Marathon swimming: Surviving open water

There’s something alluring about open water swimming.

Granted it was, and continues to be, the hardest part of triathlon for me. It’s scary. It’s hard. It’s lonely. And yet there are times out in the open water when swimming is peaceful, free and easy — a sensation that doesn’t come often in the pool. There’s something, dare I say, mystical about open water swimming and something intriguing about marathon swimming.

Marathon swimming is its own unique sport with its own set of rules. Official crossings of bodies of water (think English Channel or the Great Lakes) have associations with specific regulations to be an “official” crossings but mostly all of them involve no wetsuits and no direct contact with your support crew. At the heart of the sport is the swimmer and the water — the rest are just details.

For Vicki Keith, open water swimming is something she’s always preferred. The Canadian marathon swimmer has an impressive resume  including becoming the first person in 1988 to swim all five Great Lakes and was the first person to complete a double crossing of Lake Ontario. The 49-year old came out of retirement in 2005 to cross Lake Ontario using the butterfly. Her 80.2 kilometer swim of Lake Ontario set the world record (male or female) for the greatest distance using that stroke — a feat that took her 63 hours and 40 minutes to complete.

Now a coach in Kingston, Ontario she founded the Y Knot Abilities Program to help give physically disabled children a chance to learn and compete in athletics.

This week’s Q &A:

What are your most memorable marathon swims?

Vicki: The swims themselves always have challenges in them and I judge my swims by the obstacles I had to overcome. My favorite moment in a swim is often sunrise. That means you’re swimming into the second day in the open water, you made it through the night and you know that warmth is coming and there’s a beauty to the day.

If I think of a marathon swim that I would consider a great achievement, it would be five years ago when I swam 50 miles of butterfly across Lake Ontario. That as memorable partly because I’m older now and we think as you get older you can’t do things and that’s not true. You can do anything you choose. It was 63 hours and 40 minutes and the longest open water swim and the challenge was to not let my brain take control. My brain was saying, ‘there’s no way’ but I drew on the strength of the people around me  and I knew I could continue and be able to keep pushing through the exhaustion to achieve what I wanted.

How do you handle the mental aspect of marathon swimming, of the hours of being alone with your thoughts?

Vicki: When you want to achieve a goal, it’s important to break it into smaller steps. For marathon swimming, I sometimes break it down to the two-hour feeding segments, or whenever the boat crews switch off. There are times when I break it down to one stroke at a time, where I’m focused on pulling my arm through the water once. I can go hours on end, working one stroke at a time, until enough time has passed and my brain is functioning again.

Sometimes you need something different to work for. One of the things I’ve done is that I had a schedule of young people I was swimming every half four. At points when I felt my weakest, when I thought there was no way I could take another stroke, I would think about the young person I was swimming for that half hour. I’d think, ‘There’s no way I’d be able to give up on Abby. She would be so upset with me.” And for that half hour it would be just enough to keep me going.

How do you handle nutrition on marathon swims?

Vicki: Marathon swimming and triathlons are very different in this regard. In marathon swimming hydration is most important. There have been times I haven’t had enough water and I could feel my muscles cramping up. You have a tendency to get cold during marathon swims, so you drink chocolate milk, chicken noodle soup, mushroom soup. Just recently I started using the electrolyte jelly beans and I find they work better than the energy bars because they digest quickly. The energy bars just sit in your stomach forever. They’re great for triathlon over a shorter period of time, but you can’t eat an energy bar every two hours for three days. Really, you find what you normally eat and use what will settle your stomach best.

What’s your advice for open water swimming?

Vicki: You just have to feel the waves. Don’t fight against it, just swim with it. If the waves are coming at your side, that’s the hardest because you’ll be rolling quite a bit. When you’re swimming with the waves, keep your kick consistent, keep your body up high. When you’re directly into the waves, keep your head down and watch where you breath — that’s most likely where you’ll get a mouthful of water.

For Vicki’s tips for beginners in open water, see my post on


~ by amymoritz on July 21, 2010.

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