Can you “sprint” for 5.85 miles?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 27th, 2009

Can You “Sprint” 5.85 Miles?

That question occurred to me yesterday somewhere between Mile 4 and Mile 5 of the Little Red Lighthouse swim in the Hudson River.  The swim, from 56th St to 175th St, finishing in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, is current-assisted. The current can vary from year to year — and so can finish times. In 2008, with a strong current, the median time (half the field finished faster and half slower) was 1:18 (1 hr 18 min). This year the median was 2:15.

Exactly a week earlier I’d swum two 2-hour relay legs in an English Channel relay. On my second leg I raised my Stroke Rate from 58 SPM (strokes per minute) to 64 SPM and swam much better. Thinking yesterday’s swim might be a relatively quick one, I decided to begin at a high stroke rate and see how long I could maintain it. However, because there was no pre-race warmup, I felt ragged and inefficient and slowed my rate after just half a mile.

I didn’t necessarily lose speed though. I started in the 5th of six waves. About 10 swimmers pulled away from me in the early going, despite my efforts to “sprint.” I didn’t seem to be overtaking anyone, so I downshifted to a longer stroke, with a lot more emphasis on using hip and leg drive to spear my body forward, and “active streamlining” to reduce resistance and conserve the momentum produced by each stroke. Almost immediately I began to feel better; my stroke felt integrated, and I had time to establish solid purchase with my hand and forearm before each stroke. See video of this technique here.

This technique has worked well for me in races from 2 to 3 miles, lasting 45 to 80 minutes. The lower rate allows me to examine and tune various parts of the stroke as I go, while the considerable stroke length it provides means I can still attain fairly strong paces. I wouldn’t, however, call it an easy way to swim. While swimming, I feel as if I’m close to my limit without ever exceeding it. In any case, after switching gears I passed other swimmers — some wearing the green hats from my wave, others wearing the yellow and blue caps of earlier waves – pretty continuously.

I had no clear idea – either in time or distance —  of how far I’d swum or how much was left. At some point, beyond halfway, not seeing any swimmers nearby for a while, my energy began to fade a bit. I could feel myself slowing, while also wondering how much farther I had to swim – distraction of that sort is never helpful. This didn’t last long however because two swimmers wearing red caps surged by me, the first I’d seen from the final heat. Knowing their caps marked them as among the fastest swimmers in the field, I immediately shifted gears to try to stay with them.

My initial thought was that if I could stay with them for a while, it would improve my position in the field. Only time would tell how long I might be able to stay on their feet. I was swimming much harder, and with a far higher rate, than before.  To maintain the higher rate, I shifted to new focal points: (1) Rather than focus on spearing forward on entry, I tried to enter and almost immediately shape my arm for the catch, with fingers down and elbow high, yet keeping my arm pressure relatively light; (2) I changed from a strong drive on my kick, to a tight snap, consciously reducing the spread between my feet to accommodate the higher rate. I peeked forward every 10 breaths, or 20 strokes, interested only in seeing whether I was still closely following those two red caps.

During the pre-race briefing, we were told we’d pass 10 buoys between start and finish, meaning the buoys would be close to 1000 meters apart. I thought I’d passed six buoys when I began chasing the two red caps, but wasn’t certain. In any case, the chase went on and on, longer than I’d assumed I still had to swim to the finish. Several times I marveled at my ability to hold such an intense pace for so long. One thing that helped was seeing us at catch, then pass several green-hatted swimmers from my wave.

In the end, I did hang with those two until the finish — a period I’d estimate to be greater than 40 minutes. It felt like a sprint the whole way. If I’d known from the start that I’d have to keep it up for that long I might have had second thoughts. Two things helped me keep going much harder for longer than I ever have in the pool, even 40 years ago in college:

1) The water temperature was 68 degrees. I’ve long found colder water to be restorative. Efforts that tire me in 80-degree pool water don’t tire me in colder open water. (I’ll write more about the restorative effects of colder water in an upcoming blog. And my latest book, Outside the Box includes a full chapter on swimming in colder water.)

2) I broke the 40 minutes at this pace, into segments shorter than 20 seconds – the time it took me to complete the 20 strokes or 10 breaths between peeks forward.  Each time I looked forward and saw those two red caps, I rededicated myself to keeping it together until my next peek. This means I swam the final 2+ miles as something like 120 briefer segments, broken up by a look ahead. Later I realized how similar this was to how Mike Solberg made his Channel swim, the same day as our relay, by just swimming from feeding to feeding. Count 400 strokes. Feed. Do it again.

In the end, I was exhilarated by what my 58-year old body – and mind – were capable of. I placed 20th in a field of 260 starters, well within the top 10 percent (in 2002, when I last swam this race, I placed outside the top half of the field), and  might have improved my position by 10 to 15 places during my “sprint.”

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