The Spirit of Marathon Swimming

evmoevmo SydneyAdmin
edited December 2013 in General Discussion
Certain events in the open water swimming world this year raised some interesting questions about how solo marathon swims are (or should be) conducted. Marathon swimming is a sport with long-standing traditions which, for the most part, are only written down and enforced at the local level. Beyond that, it is more like a code - a "spirit" - not explicitly defined, but still widely understood and respected among the sport's participants.

So... what is this Spirit of Marathon Swimming, anyway?

It's a serious question, put to all Forum members. What is marathon swimming about -- to you? All answers are welcome. If you belong to this Forum, you're qualified to answer.

I was recently reading through @Jamie's website for his upcoming Lake Michigan swim, and noticed a paragraph [link] that seems relevant to this discussion:

The sport of marathon swimming is one of the most pure tests of mind, body and spirit. It requires extreme physical and mental strength as the swimmer tackles obstacles in the foreign environment of water - some expected (but no less difficult), and many that are unforeseen. The athlete is alone for the majority of the swim, accompanied only by a few support people. It is usually a very private journey between the swimmer and his or her crew. It is rarely, if ever, a spectator sport. A key element in a swim of this magnitude, is having an "official observer" who is completely impartial and independent of the crew. Their role is to verify that the swimmer has legitimately completed the swim according to the pre-established set of rules. During the entire Great Lake Swim, there will be an independent observer documenting Jamie's journey.

So that's a good start. What say the rest of you?

Another relevant link: Letter and spirit of the law (Wikipedia)


  • loneswimmerloneswimmer IrelandCharter Member
    Further to our discussion on this and trying to distill the essentials, I was thinking about this today while swimming (short swim though).

    Afterwards I remembered Isaac Asimov who once asked (and answered): If you only had one sentence to pass on the most important scientific information to another civilization, what would the sentence comprise?

    So if you were trying along to pass the essential information about marathon swimming, with the minimum words, how would you do it?

    A minimum of two people, one swimming, wearing only no more than cap, goggles and basic swimsuit, while an trustworthy independent watcher observes. Neither seek extra assistance nor an advantage over those who have swum before. We maintain a simple unchanging approach to the How, so we can focus on the determining Where and When in pursuit of our own personal Why.

  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    edited December 2013
    The starting definition I'm using for the book is: "the leisure activity of swimming a long way slowly in open water according to tradition-oriented rules". I define "a long way" as any time / distance that means that swimming is pretty much the only thing you do that day, and use "slowly" to refer to a style of steady swimming that is distinct from sprinting, for example, rather than in reference to a specific pace.

    So for me, the spirit of the sport lies in the leisured luxury of being able to do nothing all day except swim.
  • JBirrrdJBirrrd MarylandSenior Member
    edited December 2013
    Open water truly was my path to recovery after a bad accident and has profoundly impacted my life. It is indeed the spirit of the sport that drew me in and keeps me here. I say open water and not marathon swimming b/c for me it has been a journey. I did not wade in that first time and complete a marathon swim. My progression has been from shorter wetsuit assisted swims to where I am now, to who knows what in the future.

    But the spirit of this sport, hmmm, where to begin? I’ll start with the community of marathon swimmers, so generous with their time, knowledge and support. It astounds me still that if I need something, all I have to do is reach out and I have access to such experienced and accomplished swimmers from around the world. Of course there is the beauty and wonder of being out there at one with nature, humbled at the fact I am only a tiny speck in the middle of this enormous body of water. There is the fear of being in cold, dirty water, not able to see farther than my outstretched hand. It is the determination of setting a goal that far exceeds what I have ever done in the past, the commitment to training and the anxiety of possible failure. It is the solitude of being a swimmer juxtaposed with the sense of belonging to an incredible group of athletes. It is that inevitable feeling of self doubt at the start of a long swim when I question why have I chosen this path when it would be far more comfortable to be a normal suburban mom home baking cookies, shopping and driving my kids to their own practices (ok, well I do that too.) It is the pain, grit and other general nastiness of getting through a long swim. It is the glorious moment of realization that I am in “my zone” and life is good out on the water. It is the feeling of exhaustion and accomplishment walking up on the shore. It is the intrinsic reward of knowing that indeed, I am not “normal, “ I am a marathon swimmer.
  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    Lots of great stuff here that rings true for my experience. I would add a handful of things:

    Marathon swimming is nearly the only activity in which I can go into my fish brain and let go of the cerebral pursuits that are part and parcel of my workday and personal life. Every time I do a long swim I feel as if I've done a year of therapy. I come out of the water a changed person.

    Marathon swimming is also humbling in driving home the impermanence of everything. Conditions change, the waters shift, the stroke shifts. My ability to handle changing conditions is a constant lesson for life out of the water.

    It is a discipline of continuous improvement, stroke tweaking, trial and error, and a reminder that, in and out of the water, we are works in progress.

    It is the immense luxury of silence and introspection in a world full of chatter and noise.

    It is the satisfaction of dreaming the impossible and bringing it to completion.

    It has entirely transformed my relationship with my body, shifting from the superficiality of looks to the depth of function and excellence. It has taught me what a million consciousness-raising meetings can't: that a body that swims for hours in cold water and accomplishes big feats is perfect as it is.

    My focus on training has been a lifesaving feature during times of insecurity, personal heartbreak, and distress. Any day that starts with a grueling practice is one in which I'm better able to weather what life throws in my path.

    And, it has been the means to do some good in the world via fundraising; a project about which many people, most of them unfamiliar with the sport, can muster enthusiasm and rally and open their hearts and wallets for good causes.
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    Contrary to @heart's experience, I find swimming long and slowly (thanks @KarenT) as an opportune time to think big thoughts. I practically wrote my entire thesis swimming laps. I've gone through parenting scenarios while swimming long. I've dreamed up entire short stories while swimming (now to work on remembering them when I'm done). Marathon swimming allows me to do this.

    And, I must admit, I get an extreme sense of pride when others find out I'm a marathon swimmer and ask me questions like "What's the longest you've swum?" Granted, the casual civilian has no idea my weak resume is nothing to be impressed by. ;)

    I must add that something I like about the spirit of marathon swimming is in the people that are marathon swimmers. Where else can you travel to a city, meet someone you've never met in real life, and go swim with them. I had the pleasure recently of meeting another marathoner from here and we had a wonderful time. Any other woman, if I had said "I'll pick you up in front of your hotel in a blue van," would have run for the borders and changed her email. But in the marathon swimming world, you can rest assured that you've at least got someone somewhere who'll buy you a beer or three and take you to a swimming hole/pool for a fun workout!

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • Leonard_JansenLeonard_Jansen Charter Member
    It's the same rush that you get when you tilt a chair back to the point where it almost dumps you backwards and on your head, but then you catch it just in time. However, in marathon swimming the heady "teetering on the abyss" feeling lasts for hours.


    “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” - Oscar Wilde

  • suziedodssuziedods Mem​ber
    edited December 2013
    I am really not good at introspection.... so... "what they said:"
    I especially like Leonard's description and Iron Mike's and Heart's.... and and and...
    It's the people, it 's the fact that the world is %75 water and when the water rises... we'll all be golden!
    it's the joy and freedom I feel at what my old, slow, not exactly lithe body can do,it's the ability to experience and feel and know the tides, it's being able to float around in 57 degree water with a smile on my face while chatting and looking at the birds and the sky.
    It's knowing that I can take myself out of my comfort zone and survive, maybe even thrive.
    It's having a goal and meeting it, or not and going after it again ( and again).
    It's my life.
    I may not make a living at it, I may not have a twitter feed or a blog, or any kind of award.. but I love swimming and the people who do it and share their love of it as well, all around the world.
  • mjstaplesmjstaples Atlanta, GA, USSenior Member
    Love it @leonard_jansen
  • mjstaplesmjstaples Atlanta, GA, USSenior Member
    I love the feeling of taking on something that most people are terrified of.
  • sylmarinosylmarino San FranciscoMember
    edited December 2013
    The spirit of marathon swimming is the community that encourages you and that you are held accountable to - out of honor and respect for those in the sport who have come before you and those who will come after. It isn't a clock, it's a distance, no matter the time. It's shedding the woes of the past, one stroke at a time while battling demons of the mind and environment while continuously seeking strength for what's ahead.

    It's the thrill of watching a dot update across a screen for someone you have never met and cheering, dancing and begging that little dot to just keep going and hoping somehow that energy makes it to them. It's the amazing generosity of support and encouragement - be it piloting, kayaking, counting, advice, feeding, housing, airport pickup, or sharing a workout - because you love the sport and want everyone to succeed.

    It's the glee in talking tides and temperature, soup for breakfast and showing jellyfish scars on your belly with unabashed excitement.

    And, it is the people of marathon swimming that make it spectacular - where a woman would accept an invitation from a man she has only met online to pick her up at her hotel, at night, in a blue van to be driven miles away in an unknown city and think nothing out of the ordinary. :-) That's just the way marathon swimmers roll...
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    I didn't want to out you if you didn't want to be, @sylmarino. But yes, the community of marathon swimmers are great, and are the true spirit of marathon swimming.

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • sylmarinosylmarino San FranciscoMember
    @IronMike, yes, I'm fine with you outing my aquatic cavorting!
  • malinakamalinaka Seattle, WACharter Member
    edited February 2015
    I came across this article tonight while doing a bit of research. Here's the Spirit of Marathon Swimming in action, 57 years ago.


    23 Apr 1958
    Errant Boat Forces Thomas To Quit Swim Short Of Goal
    PORTLAND, Ore (AP) - An errant boat forced burly Bert Thomas to give up a 45-mile swim of the Columbia River Tuesday when he was four miles short of his goal.
    Thomas disqualified himself after touching a small outboard boat which veered in front of him so a photographer aboard could get a closeup picture.
    "Thomas was doing the Australian crawl when the boat came in front of him. He looked up and he was broadside of the boat," said Jim Hartman, one of the swimmer's assistant mangers.
    "He had to touch the boat to fend himself away or get hit in the head," Hartman said.
    Thomas, though, continued to swim in the chill, choppy water for about 15 minutes after the encounter with the boat.
    Then the 275-pound fisherman paddled to an escort vessel and disqualified himself.
    "Well, there are no hard feelings anyhow," Thomas said. "I said I would come to Portland and I got inside the city limits. I'm not going to try it anymore."
    Ten hours after he entered the river, though, he pulled himself aboard the escort vessel and pronounced the swim was finished.


    I don't wear a wetsuit; it gives the ocean a sporting chance.

  • KatieBunKatieBun CornwallSenior Member
    It's definitely the people that make marathon swimming such a wonderful community. It's a privilege to be part of a sport in which nobody tells you you can't do it, other participants really want you to succeed, they happily pass on their hard won knowledge, actively work with you to make sure you achieve what they have already achieved...........and are prepared to waste hours watching a small blip on a screen and sending encouraging messages. Deep respect to the community. I love our sport.
  • SharkoSharko Tomales BayGuest
    My perspective of marathon swimming is maybe? "swimming for a long time because I need to find out something about myself" and upon reflecting on the swim I find I have something I can give back to others on a similar journey...Joseph
    Campbell called it the hero's journey....the one that goes out beyond the limits and comes back to tell and inspire others....does it usually involve others...yes...can it be an official can but that is secondary to the reason I aspired to do "the swim"

    "I never met a shark I didn't like"

  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

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