Watch and Learn

Chris Derks is a pretty OK swimmer — course-record holder and four-time winner of the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, 2004 MIMS champion, competitor in numerous pro races, and owner of an 8:32 English Channel crossing in 2001.

Yesterday Chris posted a video of his English Channel swim to the Marathon Swimmers Forum. It’s a quirky video – 30 minutes long, with random cuts to other races, and ending in the middle of a conversation (apparently Chris plans to upload the rest separately) – but I enjoyed it quite a lot. Chris is one of the best in the business, and it’s a rare treat to see him in action. Also, I dig his taste in music.

Check it out:

A few of my favorite parts:

  • 0:35 – Cool postcard shot of the marathon swimmer and… is that a battleship?!
  • 0:50-3:37 – Interview with Chris. Background & motivations. “I still want to race against kids who are half my age, and beat them…beat them hard.”
  • 3:38-5:47 – Nearly indecipherable interview with his coach. Chris is training in the end lane (a.k.a. the traditional “animal lane” for old-school distance swimmers).
  • 3:53-5:08 – That was a 1:15 LCM split!
  • 6:16 – In Dover. Spectacular usage of The Who’s “Eminence Front”
  • 8:03 – The pre-Maxim era?
  • 8:47 – “On the morning of the swim, the weather was good, and the water was glass.”
  • 10:20 – Chris agrees with me that running into the water is the best way to begin a channel swim.
  • 10:55 – “Mötley Crüe’s ‘Kick Start My Heart’ provided the necessary adrenaline to keep Chris psyched for a long day ahead.”
  • 13:00 – Master class on feeding from a boat. The gold standard.
  • 18:19 – “Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire!” Great channel song.
  • 19:57 – How to feed from a kayak in less than 4 seconds. Watch and learn, people! (From the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.)
  • 21:53 – Chris Greene Lake cable swim. Wow, he’s a lot faster than those Masters swimmers.
  • 22:40 – Meanwhile, back in the Channel…

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Besides Chris’ spectacular feeding technique, I also want to briefly discuss his stroke. There’s some good multi-angle footage from about 15:22 to 15:45, going into and out of a feed.

It’s not a symmetrical stroke. He breathes unilaterally to the right; he rotates slightly more in this direction, resulting in a slight swinging motion on his left (non-breathing) arm; he splashes a bit on his hand entry; his kick is a sort of raggedy four-beat; his tempo a metronomic 67 strokes per minute.

It’s not a pretty, dainty stroke. But make no mistake: It’s a devastatingly effective stroke for open water and marathon distances. A powerful stroke — a rhythmic stroke. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a thing of beauty.

Some schools of swim technique aim for grace, symmetry, smoothness, and lack of splashing. And I get why some people value these things – especially beginners. But they have little to do with speed or endurance – and those are the things I value.

I’m not saying you should imitate Chris’ stroke. Chris’ stroke is precisely adapted to his own body, his own strengths – even his own personality. Chris Derks swims like Chris Derks. Sun Yang swims like Sun Yang. Janet Evans swims like Janet Evans. Your mileage may vary.

For what it’s worth, I swim quite a lot like Chris. Check it out. Unilateral breathing to the right; arm-swing on the left; raggedy 4-beat kick. It’s uncanny, actually.

Letters from Connie: There Is No Perfect Stroke

Conrad Wennerberg is Chairman Emeritus of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and author of the authoritative history of marathon swimming: Wind, Waves, and Sunburn. Originally published in 1974, the book was re-printed in 1999, and is now out of print once again. (Used copies are available through Amazon.)

Wind, Waves, and Sunburn

Conrad (or “Connie,” as he’s known to friends) is a familiar face at Promontory Point in Chicago, my preferred training location in 2010-11. Now in his 80s, Connie still takes his noontime dip in Lake Michigan, May through October. Connie is also responsible for rescuing a treasured thermos of mine, which his friend Frank the Klepto had stolen during a late-season training swim. True story.

I’m just now getting around to reading Wind, Waves, and Sunburn, and it’s delightful. More than anything else I’ve read, it captures the spirit of marathon swimming – and this power is undimmed by the passing of 37 years. For some perspective: in 1974, the records for the fastest crossings of the English and Catalina Channels were both held by Lynne Cox.

1962 Lake Michigan marathon swimIn an early chapter, Connie recounts the classic “36 3/4 to 50 mile” Lake Michigan race in 1962. This race was actually two races in one. First, a 36 3/4-mile swim from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois – an attempt to break Ted Erikson’s record of 35 hours for the same distance the previous year (Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana). The first swimmer to reach Waukegan could choose to exit the water and collect $4,000. Or, swimmers could choose to keep going past Waukegan, all the way to Kenosha, Wisconsin – a distance of 50 miles and a new world record for distance. The first swimmer to reach Kenosha would win $10,000.

Of the 20 or so swimmers who dove into Lake Michigan that day, only three would finish: Ted Erikson, Greta Andersen, and Dennis Matuch. All three would subsequently be enshrined in the marathon swimming hall of fame. In Connie’s eyes, the story of their epic race is more than a story: It’s an allegory. He describes their respective stroke techniques:

Ted Erikson was “poetry in motion”–the classic stroke with hardly a millimeter variation between either arm as it entered the water. His legs beat in a steady, even throb that impressed the observer. His powerful arms carried him through the water at a speed of close to two miles per hour. Here was the man to watch. His forty-eight strokes per minute would prevent his burning out.

Moving on to Dennis Matuch, a local lifeguard with a decidedly different approach to swimming:

His arms worked in what seemed like frenzied action. Eighty-five strokes per minute…. Extremely short, his high stroke rate prevented any smooth entry of his hands and arms into the water. Consequently there was a splash upon entry into the water and corresponding flurry of water upon recovery. The average spectator would also have been amazed at the total non-use of his legs. They simply dragged along behind him…. Spectators scratched their heads and said, “This man will drown shortly.”

And finally, Greta Andersen, the greatest female marathon swimmer of her era:

What one would have observed would have been an extremely uneven stroke. As Greta turned her head to the right to breathe, her left arm reached only a little more than half the distance ahead as the right arm. One would have been tempted to say, “What a cock-eyed stroke.” It was very uneven and looked quite uncomfortable to the swimmer.

Based on these observations, Connie concludes:

Ted Erikson would win this race. Greta Andersen, if she were lucky, would go half way. Dennis Matuch would drown in about another ten minutes. Self-satisfied, the general observer would sit back and await the “sure” and inevitable outcome.

Conrad Wennerberg
Conrad Wennerberg at Promontory Point

So, what actually happened?

  • Dennis Matuch swam 36 3/4 miles to Waukegan in 21 hours, earning a new world record and $4,000.
  • Greta Andersen, five minutes behind Matuch, continued on to Kenosha, finishing in 31 hours — a new world record for distance, earning the top prize of $10,000.
  • Ted Erikson, three hours behind Andersen at Waukegan, also kept going. By the time he reached Kenosha he was five hours behind. In reward for 36 hours of swimming, he received nothing but a metaphorical pat on the back.

The chapter concludes with a statement as true today as it was in 1974:

The moral to be learned from the above is that one should never stress the importance of “evenness” and proportion that characterizes the classic swimming stroke. The individual variations in human anatomy and physiology preclude warping an individual’s personal adaptation to the water into the closed channel of “water ballet” perfectionism.

Hear, hear!

And Connie, if you read this, please give my regards to Frank the Klepto.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Jared WoodfordThis is a time of year when many marathon swimmers are ramping up their training in earnest, in preparation for big swims this summer. It’s a time of year when reports of epic workouts appear with increasing frequency on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. While it’s fun to read of others’ training exploits, it’s important to keep your eyes on the prize – maximizing your performance for your event – and not get caught up in cyber-rivalries.

My friend and former training partner Jared Woodford recently wrote an excellent post on this subject, and I asked his permission to re-print it. Jared is a professional triathlete, a commercial pilot for ExpressJet, and a former collegiate swimmer at Delta State University. Last May he was featured in an interview on SlowTwitch. 

Possibly unique to triathlon (and maybe its component sports) is the ability to read about the workouts of other athletes online.  Via Facebook, Twitter and blogs there is an access to other athletes that isn’t found in other sports.  I’ve never read on AJ Green’s twitter feed about how many pass play routes he ran that day and Kevin Durant doesn’t update us on how hard his last workout was.  Triathlon social media though is inundated with completed workouts, epic training day totals and regurgitated coaching mantras.

I wouldn’t say that triathlon’s use of social media is a bad thing though.  It can be a great motivator to read what others are doing (especially as our sport is easily quantifiable), and the ability to share a recent workout can garner positive reinforcement often lacking in an often lonely pursuit.  But as I ran my 5k on the treadmill today (that I didn’t find to be twitter worthy) I was thinking about how easy it is to be distracted by the training of everyone else.

It can be disconcerting when others are logging epic workouts and you aren’t.  And while good people train a lot (endurance sports work like that), remember that the competition is on race day.  The goal of training is to race faster, not to train more than your friends.  [Emphasis added.] There are no medals given out for epic training days posted online (other than social recognition medals, which could very well be more important to some).  And even if there were, they wouldn’t be handed out in January when the races are 5 months away.

As others gain early fitness and hit the web, don’t panic thinking you might be behind.  There is no glamour in patience; no online reward for staying the course.  It takes great self-confidence to do what YOU need to do.  The workouts that make the real difference (the ones that are repeatable and appropriate), won’t foster many “likes” and won’t impress your twitter followers.  But remember that the season is long, training is individual, and to keep calm and carry on.

The “Freshies” – My 10 favorite open-water happenings of 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?

So, here are my 10 favorite open-water “happenings” of 2011 (“happenings” because they’re not all swims).

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 1400K Swim Across Tunisia, I have no unique insights to add to what others have already said. Perhaps 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 the winners of the inaugural “freshies” (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 myself.
Best of all: Rondi Davies’ and Ollie Wilkinson’s incredible MIMS 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.

State of California: Shark fin ban. Because shark-finning is barbaric and shameful. Sometimes, government can make a difference.

For what it’s worth, I endorse the following nominees for the WOWSA awards:

  • Man of the Year: Simon Griffiths (publisher of the new H20pen Magazine)
  • Woman of the Year: Penny Palfrey
    • Note: Penny is listed in both this category and the “performance of the year” category. As I predicted, she is splitting her own vote.
  • Performance of the Year: Forrest Nelson
    • Need another reason to vote for Forrest? I haven’t gotten a single email or Facebook post from him, begging for my vote.

Lessons in pool etiquette: Masters edition

Rob and Donal have already said what needs to be said about lap swimming etiquette – and with great style, I might add.

What I’d add to the discussion is this: The importance of etiquette is not limited to lap swimming! It’s not just the noodlers and resolutionistas. You might think Masters swimmers would pick up the basics of pool etiquette pretty quickly. It’s tougher to get away with being oblivious and/or rude in a team environment. You might even think more experienced Masters swimmers – those who, by virtue of their proficiency, have obviously been swimming for many years – would be least likely to offend.

Which leads me to a funny story. On my Masters squad, we recently had a new person join, who just moved from out of town. We’ll call him/her “Pat.” Pat is an excellent swimmer – most likely, (s)he once competed at the college level. Nonetheless, here I am, writing this post…

With a tip of the hat to Bill M., here are five New Rules of Etiquette in Masters swimming:

  1. When you join a new Masters team, join the lane you can keep up with… without equipment. Do not join the lane you “aspire” to swim in, but can only make the intervals with the assistance of gigantic flippers.
  2. If, on your previous team, everyone used gigantic flippers on all the main sets, do not assume that on your new team everyone will also use gigantic flippers on all the main sets – and that therefore, it is still OK for you to use gigantic flippers on all the main sets.
  3. Do not leave five seconds apart when everyone else is leaving ten seconds apart. Especially in a long-course pool with only three people per lane.
  4. When politely asked to leave ten seconds apart, do not petulantly ask at the next break, “Is it a crime to leave five seconds apart?”
  5. When it is explained that, “Yes, sometimes people get annoyed when someone pushes off right on their feet in a long-course pool with plenty of space” — do not, in response, say, “Well, I like chasing after bubbles – it makes me go faster.” Um, no. See, here’s the thing, Pat: It’s not about you.

Actually, that’s a pretty good rule to live by when swimming with a team: It’s not about you. 

Rob‘s guidelines for lap swimming etiquette boiled down to: Don’t be a dick. 

Donal‘s guidelines boiled down to: Be aware of what is going on around you.

To these I would add:

When you join a new team, pay close attention to the prevailing norms. Everywhere is different. What is normal in one place might be unbearably annoying in another. It’s your responsibility to figure that out – not your teammates’.

The ethic of self-navigation

Sometimes I think mild derangement might be a prerequisite for marathon swimming. Perhaps “derangement” is a bit strong; so I’ll say: In the world’s oceans, lakes, rivers, and bays, you meet a lot of offbeat folks. And I mean this in the best possible way! These are my favorite sorts of people.

So I feel nothing but respect and admiration when I come across someone who makes me seem downright conventional. Case in point: the comments thread on my original “wetsuits in marathon swimming” post. Here’s the anonymous, cryptic comment that gave rise to a fascinating discussion:

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.

I initially read this as snark from a wetsuit fan… but it turns out this person was quite serious! And not necessarily a “fan” of wetsuits. What (s)he was describing – and further explained in subsequent comments – was an ethic of self-navigation.

According to this view, a truly “unaided” swim eschews not just wetsuits, but also the navigational assistance of the escort boat. With enough knowledge and experience, a swimmer is capable of navigating him/herself across a channel – by monitoring the location of the sun/moon, and the direction of wind, swells, and chop. Therefore, the GPS navigation used in modern channel swims constitutes an artificial aid, and is equivalent to the black line on the bottom of a pool. Moreover, self-navigation lends a “strong sense of place,” given how much closer attention a swimmer must pay to her surroundings. It’s a purer form of open-water adventure.

To clarify, the ethic of self-navigation doesn’t reject the use of an escort boat – just the navigational assistance of an escort boat. The swimmer can use the boat for feedings and safety (communicating with nearby vessels) – just not navigation. Thus, the escort boat must stay behind the swimmer.

I challenged the anonymous commenter on a variety of grounds, but (s)he had answers for just about everything. I thought the conversation was over a month ago when I said, basically, “While I respect the ethic of self-navigation as a noble ideal, I don’t think it’s practical, and the existing ‘channel rules’ do a pretty good job of rewarding things we care about – like swimming skill, training, and mental fortitude.”

A few days ago Anonymous finally responded – addressing my misgivings but also going much further, grappling with several fundamental issues in marathon swimming. At 1,069 words, the comment is better linked to than copy-and-pasted, so here it is. It’s well worth your time.

I’m grateful to Anonymous for taking the time to engage with me on this. While I may not take up self-navigation anytime soon, (s)he has changed how I think about marathon swimming.

I love my readers.

A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)

A few more volleys in the debate, from:

First, thanks to Scott for the generous mention of my post from a few days ago.

In Dave’s response, he emphasizes maintaining a clear distinction between channel-rules swims and performance-enhanced (i.e., wetsuited) swims, but stops short of agreeing with Scott that wetsuited swimming “isn’t swimming.” An important question remains:

If wetsuited swimming is “swimming,” what specifically distinguishes it from channel-rules swimming, and how does this affect how we judge achievements in each category?

Continue reading “A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)”