Time means nothing. Yet marathon swimmers, as a group of endurance athletes who more than most should know this, also consistently ignore the lesson and ask “how fast were you?” or “what was your time?“? We allow ourselves to be deluded into ascribing more importance to time, in its incarnation of speed than it deserves. We voluntarily submit ourselves to the dictatorship of the clock, even when we know the clock is not applicable, or even working.
We should know the questions to actually ask are “how much did you suffer?” or “what went wrong?“. Because there is always suffering and something always goes wrong, or at least, not according to plan.
Only getting there honestly and standing up on the far side matters.
There you go. That’s the ultimate lesson of marathon swimming. Follow the rules. Keep swimming. Touch the far side. Nothing new there.
I know this. I have spent over a decade now knowing and repeating this. All that mattered was that in the face of what a day unleashed, I did not give up. To some, I can and have been judged for being slow. But I would not swap my time for the channel record, because I had nothing left to prove. These are the contradictions and opposing faces of marathon swimming.
I therefore know that to swim “a decent time”, can also mean little.
With the gentleman who is Anthony McCarley, we got a reasonable time in Gibraltar, and it means little, because I felt humbled by the Gibraltar Strait. Why?
The mechanical details are: We swam across in four hours twenty-six minutes. We both made it.
In marathon swimming, it’s not a long time. But it still lasted forever.
I am not really interested in a mundane blow-by-blow recounting of the swim. I am interested in understanding, and in using that understanding for clarity and information. Contrary to an imposed tendency of people to simplify, I am trying to understand the various strands of cause that resulted in my humbling in the Gibraltar Strait. But in order to so do, I guess I need to flesh out some details of the swim.
Anthony and I had never met before so a primary concern was were we close enough in speed to swim together within the ACNEG requirement of “three to four metres apart“, considering the expected conditions. And we were well matched in the first half of the swim.
The day had a westerly wind blowing out of the Atlantic. The Strait is not swum in an easterly Levante wind, as the Mediterranean is “downhill” from the Atlantic with a prevailing westerly current due to Mediterranean evaporation. So the only swim direction is south-east from Tarifa with a landing on Punta Cires as the shortest route. The water was continuously choppy with westerly winds driving waves onto our right hand side. Antonio the pilot wanted us to go out hard (-ish) for the first hour to get past the inshore current running off the island so we’d decided to not feed until 90 minutes and then feed every 30 minutes afterwards.
From the start on Tarifa island, full of reflected water off the island rocks, the day was choppy and the wind threw continuous waves onto our right hand sides, which never relented. At the first ninety minute feed (water for me) we’d swum five and half kilometres, and had moved right out into the Strait. At two hours we were seven and half kilometres and I took an UCan feed. We continued, everything was fine. The swim was tedious because of the side-on chop and occasional wash from ships which closer and are far more visible in the confines of the Gibraltar Strait than the English Channel and yet the travelled distance was very obvious in that time, unlike many other swims.
Somewhere early in the third hour, (I think, I’m not sure the time) I tried to swim harder, but couldn’t.
Marathon swimming brings this discontinuous sense of time. During the swim you are 100% sure that you will recall the significant events, with respect to specific feeds. After all, all that really happens is swimming punctuated by feed breaks. So specific events such as realising you are in a dodgy strait, (as well as an actual Strait) are then associated with the next or last feed.
Feeds are the signposts and way-markers of marathon swims. They are the nails on which the frame of the swim is hung, making it all crystal clear, logical, sequential. Then afterwards, all fades into a single undifferentiated continuum. You can later remember moments with vivid clarity, some seconds that lasted hours, the occurrence of particular thoughts, and how the water looked just that moment and that other moment.
But it’s all rudderless, like the motes of upwelling Atlantic plankton, it shifts and blurs, only becomes visible as a whole and invisible when you try to isolate and focus on differentiating one from another. The most meaningless and itself boring question about marathon swimming is asking how we deal with boredom.
I started to slow more. Due to the conditions I hadn’t really felt the early fluidity of swimming often associated with a long swim, that gradually diminishes with time.
Somewhere in the early third hour I really started to struggle further. I lost the ability to stroke hard to close gaps, felt spaces opening up between us. I once stopped unexpectedly and called Santiago for a paracetamol sometime, which did nothing for me, because whatever was wrong wasn’t that physical kind of pain. But it didn’t feel psychological either, other than the usual sensations encountered during swimming and the sense I had of being in difficulty. All the time I waited for my usual feeling of strength to return, but it never did.
I was constantly worried and stressed that I was letting Anthony down and watching for his position. Had I been by myself I would not have had that but had I been by myself also, well I would not have been there at all. Regardless of discussions beforehand that we’d finish together, regardless that Anthony is a man of integrity and his word, I was aware that simply on cost alone, I myself saw this as Anthony’s swim. I tried stroke counting, knowing if I could count to a thousand, it would take the entire interval to the next feed, but as usual I could never count more than a hundred.
I wished my friend were there. Ciaran Byrne, my perfect swim partner. I wished Liam, Gabor, Rob or my Channel sister Jen, any or all of the Magnificent Seven were there. All would laugh at me. I would feel better for it. I wished Dee was on the boat, even if she would be puking over the side, and I was glad she wasn’t, because some part of me needs her to see me as some kind of something else and that’s easier done when you not seeing it. Never see sausages being made.
Something in thinking about marathon swimming, in trying to explain, something in my own experiences, shakes me out of time and into Time. I think again of Larkin and remember that “a serious house on serious earth it is”, and wonder about compulsion and destiny, in the blent air of the open ocean. The sensations and thoughts and experiences, when filtered through “normal” perception, becomes distorted. The clarity is lost, it’s like a fever dream. And yet during the event, there is no clarity either, because the outcome is unknown. Any clarity, such as it is, is only there briefly. Maybe when you hear the magic words “last feed” or maybe only just on the moments when you are closing on the shore and you know you will reach out and touch it and be done. In many ways trying to describe marathon swimming is like someone trying to describe a psychedelic event to someone entirely abstinent such as myself. Not only do we have no shared language, we haven’t even formulated a language. It’s part of the reason we can never answer to your satisfaction the other boring question; “why?” and must fall back on tropes and clichés, which we often do not believe. So we give you answers (“because it’s there“), that we know are necessary to satisfy your need.
Don’t ask us why. If you need to ask, you can’t understand the answer.
In the last hour and half, I did two things based on experience.
1. Somewhere around the fourth hour, I called for the emergency cold coffee I’d put in a small 500 ml plastic bottle before we left. I hadn’t drunk any caffeine in a week. I hadn’t had coffee in a month. “Maximum ergogenic effect” is a phrase I’ve occasionally used here.
2. I made the decision that sometimes arises in marathon swimming: Stop…or keep going. It’s that point in a swim I wrote about in Finbarr Heddermans’s North Channel report. It’s akin what I wrote in Paraic Casey’s eulogy. Channel swimming is not about swimming. I really thought about stopping. It seemed like something I’d regret. That the immediate cessation of feeling weak and awful would be supplanted by a much longer duration sense of failure. So regardless of my weakness, I would not stop. They could pull me if necessary. But I would not stop myself.
The water calmed as we closed into the last inshore kilometre. I never did pick up any former speed. Anthony had gotten cold as he slowed to wait for me. We eventually finished, both climbing onto rocks at Punta Cires as the pilot waved us away. Both of us seem to share a familiarity with how water moves over reefs and a consequent knowledge that we know what we are doing in the place most swimmers avoid. I felt only relieved to have finished, and wondered how I had made such a hames,as we say in Ireland, of such a swim.
The next day I itemised the potential causes to try to figure it out.
- The day was rough
- I didn’t prepare or train either enough or correctly
- I was no match to the capability of my Gibraltar Strait swim partner
- Everything was fine and this is just humble-bragging
- Mental baggage added drag to me
- Too long since my last marathon swim
- Changes to my feed content and/or schedule
1. The day was difficult, though you wouldn’t think so from the images, as is often the case. The Sun was shining, the day was warm and looked pleasant, and the boat crew didn’t have a terrible time. The roughness was less about the wind strength or wave height than direction. Anthony, who swam fine, was also tired afterwards. I’ve swum in a lot of rough water. Most of it by myself. I know rough water, since my coast is predominantly onshore. The direction did expose a stroke weakness (my right hand side) that has arisen for me and of which I didn’t know the cause. I had thought about getting back to visit Eilis, my EC coach, in the two months before the swim, but with a short time frame I didn’t want to let a stroke worry get too deep in my head. That made it tough but does not explain the problem. There was some contribution overall, but I don’t believe it was the cause. However, I did revisit Eilis a few weeks after the swim, and found indeed, that my stroke had significantly changed since she’d last seen me. I’m working on a complete rebuild of my stroke. Once again. It’s hard, but I feel good about it.
2. I started training properly on the second day of January, well before I knew I would be swimming Gibraltar. I swam about 30k per week excluding two weeks the pool was closed. I swam a few 10 to 12k pool swims on the weekends, and one 15k swim three weekends beforehand. I’d trained enough for the distance and was even very content with how I’d planned the training and the quality of said training. I logged 395k in just over three months. That’s the limit of what I can now swim in a week due to the changes in the local pool timetable. Taper wasn’t good, but the training was done by then anyway
3. Anthony and I were well matched in tolerance for rough water, and swim speed in the first half. The fact we were mismatched in the second half was a consequence, not a cause. And as a bonus I rarely meet someone who has the same degree of comfort with reefs in waves as Anthony and I share. He would be fantastic on a Sandycove lap on a lumpy day.
4. Everything was not fine. I hated most of the swim, because of how I was feeling. I know what feeling like crap during a swim feels like, and how it is possible to swim out of it. I know how to “arrange my head” and to keep swimming. It’s not a humble-brag.
5. Mental baggage was something in my head for weeks. It’s difficult to discuss without it coming out wrong. I kept wondering if this was the swim where I’d fail. Every swim I’ve ever set my mind on, those long pool swims, a bunch of swims by myself, and the few big swims, have all been completed. I’m not an Ocean Seven swimmer. I don’t have the necessary ambition, money or time. I know many people with a lot more swims than I’ve done. I have no illusions about my modest record. But I kept asking myself, “is this the swim that I won’t make?”. Part of me was feeling that if that happened it would be a relief.
But this doesn’t explain it fully. One question about endurance swimming is about mental resilience or preparation. I’m interested to hear how other’s do it, because my way is at odds with everything logical or you’d ever heard. With me, before most swims I’ve given myself permission to fail. I’ve never mentioned that. I do the opposite of what everyone thinks I do. These are just swims. There have been one exception to that, and it was not Gibraltar. It’s why my swim friends always think I’m attempting gamesmanship before a swim, where I tell them how crap I’m feeling, or what’s gone wrong in training etc. I don’t know why, but it’s how my mind operates. Make of it what you will. It’s messy and complicated and makes no sense, and it works for me, even if I can’t explain it.
6. I am getting older. I mostly feel that in having less excess energy to always be doing stuff, going from one thing to another. In putting on a little more weight than I’ve ever had, in taking longer in swims to warm up and get into my rhythm, rather my previous go out hard from the gun approach. In thinking more about illness, and conversely in finally realising what life is all about. None are related to this swim and did not hold me back. I am still like child when I am around the coast and water. That I haven’t lost, though I may mask it better.
7. This question, about duration since last my marathon swim was asked by Anthony. It’s a good point. But this is why I do long pool swims in the winter. Why my 15k session three weeks previously started with an unbroken 5k. Because it’s hard, and I train myself to recognise myself and my reactions, responses and feelings, physiological and psychological. By my estimate I have done 50+ swims in excess of 10k.
8. I now firmly believe that changes to my feeds is the answer. But I discounted this initially. Eventually I fell back on my favourite interrogative/engineer’s tool: Ceteribus paribus, Occam’s Razor. The tool we should teach everyone:
All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the best.
For four years I’ve been doing my long pool swims fasted. I’ve learned to recognise and swim through my own timings and reactions to ketosis. For Gibraltar I decided to use Generation UCan as my feed instead of malto-dextrin. The spring coldness of the water here means long multi-hour open water test swims weren’t possible so I tried it for my last few long pool swims. Though I haven’t joined the growing Low Carb High Fat cult in marathon swimming, much of the science makes sense to me (and some if it isn’t science).
I know I’ve always had difficulties with rocket fuel, aka malto-dextrin (whatever the brand). I thought I’d done enough testing of UCan in the pool. I thought I would be okay with super starch. I was wrong. The weakness I encountered happened at the time I’d expect glycogen depletion to occur in open water for me. Unfortunately UCan did not provide the glycogen I needed nor provide its much vaunted promise of unlocking adipose tissue for ATP renewal. The evidence of the swim is that I even utterly depleted, it wasn’t my head. Lack of carbohydrates do affect cognition, but it may have contributed to a lack of clarity, but it didn’t affect my decision to keep going. I simply did not have the energy to swim. Nor did I subsequently swim into ketosis, which I have done in the pool frequently. The energy demands of a rough day following someone you don’t want to let down, are more than swimming in a pool by yourself.
I completely ran out of energy. My mistake was the classic marathon swimming mistake, the thing I’ve always known not to do, always tried not to do, part of the reason I started this site now over seven years ago. Learn, and pass it on. I’m sorry this lesson isn’t new.
Never do anything new in a swim that you haven’t done in training.
My tank was empty and I was swimming on hope and experience and only briefly and slightly on coffee (whose ergogenic effect is only to block pain and fatigue, but does not provide energy). You can put the best lubricant in an engine, but it doesn’t matter if there is no fuel.
Anthony and I were talking our last night in Tarifa, the Levante wind out the Med having risen to a howl, and I discovered that Anthony, like me, likes to ruminate on the meaning and lessons of this stupid sport, and even more so, like to talk about it. The “own your mistakes” title above is his. He has learned and understood more than I have.
Of my two decisions, to take coffee and to keep swimming until pulled, I am unsure which helped more, but I know which was more important.
My Gibraltar swim was rubbish. I was rubbish. But I will take that decision away and store it in place of a chart or a location on a list of swims that some like to keep. I came back with new friends.
I will make of it an implement and maybe a weapon. I will put away it with other moments, other tools and I will polish it over the years. And though I may never use or need it again, it will have a place in my armoury.
And now, after figuring this out, I’ve swum Gibraltar. And even if it was a short swim, I made a hames of it …well…
Coda: I’m going to give the last word to Santiago for a different perspective on Gibraltar and ACNEG and since he did our organising…
“I think for ACNEG and novice marathon swimmers, the fact that Gib is a relatively short swim in warm water is a plus. ACNEG could position the swim as the best starting point for the Oceans 7 given the distance and water temp. Also, I think Gib is the least expensive swim of all the Ocean’s 7 taking into account all costs, not just price per Km. Looking at it this way, I think what you found fault with is real a strength to be exploited by ACNEG and by novice/out of shape marathon swimmers alike.