10 mile swim

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


On Swim Equipment

In swimming, as in the rest of my life, I am torn between two competing desires. On one hand, I want to live my life free of the encumbrances of material possessions. On the other, I want cool toys.

Here is my advice about the swim equipment I use, in order of most to least necessary (or least to most frivolous):

1) Goggles

Goggles are one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century. I met a man at the Lowcountry Splash one year who swam for Clemson University in the days before goggles. He said that his eyes hurt all the time. I believe him.

I usually wear Speedo Hydrospex Jr. goggles. They are marketed as youth goggles. But they fit me — unlike so-called adult goggles, which are really goggles for men and their great big heads. You can buy goggles marketed to women, but you pay less for youth sizes, and they work fine for me. Ignore the labels; get what works.

If you swim inside, you probably need clear or lightly colored lenses. If you swim outside, you probably need darker ones. They also sell goggles designed for open water swimming, ones that supposedly give you a better range of vision; I’ve tried a couple pairs, but they haven’t made a difference to me.

2) Fins

I love my fins. Without fins, kick drills are dull. But put on fins, and not only are you getting a better leg workout, you are moving much faster — and having more fun.

There are all kinds of fins for swimmers: long, short, special for breaststroke, etc. I have short ones, TYR Burners. Don’t use scuba fins; they won’t encourage the right kind of leg motion for swimming.

I should say that while I love my fins, my fins don’t always love me, by which I mean that I can wear them for months without trouble and then go through a period where they chafe my feet. I’m in one of those periods now; one of them is trying to chew through my right big toe. I don’t know why. Love is strange.

Fins and kickboard, wet from practice. My photo. Mar 2016.

Fins and kickboard, wet from practice. My photo. Mar 2016.

3) Ankle band

Many pools — though for some reason not mine — let you borrow pull buoys, which hold your legs up and keep you from kicking when you are doing pull drills. But as I’ve noted before, I don’t like pull buoys. Every once in a while I try one out, just to confirm that, yes, I still don’t like pull buoys. My back end floats just fine on its own; it does not require extra buoyancy.

But pull drills are easier when your legs are immobilized, and that’s why I have an ankle band. You put your feet in it, you twist it around, and bam! your legs are tied together. When I was a kid, we would use an inner tube for this purpose; if you weren’t careful when you put it on, the valve stem would poke you in the ankle. Now manufacturers make bands for this purpose. — no valve stems.

The ankle band I have comes from Finis and costs all of $5.

4) Kickboard

You don’t need to have your own kickboard. Pools generally have kickboards for you to borrow. Nonetheless, I like my kickboard better. Because it’s smaller and less buoyant than the standard type, it keeps my arms lower in the water, which puts less stress on my shoulders.

I worry about my shoulders. They are the parts that are going to wear out when parts start wearing out. They should get a rest during kick drills.

5) My fancy pants sports watch

I have a fancy sports watch — a Garmin fēnix 2. It’s got five different buttons on it. It’s got an altimeter, a barometer, and a compass. It will keep track of your cycling and your hiking and your downhill skiing. I will never use 90% of this stuff.

The reason I have a fēnix 2 (as opposed to anything else) that it is one of the few devices that will track both pool and open water distance. For pool swimming, you input the length of the pool, and the fēnix 2 keeps track of laps. For open water swimming, you activate the GPS to measure distance.

I got the fēnix 2 in November, and so far I have only used it in pools. I hope to be trying it out in an open water swim soon. Once you get the hang of pressing the right buttons to activate the lap counter and drill timer, though, it works great in the pool. List price is $400, but it can be had for half the cost.

If you are looking for information on a particular type of equipment, you can check out US Masters Swimming‘s reviews, both in the Swim Bag section of their magazine (accessible online) and in their video product reviews.

Please tell me about the equipment you like in the comments!


More on Swim Caps

Why do we wear clothes? I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I’d say clothes serve two main purposes: they protect us from our environment, and they allow us to communicate information about ourselves to others. And when we are not wearing very much clothing, the few clothes we are wearing have to do a lot of communicating.

Which brings us to the swim cap. Most of the time, when you’re swimming, you aren’t wearing much clothing. And though a swimmer communicates information about herself with her swimsuit and her gear, the most efficient means by which a swimmer can assert her identity is through the swim cap.

I’ve been thinking a lot about swim caps lately. I’m frustrated. Back in early November, I reached my 500-mile Go the Distance goal for 2015, and I have been trying ever since — that’s two-and-half months — to buy a 500-mile cap from US Masters Swimming. Just to be clear, I don’t want them to give me a cap; I want the opportunity to pay them money for a cap. They are updating their online store. I made some quaint 20th-century suggestions — could I call someone on the phone with a credit card number? could I mail someone a check? — but to no avail. I have had plenty of time to think about why I want this 500-mile cap.

It’s not to protect my hair from the environment. Non-swimmers are sometimes surprised to learn that a cap does not keep your hair dry. Caps are like wetsuits; they let the water in. A cap will, however, keep your hair out of your eyes when you swim. And it will keep your hair out of your pool’s filters. That’s why some places require caps — to protect the pool, not you.

Just as important, swimmers wear caps that tell other swimmers about themselves. You can proclaim your love of breaststroke or Brazil or breakfast. You can declare your allegiance to a team or other group. A little while ago, a student gave me a couple of caps from the university’s club swim team. I usually bring one with me when I travel. When I wear it, I feel I am a representative of the institution, and I make a special effort to behave myself. Last summer I wore it when I swam at the gaspingly beautiful Kitsilano pool in Vancouver, my purple university cap in that huge blue pool.

When I swim at my regular pool, I usually wear a cap from an open water swim. At every open water race I’ve ever done, I’ve received a race cap. Swimmers are required to wear the cap for the event. During a race, it makes it easier for safety personnel to find and identify you. It usually has your race number written on it in Sharpie.

After the race you take your cap home and wear it in the pool, and you have on your head the physical reminder of your fabulous swim. Sometimes a cap will have some super cool race logo, and people can look at your head and think, “Look at that super cool person with the super cool race cap.” At least, you can imagine that’s what they’re doing.

Some of this summer's caps. From left to right: the Dam Swim for Drew, Swim the Suck, the Lowcountry Splash.

Some of this summer’s caps. From left to right: the Dam Swim for Drew, Swim the Suck, the Lowcountry Splash. Red was the hip color in 2015. My photo.

People take caps seriously. I swam a race one year that gave out caps that said something about a Virginia triathlon series on them. It was not a triathlon, and it was not in Virginia; the race organizers must have gotten them cheap in bulk. When I wore my race cap to the pool later, one of my friends confronted me. “When have you done a triathlon?” he demanded. I’m not interested in triathlons, and he knows it. He felt I was wearing the cap under false pretenses. A cap must serve two purposes, and while that cap did a fine job keeping the hair out of my face, it communicated inaccurate information about me. It was not a wholly successful cap.

You can’t get sentimental about caps. They don’t last forever. And there’s always some point in the spring before race season starts when all my caps seem to be stretched out and start to rip, and I start wondering if I’ll make it to the first race of the year without having to buy a cap. I don’t want to buy a regular cap. I want a race cap.

My caps aren’t ripping yet, but they will be. And, as I said, I don’t want to buy a regular cap. I want that 500-mile Go the Distance cap. If I ever get one, I’ll post a photo. Sure, it will keep the hair out of my eyes. But more important, it will say, truthfully, “This is a person who has swum a long, long way.”


On Body Adornment

It’s hard to carry good luck charms when you’re swimming. Other athletes can have lucky socks or underwear; maybe they carry lucky coins or key rings in their pockets. But swimmers don’t have socks or underwear or pockets. I will be wearing an official race cap, not some lucky one, during the 10 mile swim, and while I thought about getting a special swimsuit for the race, I decided to go with the one I wear most often: I know where it will chafe.

What swimmers do have is their bodies, and so body adornment often takes the place of the lucky charm. Female swimmers do their nails: see this BuzzFeed collection of photos from the 2012 Olympics and this SwimSwam piece on fingernails at the 2014 NCAA championships. During summer swim league season, little kids (and big ones too) write on their skin with Sharpies, decorating themselves with team mascots or trash talk: there are many children with “EAT MY BUBBLES” written on their backs.

I have plans for self-decoration for the 10 mile swim. First, my toenails:

Do you have ovaries? Do you know someone who does? Go to Teal Toes and read about the symptoms.

Teal is the color of ovarian cancer awareness, and my friend C, who is flying out to Minnesota to be on my support team for the swim, has started an organization called Teal Toes to educate people about the disease and promote early detection. Ovarian cancer can be overlooked because people do not recognize the symptoms, but early diagnosis saves lives. I will have a fresh coat of teal polish for the race.

And for good luck? I am a medievalist, and one of my favorite texts is Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, written in the eighth century. Bede tells us that St Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne, would stand in the cold waters of the Northumbrian coast, praying all night, and in the morning otters would come and warm his feet.

On the left, Cuthbert praying in the sea, and, afterward (on the right), otters coming to warm and dry his feet.

On the left, Cuthbert praying in the sea, and, afterward (on the right), otters coming to warm and dry his feet. Detail from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r, online at the British Library’s medieval manuscript blog.

Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r
Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r
Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r

Cuthbert didn’t swim, but he spent a lot of time in water, and he was cold. I’ve stuck my feet in the water at Lindisfarne; it’s a mite nippy. The temperature in Lake Minnetonka will be much warmer, but there’s no way around it — it will almost certainly be colder than I’m used to. And I love the story of the otters: when you are cold and wet and exhausted, they come to comfort you.

However, I am unlikely to attract real otters — I’m not very saintly — so I ordered these temporary tattoos from SwimOutlet, and they came in the mail. They are a good size; one will cover the top of my foot. The swim is just 12 days away, but I’m feeling good about it, and I’ll have otters on my feet.

Otter. You can get sharks and piranhas and barracudas, but I want otters. From SwimOutlet.com.

Otter. You can get sharks and piranhas and barracudas, but I want otters. From SwimOutlet.com.

What do you do for good luck in a swim?


What Not to Wear

There was a time not long ago when people just swam naked. As George Borrow writes in The Romany Rye (published 1857):

Swimming, however, is not genteel; and the world—at least the genteel part of it—acts very wisely in setting its face against it; for to swim you must be naked, and how would many a genteel person look without his clothes?

“To swim, you must be naked.” Perhaps in some deep philosophical sense this is still true, but in the kind of places I swim, to swim, you must not be naked; you must wear a swimsuit, a tiny form-fitting garment manufactured of petroleum-based fabric.

Women’s swimsuits–that is, suits for adult women with mortgages and reading glasses–can be divided into two classes: those made for hanging around and those made for actual swimming. The ones for hanging around have skirts and ties and buckles; they have underwire and pads and ruching and all kinds of crazy things. You wear these for reading magazines and watching children, not for swimming. I once tried to do a lap of butterfly in a suit with a little skirt. It went poorly. A suit with a skirt is to an actual swimsuit as a Rose Bowl parade float is to an actual car: the float looks pretty, but it’s not going anywhere fast.

Suit from Splish.


The kind of swimsuit made for swimming is much simpler in construction, although they can still have some personality. For example, I bought myself a lovely Splish suit as a special treat. The pattern is called Tsunami.

Sadly, it lasted just two months before chlorine ate it. I wore it over another suit to extend its life a little, but it was all stretched out. I still covet the Splish suits, though (warning: they run big), and I’m thinking about getting another one for races.

If you swim a lot, you buy suits frequently. This is what I resent most about swimsuits; I would save a fortune if, like Burrows, I could swim naked. Sadly, swimming naked would almost certainly get me kicked out of my pool, and I could not bear it: I would be sadder than Dante, exiled from Florence, eating bread with salt.

If you are hoping to save some money but still get a quality suit that will last, I recommend the grab bag swimsuit. I have been buying them from SwimOutlet, but other retailers sell them too. The process works like this: you select a type and a size, and they send you a suit. Maybe it will be a hideous color. Maybe it will have a horrible and unflattering cut. But maybe it will be just fine, and why be so picky? You pay your money and you take your chances.


Captain American’s shield. Made of vibranium. Image from Wonder World Comics.

The most recent grab bag suit I bought was this one: Speedo Endurance Grab Bag Swimsuit (that link might not work forever: google “speedo endurance grab bag” and you should get lots of options). I was excited when I saw that it was available: the Speedo Endurance fabric wears like iron. I don’t know what it’s made of, but I suspect it’s polyester reinforced with vibranium, the (imaginary) material that makes Captain America’s shield.

Misty Hyman and I have the same swimsuit. Image from USMS.

It just so happens that SwimOutlet sent me a suit that looks a lot like Captain America’s shield; it’s just like the one Misty Hyman is wearing on a recent cover of SWIMMER magazine. Coincidence?

The Endurance suits are expensive at full price, but the grab bag suit sold for half that. It’s not a particularly attractive cut on me. But if I’m swimming fast enough, who can tell?

Do you have suggestions for what (not) to wear?


On Swim Caps and Swim Hats and Swimming in Adverse Conditions

I don’t get along well with swim caps. I wear one to keep the hair out of my face. But lately I’ve found that in the course of a long unbroken swim (4000-5000 yards, for example) my nice silicone swim cap slowly inches its way off my head like a person backing away from a growling dog. And then it hangs there held on by my goggle strap, while my hair floats in my face anyway.

The last time this happened, I didn’t want to take a break to deal with it; the point, after all, was to swim for a long distance without stopping. So I ripped the cap off my head, stuffed it down the front of my swimsuit, and kept going. I figure that swimming 1000+ yards with a cap shoved into my suit is another way of practicing Swimming in Adverse Conditions. Seriously, many races require you to wear an official race cap–sometimes with a timing chip on it–and if it fell off your head, you would need to keep a hold of it. So swimming with a cap down your suit could be considered sensible, even pragmatic, and not the act of a crazy person.

I started to write this post complaining about swim caps a week or so ago, but then I ran into iSwimmer’s post on the importance of wearing a swim cap, and I was hit with two simultaneous but conflicting emotions. First, I felt guilt, because here I was writing a post that might discourage people from wearing swim caps (and, as she notes, we all should). But, second, I felt glee, because she reminded me of a wonderful thing I had forgotten: the item that in the US is called a swim cap, in the UK and Ireland (and maybe other places too) is called a swim hat!

This is what an American might envision when she hears the term “swim hat.” The Brighton Swimming Club. Image from Smithsonian magazine tumblr

One of the many joys of swimming two-and-a-half weeks in the Markievicz Leisure Centre in Dublin in 2008 was seeing the sign near the entrance to the pool: “Hats must be worn in pool.” I smiled every day I walked past that sign. It makes me happy to think about the swim hat.

So, I decided to stop being grouchy about my swim cap falling off and get one of my old ones, a cheap latex cap I got at Swim the Loop last October, to see if it would stick better. I wore it Saturday and Monday, and, although those swims did not include a long straight stretch of swimming, that old latex cap did not move an inch the whole time.


I was like Homer with a plunger on his head, but in a good way.

It may be that the nice silicone cap is just too nice for the likes of me, and I need a sticky one. I am hopeful that the latex cap will stay on my head and out of my suit.

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On Pull Buoys and Ankle Bands and the Trousers of Michael Phelps

A lot of people love pull buoys, and that’s just fine with me. Other people’s love for pull buoys in no way impacts me; I hope that those who enjoy using pull buoys will continue to enjoy using them for many happy years to come.

But while I like doing pull sets–that is, swimming using arms only–I don’t like using pull buoys. I don’t like them for the same reason I don’t like wetsuits: they mess with my body position. Most pull buoys are made of a piece of foam (or two pieces of foam) that you stick between your thighs to help your legs float behind you when you are not kicking. I don’t need help floating, and I especially don’t need a piece of foam designed to keep my butt bobbing near the surface.

Here I have to admit to a physical advantage: I am proportioned like Michael Phelps–if Michael Phelps were a five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch-tall middle-aged woman. Phelps has a long torso and short legs; he’s 6′ 4″, but he has the torso of a 6′ 8″ man and the legs of a 6′ one. As Bob Costas says in this video, “Phelps is perfectly tall–and short.” I too have a long torso and short legs. It’s an advantage for swimming. It’s a disadvantage for buying trousers. I sometimes wonder if Phelps has to hem his own trousers and if he’s better at it than I am. But these proportions (and good body position) mean that my legs float just fine and I don’t need or like pull buoys.

But I do like to do pull sets, and I am doing more and more of them in preparation for the ten mile swim. When I was a child on swim team, instead of using pull buoys we tied our ankles together with an inner tube. I don’t know what kind of inner tubes they were, but I know mine was an actual, complete inner tube, not a cut piece of rubber, because I remember how you had to be careful when you twisted it not to end up with the valve stem digging into an ankle. It was like this:

Image from Don Gambril's Swimmer and Team. Found at http://aquavolo.com/journal/article/2011/10/pull-buoy-or-not

Image from Don Gambril’s Swimmer and Team. Found at AquaVolo.

I liked using the inner tube, and that’s why I was especially pleased to learn that in the 21st century you can buy ankle bands that do the same thing without the ankle-piercing valve stem. The kind I own appears at 6:10 on the video I’ve embedded below, the yellow one from Finis. I think it’s terrific; it’s cheap and portable, and it works just fine. You can’t kick, not the least little bit, but you can still do a reasonable flip turn and push off the wall. The woman in the video uses it with a pull buoy, but I don’t; I just twist it around my ankles and go.

If you like pull buoys, more power to you. But if you don’t, or you’d just like to try something new, consider the ankle band.

This SWIMMER Magazine (from USMS) video review of pull buoys goes on for over nine minutes. It presents more types of pull buoys and ankle bands and other things than I ever thought possible:


On Goggles

I like to think of myself as a person who doesn’t have a lot of gear. But I also like to think of myself as a vicious, killer ninja, and that’s not true either. I have gear, some gear, which I tote from home to pool or from office to pool on a regular basis.

You don’t need much equipment to swim. You definitely need a body of water. You probably need a swimsuit. Cultural practices vary. These days I’m wearing two swimsuits because my last two suits wore out so quickly that I have to wear one over the other to avoid scandalizing decent folk.

The one other piece of gear I really need is a pair of goggles, because I swim with my contacts in. My young swimming life was before I had contact lenses, which means that much of my childhood was wet and blurry. At my parents’ house, there is an old photo of me standing behind the blocks at a swim meet with a sweet, winsome look on my face. I look like an angel in a dark blue swimsuit, but the fact is, I was no angel–I just couldn’t see anything. One benefit of years of blurry swimming, though, was that I learned how to swim straight so as to avoid mangling myself on lane ropes, a skill that is useful to me in open water swimming.

The pair of goggles I’m wearing now are over a year old; I got them soon after the 2012 Olympics. They are awesome in every way, not least that they have lasted so long. They were on sale at SwimOutlet.com for only $7.25, so I bought two pairs, which is why I could take a picture of a pair still in their packaging.

My super cool goggles

My super cool goggles with glitter-print technology

I almost always wear women’s or junior goggles. So-called adult goggles, like so many other things, are sized to fit men, and even if you pull the straps tight, there is too much distance between the eye cups, and they will leak. You may pay more for goggles that are marked women’s, but you can pay less for goggles that are marked junior. I go for these Speedo Junior Hydrospex; they come in perfectly normal colors, but the sparkly gold stars were on clearance. Who can say why?

I read a product review article in SWIMMER last spring (the USMS magazine–here’s their video review) about goggles for open water swimming and got all excited because of course I wanted special goggles for open water swimming; I just needed someone to give me a reason why. And that reason is to have a wider field of vision. Regular pool goggles are made so that you can see in front of you down the lane. When you are swimming open water, though, you need to see all around you because some crazy person is barreling toward you and you need to take evasive action. Just to make clear, I happily swam open water for a long time, including several races, with regular pool goggles, so it’s not as if you have to have different ones. But I found some AquaSphere Kaiman ones, also women’s (or small) sized, and they work well and have given me no trouble.

Once when I was swimming out at Lake Hartwell, where many open water swimmers and triathletes train, I came up on a group of people treading water all together. As I got closer I could hear the leader explaining to the group that to clear your goggles when they are foggy you can pull them off your face a bit and rub them with your two thumbs to clear them. He was demonstrating. This seemed to me to be a piece of information so obvious that it did not need to be said, but in case you didn’t know, you can rub goggles with your thumbs to clear the fog. If you don’t have thumbs, you can use your fingers or maybe your friend’s thumbs (which is why you should never ever swim alone).

More on gear to come.