Posted by: teamcleveland | October 10, 2010

In Praise of Failure

In Praise of Failure

On Saturday, June 12, 2010, I set out to swim the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. This is a 28.5 mile counterclockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan (yes, Manhattan really is an island!)

The swim also marked the third “major” open water swim of my career. The other two: the English Channel and the Catalina Channel. The three swims meet the requirements for the “Triple Crown of Ocean Swimming”. Only 40 other swimmers have completed all three major endurance swims in history.

Along the way we’ve hurdled some huge obstacles. It rained on us in the English Channel in 2008 during the swim and in the 10 days of waiting for the opportunity to “make the attempt”.  Pitch-black darkness, jelly fish stings and cold water just off the coast in the nighttime Catalina Channel swim in 2009. Endurance events are epic struggles, so you expect pain, sickness and problems. But nothing we could not overcome.

So for Manhattan, I set out to swim around the Island as quickly as possible, envisioning a total time of less than 8 hours. In a time trial just 6 days before Manhattan I clocked 6.2 miles in just over 2 hours. We were all set.

And what a setting for a swim: New York City. Quite possibly the world’s greatest modern city. A monument of human engineering prowess and ingenuity — and most importantly of trade and the spontaneous order of the market. Whenever I get a chance, I like to tell people: Trade is prosperity. NYC is a great reminder of this dictum. How many of the goods consumed on the “Island” are made in NYC? Very few, but prosperity reigns. What makes the modern world prosperous is not resource abundance or a central plan directing all the activity, it’s trade. Indeed, Frederic Bastiat also pondered the question of how Paris was fed. He concluded it wasn’t the benevolence of the rest of France, it was an “exchange of service”. It was trade.

The swimmers entered the water in a single file line at Battery Park South Cove on the Hudson River. I opted for a “cannonball” entrance into the warm, 63 degree water. The 38 swimmers then gathered into a group for the “in the water” start.  I was the first swimmer out of the cove at the start. Soon my brother — as always in a kayak during my swims — fell in alongside.

With the Statue of Liberty off to the right we made a left-hand turn on our way around the tip of Manhattan to cross under the 126-year old Brooklyn Bridge and up the East River (I stopped for a few seconds under the bridge, rolled over and enjoyed the moment). How many people have pulled off a back float under the Brooklyn Bridge?

The course connects you across the Harlem River and into the Hudson for the final stretch.

But just after crossing under the Brooklyn Bridge I swam through the backwash from another boat: motor oil on the surface of the water penetrated the pores on my face and scalp, burning. Sucking in the fumes was unavoidable. Soon I became physically ill. Unable to keep down my food — or “fuel” as we call it is ocean swimming. For endurance events you have plans. Then you have back-up plans. Then you have back-up, back-up plans.  We tried liquids, gels, solid food. Nothing worked.

Everything I put in found a way back out into the East River. Severe fatigue set in. So did dehydration as I felt my body ache from lack of water. By the time I made it all the way up the East River and into the Harlem River, the lack of energy made me wonder: could this be it? Was I hitting a wall? How much further could I make it? Would I fail on this swim?

My mind reeled. Months of preparation. Thousands of dollars in expenses. A team of supporters traveling to NYC to help and witness the swim.

Now, I wanted to finish – but my body refused to let me. I grew more tired, more dehydrated. My turnover slowed to a crawl as we slowly made our way up the East River. I could barely swim. I felt myself fading fast. Other swimmers passed us — a huge psychological blow.

I faced failure in the face.

I know it’s not what you want to hear about. You want to hear a story of success, of triumph over long-odds. But I want you to think about failure here.

When I swam for my old swim coach – Steve — he used a phrase: “swim to fail” or “swim to failure”. This meant pushing yourself in training as hard as you could go, until your muscles tightened up or you had to stop, gasping for air or throttled by fatigue. It was a test to see how hard you were really pushing, but also a reminder that there are physical limits. And, more importantly, that those limits were, well, so what? You’d take a rest and try again, maybe next week or next month, and push on. Failure was the key to progress. To have a better swim next time. Without failure you never knew how good you could be.

I think too people many are afraid of failure. It makes us hesitate. It makes us shrink away from tasks and new challenges.

It’s not just athletic endeavors.

In the economy, I sense a massive fear of failure. Indeed, most of the last 3 years of “economic policy” are geared toward preventing failure–and in fact gathering up unprecedented amounts of resources to do so, diverting those resources from other activities to guarantee businesses do not fail. Many fear that if we don’t “do something” to help those we will face severe consequences. But did you know that the majority of US companies in existence today weren’t around in 1980? Failure — and innovation and creation — are hallmarks of the US economy. The vast majority of net, new jobs created in my lifetime were “created” by small, start-up companies. At the same time, many do not survive the first year.

Failure is healthy.

Now obviously I wouldn’t have enjoyed failing in Manhattan. Who would?

And the last thing I wanted was to climb out (or, rather, be pulled out of the river and onto the boat — a disqualification). So I just kept swimming. I told myself, if I can make it to the Hudson River we can take a break there. I began favoring one side, putting a lot of strain on my right shoulder. Soon every right arm stroke was accompanied by piercing pain.

I made it to the Hudson. But I didn’t stop out of fear I wouldn’t be able to muster the strength to start again. Slowly, the New York City skyline scrolled by to my left. Central Park. Midtown. The Financial District. I was limping toward the finish. Four or five times along the way I felt the world grow dim, as I nearly passed out from exhaustion, dehydration and lack of nutrients.

I remember treading water in the Hudson River — over 7 hours into the swim at this point — and still throwing up in the water. And just to top it all off: another swimmer passed me as I felt my body growing weak and light headed. But I kept going.

I finished in 8 hours, 14 minutes, 8th place overall. A failure? Perhaps. In fact, all I can remember from the finish is my brother yelling, Yes, Triple Crown! Triple Crown!

Why did I succeed on this swim? Because I was not afraid to fail. I took an enormous gamble but I thought to myself, If I fail, so what? I kept swimming and focused my thoughts on one thing: climbing out of the Hudson river onto the dock at Battery Park. Rather than shrinking away from failure, let’s embrace it.

Let’s swim to fail.

Posted by: teamcleveland | June 4, 2010

Images of New York City

Incredible images of New York City (the next stop on the adventure train). Be sure to scroll down.

My new motto: if you can speak in front of 100 sixth-graders on a Friday afternoon, you can speak in front of just about anyone. Not that I fault the students – I would wager my own attention span is quite similar. Plus, they possess the enthusiasm and joy that are absent in some other audiences. I took them on a brief tour of my ocean swimming adventures. My favorites include: a ridiculous six-hour tour of the frigid San Francisco Bay in 2008 (including a close encounter with seals under the Golden Gate Bridge in the early morning, foggy hours), the English Channel (the Mt. Everest of open water) and the Catalina Channel. Naturally, they were most impressed with the parts of ocean swimming that are normally deleted from polite conversation (the vomiting I did in the English Channel; the logistics of “going to the bathroom” in the open sea) as well as the threat of lurking, aggressive marine life.  I left them with 3 lessons from swimming in the ocean to consider:

1. In all your endeavors, focus on the destination, not the obstacles

2. Talent is overrated, hard work, discipline and mental strength are under appreciated

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (despite that fact that you are likely surrounding by pessimists) — so seize all the opportunities available to you and realize how extraordinary are the times in which we live.

Posted by: teamcleveland | May 31, 2010

Ocean Training: It’s Cold Out There

With water temperatures hovering in the mid to upper 50s, we ventured back into the Pacific this weekend. Saturday the listed water temperature was 54 degrees. Sunday it edged up to 55-58 degrees — but there were patches of really cold water out there along the way. By Monday, the water temperature was 59 (according to one lifeguard), but I doubt that reading. Plus, the air temperature in the 60s and winds made for choppy conditions. Heading south from Newport was a real struggle. Every time I train in the ocean it reminds me: pool swimming is easy.

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Posted by: teamcleveland | May 24, 2010

Training Update: 30 miles

We are roughly three weeks away from the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim – how is training going? Last week I logged nearly 30 miles in the pool and ocean. I’ll hit my peak in the next two weeks and then – depending on how I feel – hit a brief “taper”. But, building on a lesson we learned in the English Channel swim, I don’t need a big taper period for a marathon swim. In fact, it almost seems to work the opposite way for ultra endurance events.

The highlight of this week will be two speaking engagements: I am going to talk to six-graders at a charter school in Los Angeles on “the adventures of an ocean swimmer” – at least that’s the working title.

For this week in the water: 40+ miles?


Posted by: teamcleveland | December 12, 2009

Lessons from Swimming the Catalina Channel

Since ocean swimming is just a hobby and only one of my passions, here are some thoughts on how our adventures relate to far more important matters: the markets.


On September 23rd I dove into the water off of Catalina Island around midnight and started swimming. My destination: Point Vicente, Palos Verdes, 20 miles off in the distance. Many people wonder: what do you think about the while swimming 20 miles? It turns out that hours of ocean swimming provide plenty of time to ponder the machinations of Mr. Market in 2009.

Lesson 1: Focus. Discipline. Pacing.

Focus, discipline and pacing. These are the keys to marathon ocean swimming success. They are also the keys to successful long-term investment success.

I experience a whirl of emotions during an ocean swim. At the start of the Catalina Channel swim, I was nauseous – likely seasickness from the boat ride to the island from the mainland. Once in the water I became disoriented by the pitch-black conditions. I could see what looked like large fish swimming below but I could not see my two kayakers 10 yards away.

I battled through each 15 minute period that was separated by a 10-15 second “feeding” break. After a few hours, a few carbohydrate “gel” packs and several bottles of water, I felt great. A wave of energy swept over me and my turnover picked up to 68-70 strokes per minute from my planned 60-65 strokes per minute—a pace I would not be able to maintain for hours on end. My brother, following alongside in a kayak, cautioned on the torrid pace and I settled back in for the long journey ahead. We were trying to reach Palos Verdes, not set the record for fastest 1-hour pace.

In the markets a period of nausea ensued after Lehman’s collapse and stretched into March 2009. Terms like Great Depression and financial Armageddon peppered  conversations. Then something changed. Spring had sprung and investor sentiment thawed. By summer, not only had sentiment improved but it was clear investors developed a severe case of amnesia. On the heels of the biggest credit bubble and bust in history, the stock market soared, investment grade and high yield corporate debt rallied and talk of a recovery, a new bull market and even a new bubble emerged. Using data going back to 1871, we can see that only 3 times has the stock market swung from being down 40% over a six-month period to being up 40% over the following six-month period: 1932, 1933 and 2009.

What had changed?

In my view: very little. The markets swung violently from extreme panic to euphoria as the Federal Reserve stepped in (gel packs in hand) to stop the run on the banking system. The market’s perception about the world had change, the world had not. A credit boom led to credit bust – a story that too-often repeats over the course of financial history. In “This Time is Different,” economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff document eight centuries of crises. The aftermath is a “creative destruction” — shifting of resources (capital, and, unfortunately, labor). This process takes time, but certainly six months is overly optimistic.

The key to Channel swimming is to keep calm through the highs and lows of each hour. The pacing and direction during each 15 minutes is established by our strategy of how to safely reach the final destination. This strategy doesn’t ebb and flow with emotion. This is a healthy reminder for investors about the likelihood of a market pullback.

Lesson 2: Not one risk, but many risks.

After the shock of 2007-2009, investors have been on the lookout for the next “big systemic risk”. One example is the market’s current worry over inflation.

In ocean swimming, I call this the “shark factor”. Sharks dominate discussions about ocean swims. Many believe sharks represent the greatest danger to a lone swimmer in the open water. This presents two problems. First, very few swimmers actually swim in the open ocean (only 173 have actually crossed the Catalina Channel) and past is not prologue. The frequency of past shark attacks says nothing about what could happen during my swim. More importantly, the focus on sharks masks many other risks. There’s exhaustion, cold water and hypothermia, dehydration. On any given day in Channel swimming, one risk – or a cocktail of risks – can derail a swim.

In the Catalina Channel, the biggest risk turned out to be the cold (yes, in California!) endured over the final three miles. In another 2009 swim across the 10-mile Maui Channel, the biggest risk was dehydration. Approximately five hours into the Catalina swim, I felt something latch on to my foot, followed by a sharp pain.

A jelly fish, not a shark.

Lesson 3: Adaptation.

I swam for 9 hours and 33 minutes in water temperature ranging from 64 to 69 degrees. I spent six hours swimming in the dark. My body battled cold, fatigue, dehydration, sleep deprivation, jelly fish. The body is amazingly adaptive.

So too is the US economy. One of my favorite quotes comes from the economist F.A. Hayek, winner of the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design.”

Hayek’s words are warning against the expectation that a plan is needed to “fix” the US economy. Instead, the “economy” is literally millions of individuals engaged in trade and interaction all over the world, much of it spontaneous and not the result of any design.

To think about how resilient and adaptive the economy is, consider job creation. If you follow the popular financial media, you probably think the economy is shedding 500,000 jobs per month. In fact, in the three months ending December 2008, 8.467 million jobs were lost from firings, quitting or business closures. But that’s only half the story.

During the same period 6.712 million jobs were created. That’s right, created. Further, 20 years of data available reveal that approximately 7 million jobs were created and 7 million lost over the average 3-month period. Sure, in a “recession” the scales tip toward job losses. In “expansion” the opposite occurs. While a healthy economy is, of course, one where more jobs are created than lost, the economy is not an organism to be bumped and prodded by planners in the right direction. And focusing on the monthly number completely hides the dynamism of an advanced, complex economy. Innovation, entrepreneurship, this is the stuff of wealth creation and long-term growth.

The next challenge: a 28.5-mile, counter-clockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan. This is the third swim in the “Triple Crown of Ocean Swimming” (English Channel, Catalina Channel, Swim Around Manhattan). Fewer than 40 swimmers have ever completed all three swims. We will keep you posted on the progress.

The market’s next challenge: to survive without the Fed’s gel packs.

Disclaimer: Of course, the views expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of my firm.

Posted by: teamcleveland | October 5, 2009

Two Down, One To Go…

Two down and one to go toward ocean water swimming’s Triple Crown. English Channel. Check. Catalina Channel. Check. Swim Around Manhattan in June 2010?

Together, those 3 swims constitute the unofficial Triple Crown. Also unofficially: fewer than 40 swimmers have completed all 3 swims in their lifetimes.

I crossed the Catalina Channel — from Doctor’s Cove to Point Vicente, Palos Verdes — in 9 hours and 33 minutes on the morning of September 24th. We started the swim right around midnight and swam through the night.

The most popular question: what was more difficult — English Channel or Catalina Channel?

The English Channel — where we battled 10 days of terrible weather, cold water, rain, choppy seas — takes the top honors. The Catalina Channel is no easy task, however. Two important challenges to overcome in crossing the Catalina Channel.

First, the swim is attempted at night. Why? Not sure exactly. But the normal answer given is that a) the wind and b) the chop. Currents are not as much of a factor in the Catalina Channel — at least according to the boat that navigates the swimmers across. What’s so bad about swimming at night? Lots. For starters, you can’t see anything. The kayak support boats are adorned in glow sticks but this matters little. I couldn’t tell which direction they were moving in and smashed my head, face, and mouth into them multiple times in the early hours.

Second, about 3 miles off of Palos Verdes the water temperature drops, in the case of my swim by 4-5 degrees. For a swim that started in 69-degree water at Catalina, a 5 degree drop may not see like much. But it is. The human body becomes acclimated to the near-70 degree temperature over the course of the first 8 hours of the swim making the dramatic fall in temperature difficult to absorb. I was shivering over the final mile.

The second most popular question: did you see any sharks?

The answer: no sharks, but I did see some very large fish. The boat captain said they were tuna. I also had a close encounter with a jelly fish and the jelly fish won. My left foot absorbed the pain and I kept on swimming.

We had a great team this time, which smoothed the process and made a tough swim a success. Once again leading the team was my brother. If open water swimming credited each swimmer listed on the “success” page with an assist, that assist would definitely go to him. In fact, I think he is more serious about conquering these swims than I am. At one point, in the middle of the night, I remarked on the visibility, the stars and the constellations, floating for a moment on my back after I stopped for a quick feeding break. His comment: “We are in the middle of a swim. Shut up and get going.”

To which I replied: “Is that Cassiopeia?”

And what better way to summarize a Catalina Channel swim? In the dark, 100 yards from the escort boat, floating on your back in the complete pitch-darkness that is the open ocean at night?

A moment that is without words.

One more to go…

Just keep swimming,


Posted by: teamcleveland | August 24, 2009

8 miles @ Newport Beach

An eight mile swim on Saturday morning at Newport Beach proved to be one of the most difficult of the training season. Get this: when we were headed south, my kayak support boats were struggling to keep pace. It was easier to navigate the strong current and waves while swimming as opposed to kayaking. Usually once you break the surf line and swim out beyond the pier, the waves become predictable. Of course, we relish training opportunities like this. When the fair weather beach goers of So Cal and even the tourists refuse to venture into the surf, TeamCleveland appears on the shore and spends the next 30 minutes attempting to get two kayaks out through the shore break. Once beyond the piers, we battled the swells for over 3 hours. A very good training run as we head soon to the one place in the world where I’ve encountered the biggest swells in an open water swimning before: the Maui Channel.

Just keep swimming,

Team Cleveland

Posted by: teamcleveland | August 17, 2009

4 Miles in the Ocean

Four miles in the ocean logged today at Hermosa Beach. Decent conditions, slightly cloudy, with water temperature hovering in the mid-60s. We are now approximately 3 weeks away from the next big adventure: the Maui Channel.

Posted by: teamcleveland | August 4, 2009

Q: How Do You Train For Ocean Swims?

A: By swimming in the ocean. This is probably the question most frequently asked. Training in the pool — even if you are racking up serious miles — does not compare to braving the open ocean, out beyond the piers. We logged 6 miles in the ocean last weekend; 5 miles in the pool.

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