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).

    On pull buoys, ctd.

    A few follow-up thoughts on pull buoys:

    First, to be clear, the use of pulling gear for motivational reasons (as Mark described) is probably only relevant if you’re a distance/marathon swimmer who trains enough volume that mental fatigue is an issue. Or perhaps (as I described) if you’re just having a bad day of training and pulling gear means the difference between getting through a workout or bailing out early.

    If you’re a sprinter and/or stroke specialist, pulling equipment probably isn’t too useful, aside from certain types of drills.

    But Mark is a marathon swimmer, and so am I – so that’s why I wrote the post.

    Second, I want to highlight one particularly important quote from Mark’s interview:

    To make up for the lack of swimming I do a lot of running, cycling and kicking to make sure that I have strong legs and I do a lot of core work to make sure that my abs are ready to handle the body position requirements for a race, so it’s not like I only do pulling sets.

    So, it’s not that he doesn’t think leg strength is important, even as a marathon swimmer – he just finds it easier (from a motivational standpoint) to break up his training into different activities.

    What I didn’t realize at the time was how much leg-focused activity he does. In his recent Open Water Wednesday interview with Steven Munatones (excerpt only), Mark said he runs on a treadmill for an hour to an hour and a half daily.

    That’s a hell of a lot of running for a swimmer!

    On pull buoys

    This is a pull buoy ————–>

    At once the most common of training aids, and the most disrespected. According to conventional wisdom, pull buoys:

    • encourage weak body position – swimmers don’t have to kick and engage their core to raise their body position as they would without a buoy.
    • inhibit body rotation, causing swimmers to swim “flat” and thus less efficiently.
    • put extra strain on the shoulders, making injuries more likely.
    • discourage underwater kicking off walls.
    • are, along with hand paddles, a crutch used by lazy swimmers to help them swim faster and with less energy.

    See, for instance, this thread on the USMS discussion forum, or one forum member’s memorable suggestion of a drill to “throw a pull buoy as far away from yourself as possible.”

    Personally, I’ve always liked pulling with paddles and a buoy. I try not to overuse them – typically, I’ll use them at the end of a main set (say, the last round of a 4-round set) for a little extra “oomph.” Actually, it’s more than just a little – I’m usually about 6 seconds per 100 faster with paddles+buoy than without.

    So, I’ve never paid much attention to the scorn heaped on pulling gear (buoys in particular). But what do I know? Would I be a better swimmer if I “tossed my buoy away as far as possible”? Might the haters have a point?

    Here’s the thing, though: I’m not the only pulling enthusiast out there. And some of these people are actually fairly accomplished swimmers. More accomplished than, say, your average USMS forum participant.

    One particularly passionate pulling proponent is none other than Mark Warkentin. Mark, of course, was a 2008 Olympian in the 10K open-water event, and a two-time U.S. national champion in the 25K. He had an impressive career in the pool before that, including four NCAA All-American honors at USC and three individual golds at the 1999 World University Games in the 200 Free (1:51), 400 Free (3:53), and 800 Free (8:00).

    Mark also does (and has always done) an enormous volume of pulling. I know this because we swam together with the Santa Barbara Swim Club from when we were 7 years old until we left for our respective colleges. Mark still lives in Santa Barbara, and I occasionally work out with him when I’m in town for the holidays. Knowing that he has a somewhat unconventional view on pulling, I decided to ask him a few questions. Here’s what he said:

    [Evan] Why do you like pulling so much?

    [Mark] In my experience I don’t have mental/emotional fatigue as quickly when I have a pull buoy sustaining my body position.  Because I do not have naturally good body position in the water I find that when I swim a lot in practice I get “burned out” quickly because I have to focus so much on maintaining good body position.  A typical distance swimmer or open water swimmer needs to spend a lot of hours in the pool on a weekly basis, but a 1500 race only lasts 15-16 minutes and a 10K only lasts about 2 hours.  If you’re tapered and rested you should be able to handle the mental/emotional stress for that period of time, however it’s a lot harder to justify 20 hours per week (every week) at that same stress level.  I can do 20×400 with a buoy and go fairly hard the entire time without too much emotional duress, but if I were to do that same set swimming I would be very burned out afterwards.  If a swimmer has naturally good body position then it may not make any difference, but in my experience I can emotionally recover from a 8,000 meter pulling set significantly faster than an 8,000 meter swim set.

    [Evan] Do you find that you have trouble maintaining good body position during races when you don’t have a buoy?

    [Mark] To make up for the lack of swimming I do a lot of running, cycling and kicking to make sure that I have strong legs and I do a lot of core work to make sure that my abs are ready to handle the body position requirements for a race, so it’s not like I only do pulling sets.  I find ways of working these necessary muscle groups outside of swimming because I find that it’s emotionally easier.

    [Evan] What do you think of the view that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics?

    [Mark] I don’t think that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics – in fact I’ve found that my catch in the front of the stroke is much cleaner after I’ve done a long buoy only set.  Additionally, I think that I emphasize body roll more when I have a buoy than when I’m swimming because I know that I need to get my hips into the stroke to give me more power (because my power source is limited to my arms only).

    Lessons learned? Here’s what I take from Mark’s comments:

    • Beware of broad generalizations and one-size-fits-all training recommendations. Each swimmer is different, and it’s important to find methods that work for you. Long pull sets might be sub-optimal for a sprinter or a breaststroker, but might work for a marathon swimmer who swims most of his race with a 2-beat kick.
    • Mental fatigue is an obvious and important but not-often-discussed issue for marathon swimmers – especially those with careers as long as Mark or Petar Stoychev. Mark is now 31 years old, and has been training almost nonstop for 25 years! How does anyone maintain motivation over that period of time?
    • The issue of motivation is another long conversation in itself, but I think part of the answer is in finding ways to “trick yourself” into training even when the motivation is absent. For Mark (and for me, as well), pulling sets are fun. We swim faster but with less energy. It’s a crutch, perhaps, but a useful one. On days when I’m fatigued or feel terrible in the water, using pulling gear might mean the difference between getting in a full 90 minute workout or getting out after 30.
    • Another useful “trick” Mark mentions is mixing up his training. Swimming for hours on end can be mind-numbing, but mixing in various dryland activities (running, biking, weightlifting, core work) can help you extend your overall workout time while making it more interesting.

    So, next time you hear a coach or fellow swimmer mock the pull buoy, remember Mark. You can’t argue with his results.

    Do marathon swims require high-volume training?

    A few weeks ago there was an interesting exchange on Steven Munatones’ Facebook page. In response to Steve’s report of a group of Irish marathon swimmers who did a monster set of 200 x 100m on 1:40, one well known swimmer/coach/guru commented:

    How did I ever manage to complete the Manhattan Island Marathon twice, averaging less than 20,000 yards per week, and with most sets being 3000 yards or less? Ditto the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon.

    Munatones responded:

    You have written extensively how little you train for marathon by training neurologically vs. traditionally. Other swimmers also train relatively little while experiencing success in marathon swims. However, experiencing long tough workouts are a proven way to increase the PROBABILITY of finishing a race and overcoming the inevitable obstacles along the way. In my opinion, successful marathon swimming is about minimizing risks while occasionally doing long, tough workouts to maximize performance, especially if one is new to the sport. For yourself and others who have already completed a marathon swim or have decades of competitive swimming background, there is much less need to train long distances.


    When successful people in the sport advocate less mileage and short training distances for channel/marathon swims, then newcomers in the sport are influenced by that minimalistic training approach. This, in my opinion, is not beneficial to newcomers. For most people, to train 3,000 – 5,000 meters per day without long training swims is not conducive to a successful and enjoyable channel/marathon swim experience. As Dave hints, if you want to be a channel/marathon swimmer, why train like a sprinter?

    So, who’s right? Do you need to train long distances to prepare for marathon swims? I think the answer depends to some extent on what you’re trying to do: finish or race.

    If you have near-perfect technique and many years of swimming experience (and the former usually requires the latter), I do think it’s possible to finish a marathon swim (under neutral conditions) on relatively low-volume training. With great form comes efficiency, and efficient swimmers require very little energy to swim at a conservative pace. Given proper feeding and hydration, theoretically the only physical constraint should be the swimmer’s need for sleep.

    That said, a minimalist approach to training for a marathon swim is, under most circumstances and for a variety of reasons, probably not a great idea.

    What if you encounter adverse conditions? Rough water and cold water both require more energy to swim through – and usually a higher stroke rate. If you’re accustomed to 3,000m/day in pools with a long easy stroke, you may find yourself unprepared.

    And what if you want to race, not just finish? What if, as in MIMS, you need to reach certain landmarks by certain times in order to catch the tide cycles? Perhaps the most important reason for high-volume training is to be able to sustain some level of effort for a long time. Elite open-water swimmers on the FINA circuit train 80-100K per week not out of masochism but because they need to swim fast for hours at a time to be competitive.

    When it comes to racing a marathon swim, there are no shortcuts. Raw talent and good technique may take you far, but they won’t allow you to sustain a 170 bpm heartrate for 2 hours (or a 150 HR for 8 hours). You simply have to put in the work.

    I also find it quite telling that the people who advocate minimalist training may finish marathon swims, but they never do so particularly quickly, or place particularly highly.

    More Catalina history

    More good stuff from Penny Dean’s history of Catalina Channel swimming. Here’s the story of Myrtle Huddlestone, who in February 1927 became the first woman to cross the Channel [emphasis added]:

    Huddlestone, a 30 year old widow from Long Beach, had only begun swimming during the preceding year to lose weight. She had been motivated to enter the Wrigley Ocean Marathon in order to pay for her son’s education.

    Her swim was far from routine. Beginning at 2:30 p.m., Huddlestone encountered one problem after another. Fog appeared after midnight and the lights on both support boats went out. Unable to see the boats, she drifted off and for three hours she was lost. During this time she was attacked by a barracuda. She received bites and cuts on the left side of her body. The fish kept returning and she had to beat them off with her hands. Finally, as the fog lifted the support boats found her.

    Huddlestone did not eat or drink throughout most of the swim. As the hours wore on this took its toll. Then as she began faltering, she drank one-half pint of whiskey. Within minutes and approximately a half hour of completion, she became hysterical and was only semi-conscious. She was faltering quickly. The lack of eating, the whiskey, and the hours of exercise had the better of her so that she could not lift her left arm. Her son’s shouts were the only thing which motivated her to begin again. “‘Come on, Mama, come on, Mama, don’t give up.'” Laboriously she inched forward and was caught by the surf, pushing her closer to shore. About twenty yards from the shore she stood up and immediately collapsed in the water. She had to be carried to the support boat. For 20 hours and 42 minutes she had struggled; it was finally over. She lost consciousness a few minutes on the support boat. As she awoke her son cried, “‘Oh, Mama, You did it, doggone it, you did it!'”

    Whiskey as endurance fuel. I hadn’t thought of that.

    2011 OW Nationals (real nationals, not Masters nationals)

    USA Swimming just released the qualifying times for the 2011 open-water national championships in Fort Myers, FL (h/t Adam B.).

    And, the standards for the 5K are surprisingly doable! 9:08 for 800m or 17:29 for 1500m? I think even I could do these times with a decent taper behind me…?

    In order to compete in the USA Swimming 2011 Open Water Championships, a swimmer must have:

    • Finished in the top 15 at a 2010-11 FINA World Cup Race, or
    • Finished in the top 10 at the 2010 USA Swimming 5K or 10K National Championships, or
    • Attended the 2011 Open Water Developmental Camp (by invitation only), or
    • Achieved the following pool times standard(s) between April 1, 2009 and the entry deadline
                                    1500 LCM 800 LCM 1650 SCY 1000 SCY
    Women 5K Race Qualifying Times  18:20.89 9:35.99 17:57.39 10:43.19
    Men 5K Race Qualifying Times    17:29.89 9:08.99 16:59.39 10:10.99
    Women 10K Race Qualifying Times 17:20.49 9:03.49 16:48.49 10:05.99
    Men 10K Race Qualifying Times   16:15.49 8:35.59 15:51.49 9:26.09
    • Athletes who meet these times standards will be permitted to enter the Open Water National Championships.
    • Proof of time is required from a USA Swimming sanctioned/approved meet or from a USA Swimming observed
    • performance. Converted times will not be allowed.

    Ederle’s timeless advice

    Gertrude Ederle was one of the greatest swimmers of her time, and a founding queen of marathon swimming. In 1926, she was the first woman to cross the English Channel, in 14 hours 39 minutes – almost 2 hours faster than any man had done it. This feat earned her a ticker-tape parade in New York City, her hometown.

    I’ve been reading Penny Lee Dean‘s wonderful history of Catalina Channel swimming, in which Ederle makes a notable appearance. Though Ederle never attempted a Catalina swim, the first successful crossing (in 1927) was directly inspired by her success in the English Channel.

    William Wrigley, Jr. (of Wrigley chewing gum), seeing an opportunity to promote tourism on Catalina Island (in which he owned a controlling interest), offered Ederle $10,000 to become the first person to swim across the channel between Avalon and the San Pedro peninsula. When Ederle refused, Wrigley raised the purse to $25,000 and invited all comers for a winner-take-all marathon race. 102 swimmers began the Wrigley Ocean Marathon on January 15, 1927, in choppy 54-degree water. Only one finished: 17-year old George Young of Toronto, in 15 hours 44 minutes.

    Before the race, Ederle offered some advice to the contestants:

    It’s a race, I know, but the pace setters will find out that it’s better to take things easy. . . The swimmer who forgets that he or she is in a race will win. Condition is everything, but too fast a pace or swimming in spurts can bring on the cramps and fatigue. The steady tempo is the best, and forget all about your rivals. The stomach is the key to success or failure. . . Sickness brings on cramps. Either you get sick or you don’t, and training has nothing to do with that angle of it. . . Those who do must fight it off or give up. You can’t swim when you are seasick. The food question is an individual one. . . Ordinarily, though, I should say that chicken broth is best for food value and runs the smaller risk of turning the stomach. On my swim I had chicken broth, hot chocolate, end two slices of pineapple. . .  Grease will not stay long. The grease helps you to stand the shock of entering the water, but it comes off quickly. . . Keep your mouth closed when swimming, at least enough to keep the salt water out. Nothing can upset you like salt water in the stomach. Do not look ahead of you. And if you feel like quitting, just keep right on swimming anyway.

    73 years later, some things have changed in marathon swimming – stroke technique, training regimens, and swimsuit materials. But the essentials remain the same: Don’t take it out too hard; avoid seasickness; consume warm liquids and easily digestible food; don’t drink the saltwater; and keep going, even if you don’t want to.