If these discussion threads at the Marathon Swimmers Forum are any indication, marathon swimmers love to argue about rules. This is not surprising; rules define the boundary conditions of our sport, what is and is not a “marathon swim.” The beauty of marathon swimming derives, at least in part, from its purity and asceticism - its prohibitions against things that would make it easier.
Debates and hand-wringing occasionally arise due to a few “local variations” on marathon swimming rules:
Concern trolls sometimes use these variations in an attempt to undermine marathon swimming, or to promote an “anything goes” policy. There may not be any universal set of marathon swimming rules (and I don’t think it makes sense to have one), but there is absolutely a universal spirit, going back to Captain Webb: to swim without artificial assistance.
Technology being what it is, new apparel and devices are always being developed, which are intended to make the act of swimming easier, but which do not specifically violate the rules.
How should we deal with these developments? How to decide whether an item violates the “spirit,” or not?
With these questions in mind, the SBCSA (specifically, Scott Zornig and I) present a community opinion survey on rules in marathon swimming:
(The survey benefited from feedback from Donal Buckley and Rob Dumouchel - thanks guys.)
The spirit of marathon swimming is defined by the “spirit” (and opinions) of marathon swimmers. But to my knowledge, there has never been any systematic study of what marathon swimmers actually think about these issues.
So that’s the motivation behind the survey. Anyone (marathon swimmer or otherwise) is invited to take it, by the way.
In closing, I’d like to quote a Michael Oram email from the Channel Swimmers chat group, which to my mind at least, eloquently captures the “spirit” of the sport:
It has always amazed me how athletes spend such a lot of time trying to stretch the rules and find aids. Channel swimming is a personal competition between the swimmer and the elements. Looking for that extra edge all the time is a negative approach as instead of working within the established parameters you are grasping at straws to get a little more assistance, or confidence.
Once you have started it’s you against the elements; whatever hat you are - or are not wearing.
I truly believe that a Channel Swim - performed under traditional rules - is among the greatest athletic feats that a human can achieve.
We are terrestrial animals, adapted to surviving on land with the assistance of clothing and shelter. We are capable of great efficiency of movement - on solid ground.
A Channel Swim turns all this on its head. Without shelter… naked but for a porous, skimpy textile garment… we step offshore into an environment we are terribly adapted to, and terribly inefficient at moving through. As the ocean floor drops beneath our ability to stand, and the cold begins its creeping march from the extremities to the core - there are really only two options: Swim to the other shore… or get on the boat.
I have another belief, which might seem to contradict or undermine my first belief (that a Channel Swim is one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve). And that is:
Almost any able-bodied human can accomplish a Channel Swim.
You don’t need to be athletic, or coordinated, or physically strong. You don’t even need to be a particularly skilled swimmer. By which I mean: the level of swimming skill necessary for a Channel Swim can be learned by almost anybody, even as an adult.
Some of the most famous and accomplished Channel Swimmers, you would not be able to pick out from the average noodler at your local lap pool. The distinguishing characteristic of the Channel Swimmer - the ability/motivation/inclination to keep swimming (and swimming, and swimming…) - is something that cannot be observed in a thin slice of behavior.
On the basis of these two beliefs, I propose that only three things truly matter in Channel Swimming:
Sure, OK. If you are gravely ill or injured, perhaps a Channel Swim isn’t in the cards.
a.k.a., persistence, stubbornness, tenacity.
Don’t know how to swim? You can learn, well enough (if you want it).
Not ready for the distance? You can build up to it (if you want it).
Not ready for the cold? You can acclimate. Find some cold water. Go swim in it. Do it again, and again, and again. That’s why it’s called “acclimation” - your body will adapt (if you want it to).
Channel Swimming is such a first world problem. Boats cost money. Sanction fees cost money. Travel costs money. The opportunity costs (training when you could have been working) cost money.
Whether the funds come from your rich uncle, from a sponsor (because you’re gifted - either athletically or self-promotionally), or out of your own pocket, there’s no way around it: Channel Swimming is a huge money drain.
If you don’t have it, or you’re too shy to solicit it, then, well - too bad. Life isn’t fair, and Channel Swimming ain’t a meritocracy. You may be a better swimmer than 90% of the English Channel soloists in a given year, but if you don’t have the money and time to get to Dover, then - too bad!
Does this undermine my belief that Channel Swimming is “one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve”? Maybe a little bit. Channel Swimmers may have to overcome a lot during their swim, but most of them probably don’t have much to “overcome” otherwise. When Channel Swimmers return to the harbor, most of them are going home to affluent situations.
Sometimes, when I read tales of seemingly-heroic Channel Swims in newspapers and blogs, it occurs to me that the real story is not how amazing the swim was, but rather, how fortunate the swimmer was to be able to attempt it in the first place.
I write these words as someone who has been very fortunate to have some incredible channel/marathon swimming experiences these past few years.
I am one of the lucky ones.
So you did a Channel Swim - congratulations. Any Channel Swim is, in my view, a heroic feat (for reasons described above).
But before you get too caught up in how awesome you are, remember how lucky you are - to even have the opportunity to put your toe in the water.
[This post benefited from (and was inspired by) conversations with Cathy - who, it should be emphasized, doesn’t necessarily agree with everything I wrote here.]
Last September I joined some San Francisco friends in Maui for a memorable few days of swimming and leisure (but mostly leisure). You may have seen the short video I posted a while back of my solo Maui Channel swim. Two days before the solo, I did the same swim with my friends in the annual relay race of the same channel.
So, this video has been a long time in the making. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Nothing beats the February doldrums like Hawaii (or at least, thinking about Hawaii).
The relay was loads of fun and mostly uneventful, with the unfortunate exception of our third swimmer getting tangled in a jellyfish (probably a box) only a few minutes into her 30-minute leg. She got on the boat and (as allowed by the rules) we turned off the engine and floated in place. At the next change-over, we put our next swimmer in the water and continued on our way.
We all got “zapped” a few times by jellies, but we made it to the finish at Kaanapali Beach without further incident. Our third swimmer was just unlucky, it seems. So it goes!
Anyway, here it is. It starts off with just photos, but there’s GoPro footage too!
We ended up 25th out of 47 teams in the overall standings, in 4 hours 34 minutes. Not bad considering the 23-odd minutes we spent sitting in place mid-channel! Even better, our divisional placing was good enough for a coveted plush Maui Channel Swim towel. It’s so nice, I still haven’t used it.
Eventually, I will put together a “director’s cut” of my solo swim - which incidentally would have placed fourth overall among the relays 🙂
Oh, one more thing. Our GPS track:
Unfortunately, my GPS wasn’t able to get a fix until sometime near the beginning of Scott’s leg. Notice the “dogleg” that occurs in our path shortly thereafter - that’s when we turned the engine off to wait out Tara’s leg. In reality, we were drifting with the current, which was pushing due north.
Marathon swimmers talk a lot about rules - what should and shouldn’t be allowed during a swim - but as far as I know, there has never been any systematic study of what marathon swimmers actually think, as a matter of public opinion.
Perhaps most would agree that goggles are OK, and fins are verboten… but what about drafting off the escort boat? If you only read blogs and forums, you might assume the most vocal opinions represent the majority. But do they really?
Earlier this month the survey to find out. Over 25 days, we received 175 responses from around the world.
I. We received responses from a representative sample of marathon swimmers - current, former, and aspiring.
II(a). Marathon swimmers agree on basic channel-rules attire: traditional porous textile swimsuit (including jammers), goggles, one latex or silicone cap, ear plugs, and nose clips.
II(b). Marathon swimmers agree that substances or devices that protect the swimmer against dangerous marine life (e.g., sharks & jellyfish) – but unambiguously do not enhance performance – are acceptable.
II(c). Marathon swimmers agree that devices or substances that unambiguously enhance speed, buoyancy, or heat retention should NOT be allowed on marathon swims.
III. Controversial items include stinger suits, swim streamers, bubble caps, and shark divers.
IV. The more marathon swimming experience a person has, the more likely she/he is to embrace a minimalist approach to swim aids.
To argue that this survey accurately represents the opinion of the marathon swimming community, we must show that the 175 respondents are a representative sample of the community. We can do this in a few ways.
Of the 175 respondents, 71% live in North America, 19% live in the United Kingdom or Ireland, 5% live in Australia or New Zealand, and the remaining 5% live elsewhere.
As a baseline for comparison, here’s how those numbers compare to the unique visitors to the Marathon Swimmers Forum in February.
Another baseline for comparison? The Triple Crown list: as of 2012, 76% are from North America, 10% from the UK+Ireland, 4% from Australia+NZ, 4% from continental Europe, and the rest from elsewhere.
In sum, the survey sample has a lot of North Americans - but then, so does the global marathon swimming community generally.
What about the Triple Crown list? Exactly 60% men, 40% women. Pretty darned close.
We asked respondents what they “identify most closely as.” Although we didn’t forbid non-marathon swimmers from taking the survey, we promoted and targeted it primarily at marathon swimmers, because that’s what our primary interest was: What do _marathon swimmers _think?
According to the data, 87% of respondents identified as either a current, former, or aspiring marathon swimmer.
We asked survey respondents about their specific experience in marathon swimming (and other endurance sports). We found that:
Interesting sub-finding: Marathon swimmers are not as challenged on terra firma as the stereotypes might suggest. Almost half of respondents have done an Olympic-distance triathlon (or longer), and 30% have run a marathon. In comparison, Runners World estimates the percentage of the U.S. population who have run a marathon at 0.5% (ref).
Now to the meat of the study. What do marathon swimmers agree on?
Some critics and swim-aid proponents would have you believe the marathon swimming community can’t agree on what their own rules are. The implicit argument is typically: “Therefore, we might as well just let people use anything they want.”
Actually, the marathon swimming community agrees on quite a lot.
More than 75% of survey respondents agreed that the following items are acceptable:
(Including drafting off the escort boat, which is allowed in the English Channel.)
More than 75% of survey respondents agreed that the following items are NOT acceptable:
Some thoughts on why there is less consensus on these items:
(If you must know, the stinger suit vote was 84-yes, 83-no, with 8 no answers.)
My view: if an item is controversial, it cannot be considered “approved by the sport of ocean swimming.” At best, it might be considered a “local exception” to a more universal set of rules - for example, the use of streamers in Japan.
If an item is controversial, it is in some way approaching a line in the sand. In marathon swimming, if you’re flirting with this line - trying to find loopholes for some extra edge - quite simply, you’re doing it wrong.
Some stinger suit proponents claim that these enhanced-coverage suits are merely protective, not performance-enhancing - and that therefore they should be allowed on marathon swims.
Personally, I’m not sure about this claim. Couldn’t someone easily produce a stinger suit that _is _performance enhancing? Would we then have to define new rules about what is and is not a performance enhancing stinger suit? Could I put on my old full-body Blueseventy Nero tech suit and call it a “stinger suit”?
The data presented so far represent the “collective” opinion of the marathon swimming community. However, within that collective, there is actually quite a diversity of opinions among individuals. For example, one person might think a streamer is OK but a stinger suit is not OK; while another person might think a streamer is not OK while a stinger suit is fine.
This diversity of opinions in the survey sample ranged from:
For each survey respondent, I summed the total number of items the individual would allow - as an ideology index. So the minimalist respondent I mentioned above would get a 9 on the ideology index, while the everything-is-allowed respondent/troll would get a 48.
Here’s how the respondents were distributed according to ideology:
One interesting question is: Why do some people prefer a minimalist approach, while others embrace technology and swim aids?
We would need a much longer survey to tease out the various reasons, but even in this brief survey there is a clear pattern:
The more marathon swimming experience a person has, the more likely she/he is to embrace a minimalist approach to swim aids.
The following chart shows the average “ideology index” score (out of 48) for four groups:
The same pattern emerges when we look at people’s opinions on just a single item, for example, the controversial stinger suit.
Obviously there’s much more we could get into with this data, but for now this report is quite long enough already. And I think I covered the big points. If readers are interested, I will do a follow-up post with additional summary data and analyses, as requested - an “appendix” of sorts. Let me know what you want to know.
For reference, here are screenshots of the original survey (click to enlarge):