So You Want to Swim the USMS 10K Postal...
In case you were wondering, and in the words of marathon swimming legend and Illinois LMSC member Marcia Cleveland, “the 10K is a looooooong way to go in a swimming pool. Anyone considering doing 6.2 miles in a pool needs to have the mental outlook that THEY WILL FINISH IF THEY JUST KEEP PUTTING ONE STROKE MORE BEHIND THEM.”
So, what does it take to get it done? Let’s start with the preparation phase.
Veteran participants agree that you need a good base, several weeks (and months if possible) of minimum base yards. Jill Wright, in the 60-64 age group from the Sawtooth Masters, has completed more 10K postals than she can count and advises swimmers to average 20-25,000 yards per week for at least a month before even considering the 10K, as well as to get specific experience and confidence with long course meters well in advance of your postal day. Marcia Cleveland reports that her best 10K postal performance followed several months of 30-35,000 yardage weeks that included several weekly doubles. Adirondack Masters stalwart Ann Svenson maintains a healthy base year round and usually completes her 5K postal as a physical and mental prep swim for her 10K effort.
Have trouble keeping quality in the picture when you’re doing long, base-building workouts? One strategy to combat the urge to do garbage distance plodding is to do many multiples of 100s or 200s, say 10 sets of 5x100 or 5 sets of 5x200, and descend within each set.
Details, Details, Details…
Plan ahead for the big day! Check with the facility, those pool openings and hours between May and September can be unpredictable what with multiple community stakeholders, holidays, weird hours, closures and so on. Be sure to estimate how long you think you’ll need to complete the swim, and remember to add in set-up, warm-up, cool-down and time to change in the locker room to your total time estimate. Marcia Cleveland advises, “Before you start your swim, make sure there will be nothing unforeseen from the facility that precludes you from finishing: the building stays open, the lights are on, the summer campers don't start until much later, etc. I also make a big point of THANKING the pool manager/director for allowing me/us to do our swim because we are taking up a big chunk of the pool for this swim.”
Get your entry form ready, read up on the requirements and rules, have your split sheets ready, make sure you have time in the season to repeat the event if something doesn’t go well or you want to give it another try before sending in your paperwork.
The Week Before
Plan for your nutrition and hydration needs as well as for any complications that might arise. How hot is the pool deck? Where will you store your hydration supplies during the swim? Will your empty GU pack blow into the pool? How fast can you hydrate and get some nutrition and get on with the swim? If you’re like Marcia Cleveland, you want to make sure “the Indy 500 pit stops seem leisurely” compared to your feeding times during the 10K. So, it makes sense to practice all these things in advance to be ready for event day.
The Day Of
Pacing is important. Key. “My feeling is that endurance goes a long way if you know how to pace. The hardest part is the mental aspect—you have to figure out how long it's likely to take and understand that you'll be in the water that long,” says Marcia Cleveland. “Most of us can fake a 5K but you can't fake a 10K. Don't go out too fast, i.e., keep the brakes on for the first 4-5000 or you will be sorry and sorrier between about 5000 and 9900.”
Most successful 10Kers seem to be clock watchers, glancing every 200 or 500 or even 1000 depending on personal preference, just to keep the desired pace. The veterans like to have some signals from their counter-timer. Ann Svenson relies on brightly colored towels or T-shirts to signal distances, pink for 500s, green for 1000s—and color-codes her split sheet accordingly, to aid her counter-timer. Marcia Cleveland also endorses a numbers and color scheme: “We use either the 500/1650 counter cards and/or colored cards: green with 5 (for the 500), and red with 0 (for 1000).” This turns out to be handy as exhaustion mounts; it’s easier to see colors even when it becomes hard to make out numbers.
When Sherlock Holmes said, “It has been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important,” it could be he had the 10K postal in mind. If poor streamlines, lifting your head and so on make a couple of seconds’ difference in a 200, multiply that 50 times. As Marcia Cleveland says, “Turns and pushoffs really matter. These are freebies and you've got 199 of them so use EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM WELL.” Keep your eyes on the bottom of the pool, every few lengths make sure you can well-describe the tiles or whatever is on the bottom, and even think about continuous kicking. Not necessarily hard kicking, but keep the feet moving, mainly to prevent your legs from sinking and causing you to become a barge plowing through the water. Remember, you don’t get to wear a pull buoy or your scuba fins when the legs get heavy.
Staying Hydrated and Nourished
You will have wanted to practice this part of the swim during your prep workouts, never a good idea to try a bunch of new sports gels or feeding patterns during an event that you haven’t tested in advance, and while hydration and nutrition principles have common elements they are still a matter of individual preference and tolerance. Some tried and true wisdom may help guide you here.
If you are fueling for a couple of days in advance with a Gatorade or other sports drink, you may be able to wait an hour or so into the 10K before your first feeding. The veterans generally use up a couple of sports gel packs during the event itself and have plenty of fresh cool water to drink as well as an option for some kind of carbo-energy drink available to them during the swim.
Don’t Forget to Sing About the Beer
Jill Wright confesses to a great strategy that’s seen her through many postal swims, singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Says Jill, “While I can't do this every 1000 meters during the swim, I sing it two to three times during the swim (that means for one to three times for different 1000s).” Ann Svenson, learning of this strategy, found it helped her out when she needed it the most during her first 10K postal. “I broke the 10-yr-old national record by something like 28 seconds! I wasn't on track to do that at 8000—I was on pace to go about eight minutes slower. I didn't know it at the time. But when I got to 8000, I remembered that Jill told me about the song, and I said, ‘Hell, there are only 19 bottles of beer left—that's nothing!’ The song must have had a good beat or something because I picked up the pace quite a bit.”
After the Swim
No swimmer ever takes a single stroke without the help of many others, and this is especially true in something like the 10K postal event. Think of all those who made your swim possible, your family, your timer, the pool operators, lifeguards, coaches, etc. and thank all of them.
Make sure you’re especially good to your counter-timer, feed him or her well and share your results when they are announced. Marcia Cleveland has even been known to send her counter-timer her medal.
Leaving the Pool and Getting Home
This is a good thing to plan in advance—you may not want to swim and drive; consider having a designated driver. “I have someone else drive the car home. We usually do this swim in downtown Chicago hence we need to drive through city traffic on the way home. I consider my mental state post-10K to be similar to having a few too many drinks, plus I'm usually ready to nod off. From the perspective of the other drivers on the road I don't want to encounter me, with my slow reaction times and woozy thought process so I arrange for a ride. I think this is a very serious consideration to pre-plan,” says Marcia Cleveland.
What you might encounter in the hours and days after
Even with great preparation, a marathon swim is still a taxing event. You may or may not be hungry after, refueling is a good idea, and do eat something if you’re using anti-inflammatories. Definitely stay hydrated. You may find it will take you a couple of days to recover, to feel back to your normal self and settle into your familiar eating and sleeping patterns.
From Marcia Cleveland: “I wish all of you out there who will be swimming the 10K all the best of luck. Embrace the fact that you have the ability to do this and celebrate your achievement!”
About the Experts and Erstwhile Author:
Marcia Cleveland is a member of the Illinois LMSC and former vice chair and chair of the USMS Long Distance Committee, presently with the USMS Open Water Committee, and universally regarded as an expert on the subject of long distance pool and open water swimming. Visit her website at doversolo.com for more great information.
Ann Svenson, member of the Adirondack LMSC, is an avid swimmer with more accomplishments than there’s space to list; she’s former vice chair of the USMS Long Distance Committee and works tirelessly still for that committee and in training new members to carry out the good work.
Jill Wright is a member of the Snake River LMSC and long time contributing member of the USMS Long Distance Committee; in addition to many successful 10K postal swims, Jill has earned a sizable number of Postal Challenge patches for completion of all postal swims in a single calendar year. Her legendary musical talents have inspired many swimmers.
Ali Hall, a member of the Maryland LMSC, swims every now and then, contributes as a member of the USMS Long Distance and Fitness Education Committees, and owns an autographed copy of Marcia Cleveland’s awesome book, Dover Solo.