Quinn Fitzgerald’s Maiden Marathon: Insights from the Round-Trip Angel Island Swim

Quinn Fitzgerald’s Maiden Marathon: Insights from the Round-Trip Angel Island Swim

While many know Quinn Fitzgerald as the seasoned swimmer and CEO of the World Open Water Swimming Association, few are aware that until recently, he had never tackled a marathon swim. His journey began in competitive age group club teams in California, took him through collegiate pool swimming at Yale University, and from a serendipitous relay across Long Island Sound while living in New York – hooked on open water swimming.

Moving back to the West Coast in 2013, it was a 3-day swim-and-camp along the Na Pali Coast of Kauai with friends that really deepened his engagement with open water and he started competing after that in local 1k – 5k lake and ocean swims.

A trip as a spectator to the IISA Ice Swimming World Championships in Murmansk, Russia, inadvertently introduced him to the world of ice swimming. Ram Barkai persuaded him to compete and he unexpectedly snagged a world record in the 50 Free. His leadership as Commissioner of Rough Water Swimming at the San Francisco Olympic Club from 2016 to 2019 helped set an ambitious long-term goal for Olympic Club swimmers to be the first team to accomplish the Oceans Seven as a relay, who ended up breaking the North Channel relay record last year

But there’s nothing more special to him than swimming in the San Francisco Bay. Just a ten-minute walk from his Water Street home, Quinn regularly meets with his local Irish Pod at the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco. Whether heading east or west from the cove, depending on the tide, Quinn finds a sense of belonging in sharing open water swimming with friends along with stunning views of Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

We met with Quinn to explore his inaugural marathon—the 10-mile (16.1 km) Round-Trip Angel Island swim completed in 4:54:59 (pending ratification by the Northern California Open Water Swimming Association) in San Francisco Bay on April 16, 2024—and to gather insights for others gearing up for their first marathon swim.

What motivated you to do the Round-Trip Angel Island swim as your first marathon swim?

Quinn Fitzgerald: RTAI is such a challenging and technical swim with an amazing history. For my first marathon swim, I wanted to do something local. Angel Island sits prominently just behind Alcatraz from where I swim daily. I loved the idea of starting a marathon swim from my local swim spot in Aquatic Park and tackling an obvious landmark in the bay.

As I see it, marathon swimming is the ultimate achievement in amateur open water swimming.  I wanted to learn as much as possible about the training process and mechanics, even though RTAI is a shorter route compared to many marathon swims.

Can you talk about your training program leading up to the swim? How did you prepare for swimming in the dynamic conditions of San Francisco Bay?

Quinn Fitzgerald: I started by focusing on general fitness in November of 2023 with lots of dryland (weights and running) and getting in the bay 5-6 times per week. Then I focused on systematically extending my long swims to ensure I could tolerate the cold bay waters for up to 5-7 hours. I also made sure to expose myself to as many different conditions as possible – high winds, chop, against the current, cross-current, etc. 

My marathon swimming mentor is Erika Gliebe, who has swum Round Trip Angel Island 4 times and gave tons of good advice on my training plan, feeding plan and mental approach. She helped me select my pilots, Pacific Open Water, and kept me accountable for my long swims. 

Compared to training for a 1-5k open water race which is about speed and extending your anaerobic threshold, marathon swimming is much more about keeping a comfortable “forever pace” regardless of the conditions. I focused a lot on maintaining a consistent stroke rate, which I used as a general barometer for my effort, and locked into a steady rhythm to practice maintaining for 2, 3 and 4 hour sessions.

What were some of the most unexpected mental and physical challenges you encountered during the swim, and how did you overcome them?

Quinn Fitzgerald: I quickly realized that marathon swimming is all about staying calm and keeping negative doubts at bay despite adverse conditions.  There were several points where my confidence was tested. The first and biggest hurdle was on hour two in the Raccoon Strait between the backside of Angel Island and Tiburon.

The pilot had me swimming close to shore to avoid fighting against the ebb tide, but at Point Lone, just before Ayala Cove, the water whipped around the point and I had to sprint for several minutes just to stay in place. I eventually made it through, but it left me physically and mentally depleted and I never fully recovered from the exertion. From that point on, the swim became about coping with acute pain in my right shoulder, where an old rotator cuff injury flared up.  

While the first 90 minutes of the swim I was focused and confident, the next 3 hours was a shift into survival mode, with a lot of positive meditative self-talk, where I concentrated on putting one arm in front of the other. 

The tides and currents significantly influence the swim. How did you and your pilot plan and adjust your course in response to these factors?

Quinn Fitzgerald: I was wildly impressed with Bryan and Sylvia of Pacific Open Water Co., with their deep knowledge of the tides and navigating vessel traffic. There were three route options before the swim, and they chose the most advantageous based on the timing of tankers and a real-time analysis of what the tides were doing relative to the forecast. Then dozens of smaller real-time decisions were made to give me the best chance of finishing. On the home stretch, we raced a flood tide, returning west of Alcatraz and aiming for Fort Mason so that I wouldn’t miss the opening to Aquatic Park. 

Can you describe the support crew’s role during your swim? How critical were they to supporting you and your mindset?

My crew chief was Elaine Van Vleck, who is a veteran marathon swimmer with close ties to the Pacific Open Water pilots. It’s a big ask for someone to stay up all night, feed you, give you updates and provide much-needed emotional support. Elaine was incredibly helpful, mixing hot liquid feeds on a moving boat in the dark and shouting words of encouragement.

Having swum in ice-cold conditions, how different was it to swim in the relatively warmer waters of San Francisco Bay?

Quinn Fitzgerald: While both cold water, these are different sports, prompting very different physiological responses.

Ice Swimming in water temperatures under 5°C/41°F causes a cold shock response that is pretty extreme – shallow breathing and limited blood circulation resulting in immediate lactic acid build-up. Swimming in the San Francisco Bay in April is cold (11-13°C / 53-57°F), but significantly warmer and while there is an initial shock, after 5-7 minutes of swimming it becomes almost comfortable. 

The real challenge with a marathon swim in the Bay is the duration. After two hours, the cold gradually seeps into the bones, causing the hands to claw up and the feet to go numb. 

Now that you’ve completed your first marathon swim, how has your perspective on open-water swimming evolved?

Quinn Fitzgerald: I love the diversity in this sport. From a 1k pier-to-pier swim to the Olympic 10k swim, marathon swimming represents a pure test of grit and endurance against the natural elements. 

The passion of the people who do marathon swims is unrivaled in the sport. It’s a special community and the camaraderie among these extreme athletes is beautiful to see. There’s a special bond that exists among marathon swimmers.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to experienced swimmers from other disciplines who are considering their first marathon swim?

Quinn Fitzgerald: My advice is to find a mentor and ideally a community of experienced marathon swimmers to train with. Be humble, ask lots of questions, and over prepare. 

Could you detail the weather and sea conditions on the day of your swim? How did these conditions affect your strategy and performance?

Quinn Fitzgerald: It was a beautifully clear night, which is unusual in San Francisco. There was a quarter-crescent moon dimly lighting the water. The snow melt from the mountains that feeds into the bay provided more water clarity than normal and the bioluminescence was incredible. 

The conditions were relatively flat, with the exception of a lumpy and bumpy stretch between Angel Island and Alcatraz on the back half of the swim. Overall the conditions were great allowing me to focus on my stroke and managing my shoulder pain.

The return leg from Angel Island to Aquatic Park is known for its complexity due to the interaction of currents, especially near Alcatraz. Could you describe your strategy for this final stretch and any advice you have for swimmers on maintaining course and energy levels during this critical phase of the swim?

Quinn Fitzgerald: Over the course of the swim, the ebb tide switched to a flood tide, forcing us to the west side of Alcatraz. At this point in the swim I was slowing down considerably, dropping my stroke rate from 50 strokes per minute down to 42. While I felt confident I would finish, the pilots were anxious to get to the opening of Aquatic Park before the max flood. I found myself wanting to know more about our precise location and the navigational strategy, but as the swimmer, I had to trust the pilots and just keep swimming.

What was your nutrition plan during the swim? How often did you feed, and what did you consume to maintain energy levels?

Quinn Fitzgerald: I pre-mixed Skratch Labs Super High Carb mix with hot water. I kept it in an insulated water bottle for Elaine to pour out 5 oz on each feed every 30 minutes. Every other feed, she would tape an espresso-flavored Gu with the top already ripped off, for easy and quick consumption. 

I felt good about my feeding plan, but the only thing I would do differently is replace the liquid Tylenol with grounded-up ibuprofen. The liquid Tylenol didn’t sit well in my stomach mixed with the sea water, which I swallowed quite a bit of during the choppy sections.

How did your body react to the prolonged exposure to open water, both during and after the swim?

Quinn Fitzgerald: In addition to the deep chill and my hands clawing up, I started to feel a slight cramping in my hamstring, which thankfully didn’t fully seize up. The most surprising thing was that the coldest I ever got was at hour 2.  While cold discomfort persisted throughout the swim, it did not get worse. 

What mental techniques or strategies did you employ to cope with the duration and difficulty of the swim?

Quinn Fitzgerald: To help during the dark patches, I would visualize finishing successfully, imagining the feeling of relief and joy. When the doubts about finishing crept into my head, I would find a meditative rhythm and focus on one stroke at a time. 

What was your recovery process like after completing the swim? Were there any surprises in your physical or emotional recovery?

Quinn Fitzgerald: Finishing a marathon swim at 4 a.m. is different than finishing a race. At a race, there’s a finish line, there are people, there are hugs, and a safety tent and food. With this swim I walked out of the water on a quiet beach at Aquatic Park, raised my arm to indicate I had cleared the water to stop the clock. Then I had to get back in the cold water and swim to the boat, which was tough. Once on the boat, I immediately started shivering and shaking uncontrollably. By the time I got home and took a hot shower, I was still shaking and shivering and didn’t fully warm up until I was fast asleep. When I woke up, it felt like the whole experience was a dream, and if it weren’t for the wonderful friends texting me and asking how I was, I’m not sure it would have felt real.  

How does this swim compare to your previous experiences in ice swimming competitions in terms of difficulty and satisfaction?

Quinn Fitzgerald: Racing in a pool, ice water, or open water, it’s you against others and there’s an urgency to establish a leg up on the competition. When you’re out there on a marathon swim, with a support boat and a crew helping to give you every advantage to finish, it feels more like a team sport. 

What are your future plans in open water swimming? Are there other marathon swims you are now interested in attempting?

Quinn Fitzgerald: I am looking forward to my next marathon swim, but no concrete plans. I do feel lucky to live in California with so many marathon swimming opportunities. I hope to one day do Catalina and one of the routes in Lake Tahoe. 

How has the open water swimming community influenced or supported you in this swim?

Quinn Fitzgerald: I was blown away at how willing and eager swimmers were to help give advice and encouragement. My Irish Pod teammates at the South End Rowing Club were especially helpful and I could feel them tracking my swim and pushing me forward. 

How did you manage any anxiety or fear, particularly when swimming in the dark?

Quinn Fitzgerald: Night swimming is a different sensation that takes some getting used to. I did some night training swims, but didn’t anticipate my entire swim being in the dark. But I adapted and simply followed the lights on the boat and focused on my stroke rate.  

How has completing the Round-Trip Angel Island swim influenced your thoughts on the sport of open water swimming and its community?

Quinn Fitzgerald: For me this swim was meaningful because I stare at the island every day. Round-Trip Angel Island is a local rite of passage and the perfect first marathon swim.  I feel lucky to have such an amazing swim in my backyard, but I also can’t wait to discover iconic marathon swims in every part of the world. 

WOWSA