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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How to Swim in a Lake

Sometimes you don’t realize how hungry you are until you taste that first bite of food. I didn’t realize how much I needed to swim in the lake until I put my head down and began my stroke.

People sometimes ask me — pool swimmers, parents of pool swimmers — why I want to swim in open water. It’s not because I don’t like pools. I am trained as a pool swimmer. I love to flip turn, to follow the black line. I love to race the guy in the next lane. But there are some things a pool can’t do for you. For some things, you have to get into open water.

In a pool, the conditions are static. The water is calm, the temperature moderate. If I have my own lane, I am the master of my domain, the little prince on my little planet. I’m raking out the volcanoes and rooting up the baobabs. I’m in charge.

little prince volcanoes

The little prince, raking out his volcanoes. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

But in a lake, the conditions change. I’ve been out to Lake Hartwell three times this spring, and every time the water has been choppy. Once the water was relatively calm for the first mile, but then the wind came up right in our faces, and suddenly we were fighting through the next mile.

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Lake Hartwell. It’s a bit choppy. April 2016. My photo.

I am one of those women who do too much. I spend a lot of energy holding back the forces of chaos. I make lists. Before we went out to the lake the first time this spring, I downloaded an app that allows me to keep lists on my phone, and I made a list of all the things I needed to pack for the swim. It is twenty items long. It has check boxes. And it’s saved on my phone so that every time I pack for the lake I can check the items off and make sure that I have everything. With the list, I feel I’ve got things under control.

But when I started swimming in the lake that first time, I completely forgot about all twenty items on my list and just about everything else as well. Swimming in choppy conditions is all-consuming. It becomes manifestly clear: I am not in charge here. I don’t have things under control.

Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive, but for me, giving up the need to be in control is a great relief. I can’t control the conditions; I have to adapt to them. And so I do.

Hanya Yanagihara writes of swimming in Hawaii, “There, water is a metaphor for life itself: something that should be approached with confidence, but with the knowledge that, finally, it is unconquerable and uncontrollable.” In a choppy lake in South Carolina, you can get a little taste of that too. Swimming in open water puts me back in the right relationship with the rest of the universe. I am not in charge of holding back the forces of chaos. I am not responsible for raking out the volcanoes. I am a small woman in big lake. And I have confidence. This is where I’m supposed to be.


Terry Laughlin, the Total Immersion swimming guy, has an article about techniques for swimming in rough water in H2Open Magazine, April 2016: Take the Rough with the Smooth.

 


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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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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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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.

funny-homer-simpson-plunger-head-happened-again-pics

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.