10 mile swim

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


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How to Read Water: In Memory of Charles van der Horst

A few years ago, over the winter, I read a book called How to Read Water, a guide to the “rare art of natural navigation.” I enjoyed the book, but I was unsatisfied with it in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t until the next spring, when I swam in open water again, that I understood why: the book teaches how to read water from above it, from land or from the deck of a boat. I wanted to learn how to read water from within it.

It’s hard to navigate from the water. That’s why open water swimmers need kayakers to keep us on course during races (thank you, kayakers). But it’s not that we don’t see. We have a different view. I remember the first time AJ the kayaker and I went to the lake together. We were approaching a rocky point, and I had my head down, watching the bottom rising up beneath me until it was shallow enough to stand. When I did stand, AJ expressed relief. He said he was about to warn me to look out for the rocks. And I laughed: I had been looking at the rocks. AJ saw the water from the surface up. I saw it from the surface down.

In my day job, I often teach an Old English poem called “The Dream of the Rood.” The work exists in two copies: one handwritten in a tenth-century manuscript, the other carved into the sides of an eighth-century stone cross, five meters high. My students and I talk about the difference between reading while sitting in a chair, looking down at a book or a screen and turning pages or scrolling, and reading while standing under a tall stone sculpture, looking up and walking around it. In the first case, you read by moving the poem; in the second, you read by moving you.

That’s how it is with reading water: you read by moving you. I read the current from comparing how fast I’m moving to how hard I’m working. I read the depth of the water from its color darkening as I swim out into the lake and then lightening as I near land again. In Lake Jocassee, the water I know best, I can read how close I am to one of the cold mountain creeks which run into the lake from a drop in water temperature.

I want to learn how to read different waters. Last November, I went to Baja California, where I swam in a shallow cove in the Sea of Cortez, my husband watching from the beach. The first day I set out in bright sunshine through light green water. Then abruptly, maybe a half mile across the cove, the water turned dark brown. I stopped and stared in front of me. Incomprehension felt like fear. What did it mean?

Absurdly, I thought of a time, 30 years ago, when I got off a train in Brussels. I was meeting a friend, and I was nervous about my French. As I stood on the platform, a man spoke to me. I understood nothing — absolutely nothing. In that moment, my friend appeared, and looking at my face, he said, “It’s OK. He was speaking Dutch.”

I was alone, and I understood nothing. For all I knew, the water was speaking Dutch. But there was only one thing to do: you read water by moving you. Cautiously I started swimming forward. After fifty or a hundred yards, just as abruptly, the water turned green again, and then a bit later brown and then green as I moved across the cove. And then I swam back and met my husband on the beach.

Sometimes when you’re reading, you have to accept not understanding. You mark a line or a passage for later so that you can return to it and try again. That evening, I lay in bed and thought about the color change. Probably it was the effect of patches of dark volcanic rock on the sea floor. But I didn’t know. I swam across the cove next day, not knowing. Thinking back on it, I still don’t know for sure.

But I remember the blue of the sky, and the taste of the salt, and a little dot on the beach, my husband, waiting for me.


Last week, the world lost a great man. His name was Charles van der Horst. I met Charlie through swimming, but the more I learned about him and his life, the more I admired him. From his work caring for patients with HIV/AIDS to his advocacy for social justice to his articles about his own mental health struggles, encouraging others to seek help, he changed people’s lives. He made the world a better place. He saw what needed to be done, and he took up the work.

Charlie drowned during a swim, during a well-established, well-run, well-respected event. I don’t understand. Nobody understands. But I do understand that we can’t hold still, turning over the memories of his life. We have to act in the world, taking those memories with us. The way to honor him is the same as the way to read water: by moving ourselves.

May Charlie’s memory be for an eternal blessing.

 

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Race Report: Lowcountry Splash 2018

If there is one thing open water swimming teaches, it is humility. I have heard plenty of inspirational speeches about the qualities that other sports instill: leadership, teamwork, persistence. But the key lesson of open water swimming is that no matter how important you think you are, the water is not impressed with you. It is not interested in your problems, your issues, whatever it is you are carrying around.

The water says, You need to drop that crap and swim.

And there is no event that makes all that clear to me more than the Lowcountry Splash. I have swum the Lowcountry Splash six of the last seven years, twice at the 2.4 mile length and four times at the five mile length, and every year I learn — again — to drop the crap and swim.

The day before the race, though, we weren’t sure we were going to get to swim at all. As K and I drove down to Charleston on Saturday, the event organizers were coming up with contingency plans for bad weather. Storms were in the forecast. We went to sleep not knowing whether we would swim in the morning or just head back home.

But the storms held off. So we got up at 5 AM Sunday morning and headed for Patriots Point, the race finish, to ride the buses to Daniel Island.

I love the five mile start at the Lowcountry Splash: 150 or so mostly naked people hanging around a park, slathering themselves (and sometimes others) with sunscreen and Vaseline. The Vaseline is important; the water is brackish, and any chafing is going to sting. Then we line up in our unclothed greasiness and jump off the dock, 10 or 15 at a time, and head down river back to Patriots Point.

I’ve swum the Lowcountry Splash in years when the current was strong and years when the current was weak. But this year presented a new challenge: while we had a strong current helping us along, we also had a strong wind blowing in our faces, directly into the current. And that kind of wind against current produces waves — big waves.

The first half of the course was a bit choppy. The second half of the course was more than a bit choppy. K says he saw white caps. I don’t doubt him. All I saw was water coming right at me — a wall of water in my face every time I tried to sight ahead. Some years the hardest part of the Lowcountry Splash is looking at the Ravenel Bridge in the distance and wondering how long it will take to get there. This year I barely saw the bridge at all.

lowcountrysplash2018

Screen shot from my Garmin Connect app. I started at the green marker and ended at the red. May 2018.

It was the kind of swim that fosters humility. The water is all around you, both above and below. You are not in control of the situation. You’ve got one job, and you’ve got to do it.

It was a very satisfying swim.

The only disappointment was the food. In years past, there have been tables full of food after the race. But this year when we made it to the picnic area, those tables were mostly empty, with only a few sad trays of quartered bagels. Maybe the 2.4 mile swimmers were ravenous and ate everything. Unfortunately, we were ravenous too, and instead of hanging out the way we usually do, we each grabbed a drink and left to shower and eat.

On occasion, I meet someone who is impressed by my swimming. Just last week, I met a guy who burbled on about how incredible it was that I swam long distances. It was very sweet. I love flattery as much as anyone. But I take it all with a big helping of salt, the kind that you find in the water of the Charleston harbor. I’m a great swimmer. But I know my place in the world. The water is not impressed.

 


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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 5) Can You Rest?

Last week, an old friend and I had a conversation about swimming. We’ve been having variations on this conversation for years. This time, he asked me about the distances for the four swims that make up SCAR Swim. I told him.

Then he asked, “Can you rest during the swims?”

I said, “Yes. Of course. There’s nobody there with a cattle prod.”

He looked at me as if I were being deliberately obtuse. “Can you swim to the shore and sit there?”

“What?” I said. “Why? Why would I do that?”

It’s taken me a while to figure what people are talking about when they ask, “Can you rest?” Different people think about swimming in very different ways. When I talk about swimming, I am thinking of it as the process of using my body to move through water. In order to rest, I stop moving. When someone like my friend talks about swimming, though, he is thinking of it as a struggle, an activity in which you use your energy to stay afloat. In this way of thinking, swimmers can only rest on solid ground; if they stop moving, they sink.

Let me assure you: when people like me swim 5, 10, 17 mile swims, we are in no way struggling to stay afloat. These aren’t exercises in long-distance drowning avoidance. When we swim, we are using our energy to move through the water, not to stay on top of the water. We float.

I’ve done experiments. (You can try them too.) If I go under water and curl into a tight little ball like a doodlebug, I will slowly float up and come to a stop with my shoulders and neck breaking the water’s surface. If I put myself into a vertical position — as if I’m standing — in a deep pool or lake, I will float so that the top of my head will be above the water, with the water line going across my forehead at the goggle line.

I can float on my back for hours. I might be able to float on my back for days; I’ve never had the time to find out.

I can rest floating in the water.

I was a grown woman before I realized people use pool floats because they can’t — or think they can’t — float on their own. Up to that point, I thought you used them as platforms from which you could launch yourself onto your sister.

In contrast, heading to shore and getting out of the water is a terrible idea. First, going off course (and then returning to it) wastes energy; you’ll swim farther than you need to. But more important, getting out of the water is dangerous. Gravity is out to get you, my friend, and when you stand up after a long swim, you are likely to fall right over. That’s why there are people waiting just past the finish line at long swims, to grab you and help you out. Combine the difficulty of standing up with the unknown dangers of a strange shore — slippery rocks, poison ivy — and you are asking for trouble.

There are a few reasons why you would head for shore, and they all involve serious emergencies: dangerous weather, a medical crisis, sharks. In those situations, the race director may need to clear the course, directing everyone to the closest land.

To rest, however, you don’t need to go to land. You can rest anywhere: lie on your back, look up at the sky, and float.


If you are concerned about what happens when an open water swimmer gets tired, you might want to read Questions about Open Water Swimming: 4) What Will You Do if You Get Tired?


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On Fat Thighs

I have fat thighs. They are permanent. I know this because some time ago I injured my jaw and had difficulty eating. I lost a lot of weight; my hipbones and collarbone stuck out, and my face became thin. It was all very interesting until it became scary. But during the whole experience, my fat thighs did not budge. It was then that I realized there was nothing to be done about my fat thighs except to love them. They are with me for the long haul.

Swimming may be the only sport that rewards fat thighs. The number one problem I see in the swimmers around me is that their legs sink. From the next lane, these swimmers look like they are riding a bicycle, their legs much lower in the water than their torso. You can work to improve your body position, of course. But you have to admit, it’s much easier to position your body correctly when you have the advantage of fat thighs floating your back end up.

This is why so many people actually swim faster with a pull buoy stuck between their thighs. It seems impossible: shouldn’t immobilizing a swimmer’s legs slow them down? But the pull buoy compensates for their dragging legs, bringing their body into a more efficient position.

I never use pull buoys. My fat thighs keep my legs up.

Pullbuoy

This is a pull buoy. You stick it between your legs for pull sets. I never use them. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

So this is a shout out to all my people with fat thighs. Don’t listen to those who tell you to hate your body. Your thighs are your strength. Make the most of your natural advantages. Come swim with me.


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On Kayakers

Let us celebrate the love the open water swimmer has for their kayaker! Your kayaker is kind of your bodyguard, and kind of your handler, and kind of your bridesmaid, without the dress and the matching shoes. If you’re swimming a race with a kayaker, that means you’re going a long distance: you’re going to have to swim it yourself, but you don’t have to go it alone.

Any open water race will have kayaks and motorboats out on the course, directing and giving aid where needed. But when you swim a longer race (such as the three 10 mile swims I’ve done or the 9.2 miler I just completed), you are required to have your own kayaker with you. That kayaker has one purpose: to keep you alive. This is something to take seriously. If you, like me, are used to being self-sufficient — or to thinking of yourself as self-sufficient — having a person beside you, someone who has given up a day or a weekend and woken up at the crack of dawn to paddle for hours to keep you alive — well, it’s a humbling experience.

The kayaker protects you in a number of ways. If something goes wrong, they are your first responder. The kayaker can call or wave down a rescue boat for help. But even when nothing goes wrong, the kayaker takes care of you, carrying your nutrition and keeping track of how long you’ve gone between feedings. They are your second pair of eyes, able to see signposts and landmarks long before you can. On my first 10 mile swim, at Lake Minnetonka, I could not see the turnaround buoy at the halfway point: I knew there was a great big orange buoy ahead of me, but from the water, surrounded by orange kayaks piloted by kayakers wearing orange PFDs, I couldn’t tell one orange thing from another. My kayaker steered me in and kept me on course. He also talked me through the tenth mile, the longest mile I’ve ever swum.

The kayaker not only helps you see; they help you be seen. In a big race, boat traffic will be stopped or rerouted for the event, but in a training swim in an area with motorboats and jetskis, the kayaker serves as a great big “Keep Away” sign. A friend paddled for me for the first time this summer; after a mile or so, she said out of the blue, “I’m here to keep you from getting hit by a boat!” I hadn’t thought to say it that way, but that was exactly why she was there. And because of her, I did not get hit by a boat.

Swimming with kayakers is not always trouble free. At the start of Swim the Suck 2016, the weather was rough. The race begins with the kayakers out in the water; the swimmers have to swim out and find their own kayakers, and then each pair proceeds together down the course. But the kayaks were being tossed around in the waves as the swimmers were swimming among them. For the first time, I worried that a kayak would hit me. In the midst of the craziness, I couldn’t really enjoy the irony that I might get run down by a person who had kindly volunteered their morning to keep swimmers safe. But due to our good planning — the yellow duck strapped to her kayak — I found my kayaker quickly, and I set off, trusting that she would keep an eye on me. And though she had to work hard to paddle through those conditions, she followed me, and we made it clear of the chaos.

mwithduck

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

The funny thing about swimming with a kayaker is that I worry about them. I find myself looking up at them, sitting in their little bright pieces of plastic, and thinking about how unprotected they are. What if they fall in the water? Of course, I am actually in the water while I have these thoughts. I don’t know what it means that I don’t worry about myself in the middle of a lake, but I never do. I worry — just a little — about my kayakers.

Swimming long distances with a kayaker is like taking a long train ride with an old friend. When you’re traveling for hours and hours with a person you know well, you don’t have to say much. You don’t have to be clever. You can pass some snacks between you and say, “Hey, look at that cloud,” when you see a nice one. And you know that if anything goes wrong, you’ve got a friend beside you. Under the circumstances, it’s not a surprise that I tend to fall in love — just a little — with my kayakers.

Blessed are the kayakers who make long distance open water swimming possible. May they have clear skies and smooth waters wherever they go. May they eat well and drink well and sleep the sleep of the just.


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Race Report: USMS Ultramarathon Distance OW Championship 2017 (Swimming for Refugees, Part 2)

On June 4, I swam 9.2 miles in the Tennessee River in the USMS Ultramarathon Distance Open Water Championship. The current was fast, the scenery was beautiful, and I raised over $3000 for HIAS. But what I really want to tell you about is the rainbow.

In seven or eight years of open water swimming, I had never seen a rainbow from the water. It was way high up and a bit behind us in the second mile or so, just a little piece of the arc. When I saw it, I yelled to B, my kayaker, “There’s a rainbow.” He didn’t see it. He said something about my goggles. I pointed up at the sky emphatically. He nodded. Later he told me that he never saw the rainbow; he didn’t want me to waste time arguing. He’s a sensible man and a good kayaker. But I saw the rainbow. It was there.

When I was a little kid, I didn’t believe in rainbows. To be more accurate, I believed there were rainbows, but I thought the neat arcs I saw in children’s books were artists’ exaggerations of the real thing. There are lots of things pictured in children’s books that aren’t exactly real: bears cooking breakfast, dogs driving convertibles, you know. I had seen sunrises and sunsets, and I thought rainbows were like them: big areas of color, not perfect bands curving across the sky. So the first time I saw a real rainbow, I was impressed. And I’m still impressed.

The thing about rainbows is that they seem like should be impossible: how can something like that be real? But rainbows aren’t impossible, and they aren’t magic: they are sunlight passing through raindrops. And swimming 9.2 miles? That isn’t impossible either, and it sure isn’t magic: you work hard, and you get your friends to help you, and then you go out on a Sunday morning and do it.


I was anxious going into the swim on Sunday. The forecast was terrible, the worst possible swimming weather: thunderstorms due to start in the middle of the swim. On the bus taking us to the swim start, I heard a man describing being pulled off a course because of lightning. On the walk down to the water, I heard a woman saying that she’d left shoes with her kayaker in case we had to get out in poison ivy. I didn’t want to be pulled out of the water, and I didn’t want to walk through poison ivy. More than anything, I didn’t want to tell the many people who had donated to HIAS in support of my swim that I hadn’t finished because of lightning.

But when I saw the rainbow in the second mile, I thought, Maybe the weather will hold. And it did.

The whole swim went well. First, B the kayaker and I found each other easily. The start is always difficult in this kind of race; you have to find your kayaker in the midst of chaos. But B and I had our not-so-secret weapon — the big yellow duckie — and when I saw that duck strapped to his kayak, I headed right for it.

The yellow duck, ready to go! Photo by B the kayaker, June 2017.

Second, the course was clear and beautiful. We started out under a series of bridges in downtown Chattanooga and then headed around the big turn in the river at Moccasin Bend and ended down river at the Baylor School. B and I had gone up Lookout Mountain, which looks out over Moccasin Bend, and seen the course from above the day before, so I had a good sense of how far along we were at any time in the race.

My arm (left foreground), with mountain. Photo by B the kayaker, June 2017.

And finally, the current was fast. I swam 9.2 miles in a bit over 2.5 hours, and I wasn’t anywhere near the front of the pack. In comparison, I swam Swim the Suck –10 miles in the same river — at a bit over 3.5 hours in 2015 and a bit over 4.5 hours in 2016. We were so fast that when we got to the finish, the race organizer announced apologetically that the pizza was still on its way: we’d outswum our lunch!

Coming into the well-marked finish! Photo by B the kayaker, June 2017.

But it wasn’t long before the pizza appeared, and it was good pizza with a kale salad that I dumped on the top of my two huge slices and ate as a topping. I didn’t bother with a fork; it was only going to slow me down.

This race was new, and the course had not been swum as an organized event before. But I knew that Karah Nazor was the organizer, and I was confident that it would be a well-run event. I was not disappointed. Karah and her crew know what they are doing. I’d love to come back and swim it again.


So far, I have raised over $3000 for HIAS, the international refugee agency of the American Jewish community. The Greenville News ran a front page story about my swim the Saturday before the event, online here: Furman professor to swim to help refugees: ‘I know what happens when we don’t help refugees.’ There is video as well, if you would like to hear and see me in motion: Swimming to raise money for refugees. Finally, HIAS posted about the swim on their blog: Going the Distance for Refugees. Literally.

My fundraising page is still open, and the need is still urgent.: 65 million people, just like me and you, in search of freedom and safety. Please consider donating. Thank you to all who have already contributed!


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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 4) What Will You Do if You Get Tired?

In two days, I will swim the USMS Ultramarathon Distance Open Water National Championship: 9.2 miles in the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. As I near the swim, people ask me questions about open water swimming, and these days the most popular question is my least favorite: What will you do if you get tired?

I find this question infuriating. It makes me want to strangle people. And since I am a grown woman slowly clawing my way toward self-actualization, I have spent some time thinking about why this question makes me want to hurt nice people who are probably just trying to make polite conversation.

It’s the word “if.”

There are a lot of things that I don’t know about this upcoming swim — there are a lot of things that I’m not going to know until I am actually swimming it — but I will tell you one thing for sure: I am going to get tired. I’m not playing hopscotch; I’m swimming 9.2 miles in a big river. There’s no question of “if” here.

Many years ago, I was in labor with my first child. About 10 or 12 hours into the process, I said, “I am done. I do not want to have a baby anymore.” Mercifully, no one laughed. I was not being funny: I was done, and I did not want to have a baby anymore. In every long race I’ve ever swum, I have had a moment like that, a moment where I am done, and I do not want to swim anymore.

In many ways long distance open water swimming is like childbirth, at least in my experience of both. They are beautiful and meaningful and occasionally transcendent. But they are also exhausting and painful and at times brutal. Most importantly, neither one allows you to call for a substitute; you can’t say, “Look, I’m tired. Could someone else take over now?” If it’s going to happen, it’s got to be you.

There’s no magic here.

This Sunday, if all goes well, I will swim 9.2 miles. My kayaker B will be beside me. There will be plenty of safety personnel and (I hope) a lot of food waiting at the end of the race. At some point I will get tired. And when I do, I will do the only thing I can do: I will draw on my training and on the strength of the people who love me, and I’ll keep going.

That baby is nineteen now, and she’s bigger than I am. I’ll let you know how the swim went when it’s over.


For the first time, I am doing a long open water swim as a fundraiser. I am swimming on Sunday for HIAS, the international refugee agency of the American Jewish community. You can read about why I am swimming for HIAS here, and you can learn more and donate here. Thank you!