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Why marathon swimming is so unique and rewarding

This is an excerpt from Open Water Swimming by Steven Munatones.

Preparing for Marathon Swims

With over 70 percent of the world covered in water, and stunningly gorgeous lakes, seashores, channels, rivers, and islands dotting the earth, it is not surprising that people eventually took to marathon swimming. The catalyst of marathon swimming was when Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to successfully swim nonstop from England to France in 1875. His exploit dramatically enabled endurance athletes to think the impossible was within their reach.

At its most fundamental level, marathon swimming is a daring personal challenge in which swimmers pit themselves against the elements and experience a wide range of emotions that fluctuates between despair and relief. Marathon swimmers vividly remember their final stroke in the water after swimming for hours and hours on end. Their first step back on terra firma after struggling in relentlessly difficult conditions is the point when exhaustion turns to exhilaration. This love-hate relationship with the open water—strange as it may sound—creates the allure that draws endurance athletes to the waterways of the world.

The Marathon Swimmer

Marathon swimmers tend to be doggedly persistent people who are also successful in other aspects of their lives. They ply their trade far away from the media attention in arenas where there are usually no fans. They often achieve their greatest success on a barren shoreline where only their support crew can witness their victory. But their sense of accomplishment runs deep; their inner satisfaction is empowering and uplifting - and will remain with them throughout their lives.

Among the world's marathon swims, the most iconic and well-known waterway is the English Channel. Thousands of people have attempted the 21-mile (33.8K) swim since the first documented attempt in 1872. Yet the number of successful English Channel swimmers remains fewer than half of the number of people who have climbed Mount Everest since it was first scaled in 1953.

Of the 1,189 people who have crossed the English Channel through 2010, 33 percent have been women and 67 percent have been men, although the relative percentage of women who cross the English Channel has increased over time (41 percent during the 1990s).

The average one-way time is 13 hours and 31 minutes, and times range from the world record of 6 hours and 57 minutes to a patiently plodding 26 hours and 50 minutes.

The English Channel swimmers are a global mix, hailing from 63 countries. The average age of the successful channel swimmer is 31, but their ages range from 11 to 70 years, including 50 people who crossed it after their 50th birthday and are members of the Half Century Club. With a growing number of members in the Half Century Club around the world (25 in the Catalina Channel, 32 in the Strait of Gibraltar, 175 in the Rottnest Channel, and 51 in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim), age seems to be no impediment nowadays in the marathon swimming world.

Marathon swimming requires discipline of the highest order, demanding long hours spent training often alone and under harsh conditions. But it is also a sport where the concept of team is paramount due to the essential roles played by the escort pilot, coach and support crew and where camaraderie and collegiality exist in abundance.

Marathon swimmers experience nature in the most tactile way possible: enveloped in water, surrounded by marine life, and interacting with a dynamically changing environment in nothing but swimwear and goggles. It is no wonder that marathon swimmers across borders and cultures often form profound friendships; they share experiences that are often difficult to endure and difficult to explain.

Marathon swimmers experience nervousness before a swim and a sense of accomplishment afterward. They know the sting of a jellyfish and of cold water. They understand problems with leaking goggles, removing lanolin, and breathing boat exhaust. They appreciate the feeling of swimming powerfully in calm, clear water in daylight hours and of being uncomfortably disoriented in rough water at night.

The collegial atmosphere in the marathon swimming world is a function of these shared experiences. As the athletes come out of the water exhausted beyond comprehension, punished into submission by the elements, some barely able to stand and some nearly unable to talk, they share smiles, looks, nods, winks, hugs, and handshakes that speak volumes about their mutual respect for each other and their escort boat crews.

More Excerpts From Open Water Swimming



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