Bored by yet another workweek FitBit challenge?
I know. Even on a macro cultural level, mainstream America’s recreational athletic events are so calibrated and left right left right pedantic, they’re void of wild and adrenaline.
Before diving head first into the chillest sport you’ve never heard of, here are been-there-done-that exercise calendar Americans already apathetically know. I divide the exercise spectrum according to difficulty, resulting in a three-tier pyramid.
For Level 1 exercise enthusiasts, there’s Tough Mudders—these 5 to 10k obstacle courses are followed by a finish line buffet of bananas, bagels, craft beer, etc. In short, Level 1 gets you out and about for an hour or two, with the perk of socializing with like-minded people.
Ascending the pyramid, Level 2 ups the distance considerably. Marathons are the paradigmatic Level 2 athletic experience. Hosted by cities across the country, on any given Saturday or Sunday morning, runners time themselves as they chug through 26.2 miles of running. For those unfamiliar, decent times average at or around 4 hours. (Or at least that’s where I set the standard, because in the one marathon I’ve attempted, I finished a few seconds past four hours).
Atop the American pyramid is Level 3, the Ironman Triathlon. It’s the peak, requiring fitness in three disciplines: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike, and lastly, when most depleted, a marathon run. Years ago, I finished a half-Ironman, and doubling the distance seems out of the question. Needless to say, given the plethora of these events, and their growing popularity, even the Ironman doesn’t sate the thirst for adventure— the pulsing excitement we chase from our ancestors’ ancient hunt.
But, this three-level pyramid of average American sport pales compared to the beast you’ve never heard of.
Drum-roll please— shivering, quivering lower lip, blood fleeing the extremities, paddling bodies between continents . . .
Google this: marathon swimming.
Or the entry-level experience: open water swimming
If you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of marathon swimming, which is defined as any open water swim over 10k. Even with a swimming background— having swam competitively since I was a wee, burning out in college after a high school of overtraining, clocking thousands of hours in the pool—I’ve never heard of marathon swimming or any open water swimming outside the scant two mile swim that’s the opening leg of the Ironman.
So what marathon swimming? As the name suggests, swimming for a long time in open water. For example: swimming across the English Channel—a twenty-one mile stretch of sea that requires full boat support, luck with winds and current, freak mental fortitude to risk crossing paths with swarms of jellyfish, and primordial sense of daring to defy salt water that chafes your skin and dries your mouth, gut-wrenching sea-sickness, limited daylight, and of course, teeth-chattering low water temperatures. In fact, for point of comparison, more people have summited Everest than made it across the English Channel.
But, it’s the sport’s immersive discomfort— without Gatorade stations and checkpoints with screaming crowds and subwoofers pumping Eye of the Tiger— that probably accounts for the sport’s unpopularity in America. It’s precisely the risks and the raw experience of meeting Mother Nature in her wavy grey element, though, that pumps adrenaline through our Netflix Unoriginal existences.
Disclosure: I’m not speaking from experience. I’ve never done an open water distance swim, never mind a marathon. But, after my fifty-eight-year-old father caught open water distance swimming fever, I did twice jump in 57 degree water with a just a Speedo and goggles and thrash around for, first 12 minutes, and the next day, 14 minutes. Of course, in order to cover a distance like the English Channel, I’d need to increase my stamina to twelve or fourteen hours, rather than minutes. But we all start somewhere.
If you can get past the blood-chilling difficulty of the elements in which the sport takes place, swimming is saturated with health benefits. As many exercise enthusiasts are probably already aware, swimming works every major muscle group, achieving a total body workout. In addition since the sport’s medium is water, the anti-gravity factor means that the pounding and inflammation common to other sports, like running, is absent.
But beyond its health benefits, marathon swimming turns the very aesthetic undergirding American athletics on its head. In mainstream sports, and Western culture generally, the goal is to be physically trim— minimize body-fat, maximize muscle.
This is what’s deemed stylish, physically robust, and often sexually appealing. Not so in marathon swimming. Submerged in frigid water for extended periods, body fat and an extra layer of blubber means extra heat, which means more energy can be spent towards swimming, rather than heat production, which means swimming faster and longer.
It’s why polar bears and arctic seals aren’t skinny.
It’s not uncommon, when preparing for marathon swims, for swimmers to beef up, adding up to forty pounds to their weight—which doesn’t slow them down in the weightless environment.
I know you’re dying to pack on a few pounds and plunge into the nearest river, lake or ocean.
Another plus: the cost of entry is minimal. These swimmers paddle the cold waters without wetsuits. Staring stoically into the murk, they travel nearly naked: thin swim cap, a swimsuit and goggles. That’s it.
I’ve got a long way to go, acclimatizing myself to the cold temperatures, which, after coming out, took an hour to thaw, even after sipping a 16oz Super America hot coffee and cranking the heat in my car to it’s max of 84 degrees. But the adrenaline rush is undeniable. The feeling of almost dying is, paradoxically, the same as feeling truly alive. The shock as blood flows to the vital organs to ensure survival, the blood vessels cringing, then sighing, it’s a go-big-or-go-home feeling. It’s an absolute tidal wave of an endorphin rush.
Note: If you try it—as my father warned me, during our bout of father-son bonding—give yourself at least two minutes in the water for your body to cease panicking. Then you’ll start to loosen up and enjoy things (a bit).
Photo: Getty Images