Q&A: Alan Bell, open water swimmer

On swimming with sharks, watching out for kelp, and beating rivals half your age.


May 3, 2012, 11:20 a.m.
Samena Swim & Recreation Club
(Photo: Brian Smale)

Alan Bell, a 61-year-old pharmacist from Redmond, Wash., has been swimming competitively for more than 50 years. In 2010, he set two U.S. records in his age category (both subsequently broken). His specialty, however, is open-water swimming, the granddaddy of extreme endurance sports: since 2000, Bell has virtually owned the Bay Challenge, winning the individual category of the annual 10-kilometre marathon across Vancouver’s English Bay 10 times in competition with much younger men and women. He shared the secrets of his success with Canadian Business managing editor Michael McCullough.

Born: 04/04/50
Fastest Bay Challenge (10 km) time:1 hour, 44 minutes
Slowest time: 3 hours, 40 minutes
Longest swim: Catalina Channel, ­Calif., 21 miles
Time: 9 hours, 28 minutes
Pre-race meal: Oatmeal, ­yogurt, ­water, coffee

Open-water swimming is not well known or followed, but it’s been around a long time. The first Bay Challenge was held in 1931. What attracted you to it?

Once I finished my collegiate swimming at the University of Washington, the idea of doing masters swimming—I considered it boring. Been there, done it. I had some friends who were involved in triathlons, and they got me involved. As I started doing more triathlons, I found that there were open-water swim events, so I started doing those.

In events like the Bay Challenge, you’re swimming against men half your age and winning. How do you account for that?

What I tell everybody about the Bay Challenge is, it’s a team event. I have a very experienced team—my wife, Jennifer Bell, and a good friend of ours, Tanya Touzalin, who lives up in West Van; one drives the boat and the other gives me directions. They do all the navigation, they do all the strategic planning, and I just swim. Also, one of the little tricks that I’ve found is that many swimmers have to stop and take fluids or food, and I’ve just trained myself over time just not to need that. I will go the entire Bay Challenge without any food or water. And at the end of a race—in 2010, for example, I won by three seconds—if I’d have stopped, I would have lost.

How do you train for a 10-kilometre swim like that?

My typical training regimen is I will swim five days a week on average, year-round, and do an average of about 5,000 yards per workout. That gives me a real base. And then during the summer, I will start swimming in Lake Sammamish [near Seattle], and we’ll go for an hour-and-a-half or two-hour swims—an hour up and an hour back in the lake.

How does diet factor into your training?

I live a pretty healthy lifestyle, and so I don’t really change anything prior to a meet. What I will do prior to the Bay or any time I’m doing a 10K swim is I’ll probably hydrate a lot the week before and try to minimize consumption of wine—but not eliminate it. This is recreation. I do have my priorities. A good glass of red wine helps the heart.

What are you thinking when you’re out there among the freighters?

I really don’t have that much awareness of what’s around me. I breathe on my right side. When I turn to the right, I basically see my boat and two people in it, and they’re giving me instructions and that’s what I focus on. My mind wanders everywhere. I’ll be singing songs. I’ll be doing work things. Anything to take my mind off what I’m doing. It’s cold. I mean, it’s a very clean venue, but it’s not Hawaii where you can see 20 or 30 feet down. Sometimes I’ll be swimming along, and I’ll look up and I’ll see they’re trying to motion about something, and all of a sudden I’ll slam into a floating log. Sometimes there’s kelp, and that’s not very fun because there’s a little serrated edge on the kelp that doesn’t feel very pleasant.

Have you ever injured yourself doing a race like this?

Not injured myself, but in Hawaii many times I’ve been stung by a man-of-war [jellyfish] which hurt a lot.

And you kept going?

You’re out in the ocean. You just have to keep going.

What does it feel like when your foot touches solid ground again?

In the Bay Challenge, the last 500 metres take forever. It’s like, When is this thing going to end? I’ve done the event as fast as one hour and 44 minutes and as slowly as three hours and 40 minutes because of the conditions. But that last 500 metres is always just agonizingly long. Finally, when you start seeing the bottom, mentally what I do is I swim until I no longer can take a stroke, and then I do a four-point stand where I put both hands really wide and both feet and then stand up slowly—because many times you fall—and then I stand up and sprint up the beach. It can be a 50-yard run or a 100-yard run, depending on where the tide is.

Which races have left the biggest impression on you?

The San Diego races. One time I counted 50 sharks. They were not the kind you need to be concerned with—they were bottom-feeders—but when a nine-foot shark goes underneath you, it’s an event.

How do you make time for a full-time job and doing all this swimming?

I swim early in the morning. I’m usually in the pool by 6:30 a.m., or during the summertime when we’re in the lake, 5:30. It’s just a priority. You make time. Because I do a lot of travelling, sometimes you’re swimming in these hotel pools that are five strokes, turn, five strokes, turn. I’ll just say to myself I can do anything for an hour and a half, so I’ll do a thousand laps of a Marriott Courtyard pool.

Do you take time off from swimming at any time of the year?

I don’t take scheduled breaks. My wife says if I don’t get in the water for three days I get cranky.

So there aren’t times when you get sick of the water?

Oh, every day. My training buddy and I, this morning we’re doing a workout, and I’m just whining like crazy because I didn’t want to be there.

So how do you get over that hump?

He yells at me, I yell at him, we call each other names—and then we continue the set. It’s always good to train with somebody and have a similar camaraderie.

How long do you plan to continue competing?

I’d like to live to be 100 or more, and I’d like to be doing open-water swims in the age group of 100–104.

There’s an age group for that?

There is an age group, yeah.