Marathon Swimmer Catherine Breed goes Beyond the Black Line

Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @beyondtheblackline_

By Kate Walter, Swimming World College Intern.

The term “marathon swimming” may sound daunting and unfamiliar to those on the outside of the swimming community. It is even intimidating to those within who are used to clear waters, walls and black lines. But to the tenacious marathon swimmer Catherine Breed, her mindset says it all: “I didn’t want to just finish the swim – I wanted to conquer it.”

The 26-year-old UC Berkeley grad doesn’t just swim to count the laps, or miles in her case. She swims with purpose and a fierce inner fire: an inner fire that has led her to cross the world’s oceans, braving the frigid temperatures and Lions Mane jellyfish. An inner record-breaking, competition-winning fire. In her relatively short amount of time as a marathon swimmer, Breed has managed to distinguish herself as a prominent figure in the world of open water.

What is Marathon Swimming?

According to the Marathon Swimmers Association, “ A marathon swim is a nonstop, unassisted open water swim of 10 kilometers or longer.” Additionally, marathon events “take place in oceans, seas, bays, lakes, and rivers throughout the world – as part of organized events, sanctioned solo swims, or self-organized independent solo swims”.

Catherine Breed: A Life Underwater

Catherine Breed swam for the University of California, Berkeley, under Coach Teri McKeever. She finished her collegiate swimming career as one of Cal’s all-time top freestylers and helped the Golden Bears win several Pac 12 and national titles. She has also represented the United States on different national teams and qualified for both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials. Growing up in California, Breed always felt comfortable in the ocean and decided to dive head first into open water swimming after graduating.

SW: What inspired you to get involved in open water swimming and marathon swimming after college?

Breed: I grew up sailing around the Bay and the Pacific Ocean and took up surfing in college, so the ocean and water have always been an important part of my life and has felt like a second home. I think a huge part of it was that Teri McKeever incorporated ocean training and body surfing into some of our training trips. She helped me maintain my relationship with the sea.

I love swimming and wasn’t ready to give it up post college, but I was also done with pool racing. The Dolphin Club welcomed me in, and the open water races such as the Bay Bridge race and Golden Gate were an absolute blast. Being fresh out of Cal and still having some speed, I was winning the events and people started to take notice. A lot of those people encouraged me to set bigger goals for myself like the English Channel. I was terrified of swimming that long in cold water, so I signed up to do the length of Lake Tahoe first. That swim went so well that I was instantly hooked.

SW: What was it like to transition from collegiate swimming in open water swimming? 

Breed: Because of my history with being in and on the ocean my whole life, it was very natural. Although I didn’t start open water swimming expecting to swim channels. I started doing it purely for fun and have to keep checking in with that being my main reason why I am doing it. I love challenging myself and seeing what my mind and body can accomplish. Marathon swimming is your body and mind vs. themselves and Mother Nature. It is a very humbling experience when it doesn’t go well and extremely rewarding when it does.

Beyond the Black Line with Breed

Breed’s blog and Instagram handle Beyond the Black Line gives followers an in-depth and raw view of her life as a marathon swimmer. She not only shares the victories and successes of her journey but also the hardships and downfalls. Below are some prominent highlights from her endeavors.

Lake Tahoe 

On September 9, 2017, Breed swam the 44.2 km distance of Lake Tahoe in a record time of 8 hours and 56 minutes. Breed detailed the effort that went into her Tahoe swim on her blog, describing the “rigorous 10 months of daily activity including swimming, cross fit, running, and skiing.” Breed’s Lake Tahoe experience can be summed in a single sentence: “I didn’t want to just finish the swim – I wanted to conquer it.”

Read more about Breed’s Lake Tahoe Swim HERE.

English Channel 

Crossing the English Channel, or in Breed’s words, “swimming to England to France via the English Channel,” is no small feat. Breed described this particular accomplishment as being “not pretty nor easy.” The currents change rapidly, the temperature is unpredictable, and the pods of jellyfish can be rather unforgiving. In her blog, Breed vividly recounts swimming under the glow of the orange moon, pushing on despite numerous jellyfish stings and facing a strong southern current halfway through. After battling exhaustion and fatigue, Breed finally reached the shores of France, completing her first solo channel swim in nine hours and 50 minutes. She said that the lack of sleep she had prior to the swim “was honestly more difficult for me than just swimming it, emotionally and mentally.”

Read more about Breed’s English Channel Crossing HERE.

North Channel 

Breed’s latest expedition was crossing the North Channel – the 21.5 mile stretch of sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland – on June 25 of this year. The North Channel crossing has been described as one of the most difficult swims in the world. Between the frigid 52 degrees Fahrenheit water to the raging winds and volatile currents, Breed’s conditions for the crossing were far from ideal. Upon comprehending the monstrosity of the endeavor, Breed said she “surrendered to Mother Nature and just fought to finish.” She became the first person to complete this crossing in 2019, finishing in a time of eleven hours and six minutes.

Read more about Breed’s North Channel Crossing HERE.

What’s Next for Breed

SW: What is the next goal you wish to accomplish?   

Breed: I have MIMS in October. That is around the island of Manhattan and Waikiki Rough Water in August. Possibly a few local swims this summer. I don’t have anything lined up for next year…yet.

What You’re Made Of

SW: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from marathon swimming or swimming in general? 

Breed: The importance of community. Many people think swimming is a solo sport, but it is so far from that. Marathon swimming takes a team. My three to five hour training sessions require a kayaker and one to three people. My six to eight hour sessions require a boat and four or more people. I could not and would not be doing marathon swimming if were not for the community and support I get from so many people. I am still close friends with my childhood and college swim teammates and have found an incredible group of friends with the Dolphin Club, Southend Rowing and Swimming Club, and The Olympic Club.

I have also learned that we are capable of so much more than we realize, mentally and physically. I never thought I could swim the North Channel and yet I did it. I hope that in some way my open water swimming can inspire someone to try something that scares them a little or to push a little harder when things get tough. It is in those moments you find out what you’re made of.

The title of “marathon swimmer” alludes to much more than a certain distance a person swims. It takes mind-boggling perseverance and courage to swim for hours on end in the expansive sea, facing the unknown, and pushing the limits of what is possible.

Catherine Breed’s sheer dedication and work ethic singles her out as a role model in the world of swimming, as well as in the broader community. May we all dig a little deeper and push a little further than our perceived limits.

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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4 years ago

We were fortunate enough to meet and swim with Catherine just before her North Channel Swim. What a lovely talented ambassador for your country she is. Our swim group warmed to her so quickly and as she knows, ‘Once a Dunker, Always a Dunker!’ ????

4 years ago

Not MIMS……
The swim around Manhattan is “20 Bridges”

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