Courtesy of Ned Denison, English Channel.

Marathon swimming gets a little bit easier each year: GPS navigation, better carbohydrate/electrolyte knowledge and products, more inexpensive airfares, better communications, more organizers and events globally, more coaching, ten of thousands who have already completed their swims, better body understanding, and the explosion of information at the swimmer’s fingertips via blogs, books, articles, email, Skype, etc.

The complaint now is that the most popular swims like the English Channel need to be booked 2+ years in advance. Even this, however makes it a little bit easier for the aspiring marathon swimmer.

Denison explains, “I booked my first marathon, the English Channel, 8 months in advance. Yes, I had done the 6-hour qualification swim – but that swim in calm seas, near land didn’t prepared me for the real thing. I failed my first attempt – perhaps related to drinking just 1.1 liters in the 8 hours – and me and my crew not knowing it was going to be a problem – because I simply wasn’t ready in hundreds of ways.

I went back and completed it 60 days later[ it was easy to get the last slot of the year on September 11th, but I still didn’t know what I was doing.”

Denison, who has completed nearly 50 marathon swims gets frequent calls nearly 15 years later from aspiring marathon swimmers, explains, “Some proudly announce that they booked a slot last night for next year and will open the English Channel season in early June on a spring tide. They are shocked, disappointed and angry when I start to ask a few questions … perhaps a subtle way of explaining a few home truths.

* Do you realize the temperature difference between early June and late August?

* Will your hand-picked crew of 3 have the experience of guiding you thru 4 of 5 previous marathons and experience of the English Channel?

* Do you know how many grams of carbo powder you can take in 6 hours without feeling bloated and start throwing up?
* Do you know how many grams of carbo powder you need to in 6+ hours to feel well fuelled?
* Do you have previous experience of fighting through the physical issues of cramps, dead arm and joint pain?
* Have you fought back from throwing up to complete a marathon?
* Have you swum from warm sun into the possibly soul-destroying cold darkness knowing that you have at least 5 more hours to go?
* Will you have done enough training to be physically and mentally ready when you start?
* Do you realize that the swim is often described a 10% physical and 90% emotional/mental?

I believe that the one critical factor missing from many aspiring marathoners is ‘big swim memory’.

This memory gets built up over several years. Ideally the swimmer progresses 5 km, 7 km, 10 km, 15 km, 20 km, 25 km and 30 km long before they start an English Channel swim. They learn about the training they need.

Some need paddles and fast interval training, but I gave up swim paddles over 10 years ago and left behind years of elbow, shoulder and neck pains.

The crew often plays a critical role in a swim. They are the ones who adjust feeds after the swimmer throws up and they are the ones stopping the swimmer when the stroke rate drops from 65 to 50: at first to advise and warn and then possibly later to save their life be early spotting of hypothermia.

Big swim memory is also a major advantage during the low points in a big swim. The swimmers remember a worst time before and how they emotionally fought out to a better place and completed the swim.

Enjoy the multi-year journey. Build up with different, more difficult marathons in cold, warm, fresh and saltwater. Bond with a crew who know and love you. Jointly plan the next and next adventures and if you do swim the English Channel realize that there is still a big world out there with hundreds of other marathons to keep you amused well into your 60s and beyond.”

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