La Jollan Todd Robinson swam his way into history on Aug. 25. Robinson set the men’s world record for swimming the 21-mile Catalina Channel.
“It’s a long way to go and it’s longer than I’ve ever swum before, so I was pretty happy with the way we were able to push through and make it to the other side,” Robinson said.
Robinson completed the swim in 8:05:44, starting a little after midnight in order to swim the calmest water possible. He said it was the first time he had swum long distance at night.
“It was a surreal experience because your hand enters the water and you get the phosphorescence from the contact, so you’re kind of swimming in your own self-created light,” Robinson said.
Going into the swim, Robinson said setting a record was in the back of his mind. But it was not something completely in his control.
“I was pretty confident that I had done all the necessary training to go the distance of 21 miles,” Robinson said. “The question was more whether or not I was going to get conditions which were going to allow me to swim at a pace which might allow me to break the world record.”
Robinson estimates that he swam only an hour to an hour and a half in flat water. For the remainder of the swim, he battled through wind chop and swells that are common in open water.
“Conditions weren’t great; they were so-so,” Robinson said. “But they weren’t so bad that it precluded me from being able to break the world record.”
Robinson did not complete the world record swim from three miles off Catalina Island to Point Vicente in Rancho Palos Verdes in Los Angeles on his own. He was joined by an escort kayak and boat to keep him on course and pace swimmers that took one-hour shifts to keep Robinson at his eventual 23-minute-mile pace.
“I couldn’t have asked for better support from the crew on the boat, the kayakers and my pace swimmers that were just fantastic,” Robinson said.
Every 15 minutes during the swim, Robinson would “feed,” which entailed swimming next to the escort kayak and drinking six ounces of a carbohydrate mixture to help maintain his energy levels. He also had a strategy to maintain his mental strength.
“I tried to divide up the swim in my mind,” Robinson said. “The first four hours I was comfortable. My training swims were in excess of four hours, so I knew that I could keep a comfortable pace the first four hours, and that fifth hour was sort of a transitional hour.”
Robinson did not suffer any injuries during the swim, but said that the repeated motion did a number on his shoulders.
“For me, my shoulders are the weak link in the chain of propulsion,” Robinson said. “It takes its toll after 60 strokes a minute for seven hours. The last hour, your arms have rotated quite a few times by then.”
Robinson began training for the channel swim by swimming nearly every day, from May on, in La Jolla. During the week Robinson swam three to five miles per day, and on Saturdays he swam 10 to 15 miles.
“That was all done in the La Jolla Cove — either over to the Scripps Pier and back for the 3-mile lap or over to the lifeguard towers at La Jolla Shores for a 2-mile round-trip,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who has lived in La Jolla for the past 14 years, had the help of a training team during his months of preparation. The team consisted of members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club and the UCSD Masters swim program.
“They were really instrumental because none of them were really keen on swimming 15 miles by themselves, so they would stagger their start times so I almost always had company when I was swimming out in the ocean, which is a big morale booster,” Robinson said.
Robinson said he had thought about doing the swim for a few years. Five years ago, he paddled on a kayak alongside a friend doing the swim.
“Since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind, and this year it just worked out with my work schedule and the ability to devote some time and effort to training for the swim,” Robinson said.
It worked out as well as he could have planned.