Here are my two main thoughts about Swim the Suck: it was terrific, and it was over much too soon. I had estimated a four-hour swim, given my time swimming ten miles in Lake Minnetonka last year and my understanding of the anticipated current in the Tennessee River that morning. When my kayaker said, “I think I see the finish” about three and a half hours in, I thought, “Already?” I came in at 3:35:35, ten minutes ahead of the average time that day and much faster than I expected.
I loved all ten miles of Swim the Suck, and I loved all ten miles of the Lake Minnetonka swim. But ten miles down the Tennessee River was a very different experience from ten miles across Lake Minnetonka and back. That’s the best thing about open water swimming; the experience of swimming is so variable, so dependent on conditions, that every swim is something new.
One big difference, of course, was in the two courses themselves. When I swam the Minnetonka swim in July 2014, it was five miles across the lake and five miles back, with buoys every mile. I swam from buoy to buoy, marking off the distance. For most of the swim, I was in the middle of the lake, a great expanse of water around me, a great expanse of sky above. The water was calm, the weather unchanging. I imagined myself a little dot slowly moving on a big flat map.
When I swam Swim the Suck, on the other hand, it was ten miles downstream in the Tennessee River. There were no markers on the course. Since the course was S shaped, I had a vague sense of where I was; I could tell when I was in a big bend. But I didn’t really know how far I’d gone. I was just going to swim until I reached the end.
In the Tennessee River Gorge, tree-covered mountains surround you. Once I looked up to see a few buildings together in a clearing near the shore with the mountains behind them, and I thought, “I’m in Ox-Cart Man.”
The weather varied during Swim the Suck. For short periods it rained. I struggled with conflicting emotions: I love swimming in the rain, but I worried that my kayaker was getting wet. The best part was near the end, though, when the clouds darkened and the wind strengthened. I was delighted. I love choppy water. I put my head down and picked up my stroke. I had a short period of hard swimming before the wind calmed again, and soon after we saw the finish buoy ahead.
A second difference between the two swims was my interaction with other swimmers and kayakers. In the Minnetonka swim, I rarely saw another swimmer. There were only 28 entered in the ten mile swim. We set out in three waves, so there were only ten of us, even at the start, and we easily found our kayakers and spread out. My kayaker and I were on our own for long quiet stretches.
At Swim the Suck, in contrast, 89 swimmers set out together in a mass start. It was the least violent mass start I’d ever been in; I guess there’s no need for elbowing and kicking people when you have ten miles ahead of you. The start was complicated, however, by the task of finding your kayaker. Fortunately, people who had swum the event before had given me good advice; I made a point of keeping an eye on my kayaker and met up with her relatively easily.
And the crowd set off in a grand parade of swimmers and kayakers down the river. I was incredibly cheerful: the water temperature was perfect (74 F — no need to worry about hypothermia), and we were trucking along. In fact, I started singing the Grateful Dead song “Truckin’” in my head until I decided I couldn’t go ten miles singing about “living on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine” and switched to Whiskeytown’s “Sixteen Days.” Although the pack stretched out over the course of the race, I could see other swimmers and kayakers throughout the swim. I swam with companions.
My two ten mile swims were different, but one thing that stayed the same was that I did them with the help of my friends. In Minnesota, I had friends and family waiting for me at the end, and I swam toward them. In Tennessee, I had my friend M kayaking beside me, handing me food and offering me encouragement. Not only did she kayak, but also she drove us to the race on dark, foggy, narrow, twisty, and downright terrifying mountain roads. And my friend C from Kentucky appeared as if by magic at the race finish; she hugged me, and she helped push M’s SUV out of the muddy field everybody at the race was parked in.
You can’t get far without your friends; without mine, I might still be in a muddy field in Tennessee.
I met people at the spaghetti dinner the evening before the race, including Jeff from Alabama (thank you for the peanut butter!) and some terrific women who told me about swimming in Sitka and swimming the Catalina Channel. And at the race finish, I met one more. I had enough strength in the last half mile or so to feel that I needed to catch the swimmer in front of me, so I sprinted for it. I passed him briefly, but he caught up with me again just as we reached the finish buoy. We looked at each other — I was smiling a great big smile with the joy of it all — and he put up his hand for a high five and said, “Good race!”
It was a good race. It’s always better with friends.
I asked some friends what they’d like to know about swimming ten miles, and they came up with lots of questions, some about Swim the Suck in particular and more about open water swimming generally. I plan to answer them over the next few blog posts (sneak preview: the most common question is some variant of “Don’t you get bored?”). If you have a question, please ask in the comments.