10 mile swim

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


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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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Race Report: The Dam Swim for Drew 2015

I was less than halfway through the Dam Swim for Drew when I thought, “K is going to ditch me in the parking lot.” I had talked my friend K into driving down to Columbia for the two-mile race by describing my experience at the event last year. It’s a simple course: jump off a dock in Irmo, swim along the dam across Lake Murray, and get out on the beach in Lexington. When I swam it in 2014, it was an easy swim.

In open water swimming, however, conditions make a big difference. You can’t step (or jump off the dock) into the same lake twice. And the 2015 swim was not the easy swim I had promised K.

We should have known something was up when we checked in at registration. The woman behind the table asked for our names and then asked, “Are you swimming this morning?” It was a confusing question — why else would we be checking in? In retrospect, I think maybe people were checking in — and then bailing out.

This year, the water was choppy, much choppier than last year. And it was relentless; we were tossed around for the entire two miles. I overheard one swimmer say this was his fifth Dam Swim, and he had never seen conditions like this.

Choppy water requires you to swim differently. I saw many swimmers switch to breaststroke, allowing them to breathe more easily and see straight ahead. But I’m not enthusiastic about breaststroke, so instead I adjusted my freestyle, lifting my arms higher to clear the water. Because the waves were coming from the right, I breathed to the left for most of the race. That’s the advantage of being able to breathe on either side; I could take a breath without getting a wave to the face.

I breathed when I could, and I didn’t panic when I couldn’t. I held on and enjoyed the ride.

I like swimming in rough water. It’s a challenge. You put your head down, you pick your arms up, you think about Beowulf swimming five days and nights in icy water, slaying sea monsters all the way, and you swim.

As the race director assured us at the pre-race safety meeting, there was plenty of kayak support. And those kayakers were terrific. I had one herding me like a collie herding a sheep in the middle of the race and another steering me toward the finish line at the end.

I was tired by the end, and my time was nearly ten minutes longer than last year’s (and nearly nine minutes longer than my two-mile time at Lake Lure last month). It was a hard swim. But I placed about the same in the standings as last year, and I had fun. And while the first thing K said to me when we met after the race was, “You’re walking home,” he did drive me back afterward, so I guess it wasn’t that bad.

It’s hard to beat the feeling of accomplishment you get by jumping into a lake on one side and fighting your way to the other.

Finish line. My photo. September 2015.

Finish line. My photo. September 2015.

The Dam Swim for Drew is a great race. But it’s also a memorial for Drew Smith, an eleven-year-old boy who was killed by a drunk boater, and its purpose is to promote water and boating safety. Drew’s mother spoke before the swim, and she reminded us that small bad decisions can have huge bad consequences.

Drew’s parents lost their son eighteen years ago. He lives on in his family’s love for him and the good that is done in his name.


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How to Not Die

I shared a lane earlier this week with a young man who was having a hard time. He struggled back and forth across the pool. At one point, he turned to his friends in the next lane and said dramatically, “Swimming is HARD. You do one thing wrong, dude, and you’re DEAD.”

I thought, “Fair enough. But this pool is three-and-half-feet deep. You could just stand up.”

Demetri-Martin-swimming-is-a-confusing-sport-because-sometimes-147312 I am a risk-averse person. I don’t enjoy danger. I don’t want to skydive; I don’t want to race cars; I don’t want to climb Everest. I don’t even like watching scary movies. Some people are adrenaline junkies. I am an endorphin junkie. I don’t like fear.

All this is to say: I don’t feel afraid when I swim. I am not fighting the water to stay alive. I am not one wrong move away from death.

Of course, some people find swimming frightening, constantly life-threatening (an oft-cited statistic: 37% of American adults can’t swim the length of a pool). My friends like to send me articles about people who drown (here’s one). I assume they send these articles out of concern; they want me to be safe. They see these stories about people drowning, and they think swimming, especially open-water swimming, is a risky activity: “You do one thing wrong, dude, and you’re DEAD.”

But when I read these articles, I find they share two characteristics: they are sad, very very sad, and they have nothing to do with people like me.

Some drowning victims are people who fall off boats, sometimes into dangerously cold water, without flotation devices; often alcohol is involved. Some, tragically, are children (or adults) who didn’t know how to swim and yet were in the water anyway. The drowning victims in these articles aren’t swimmers who set out to swim a couple miles on a clear day. They are non-swimmers in water.

There are dangerous places to swim: beaches with rip currents, lakes with ice cold water. I don’t swim in those places. But there are lots and lots of stretches of water all around the world that are hazard-free — or have manageable hazards — and I’d be happy to swim in all of them.

WildWomanSwimming posted an article last summer (Swimming Deaths and Risk) discussing “scare-mongering, anti-swimming” stories that make open water swimming sound inherently dangerous and open water swimmers sound like foolish risk-takers. And yet she notes these statistics about river fatalities in the UK:

For example, in 2012 ninety-nine water related deaths occurred in rivers. Just four of those were swimmers: twelve people were walking or running; four were angling. Others were engaged in a range of water sports or were simply found in the water (figures from National Water Safety Fatal Incident Reports, on which ROSPA [The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents] base their information).

In one year, ninety-nine people died in rivers. Four of the ninety-nine were swimmers. The rest were non-swimmers in water.

I know people who have taken unnecessary risks. A friend’s husband signed up for a triathlon. He isn’t much of a swimmer. He didn’t have time to train. But as the race approached, he figured he could struggle through a mile in a lake, especially in a wetsuit. He was wrong. Fortunately, the event had excellent safety procedures; when he signaled for a safety boat, they picked him up and brought him in. That story has a happy ending, but it could have had a very sad one. I would consider that man a non-swimmer in water: he had no business being in the middle of a lake.

But I have few worries in the middle of a lake. In swimming as in the rest of life, you minimize risk. You don’t swim in bad weather or in water you don’t know. You don’t go out when you are injured or unwell. You check conditions. You know your limits. You swim prepared.

For me, swimming is not about surviving a dangerous challenge. A ten-mile swim in a clear lake with a kayaker next to me? I’m as safe as can be.


In September I swam the Dam Swim for Drew in Lake Murray in Columbia, SC. The annual race, hosted by Lexington High School, is swum in memory of Joseph Drew Smith, who died in a boating collision while fishing with his father. He was eleven years old. As the result of Drew’s death and the hard work of his parents, the South Carolina Boating Reform and Safety Act (known as Drew’s Law) was passed in 1999. The most dangerous thing in any lake is not the water, not fish or any wildlife — it’s drunk people on motorboats.

Blue sky. Blue water. We swam along the dam, which visible on the right side of the photo (my photo).

Blue sky. Blue water. We swam along the dam, which is on the right side of the photo (my photo).

The race is two miles along the dam. There were adults swimming, but the race was full of swim team kids, both year-rounders and high schoolers. I passed groups of them chatting in the water along the way. They weren’t swimming not to die. They were swimming to have fun.


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The Most Beautiful Pool in the World (Is the One You’re Swimming in Right Now)

It’s Memorial Day weekend in the U.S,, and outdoor pools are opening. This morning I swam laps outside for the first time this year: 4000 meters of sunlight on the bottom of the pool.

25 meter pool

The view down the pool. My photo. May 26, 2014.

Usually it takes me a little while to adjust to the 25 meter (instead of 25 yard) length, but this morning I hit every flip turn; my body remembered where the walls are.

You aim for the cross at the end of the lane.

The cross at the end of the lane: get just the right distance from it and flip.  My photo. May 26, 2014.

Is there anything as beautiful as sunlight on the bottom of a pool? If I had money to burn, I would buy these sheets from Snurk:

Image from Colossal. Sheets from Snurk.

I could have happily swum for hours, but there were people waiting for me. I won’t be back to swim laps there for a couple weeks. Soon, though, I’ll be swimming in the outside pool with the summer group on a regular basis.


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How to Be Happy: Open Water Edition

A long time ago I was in a conversation with a colleague in the Psychology department who intoned, “Everyone wants the same thing.” Of course, I asked, “What is that?” And he smiled as if he were about to say something very wise and replied, “To be happy.”

At that moment, I was filled with an unhappy and uncollegial desire to shake him till his teeth rattled. It may be true that everyone wants to be happy—I am not certain, but it could be true—but even if it is true, the pronouncement “Everyone wants to be happy” has got to be one of the least useful true statements ever. Maybe we all want to be happy, but that doesn’t tell us much about ourselves or other people because we all become happy by doing different things.

Which brings us inevitably to the topic of open water swimming. Open water swimming makes me happy. It makes me insanely happy. When I am swimming, I am filled with what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

This swimmer’s high occasionally hits me in pools, but it usually takes a good two miles in a lake. I imagine it can be explained by biochemistry, which suggests that swimming might make lots of people happy. But most people seem to have no interest in trying it. They have different ways of becoming happy.


On Thursday K and I went to the lake for our second swim of the spring. It was a beautiful day. The water temperature was still cool at 71 degrees F, but not cold enough to require wetsuits again. The air temperature was also 71, perfectly fine; the wind, though, was blowing at 13 mph (according to my magic hyper-local weather app), and I said on the drive that the water was going to be choppy.

It was. I was delighted. The first half-mile out was crazy: it was cold, and the waves were coming at us, and I thought, “This is fantastic!”

If I’m going to swim in open water, I want it to feel like open water. If I want glassy calm and 78 degrees, I can go swim in a pool. I was fighting waves out there, getting tossed around; I was lifting my arms high to clear the water and breathing far back to keep from getting hit in the face. It was hard work, and the water was cold, and I was thinking about Beowulf swimming through the north ocean, battling sea monsters all the way. I was smiling as I was swimming.

When we got to the turn around point, K was waiting for me. He was not happy. He said something about how much better it had been last week. I was noncommittal. He said something about how I couldn’t possibly like swimming in these conditions. I said I quite possibly could.

We started back.

As we swam back and the waves pushed us in and I sang “The Sea Refuses No River” to myself, I thought about the previous week’s swim, when I had been trying very hard not to whine so much about my wetsuit: I couldn’t feel the water, I was floating too high, I was getting abrasions on the back of my neck. I find wearing the wetsuit disorienting. In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” people have dreams about a city (later found on an uncharted Pacific island) where the angles are “wrong”–there’s some alien non-Euclidian geometry at work, horrifying to the human mind–and that’s kind of how I feel about swimming in a wetsuit: the angles are wrong. And yet wearing a wetsuit doesn’t bother K at all. He likes it. He was happier last week.

All in all, I swam three miles. When I was done, my face hurt from three miles of smiling.

Everyone wants to be happy, but we all become happy by doing different things: the swim that makes me very happy might make you miserable and vice versa. The trick is to find out what makes you happy–and then to do it.

Waves at the lake. My photo.

Waves at the lake. May 1, 2014. My photo.