Tag Archives: marathon swims

Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 3 – Psychological Factors

The previous two posts dealt with the physiological and environmental limiting factors of marathon swimming. As noted in Part One, non-swimmers and those unfamiliar with the sport tend to see the physiological factors as the greatest hurdles for swimming further distance, often imagining that marathon swimmer’s have some physical capability beyond the average person whereas the Environmental Factors in Part Two are possibly more likely to be a governing factor.

Assuming a swimmer has done the training, for unsuccessful swims the environmental factors are more likely to cause a swim to either not start at all or to be abandoned, and of those weather will always be the swimmer’s greatest challenge.

Experienced swimmers however will generally mostly agree that marathons swims are “more mental than physical”. And because of the complexity of individual psychology, these factors are not as easily codified or itemized, and what I may consider the greater challenges may be not such an important item for someone else, but some can be identified.


Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather
Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather

Of all the aspects of marathon swimming that I feel are most misunderstood, this aspect may be the least appreciated. It is very difficult to explain the psychological pressure endured by a swimmer who is waiting for a weather window to open. The swimmer may have invested two years of their life and a not-insignificant amount of money, only to find they don’t even know if they will swim. Depending on the person this can lead to stress and lost sleep. While this occurs prior to the swim, assuming there is a wait period, it’s impossible though to know if or how many swims may have been unsuccessful because of the pre-swim stress affecting the actual swim.

Other swimmers, having waited a lifetime for an English Channel solo in particular, can make poor last-minute decisions or changes regarding crew or feeding. Others feel that having waited those years, they must take chances. Probably the most likely impact of waiting is the decision to swim in a marginal weather opportunity that they would otherwise not have swum in. It is very easy to say this from the outside, much much less so from inside the bubble of the waiting swimmer in a marginal situation, when the pilot isn’t giving a clear indication and the decision rests with the swimmer.

Uncertain duration

Almost all swimmers step into the water with some target time or duration in mind, even if it never articulated to anyone else. Some of us learn this error the hard way and spend the rest of our swimming lives repeating it. All that counts is standing up in France is my own oft-repeated variation. A number of swimmers have found that their swim due to be two or six hours longer than expected, they have no desire to continue.  (You might recall this was the subject of a question I asked Harley Connolly, Trent Grimsey’s coach, prior to his English Channel record attempt, whether he would continue if he wasn’t on record target). Imagine this extra time extrapolated to a two-way Channel swim or a Cuba to Florida swim, when the estimated time is subject to even greater deviation. Imagine you are expecting to be swimming for 40 hours (40 hours!) and then you are told “no, it’ll be 54 hours“, longer than anyone else has ever swim? That would bring a unique psychological weight. But all additional swim time brings the possibility of being too much for a particular swimmer.

Unprepared for or unexpected events

Many marathon swimmers will go through personal form of visualisation to help ensure a successful swim. Maybe imagining picking up a rock on Vista Point or Cap Griz Nez or returning home successful. Visualisation is a powerful and well-known tool for athletes (and others). For swimmers this visualisation can include the various things than go awry during a swim, such as worsening weather or digestion or elimination issues. But what happens when reality sidesteps your visualised possibilities? Swimmers expecting a usual night-time start who instead find they have a mid-morning start and therefore will be swimming into the night instead of into the day? It is a more difficult thing to have night after ten hours of swimming than to have dawn after six hours. One is a prolonged boost, the other can act as a mental hurdle or even cliff.

Steve Munatones regularly repeats that the most important rule of open water swimming is to expect the unexpected. But while that’s correct and reasonable, it’s also easier said than done when the nature of unexpected events is to blind-side us. Some can be dealt with and the better the training and the more the experience the more likely the swimmer is to have to run into various scenarios. The epitome of this type of preparation surely has to Lisa Cummins whose training included every possible variation she could manage, from deep cold to night swims, to various feeding methods to the Torture swim, this type of training common to Sandycove Island Swim Club Channel Aspirants. All are intended to give the swimmer the broadest possible well of experience from which to draw. But there is always something unexpected out there for every swimmer. How can you prepare for solid fog? How can you prepare for getting trapped under the pilot-boat?


It can be said that the question the endurance athlete dislikes the most is Why do you do it? We all have our own particular reasons for swimming, every swimmer’s motivation is a unique recipe which includes some obvious ingredients such as proving something to themselves, looking for limits, fighting the inevitable onslaught of age, or simply loving open water swimming. To these will be others particular to the individual, such as seeking approval, validation, remembrance of someone, or overcoming some physical hindrance or others.

Whatever the unique blend of the swimmer’s psyche they may find that in the heat of battle, those reasons evaporate or are not sufficient or may have been misdirected. This isn’t a criticism, it doesn’t mean those swimmers are missing something. Instead for some swimmers it is in the swim that they discover something about themselves or their motivation which means that finishing a swim is no longer necessary to meet those internal expectations or reasons or that the training or the swim itself regardless of outcome was the real reward. Whichever is the case only the swimmer themselves knows the internal landscape and the rewards and losses and costs of the effort, successful or otherwise.

Self doubt

Made of water
Made of Water

Or should it be self-belief? How I title this section is surely more a reflection of my own mental landscape than any definite assertion. If you read about any adventures sports or know or follow any adventure or top class sports people like Adventurer Dan Martin, Ocean’s Seven swimmer Stephen Redmond, International elite swimmer Chris Bryan or adventurer Lewis Pugh or many others on Twitter, something you’ll notice amongst many (but not all) of them is that they post inspirational quotations. Some come from themselves, some are quotations that come from others that they have found useful or that they appreciate and wish to use to inspire others. In a way these quotations act like a shorthand for the internal mental effort required.

Part of the nature of the human condition is self-doubt and it is one of the most limiting factors of all. After all without wishing to start repeating a lot of those inspirational quotations, the person who believes they can, and the person who believes they can’t are both right. If I quote that, it doesn’t mean that I absolutely follow it. Personally the problem I have with inspirational quotations is that they make me feel inadequate, with all their exhortation of overcoming and victory. Life seems to me at best a series of compromises.

Nonetheless a certain amount of self-belief is required for big swims, or anything else. You need the belief that you can keep turning the arms over for the next ten minutes, feed interval, hour, tide, night or day. Some of that comes from training or experience, some of it comes from knowing yourself. Some of it we learn along the way. But we can also run out of it and run up against limits. Almost all of us have some limit to it.

Despite that, I have my own favourites. This Socrates quotation from a long time ago remains a favourite. During Channel training my training log said “Today is the Channel” so I would remind myself of the journey every day. Another is simply; “I do not stop when I am tired. I stop when I am done“. Even if I don’t always believe it, or myself…

This is another of the private internal battles the swimmer must undergo. The biggest difference between the same person who stepped off the beach in England, and who swam ashore in France, is the increase in self-belief, what we usually term confidence.

An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams' Channel mental training preparation
An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams’  mental training preparation

There are of course the other more mundane psychological aspects of a marathon swimmer’s life: Boredom, worrying about imminent physical problems, regretting missed training, anxiety about water depth or creatures, or ever embarrassment about bodily elimination, these are the ongoing easier understood issues of a marathon swim. But no less important for being more mundane or easier to convey.

Channels swimmers often say it is 10% physical and 90% mental. I prefer to think that it is 90% physical. And 90% mental.

Unlike most of the items in Parts One and Two, these aspects are neither visible, nor particular to marathons swimmers. And yet they can be bigger hurdles for being invisible and private and general.

But the biggest hurdle isn’t necessarily one or the other, but the one that either stops you or took the most to overcome.

Next time you look at any endurance athlete or event and in particular marathon swimmers, I hope I’ve given you some idea of the Limiting Factors with which each and every one must necessarily deal.

Use of choline supplementation in marathon swims (or ultra-endurance events)

I don’t like dietary supplements. B Complex, multivitamins etc. The little reading I’ve done so far on the subject indicates little or no benefit is gained from commercial multivitamins for endurance athletes But I don’t rule it out…

Since my EC, (too late that is), I’ve had a few interesting conversations with an online friend and endurance athlete (hey Herman!), who has a background in nutrition, who has convinced me to look at some specifics. When I’ve talked to others in this line, they don’t have any experience with real endurance events, much more in strength events, track or field or team events. But given his own endurance exploits Herman has given this more thought than those advising other athletes. Also, having done a Solo, I am interested in how we can do it better and the scientific improvements we can bring to our almost non-studied pursuit. Evan Morrison has started a series on this subject also, which prompted this post, as so much Evan writes so often does.

So, what can we do better?

Amongst the things that Herman suggested we increase was Choline. I’ll address the others separately, (why write one post when I can write two?).

So what is Choline, and why increase it?

To the Research-mobile Batman!

(There’s three links there, for the hypertext inadequate).

Mihai Niculescu

Choline is a dietary and nutritional Requirement, like vitamins. It’s often grouped together with B-complex vitamins. It’s required for a variety of purposes including supporting cell structure and integrity, muscular control and neuro-transmission (signalling between neurons). So just thinking from a heavy training point of view, and the precision that swimming normally requires combined with heavy training loads, these seem quite apposite.

The body has a good supply of choline, and retains it well into endurance events but can drop precipitously. Studies at the Boston Marathon in the 80’s show runners could drop 50% over the curse of a marathon. So what about a 5 to 40 hour swimming event?

WE DON’T KNOW! On an initial search I can’t find (unsurprisingly) any studies on choline in ultra-endurance events.

Oh, and apparently, low choline can lead to an unpleasant (fishy) body odour, which no amount of washing will remove. I’m not sure how you segregate this from open water (sea) swimmers who just smell of fish anyway! :-) Which is no worse than the six months of pool training when you smell of chlorine.

Like ALL essential nutrients we can get everything we need from our diet. But the primary forms of choline and changes to a modern diet both mean we could be operating on low choline levels.

The Adequate Intake (AI) of choline is 425 mg (milligrams) per day for adult women; higher for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The AI for adult men is 550 mg/day.

There’s a study that shows AI, Adequate Intake, may not actually be adequate.

Here’s a table straight from Wikipedia:

Animal and plant foods Choline (mg) Calories
5 ounces (142 g) raw beef liver 473 192
Large hardboiled egg 113 78
Half a pound (227 g) cod fish 190 238
Half a pound of chicken 149 270
Quart of milk, 1% fat 173 410
A tablespoon (8 g) soy lecithin 250  approx. 60
A pound (454 grams) of cauliflower 177 104
A pound of spinach 113 154
A cup of wheat germ 202 432
Two cups (0.47 liters) firm tofu 142 353
Two cups of cooked kidney beans 108 450
A cup of uncooked quinoa 119 626
A cup of uncooked amaranth 135 716
A grapefruit 19 103
3 cups (710 cc) cooked brown rice 54 649
A cup (146 g) of peanuts 77 828
A cup (143 g) of almonds 74 822

So you can see why it would be easy to not get enough. I like liver, but I don’t eat beef liver, (which is horrible and better fed to dogs) and half a kilo of liver a day of any kind would lead to vitaminosis, which is pretty dangerous, and why I limit liver intake when training hard to once a week.

Maybe you really do eat a kilo and a half of cauliflower a day, more power to you if so, but I pity the people living with your colon.

Or just a daily, and probably quite odd mix of these items. Maybe a cauliflower, milk, quinoa, spinach and fish smoothie? Yum.

But modern diet has had us reduce red meat and eggs for other reasons, concerns over cholesterol, etc. Milk is a good source (human milk is very high in choline, for infant development) and probably the easiest to take, something I drink plenty of to support training. I’m wasn’t sure what the hell a quart of milk was, apparently it’s almost a litre. America, please see above cartoon. Again.

Choline is beneficially linked to foetal development, cardiovascular system, and anxiety reduction (not depression), increased IQ in infants, possibly lowered cholesterol (contradicting studies), and mental acuity and memory in mice, and diets with no choline can lead to liver or muscle damage in 80% of cases. On the negative side, there’s a study that it can lead to colonic polyps in women. Or increased risk of diarrhoea or flatulence. One study shows that endurance athletes can be deficient in choline, which is the real point.

Lacking this intake of, it seems choline is possibly a good recommendation for diet supplement in endurance athletes. It is assumed to come in diet from Lecithin, which is how strength athletes (always keen to shove pills into themselves) often supplement. It’s European E-number E322, derived from soy or egg yolk and it’s used as an emulsifier (stabiliser) in processed food, such as some margarine, baking or processed chocolate bars (not high cocoa percentage chocolate bars). But (older) studies show lecithin isn’t effective in choline supplementation, that maybe only 4% of lecithin is actually converted to choline.

Yes … but. The but is ask what we can do. Without studies of deficiencies, supplementation and effects for ultra events, we simply don’t know.

Extracting from one article:

Evidence for choline supplements
But can choline supplements really be beneficial? We know for sure that choline levels do plunge near the end of a marathon, and we also know that choline supplements can prevent this devastating downswing. In one study, the simple act of taking in two grams of choline before exercise began totally prevented the fall in choline normally associated with prolonged activity.

However, the simple maintenance of choline levels does not automatically mean that performance will be enhanced. To check on the performance part of the equation, researchers recently asked 10 trained runners (eight males and two females) to run 20 miles as fast as possible after taking 2.8 grams of choline citrate one hour before the run and the same amount (adding up to 5.6 total grams of choline) at the half-way (10-mile) point of their efforts. On a second occasion, the athletes ran the same distance without taking choline. Seven of the 10 subjects ran better times after taking choline, and average time for the 20-miler was five minutes faster when choline was utilised (2:33 versus 2:38).

The researchers were also able to show that plasma choline levels decreased significantly after the placebo (non-choline- supplemented) run but actually increased by 74 per cent at the end of the 20-mile exertion when choline was taken before and half-way through the run.

Cavet: Those are only two small-scale studies, in different conditions (because we always have to remember a few things: Cold & Salt water ingestion as environmental factors for us).

There are two counter studies also. A study of moderate distance cyclists (150 kilometres per week) training at less than VO2 Max displayed NO improvement from choline supplementation. But there is a suggestion in an analysis of one study that choline supplementation is only effective OVER two hours of exercise. Whereas in the other, blood choline was raised, but performance wasn’t.

There IS a small study on pool swimmers, who were using results from an Interval T-30  (thirty minute time test for distance) as the measurement. 11 out of 16 showed an improvement.

Okay, so we’re not left with a lot of conclusive evidence. But there does seem to be a leaning toward choline as being beneficial for ultra-endurance events.


In the meantime, it’s not a regular supplement, I don’t significant use in boosting it daily, but that would depend, as above, on your diet. Eat more eggs, you need less choline supplementation. If it is of any use to us, it’s directly prior to and during the events themselves. I see if I can influence any of next year’s Aspirants to try it out. In the meantime I don’t like keeping these thoughts to myself, our community is based on friendship and sharing knowledge. So here it is for your consideration. And any useful information anyone could add would be great.

Lastly, the actual supplementation. Well it’s not something you find in pill form on the supermarket or pharmacy shelf. Apparently some electrolytes has choline as an addition. The best uptake form is either of the choline salts, choline chloride or choline bitartrate, which are absorbed really quickly into the blood, within 30 minutes. If taking it, you take about 2.0 to 2.5 grams before the event, and after 2 hours, (about 0.2 gr per kg of body weight). For a multi-hour ultra event, I would GUESS, that taking it subsequently every two to three hours would be best. If it is of any benefit.

References from:

Wikipedia, PubMeD, Cochrane, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Peak Performance Sporting Excellence, new England journal of medicine, Google Scholar

Penny Palfrey in Dover

Ocean’s Seven – Six down, one to go for Penny Palfrey

From Penny Palfrey’s site:

Ocean Seven – 6 Down 1 to Go For Penny

The [O]cean’s Seven is the marathon swimming equivalent of the mountain climbing challenge, the “Seven Summits”. But unlike its land based equivalent, the ocean’s seven has never been completed.

(Donal’s note: The Ocean’s Seven was proposed as a goal by Steve Munatones. Steve, did you think someone would get so close so quickly? Although I guess it always seemed that Penny was the most likely?)

The seven swims referred to, are as follows (together with details of location, distance and particular difficulties/challenges) :

English Channel (England to France – 34k) – cold, strong currents, heavy shipping traffic. (Another note from Donal. I wish to dog it had only been 34k. 60k for me!)

Cook Strait (between north and south islands of New Zealand – 26k) – cold, strong currents, marine life

Molokai Channel (between Molokai and Oahu, Hawaii – 42k) – big oceanic swells, strong currents, marine life

Catalina channel (California, Los Angeles – 33k) – swum at night, cold, marine life

Tsugaru Strait (Japan – 20k) – very strong currents, cold, often rough

Strait of Gibraltar (Spain to Morocco – 15k) – strong currents, windy, heavy shipping traffic

Irish North Channel (between Scotland and Ireland – 34k) – very cold, often rough and windy, nasty jellyfish

With Penny’s recent conquest of the Tsugaru Strait, between the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu, Penny‘s now completed all of the above, except for the North Channel.”

Penny Palfrey in Dover


Homer understood;

“For wreaking havoc on a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire as the sea.”

But Lucretius was wrong:

“Lovely it is, when the winds are churning up the waves on the great sea, to gaze out from the land on the great efforts of someone else”.

Joseph Conrad saw it:

“The sea — this truth must be confessed — has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to  touch its irresponsible consciousness of power”.

The Seven Ps of Long Swims

Practice everything.

Do nothing new on the day.

These are the two corollaries of the long distance swimmer’s maxim about preparation. Experienced swimmers learn it early. Plan.

So for planning for something like a 24 hour pool swim, experienced swimmers like Lisa & Danny first think about what they will need, and will go back to previous experience to recall lessons learned. Then they talk to each other, and others experienced in the same area, to see if there’s something they forgot or of which they hadn’t taken account.

With four of us going to have a shot at the 24 mile in 24 hours, for the laugh, three of us having long swim experience, the first step was to mine that experience.

The first concern was feeding. This was a pool swim so the first thing we knew, was this shouldn’t be a Maxim-fest. It shouldn’t be fuelled by Maltodextrin because of the biological problems inherent in trying that in a pool, even with breaks built-in and with a much warmer temperature. This was better done as a primarily food-based swim attempt.

Second are the environmental problems caused by long-term immersion in chlorinated water. Both similar to, yet different from, a long sea swim. Skin protection was still important but also different. Theres’s no salt but there’s still chaffing. There were dry and painful facial skin problems.

Hydration was even more important given the higher temperature, and even though I was conscious of it, and drank a lot, afterwards I realised I still hadn’t drunk enough as I had quite a thirst in the last few hours. Timing between swims was also important and changeable as the swim progressed, and sufficient dryland equipment for comfort through the swim was necessary. And of course the obligatory painkillers, just in case.

So the seven Ps:

Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance“.

Longest authenticated swims


1. Abdel-Latiff Abo-Heif of Egypt, voted the greatest marathon swimmer of the 20th century, completed a 60-mile professional solo lake race across Lake Michigan on August 23-24, 1963 during the Jim Moran’s Lake Michigan Swim Challenge from Chicago, Illinois to Benton Harbor-St. Joseph, Michigan. Abo-Heif finished in 34 hours and 38 minutes.

2. Ted Erikson, an inductee in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, finished the same 60-mile swim in 37 hours and 31 minutes.

3. Yuko Matsuzaki , a former professional marathon swimmer from Japan, completed a 51.5- mile (83K) solo swim in 33 hours and 25 minutes in Lake Cane in Orlando, Florida on September 13th, 2008.

4. Greta Andersen finished a 31-hour, 50-mile professional solo lake race from Chicago, Illinois to Kenosha,Wisconsin, the 1962 version of the Jim Moran’s Lake Michigan Swim Challenge.

Ted Erikson also finished that 1962 50-mile Lake Michigan race in 35 hours and 45 minutes.


The longest solo continuous marathon swims performed in the ocean were completed by Susie Maroney and Diana Nyad.

Susie Maroney swam 111.8 miles (180K) from Cuba to Florida in May, 1997 (done in a shark cage), 58 miles (93.6K) from Mexico to Cuba in June, 1998 in 38 hours and 33 minutes (a recognized Guinness world record) and 99.4 miles (160K) from Jamaica to Cuba in September, 1999. Because her longer swims were done in a shark cage and wetsuit, they are not recognized by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame for record purposes, although no one can argue the incredible physical and mental endurance that was demonstrated.

Diana Nyad swam 50 miles along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and swam 102.5 miles (165K) from North Bimini, Bahamas to Juno Beach, Florida in 1972, but withdrew after 42 hours in a 1978 attempt from Cuba to Florida after swimming 99.7 miles (160K).

Is Positive Mental Attitude enough?

You’d imagine that successful EC swimmer’s would agree that there is some luck involved?

A bunch of us met in Cork at the weekend to welcome Ciaran home and had a great time.

There were Liam, Ciarán, Imelda, Finbarr, Lisa & Ned with soon to swim Gábor and signed-up aspirant Liz, with potential aspirant Craig once he submits to the pressure and signs up.

So different as we all are, I think we all agree there’s a luck aspect. Danny and Rob and my swim earlier have certainly demonstrated it for us.

But I was reading another swimmer’s blog who swam last week and read this:

“When does the human spirit give in to the limits of the human body and just close up shop? Or can we go as far as our spirit takes us?”
Using his story [referring to a book], he shows how strong the human spirit can be when it is not blinded or consumed by negativity ….
[] but it’s an interesting question or thought: “can we go as far as our spirit wants to take us?”
Four different forum buddies who failed to cross the channel over the past 6 weeks … what separates them from the several who succeeded?
Have you failed at something because you let negativity blind you/blind your spirit from seeing the finish?
I think everyone has.”

It seems straightforward but his implication that those who fail only do so because they are somehow mentally weak. It’s a typical Ayn Rand, bullshit superior libertarian attitude. And the flip side is that who succeed have somehow been more mentally fit.

In this worldview winners win because they are mentally stronger and the losers fall by the wayside, inferior to the winners.

While this can be the case, we all know swimmers who have failed because of insufficient preparation. As Sandycove swimmers who have trained with Eilís, we already have a reputation for exceptional preparation even though we mostly don’t realise this. (This became clear to me especially when I met Kevin Murphy on the slipway.)

Well, this guy seems to have let his success on a straightforward day blind him to the possibilities of Channel. PMA isn’t everything. You need luck. Maybe Rob and Lisa and Ned and the two Dannies and myself are more aware of this.

To swim the Channel you need PMA…AND tenacity, a willingness to disregard pain…and luck.

Six hour swim in sub-eleven degree Celsius water – my longest cold swim

Edit: The original title of this post may have been the worst title I ever wrote. And that’s saying something. I’m really bad at titles.

Dante wrote that the Ninth Circle of the Inferno was ice. He didn’t seem to consider freezing water, so I guess it might have been the lobby entrance to the Ninth level? Where we spent six hours on a Saturday on 2010. Reserved for the wilfully stupid, and marathon swimmers. Who may just be one and the same.

It was supposed to be the final eight hour swim for Jen & I yesterday with Ciarán and Rob also in the water.

Ciarán had arranged Kieran O’Connor to provide rib support for a Speckled Door and back swim before finishing with more laps of Sandycove. (Thanks again Kieran).

We started just after nine am. Cold at the slipway, as bloody usual but then…it didn’t get much better. Wind was South West, about Force Three starting hitting Force Four occasionally later on. So headwind and chop down to the Spec. First feed was just after Hake Head, the main landmark for swimmers on the way down at about fifty minutes. Rob and I reached the Spec at about two hours, a couple of minutes ahead.

We had expected it to take somewhere between one hour thirty to one hour forty five. At least fifteen minutes behind. And cold.
Kieran told us it was fifteen Celsius the whole way, but the wind was making us cold. We knew he was lying. At this stage I’d lost my left hand. And my thighs were starting to seize. I started kicking them against my hands underwater to improve circulation.

He sent Rob & I into the harbour to circle before the feed. When we got back he’d already fed Jen and Ciarán, and sent us to chase them the whole way back.
“Pursuit”, cackled Rob, and off we went.

We stroked side by side until the next feed ( apart from ten minute divergence as we each felt we knew the best line back, both of us confident in our navigation skills). We split and came back together after Hake Head side by side again. At that feed looking back we saw we’d passed Hake Head (it’s not easily visible from the west side) and were obviously flying with the wind and swell behind us. We’d had ten minutes of sun and slightly warmed up. We never saw Jen and Ciarán the whole way back

We hit Finbarr’s Beach just catching the other pair, with them about five seconds ahead at almost exactly four hours. Half an hour behind our estimated time, but twenty minutes faster on the return journey.

As we transferred our feed bottles to the beach, Ciarán told us the real temperature.

Ten point seven to eleven point one. Degrees. Celsius.

Sweet merciful Cthulhu. No wonder we were all suffering and in pain. Actual pain by the way. My neck had seized up, I had pains up my forearms, biceps and shoulders. My lower back hurt. My thighs were the worst, with hideous pain in them. I tried punching them as hard as I could to restore some circulation. Lying to us was exactly the right thing for Kieran to do. If we had known we might decided on a short swim early on.

Only during the week I had been thinking how I could never have done the six hour qualification in thirteen degrees that Ciarán and Rob had done.

We agreed on two laps (one hour) then we would call it.

The first lap was bad.

The second lap was a nightmare, the second toughest Sandycove lap I’ve ever done, (the worst was on  the eight lap (mile) on the first Champion Of Champions swim in 2008, the race where only twelve out of over fifty finished and it took twenty minutes to swim the normal ten minute outside stretch).

We made it back. Fed. Time (and everything else) was getting a bit blurry but I was not getting out short of six hours. We were around five hours at that stage. I was going to go again when the boys suggested an inside lap.

There was no merciful warm patch after the third corner, nor outside the island, as there had been for a few weeks now.

Now the boys are tough as nails. On the eight hour swim, when it was too rough outside the island at the end for me, Rob kept going out. If they were suggesting moving inside that’ll tell you something. Rob is not known as The Bull for nothing.

We did an inside triangle. A warm patch as the fourth corner felt like paradise. It was…only 11.4 C!

Yes, only half a degree higher. We swam up the Pil estuary where it was a bit better, but still with cold patches. Back for the last feed.

Thirty minutes. We needed thirty minutes.

We went for another inside triangle. We stood for a few seconds in the sticky mud up the estuary where Rob asked if standing there for two hours would count. We made it back to Finbarr’s, attempting the final sprint. Which didn’t look or feel like one, but no point hanging onto any energy at that stage. We came in together again.

As we stumbled onto the low tide sandbank, I looked at the guys. They looked like I felt.

Our legs were unable to bend or properly support us. Arms bent and back hunched like chimpanzees. Necks not working. Moving very similar to movie zombies.

Get the boxes. Into the cold one final time and swim back across the channel, pushing the swim boxes or towing them behind us. Warm shower from water bottles warming in the too-late sun.

Where were you Sun, when we needed you you six hours ago“? Bit bloody late . “You see Sun, it’s that fickleness that means Ireland never developed a proper Sun Worship religion. Just think, you could have had a shot. You have been a contender. A few month’s sunshine and we could have had our own Ra or Akhenaton. Instead we got those bloody priests. And we all know how that ended.

Dressed. Almost immediate recovery, something Jen had pointed out to me a few weeks back. Food and chat for a few hours. More talk about details for our Channel swims. Questions, some of which will soon be directed toward those of you successful Channel swimmers reading this.

Lessons learnt:

  • I would have sworn it was impossible (for me). (A day later I still think it’s impossible)
  • If I had known the real temperature at the start I would never have done it
  • If I had been by myself I would never had done it
  • Sometimes will-power will take you places you never thought possible. I hope I never forget how I felt starting that final hour with all higher powers of cognition and articulation fled:

Fuck you sea. Fuck you waves and wind. Fuck you cold. I’m coming. I’m fucking coming. Third Corner? I fucking OWN the Third Corner.”

(It lasted until said Third Corner by the way, by which time I was back to whimpering.)

Update: Months later, thinking this was a great achievement and also reflecting that we were all borderline hypothermic (and we all know hypo), I discovered that Lisa had done nine hours in similar temperatures during her EC Double training!

But a year and half later memories of this swim are still with us all, and it often discussed. Ihope to never have to do anything like this again.

T’were the sprintin’ wot did me in, guv…I swear.

Well, a milestone passed.

6 hour Channel qualification swim:
Open Water:
In under 16 Celsius:

Whether coach will sign off on it is another matter as 5 of the magnificent seven are currently in the bad books, apparently. It’s not like we won’t be doing it again anyway.

6 hours + in Inishcarragh Lake, water about 15C (+ / – about 0.5), sun shining for almost 5 hours and flat water. The photo is from the morning and doesn’t do any justice to the location.

Thanks to Sylvain, Lisa, Liz & John C. for the and Declan for the kayak support. Thanks to Mick and Kay for the barbecue(s) and enough food to feed an army afterwards.

(And I’d like to say, it wasn’t me started the sprinting, but Gábor heading toward the buoy in the fourth hour. I was just unfortunate enough to be involved then and the subsequent ones. As could be witnessed by how I died in the last mile!)

Just another long pool swim

(WordPress somehow chewed the original of this post, which had followed the Socrates quote, so below is a quick and lazy rewrite).

Last Friday we (2010 Channel aspirants) met for a 10 hour pool swim.

I had only approximately 4 hours sleep the previous night and was feeling tired but expecting the worst after the few previous swims, which had started poorly. And indeed I did feel tired for the first few hours, but certainly not with the same level of discomfort or even pain of the previous two long swims.

Coach Eilís set a steadier pace for us this time, with very short breaks and we were all doing well by the six hour food break. More feeding strategies were tried, I again went with chicken sandwiches but this time with added coffee and tomato & pasta soup for the main food break.

Consequently the two hours after the food, everyone suffered, feeling very uncomfortable, heavy and bloated. But we all prevailed and made it to just under 9 hours, when we abandoned the pool for a half hour sea swim to ease out the muscles, bringing the total to just under nine and half hours, short of the ten hours, but to be honest, this was only due to available time, rather than capability.

The effects of training are obvious on everyone, with us all looking much better after the swim. We finished with 400 I.M. by the way, you know, just for the hell of it!

“No man…”

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”


* I’m obviously not responsible for the inherent misogyny of two and a half thousand years ago…

Third Spacing

Another of the joys of Long Distance swimming in salt water is bloating.

It’s a combination of factors including Third Spacing, more properly called (apparently), “Third Spacing of Fluids”.

Prolonged exposure to salt water causes the body to swell, making marathon swimmers look bloated after a long swim. There is also electrolyte loss causing Third Spacing as fluid leaves the the blood vessels and builds up in the intracellular spaces, when it’s normally confined to the tissues (75% of fluid) and plasma (25%).

I don’t know precisely how prolonged immersion needs to be before bloating becomes obvious (though I’ve read 2 hours), but it’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

The picture is of Grant Hackett before and after the 10k 2008 OW World Championships that purports to display the effects of Third Spacing on him.

So get your pictures taken BEFORE your swim… ;-)

Fascinating factoid from the experienced Channel swimmers

When we were talking the other day, Ciarán mentioned, that Danny Coholane (English Channel soloist) had told him and Eddie, (also English Channel Soloist) agreed…
…that every swim over eight hours mark requires a week to recover.

Ciarán also mentioned that he had been shattered for the week after the nine hour swim, meaning that all of The Magnificent Seven without exception had suffered that week after the swim.

It was such an important piece of info for long-distance swimmers, I’m giving it it’s own post!

Thanks Ciarán, Eddie and Danny Coholane !

Saturday Mornings

I love Saturday mornings.

Rest day and after 6 1/2 hours session yesterday, it’s even better.

Put on some music, have a fruit smoothie, grind and brew the coffee beans, throw on some pancakes. Not training food but pretty nice for a change. Like being a normal human.

The Magnificent Seven, and Eddie, assembled at 6.30am in Source again yesterday morning for a 7 hour swim.

I was again awake at 3am of course, an hour before the actual alarm went off. I had taken some over the counter sleep aids I’d picked up the US the last time I was over there, and I got to Cork with a very groggy head. (Eddie told me the main ingredient was an anti-histamine, so I stayed groggy for a good few hours).

The boss was there and cracked the whip immediately. We would start with 10k, 1 minute rest after 4k, 3k, 2k. No other breaks, even for a drink.

Straight into it.

I said I’d lead out the first 1k. Got the count completely back-asswards. Handed over to Liam at what I though was about 1000 but then looked at the clock and it had actually been about 1500. Anyway, pace was “hot” right through and I put too much into that first 1500. Did the 4k in 1:05, and finished the 10k in under 3 hours, thus being by far the the fasted 10k I’ve ever done.

I cracked early on in the 10th kilometre, couldn’t hold the speed, and slipped off Ciarán and Rob’s toes and there was no way back, getting further behind. Shattered my confidence for a while.

Gabór had to go to work after a few hours, he had already done a 10 hour during the week, by himself!
Danny got sick and Eilís sent him home. Being Danny he wouldn’t have went otherwise.

Couple of minutes toilet break, (I had time for one mouthful of a sandwich & half a banana), and back with 10×100 paddles, 10×200 paddles, 3k straight, and mixed bunch to finish the last 4 k. We did the 3k straight in 45 mins, each of taking a 500 and pushing it. Again a fastest ever 3k for me.
I recovered my composure in the second 10k and feeling fine all through, sticking the pace ok. A couple of well-placed words from Ciarán & Rob were much appreciated and ensured some repair to the damage my confidence had taken.

(I did cheat when using the paddles by using my small ones. We had a 2k paddle session earlier in the week and about 800m into it my left shoulder starting hurting intensely. I finished the 2k, which in retrospect I shouldn’t have done, but required a visit to Vinny, who said both shoulders were inflamed and red around the lats. (Lattisimus Dorsii). So I didn’t want that to flare up again so I used the small paddles.)

20k finished, with a few breaks in 6:15. Eilís had planned 7 hours, so we actually got to finish early. Sore arms all round after the stiff session.

Up to the cafe for some food, we were all ravenous after the pace, while Eilís was being interviewed for Gay TV prior to her visit to the World Gay Games this year.
Plenty of laughs were had earlier when she informed of that we probably be in the background swimming for this.
We offered to oil up on deck, massage each other, roll our togs down to thongs etc. We’re hoping some websites dedicated to us might spring up.
Given the height of him, Liam especially is likely to be a gay icon. Pity Gabór was gone, with his tattoos he’s surely get his own speciality website!

Anyway after the food and chat, Phase two was out to Ballycroneen where Liam lives for a sea swim. Original plan was for an hour but sea conditions were too rough for a long swim. We did about 15 minutes, particularly hard for Jen to get in as she has just returned from the hottest Australian summer on record and swimming Rottnest again, to come back to 6.9 C
I was not most popular as, after I returned to the beach, apparently everyone though I’d been lost at sea. (They’re not the first as my wonderful fiancée would attest). I’d gone “out back” as surfers call it. No-one could see me, even Eilís on the beach.(I was out there wondering why no-one else was coming out).

I had expected it to feel colder as we’d be tired but in reality I think all our temperatures were still up and made it feel warmer (I would have guess 8 or 8.5C), so I found it lovely. (All the winter swimming I’ve done has really helped). Everyone felt great after with arms and shoulders nicely relaxed.

Liam had home-made soup and bread waiting for us in his lovely house (thanks Liam & Kay!) and for once we were able to sit around and have a chat.

Then home. Great day, no-where near as tiring as the last day, not particularly hungry last night. (Had my first pizza in almost a year and HATED it).

Of course, we also now know what the next big day will be. And we’re already dreading it.

So only 6:30 total. Felt almost like we got off light.

Anatomy of an 8 Hour swim

So three plus hour swims are a weekly (or more) feature of training right now (end of January ’10). “Normal” day’s training is hovering around two  to two & an half. I did a four hour about a week and half ago, just to see how I feeling. I had been planning to do a five hour solo that week until The Boss told us we were doing an eight hour together.

The four hour swim was a significant change from a mixed three and an half-hour session. I was doing a “Pyramid”, 1000 to 100m and back to 1000m as the main set, apart from a 1000m warm-up and few hundred swim down. The intervals were constant. I was tired by the end but “could have kept going’, which is how I judge my condition. Tired obviously though. But double the time? My previous longest swim was a five and half hour sea swim with Danny in 2008.

Ravenous and tired the next day, though I had planned a two hour session but RL intervened & I had an enforced break that day.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the eight hour.

Having been sick during the week, I was most nervous about an induced asthma attack, which would have stopped me swimming.

Having talked to fellow soloist (oxymoron?) Jen about feeding the previous weekend, I tried to carb. load (though with a poor appetite) and had two pasta dinners the afternoon and evening beforehand, and a bunch of sandwiches before bed, along with some of the usual crap I eat.

Breakfast was fresh made smoothie and porridge, my normal training breakfast, along with another bunch of sandwiches in the car on the two hour drive down.

I also spent quite a while making two litres of fruit smoothie for the swim to keep it fresh as possible. (Grape and orange juice, peaches, pineapple, banana & yoghurt). I also had another five litres of my Miwadi isotonic mix and some grapes & bananas. Basically my swim feeding strategy was to try 100% fruit which I had done on many three plus hour swims, the only change moving from solid and awkward to liquid and easy.

The other six of The Magnificent Seven had started swimming at 7.30am in the accommodating and friendly Source Fitness Centre pool in Springfields Morans Hotel in Cork, with The Boss on the deck. A quick chat before the start, she told everyone was nervous about it.

I joined the guys at 8.40am and we kept to one lane for the day.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe lots of long sets and it an eight hour version of a usual training session. The whole shebang. 1000’s, 1500’s, paddles, pull-buoy, laterals, alternate speeds and strokes etc.

The first three hours flew, until Eilís called a 15 minute break on the four hour mark (for the guys, only three hours in for me). Fine again after. The Boss had to leave at mid-day.

At the five hour mark I was reflecting on the comparison between my four recent hour solo pool session and this session. I was definitely feeling fresher by the five hour mark. The six hour mark I considered about equal with the four hour solo. The seventh hour for me, last hour for the guys, included an 1500 hard. I held onto Liam and Rob (leading) but it hurt. They wound down their last 20 minutes easy enough and I said good-bye.

Then the dreaded re-entry into pool by myself for the final one hour and 20 minutes. I was thinking of repeat 1000’s but too leaden by then and needed a break after 800, and settled on repeat 400’s. 10 to 20 secs would be my usual interval at this point but I’m afraid they crept up to 30 to 45 for the last few despite the presence of one of Eilís’s representatives on earth, this time her brother Pat, whom I was bit too tired to recognise, though after chasing him, (unsuccessfully and being lapped), for a few k., I think I now know his style very well.

Astonishing performance of the day was my English Channel Double Relay friend and team-mate Danny, who finished work at 6am, had an hour sleep, and completed the full eight hours, and Gábor who swam with sprained wrist and damaged shoulder after a recent fall.

But everyone did great and we would have been lost without Liam keeping track of our sets and leading us out so much.

(At one point in hour seven, I was leading out a 1000m alternate set, Liam recommended I track the easy/fast alternate 150 metres. The 1000 metres were done when I was sure we had only swum 600m! No more leading out for me, I can’t count).

Turned out a few of the guys were watching from upstairs for my final hour, making sure I didn’t drown I guess, and came down after I finished, which I really appreciated.

Liam estimated about 24,000m for their total based on all the intervening sessions completed, so I’ll assume the same, besting my previous longest ever pool swim of about 14k.

I had a recovery shake, which I only do after big swims, my usual chicken breast and hit the road.