Origin Stories

Many open-water swimmers seem to have origin stories. A moment of revelation when one identifies – in a powerful and lasting way – with the experience of being in open water. In reality it’s usually more of a process than a single moment, but often there’s a particular event that seems to crystallize that process and lend it symbolic meaning (perhaps only retrospectively).

One of the great legends of open water swimming, Lynne Cox, turned her own origin story into an award-winning book. Cox’s story, too, was a process – but she also describes a moment from which the rest of the moments in her incredible career seem to flow. In 1971, she entered the Seal Beach Rough Water Swim and, as a 14-year old, won the women’s race and beat all but two of the men. Only a middling talent in the pool, Cox was encouraged by her coach, Don Gambril, to try open water.

lynne cox
Lynne Cox


Cox’s description of the race start sounds almost surreal, but I think many who’ve caught the open water bug will know exactly what she means:

The water was cold, salty, buoyant, smooth, and the deepest blue. And I swam as if I had learned to fly. I raced across the water. My strokes felt powerful, and I felt strong, alive, as if awakened for the first time. Nothing in the swimming pool gave me this pleasure. I was free, moving fast, feeling the waves lifting and embracing me, and I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It was like I had gone from a cage into limitless possibilities.

Swimming to Antarctica, p. 28.

Some origin stories are rooted in failure. Another legend, Penny Lee Dean, attempted to swim the length of the Golden Gate Bridge as a 10-year old (4-foot-2, 50 pounds), but DQ’d herself 400m from the finish by touching a support boat. She describes the pain of failure, and the inspiration that followed:

I cried. I had failed, but promised myself I would never quit again. Someday I would swim the English Channel. This swim taught me about challenges I had never experienced physically or mentally in the confines of a swimming pool; it inspired me to attempt every open water swim possible.

Open Water Swimming, p. 5.

Other origin stories seem almost accidental. If you ask Mark Warkentin how he got into open water, he’s been known to half-jokingly explain that he simply was trying to find a way onto the U.S. National Team, and the 25K seemed like the “easiest” (ha, ha) way to do it, because very few people want to swim that far. In 2006, he won the 25K National Championship, and made the team.

Is there any human sport more diverse than open water swimming? Not just diversity in terms of ethnic or socioeconomic background (though there’s plenty of that, too). I mean diversity in personalities, motivations, and character. Some are former pool swimmers looking for new challenges. Others have no formal swim training, but just like being in the water. Some are world-class athletes. Others are slow swimmers, but succeed through world-class persistence.

All you need are a suit, cap, and goggles – but really, you don’t even need those.

Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?

If you like gadgets and/or swim toys you may have found yourself, at some point over the past couple of months, drooling over the FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor. And after playing with one for a few weeks now, I’ll admit, it’s pretty cool.

Before you fork over $200, though, consider the question: What does the Swimsense – and swim watches in general (e.g., the Swimovate Poolmate and Oregon Scientific’s watch) – offer that a simple pace clock doesn’t?

Continue reading “Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?”

MIMS finishing times: Men vs. Women

This chart compares the average MIMS finishing time over the years for Men vs. Women (click to enlarge):

Interestingly, the average female MIMS finisher was faster than the average male in about 80% of the years. Men were faster only in 1982. (The remaining years are statistical ties.)

MIMS finishing times: 1982-2010

Five months until MIMS! In the meantime, some data porn for your enjoyment (click to enlarge):

The NYC Swim website has MIMS results as far back as 1915, but the modern version of MIMS as an annual marathon swim race began in 1982, when Drury Gallagher founded the Manhattan Island Swimming Association.

The chart above shows every MIMS finishing time from 1982-2010 (black dots), along with the slowest, fastest, and median time of each year (blue, green, & red lines, respectively). Only participants in the annual MIMS race are shown – no solo attempts (e.g., Shelley Taylor-Smith’s record swim of 5:45 in 1995).

    Big Shoulders Stats: Finishing times

    People say times don’t matter in open water – or at least that you don’t always know what they mean. And perhaps that’s part of its attraction. While in the pool “the clock never lies,” in open water it’s not much more than a ranking device.

    Even so, I’ve been surprised by how closely most of my open-water pace times have approximated my pool speed at various distances – from 1:15 at 1 mile (Huntersville), to 1:17 at 1.5 miles (Livermore), to 1:19 at 2 miles (H’ville again) up to 6K (Windsor), and 1:22 at 10K (Noblesville).

    When an event has been staged for many years, though – at the same location, on the same course layout – comparing times makes a little more sense. Big Shoulders is one such event.

    In that spirit, here are the finish times in Big Shoulders across the 12 years of available data, starting with the 5K race:

    5K times

    That chart is a little busy, so let’s unpack it:

    • Each black dot represents one swim. The dots are “jiggered” slightly to the left or right of their corresponding year (so more of them are visible). If a dot is closest to the vertical line indicating 2005, that means the swim took place in 2005.
    • The blue line connects the slowest swim in each year.
    • The green line connects the fastest swim in each year.
    • The red line connects the median swim in each year.

    Make sense? Now, here are the 2.5K swims over the years:

    2.5K times

    What does it all mean? While the slowest and fastest swims each year will depend on “who shows up,” I think we can interpret the median swim as a broad measurement of “conditions.” In Lake Michigan, that generally means water temperature and/or surface chop (but usually not current).

    For a swim in the same location, with the same course layout, which draws a reasonably large sample from the same population (people who live within a few hours’ drive of Chicago), we wouldn’t expect the median finish time to vary much over time. To the extent that it does vary, we can probably attribute it to “conditions.”

    One probable exception is 2003, in which both the median and fastest times were substantially faster than usual. Not surprisingly, on an anecdotal level, it was widely assumed among those who participated in 2003 that the course was shorter than 2.5K.

    Big Shoulders Stats: A local race?

    More Big Shoulders stats, from my custom-made aggregate file. Here’s the proportion of Big Shoulders participants hailing from Illinois, Indiana, and “other” – i.e., anyplace besides IL and IN.

    Clearly, Illinois locals still predominate, but recent years have seen a greater influx of out-of-state swimmers. In 2009, almost 30% came from outside of Illinois and Indiana – an all-time high.

    Big Shoulders Stats: Participation by Age

    More fun with Big Shoulders stats. We’ve been looking at participation – so what about age? Masters swimming is traditionally dominated by people in their 40’s and 50’s – is the same true here?

    It seems the modal age is actually a bit younger in Big Shoulders – lots of people in their 30’s. But the “50’s” have been mounting a furious comeback (see the blue line) – perhaps a baby boomer effect.

    My custom aggregate CSV file, from which I calculated these stats, is available here.