Marathon Swimming Q&A

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Marathon Swimming Q&A

The club has many accomplished marathon swimmers in its membership. They were asked to answer some questions to help encourage the future generation of marathon swimmers.  Listed below are answers from Ranie Pearce (RP), Steve Walker (SW), Vanessa Miller-Swims (VM), Les Mangold (LM), Kelley Prebil and Mina Rhoden (MR).

1. What did you learn about yourself from your marathon swims?

RP: Marathon swimming has taught me that I can do anything I truly put my mind to, maybe not on the designated day, but if I want to achieve a swim, I can, and will keep going until it's done.  It has proved to me that mental toughness can get you where you want to go.  I didn't start until I was 49; how great to find out how strong you can be at such a late stage in life!

LM: I was a competitive swimmer as a youth and then did not swim for decades. I returned to swimming with a Laguna Beach one mile solo swim along the coast and discovered that I loved to swim. I must have quit because I was done with pool swimming

VM: I learned that I (and I would argue most people) am physically and mentally capable of more than I could have imagined when I take each swim moment by moment..

SW: I learned that I can endure a lot more pain that I would have thought.  I also learned that the water is always never really get used to getting in and cold water is, well, cold.  You learn to ignore the pain, but the water is still cold.  You are still cold--your skin, your fingers, toes, hands, feet.  It is the pain that you can just say no to...the pain from the cold, the sensation that you can't feel anything (you can still feel a little, and you have to work with that).  You can still not just move, but actually control your muscles and even keep your form (or at least some of it).  I've also learned that being tired and sore are just a perception, a perception that isn't always accurate.  Your body can keep going if your mind simply tells it to--you can ignore what your nerves are telling you.  You might not be going as fast, you might not get the time you'd expected, but if you just keep going, eventually the negative parts of your brain will realize that you actually are doing it.  I don't think I'm so special--I just keep going sometimes when the smart part of my brain says to get out.  Nothing a little Ben-gay, a massage, food, and some good sleep won't fix.

KP: I learned that I'm not a quitter. I was in an immense amount of pain when my right shoulder pinched halfway through my Catalina swim and my sinuses were on fire from the salt water. I never thought about getting back on the boat until the swim was done though. I had no idea when I finished that I'd been swimming for over 17 hours. My crew told me afterwards that the boat captain had chalked me up for dead 14 hours in and was shocked to see me still swimming.  I'll never be a fast swimmer and just want to get to the finish.

MR: I got into athletics very late in life at 38 starting with triathlons (I figured, go big or go home). I hated running and after turning to cycling eventually made my way to open water swimming. The many solo hours on the bike have prepared me mentally for the many solo hours in the water. I learned from swimming that once I make up my mind to train for a swim, I can do it so long as I have the right coaching and training plan. I also learned that even with all of those things, on any given day, the conditions may make the swim undoable for me and to be ok with that uncertainty because some things are beyond my control.

2. Why do you do marathon swims?

RP: I swim Marathons swims, because it allows me the chance to travel around the world, meet interesting people, and the training gives structure to my life.

LM: It is exciting and it gets the endorphins flowing - before and after.

VM: Having a big goal motivates me to make swimming and my health a priority.  It's so easy let all the other demands and stresses of life take over.  I'm more focused and present in my daily life when I have a training plan to keep to and I'm getting my daily dose of exercise, camaraderie, peace and sunshine.  Also it's so exciting and beautiful to tackle a big swim and to be out in the elements.  Swimming under the stars at night with a crew of people dedicated to helping you succeed is an amazing and humbling experience.

SW: For the adulation of the fans, the beautiful women who throw themselves at me, and the money.
I was never a great pool swimmer.  I know great pool swimmers (Craig Marble was one), and I am not one.  I could always keep up in workouts (the longer the workout, the better I got).  I just wasn't all that fast--I couldn't even hold a candle to guys who swam the 500, 1000, and 1650 when I was at Cal--I was lucky the coach let me swim for a year--I just wasn't all that fast.  In 1994, a friend brought me to swim in the Bay.  It was eye opening.  I still wasn't fast, but I could just keep going.  My 200 pace was the same as my 10 mile pace.  And I loved it.  Being in the water resets my mind--I'm a nicer person after I swim.  More creative, too.  The pool has the same effect (polo and the black line), but not like swimming in open water.  I've always loved the water, and doing long swims (as hard as they are) is the one place I feel completely in my own mind.

KP: A lot of it is "because it's there." I had pelvic reconstructive surgeries in 2011 and 2012 that left me bedridden and using a walker and wheelchair for a few months.  I never wanted to take even the ability to walk for granted ever again. I started swimming again in 2012 after not having been in a pool even since about 1998. I wanted to just keep going and going and going. I had read an article about Slovenian rock climbers in 1997 who were free climbing (without any rope or other protection) some of the hardest climbs in the world.  One said that he accidentally did one because he kept thinking "just a little bit further" on what was supposed to be a trial climb to scope the climb out. He ended up doing the entire thing before he did it.  I started approaching swimming the same way of just doing another 500 yards or just one or two more feeds. I'm 25% Slovenian by blood so maybe it's in the genes.

MR: I'm not sure why I do it, I love it is the simplest answer. I love the goal setting and it terrifies me at the same time because once I set the goal, I know I'm in for a lot of pain whether it's getting up when I'm tired in the dark to train, making myself go to bed and missing out on time with my loved ones or the pain of training itself. I am someone who could have ended up a stereotypical statistic, but my whole life has been about pushing myself beyond limits.

3. What do you think it takes to do a marathon swim?

RP: Lots of training, lots of swimming, and a bit of luck.

LM: Desire to do it - everything else is training and anyone can train.

VM: Time, determination and patience.

SW: A marathon swim is officially 10km.  Add cold water to this, and you have a challenging event.  It will take between 2.5 and 5 hours depending on your speed.
Let's say your New Year's resolution is to do a 10km swim in the summer.  You start by having a reasonable stroke.  It doesn't need to be perfect, but you need to not be hurting yourself--10km is about 9,000-18,000 strokes, so you need to make sure that you aren't damaging your shoulders or causing yourself unnecessary neck/back pain.  Any coach in any masters program can help you get a passable stroke in as short as 1-3 months.  By Spring, your stroke should be sorted.  Once you have your stroke down, start swimming farther.  Ideally, you want to be in the water 4-5 days a week.  If your swim is going to be in cold water, train in cold water.  Either way, be in open water as often as possible.  You need to learn to sight, you will likely lengthen your stroke, and you will need to learn to feed--10km is beyond the distance most people would want to go without food and water.
Start by swimming a little--do as much as you can (even if it is only 15 minutes).  The next time you are out, swim 5 minutes farther.  Do this each time, until you are up to an hour.  Once you can do an hour, plan longer swims--90 minutes, 2 hours, 2.5 hours, 3 hours.  Do a longer swim each week.  This will build up your tolerance to the cold, your confidence, and also your endurance.  Make a plan and stick to it.  On longer swims, feed.  Feed for every person is'll need to experiment, and you don't want to do it during your event.
It is also a good idea to buddy up with someone who has done longer events.  There are a ton of people with great experience willing to help at SERC.  The open water swimming community is one of helping others--it is culturally a part of the entire community.
If you loved the 10km swim (whether done with just a boat from the club, or some sort of event), take on Gibraltar.  At 8.8 miles, it is a very do-able swim--it just takes patience because registration is 1-2 years out.

KP: It's mostly mental. If you don't think you can do it or your heart isn't into it then your body will never be able to do it for you. However, my "swim dad" Peter Hayden told me "this isn't that hard. Just make a training plan with milestones and get your feeds right and you'll be able to do this." Anyone can do a marathon swim and it really pisses me off when I hear that someone tells another swimmer that they can't do it. Just break it down into the subcomponents with each training swim and then on the actual swim, just go from feed to feed without thinking about the entire swim. Also, you need to have a great crew. The wrong people on your crew can ruin your swim. I like to get experienced marathon swimmers on my crew as they know what's needed to help sustain me as they've been in my position many times before. Marathon swimmers' needs in the water are different than in any other sport. I put all my faith into my crew once I jump in the water as then all I have to do is swim and they'll do the rest.

MR: A decision to do it, lots of good coaching and a solid training plan, excellent support crew and most of all, leading up to the event, huge support from the people in your life because they're not going to see as much of you as they'd like. As for swimming the actual event, you must be able to embrace the pain and be mentally strong enough so doubt can't take hold of you.

4. What do you wish you'd known before your first marathon swim (and what was that swim)?

RP: My first Marathon Swim was the width of Lake Tahoe, and I wish I'd known that one can still swim while shivering, and that you just swim feed to feed and don't look up.  The finish never gets closer and the start never gets farther away. Your feed/fuel is very important.  Don't just wing it, practice and experiment. Find out what works for you.

LM: Nothing - I am ok with experiential learning. My first 10k was a Water World Bridge to Bridge.

VM: My first swim was the length of Tahoe.  I should have been more proactive before this swim in organizing communication with the crew and talking about exactly how the swim was going to go.  I should have also organized my feeds a little better so that it was easier for my kayakers.

SW: My first ultra-marathon swim (excluding the qualifier, which was 10 hours) was the English Channel.  This answer is easy.  I wish I'd known that I didn't need to gain so much weight.  I gained about 50 pounds for the swim.  Skinny is not good in this sport, but I could have easily gained 15 pounds instead.  Not that gaining the weight wasn't a lot of fun, but I now realize that it wasn't something that was good for me.

KP: My first channel crossing was Anacapa Island to the Mainland in the Santa Barbara Channel. I'd only been open water swimming for about 13 months and there I was about to swim 12.4 miles starting at an unholy hour.  The big takeaway I had from that swim was that I wish I knew that I could tell my crew that I wasn't feeling well and I wouldn't get pulled immediately. The kayaker got confused and gave me one of my heaviest feeds first. I couldn't keep it down and was fighting the urge to just puke all over the channel. I didn't tell my crew though as I was terrified they'd yank me out of the water. I was skipping feeds or not consuming as many calories as I should have as I was so nauseous.  It would have been so much easier if I'd just told him that I was feeling sick and dealth with it then. They figured out something was wrong and started giving me super concentrated feeds from the boat to get my caloric intake higher which really saved my swim. Again, that's the importance of having marathon swimmers on your crew as I had some of the best on that crew (including Grace van der Byl) as I wouldn't have made it without them.

MR: I thought I was prepared for my first marathon swim by training with a master's group and eventually switching late in the prep to a personal coach but in hindsight, I was woefully underprepared. I knew that group I'd been training with wasn't serving me and I switched to a coach but even that wasn't the ideal situation. I wasn't as prepared I could have been and I paid dearly for it by being ridiculously slow and in quite a bit of pain towards the end and afterwards. That was the "Swim the Suck" event in TN where there was almost no water released that day so it took me 6 1/2 hours. I also learned that day, that I'm very stubborn and I wasn't getting out of the water unless I was going to be forced out, which I wasn't.

5. Any other thoughts that you'd like to pass on to future marathon swimmers?

RP: Marathon Swimming can be a transcendent experience, there are highs and lows, and it is an extreme sport, part of the joy is in surviving something very difficult and living to swim another day in a new place with interesting people.

SW: Open water swimming is just swimming and most of the things you learn in a pool are highly applicable here.  At the same time, though, there are a few small things that are different from watching the black line.
First, an open water stroke is longer--this is an endurance sport, not a speed sport--efficiency is highly important.  When you are going longer distances, you need to put more emphasis on the back part of the stroke rather than trying to gain the speed from the front part of the stroke.  This isn't to say that having good form isn't still important (don't drop elbows and make sure you have a good catch), but put more energy into a long finish than a powerful catch.  Long is key.  Watch the 1500 free from the Beijing Olympics--the winner (Sun) has the long stroke you want.
Second, having a long stroke requires a good shoulder (and hip) roll.  This is important for a variety of reasons, but rotation around an axis is especially important when you are doing open water swimming.  Get someone to film you with your phone so you can see what you are doing.
Third, keep your head down.  Just like in the pool.  So how is this different?  Sighting.  Many people sight forward ever 4 or 8 strokes (like in water polo).  This, though is a mistake.  Over longer distances, you want efficiency.  Do sight, but get good at swimming straight (pick a target and swim to it without sighting at all--it will help you understand if you pull to one side).  Keeping your head down will keep your body position correct (less stress on your shoulders and neck), and will help you maintain efficiency.  Every 20 or 40 (or even 80 strokes) is good.  If you are in a large group of people, you can sight more initially, but when things thin out a little, get your head back down.  So, if you can't sight forward, how do you know where you are going? 

Fourth, sight when you breathe.  Breathing every 3rd will give you a very good view of what is around you, and will allow you to triangulate to understand your position.  This takes practice, as the information is imperfect--it usually is enough though--even in low light, with foggy goggles, and when you are tired.  If you need to look forward, do 2 very low, very short looks to keep your body position as flat as possible.  Two sights will give you a better ability to take in information and time to process it, then verify it on the second pass.  It will be imperfect, but added to your side sighting, you can glean what you need.  (Note:  Personal admission--I usually breathe just to my strong side--I should breathe bilaterally.)
Finally, something Ranie Pearce planted in my head years ago--have fun.  Don't worry so much that your swim becomes work--this isn't work, it is play, and when it comes down to it, this is one of the best things in the world, done in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  Have fun.

KP: I cannot stress how important is to have the right crew. The wrong crew can cause your swim to fail. Try to get veteran marathon swimmers on your crew. Come up with a Swim Plan and give it to them before your swim date so they have time to ask questions and give suggestions before you're on the boat.  Other marathon swimmers will know what the proper nutritional needs are for a marathon swim and how to properly take care of you during it.  S*** happens and they are the guys who know exactly how your performance is during the swim and can make alterations to your feeds to keep you going. You didn't invest all this time and money to not succeed because your support crew didn't know what they were doing.  If your swim is going to be in very warm water, plan for hyperthermia and if your swim is going to be in cold water, plan for hypothermia.

Also test every single feed before your swim. During your swim is not the time to find out that your digestive system really doesn't like that flavor of Gu or Shot Block or whatever else you've picked.  Again, this can completely wreck your swim and you won't be a happy camper for more than just the reason that you didn't finish the swim.  Get your feeds down and know what works!

You should also be urinating every time you stop to feed (usually every 30 minutes). This will tell you that you're adequately hydrated. 

MR: Ask a lot of questions. If you plateau in your training, get help and if you still aren't making progress, keep looking until you find the right coach or group to train with. Form is everything because bad form will not only cost you time but it may cause unnecessary injury. The technical aspects are hugely important, but the mental aspects are just as important. If you go into an event with the idea of trying to complete it, you won't because you've already given yourself an escape route. Leading up to any big event I've ever done, I'm always afraid and anxious, without exception. I figure, if you're not anxious, you're oblivious to what could happen out there. However, at some point within about 72 hours before the event, some sort of transformation happens where I lock it in mentally because in my mind, it is already done. I envision it as completed and there is no room for doubt or second guessing.

Club members Cameron Bellamy and Andrew MacLaughlin right after conquering the North Channel, swimming from Ireland to Scotland on the same day. The North Channel is considered one of the hardest swims in the world.