I’m one week away from Swim the Suck, a 10 mile swim down the Tennessee River, and it’s time to get nervous. There’s no point in saying, “Don’t be nervous.” I’m not going to play hopscotch in the park. I’m going to swim 10 miles in a river I’ve never seen before. Only a fool would not be nervous.
So, what am I nervous about? First, hypothermia. It did not occur to me to worry about hypothermia until I read this article about the event, Chattanooga’s Swimming Event of the Year: The Swim the Suck. The photos are beautiful, but this little nugget is sticking with me:
Nazor says the challenges posed at the Swim the Suck are interestingly diverse, and the rewards are indescribable. First, the race takes place in October at a time when the air and water temperatures begin to become a little uncomfortable for your average Southeastern swimmer. “Water and air temperatures in the mid 60s are fine with me, and most people who sign up for the race are prepared to swim in those conditions (which after my CA experience, are warm actually),” she says.
Nazor says people can become hypothermic at 68 degrees and even with the possibility of the water temperatures being that low, participants aren’t permitted anything on their bodies other than a swimsuit, goggles, and a cap.
Let me say that temperatures in the mid 60s are not fine with me. I swam 2000m in a 64 F (17 C) pool in London once (the beautiful Parliament Hill Lido), and it was numbingly cold. The frightening part was when I got out of the water; I was so cold in the changing room that I couldn’t work my fingers to get my clothes back on. I pulled it together that time, but I learned a valuable lesson about being prepared: even though I’ve never swum anywhere as cold since, I keep hand warmers and an emergency space blanket in my swim bag. I’m not making that mistake twice.
Coping with water temperature is not a matter of strength of will; it’s a matter of what you’re used to. If I regularly swam in 65 degree water, I would adapt to it. But where I live, we worry about the lake temperatures being too hot to swim, not too cold.
I can’t find any information about the current water temperature of the Tennessee River, but the temperature for Swim the Suck the last four years has been in the mid 70s. I have no problem with mid 70s; I swam seven miles in Lake Jocassee last weekend, and the water temperature was in the mid 70s then. It seems unlikely that the water in the Tennessee River will be ten degrees colder this year than it’s been the last four years. But if it is, I’ll have something substantial to worry about.
The second thing I’m concerned about is sunburn. I don’t know if it’s possible to get sunburn and hypothermia at the same time, but I’m pretty sure that if it is, I’m the person to do it.
Of the two concerns, sunburn seems more likely than hypothermia. The worst sunburn I ever got was thirty years ago on a cloudy day in October, a day outside with no sunscreen. This swim is also going to be on a cloudy day in October. Again, I’m not making that mistake twice: I will sunscreen myself thoroughly. But even the most water resistant sunscreen is not waterproof. I’m thinking about getting some good old-fashioned zinc oxide. I will look a bit odd, but I look a bit odd anyway.
The swim starts at 9:30 AM; if I swim it in five hours, I get out at 2:30 PM. That’s peak sunburn time. I will need substantial sun protection.
Finally, I’m nervous about the unknown. The ten mile swim I did in Lake Minnetonka in July 2014 was a great experience (look, I’m doing it again), but there were unanticipated difficulties. The main one was the weeds. I had been warned about weeds, but I didn’t understand the scope of the problem. I assumed weeds would be a hindrance toward the shore, at the start, turn, and finish. I didn’t realize that they floated in the middle of the lake and that I’d need to swim around them or, failing that, stop to untangle myself frequently. They were an annoyance during the swim, but they were more of a problem afterwards, when I developed a nasty rash from the vegetation that had been trapped in my suit.
There will almost certainly be something like weeds on this swim — not vegetation itself, but some problem that I did not anticipate and did not prepare for.
I know I can swim ten miles, but I don’t know if I can swim ten miles in the Tennessee River on October 10th. And that is, of course, the point of open water swimming, where the conditions are beyond your control and the water is unknown.
I do know that the scenery will be gorgeous and the organizers promise Moon Pies. And I will have my friend M kayaking for me. It’s good to have a friend on the journey.
I’ll report back after the swim.