“Marathon” swimming – some thoughts about the use of the term

“Marathon” swimming – some thoughts about the use of the term

What is a marathon?

“Marathon” is a running term. It means a long-distance race with an official distance of 42.195 km. The name originated from a legend of Philippides that he ran from Marathon to Athens non-stop to announce the victory that the Persians had been defeated, then collapsed and died. The modern distance, about 40 km, was approximately the distance of that route from Marathon to Athens, and settled at 42.195 km using the length of the 1908 Olympics race.

As running a marathon is an endurance feat which requires significant preparation, the term “marathon” is then associated, figuratively, with activities which require extended sustained effort. So, if we replace running with swimming, then we can come up the term “marathon swimming”. There is a marathon swimming race in the Olympics since 2008, which the distance is 10 km. The expected time to finish it is just below 2 hours, similar to running a marathon. Therefore, to outsiders, the term “marathon swimming” actually means “a long-distance swimming race with an official distance of 10 km”.

My initial thinking of what marathon swimming is

Starting from late 2018, as I decided to build up my swimming and become a marathon swimmer, similar to my friends who love running and build themselves to run a marathon, I started to look at resources on the web. Because I both swim and run, and because open water swimming is a component in triathlon and so different from pool swimming that the whole market is filled with the resources to help triathletes conquer the open water swimming segment of the triathlon, I joined a triathlon club, trained in it, and lurked on various triathlon forums. The distinguishing features of a triathlon swim segment, as opposed to pool swimming, include the following, which are the training focus of triathletes in their open water sessions:

  • Cold and dark water with no lane lines: Swimming pools for competition are confined to a small temperature range, which is 25 – 28°C. However, most open water in the world are much colder than that, for example, the water temperature in the UK rarely exceeds 18°C in the summer, so unless you race in the tropics, a wetsuit is considered standard equipment in modern triathlons (more about wetsuits below). Also, there are no lane lines in open water, and in most cases you can’t even see anything under you, so you have to constantly look at the target you need to go. If you get the sighting poor, constantly zigzagging, you may waste even 10% of your swimming distance!
  • Mass-start: Triathlon races are started like running races, where a large group of competitors start at the same time at the start line. Imagine hundreds or even more than a thousand of competitors swim together in a small space. This is the famous “washing machine”. The process can be violent as well that a TV commercial even made fun of it. This, combined with the pressure of a wetsuit in cold and dark water, can cause inexperienced triathletes to freak out sometimes to the extent of giving up the race.
  • Drafting: Staying on one’s feet can save you effort because of the current generated by the one before you. If you manage to hang on someone slightly faster than you, you may well get a PB in your swim split, faster than your pool speed!

Swim courses for triathlons are commonly defined by placing buoys out of the water, where competitors swim around them according to a defined sequence (e.g. anticlockwise, 2 loops).

The longest mainstream triathlon distance is called the iron distance, which is 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike, and 42.195 km marathon run, which the swim is severely underportioned and nowhere marathon distance! Therefore, there is a race called Isoman Triathlon which aims to remove the imbalance between the swim and the bike segment, making the swim 11.2 km (TRIPLE the iron distance!), the bike 98 km (just above half the iron distance), and retaining the 42.195 km marathon run, such that good swimmers won’t be disadvantaged.

Then we come to pure open water swimming races, e.g. the Olympic marathon swimming, or the FINA 5 km, 10 km and 25 km open water series. Actually they are the same of the swim leg of triathlons, with a difference that feed stations are placed on the course because the race is long enough to necessitate feeding for 10 km or above races (and in the above-mentioned Isoman race as well). There are mass start, sighting, drafting, and from 2017, wetsuits as well! Similar to triathlons, wetsuit use is also mandated by water temperature. Therefore, I believed that, marathon swimming is the same as triathlon swimming as long as the distance is long enough.

The discrepancy between my view and the community

Not long afterwards, I found out the Marathon Swimmers Federation. There are so many useful resources and advice for me to train for marathon swimming (10 km or above), which are much more useful then the materials for triathletes as they seldom cover the topics specific to endurance swimming (like feeding, or training methodology), as the longest mainstream distance is only 3.8 km. Especially this thread is a must-read for anyone, especially I learnt that I would plan a long swim of 2/3 the race distance, and combined from elsewhere I read to suggest to do a back-to-back (i.e. the distance split into 2 consecutive days), I would plan to build up to 2/3 + 1/2 of the race distance in the peak of my training.

I finally became a marathon swimmer. However, as I read more and more threads in the forum, and also the rules of marathon swimming, I realised that what I thought of marathon swimming might not be what the swimming community thought! This can be shown in a forum thread, New FINA rules on wetsuits, which was enacted in 2017, introducing wetsuits into the field of professional open water swimming which was not allowed before, along with a 31°C. The whole thread basically shamed FINA using dirty words like “what wetsuit company is funneling money into FINA”, “Ridiculous nonsense. What a bunch of wimps.”, “FINA can’t get any more corrupt or stupid”, “Worse is that this will have a ripple effect”, “Just let them swim a 10K in a pool for Christ’s sake.”, “this is insane”, “FINA sucks”, “FINA For Individuals Not Acclimated”.

There are few quotes from the thread which differs from my initial expectation about marathon swimming which I want to explain more.

swimmer25k said:

Ridiculous nonsense. What a bunch of wimps. Let’s strip it down even more. Peloton-style pack swimming on a rowing course over a 10K (25K is the true international marathon distance) has always been somewhat lame to me IMO.

Pack swimming over loop course, with mass start and drafting, i.e. the description in the above section, is totally what I expected a marathon swimming race is – the same as triathlon swim segment. The following sentence is not I want to experience

What makes open water marathon swimming (versus closed course BS) so great are the intangibles like: weather, temperature, waves, getting a manowar wrapped around your head, and about how tough you can be. I was a nobody in the pool, but did pretty good because I was more willing to be cold, miserable, and fight the pain more than most over an 8-hour swim.

For me, I absolutely don’t want any of these things go out of my comfort zone! I am definitely not tough, I may appear tough outside only because I have a goal which I am working on, but I’m certainly not tough. For example, I currently don’t consider any marathon swims above 24°C and I don’t want to train for it. I’m not willing to be hot, miserable and fight the pain over a 5-hour swim. I tried to do a race which was going to be tough last year (a strong current against us in a spring tide on a hot sunny day) and, although I completed it, it turned out to be a struggle of nearly 2 and a half hour for a 5 km and I ended up the last place, on the edge of being cut off and I was very unpleasant and I thought that I shouldn’t signed up for it at the first place!

IronMike said:

There are different types of marathon swims. There are the organized, iconic (long) marathon swims (20 Bridges, Ederle, Catalina, Santa Barbara, StS, just to name some American ones) that all follow traditional rules. There are the solo swims that marathon swimmers set up themselves that follow EC rules.

Then there are the in-betweens. That’s my concern. These in-between events, the 5 to 10 milers, even some of the shorter ones (5K), these are the ones that I really wish didn’t require wetsuits. These are the swims that our future marathon swimmers (and MSF members?) will do that’ll perhaps get them hooked on this great sport. My fear, then, is that this population, however small it might start out to be, will come to more serious events with the idea that wetsuits and marathon swims are normal. Enough weight behind them and who knows how it’ll impact our favorite swims.

In my opinion, placing Catalina and 20 Bridges together is already a nonsense – Catalina isn’t a race but 20 Bridges is! A race has multiple people doing it together at the same time, and has a result and ranking list. This distinguish races from non-races such as the English Channel, although the rules are the same. And as the definition of a marathon, in the running world, is a “race”, therefore I didn’t think of anything like the English Channel as marathon swimming!!!!! I normally use the term “channel swimming” for these kind of solo swims conducted according the traditional channel swimming rules, but it may not be appropriate because it can also be done as a lake crossing, circumnavigation, or other point-to-point swims, etc. so the term “ultra swimming” may be more appropriate. Moreover, those channel swims do not have the characteristics of a triathlon swims (except the cold dark water), because there is no mass start (it is done solo), no drafting, and no sighting (the course is led by the pilot) so they are fundamentally different from races like the Olympic 10 km.

However, look at the following excerpt from the rules of marathon swimming by MSF:

Marathon Swim

A nonstop open-water swim, undertaken according to standardized rules, and requiring at least several hours of sustained effort to complete. Ten kilometers without significant assistance from currents is the minimum distance considered to be a marathon swim.

It does not mention the word “race” at all! Therefore the traditional channel swims such as the English Channel, Catalina, etc., falls into the definition. So this term is taken, by the community, to mean the sport that I prefer to use the term “channel swimming” (or “ultra swimming”) for it.

In contrast, here is an excerpt from the FINA open water swimming rules, which specifically mention the word “competition”:

OWS 1.1.1 MARATHON SWIMMING shall be defined as any 10km event in open
water competitions.

This is exactly the thing I thought at the beginning when I heard the term “marathon swimming”.

Until 2016, there were no major differences between the above definitions, with the MSF definition covering non-races in addition to races as well, and races at that time were done with only traditional swimsuits.

When wetsuits come to the party

Triathlons started to gain popularity in the 1970s and 1980s but the problem of cold water, especially in the northern countries, was severely limiting the development of the sport. At that time the usual answer was acclimatization, i.e. what channel swimmers do to prepare for their crossing. Wetsuits for triathlons started to appear in the 1980s for the purpose of keeping warm and prevent hypothermia. By 1987, since people found out there was a side effect that wetsuit is a speed enhancer, people started to wear it every race even when it was not that cold, and manufacturers competed to design wetsuits which bring the most speed enhancement as commercial interest. Now wetsuits are considered standard equipment in triathlon, and the use of wetsuits is regulated as a safety concern, depending on the temperature.

However, wetsuit didn’t enter the professional swimming world until 2017, when FINA enacted the regulation that, in open water races, wetsuits are mandatory between 16 – 18°C and optional between 18 – 20°C (races are not held below 16°C). Note that, unlike ITU which sanctions both professional and amateur (age-group) races, FINA’s only business is pro racing which does not, in any way, affects amateur athletes, unless the national swimming association also regulates amateur races (like Australia) and decides to follow suit in the amateur classes as well, it has no effect on amateur athletes. This marks the beginning when the FINA definition and MSF definition of “marathon swimming” diverge.

Channel swimmers think that the rule is “insane”, forcing people to wear neoprene under 18°C (practically, under 20°C because of the “assistance”), as the channel is generally about 15 – 18°C in the swimming season, which thousands of people have crossed it without assistance.

Objectively, the introduction of wetsuits into pro racing has changed the playing field completely – the need for acclimation is completely taken out of the equation, making cold water racing comparable to warm water racing, which is frowned upon by those ultra swimmers using traditional channel rules.

However, coming from a triathlon community, right at the beginning I already thought that a wetsuit is a standard piece of equipment in open water swimming and the acclimation was not considered an integral part of the sport (though it is considered an integral part of channel swimming)! and the FINA rule change has brought marathon swimming closer to triathlon swimming.

I personally don’t use a wetsuit when swimming, but it is only my personal preference because I like swimming skin in “cold” water as I’m heat adverse. I don’t feel cold when swimming in 19°C for 5 hours, but I have seen someone pulled out due to hypothermia in a triathlon club training in the past in the same temperature. Anything over 24°C will be too warm for me to swim for long distance at race speed. I also like swimming in rough water as well but it is also a personal preference because calm water is boring. It seems that, on the surface, I may have those traits of ultra-swimmers but in fact I am not. The “cold” and the rough water are for fun and enjoyment, and I like to race as well. I can’t get through the pain and suffering those ultra-swimmers experience, unless I’m in a race and there is still someone behind me. Despite the fact that I don’t use a wetsuit, I don’t blame FINA for introducing wetsuits into open water swimming because, nowadays, wetsuit swimming is the norm and wetsuits really help to popularise the sport of open water swimming.

The future of the term “marathon swimming”

Now FINA has made “marathon swimming” wetsuit legal. Unless the decision is reversed, this will eventually make the way into the Olympics (although not in 2020 because the water temperature in Tokyo will be too hot). By that time, images of Olympians in their wetsuit will be broadcast worldwide, appear on newspaper and magazines. Once that happened, it will be past the point of no return. It will be hard for the MSF guys to explain what marathon swimming is and the adherence to the traditional channel rules. Swimmers raced 10 km on a looped course in a wetsuit will start calling themselves marathon swimmers. The image of a marathon swimmer on a newspaper will be an image with neoprene.

At that time, “marathon swimming” and ultra swimming (channel swimming) will be revolved into two different sports, the former involves pack swimming on a looped course (in most races) with a mass start, like a triathlon swim leg, where people compete for speed, and the latter will rigorously stick to the channel swimming rules, where people take the lake / channel / whatever water they swim in as the challenge, although there will be some crossover among the two, i.e. the races held strictly according to the traditional rules with a support boat guiding the course, like 20 Bridges, or Rottnest Channel Swim.

I now call myself a marathon swimmer, and this won’t change because the “marathon swimming” races (e.g. Cold Half) I have done is in the common subset of both definition so I am safe from the arguing. However, this is only the result of my personal preference choosing to go skins in Cold Half due to the expected temperature (19°C), and this can’t be taken for granted. I will continue swimming, but I actually enjoy the triathlon-style pack racing on a looped course more than the solo swims using channel rules. I may do some of the big name ultra swims like the English Channel in the future, but they will not be my main focus.

The future of the term “marathon swimming” is still uncertain, until the day either an Olympic marathon swimming race is done with a wetsuit and gains media coverage, or the FINA rule change is reversed.

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