My friend Jim Gourley wrote a book about the Ultraman Triathlon, a race that I’ve been fortunate to participate in 4 times. I last did the race in 2012 which is when he started interviewing and researching for the book. There are some really good insights, stories, and a look at the behind the scenes. And as a bonus, if you hate the papyrus font as much as I do, you will love the last chapter. Go buy it now!
After jumping into the book, I was reminded of how much I had to train to get to the start line, let alone finish. I wrote this blog post on my old site about swimming 6.2 miles, and revisited it recently. Swimming is not my favorite.
The Trials and Tribulations of Swimming 10k
First, lets just refer to it as a 6.2 mile swim. No one in the U.S. finds kilometers sexy.
Second, a bit of my swimming background. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 10. I took swimming lessons for 2 summers at a swimming school in CT. I was in classes with kids half my age. I hated it. I cried. I think I cried so much that they blacklisted me from that place. I couldn’t go back for more lessons if I wanted to.
I didn’t attempt to swim a lap again until 18 years later when someone convinced me to sign up for a triathlon. I struggled in the pool for a few months beforehand. That year I did 3 sprint triathlons and all were a disaster. I never put my face in the water. I got tired very quickly. I would often end up on my back doing the elementary backstroke and would get so disorientated I wouldn’t know what direction I was swimming in. The lifeguard kayakers would frequently ask me “Are you ok?” Yes, I wasn’t racing, I was just trying to survive.
If you told me then that I would be swimming 6.2 miles in less than 3 years, I would have laughed at you. But now I have swum that distance 6 times (3 times in races and 3 in training). But I still hate swimming. And no, I don’t wear a speedo.
I’m always asked “How do you train to swim that far?” More on this later, but I try and swim the full 6.2 miles in a pool about 3 weeks out from Ultraman. It usually takes 3.5 to 4 hours (shorts breaks included) and it is by far the toughest thing I have ever done mentally. I break it up into 30 minute sets. After 30 minutes, I stop for 1-2 mins for nutrition – usually water, half a bottle of Ensure (the 375 calorie bottle), and an occasional gel. I will also split up the sets by using a pull buoy and paddles. No speed work, no timing, no drills, just swim. I also find that using my h2oaudio waterproof headphone system for my iPod Shuffle helps to pass the time.
At the Ultraman, however, the swim is a totally different animal. As if just swimming 6.2 miles wasn’t hard enough. Here are a few other things to take into consideration:
- The start. 6.2 miles is far. This is a point-to-point swim. You can not see where the swim ends and there are no buoys to guide you. It’s a bit intimidating and can psyche you out. You must rely on your kayaker to guide you across the Pacific Ocean. Hopefully straight.
- The current. There is nothing you can do about Mother Nature, but I can tell you that there is a big difference in the difficulty of the swim at high tide vs. low tide. The last ½ mile is where the current drastically changes. I have seen a stick floating on the bottom moving faster than I was swimming.
- The depth. As someone who doesn’t get to swim in the ocean at all, I tend to feel dizzy from being able to see down 50 ft. to the ocean floor.
- Sharks. They live in the ocean too. This is self-explanatory.
- Jellyfish. I used to think sharks were the only things worth worrying about, but then I found out about the jellyfish. Box jellyfish are one of the most lethal animals on the planet. Past Ultraman competitors have been stung and hospitalized for days. Check out this short documentary on Diana Nyad where she talks about how a jellyfish ended her Cuba to Florida swim (if you don’t know who she is, you must be living in a cave). Fast forward to 10 minutes in. You will hear words like “we can’t see them” and “they are deadly” and “could be the end of your life” and “anaphylactic shock.” Yikes. Pretty serious stuff.
The biggest piece of advice? Don’t think about it. Easier said than done. But the truth is, when that starting gun goes off, your only job is to swim 6.2 miles and you can only control what is happening in the 3 feet in front of you.
I’m not thinking about jellyfish (yet), but I am thinking about that distance. What is the longest swim session you have put in? How do you get through it?