Ultra swimming's ultimate challenge

The cliffs of Dover are beautiful, but they offer no solace to lonely English Channel swimmers. Courtesy Rendy Opdycke

There's no money in marathon swimming and not much glory either.

Long-distance open-water swimmers battle monotony as much as they fight the elements and their bodies. They swim through marrow-chilling cold, jellyfish, long nights and sensory deprivation. There's no conversation and little sightseeing.

It's just right stroke, left stroke, right stroke, left stroke -- for hours on end.

Dr. Marcella MacDonald, who has swum the English Channel 15 times -- including three double crossings -- says the chill factor can be the biggest barrier. The channel typically ranges from 59 to 67 degrees.

"I have to say the cold is one of the worst things," she says. "It's very, very cold over there. People will say to me, 'Oh, that's not that bad of a temperature,' and I'll say, 'When was the last time you took a 65 degree bath and then stayed in there for 10 hours? Then we'll talk.'"

Yet MacDonald and other marathon swimmers crave the challenge. A channel is something to cross. An island is something to swim around. Like mountain peaks for climbers, open-water routes beckon to be conquered.

Three of the best-known routes (out of hundreds worldwide) comprise the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming: the English Channel, Catalina Channel and Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. That's nearly 70 miles of saltwater chop.

When MacDonald completed her triple in 2013, swimming just over 20 miles from Catalina Island to the California coast, she joined an exclusive club. As of Sept. 8, when 16-year-old Charlotte Samuels of New Jersey crossed the English Channel, just 99 swimmers have been documented as completing all three.

Their reward? A certificate if they want it. Otherwise, just satisfaction.

Rendy Lynn Opdycke, who completed all three in a 35-day span in 2008, laughs at the notion of fame or fortune coming her way.

"It's not like you get a million dollars," says Opdycke, who was 24 when she did it. "A lot of times you won't even get recognition for it. It's just something to have there on your shoulder."

Daniel Robinson, who completed his triple this year, joked about the big draw: "You get your name on a list."

But really, he says, it's about goal setting and achievement. At 56, the former Northwestern swimmer needs that.

"It's nice to have an event as you're older to keep you exercising," says Robinson, of Seattle. "If I don't have a swim meet or something in front of me, I'll gradually just go home and drink beer and screw off. It does keep you focused. And the training, it's sort of all consuming."

The triple crown's history

Swimmers have been crossing the English Channel since 1875 and doing so regularly since the early 1920s. The English Channel is the best-known marathon route and a bucket-list item. Nearly 1,500 men and women have done it.

"If you take 100 people anywhere around the world and you say, 'I'm a channel swimmer, I'm an ocean swimmer, I'm a marathon swimmer,' inevitably the question is, 'Have you done the English Channel?'" says Steven Munatones of Huntington Beach, California, a former long-distance swimmer and co-founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association, which tries to track and document open-water swims.

"So that is the standard, just like the Olympics is for pool swimming or Everest is for mountaineers."

Its temperature, strong tides, distance (about 21 miles) and history make the English Channel the premier ocean swim. The other two legs of the triple crown don't have the same gravitas but have long histories and significant challenges.

The Catalina Channel was first crossed in 1927 and offers many of the same difficulties as its English counterpart. Manhattan was first circumnavigated in 1915, and organized swims around the island date to 1928. Since 1982, the annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim has grown in prominence and ranks as the world's longest swimming race at 28.5 miles.

Though the three swims never have been formally connected, some swimmers began linking them in the late 1980s. In 1987, Jack Robertson of San Diego was quoted as saying he would do "a tripleheader" of the English Channel, Manhattan and Catalina. A year later, noted masters swimmer Ashby Harper lumped them together when he said he would attempt the "rare triple."

Though Robertson and Harper didn't achieve their goal, the sport was ripe for the triple-crown concept. Morty Berger, founder of NYC Swim (which manages the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and other events), says he began referring to the English and Catalina channel swims as "sister swims" after taking over the event in 1993. Eventually, he started using the term triple crown in connection with his race and the two other swims.

"I'm from Baltimore," says Berger. "I grew up going to the Preakness [part of horse racing's Triple Crown], and so it was a way of trying to get the Manhattan swim in the same breath as the English Channel. Catalina wasn't in the same breath either.

"So every time I would talk to the press about covering the Manhattan swim as it was growing, they would go, 'Well, we really don't know about it,' and I would say, 'It's like the English Channel.'"

Soon others were using the term and talking of doing all three. In recent years, attempts at the triple crown have taken off. When Opdycke completed her triple in 2008, she was listed as just the 24th to do it. In six years, that number has more than tripled. Munatones set up a website in 2010 to raise awareness, and marathon swimmers -- much like marathon runners, ultra runners, triathletes and cyclists -- now try to knock them off one by one.

Triple crown a goal?

Indeed, that was the motivation for Opdycke in 2008, but not every marathon swimmer has embraced the triple-crown quest. Opdycke was already an experienced long-distance swimmer (with a victory in the Manhattan race), but when her coach challenged her to swim the three in a shorter period than anyone before, she took it up.

On July 5, she did the Manhattan swim in 7:46:32. She swam the English Channel 22 days later in 10 hours, 54 minutes. On Aug. 9, she took 8:28:21 to do the Catalina crossing.

"I always knew I wanted to do the triple crown," she says.

Samuels, too, had the triple crown in mind when she completed all three legs this summer in a bid to become the youngest to do it.

Robinson's goals were different. For him, the English Channel was the ultimate target. He built up to it using the others. He did Manhattan in 2006 and Catalina in 2008 before doing the English Channel this year in 11 hours, 59 minutes.

"By the time I did Catalina, I knew that the three were the triple crown," he says.

Though it wasn't something he strived for, he is proud of the accomplishment and says among marathon swimmers the triple crown is a big thing.

MacDonald, meanwhile, says the triple crown isn't important to her. Her passion is for the English Channel. When she was 12, she told her younger sister she would swim it one day. She does other races for the experience and to prepare for England. That's why she did Catalina and has done Manhattan five times.

"The triple crown doesn't really matter to me," says MacDonald, of Manchester, Connecticut. "It's not a big deal to me."

What is a big deal for swimmers such as MacDonald, Robinson and Opdycke is long-distance swimming. The training, planning, travel and execution are both consuming and rewarding. Part of it, says Robinson, "is doing something other people can't do."

He was too small for basketball or football, but he can swim and has endurance.

"It is sort of fun to be one of, whatever, 100 people who've done it ever or one of 1,500 people who have ever swum the channel," Robinson says.

For MacDonald, every swim brings new conditions, challenges and discoveries. Her mind tells her it's too cold. Her shoulder screams that it hurts. She overcomes both. She has completed the English Channel in as little as 9 hours, 42 minutes and as much as 13-plus hours. Every time is a new adventure.

"I'm pretty good at it, and that's all I can say," she says. "I'm going to do it until my body says I can't."

Different challenges

All three swims have established governing bodies and rules. Each has a different character.

English Channel: By nearly all accounts, it is the most difficult. It's more than 20 miles, it's cold, the ship traffic is intense, the water is saltier, and the tides can bring swimmers to a halt. As swimmers from England approach the French shore, the changing tides and currents can force them to basically swim in place for up to four hours. Plus, the cost -- for travel, a pilot boat and support -- can be about $10,000.

"Put it this way: I bought my pilot his house or a new boat," MacDonald says of her 15 crossings.

Manhattan Island Marathon Swim: The counterclockwise course around the island is about 8 miles longer than its sister swims (more or less, depending on routes and currents) and it's a race, so it's the only one with the competition factor.

It has a couple of pluses. First, unlike Catalina and the English Channel -- where there's not much to look at -- swimmers have the Manhattan skyline to keep things interesting. Second, the tides and currents of the East and Hudson rivers are generally favorable. MacDonald calls it the easiest of the three. Robinson says, "You get a lot of current assist."

A downside: more stuff in the water. "You have floating objects that might hurt you," says Opdycke.

Catalina Channel: Swimmers start at midnight on the island to combat strong afternoon winds, so that means swimming in five-plus hours of darkness. The water can be cold -- fluctuating from the low 60s to low 70s in the summer -- and currents are "wicked," says Opdycke. As in the English Channel, there are jellyfish. There also are sharks. One swimmer reported being "hit" by a shark while attempting a crossing in 2013.

Why these three?

Munatones acknowledges that the triple crown swims aren't necessarily the best or most difficult in the world, just as the three races that make up horse racing's Triple Crown may not constitute the ultimate test for thoroughbreds.

Cases could be made for others to make up a very different trio, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, the Cook Strait in New Zealand and the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. Or the Tsugaru Channel in Japan, the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland and the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. The possibilities are endless. And Munatones points out on his website that for different areas of the globe there are more logical triple crowns.

If he had to create a new triple to encompass more variety, he says he would go with the English Channel (traditional and cold), the Molokai Channel (warm) and the Cook Strait (Southern Hemisphere with plenty of marine life).

But the English Channel, Catalina and Manhattan swims are established, well-run and have long histories. They make sense.

"They have three very professional governing bodies," Munatones says. "So it's like running 100 meters at the Olympics. It's the standard. You can win world championships, you can win national championships, but until you've done the English Channel, Catalina Channel and Manhattan marathon swim ... It enables you to be considered and actually in the top echelon on marathon swimming."

Now that it's established, swimmers who want to accomplish something special have made it a target. Berger sees the enthusiasm for it, as swimmers train and plan to do all three. Sometimes, they may not even be ready for it yet -- he's counseled some to take more time to prepare -- but they're committed.

"[People] may not be able to run a marathon, they might not be able to do an Ironman, but they can swim forever and they love swimming," Berger says. "We get a lot of people coming through [to the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim] saying, 'I've got to do it this year, Morty. You've got to let us in this year.' Why? 'Well, we're scheduled for the English Channel next year and maybe Catalina after, so this is our year to do it.'"

Says Munatones: "Any sport like ourselves, where you set a target, set a bar, whether it's a time or a series of swims like the triple crown ... any time you set a target, people get really, really motivated."