10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.


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How to Swim 500 Miles a Year

For the past three years (2104, 2015, and 2016), I have swum over 500 miles a year. It’s hard to articulate why. It’s not as if when I was a child I dreamed of being the kind of crazy person who swims 500 miles a year. But that’s the kind of crazy person I turned out to be. And if you think you might be that kind of crazy person too, here’s my advice on how to do it.

Let me note that I have two advantages. First, I work at a university with a pool. That means that most of the time I just have to get out of my office and walk across campus to swim (walking across campus is easy; getting out of the office is hard). Second, I have a lot of control over my schedule. I don’t have infinite flexibility, but I have more power to decide when I do things than some people do.

On the other hand, my life is not simple. I have a full-time job, two kids, a dog, and regular volunteer commitments. I have things going on. I’m sure you do too. So how do you get to 500 miles a year?

1) Put swimming on the schedule, and make it mandatory.

There are some things that I have do at certain times. For example, I have to teach my classes at their scheduled times. Teaching class at its scheduled time is mandatory. I do not schedule meetings, student conferences, medical appointments, haircuts, or anything else during the time I teach.

In the same way, during the school year I swim at the pool at lunchtime. Swimming at that time is mandatory. I do not schedule meetings, student conferences, medical appointments, haircuts, or anything else during the time I swim.

Last summer, I was coaching swim team on weekday mornings starting at 8 am. I got to the pool every morning at 6:15 to swim a couple miles before the children arrived. That was the only time I could swim, so that was when I did it. Every day.

Put swimming on the schedule, and make it mandatory.

2) Make alternative plans.

Sometimes (heaven help me) I have to go to a lunch meeting. Or I have a university event or a conference out of town or maybe even a vacation. That does not mean I don’t swim. I figure out another way.

In 2015, our pool shut down unexpectedly and without warning. The Powers That Be arranged for us to swim for free at a nearby pool, which was terrific. Unfortunately, that pool’s open swim hours were not the same as our open swim hours. I rescheduled everything I could. I made it to lap swim at that pool, every day, until our pool reopened.

When I went to Vancouver for a combination work trip/vacation, I swam at the Kitsilano Beach pool. When the family went to Disney in Orlando for my in-laws’ 50th anniversary, we swam at Lucky’s Lake Swim (it helps to marry into a family of swimmers). I’ve swum at public pools and health center pools and various Ys, not to mention some lakes and the occasional ocean, in the U.S., Canada, England, and Ireland.

I have written about travel swimming before; my quick advice is to pack a suit, a cap, goggles, flip-flops, a lock, and a towel. Bring your second-best towel, just in case.

The point is, you will inevitably run into problems. Don’t give up. Find another time to swim; find another place to swim. Make alternative plans.

3) Trust the swimming.

There are days when I don’t want to swim. There are days when I don’t have time to swim. You know what I do on those days? I go swimming anyway.

I have found that the days that I don’t want to swim and I don’t have time to swim are the days when swimming helps me the most. I think better when I swim. I work better when I swim. I am a better person when I swim.

Don’t debate with yourself about whether you should go swimming. Just go. Get up wherever you are, and head toward the water. Trust the swimming.


There are obstacles that can keep a person from swimming. I have experienced some of them. I had a period of time when I could not swim, in the sense that my doctor told me, “You cannot swim.” When my children were small, it was very difficult to find time to get to the pool. I know that costs and transportation problems are significant impediments for many people, and there are probably other issues I haven’t thought of.

But if you don’t have those barriers in your life, and you think it would be fun to swim 500 miles a year, don’t mistake solvable problems for major obstacles. A regular — if somewhat crazy — person can do it.


Here are some numbers: 500 miles is 880,000 yards. I usually swim 3600 yards a day, five days a week. If I’m heading toward a big swim, I swim more. But at a 3600 yard a day, five day a week pace, a person can swim 500 miles in 49 weeks, leaving three weeks for illness or unavoidable obligations.

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My monthly totals from 2016. Screenshot from my USMS flog (fitness log), December 2016.


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Race Report: Swim the Suck 2016

In October 2015, I swam Swim the Suck, a ten-mile race down the Tennessee River, in about three and a half hours. In October 2016, I swam the same race, same course, in about four and a half hours. There are two ways to think about the difference:

Option 1: Swim the Suck 2016 was hard. Conditions were rough. I had to swim almost an hour longer!

Option 2: Swim the Suck 2016 was great. Conditions were rough. I got to swim almost an hour longer!

I am not by nature an optimist. For me, the glass is not half full or half empty; the glass is tipped over, and juice is dripping onto the carpet, and who left this glass of juice in the living room anyway? But I love to swim, and I registered for Swim the Suck so I could swim, and as far as I’m concerned, 2016’s race was nearly an hour better than 2015’s.

I went into the event with three things in my favor. First, I had prepared for the distance. I had swum ten miles (and a bit) one day in September in Lake Jocassee, and I knew that if I could swim that distance in still water, I was good to swim it in a river. And I successfully swam the five mile Lowcountry Splash in June, a race that was unexpectedly difficult, with choppy conditions and slow current. I had confidence in my abilities.

Second, I had my intrepid kayaker M with me. Swim the Suck requires every swimmer to have kayak support. Your kayaker is with you the whole way, handing you food, watching out for you. You want someone you trust, and I trust M absolutely. I was delighted when she told me she was up for a second year.

And third, I had a two-foot long, bright yellow inflatable duck. The duck wasn’t really for me: it was for M’s kayak, so that I could find her at the start. The hardest part of the race start is finding your own kayaker in the crowd; the kayakers enter the water first, one hundred of them out in the water, and when the siren blows, the swimmers swim out to find them. I don’t see well, and while I found M quickly the first year, I didn’t know if I’d be so lucky again. So before this year’s race, I went out and bought the brightest inflatable toy I could find, a big yellow duck. On the morning of the race, I attached it to the back of M’s kayak, which was also yellow, with bungee cords.

One of the many things I love about Swim the Suck is that the race organizers are very clear about race conditions. They told us at the dinner the night before that the current would be slow. They told us at the pre-race meeting that the wind would be up, especially at the start. These people know what they’re talking about, and I listened to them. Still, while I was standing on the shore waiting to get in, I wondered what M was doing out there in the water; she was moving all over the river. As soon as I got in myself, though, I realized what was happening: the wind was blowing the kayakers around. I kept my eyes on that duck, its wings flapping, on the back of the kayak. When the siren blew for the start, I headed right for it.

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M the kayaker, with the duck. Photo by Swim the Suck. October 2016.

I had plans for what I was going to think about during Swim the Suck. The race was scheduled for Shabbat Shuvah, the Saturday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I’m not going to explain all that except to say that that it’s a good time for a Jewish person to consider where she’s been and where she’s going. I was going to spend my swim thinking deep thoughts about my life.

But that’s not what happened. This was not a long, quiet, contemplative swim. From the start, Swim the Suck 2016 grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me and demanded my full attention. It said, “Forget everything else. Be here now.”

The first mile or so was the roughest part: we were headed straight into the wind. Last year the start felt like a parade, all of us in a grand procession down the river. This year it felt like a battle; I was fighting through waves, dodging other swimmers and kayakers. It occurred to me that it would be a sad and ironic thing if I were run down by a kayaker, someone who had volunteered to spend their Saturday morning protecting us. But my friend M and the other kayakers were fighting the waves too.

As I swam, I thought, If this keeps up, this going to be a hard ten miles. But then I thought, What are you going to do about it?

You’ve got to swim the water you’re in. So I did. Conditions improved, but there were rough patches throughout the swim. I focused on swimming. When I had time to think about anything else, I thought about the sky. It was bright blue the whole way, a blue that seemed more and more impossible the longer I swam. I had planned to think about last year and the year to come, but instead I spent the whole swim completely in the present — and that’s not a bad way to spend Shabbat Shuvah either.

At the end of the race, someone helped me out at the dock. (I think it was MJ. Thanks, MJ!) I found my glasses and my towel and my kayaker, who was putting the boat up. And then I ate a mountain of guacamole. I ate the Matterhorn of guacamole. Honestly, I am a bit of a guacamole snob, and this was not homemade guacamole, and yet it was the best guacamole I have ever eaten. Food tastes better when you swim.

Swim the Suck 2016 was a harder swim than 2015. But it was a fulfilling swim too. And the event itself is well run in every way. If you want to swim ten miles down a river, my friend, it’s your race. Unfortunately, I am not going to be able to make Swim the Suck in 2017; I’m not free that weekend. But I want to swim it again.


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On Swimming in Deep Water

There is a certain feeling of freedom that comes from swimming out, away from land, into deep water.

I don’t experience it often. Ninety percent of my swimming is done in a 25-yard long, three-and-a-half-foot deep pool. I love that pool. That pool is my neighborhood bar, my Cheers. And as the song says, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. But other times, you want to go where absolutely no one knows your name, to swim out, free, untethered.

Some years ago I heard a talk about the nature of consciousness. The speaker started by asking us to picture the last time we went swimming. After giving us a moment to think, he noted that most people see an image of themselves swimming, taking the point of view of someone else watching them. This thought-exercise had something to do with our development of consciousness, but I don’t remember exactly what, because I was thinking about swimming. And I decided that when I swim, I would be mindful of what I see and not think about what I look like.

Here is what I see in deep water. The color of the water darkens to spruce green as we move away from land. When I breathe to the side, I see light sparkle on the surface. When I sight in front of me, I see the long expanse of water and beyond it the soft blue of mountains.

Last September I went for a long swim with my friend B, who kayaked for me. I like B a lot. He’s the kind of guy who takes you out on a three-mile swim to a beautiful waterfall, and when you get there, says, “I know a better one, if you’re willing to go a little farther,” as if there’s any chance you’d say no. We were out in deep water when I felt something buzzing around me. It was a dragonfly. I stopped to look at it, and it landed on me, on my arm, in the middle of the lake.

It’s December now. It’s cold. I’m swimming inside. But sometimes I think about how I was once an island for a tired dragonfly flying across a lake.

That’s what it’s like, swimming in deep water.

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Me, in deep water, September 2016. Photo by B, the kayaker


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In Hot Water (Splashville Open Water Challenge 2016 Race Report)

Hot. Damn hot. Hot and wet.

For much of the first ever Splashville Open Water Challenge, I had the weather report from Good Morning, Vietnam running through my mind (Robin Williams, link here, rated R). It was hot, damn hot, hot and wet. Every body of water I’ve been in all summer long has been hot, and Percy Priest Lake in Nashville was no exception.

Some places, it’s been too hot to swim. The Lake Lure open water swim, which was supposed to be the 1 mile and 5K USMS championships, was called off due to high water temperatures — up to 89-90° F. (I blogged about the 2015 Lake Lure race here.) Last week I was talking with another swimmer about the cancellation of the Lake Lure swim when a third person interrupted excitedly, “Was it because of bacteria? Brain-eating amoebas?” “No,” I said, “it was because of the heat.” I suppose brain-eating amoebas get all the press, but heat, as boring as it seems, is much more likely to hurt you. Since the death of Fran Crippen in 2010, swimming organizations have put upper limits on water temperature for open water races; USMS rules state, “A swim shall not begin if the water temperature exceeds 85° F.”

After the Lake Lure swim was cancelled, swimmers started worrying about the water temperature for Splashville. The race director posted updates in the Facebook group. A week before the race, she put up a photo of a thermometer reading 82° F, and there was much rejoicing. But on the morning of the race, as we stood on the shore after warmups, it was announced that the water temperature was 88° F, and a sheet of paper was passed around for the swimmers to sign, indicating that we understood USMS did not sanction the event and we were swimming at our own risk.

I suppose that if I were less experienced at open water swimming, I might have freaked out. But I’ve done this before. And I had swum over four miles in Lake Hartwell about a month ago in 87° F water; it wasn’t ideal, but I knew what to expect. A coach came up to some of her swimmers, standing in line behind me, and told them to swim at 10% of maximum. We all agreed we were going to take it easy.

So I took it easy. I enjoyed the scenery. It was too damn hot to do anything else.

Percy Priest Lake at Hamilton Creek Park. Before the race. My photo August 2016.

It’s a good-looking lake. Percy Priest Lake at Hamilton Creek Park. Before the race. My photo. August 2016.

Since the swim, the Splashville race director has contacted the participants to say that she’s hoping to move the event to April next year. I think that’s a terrific idea. I had a great time in Nashville. I stayed with nice people. We went to Hattie B’s for hot chicken. But while I like hot chicken, I don’t much like hot water. I’d be delighted to come back — in April.

On the positive side, I am not at all worried that the water will be cold for Swim the Suck in October. It’s been a long, hot summer. Bring on the fall!


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Race Report: 2016 Lowcountry Splash

Halfway into the 2016 Lowcountry Splash, I was already done. I was being tossed around like an old teddy bear in a front-load washer. I wanted out.

Here at the 10 Mile Swim blog, we take as given that any swim is better than no swim, but that does not mean that every swim is joyous and transcendent. Some swims hurt. And because conditions make such a big difference in open water swimming, the race that was easy one year can be a struggle the next. The 2016 Lowcountry Splash was one of the hard ones; the winning time at the five mile distance this year was about twenty minutes slower than last year’s.

(This is why you can’t spend too much time worrying about your PR — personal record — in open water swimming. This year I was nearly forty minutes slower than my best time for the race. The difference has almost nothing to do with me and almost everything to do with the race conditions. 2014 was super fast. 2016 was slow.)

So what do you do when you’re getting the stuffing knocked out of you and you still have two and a half miles to go? Your options are limited: keep swimming or don’t. I picked option #1. In all seriousness, I could have floated until someone came to get me, but I wanted food and drink and the hell out of that river, and the best way to get those things was to swim.

The hardest part was the calmest, the end of the fourth mile and into the fifth. When the waves were rough earlier in the swim, I was focused on getting through. But the water was calmer for the stretch as I approached the bridge, and I had a chance to think about how tired I was. My right hand had gone numb — not unusual for me, but a sign I was wearing out. And I was alone. I was on course — I saw buoys — but I went a good distance without seeing another swimmer.

So in the hardest part, I called on my team. The central paradox of open water swimming is that, while it looks like an individual sport, it requires a team: swimmers, kayakers, friends. You can’t swim on your own. I thought of all the people cheering for me. I thought of my friend C, the strongest woman I have ever known. It’s been a year since she died, but she is always swimming with me. She swam with me for the fourth mile.

After the swim, I found my friend K, who looked every bit as grim as I felt. He lay on the ground. I drank two bottles of water, one right after the other. I drank a Gatorade. I ate some kind of wrap. I nearly ate the toothpick holding the wrap together; I pulled it out, thought vaguely of Sherwood Anderson, and kept eating.

But after the food and drink, I came back to myself. We were sitting on the grass in the shade. The sky was bright blue. It was a beautiful morning. There is no place I would rather be than on the grass in the shade on a beautiful morning after the Lowcountry Splash.

The view of the bridge after the race. Big blue sky. My photo. June 2016.

The view of the bridge after the race. Big sky. My photo. June 2016.

The first year we did the five mile Lowcountry Splash, the current was so fast I came out saying I wanted to go back up river and swim it again. This year, once was enough. But now K and I have bragging rights: we’ve swum the course in easy years and we’ve swum it in hard. It’s still the best race I know. We’ll be back for 2017.


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How to Swim in a Lake

Sometimes you don’t realize how hungry you are until you taste that first bite of food. I didn’t realize how much I needed to swim in the lake until I put my head down and began my stroke.

People sometimes ask me — pool swimmers, parents of pool swimmers — why I want to swim in open water. It’s not because I don’t like pools. I am trained as a pool swimmer. I love to flip turn, to follow the black line. I love to race the guy in the next lane. But there are some things a pool can’t do for you. For some things, you have to get into open water.

In a pool, the conditions are static. The water is calm, the temperature moderate. If I have my own lane, I am the master of my domain, the little prince on my little planet. I’m raking out the volcanoes and rooting up the baobabs. I’m in charge.

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The little prince, raking out his volcanoes. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

But in a lake, the conditions change. I’ve been out to Lake Hartwell three times this spring, and every time the water has been choppy. Once the water was relatively calm for the first mile, but then the wind came up right in our faces, and suddenly we were fighting through the next mile.

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Lake Hartwell. It’s a bit choppy. April 2016. My photo.

I am one of those women who do too much. I spend a lot of energy holding back the forces of chaos. I make lists. Before we went out to the lake the first time this spring, I downloaded an app that allows me to keep lists on my phone, and I made a list of all the things I needed to pack for the swim. It is twenty items long. It has check boxes. And it’s saved on my phone so that every time I pack for the lake I can check the items off and make sure that I have everything. With the list, I feel I’ve got things under control.

But when I started swimming in the lake that first time, I completely forgot about all twenty items on my list and just about everything else as well. Swimming in choppy conditions is all-consuming. It becomes manifestly clear: I am not in charge here. I don’t have things under control.

Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive, but for me, giving up the need to be in control is a great relief. I can’t control the conditions; I have to adapt to them. And so I do.

Hanya Yanagihara writes of swimming in Hawaii, “There, water is a metaphor for life itself: something that should be approached with confidence, but with the knowledge that, finally, it is unconquerable and uncontrollable.” In a choppy lake in South Carolina, you can get a little taste of that too. Swimming in open water puts me back in the right relationship with the rest of the universe. I am not in charge of holding back the forces of chaos. I am not responsible for raking out the volcanoes. I am a small woman in big lake. And I have confidence. This is where I’m supposed to be.


Terry Laughlin, the Total Immersion swimming guy, has an article about techniques for swimming in rough water in H2Open Magazine, April 2016: Take the Rough with the Smooth.

 


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On Hunger

I’m hungry. Not in a metaphorical, Beowulfian, lofgeornost sense — I’m not eager for fame. I am eager for food. I’m hungry. It’s the swimming that does it.

Hunger is an established side effect of swimming. Discussions of the phenomenon tend to focus on how to deal with the hunger (a typical example: Why Am I Always Hungry after Swimming?). But I know how to deal with hunger. I eat.

In a food-obsessed culture, we talk surprisingly little about hunger. I read foodie blogs that lovingly describe the complex tastes of carefully sourced, intricately prepared foods. But taste is not located in the food; it has no reality external to the taster. And hunger transforms food, makes it taste so much better. The difference between eating a plate of mac and cheese because you have fifteen minutes before you have to get somewhere and this is the only time you have for dinner and eating a plate of mac and cheese after swimming two miles hard in a cold lake? It’s huge. The mac and cheese might be the same, but you are different.

It doesn’t matter if the mac and cheese is made with Velveeta or with artisanal cheese made from the milk of lovingly massaged cows; it will taste better when you’re hungry.

Women in particular are not supposed to admit to hunger. If we talk about it, we’re talking about how to ignore it, how to thwart it. Consider the advice to drink a glass of water when you’re hungry. You might really be thirsty, the articles say. Don’t eat; drink a glass of water. (Here’s an example of such an article.) I’m all in favor of drinking a glass of water, by the way, but I’m also in favor of eating something with your water when you’re hungry. Those articles are really saying, Don’t trust your own judgment about your body.

Or think of the articles that appear in women’s magazines every year about how to avoid eating at holiday parties: Eat, they say, before you go so that you won’t eat at the party. Eat alone, they say, in your house, when you’re not hungry, rather than eat in front of other people when you are hungry. God forbid you should eat in public when hungry. What chaos would ensue? You might actually enjoy the food. People might see you enjoying food. What a horrible thing, for you to enjoy food in public where people might see you.

Which gets me back to swimming: If you want to see women (predominately white, middle-aged women, given the demographics of the sport) enjoying food in public, go to the food tables at the end of an open water swim. I love to see them there. They take two sandwiches, and they go back for a third. They take the cookies. They eat and they drink and they laugh — and they don’t apologize for any of it.

I’m not saying that you need to earn your food through physical activity. You don’t have to earn the right to eat. I am saying that there is great joy in eating when you are hungry. And if you have lost what it feels like to be hungry (perhaps because you have been told not to trust your own judgment), you might go and swim, and feel hungry, and eat joyfully.


We are having a cold April here, and the water temperatures are dropping instead of rising. I don’t know when I’m going to get out to the lake to swim. At some point we will swim outside again. And we will eat food. In the meantime, I’m planning to swim my birthday (age x 100s) in the traditional manner next week.

Here’s how I’m doing on Go The Distance 2016:

USMS Go the Distance. April 9, 2016

USMS Go the Distance. April 9, 2016