10 mile swim

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


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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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Swim the Suck 2015: The Movie

Here’s the video made for Swim the Suck 2015. If you want a little taste of what it’s like to swim down the Tennessee River on a rainy morning in October, take a look.


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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.


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One Week Away

I’m one week away from Swim the Suck, a 10 mile swim down the Tennessee River, and it’s time to get nervous. There’s no point in saying, “Don’t be nervous.” I’m not going to play hopscotch in the park. I’m going to swim 10 miles in a river I’ve never seen before. Only a fool would not be nervous.

So, what am I nervous about? First, hypothermia. It did not occur to me to worry about hypothermia until I read this article about the event, Chattanooga’s Swimming Event of the Year: The Swim the Suck. The photos are beautiful, but this little nugget is sticking with me:

Nazor says the challenges posed at the Swim the Suck are interestingly diverse, and the rewards are indescribable. First, the race takes place in October at a time when the air and water temperatures begin to become a little uncomfortable for your average Southeastern swimmer. “Water and air temperatures in the mid 60s are fine with me, and most people who sign up for the race are prepared to swim in those conditions (which after my CA experience, are warm actually),” she says.

Nazor says people can become hypothermic at 68 degrees and even with the possibility of the water temperatures being that low, participants aren’t permitted anything on their bodies other than a swimsuit, goggles, and a cap.

Let me say that temperatures in the mid 60s are not fine with me. I swam 2000m in a 64 F (17 C) pool in London once (the beautiful Parliament Hill Lido), and it was numbingly cold. The frightening part was when I got out of the water; I was so cold in the changing room that I couldn’t work my fingers to get my clothes back on. I pulled it together that time, but I learned a valuable lesson about being prepared: even though I’ve never swum anywhere as cold since, I keep hand warmers and an emergency space blanket in my swim bag. I’m not making that mistake twice.

Coping with water temperature is not a matter of strength of will; it’s a matter of what you’re used to. If I regularly swam in 65 degree water, I would adapt to it. But where I live, we worry about the lake temperatures being too hot to swim, not too cold.

I can’t find any information about the current water temperature of the Tennessee River, but the temperature for Swim the Suck the last four years has been in the mid 70s. I have no problem with mid 70s; I swam seven miles in Lake Jocassee last weekend, and the water temperature was in the mid 70s then. It seems unlikely that the water in the Tennessee River will be ten degrees colder this year than it’s been the last four years. But if it is, I’ll have something substantial to worry about.

The second thing I’m concerned about is sunburn. I don’t know if it’s possible to get sunburn and hypothermia at the same time, but I’m pretty sure that if it is, I’m the person to do it.

Of the two concerns, sunburn seems more likely than hypothermia. The worst sunburn I ever got was thirty years ago on a cloudy day in October, a day outside with no sunscreen. This swim is also going to be on a cloudy day in October. Again, I’m not making that mistake twice: I will sunscreen myself thoroughly. But even the most water resistant sunscreen is not waterproof. I’m thinking about getting some good old-fashioned zinc oxide. I will look a bit odd, but I look a bit odd anyway.

The swim starts at 9:30 AM; if I swim it in five hours, I get out at 2:30 PM. That’s peak sunburn time. I will need substantial sun protection.

Finally, I’m nervous about the unknown. The ten mile swim I did in Lake Minnetonka in July 2014 was a great experience (look, I’m doing it again), but there were unanticipated difficulties. The main one was the weeds. I had been warned about weeds, but I didn’t understand the scope of the problem. I assumed weeds would be a hindrance toward the shore, at the start, turn, and finish. I didn’t realize that they floated in the middle of the lake and that I’d need to swim around them or, failing that, stop to untangle myself frequently. They were an annoyance during the swim, but they were more of a problem afterwards, when I developed a nasty rash from the vegetation that had been trapped in my suit.

There will almost certainly be something like weeds on this swim — not vegetation itself, but some problem that I did not anticipate and did not prepare for.

I know I can swim ten miles, but I don’t know if I can swim ten miles in the Tennessee River on October 10th. And that is, of course, the point of open water swimming, where the conditions are beyond your control and the water is unknown.

I do know that the scenery will be gorgeous and the organizers promise Moon Pies. And I will have my friend M kayaking for me. It’s good to have a friend on the journey.

I’ll report back after the swim.


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Race Report: The Dam Swim for Drew 2015

I was less than halfway through the Dam Swim for Drew when I thought, “K is going to ditch me in the parking lot.” I had talked my friend K into driving down to Columbia for the two-mile race by describing my experience at the event last year. It’s a simple course: jump off a dock in Irmo, swim along the dam across Lake Murray, and get out on the beach in Lexington. When I swam it in 2014, it was an easy swim.

In open water swimming, however, conditions make a big difference. You can’t step (or jump off the dock) into the same lake twice. And the 2015 swim was not the easy swim I had promised K.

We should have known something was up when we checked in at registration. The woman behind the table asked for our names and then asked, “Are you swimming this morning?” It was a confusing question — why else would we be checking in? In retrospect, I think maybe people were checking in — and then bailing out.

This year, the water was choppy, much choppier than last year. And it was relentless; we were tossed around for the entire two miles. I overheard one swimmer say this was his fifth Dam Swim, and he had never seen conditions like this.

Choppy water requires you to swim differently. I saw many swimmers switch to breaststroke, allowing them to breathe more easily and see straight ahead. But I’m not enthusiastic about breaststroke, so instead I adjusted my freestyle, lifting my arms higher to clear the water. Because the waves were coming from the right, I breathed to the left for most of the race. That’s the advantage of being able to breathe on either side; I could take a breath without getting a wave to the face.

I breathed when I could, and I didn’t panic when I couldn’t. I held on and enjoyed the ride.

I like swimming in rough water. It’s a challenge. You put your head down, you pick your arms up, you think about Beowulf swimming five days and nights in icy water, slaying sea monsters all the way, and you swim.

As the race director assured us at the pre-race safety meeting, there was plenty of kayak support. And those kayakers were terrific. I had one herding me like a collie herding a sheep in the middle of the race and another steering me toward the finish line at the end.

I was tired by the end, and my time was nearly ten minutes longer than last year’s (and nearly nine minutes longer than my two-mile time at Lake Lure last month). It was a hard swim. But I placed about the same in the standings as last year, and I had fun. And while the first thing K said to me when we met after the race was, “You’re walking home,” he did drive me back afterward, so I guess it wasn’t that bad.

It’s hard to beat the feeling of accomplishment you get by jumping into a lake on one side and fighting your way to the other.

Finish line. My photo. September 2015.

Finish line. My photo. September 2015.

The Dam Swim for Drew is a great race. But it’s also a memorial for Drew Smith, an eleven-year-old boy who was killed by a drunk boater, and its purpose is to promote water and boating safety. Drew’s mother spoke before the swim, and she reminded us that small bad decisions can have huge bad consequences.

Drew’s parents lost their son eighteen years ago. He lives on in his family’s love for him and the good that is done in his name.


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Race Report: The Upstate Splash 2015

Saturday I swam at the inaugural Upstate Splash in beautiful Lake Jocassee. I think of Jocassee as my lake — without any justification other than I swim in it — so I take a proprietary interest in any race that happens there.

There were two distances offered at the Upstate Splash, 1.2 mile or 2.4 mile, on a simple out-and-back course. The water was choppier than I expected, given my past experiences in the lake, but that was fine with me; I feel that if you want to swim in perfectly smooth water, you can go swim in a pool. It was rough enough, though, that I worried about my daughter, who was swimming in her second open water race, but she told me afterwards that she didn’t have any trouble.

You can just see one yellow and one orange buoy in this photo. My photo. August 2015.

You can just see the first two buoys of the course in this photo. And look at those mountains! My photo. August 2015.

As so often happens, the problems I faced in the swim had more to do with the people swimming it than the natural conditions. The first was something that had never occurred to me before in the four years I’ve been open water swimming — a head-on collision with another swimmer. The course was set up as a straight out-and-back along a line of buoys: swim out on the right side of the buoys, make a U-turn at the designated buoy (the half-way point), and then swim back on the right of the buoys again. It was like circle swimming in a really long lane. I had made the U-turn at the farthest buoy and was swimming back when a man who was heading in the opposite direction crossed the line and barreled right into me.

As I’ve noted before, if your head is in the proper position when you’re swimming freestyle, you’re looking down, not ahead. I had no idea this man was coming until he hit me straight on — BAM! It was a shock. We looked at each other. He muttered something. I said, “Buddy, you’re way off course.” He muttered something else. Then we set off again. I suppose these things happen, but this was the first time such a thing had happened to me.

On the other hand, my second problem was one that happens frequently: drafters. Drafting is the practice of following closely behind another swimmer to take advantage of his or her wake, and I’ve talked about it before too. If people were drafting off me in such a way that I didn’t know they were back there, it wouldn’t be an issue. But I had two different men at two different points of the race poking at my feet, and nothing pisses me off like a man at poking my feet. I kicked harder, but they stuck with me. So I took evasive action, stopping completely so that they had to swerve to avoid me. With the first drafter, I moved laterally away so that once I was ahead again, he was unable to catch up with me. With the second, I swam next to him for a while (we were close enough that our arms tangled, but I was not inclined to give way) until he tired and I shook him.

Let me tell you: I am not going to pull grown men through an open water race. They can swim it under their own power, or they can find some sucker to draft off, but I’m not putting up with these people poking my feet. I am contemplating writing “BACK OFF” in permanent marker on the soles of my feet before my next race.

In spite of those complaints, I had a great time at the Upstate Splash. The water was the perfect temperature, and the scenery can’t be beat. For the first mile or so I was swimming along with another woman who didn’t try to draft off me or mow me down, and I was filled with a sense of camaraderie. As is usual for me, I was a little confused about where the finish line was, but I’m sure it will be clearer to me the next time I swim the event. The volunteers were competent and friendly, and the muffins were homemade.

The start (which was also the finish), early in the morning. My photo. August 2015.

The start (which was also the finish), with the sun coming up behind it, before the race began. My photo. August 2015.

I plan to swim the Upstate Splash again. The turnout was fantastic, especially for the first time: 200 swimmers, which is more than we had at Lake Lure two weeks ago. And the money earned is going to a worthy cause: swimming lessons for low-income children in the area who otherwise wouldn’t learn to swim. The Upstate Splash is an event I hope I can support for years to come.


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How to Choose a Good First Open Water Race

So you think you’d like to try an open water race? In my part of the world, it’s race season; I have four races in three months. Some of those events are better suited for beginners than others, and if you have multiple options to choose from, you should take three criteria into account in picking your first race.

Note: I am assuming that you are a pool swimmer who’d like to experience competition in the Great Outdoors. But if you’re a triathlete who thinks it might be fun to swim a little farther and then go eat (without having to do all the cycling and running), this information might help you too, especially #3.

1) Experience

If this is your first race, pick an event that is not the organizers’ first race. It’s a lot of work to put on an open water swim. You need to mark the course, get all the safety equipment and personnel in place, arrange for water and food, have the timing system up and running, communicate with the swimmers — it’s a major undertaking. If you’re new, why not pick a race where you know the directors are experienced?

The one race that I do year after year is the Lowcountry Splash. It’s a beautiful course and a fast swim, but it’s also an extremely well-run event. The organizers communicate well with the swimmers, the course is well marked, and safety measures are visible at every stage.

Tired swimmers approaching the finish of the Lowcountry Splash being shepherded in by kayakers and paddleboarders. My photo. May 2015.

Kayakers and paddleboarders herding in tired swimmers as they approach the finish of the Lowcountry Splash, with the Ravenel Bridge in the background. My photo. May 2015.

The people running the Lowcountry Splash in Charleston have been doing it for fourteen years, and it shows. They know what they’re doing. Your first time out, surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing.

2) The course

Of course, you’re thinking about how far you’d like to swim: races come in all lengths, from 1K (you might even find a .5K) to 10 miles or more. But you need to think about more than just distance when choosing a race.

I live in an area where I can get to lakes, rivers, and the ocean relatively easily, and I’ve swum in all three. If you’re a pool swimmer transitioning to open water, you may want a lake swim for a first time. Unless it’s very windy, the water will be relatively calm. You won’t have to navigate a current or prepare for chafing in salt water.

I swam the Lake Lure Open Water Swim last weekend; the course is a straightforward one-mile loop (out along a straight line of yellow buoys, a turn, and back along a straight line of orange buoys) on a pretty little lake. It was not all that different from a swim in a pool — blown up much bigger and with a view of Rumbling Bald Mountain. I think it would make a great first race.

A river swim, if the course is uncomplicated and takes you downstream, can be a good first race too. Find out, though, if you’ll be swimming upstream or across a current, and think about whether you want to face those challenges on your first time out.

And if you love waves or if you’re living on the ocean and swimming there all the time, I don’t want to discourage you from an ocean swim. The Alcatraz Sharkfest swim in San Francisco Bay was my second open water race, and it was terrific. But keep in mind that ocean swims require careful attention to conditions; a swim that appears short becomes long when you are fighting the current and being tossed around by waves.

3) Race start

Swimming an open water race presents challenges beyond just swimming. You have to learn how to sight, that is, how to look at a buoy or landmark and aim for it. You have to learn how to pass people or to let people pass you. But the most challenging part of an open water race is the start. And because you can’t easily simulate start conditions in practice, it’s hard to prepare for them.

The most difficult kind of start is the mass start. I understand that it is the usual start in triathlons, which goes a long way to explain why so many triathletes don’t enjoy the swim. If you have hundreds of swimmers heading out in one big mob, either running in from the beach or treading water behind some line until a start horn is blown, people are going to get hit. People are going to get hit a lot.

If you enjoy mosh pits, go for a race with a mass start. But if your mosh pit days are past you, for your first time why not choose a race where swimmers head out in small waves — or even individually? At the Lake Lure Open Water Swim last week, we started from the beach in waves of fifteen. Last year at the Dam Swim for Drew, we went off a dock in groups of ten or fifteen.

Swimmers going off the dock at the Dam Swim for Drew 2014. Image from The State.

I would not recommend Swim the Loop for a complete beginner — it is a complicated course around an island and requires quite a bit of navigation — but they send swimmers off the dock one at a time, with a prize for the most exciting entry. CANNONBALL!

 

When you’re deciding on a first open water race, educate yourself about your options. Events will have websites and Facebook pages; they should have photos from past years and maps of the course. Find out how long the event has been going on, what the course is like, and how the start will be run. If you can’t find that information online, email the race director and ask.

You can’t prepare for everything. In fact, part of the fun of open water swimming is its unpredictability. In pool swimming, races are controlled and standardized; in open water swimming, conditions are fluid, and swimmers have to adapt. Nonetheless, you can choose an open water race that will be well suited to your preferences and abilities. Have fun out there!