Monday, 24 February 2014

What is marathon swimming?

Following a discussion on the Marathon Swimmers Forum about how to define marathon swimming, I thought I'd post this extract from the introductory chapter of my book as my (rather long-winded) attempt to develop a contextualised working definition for those unfamiliar with the sport. 

It's a work in progress - all comments and suggestions gratefully received. 

Swimming a long way slowly
On 25 August, 1875, 27 year old merchant naval captain, Matthew Webb, completed the first successful solo crossing of the English Channel, swimming from England to France in 21 hours and 45 minutes. Less than two weeks after his first, unsuccessful attempt, Webb’s successful crossing, which he described in his book, The Art of Swimming, as “the event of my life” (Webb, 1999 [1876]: 22), rocketed him to fame. Heralded as front-page news, mobbed by crowds, showered with donations, and later, immortalized in A.E. Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad, as well as on matchboxes, street names, picture books and public statuary (Watson, 2000), Webb’s achievement gave him heroic status. The swim rendered him a national icon of triumphant masculinity, rebuffing concerns of the era about the enfeeblement of the middle-classes and the future of the empire (Watson, 2000: Ch. 7, see also, Wiltse, 2007: Ch.2). At a celebratory dinner in Dover, he was announced in the introductory address as the man who “had proved for one thing that the physical condition of Englishmen had not degenerated” (Watson, 2000: 158).

51 years later, on 6 August, 1926, 20 year old American competitive swimmer and Olympian Gertrude Ederle, following an unsuccessful attempt in 1925, successfully swam from France to England in a record-breaking time of 14 hours and 39 minutes. Only the 6th person ever to swim the Channel, her record time was broken only three weeks later by German baker, Ernst Vierkoetter, who completed the swim in 12 hours and 42 minutes, but although several women completed crossings in the years after Ederle’s swim, her women’s record stood until 1950, when it fell to fellow American, Florence Chadwick. Like Webb, there was a nationalistic fervor to the public celebrations on Ederle's return to the US, including a ticker tape parade in New York, not least in amazement that a woman could achieve such a feat, although this was tempered slightly by the need to understate her German heritage in a nation still healing from World War I (Mortimer, 2008, Stout, 2009, Bier, 2011).

Both Webb and Ederle are touchstones for contemporary marathon swimming, and the English Channel remains metonymic of the wider sport. But it is also a sport about which very little is known outside of its own social world, except perhaps for the familiar images of swimmers slathering on layers of grease (a largely defunct practice) or via coverage of celebrity swims such as the successful 2006 English Channel swim by UK comedian, David Walliams - the centerpiece for the annual fundraising extravaganza, Sport Relief. However, any attempt to define marathon swimming is to venture into sticky territory, as discussed in the next chapter. So in these early stages of the book, I offer only the lightest touch definition, focusing on how I am using ‘marathon swimming’ in the framing of the book and its scope.

To summarise crudely, marathon swimming is the practice of swimming a long way slowly.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 10km marathon swim made its debut, broadly mirroring the running marathon in terms of elite completion times and providing an exciting spectacle with swimmers constantly in sight on the multi-lap, rowing lake course, accompanied by thrilling close-up media coverage. While these swims are impressive and not a little intimidating at the elite level for their ferocious pace, these are not the concern of this book. Instead, my interest here is on what might be described as the ultra domain of open water swimming – those swims that can take 10, and even 20+ hours to complete, traversing or circumnavigating predominantly naturally occurring stretches of water including channels, straits, lakes or islands (however marked by human intervention). The iconic marathon swim – the English Channel – provides a useful benchmark for the kind of swimming I am focusing on. It is 21 miles across at its narrowest point, with water temperatures of approximately 15-18°C (59-64°F) during the swimming season (usually late June – September). Individual swimmers are accompanied throughout by a dedicated support boat that navigates the swim, liaises with other water users, provides safety cover and serves as a platform from which the swimmer’s support crew can provide moral support, sustenance and equipment changes (e.g. fresh goggles or lights for night swimming).

In spite of its iconic status, the English Channel is just one among many in the proliferating roster of global marathon swims that are stored up on swimmers’ ‘bucket lists’ for future adventures, all presenting their own particular challenges in terms of distance, conditions, temperature and wildlife. Therefore, rather than arbitrarily demarcating a minimum distance or time, I’m defining marathon swimming as relating to swims on a sufficient scale of distance and/or time for that to be the only thing that you do that day; in many cases, literally. It is a kind of swimming that requires the capacity to swim at a steady, continuous pace for hours without meaningful rest; it is a distinct mode of being in the water that is fundamentally different from that of the 100m pool swimmer, or indeed, the 10km elite racer. However fast or slow that steady pace is, it is this steadiness that I refer to when I talk of swimming a long way slowly.

But this alone does not suffice as a definition in terms of the specific focus of this book, although this carries me into much more sensitive definitional territory. As mentioned, what ‘counts’ as a legitimate marathon swim is a topic of considerable debate within the marathon swimming social world (and among intersecting and sub- worlds), particularly in relation to wetsuits and other forms of ‘assistance’. For the purposes of this book, I’m focusing primarily on what is commonly referred to as ‘Channel rules’ marathon swimming. These rules nod nostalgically, although somewhat arbitrarily, to the conditions under which Ederle and Webb swam and are widely held within the marathon swimming community as the gold standard against which all swims can be measured[i]. The contemporary iteration of Channel rules swimming dictates that swimmers can wear only a regular swimming costume (non-buoyant, non-insulating), single cap and goggles and must swim continuously from shore to shore without purposefully touching either the accompanying boat or another person (for example, for support or assistance with propulsion) throughout. With some contextually specific adaptations[ii], ‘Channel rules’ have been widely adopted globally, and these demarcate the style of swimming primarily addressed in the book, although always in relation to other modes of swimming and the boundary disputes between them.

The final defining feature of marathon swimming for the purposes of this book is its primary location within the amateur domain. A very small number of elite swimmers from the professional open water racing circuit venture into ultra-distance solo marathon swimming from time to time, generally doing so in order to make an attempt at a record. Australian professional swimmer, Trent Grimsey, who broke the English Channel solo record in 2012 in an eye-wateringly fast 6.55, exemplifies this. These swimmers are highly respected within the marathon swimming community and their swimming feats – unimaginable for a plodding swimmer such as myself – are part of the lore of the sport. But my specific interest in this book is in the amateur swimmers for whom the sport is a form of “serious leisure” (Stebbins, 2007) and who make up the vast majority of its participants. For these individuals, bridging a range of capacities, paces and ambitions, swimming is not a source of income or a full-time occupation, but rather a passionately and often intensively pursued leisure activity that is balanced against a raft of other personal and professional commitments in an ongoing process of producing and maintaining the marathon swimming self.

When I refer to ‘marathon swimming’ throughout Immersion, then, this is how I am using the term: swimming a long way slowly under a particular set of traditionally-oriented rules as a committed amateur.

[i] This is, however, a contested point, and I have some reservations about these claims to primacy, as discussed in the next chapter. Nevertheless, Channel rules swimming defines the activities of all of the participants in this study (including my own) and as such is a useful demarcation for the concerns of the book.
[ii] The regulations for the Cook Straits swim in New Zealand allow for a 10 minute “shark break” following a close sighting, and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim allows swimmers to be taken from the water during a lightning storm (or other temporarily dangerous conditions) and then to continue the swim once the danger has passed – an occurrence that would signal the end of an English Channel swim. 


  1. I'm only a sentence in, but I'm pretty sure Matt Webb did that long swim (slowly) in 1875, not 1975. ;)

  2. Well spotted! I've corrected it in the text. I'm such a bad proof-reader...

  3. Lightning... not lightening

  4. that looked like a mistake, but in fact, it is a policy of mine to mis-spell lightning every time I use it.

  5. Oops, you did it again: misspell


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