders. Again - exactly what I needed to hear.

A couple hours later, Mark guided me all the way into shore - through the kelp and almost into the surf zone. At the last moment, before I bodysurfed into the rocks at Point Vicente, he said, “Evan, you’re about to join the crazy-man club.” He was the first to raise his arms in triumph when I stood up.


At 6:30am I stopped for my 19th feed; the sun had risen 8 minutes previously. As I downed the Maxim, Gracie swam up alongside me. A swim buddy! Again, I can’t overstate how much it helped - at that moment - to have company. After my experience crewing for Cliff, I had requested no pacers during the night. But now, with light in the sky and throbbing shoulders, it was perfect.

"Racing" Gracie. Photo credit: Rob Dumouchel

Gracie paced with me for the full hour allowed by CCSF rules. During my 21st feed break, before the last 20-minute segment with Gracie, I challenged her to a “race.” Obviously, after 7 hours of swimming I was no match for her - but it was fun to pretend. By “pretending” to race, I was able to (temporarily) access a previously hidden well of energy. For 20 minutes, at least, I was once again storming down the Hudson. For a little while, the adrenaline masked the pain. It’s mind-hacks like these that get you through a channel swim.

At 7:50am, after 20 minutes on my own, my brother Garrett jumped in to pace-swim - despite having puked his guts out all night. At 8:10, Rob D. joined us. At 8:30, Garrett got out. At 8:50, Rob got out. The water temp had abruptly dropped from 66-68F down to 62, as we hit the upwelling from the sharply inclining ocean bottom. Almost there.

The Finish

As the clock ticked past 9am, I encountered another giant kelp patch, even bigger and denser than the one at Doctor’s Cove. I was in less than 100 feet of water. I could see my parents on the beach. The rest of the story, in pictures…

Slippery rocks; uncoordinated swimmer:

Photo Credit: Forrest Nelson

Searching for dry land:

Photo credit: Mom

This is what they mean by “

Photo credit: Forrest Nelson

Forrest Nelson came to see me finish!

Photo credit: Dad

I will always be grateful: Neil and Gracie, the all-stars of swim support. Anne and Barb, for making sure the trains ran on time even though it wasn’t your job. Amanda, for your wacky humor and stellar camera-work. Rob, for being you. Garrett, for taking the plunge on an empty stomach. And Mark, for always being there when it matters.

The crew. Photo credit: Dad

The clock stopped a few ticks after 9:07am. 8 hours, 55 minutes, 59 seconds after leaving the island.

That’s how it happened, anyway - that “freshwater swimmer” earned his saltwater chops.

Photo credit: Amanda Hunt

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Catalina Channel solo swim from MSF on Vimeo.

GPS Analysis

Yellow path: GPS track. Red path: straight-line "ideal" route.

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.

Marathon swimming and low-carbohydrate diets

Dec 17 2011

In marathon swimming, “nutrition” typically refers to the stuff consumed during a swim to provide energy. But in his recent webinar (previously discussed here) was more interested in what people eat when they’re not swimming - i.e., diet.

If I could summarize his point, it would be this: Endurance athletes are asking the wrong question. Sure, Maxim is probably better than Gatorade during a swim. But the more important issue is: How best to train our metabolism _through diet _so it will most efficiently convert fuel into energy. According to Peter (who now has a blog), the ideal solution is a ketogenic diet.

The ketogenic diet is a type of low-carbohydrate diet that restricts carb intake so severely (less than 60 grams per day - equivalent to a small-ish bowl of pasta) that the body is forced to burn fat for energy instead of the “easy” glucose offered by carbohydrates. I won’t get into the theory and biochemical justification for the diet here, but if you’re interested you might consider checking out (in order of sophistication):

The low-carb/paleolithic/ketogenic diet has been around a while - some might even argue, for several million years. (Note: There are subtle differences among the terms low-carb, paleolithic, and ketogenic, but for our current purposes we’ll ignore them.) But what’s intriguing about Peter’s argument is that he’s promoting this diet as an endurance athlete. Even Mark Sisson is quick to note that he’s a former marathon runner.


I actually read The Primal Blueprint a couple years ago - and found it quite compelling. But in the end, I decided against “going primal” because it seemed totally impractical to train for marathon swims without eating lots of carbs. Sounds like bonk city, right? According to Dr. Attia, however, not only can you train for endurance events on a low-carb diet, but you actually have an advantage over your carb-addicted competitors.

The key is being keto-adapted - being able to burn ketones (a byproduct of fat metabolism) for energy instead of glucose. While most people’s bodies are reluctant to transition from ketosis (the scientific term for “hitting the wall”), people who are keto-adapted do it seamlessly. This has important implications for endurance athletes because eventually, all endurance athletes have to burn fat for energy. After 2-3 hours, glycogen stores are exhausted. But if you’ve already trained your body to readily metabolize fat, your energy levels should be steadier through a long swim. At least in theory.

So, will I be hopping on the low-carb bandwagon? Meh…

I’m of several minds about this. On the one hand, I do find the science behind low-carb diets - the benefits for general health and sustainable weight loss - to be compelling. And I do think “primal foods” are delicious. Fresh, organic veggies… free-range eggs… grass-fed beef… dark chocolate… bacon…. What’s not to love?

On the other hand, I really like carbs, too. I’m not sure I want to give up my heaping plate of pesto pasta; an oven-fresh loaf of French bread; tabbouleh salad, hummus, and pita bread; pizza! I’ve also never had any trouble digesting grains - which is a common reason people turn to low-carb diets. And on a practical level, it’s difficult to avoid carbs in most modern societies.

Ultimately, diet is a very personal choice. I wouldn’t advise quitting carbs just for its potential benefits in endurance sports. Personally, I’m not convinced on that point. I used my custom maltodextrin formula on four swims this year, totaling almost 31 hours and more than 90 miles of swimming - and my energy levels stayed consistently strong (shoulder pain was a different issue).

Jonas Colting

Peter presented some interesting data on his own performance benefits from keto-adaptation - but as he freely admits, that’s just one data-point. Ultraman champion Jonas Colting is another interesting data-point. But as far as I know, there have been zero scientifically rigorous, large-sample studies of low-carb diets among endurance athletes.

It’s certainly worthy of further study.

If you do decide to follow in Attia and Colting’s footsteps, you may find the following articles at Mark’s Daily Apple helpful:

One final issue, regarding the weight-loss benefits of low-carb diets. There’s a funny thing about marathon swimmers… many of them actually don’t want to burn off all their fat. Some of them are (the horror!) desperate to gain weight! A little bioprene goes a long way in a cold-water channel. Apparently, Peter Attia has chiseled himself down to 7.5% body fat. Very impressive in most contexts, but probably not ideal for cold water.

Has anyone out there tried low-carb diets? What about during heavy endurance training? What have been your experiences?

The Freshies: My 9 favorite open-water happenings of 2011

Dec 22 2011

End-of-year list-making: It’s not just for music aficionados, film buffs, and the New York Times Book Review. Why not open water swimmers, too?

The list is, admittedly, U.S.-centric - America is where I live and what I pay the closest attention to. While I greatly admire (for example) Nejib Belhedi’s Donal or somebody can make an international list.

The list also reflects my own personal biases. I readily admit, I couldn’t care less about “stunts” in which the promotional efforts are more impressive than the swim itself. Sorry, but I find such things distasteful and think they degrade our sport.

With that in mind, here are my 9 favorite open-water “happenings” of 2011 (in no particular order):

Rob Dumouchel: New Year’s Day Polar Bear 10K.

6 miles through sharky 53F (11.6C) ocean, from Avila Beach to Pismo Beach, CA. Quite possibly, the northern hemisphere’s first marathon swim of 2011. Long live the adventure beard!

David Barra & Rondi Davies:8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.

A 120-mile expedition stage swim from Catskill, NY to the Big Apple. Earned a feature in the New York Times while still seeming under-promoted. A surprising omission from the WOWSA nominations.

Jen Schumacher:Mt. Whitney & Lake Tahoe Back-to-Back.

Day 1: Climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. (14,505ft / 4,421m). Day 2: Swim across Lake Tahoe length-wise (21 miles at 6,225 ft elevation). A lung-busting feat of cross-training. A tacit acknowledgment of the spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers.

Forrest Nelson: Catalina Circumnavigation.

Forrest doesn’t call the L.A. Times. He doesn’t hire a camera crew to film a made-for-TV special. Forrest lets his swimming do the talking. The most impressive marathon swim of 2011 by someone not named Penny Palfrey.

  1. Roger Allsopp: English Channel at age 65.
  2. Pat Gallant-Charette: Catalina Channel at age 60.
  3. Elizabeth Fry: Double crossing of the English Channel at age 52.

Three heroic swims, three new age records.

NYC Swim: A re-written record book. The first double-Ederle swim, by Elizabeth Fry (and along the way, new one-way records in each direction).
Then, re-broken one-way Ederle records, by Lance Ogren and match race, with both swimmers breaking Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary 16-year old round-Manhattan record.
Morty Berger isn’t someone who seeks out attention, but I’ll just go ahead and say: He deserves a lot of the credit for these record-breaking swims.

Penny Palfrey: Cayman Islands Swim. If this wasn’t the greatest feat of endurance swimming in history, it’s second only to the English Channel triple-crossings (Jon Erikson, Alison Streeter, & Philip Rush).

Petar Stoychev. Not a terribly original choice, but you can’t under-sing this guy’s praises. Petar is, it would seem, immune to water temperature. He already holds the fastest English Channel crossing (6 hr, 57 min). This year, he won the FINA 25K world championship in 32C (90F) water. He has won the FINA Grand Prix circuit 10 years in a row, and is still going strong at age 34. At some point soon, he will probably be acknowledged as the greatest open water swimmer…ever.

USA Swimming 10K Open-Water National Championships. Rough-water swimming at its finest - and the most exciting open-water race I’ve ever seen. For 9,800m, Andrew Gemmell, Sean Ryan, Arthur Frayler, and Mark Warkentin battled it out in insanely choppy conditions. Swimmers were colliding with each other from opposite directions on a rectangular course. Alex Meyer slipped in for the win, to qualify for World Championships (and eventually, London). Here’s a video.

Mountaineering or Marathon Swimming?

Dec 26 2011

Consider the following book quotations. Do they refer to mountaineering or marathon swimming? I’ve redacted any clues that would make it obvious.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

There were many, many fine reasons not to… but attempting to [climb Mt. X/swim Channel Y] is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

By this time [so-and-so] was a full-time professional [climber/swimmer]. Like most of his peers, he sought funding from corporate sponsors to pay for his expensive [climbs/swims]. And he was savvy enough to understand that the more attention he got from the news media, the easier it would be to coax corporations to open their checkbooks. As it happened, he proved to be extremely adept at getting his name into print and his mug on the telly. “Yeah… he always did have a bit of a flair for publicity.”

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

To continue receiving sponsorship from companies… a [climber/swimmer] has to keep upping the ante. The next [climb/swim] has to be harder and more spectacular than the last. It becomes an ever-tightening spiral; eventually you’re not up to the challenge anymore.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

The possibility of danger serves merely to sharpen his awareness and control. And perhaps this is the rationale of all risky sports: You deliberately raise the ante of effort and concentration in order, as it were, to clear your mind of trivialities.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

[Climbing/swimming], she understood, was an essential expression of some odd, immutable aspect of my personality that I could no sooner alter than change the color of my eyes.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

[Mt. X/Channel Y] has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

She’s interested in publicity. If she had to do it anonymously I don’t think she’d be [climbing/swimming].

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other [mountain/swim]; I quickly came to understand that [climbing Mt. X/swimming Channel Y] was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to…toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing… is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

This is an activity that idealizes risk-taking; the sport’s most celebrated figures have always been those who stick their necks out the farthest and manage to get away with it. [Climbers/swimmers], as a species, are simply not distinguished by an excess of prudence.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

If [so-and-so] wanted to be considered among the world’s truly great [climbers/swimmers], he would need to shift his focus to [steeper/longer], very difficult, previously [unclimbed/unswum] routes.

As it turns out, each of these quotations are about mountaineering. In fact, they’re all from the same book: Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about a disastrous 1996 Mt. Everest expedition. (Great book, by the way.)

But they very well could have been written about marathon swimming, yes??