forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. — The Aeneid, Book 1
Last year I undertook an ambitious program of marathon swims:
- in April, the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim;
- in June, the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim;
- in August, a 20.1-mile solo crossing of the Catalina Channel;
- in October, the 17.5-mile Ederle Swim from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Manhattan.
While I usually keep my personal life out of this space, in this case it’s essential to understanding my experiences this year. I undertook this schedule of swims while going through a divorce (a process that began 4 days before MIMS), and while moving 2,100 miles from Chicago to California.
Yep – it was an interesting year.
Some thoughts, to those who might be considering a big season of their own:
- Four ultra-marathon swims in one season is generally a bad idea, with the possible exceptions of early retirees and professional swimmers.
- Beware the temptation that follows from entering just one of these events. As long as I’m training for X, I might as well do Y. Don’t want to let the hard work go to waste. It’s a rabbit-hole that leads in short order to Barra-esque levels of silliness (DB knows I mean that with respect.)
- If you are so unwise as to try something like this, I don’t recommend doing it on as paltry and inconsistent training as I did.
- And make for damned sure your life is in order. Married with dependent children? Probably a deal-breaker. Non-flexible work schedule? Also a deal-breaker.
Remember: there’s always next year. What’s the rush?
Another issue bears particular emphasis: It may be harder than you think to recover from a big swim. The channel swimmer/physician Peter Attia has compared the physical effects of a 20-mile swim to a traumatic injury. Personally, I budget at least 7-10 days for physical recovery.
In my experience, the greater challenge is mental recovery. A 20-mile swim is profoundly emotionally draining. In the weeks following a big swim, I’ve experienced symptoms not unlike depression: lethargy, listlessness, lack of motivation. With 4 swims in 6 months, though, you have no choice but to buck up and keep training.
The story of my 2011 season actually begins in September of 2010 – when I had the silly idea to enter the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. On September 10, my buddy Mark won a thrilling match race against Petar Stoychev. I thought to myself, That sounds fun.
On September 28, in what turned out to be the second-to-last day before Lake Michigan turned over, I swam 13.1K in 4 hours at Promontory Point in 61-degree (F) water. This qualified me for MIMS and (more important) gave me confidence that I could swim in Channel-temperature water for…well, pretty much indefinitely. I was joined that day by my new friend Amanda – with whom I would share many memorable sessions at the Point in the coming months. Amanda is a two-time MIMS veteran and was a helpful mentor as I acclimated to the idea of a 28.5-mile swim.
On November 1, after a last-minute flurry of essay-writing, I clicked “Submit” on my MIMS application and, by the end of the day, found the coveted green check mark next to my name at NYC Swim. In perusing the names of my fellow competitors, I figured I was out-classed by Erica Rose and John Van Wisse, and that I’d probably have a good race with Ollie Wilkinson – which is exactly how it turned out.
By December I had submitted my Tampa entry and my boat deposit for Catalina. The die had been cast.
In January, I started my training ramp-up in earnest. By late February, I was ready for what would be my only major training swim before Tampa: an epic 25K pyramid set on a constant 1:30/100m interval (long course). It was a brutal day at the pool, but great preparation for the upcoming swims. On April 9 I escaped to South Florida for a final tune-up: the Swim Miami 10K. My time didn’t reflect it (course mismeasurement), but I was first overall in the Masters division.
In late April, it was off to Tampa, where my Season of Big Swims would finally begin. At this juncture, instead of recapping what I’ve already written about extensively, I’ll do more of a compare/contrast exercise. My full reports are linked in the parentheses.
- the longest, both in time (8:59) and effective distance;
- the most intimidating (as “first times” tend to be);
- my best performance, objectively (I won by 41 minutes);
- the event that produced the most traffic on this site.
- the one I’m most likely to do again;
- the most exciting (lining up at the start with John, Erica, Ollie, and so many great marathoners; my big comeback in the Hudson);
- the most emotional (due primarily to outside circumstances);
- the performance of which I am proudest.
- the most painful;
- the most beautiful;
- the most objectively difficult (due to the conditions I encountered in the first 10 miles).
- the most laid-back and non-intimidating;
- my worst performance (objectively and subjectively);
- the one with the sketchiest water quality (a temporary issue due to Hurricane Irene);
- the least objectively difficult.
There was another small issue simmering beneath the surface during the latter part of the summer. I haven’t mentioned this before, but perhaps now is an appropriate time. By virtue of my 3rd-place finish at MIMS, I was offered a spot in the subsequent Manhattan match race and record attempt, when Erica Rose withdrew. The race was to be held September 28 – three days before the Ederle Swim. I had to choose between the two.
Truth be told, by the time I finished Catalina I was ready to call it a year. I was so spent – physically, emotionally, motivationally – that I didn’t think I had another swim in me. Maybe I should just forget Ederle, and use my Southwest Airlines points for another day. In the end, I kept my flight and I kept my spot on the Ederle roster. I declined the MIMS record attempt because (among others reasons) I figured there was no chance I or anyone else could take down Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary record.
In an ironic twist of fate, Shelley’s record did fall on September 28 – to my friend Rondi Davies; and then, less than 10 minutes later, to my great MIMS competitor Ollie Wilkinson. I was thrilled for them both – but at the same time had to suppress any thoughts of “What if?”
In any case, I came home from New York with a record anyway.
After Ederle I took 10 days off – my longest break in almost 3 years. No pool, no ocean, no drylands…nothing. And I felt no guilt whatsoever.
In mid-October I joined the board of directors for the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association – an organization I believe has a very bright future. On November 5 I attended my first board meeting, the same day as the dual SBCSA and Catalina Channel Swimming Federation banquets in San Pedro. I saw some old friends, met some new ones; celebrated past achievements and pondered future ones.
It was a difficult year, but one that I’ll remember fondly for many reasons. Four big swims were two too many – but I wouldn’t subtract any of them after the fact. I had, basically, four goals going into this season:
- Finish Tampa. (Secondary goal: As soon as possible. Tertiary goal: Ahead of others.)
- Peak for MIMS, and finish as high as possible. (Satisfied with 5th, happy with 4th, ecstatic with 3rd. I did not consider the possibility that I could beat either Erica or John – or finish less than a minute out of 2nd.)
- Finish Catalina and, if conditions allowed, in fewer than 9 hours. (Best-case scenario: 8:15.)
- Discover what I’m capable of.
So, three for three. As for the fourth — I take heart from the fact that it’s still an unanswered question.
And that… is a year in the life of a marathon swimmer.
As the sun rises on 2012, I wish all my readers a happy new year. May you stay happy, healthy, fit, and motivated – to tackle whatever channel, lake, bay, or river captures your imagination.