steel bridge on the willamette river - one of the bridges the Portland Bridge swim passes under

How i prepared for the Portland Bridge marathon swim

Posted on: BY: Hilda Nkosi
Tags: fueling | marathon swims | Portland | river swims | training

The Portland Bridge swim race is one of those unique, bucket list swimming events that made me want to become an open water swimmer in the first place. The course runs along the Willamette River through downtown Portland Oregon, passing under 12 of the city’s spectacular bridges along the way. 

At a whopping 11 miles or 17 kilometers long though, the race is not for the faint of heart.

Use the links to fly down to the relevant section:

Where to find general information about the race

For race details the Portland Bridge Swim is listed in the OWW open water swim directory. 

Check out the official race website for full details and to register. 

If you have more questions I recommend reaching out to the community on the race Facebook page or emailing organizers directly. Race updates and changes are posted on the Facebook page too. It’s a good idea to pick the brains of locals at the race packet pickup at Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe.

How clean is the water?

There is a detailed disclaimer on the race website that explains all the different possible pollutants you might encounter during the swim. Potential contaminants include sewage, toxic algae, and toxic chemicals, as well garbage and debris. 

I’m sure this page must put off a lot of swimmers. It made me squirm myself when I first read it. The thing to remember is that these are only potential pollutants. It’s necessary to have a disclaimer so participants can weigh up the risks themselves.

The Willamette Riverkeeper, the River Hugger Swim Team, and of course the Portland Bridge swim have done an incredible job cleaning the river and of making water quality a priority for industry and government. Since the race started the water is far cleaner and the wildlife has started to return.

I found the water to be very clean throughout. Maybe it differs from year to year but there were no issues for me and I don’t honestly even remember running into anything in the way of normal river debris. 

Nor did I experience any weird hangovers or stomach bugs the day after, which wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened to me after an open water swim. 

Hawthorne bridge, spanning the Willamette River, route for the Portland Bridge Swim
The route of the Portland Bridge Swim passes under the pedestrian-friendly Hawthorne Bridge. A great opportunity to line up your cheerleaders.

How i prepared for the Portland Bridge Swim

I decided I was going to do a long swim the following summer way back in late September. That gave me lots of time to ramp up my training. The longest I’d swum before that was 5 miles. That was in open water with a group of friends. Minimum pressure but I managed it comfortably as I  swam a few races that summer and I was in good shape. 

I decided on the Portland Bridge Swim itself in October after a friend suggested it. My goals were to finish the race, to enjoy the race, and to not get injured before or during the race.

I had read different opinions online about how much training I needed to do. The last thing I wanted was to overdo the training and injure myself so I couldn’t swim or worse – so I couldn’t do what I love all summer. On the other hand I didn’t want to suffer and take the enjoyment out of the occasion. 

How far do I need to swim per week in training?

I planned my training for a 10 mile swim. That seemed about right considering the race is supposedly ‘current assisted’. 

I read that I should be swimming 25 miles a week by race time to be ready. By Christmas I was swimming 10 miles a week in the pool. I upped that to 15 miles by the end of January. On the weekends I usually did a long swim. I found I couldn’t handle more than 15 miles a week in the pool. 

Minimizing pool fatigue when training for distance

I would recommend you get involved with a masters team if you can. The few times I was able to swim with other people it took the monotony out of lane swimming. Otherwise it was a huge mental effort to maintain the discipline in the pool.

In mid-May, with seven weeks left until the Portland Bridge Swim, I dipped a tentative toe in the frigid lake and started training outside. I wore thermal gear at first to make it tolerable. It was still more fun than the pool. 

The best part was that I was able to do much more distance. I was able to do 25 miles a week by two weeks prior to race day. I tapered to 18 miles and then 12 miles for the week of the race. 

Training for time in the water

It’s important to figure out the amount of time you think you’ll take to finish the race and then train for that amount of time in the water. 

Learning a fueling routine that’s right for you

Almost more important than training for the physical feat of the race is learning when your body needs nourishment, hydration and nutrients. You have to learn about your body’s needs and ramp up your fueling as you ramp up the time and the exertion. Everything is a coordination of different developing skills and awarenesses.

I had figured it would take me 5-7 hours. The longest I swam for in training was 5 hours, but I was able to finish in under 6 hours so I felt more or less conditioned for that length of time. 

A jet refueling in mid air
Refueling in the middle of a swim takes a bit of practice

How to manage refueling for a marathon swim

Fueling will develop by itself alongside your swimming training

Fueling for marathon swims is an art in itself and you are well advised to read up on the subject. If you do the proper amount of training for a race this distance, though, you can’t help but learn a lot about your body’s fueling needs. Like all the other extreme things I put myself through for this race, I was pretty competent at fueling by the time race day came around. 

With all that said, i did learn some important things about fueling for marathon swims, which i will share:

Fuel at a regular intervals 

Learn the approximate interval at which you should be taking on water, electrolytes, energy, and protein given the speed you go and how your body processes energy. Then fuel at that interval throughout the race. Use your long swims to tweak this interval. 

Don’t wait until you are hungry or thirsty to refuel

If you wait too long it will be too late. By the time the energy hits your system you will have spent a while running on empty. You probably won’t need to start fueling until after an hour or so. At that time you need to consume something small. Start the process of regular fueling so that you don’t suffer.  

Train for fueling and hydrating flexibility on race day

Race day can be different from training in many ways. The effect of travel, the nerves, and the change of routine might mean you are dehydrated, or lacking appetite the night before or morning of the race. Listen to your body as always. Keep your support person in the loop and learn to be flexible according to your needs. When you are hungry or thirsty, refuel immediately – sticking rigidly to the schedule is a bad idea.

Eat big carb feasts in the two days leading up to the race

Quote start

I ate a giant spaghetti bolognese and then oatmeal and scrambled eggs with two rounds of toast

I remembered this from running, so i thought I’d try implementing it on my long weekend swims. The night before, I ate a giant spaghetti bolognese and then oatmeal and scrambled eggs with two rounds of toast the next morning. It transformed my long swims. In my head I called it my base layer. 

I really noticed if i didn’t have that base layer and i was just winging it. Even with the extra energy gels and other fuel I used to supplement, I would fade a lot quicker without it. 

I used the same strategy for the race only more aggressively. Every time the thought occurred to me, I loaded up on carbs. Mash potatoes, ravioli, oatmeal, you name it. I can’t say it was the hardest part of my race prep!

woman open water swimming in a lake, swimming towards the camera
Start your carb-loading early and you will have a strong energy foundation for race day

What to eat while actually swimming

Obviously this is a very personal thing and something you need to figure out yourself. You will know what works for you by race day. What worked for me was to try to eat as much as possible on dry land, both the day before and the day of the race if nerves allow. I started fueling after just an hour so that the energy kicked in in time to stave off any flatlining at the 1.5/2 hour mark. Starting nice and early means you can eat a couple of small bites, swallow a few mouthfuls of electrolytes, and be on your way again. I found this was the best way to avoid nausea. 

My principal fuel was an oat and honey and peanut energy bomb mix I found online and modified. I made tiny soft manageable balls and scoffed one every 30 minutes with some premixed electrolyte drink mix. Nuun is my preferred option as it has 5 different electrolytes and only 1g of sugar. 

Every hour on the hour I consumed a huma gel pack and some regular water. I like the huma gels because they are all natural. For me they are not sickly after a few hours. Whatever works for you. 

Even though it’s tough to swallow at times, it’s important to force some water down or you will pay the price in cramps or fatigue. 

How to do the transition

We had lots of time to perfect the fueling transition in the lake. The only difference was that on race day we didn’t chatter much and there was a current. 

I prepared premixed nuun powder in cheap dollar store drinking bottles. I also prepared energy balls in the tiniest rubbermaid containers. We connected the containers and drinking bottles with carabiners. The huma gels were attached to water bottles with hair bands so they could be consumed in place. 

When I was ready to refuel my support person would connect a new bottle to a short cord attached to the kayak and throw the bundle to me. We found the cord made it much easier to reel it back in afterwards without wasting time. 

How much assistance does the current offer in the Portland Bridge Swim?

The amount of assistance you can expect to get from the current in the Portland Bridge Swim changes from race to race. The race is advertised as ‘Current-assisted’. You are traveling in the same direction as the river, that part is true. 

The catch is that it’s a tidal river and you could be swimming against the tide for a portion of the race. Best case is that you get a little assistance from the current. Worst case is that you are fighting against the tide for a portion of the race. What happened to me is that the two forces basically canceled each other out. Fortunately, the toughest part was the first third. I think we were getting a bit of assistance in the last third when I really needed it. 

St John's bridge, the last bridge racers pass under on the portland bridge swim
St John’s bridge, the last bridge out of 12 you will pass under in the Portland Bridge Swim

The Portland Bridge Swim is a unique bucket list swim

Portland holds a special place in my heart because it was the place my grandparents landed as immigrants in the fifties. It was a surreal experience passing under the bridges of the city, some of which, who knows? maybe they had crossed years before. 

No marathon swim is going to be a walk in the park. I questioned the whole point of this daft adventure so many times on those dark winter days. But when with burning shoulders and a foggy brain I finally reached the open aquamarine arms of the St John’s Bridge and made a push for home, I felt really… glad. 

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