10 mile swim

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


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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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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


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On Being a Beast

“You’re a beast swimmer,” said the young woman in the locker room. She was talking to me.

Dear reader, in case we haven’t met in person, let me tell you what I look like. I’m a middle-aged woman. I’m five foot four and a half. I wear thick glasses with plastic frames. I look like someone’s mom. I am, in fact, someone’s mom.

And yet this young person, who had been swimming in the lane next to me for most of lap swim, said to me, “You’re a beast swimmer.” No one calls me a “beast” (or “machine” or “killer”) anywhere else. It only happens when I’m swimming.

I may not look like much on land. But in swimming how your body looks is less important than what you do with it. Muscles and size are less important than technique. I’ve taught Division I intercollegiate athletes — including (American) football and lacrosse players — in my May term swimming course. These young men are big. They’re in great shape. And they work hard. On land, any one of them could outrun, outlift, outdo me in any way. In the water, though, I can outswim them all. I’m twice their age. I’m half their size. But while they have muscles and size, I have technique.

(And the good thing about technique is that it can be learned. I mean, you’re not going to get younger. But you could improve your stroke technique — a lot.)

Maybe you’re a big scary-looking person, and you spend your time trying to convince others not to be afraid of you. But I’m small, and I spend my time trying to convince others to be a little — just a little — afraid of me. Only when I’m swimming do people look at me and see power.

Of course, when you get down to it, it’s how you feel on the inside that really counts. And on the inside, I’m a beast.


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You Can’t Swim in the Same River Twice: On Personal Records

One of the many things I like about open water swimming is that I never think about my PR. PR stands for “personal record,” and it means, of course, your best time for a race. My running friends talk about their PRs: they beat their PRs, they almost beat their PRs, they want to beat their PRs. Jen A. Miller recently wrote a piece, Trying to Beat My 25-Year-Old Self, in the New York Times Well Blog about trying to beat her personal record, set ten years before, for a 5K run. That’s the thing about having a PR: you always want to beat it.

But thinking about your personal record in open water swimming is complicated. If you run 5Ks (or some other set distance), you can compare your time from ten years ago to your time today. The distance is fixed, and the conditions relatively stable. Open water swims, on the other hand, are not uniform. They come in a variety of lengths. And more important, courses and conditions make a huge difference: a swim in a lake is not comparable to a swim in a river, and a swim in rough conditions is not the same as a swim in calm water.

I know that the fastest I have ever swum was on May 24, 2014 at the Lowcountry Splash: five miles in 1:13:29. It seems impossible that I will ever swim that fast again. The current was unusually swift. All the course records were broken that day. I was the fastest I’ve ever been — and so was everyone else.

I keep a spread sheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. The entry for the Lowcountry Splash is highlighted. Zoooooooom.

I keep a spreadsheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. This is an excerpt. I’ve highlighted the entry for the Lowcountry Splash: zoooooooom.

The next year at the same race the current was not unusually swift; I swam the course in 1:26:37, thirteen minutes slower. Should I be disappointed that I didn’t beat my PR? What for? I don’t control the current. And it was a great swim on a beautiful morning. There’s no point in comparisons. You can’t swim in the same river twice.

River current isn’t the only factor to take into account: all open water swimming is dependent on conditions. Last August I swam two miles in 54:24 at the Lake Lure Olympiad. Last September I swam two miles in 1:03:17 at the Dam Swim for Drew in Lake Murray. I didn’t get nine minutes slower in a month. At Lake Lure the water was warm and smooth; we swam two simple loops around a one-mile course. At Lake Murray, the water was rough; we fought through waves the whole way across the lake.

I was faster at Lake Lure. I had more fun at the Dam Swim. Which one was the better swim?

Some people find it motivating to compete with their younger selves, to beat their PRs. But I’m not interested in playing that game. The great appeal of open water swimming is that each race is its own experience, new and incomparable to the others. Each swim is its own swim. Each swim can be your best swim on that day.


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Snow Outside, Swim Inside

“You can’t go swimming. It’s snowing,” said the man in the office next to mine. People say crazy things like that to me all winter long. I’ve learned there’s no point in arguing with them. The best thing to do is smile and nod while slowly backing away, preferably in the direction of the pool.

There are people you need to listen to when they say, “You can’t go swimming.” Lifeguards. Park rangers. Doctors. A few years ago my doctor told me that I might have a major medical problem, the kind that could kill me, and that I shouldn’t exercise until we had done tests to rule it out. I said, “I can’t go swimming?” And she said, “You can’t go swimming.” It took over a month for all the tests and scans. It was a miserable time. But until I was cleared, I didn’t go swimming.

However, people who say, “You can’t go swimming. It’s snowing,” are not people I need to listen to. My pool is inside, and it’s heated. In fact, it’s warmer than my office, which is kept at a temperature more suited for storing wine than English professors. (I think the university is hoping I will age better at a low temperature.) Snow outside is no reason not to swim inside.

My university campus in the snow. Photo by Daniel Crowe.

Campus in the snow. This is the way to the pool. Photo by Daniel Crowe.

Strangely, people are not convinced when I explain about the indoor, heated pool. They repeat that it’s too cold to swim. I wonder if they don’t understand that swimming is a heat-generating activity. If your only swimming experience is lying around in a pool on a summer day, you might not realize that exercise in water warms your body the same as on land. But it does. I get hot swimming. When I swim sprints, I go all pink in the face.

There are too many real problems that can keep a person out of the water. There’s no need to worry about pretend ones. I am waiting for spring when I can get outside to the lakes again. But all winter long, snow or no snow, I’m still swimming.