10 mile swim

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


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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.

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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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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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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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How to Swim Ten Miles Again: Swim the Suck 2015 Race Report

Here are my two main thoughts about Swim the Suck: it was terrific, and it was over much too soon. I had estimated a four-hour swim, given my time swimming ten miles in Lake Minnetonka last year and my understanding of the anticipated current in the Tennessee River that morning. When my kayaker said, “I think I see the finish” about three and a half hours in, I thought, “Already?” I came in at 3:35:35, ten minutes ahead of the average time that day and much faster than I expected.

Me in the foreground, beautiful mountains in the back. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

Me in the foreground, beautiful mountains behind. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

I loved all ten miles of Swim the Suck, and I loved all ten miles of the Lake Minnetonka swim. But ten miles down the Tennessee River was a very different experience from ten miles across Lake Minnetonka and back. That’s the best thing about open water swimming; the experience of swimming is so variable, so dependent on conditions, that every swim is something new.

One big difference, of course, was in the two courses themselves. When I swam the Minnetonka swim in July 2014, it was five miles across the lake and five miles back, with buoys every mile. I swam from buoy to buoy, marking off the distance. For most of the swim, I was in the middle of the lake, a great expanse of water around me, a great expanse of sky above. The water was calm, the weather unchanging. I imagined myself a little dot slowly moving on a big flat map.

When I swam Swim the Suck, on the other hand, it was ten miles downstream in the Tennessee River. There were no markers on the course. Since the course was S shaped, I had a vague sense of where I was; I could tell when I was in a big bend. But I didn’t really know how far I’d gone. I was just going to swim until I reached the end.

The course for Swim the Suck. From http://www.swimthesuck10mile.com/

The S-shaped course. From Swim the Suck

In the Tennessee River Gorge, tree-covered mountains surround you. Once I looked up to see a few buildings together in a clearing near the shore with the mountains behind them, and I thought, “I’m in Ox-Cart Man.”

This is Barbara Cooney’s illustration of New England in the 19th century, and I was in Tennessee in the 21st, but imagine me in the water there, in the middle, looking up. I’m waving! Image from Ox-Cart Man, 1980 Caldecott Medal winner, written by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

The weather varied during Swim the Suck. For short periods it rained. I struggled with conflicting emotions: I love swimming in the rain, but I worried that my kayaker was getting wet. The best part was near the end, though, when the clouds darkened and the wind strengthened. I was delighted. I love choppy water. I put my head down and picked up my stroke. I had a short period of hard swimming before the wind calmed again, and soon after we saw the finish buoy ahead.

A second difference between the two swims was my interaction with other swimmers and kayakers. In the Minnetonka swim, I rarely saw another swimmer. There were only 28 entered in the ten mile swim. We set out in three waves, so there were only ten of us, even at the start, and we easily found our kayakers and spread out. My kayaker and I were on our own for long quiet stretches.

At Swim the Suck, in contrast, 89 swimmers set out together in a mass start. It was the least violent mass start I’d ever been in; I guess there’s no need for elbowing and kicking people when you have ten miles ahead of you. The start was complicated, however, by the task of finding your kayaker. Fortunately, people who had swum the event before had given me good advice; I made a point of keeping an eye on my kayaker and met up with her relatively easily.

The race start. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

Just before the race start, the kayakers waiting for the swimmers to enter the water. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

And the crowd set off in a grand parade of swimmers and kayakers down the river. I was incredibly cheerful: the water temperature was perfect (74 F — no need to worry about hypothermia), and we were trucking along. In fact, I started singing the Grateful Dead song “Truckin’” in my head until I decided I couldn’t go ten miles singing about “living on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine” and switched to Whiskeytown’s “Sixteen Days.” Although the pack stretched out over the course of the race, I could see other swimmers and kayakers throughout the swim. I swam with companions.

My two ten mile swims were different, but one thing that stayed the same was that I did them with the help of my friends. In Minnesota, I had friends and family waiting for me at the end, and I swam toward them. In Tennessee, I had my friend M kayaking beside me, handing me food and offering me encouragement. Not only did she kayak, but also she drove us to the race on dark, foggy, narrow, twisty, and downright terrifying mountain roads. And my friend C from Kentucky appeared as if by magic at the race finish; she hugged me, and she helped push M’s SUV out of the muddy field everybody at the race was parked in.

You can’t get far without your friends; without mine, I might still be in a muddy field in Tennessee.

I met people at the spaghetti dinner the evening before the race, including Jeff from Alabama (thank you for the peanut butter!) and some terrific women who told me about swimming in Sitka and swimming the Catalina Channel. And at the race finish, I met one more. I had enough strength in the last half mile or so to feel that I needed to catch the swimmer in front of me, so I sprinted for it. I passed him briefly, but he caught up with me again just as we reached the finish buoy. We looked at each other — I was smiling a great big smile with the joy of it all — and he put up his hand for a high five and said, “Good race!”

It was a good race. It’s always better with friends.


I asked some friends what they’d like to know about swimming ten miles, and they came up with lots of questions, some about Swim the Suck in particular and more about open water swimming generally. I plan to answer them over the next few blog posts (sneak preview: the most common question is some variant of “Don’t you get bored?”). If you have a question, please ask in the comments.