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Dispatches : Swimming

Mirinda Carfrae’s Training Tips

On October 12, Mirinda Carfrae won the Ironman World Championship. Not only did she win, the 32-year old Aussie also beat the course record, set in 2009 by Chrissie Wellington, by just under two minutes. It now stands at 8:52:14.
To achieve that top time, Carfrae did something previously considered impossible: she raced a faster marathon than the men’s winner, Frederik Van Lierde. After swimming 2.4 miles, and biking 112 miles, Carfrae averaged a 6:30 minute-per-mile pace for a final run split of 2:50:38. (Van Lierde ran a 2:51:18.)
“This year the stars aligned for me,” Carfrae says. “I knew that performance was in me. But believing that you’re capable of something, then actually having it come together on the one day of the year that matters—that’s like a dream.”
It wasn’t an easy victory. After winning the race in 2010 in only her second attempt, Carfrae struggled to reclaim the throne, placing second in 2011, and third in 2012. But what she learned during those few years in between wins ultimately made her a stronger, faster competitor.
Below, Carfrae shares her hard-earned tips and tricks for getting the most out of training and competing.
Turn negatives into positives
Going into the race in 2012, I was fit enough to contend for the title. To make mistakes in nutrition and fall short, I was disappointed because of the lost opportunity. But I was also quite surprised and proud of my performance because I was running on fumes and held it together for third place.
I went into medical after and had lost 10 pounds. That’s a lot for someone my size. (Carfrae is 5-foot-2, 118 pounds.) For my body to still be able to function on an OK level after basically depleting itself, I took a bout of confidence from that. I know that f I get the nutrition right, and even if things go a little bit south, I should still be able to perform.
Keep a training log
I take a lot of confidence from my training. This past year in particular, I had a pretty rough year. I really didn’t have any great results until July and I started racing in March. But I didn’t panic because I could see the numbers in my training log. I could always go back and look to see what sessions I was able to hold, how I felt through the sessions, and that really helped me stay calm. It would’ve been very easy to panic and worry that I wasn’t fit enough or that I was gonna have a disastrous Kona. But when I can just go back and look at the numbers, it takes the emotion out of it, and I could take a lot of confidence from those good sessions.
Schedule benchmark workouts
I have a few key workouts. About eight weeks out from Kona, I’ll do a 5.5-hour ride with the last hour flat out, as hard as I can go. Then I’ll hop off and do 10 by 1-mile on a road that’s slightly uphill on the way out, slightly downhill on the way back. If I’ve held a certain amount of watts on the bike and a certain pace on the run, then I know that I’m on track.
Date around (with coaches)
Siri [Lindley] and I started working together in ’05. Then in the beginning of 2012, I left her because after 6.5 years of working together, I wanted to seek some different opinions, work with some different coaches. For a year, I was with a guy who just wrote my cycling program, and I did everything else, and I didn’t enjoy that. Siri’s a really hands-on coach, and I realized that that’s really what I need to function at my best level. [The two reunited in July 2013.] Siri’s basically like family and it was awesome to share the win in Kona with her. I don’t think I would’ve been able to perform to the level that I did without her support.
Try plyometrics
I don’t believe in weight training for my body type. I’m naturally muscular, so putting me in a gym bulks me up and slows me down. I do functional movement to optimize the strength that I have and making sure everything’s firing in the correct pattern so that I have access to all of my muscles when I’m out there exercising. A lot of it is making sure everything is open and free, so I do a lot of ankle and hip mobilizers to start, then some plyometrics and more explosive exercises. [Check out this full-body plyometrics regimen.]
Crank the tunes
I can’t live without my iPod on those long runs and long solo rides. I listen to all sorts of music from Dave Matthews Band to Pink to David Guetta. I love David Guetta, he’s my go-to guy for key sessions. I probably wouldn’t go country. That’s where I draw the line.
Eat the ice cream
I’m pretty relaxed with my diet. Obviously, I’m not eating fast food all of the time. I try to fill my body with good food for the most part. But I enjoy a lot of wine and for most of the year I eat ice cream every night. That’s more to keep the weight on throughout the season, because you don’t want to be too lean. That leads you to being susceptible to sickness and being run down. So I try to keep a couple extra pounds on throughout the season.
Zen out on course
For the most part, you want to just shut your brain down and focus on being in the moment. When you’re able to have a quiet mind and focus on what you’re doing in every moment, that’s when you’ll have your best race.
Race yourself
After I won in 2010, a lot of people asked me why I’m continuing to do Ironman—it’s a tough sport, it’s grueling. Why are you continuing to put your body through this when you’ve already won the world title? My answer to that is: my goal is always to see what my capabilities are. It’s always been how fast can I race Kona? I still believe I can improve my swim, bike, and run. Until I believe I can’t get any better, I’ll keep racing. That’s what drives me.

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Before You Grow Up: Be An Ocean Lifeguard

Your office is the beach, your uniform a pair of boardshorts, and you could rescue dozens of people a season. According to 30-year veteran Southern California lifeguard Lance Dempsey, “On a busy week-end, there might be 2,000 people in front of your tower.”

Prereqs: It’s far tougher to get a glamorous ocean job than a gig at the local country club—strong swimmers and lifelong surfers have an advantage in competitive places like California, North Carolina, and Florida.

How to Break In: California county and state agencies will hire 16-year-olds if they can pass the swim test. But those tests often occur in February. In a Speedo. The first 40 or 80 people to cross the line get to the interview phase. You’ll line up for the swim test with guys wearing UCLA and Stanford swim-team hoodies.

Pay: In Los Angeles, the hourly wage is $18, with bonuses for bilingualism and for EMT certification in L.A. County; $11.25 per hour in North Carolina.

Romance Potential: The view can be pretty good from the lifeguard tower, but as far as getting a phone number, “You have to play it pretty cool,” says Dempsey. State-beach lifeguards aren’t supposed to leave the tower unless they are making a rescue.

Résumé Skills: CPR and emergency first aid, calm under pressure, killer tan.

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Young Blood: Grayson Campbell

AGE: 15
SPORT: Diving

“I was 7 when I first started diving,” remembers springboard specialist Grayson Campbell. “ I used to just throw myself off the diving board, but my mom didn’t want me to hurt myself, so she put me in lessons.”

Campbell says his favorite thing about the sport is competition because “it’s where you can show what you’ve learned all year long, and it brings out the best in your diving.”

After winning a slew of national titles, Campbell made finals at Junior Worlds in Australia in 2012. Earlier this year he won silver in synchro at the Puerto Rico Grand Prix. Most recently, Campbell won the 1-meter and 3-meter events at Junior Nationals in early August, which qualified him to represent the U.S. at the Junior Pan Am Diving Championships in Tucson in September. After that? “I’d like to make a senior World Championship team and go to the Olympics,” says the 5-foot-5 Virginia native. “That’s the highest level you can compete in diving.”  

But in the meantime, drivers beware. “Officially have my permit,” Campbell tweeted on July 29. Follow him at @gmcampbell1.

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Toys of Summer: The Floater Mat

My daughters had been angling hard for a floater mat ever since they'd played on them at friends' cottages this summer, and I knew that a mat of our own would encourage them to stay in the lake longer, burn off their wolverine energy, and maybe even help them become stronger swimmers. At 20 feet long and a mere two inches thick, the mat is made from marine-grade styrofoam and looks like a cross between a magic carpet and a slip-n-slide. It functions as a little of both.

Anchor it in lakes, calm ocean coves, or other protected water, and with a buoyancy of 1,500 pounds, it will support the weight of a dozen kids and a handful of adults doing pretty much any activity you can do on land while on water: jumping, sliding, wrestling, sliding, skipping, dancing, sunbathing, hopping. It doesn't absorb water and even fully loaded, the mat doesn't sag or bow in the middle; when you stand up on it, only your ankles get wet.

We bought ours to replace an inflatable water trampoline that lived hard and died young at the hands of my nieces and nephews. Every summer it sprung a leak. At its best, the Bongo was springy and bouncy, but it also had worrisome blind spots: It was so high off the water, you couldn't see little ones when they were on the far side, you could get trapped underneath it, and it was difficult for the youngest swimmers to climb up without help. We debated replacing it with a wooden floating dock but the $3,000 price tag was too steep, and we worried about boats accidentally ramming into it at night.

So when I saw the yellow Floater Mat skimming the lake's surface in front of a nearby cottage like some kind of enormous, man-made lily pad, I was intrigued. At first glance, it looks an optical illusion: How can something so thin and light (it's less than 40 pounds, lighter than my three-year-old) stay afloat under so much weight? But the minute you or your kids play on it, it no longer requires any explanation. It's magic and it works and it's crazy fun, and that's all you need to know.

We planned to anchor ours about 15 feet off our dock. This would give my daughters, who are 3 and 5 and are both swimming on their own, a place to actually swim to, rather than simply hurl themselves off the dock and climb out on the ladder, over and over. My little one, Maisy, has been having trouble sleeping, so I also selfishly hoped she'd tire herself out bobbing back and forth between dock and mat.

The Floater Mat comes with an anchor line that affixes to the mat via a plastic grommet. The directions blithely instruct you to cut a hole in the foam, but the idea of punching a screwdriver through a $500 mat gave me pause. I didn't want to botch it right out of the box, so I asked the shop to do it for us.

While the mat isn't heavy, it is awkward to move around, and it took two of us to get the rolled-up foam into our boat for the ride across the lake. Back at our cottage, my stepfather and I tried to unfurl the mat by loosening the velcro straps and stretching the 20-foot long mat out across the dock, but every time we unwound it, it would stubbornly re-curl itself, flopping around like a half-dead fish.

With so much surface area, positioning the pad is tricky. You need to give it ample space from land so that no one hits the dock when they jump in, but because it's only anchored only on one side, the mat rotates freely in the wind. At any given time the nearest side can be five feet from the dock or 35.

The anchor line looked terribly, perhaps fatally, short, but I flung it overboard, and it appeared to hold. In a flash, the girls flung themselves off the dock and started swimming madly for the mat. My stepdad stretched out on it, sunbathing. We could have had a party on the mat. Maisy, who we decided would wear a lifejacket when swimming to the mat, awkwardly hoisted foam over foam to pull herself up, unassisted. The girls proceeded to sprint back and forth, slipping and sliding off the end like penguins launching off the ice shelf.

That afternoon, though, a storm rolled in, pounding the lake with sideways rain and whitecaps. From the shelter of our cottage, I looked out just in time to see the gale pick up the mat on one end and wave it like a flag. That's it, I thought. $500, gone in a single day. But rather than floating away across the lake, it dragged its anchor and smashed up against the cliffs in our little cove. There it rested.

The next morning, we retrieved the mat and did the awkward repositioning dance all over again: drag and paddle, fling anchor, hope it lands. Friends of ours from down the island showed up with their four sons, who along with Pippa and Maisy, turned the mat into a featherweight wrestling ring. And in this corner, six-year-old Rocky from Saskatoon!

It's been windy every day for the past week, and the first thing I do when I wake up each morning look for the mat, as though I'm holding vigil. Has it moved a little overnight? Is it farther out now than yesterday? Is it slowly dragging its line? As soon as the shop gets more anchor lines in, I'm going to put a second one in on the other side for extra peace of mind. As for now, it's still here. I can see the yellow from the corner of my eye, awaiting the next round of action. Maybe tonight Maisy will sleep.

The Float Mat is available in two lengths: 15 feet and 20 feet, for $450 and $550. Go to for more info.

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Swimming New York City: A Survival Guide

On July 12, a group of New York City designers celebrated the successful close of a Kickstarter campaign. Exceeding their goal, they raised $273,000 to build "+Pool," a barge-cum-swimming pool that they plan to float in the East River. The idea: filters integrated into its structure will remove harmful bacteria and contaminants in the water, making the pool safe for swimmers.

Regardless of whether this concept ever becomes reality, it begs the question: Is the East River really that polluted? The short answer is no. But there are some important caveats. Herewith, a survival guide for swimming in Gotham.

You should know, first of all, that according to the city's Department of Environmental Protection, no part of the Inner Harbor (this includes the East River, Hudson River south of its confluence with the Harlem River, and the Upper New York Bay) is safe for swimming, based on water quality standards set by the state's Department of Conservation. That's one reason the +Pool concept is so inviting to New Yorkers who want to splash around outside on a hot summer day. But water quality is by no means a static measurement. If it were, one would never see large, organized swimming events in the East and Hudson Rivers, held by groups such as NYC Swim.

"Considering how many [swimming] events, like triathlons, are held … I am just guessing here, but it can't be that bad for you," an employee with the DEP, who requested anonymity, told me.

Gregory O'Mullan is not guessing when he says: "Most of the water quality by Manhattan is quite good during good weather." That's because studying water quality in and around the city is part of his job as assistant professor of microbiology at Queens College. He recently co-authored a report, however, that shows there is reason to be very careful about where and when you choose to swim around New York. The research shows a strong correlation between the presences of Enterococci, a bacteria found in untreated sewage, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with superbugs.

Here's how to avoid all of those nasty pollutants:

1: Understand why and how water quality is sometimes poor. NYC, like many old U.S. cities, has an antiquated sewage infrastructure that combines waste from buildings with stormwater runoff in the same system. Given that, and the population explosion the city has seen since its founding, it does not take much of a storm for the quantity of sewage to overwhelm water treatment plants. When that happens, some of the combined runoff and sewage is diverted away from the plants—and it goes straight into the rivers and bay! This effluent, called combined sewage overflow (CSO) does get diluted and dissipates before long. But swimming after a rain storm is never a good idea.

"I've spent years dealing with New York water quality and I am shocked by how many New Yorkers don’t know about CSO. People don’t get it. Until they do, we have to be careful about opening up things for recreation," says O'Mullan. Thus, the official word from the DEP is "stay out" because the water quality is sometimes high, sometimes low.

2: Educate yourself. In May, a new right-to-know law passed that requires publicly-owned sewage treatment plants and publicly-owned delivery systems (pipes and pump stations) to notify the public when untreated water is discharged into state waterways. You can check the DEP's website for CSO advisories. You can also sign up for text or email alerts from the Notify NYC website. But the notification systems are far from perfect, reliable or efficient yet, argues O'Mullan. Local clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper is pushing to expand the law to include privately-owned wastewater treatment plants and delivery systems. It argues that information about hazardous water conditions should be as accessible as storm warnings, amber alerts and similar public safety systems.

There is, however, a wealth of data about the Hudson estuary available online, thanks to Riverkeeper, which regularly checks post-storm water quality at 75 different locations. You can narrow in on the ones you're interested on its website and also download its yearly water quality report.

3: Be selective. While water quality ebbs and flows with stormwater runoff, there are many places you're best to avoid. Industrial, inland waterways used for shipping are generally unsafe – not just due to poor water quality but also boat traffic. I'd avoid jumping in right next to a water treatment plant, myself.

4: Consider your health status. The majority of water-borne illnesses are never reported, and because of that there is very little data on the impacts polluted water makes on public health. People who suffer symptoms related to exposure to bacteria while swimming are quicker to blame them on eating bad seafood or some other unrelated cause. If you've got a cold or your immunity is somehow compromised, take extra caution about taking a plunge in water, even if you can't find any alerts from the city.

5: Focus on the big picture. The +Pool project is intriguing, but the longer-term solution to fighting polluted water in NYC is to prevent pollution from entering the waterways in the first place. The city is spending $2.4 billion on a plan to support green roofs, permeable pavement, rainwater catchments and other infrastructure elements that will reduce stormwater runoff from entering the sewage system. Push for these solutions where you can and if you own your home, think about installing your own. "We're trying to make the city less impervious," says the DEP employee.

"Ultimately, we should be moving toward the goal of the Clean Water Act: surface waters in this nation should be swimmable, period. That doesn’t mean that in the meantime we shouldn't be giving people a way to enjoy the resource. If this +Pool does that, wonderful," says O'Mullan. But information about water quality "should not be an underground knowledge" that only really active swimmers know how to obtain. "We owe people more than that."

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