How I learned (maybe) I’m not a Marathoner
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on June 30th, 2010

In 2002 and 2006 I swam the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS). My finishing times of 9 hrs in 2002 and 8 hrs in 2006 (following a 30-min pause at the 15-mile mark to wait out an electrical storm) indicate this is a current-aided swim.

Still, it’s definitely a marathon. What’s a marathon? Well it could be 26.2 miles as in running, but not likely. FINA, the world governing body of swimming, defines any swim of 10km or longer as a marathon – applying the accepted 4-to-1 conversion of run-to-swim mileage. 400 meters of swimming is considered equivalent to a mile of running. Thus 10km of swimming equals 40km of running, which, conveniently, is about a mile short of the running marathon.

In 2002, I swam MIMS as healthful observation of having passed the half-century mark the year before. I set two explicit goals for the swim: (1) To complete an ‘ultra-endurance’ swim with distinctly ordinary training and feel no distress during or after the swim; and (2) To finish the swim in fewer than the estimated 27,000 strokes taken by TI Coach Don Walsh in swimming MIMS the previous year.

I trained for MIMS with no increase in the modest training volume I was doing at the time – averaging about 15km per week. Most other entrants were swimming two to three times as much. My focus was entirely on maximizing my ‘swimming economy’ – not just stroke efficiency but profound relaxation. I seldom exceeded a HR of 110 in the 3+ months I trained – trying to ‘program’ my body to rely almost entirely on what was then an ample supply of body fat (I weighed about 20lbs more then, than now) for endurance fuel.

Though MIMS is a race, I swam it in 2002 as a ‘tourist’ – enjoying the sights and experience – pausing frequently to pose for photos with noteworthy landmarks in the background. I completed the swim in 8h53m, 18th of 21 individuals and relays, and – though I was severely dehydrated at the end – never felt significant fatigue and felt completely recovered the next day. Indeed, after drinking 64 oz of water on the 2 hour drive to New Paltz from Manhattan, I felt surprisingly fresh that night.

I swam MIMS again in 2006, with a slightly more competitive orientation. I had trained more intensively leading up to that swim — but had not trained in any particular way for a marathon distance, as my goals that summer were to win USMS national championships and break 55-59 age group records in 1 to 2 mile open water swims.  Again I felt good throughout and experienced little residual fatigue or soreness in the days that followed.

Last year I swam an English Channel relay with training buddies Dave Barra and Willie Miller, mainly to enjoy a ‘shared Channel experience’  and to know the Channel first-hand for an intended solo attempt this year.  (Read a series of blogs describing the Dover experience and my motivation for being there, starting with this entry.)

In February I relocated to San Diego for three months of training, in preparation for a planned series of four marathon-distance swims – Maui Channel, Tampa Bay, Catalina Channel and culminating in English Channel. I chronicled the training in a series of posts that started with this entry.

I swim Maui Channel on March 17. It was an absolutely joyful experience (complete with whale and dolphin sightings) shared with my English Channel relay mates Dave Barra and Willie Miller. We completed a 10-mile swim from Lana’i to Maui in rough seas (small craft warnings and alerts of ‘extreme’ surf conditions) in 4h55m. We swam virtually the entire distance 3-abreast, often synchronizing our strokes–something we’d practiced for countless hours in Minnewaska and Awosting lakes at home in New Paltz.  The focus required to synchronize that way makes the distance and time fly. We all felt great in the final mile.

On April 17, Dave and I swam the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon, which turned into the most difficult swim I’d ever attempted. I started with a queasy stomach, and had difficulty digesting my planned feeds (Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem) beginning in the fifth hour.  During the eighth hour I felt as if my tank was completely empty, an experience radically different from the way my MIMS had gone. This was extremely puzzling, inasmuch as this was the first marathon for which I’d done marathon training.  I finished the swim in 11h46m but was utterly drained in the final miles and felt on the verge of physical collapse afterward.

In the days that followed I understood why. When my queasy stomach, extreme diarrhea and fatigue continued unabated five days after the swim, I sought a diagnosis from Suzanne Atkinson, a TI coach and emergency room physician who was helping conduct a TI coach training session in Coral Springs FL that week. Suzanne told me I most likely had a stomach virus since the day of the swim.
Suzanne explained that during such a virus, the intestines don’t absorb fluids or nutrients as well as usual, meaning that I had most likely become dehydrated and depleted by the 8th hour. I felt better about my swim, particularly that I’d had the will and efficiency to complete the final five miles (in rough conditions) and nearly four hours in that state.

Even so, in the weeks that followed I felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm for continuing my marathon quest. Even before my energy gave out I had not been enjoying the Tampa Bay swim. In part because my stomach was unsettled, and occasionally nauseous, but also because of the lack of  sensory stimulus. The only two noteworthy features in that swim are two bridges, at 18 and 21 miles. Apart from that the only thing to look at all day is the boat accompanying you.

That day I discovered I lacked the particular kind of mental stamina that allows one to swim solo, next to a boat, for a very long day.  I hadn’t experienced that kind of – not boredom exactly, but absence of diversion – during MIMS because the scenery was highly visible, differentiated, engaging and constantly changing.  Besides the famed NY skyline, and countless other features, you pass under 13 bridges, 9 of them close together in the Harlem River, which is otherwise a pretty uneventful stretch, with mostly industrial  backdrops.

As well, for the final 18 or so miles of MIMS, I had an on-and-off experience of being in a race, with other individuals or relays close enough to pace with or try to pass. In Tampa Bay I had that experience for the first 3 hours or so, but the final 9 hours were lonely.

In early May, about three weeks after that swim, I decided that the Maui and Tampa Bay swims were going to be my full complement of marathons for 2010, and I’m undecided whether I might revisit my earlier ambition to swim the Catalina and English Channels in a future year. The initial and most compelling reason was that the TI business had taken a serious hit to revenues during my 3-month marathon sabbatical and it was clear we could not sustain further diversion of my energy, attention or physical presence to train for and swim two more marathons over the ensuing four months.

But the second reason, which became increasingly clear  as May gave way to June, was that I also lacked the appetite to continue marathon training for the additional 16 weeks needed to stay marathon ready for an English Channel attempt in late August.  And that self-discovery, I now recognize, has everything to do with the keen interest I’ve developed this year in how every aspect of swim training — indeed every aspect of life — has the potential to be impacted by conscious choices about cultivating  brain circuits.

In my next several posts I’ll expand on this idea and how it has come to influence so many aspects of where I devote my energy and attention.

Stay tuned.

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8 Responses to “How I learned (maybe) I’m not a Marathoner”

  1. Marathon swimming, cold-water swimming, roughwater swimming, eco-swimming, night swimming, channel swimming and staged swims are not for everyone. But the sport of open water swimming does offer something for everyone – short swims, pier-to-pier swims, mass participation swims, tropical swims and cold lake swims. Once people find their niche in the sport – as you have – they have their entire lifetimes to enjoy it. See you onshore.

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  2. Alan says:

    To be honest I wondered about this when you first mentioned your intentions for multiple marathon swims. I mean it’s pretty obvious to this TI guy that you would be missed in all sorts of respects, not to mention firstly the business. I was then impressed with how you managed to stay in tuned with the “front of the house” and kept everyone abreast on your progress and outcomes and even managed to get the Forum ‘in line’. So it is no surprise that a ‘circuit’ overload would occur (not knowing the “back of the house” goings on) and wonder still if you had had to focus on perhaps only one maybe two swims what the feeling would be then. Another lesson absorbed here. And I can’t help but think (smiling curiously) that perhaps this will leave more opportunity to join you in a swim in the BFM lake! I enjoyed the training immensely! Next….

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  3. Katie says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting. I’m surprised to hear you coming to this conclusion, but it makes sense. Your posts about these long, difficult swims have had a central theme of isolation vs. community. Maybe if you do another one, you’ll swim it in a pod with friends.

    I’m not ready to attempt such a long swim, so I appreciate being able to live vicariously thru your descriptions. So far I’ve never swam more than 2 miles on open water. I imagine feeling like a sea creature on those marathon swims. It seems like paradise to be able to swim so long (on a sunny day in good health, anyway). I wonder how I’ll feel once I actually attempt it. (Thanks to TI, attempting a swim like that in the next few years seems like a pretty realistic goal.)

    Congratulations on finishing under such difficult conditions.

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  4. fred thompson says:

    Just curious, I would have that that all the time spent training your mind would de facto let you “deal” with the supposed monotony of marathon swimming?
    And if you chronicled your training to others in another forum how will you let them know that you feel you’re not cut our for marathon swimming?

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  5. Fred
    Belated reply here. Indeed it’s true that my training has focused on developing a depth of focus that would allow me to stay “in the moment” while swimming marathons. I believe the neural circuits for unblinking focus have been just as valuable as those for an efficient stroke in the four marathons (six if you count two USMS 10km championship races) I’ve swum.
    But life is about making choices. And the choice I made after 12 weeks of marathon training, prior to the Tampa Bay Marathon was that I preferred more varied physical activities this summer – some cycling, lots of yoga. a more relaxed approach to swimming, rather than the additional 16 weeks of 40km swim training per week that it would have taken to be ready for my English Channel window, which was Aug 17-23.
    As it happens that was a fortuitous choice for other reasons: (1) because an autoimmune condition was too debilitating and painful to allow training during June and July, and (2) that window was blown out with no swims.
    However I’m excited for my training buddy Dave Barra, who completed a Channel crossing – his 5th marathon since March – this morning.

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  6. […] Channel, all in the same year. After Tampa (which, to his credit, he finished), he decided: maybe I’m not a marathon swimmer, after all. In 2007, tragically, one swimmer passed away from a heart […]

  7. […] shortcuts. That’s another reason I am a marathon swimmer. This entry was posted in marathon swimming, training. Bookmark the permalink. ← Must one […]

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