10 mile swim

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


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How to Be Happy: Open Water Edition

A long time ago I was in a conversation with a colleague in the Psychology department who intoned, “Everyone wants the same thing.” Of course, I asked, “What is that?” And he smiled as if he were about to say something very wise and replied, “To be happy.”

At that moment, I was filled with an unhappy and uncollegial desire to shake him till his teeth rattled. It may be true that everyone wants to be happy—I am not certain, but it could be true—but even if it is true, the pronouncement “Everyone wants to be happy” has got to be one of the least useful true statements ever. Maybe we all want to be happy, but that doesn’t tell us much about ourselves or other people because we all become happy by doing different things.

Which brings us inevitably to the topic of open water swimming. Open water swimming makes me happy. It makes me insanely happy. When I am swimming, I am filled with what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

This swimmer’s high occasionally hits me in pools, but it usually takes a good two miles in a lake. I imagine it can be explained by biochemistry, which suggests that swimming might make lots of people happy. But most people seem to have no interest in trying it. They have different ways of becoming happy.


On Thursday K and I went to the lake for our second swim of the spring. It was a beautiful day. The water temperature was still cool at 71 degrees F, but not cold enough to require wetsuits again. The air temperature was also 71, perfectly fine; the wind, though, was blowing at 13 mph (according to my magic hyper-local weather app), and I said on the drive that the water was going to be choppy.

It was. I was delighted. The first half-mile out was crazy: it was cold, and the waves were coming at us, and I thought, “This is fantastic!”

If I’m going to swim in open water, I want it to feel like open water. If I want glassy calm and 78 degrees, I can go swim in a pool. I was fighting waves out there, getting tossed around; I was lifting my arms high to clear the water and breathing far back to keep from getting hit in the face. It was hard work, and the water was cold, and I was thinking about Beowulf swimming through the north ocean, battling sea monsters all the way. I was smiling as I was swimming.

When we got to the turn around point, K was waiting for me. He was not happy. He said something about how much better it had been last week. I was noncommittal. He said something about how I couldn’t possibly like swimming in these conditions. I said I quite possibly could.

We started back.

As we swam back and the waves pushed us in and I sang “The Sea Refuses No River” to myself, I thought about the previous week’s swim, when I had been trying very hard not to whine so much about my wetsuit: I couldn’t feel the water, I was floating too high, I was getting abrasions on the back of my neck. I find wearing the wetsuit disorienting. In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” people have dreams about a city (later found on an uncharted Pacific island) where the angles are “wrong”–there’s some alien non-Euclidian geometry at work, horrifying to the human mind–and that’s kind of how I feel about swimming in a wetsuit: the angles are wrong. And yet wearing a wetsuit doesn’t bother K at all. He likes it. He was happier last week.

All in all, I swam three miles. When I was done, my face hurt from three miles of smiling.

Everyone wants to be happy, but we all become happy by doing different things: the swim that makes me very happy might make you miserable and vice versa. The trick is to find out what makes you happy–and then to do it.

Waves at the lake. My photo.

Waves at the lake. May 1, 2014. My photo.

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On Water Temperature: Cold Water Edition

At least a couple times a month, a person at my pool will say to me enthusiastically, “The water is good today. It’s warm!” And I will smile back weakly. How you feel about water temperature depends on what you are doing in the water. If you are doing light aerobics or vigorous floating, you want a warm pool. But if you are swimming laps with some intensity, you want it a little cooler.

According to this Livestrong article, the American Red Cross recommends that a pool for fitness swimmers (i.e. people swimming laps) should be kept at 78° F (25.5° C), while a pool for recreation should be at 81° F (27° C). My pool is kept at the 81-82° F level most of the time, which makes it a little on the warm side for me, but not bad. We also have a smaller therapy pool, a former diving well renovated to have a shallow side and a deep side. It’s kept much warmer, at 90° F (32° C), which is good for those doing rehab exercises. Sometimes I chat with people in the therapy pool after we’re done swimming, but I can’t even sit in it for long; I hang out by the side and periodically pull myself out to sit on the edge to cool down.

In my everyday life, I meet people who want to swim in warmer water than I do, including open water swimmers. At Lake Hartwell in the spring, I often wear a regular swimsuit while others are wearing wetsuits. Once I encountered a little hostility when I was getting into the lake at a time when a local triathlete group was starting out. I smiled at two large wetsuited men, but they looked back at me strangely; one said in an unpleasant way, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I was taken aback. Of course, I said, “I’m from Texas,” and swam off, fast. They didn’t catch up.

The thing is, some people like wetsuits. Wetsuits don’t just keep you warm; they make you more buoyant. A wetsuit will compensate for your poor body position or your sinking muscly legs. In so doing, it will also make you a lot faster, which is why many races will allow you to swim in a wetsuit but won’t let your time count in the standings–and others don’t permit wetsuits at all. When I did the 3.5 mile Swim the Loop last fall, the organizers added five minutes to the time of any competitor in a wetsuit; the water was 78° F–American Red Cross recommended pool temperature–but there were still a lot of people in wetsuits.

But unlike those wetsuit wearers, I’m plenty buoyant. I find a wetsuit disorienting; I’m floating too high, and I can’t feel the water. That’s why I spend spring days obsessively checking the lake water temperature on the US Geological Survey website to see if it’s getting warm enough to swim without one. I’d rather go without and swim extra fast to warm up. I’m looking for a temperature of 68°-70 F (20-21° C). That’s about the temperature of Barton Springs Pool and Deep Eddy Pool, two spring-fed pools in Austin, Texas, where I used to live, and I would feel darn silly putting on a wetsuit to swim in either one.

While the people I meet in person think I’m crazy to swim in 70° F (21° C) water without a wetsuit, online I encounter people who find that kind of temperature downright balmy. The Facebook group Did You Swim Today? welcomes swimmers from all over the world, swimming in all kinds of temperatures. DYST is one of the happiest places on the internet; it’s an open group, and if you ask to join, they will sign you right up. In posts to the group, people answer the question, “Did you swim today?,” often including photos, workouts, and reports of the conditions, whether pool or open water. Those in the Southern Hemisphere are enjoying warm beaches and outdoor pools right now. But this week alone I’ve seen reports of people swimming without wetsuits in a lake in Switzerland and in the frigid waters of Branksome Beach in Poole, UK. One woman posted a photo of a group at Malahide Beach near Dublin, Ireland in their swimsuits with snow. A CIBBOWS (Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers) swimmer shared this shiveringly beautiful video; she’s in the water off Brighton Beach in New York City. The video looks as if it were shot in black-and-white, but those are the rich true grays of the north Atlantic ocean and sky in winter:

The coldest I have ever felt swimming was last June at Parliament Hill Lido in London. When I got there, the posted temperature was 17° C (or 62° F). There were some people in wetsuits, but many without. It didn’t even occur to me to bring mine; in my experience to that point, pool swimming was sometimes too hot, but never too cold. Parliament Hill Lido is a London institution, a public pool, unheated, built in the late 1930s. It’s 60m long and there are no lane ropes; you find yourself a clear line to swim along and you swim it. I swam 2000 meters before I decided that I was too cold to go on. I was shaking like a sad puppy getting a bath in the changing room, barely able to get dressed. Fortunately, the cafe was open, and I had a hot chocolate and pulled myself together before I caught a bus back to the flat.

I didn’t feel nearly as cold when I swam in the actual North Sea earlier that trip, but then I was wearing my wetsuit. We were in Whitby, and we learned that there were lifeguards at West Cliff Beach. The lifeguard station had the temperature posted as 11° C (52° F). I didn’t have much time to swim–we had to catch a train that morning–so I swam from the lifeguard station to the pier and back, a cold but clear 1400 meters.

Whitby Piers, view from the water, West Cliff Beach. My photo, June 2012.

Whitby Piers, view from the water, West Cliff Beach. My photo, June 2012.

Given the chance, I would swim it again tomorrow.

Please tell me your tales of water, cold or hot, in the comments!