The Pyramid of Death - a 25km pool set

by Evan Morrison. 07 March 2011.

Last weekend I did the longest pool workout of my life. An unexpected excuse came up for a quick trip to Santa Barbara, and given my current lack of long course or open water options in Chicago, I decided to use the opportunity for a pre-Tampa training swim. The Rec Center at UCSB has a beautiful outdoor 50m x 25y pool that – conveniently – is open for LCM lap swimming from 9am to 8:30pm on the weekends.

Despite a chilly morning, it turned into a gorgeous day. With cloudless skies, a light breeze, and mid-day highs in the 60s, I actually worried about getting sunburned. When the front door opened at 9am I went straight to the pool to claim my lane - second from the bottom of the picture, with the best viewing angle to the pace clock. Incredibly, nobody joined me in that lane until the last 15 minutes of the swim.

In designing the workout, I aimed for something that would challenge me in terms of distance, time, and pace, but without boring me to death. So I ruled out a long continuous swim, or something overly repetitive like 15×1000. I aimed for something I could realistically do, but that also offered a not-insignificant chance of failure. My previous longest swim/workout in terms of both time and distance (including my club and college swimming days) was Swim the Suck last October - 10 miles (effectively ~8.5 given the favorable current) in 3 hours, 7 minutes.

I eventually settled on a 25,000-meter (15.5-mile) set that, at a constant interval of 1:30 per 100m, would take 6 hours, 15 minutes. This would approximately double the Tennessee River swim and put me within spitting distance of the current-assisted length of TBMS. While a 1:30/100m is a conservative interval for me under most circumstances, at marathon distance I knew it would pose a challenge. As a point of reference, a 1:30 pace for 10K is 2 hours, 30 minutes - no slouch of a time. It’s also interesting to note that only 4 of 45 competitors in the last USMS 25K National Championship finished under 6:15.

And remember, a 1:30 interval means my actual pace must be faster than 1:30, so I have time to feed between swims.

Anyway, here’s the set:

I maintained my normal training volume going into the swim, though I did take off the day before. My energy level and general “feel for the water” during warm-up rated about a 6 on a scale of 1-10 - not ideal, but good enough.

After a quick 500m loosen-up, I did the first 1000m swim in 14:05 (pace of 1:24.5) - right on target. I managed to hold this pace for the first 10K (3×500). On the first 2000m swim (10-12K) I started hurting a bit and my pace deteriorated slightly; but I was still getting plenty of rest between swims. The second 2000m (14-16K) was slower still, and hurt even more.

By the “downhill” portion of the set (1500, 5×300, 1000, 5×200, etc.) I was fully ensconced in the hurt box. I experienced what I can only describe as a “narrowing” of consciousness. I had no idea what was going on around me; my stroke was on autopilot; I was aware of only the pain. But I kept making my intervals. Not by much - especially on the shorter swims - but I made them.

I finally did cross over the 1:30/100m barrier on the final round of 10×100. I started feeling dizzy and thought I might puke, so I just swam a straight 1000, alternating 50 back / 50 free. In the end I finished the 25,000th meter (excluding warm-up) a few seconds shy of 6 hours, 16 minutes.

Then I pulled myself out of the pool, chugged a quart of chocolate milk, and took a hot shower. I had entered the water a few minutes after 9am. It was now almost 3:30 in the afternoon.

That evening I felt like I’d been run over by a truck, but I washed down some ibuprofen with a few glasses of wine (probably not the healthiest combination), which numbed me up pretty good. The next day my shoulders were still a bit perturbed, but I was better. Two days after that: as good as new.

25K training swim: check.

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Posted in: training , swim reports Tags: sets , Tampa Bay


On 2011-03-07 10:40:45, Sully said:
I think it is safe to call you an *sshole for doing a 500m warmup for a 25K. Glad to see you pushed through it - Tampa should be a blast!

On 2011-03-07 10:57:36, Evan said:
ha :-) The purpose of the warmup was not to "warm up," per se, but rather to calibrate my pacing. "X level of effort corresponds to Y speed, on this particular day." If I felt crappy during warmup, I'd have the option of pushing the interval to 1:35 without having to "fail" the set first. I actually was called an asshole by some guy at Masters on Saturday. He didn't like that I lapped him on a 200 (I went 1:58).

On 2011-03-07 12:41:55, Sully said:
Sounds like he can be my lane-mate when I visit in a few weeks. I do remember when I was damn happy with sub-2 100 SCY.

On 2011-03-07 17:13:46, Katie said:
Hi Evan. Two questions: 1.) Do you usually experience that "narrowing of consciousness" on a long swim? I sometimes experience something I would call "going to a dark place". When that happens, my instinct is to soldier thru it. I've handled this two ways. The first time it happened, I just tried to "get it over with". I finished the swim (my first 7K), but I felt miserable. The second time (also 7K), I rested on my back for a few seconds and focused on calming myself down and enjoying being in the lake. My mental state went right back to normal. I felt great at the end of the race, and I shaved about 15 minutes off my previous time. Do you ever do anything like that? 2.) When you say you felt as good as new on day 3 post swim, does that mean your performance was back to normal? Did you rest completely on those 3 days? I always go back in the pool the day after a hard swim (I can't stand being out of the water), but it usually takes about 5 days for my performance to get back to normal.

On 2011-03-07 17:46:59, Evan said:
Hi Katie... good questions. I think many marathon swimmers do experience a "dark place" during long swims, but I'm not sure that's what happened to me. My sense is that the "dark place" has a large psychological component and is perhaps more common in open water settings. Like when you're in the middle of a channel and can't see any land, and you have no idea how much further you have. I'm pretty sure what I experienced was mostly physical, and I'm not sure floating on my back would have helped. My arms were just dead tired and my muscles totally depleted of glycogen. This was more like "hitting the wall" (symptoms of which include dizziness and loss of mental acuity). I think the "dark place" is different, though I can't say I've experienced it myself. Ask me after I try Catalina this summer :-) Re: your 2nd question. I took 3 days completely off after the swim. By the the third day I was no longer sore. On the 4th & 5th days I went swimming and performed pretty well in both workouts. But then, this week I've actually felt pretty sluggish. So perhaps I'm still recovering. I usually take about a week to recover (in terms of performance) from a 10K.

On 2011-03-08 12:50:16, IronMike said:
By "narrowing" you don't mean your field of view narrows do you? Like almost blacking out? Be careful!

On 2011-03-08 13:03:23, Evan said:
Nah, my vision was fine. This was more about my focus of attention. For the first couple of hours I was looking around - at the people on the deck when I breathed, and at others swimmers in nearby lanes - to distract myself. Later on, I had to devote all my attention to just moving forward.

On 2011-03-08 19:18:11, RLM said:
Thanks for helping to clarify this, IronMike! RLM

On 2011-03-08 21:19:32, Ron Collins said:
Next time, come to Florida for some open water training! See you in April, Evan...

On 2011-03-08 21:27:29, Evan said:
Hi Ron - I'm looking forward to it! Thanks for visiting.

On 2011-03-18 10:19:57, Sully said:
Digging back a bit... What did you do for nutrition?

On 2011-03-18 10:25:51, Evan said:
I bought a gallon jug of water at the store and added 9 scoops of Perpetuem (1.5 per hour). I think it still may not have been enough calories, though it was hard to distinguish the bonk from the wall of pain.

On 2011-03-20 01:26:13, Oliver Wilkinson said:
That's one hell of a swim set, you've inspired me! See you in New York. Ollie.

On 2011-03-20 05:05:09, Evan said:
Thanks Ollie. I look forward to meeting you!

On 2015-09-28 15:57:33, Olivier Poirier-Leroy said:
I LOVE this facility. I spent about a month training out of that pool in 2014. I dream of it daily during the chilly Canadian winter months... As you mentioned in your post, it's really quiet there. In the span of the 35+ training sessions I did at that pool I think I only ended up having to share a lane once, and even then it was only for a few minutes. SB also has the Los Banos Del Mar Pool (an old school pool that is right in the harbor) that you should check out next time you are in the area if you haven't already. Beautiful facility, beautiful area. Stumbling upon this post certainly made me want to get my butt back down there a little more.

On 2015-09-28 18:35:51, Evan said:
Yep... I swam at Los Banos almost every day growing up.