10 mile swim

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


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?


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!

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Questions About Open Water Swimming: 3) What If You Get a Cramp?

I am doing a series of posts in which I answer questions my (non-swimming) friends have asked me about open water swimming. One of these questions is, “What if you get a cramp?” But no one ever asks me this question calmly; they usually ask it like this: “WHAT IF YOU GET A CRAMP???!!!11!?”

Let me allay your concerns. A cramp does not turn you to rock and cause you to sink inexorably to your death.

The Thing is covered with rock, and he can swim and fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position

The Thing is huge and covered with rock, and not only can he swim, he can fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position.

A cramp is just an annoyance, not a crisis.

I get cramps every once in a while, more often in pools than in open water (more on that in a bit), and here’s what I do when I get one that I can’t ignore:

  1. I stop whatever I’m doing.
  2. I do something else.
  3. If 1 and 2 do not solve the problem, I gently stretch the cramping muscle. And then
  4. I get on with the swimming.

I am not a medical professional. I can only tell you what it’s like being me living in my body. But I have never had a cramp that required me to get help — or even to get out of the water. I do steps 1-4 while floating.

When you train, you learn how your body works and what your issues are. For me, I get cramps in my calves or in my feet, and I get them during or soon after kick sets or after pushing off the wall. A change in activity is usually the precipitating event: maybe the kick set goes fine, but when I push off the wall in the next set, a calf cramps up. One crazy day in September this year, I swam 15,000 yards in a 25 yard pool — not my first choice of venue — and by the end my calves would cramp with every push off. But that was a day of several hundred turns. It was not a normal day.

More to the point, in open water, there are no kick sets or walls, and, as a result, I almost never get cramps in open water. In fact, I can only think of one time I got a cramp during an open water swim. Again, the trigger was a sudden change in activity. I was nearing the end of a two mile race and looking for the finish; I did a quick whip kick after two miles of steady flutter, and one of my calves cramped up tight. So I shook the leg out and kept swimming, cursing heartily. I lost a little time, and I may have offended some delicate sensibilities, but the cramp itself was not a big deal.

Preventing cramps is better than dealing with them when they come. I’m pretty sure that dehydration contributed to the cramp during the race: it happened at the end of a swim in a warm lake in August. A two mile swim is not long enough to require hydration mid-race, but I probably should have had more fluids beforehand. In a longer race (like the two ten-milers I’ve done) either you’ll have a kayaker along to hand you liquids or there will be hydration stations on the course. You should stay hydrated at practice too. You don’t notice yourself sweating in the water, but you do. Have a good drink before you start, and put a water bottle on the side of the pool for breaks.

While we’re on the subject, the claim that you must wait an hour after eating to swim or risk deadly stomach cramps is complete and utter nonsense. I eat as I walk over to the pool. Sometimes I eat on the pool deck. During a long swim, I eat while floating on my back in the middle of the water. We all do. And swimmers regularly eat through swim meets. You can eat your lunch and go right to swim. Be sure to have a good-sized glass of water with it.

Finally, if you have a medical crisis of any kind during a open water race, you will have support boats on the course to assist you. If you actually do turn to rock, perhaps they won’t be much help. But I’m willing to take the risk. Happy swimming!



Questions about Open Water Swimming: 2) What Scares You?

What scares you? I asked my (non-swimming) friends what they wanted to know about open water swimming, and one asked, “What scares you?” That’s a great question. I am scared of all sorts of things. But almost none of them can get me in the water.

There are people who head out into the wild, climbing mountains and flinging themselves off cliffs, as a way of confronting their fears, but that’s not me. I returned to swimming as an adult as a way of dealing with anxiety. When I am in the water, I am literally swimming away from my fears.

When my children were small, one of my fears was that I would fall down the stairs while holding a baby. It’s a completely rational fear. I know someone who fell down the stairs while carrying a baby. The baby broke a leg. It’s the earth that is out to get you, my friend: one wrong step, and gravity will suck you down and break you.

But one wrong stroke in the water? There’s no such thing. Water is a great big buffer between you and all that could hurt you: the crazy man with the gun, the phone call in the night, the slip on the stairs. And it is absolutely reliable. The water wants to hold you up. It will always hold you up.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote to Oliver Neave, “You will be no swimmer till you place some confidence in the power of water to support you.”

It is possible to swim in dangerous water. You can swim from Cuba to Florida through box jellyfish. But you can also cover yourself in honey and sit on fire ant hills. I’ve had scarier encounters with squirrels on land (really, squirrels are crazy) than with anything I’ve ever encountered in water.

Table 1Last time I swam in Lake Jocassee, a little bass nipped at my leg while I was standing in shallow water. I yelped and looked down. There were a half dozen fish around me. I was yelling at them when I realized that my kayaker couldn’t see the fish and that, as far as he was concerned, I was shouting, “Back off, you little buggers!” at my feet. That is my most dangerous animal story: a fish nipping at my leg while my kayaker questioned my sanity.

I am not a risk taker. I check conditions; I swim with friends. If I have any doubt about safety, I don’t swim. I have driven an hour to the lake, waited thirty minutes for a storm to pass, and driven an hour home without sticking a toe in. But if the conditions are good, I feel safer in water than I do on land. I’m not scared when I’m swimming.

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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 1) Don’t You Get Bored?

I asked friends to tell me what they wanted to know about open water swimming and about my experience at Swim the Suck, the ten mile race I swam in Chattanooga last week, and the most common question was, “Don’t you get bored?”

I don’t get bored. I didn’t get bored at Swim the Suck; I loved all ten miles of it. One of the people I met at the dinner the evening before the swim — she was swimming the event for the second time — said that she thought of it less as a race and more as a tour. And having swum the course, I agree: it was a tour of the beautiful Tennessee River Gorge from the water. You can see photos at my race report.

Open water swimming is like hiking. You look around. You see things. You need to pay attention to where you’re going, as you do when you hike — you’re looking for obstacles and making sure you stay on course — but you can enjoy the scenery as you go.

I think that’s what people may not understand about open water swimming, the fact that you can enjoy the scenery. The mechanics are simple. First, you see ahead when you sight. Sighting is when you lift your head to look in front of you; you don’t need to do it in a pool (in a pool you follow the black line), but you do have to do it regularly in open water. Sighting is tiring, however, and it slows you down. I’ve learned to sight like an alligator, lifting my head just enough that my eyes are above the water, but still, at the end of a long race, my neck is sore.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee last spring. There are no alligators in Lake Jocassee, just me. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

It’s easier to look around when you breathe. I breathe to the right and to the left equally well, so as I swim I can see what’s on either side of me. As we went down the Tennessee River last weekend, we enjoyed the mountains in early fall. Here and there we passed a house; M, my kayaker, pointed out a place that had a three-story-high tree house next to it, and we talked about it as a possible Airbnb location.

I pick races in beautiful places on purpose. The Lowcountry Splash is another example; you get an unbeatable view of the Ravenel Bridge (seen in the photo at the top of this blog). I suppose when you’re a serious competitor, you don’t spend time sightseeing, but I’d rather enjoy the view than win.

Of course, I don’t get to swim in beautiful places all the time — or even most of the time. But I don’t get bored swimming in a pool either.

When you swim two miles a day in a pool, you don’t just get in the water, swim two miles, and get out. Usually I swim a warm-up, a set with kicking and/or pulling, and a main set; maybe I’ll have a short cool-down.

At least a couple times a week I incorporate other strokes besides freestyle (crawl) into the workout. I developed a pain in my shoulder swimming backstroke (which is ironic, since I was swimming backstroke to protect my shoulders), so I’ve been doing more fly and breast. My favorite way to include those strokes these days is in 75s: 25 free, 25 other, 25 free. I do these in sets of four or six; for example, a possible 900 yard set is 4 x 75 with fly, 4 x 75 with breast, 4 x 75 with fly. Swimming a variety of strokes is one of the ways you keep the workout interesting.

Every day on my way to swim my workout, I walk through the fitness center. It’s a large room with two kinds of things in it: exercise equipment and devices to occupy people while they are using the exercise equipment. Music plays. Television screens are everywhere. It’s as if people have to be distracted from what they are doing in order to do it.

But I don’t need to be distracted from swimming. People talk about the need to practice mindful eating, to take pleasure in our food and be satisfied by it. I try to practice mindful swimming: I take pleasure in it, and I am satisfied.

Of course, there are days when I am no good at mindful swimming. I come in distracted. On those days, I use swimming to clear my head. Perhaps what I am experiencing other people would call boredom, but I call it a respite. My mind can rest as my body swims.

Over a year ago, a month or so before I did my first ten mile swim, I wrote a blog post called Why I’m Not Bored. It’s about the physical experience of swimming: what you see, what you feel. I wrote at the time, “When I’m swimming, I’m smiling.” Last weekend, at the end of Swim the Suck, my face ached. I realized the next day that it was from ten miles of smiling.