Mountaineering or Marathon Swimming?

I previously alluded to a “spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers,” in describing Jen Schumacher’s back-to-back Mt. Whitney/Lake Tahoe adventures. To illustrate what I mean, 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??

Lessons from the Circle Line

The Circle Line cruise is almost a rite of passage for first-time MIMS swimmers. A 3-hour circumnavigation of Manhattan island, the cruise boat traces the same path as the marathon swim – albeit starting from 42nd St on the Hudson instead of South Cove.

The Circle Line is a unique and worthwhile experience in itself. The Manhattan skyline is visually stunning and full of interesting history – and the city’s geography lends itself to being viewed by water. But for MIMS swimmers, it’s essential research. Unlike most other marathon swims, you always know “where you are” in MIMS (i.e., how far you’ve gone, how far you have left) – so long as you’re familiar with the landmarks. Actually, I can’t think of a single other marathon swim with as many visual stimuli as MIMS.

The lower Manhattan skyline, as seen from the entrance to the Hudson River on 27 May 2011. The building under construction at center-left is the Freedom Tower, which will eventually rise 1,776 feet above Ground Zero. Swimmers will pass this view just a few minutes after the start of MIMS.

As it happens, I was in New York City this weekend. On a whim, I booked a slot on a late-afternoon Circle Line cruise. Why not get an early preview of my big swim – less than 3 weeks away? For any future MIMS swimmers-slash-Circle Line customers, here are a few tips:

  • Book online, and save $10 with the coupon code FB09.
  • Arrive early – perhaps 45 minutes to an hour – to ensure a seat with a good viewing angle.
  • The best viewing angle is on the port (left) side of the ship, given the counter-clockwise direction of the trip (same as MIMS). The top (open-air) level tends to be more crowded than the lower (covered) level. My trip was on a hot sunny day, so I took a lower-level port-side seat – and had a perfectly nice view through the window.
  • Alternatively – especially if you arrive too late to claim a good seat – they open up the ship’s bow shortly after setting sail. Position yourself near the lower-level front door and claim your “king of the world” spot when they open the door. (I hate that movie.) Personally, I think this is the best viewing spot; the obvious downside is having to stand for 3 hours.
  • Shortly before the cruise begins, find the narrator (who will be sitting on the lower level wearing a uniform) and make sure your cruise will actually make the full circumnavigation. Occasionally, due to high tides, the ship is forced to turn back at Hell Gate (entrance to the Harlem River) because it can’t clear the bridges. No refunds are offered – but as long as the ship is still in port you can leave and exchange your ticket for a later trip.
  • Watch only for the most obvious landmarks – these are the ones you’ll be able to see from water-level during the swim.
  • The Statue of Liberty – no matter how many times you see her image in books or on television – is awe-inspiring up close, in person. This really took me by surprise – I’m not ordinarily moved by such things. It’s a remarkable object.

Four Lakes, Three Rivers, and a Canal

The 2011 open water season hasn’t even started yet, but I have an important announcement to make regarding my plans for 2012.

I call it the “Four Lakes, Three Rivers, and a Canal” Swim.

Mid-June of 2012 I’ll set off from the mouth of the Chicago River and swim 375 miles north to the Straits of Mackinac. From there I’ll swim the 250-mile length of Lake Huron to the St. Clair River, which will lead me (via Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River) into Lake Erie. I’ll then swim 250 miles across Lake Erie (hugging the Canadian shore) to Buffalo, where I will enter the Erie Canal. From there it’s 360 miles to the Hudson River near Albany. Finally, I’ll take a 140-mile “victory lap” down the Hudson to New York City!

“As the current flows,” it’s about 1,500 miles from Chicago to New York. I figure it will take me about 4 months: 2.2-2.5 mph swimming pace, 6-8 hours a day of swimming, with a little extra time built in for unforeseen contingencies and slow canal locks.

I’ve assembled a world-class support crew: my wife, our cat, former president Jimmy Carter (for moral strength), and a local outdoorsman (i.e., street person) here in Chicago, whom I recruited for his scavenging skills. Did I forget to mention? After each stage we will set up camp along the shore. As it’s not feasible to carry four months’ of supplies in two kayaks, we will “acquire” our next day’s supplies at each stop. In more rural areas, this will necessitate scavenging and possibly hunting.

I’m also happy to announce that the swim – which I will be promoting by its catchy acronym “4L3RaaC” – will be a fundraiser for my favorite charity: Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.

I’m super-excited. I wonder if this will get me on Open Water Wednesday?

N.B. 4/2/2011: This is an April Fools’ joke.

Health comes first

This past week was a perfect storm of events to temporarily derail my training, and I should have seen it coming. But there are some things you can control, and some you can’t.

It’s tough to train while traveling. Not impossible – I got in 7,900 LCM within 12 hours of arriving in Chicago – but usually tough. Add a few late nights, some occasionally excessive drinking and fraternizing, frequent use of public transportation, and, well, you’re asking for it.

And I sure got it. This wasn’t one of those bugs that teases you for a few days with a sore throat. This one hit me like a truck. Down and out.

At which point there’s nothing to do but rest and wait it out. For me, it has meant 6 days out of the water right before my taper was to begin. Could I have gone to the pool today? Perhaps. 15 years ago, I almost certainly would have. And the bug would have gradually dug its way into my sinuses and festered for the rest of the summer.

I’m not as fast a swimmer as I was when I was 15, but I’m a smarter one. Frustrating as it seems in the short-term, health comes first. Sickness is your body saying, “Slow down.” Respect it.