10 mile swim

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


How to Swim Ten Miles, Or Swimming with the Team, Part 2

I successfully completed the 2014 Minnetonka Challenge, the big race I was training for. It was a ten mile swim: five miles across Lake Minnetonka, five miles back. Swimming ten miles is relatively simple:

Step 1: Swim nine miles

Step 2: Swim one more

I suppose there might be other ways of doing it (swim eight miles, and then swim two more? swim five miles, then repeat?), but that’s how I did it. What I’m saying, of course, is there’s nothing magic about swimming ten miles. I was well prepared for the swim. My training worked: I was ready for the distance, and I was ready for the difficulties.

What was difficult? Three things stand out. First, weeds. I was aware that weeds were on the list of hazards for the swim, but I did not realize exactly what that meant. I thought they would be an issue in shallow areas near the shore at the beginning, midway point, and end. But Lake Minnetonka has a problem with invasive vegetation, and there were Sargasso Sea-like spots in the middle of the lake that I couldn’t see until I was in them. At times I had to stop and untangle myself. But I didn’t panic, and I didn’t make it into a big deal.

I ended up with a lot of veg in my swimsuit, which led to a rash — not a problem during the swim but one after. It wasn’t swimmer’s itch, the doctor said, because the rash was on skin under the suit, not in exposed areas.

Second, navigation. Navigation is always tricky the first time (and maybe every time) you are in a body of water. Most of the race I could navigate toward water towers (two on one side of the lake, one on the other). The most difficult part was the turn-around at the five mile point. You would think finding an eight-foot safety orange buoy is not going to be a problem, but when you are in the water, heading toward a beach, and everything in front of you — kayaks and kayakers’ vests and markings on the dock — seems to be safety orange, you don’t know which orange thing to head for.

I can see it now! Me heading toward the big safety orange buoy. Photo by M the Kayaker.

Me heading toward the big safety orange buoy at the halfway point (at this point, I could see it, and I was greatly relieved). Photo by M the Kayaker.

M the kayaker was terrific in every way — he was cheerful and encouraging the whole ten miles — but especially in helping me navigate. He could see the buoy and reassured me that I was going the right way. Still I couldn’t see what I was heading for until I was very close. I just had to trust that it was out there.

Third, exhaustion. Ten miles takes a long time (for me, 5:03:46). I had a spurt of energy after the five mile turn that lasted a couple miles, but then I started to wear out. I knew I would, and I was prepared. In the weeks leading up to the race, several people asked me what I would do if I got tired during the swim. And I told them that I would definitely get tired during the swim, and when I did, I had a plan: I was going to keep swimming.

So I did.

Frankly, when you’re in the middle of a lake, there aren’t a lot of alternatives.

Besides, I had friends and family waiting on shore for me; they had come out to see me swim this race, and I damn well was going to finish it. When Diana Nyad completed the swim from Cuba to Florida, she said, “It looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team effort.” That statement is true about so many things in life, but especially swimming: one person swims the distance, but it takes a lot of people to get her there.

How do you swim ten miles? You do it with a team.

My team, before the race.

My team, before the race. I’m the pink-haired one in the swimsuit.

I also did it with teal toes and an otter on my foot:

My feet and my daughter's before the race. Photo by E.

My feet and my daughter’s before the race. I have the flip flops. Photo by E.

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The Seven Mile Report

Long course! I intentionally did some things differently for my seven mile swim (see here for the plan to get ready for the ten mile swim in July), and the first of those was to go to Westside Aquatic Center to swim long course. Long course feels like summer. In the US, children (and college students) who swim year-round swim short course yards in 25 yard pools in the winter, but come summer, they switch to long course, in 50 meter pools (This is done by rearranging bulkheads to create different size pools, not by having different pools of different lengths; Westside switched over to long course early in April.).

You know summer is on its way when you start swimming long course. When I was a swim team kid and my pool was set up for long course, during the evening practice you would swim west into the sunset for 50 meters, swim back, then swim west into the sunset again, over and over: 50 meters of sunset, 50 meters back. It was like the passage in The Little Prince where the prince describes watching the sunset 44 times, simply by moving his chair on his tiny planet.

Image from

Image from Ocean on Tuesday

The second thing I did differently was arrange for my own dolphins. In an earlier post (see #4) I noted that in a long pool swim there are moments of difficulty and loneliness; in those times, I wait for the dolphins–that is, I wait for other swimmers, who appear like the dolphins who swim along with those lost at sea–to keep me company. It occurred to me that I could ask a friend to swim along, even if I don’t have anyone who wants to swim the full 7 miles. So I got my friend K to come keep me company toward the end of the swim and then go out for burgers afterwards. He wasn’t hard to convince: I told him that the pool was set up for long course.

I divided the 7 miles (11.3 K) into sections, with a 300m warm-up followed by (1000 swim + 100 kick) x 10. Those 1000 m segments were divided in a variety of ways:

1000 swim
200 pull, 200 kick, 200 pull, 200 kick, 200 pull
(200 free + 50 back) x 4
(200 free + 50 breast) x 4
100 kick, 400 pull, 100 kick, 400 swim, etc.

But I also tried a new set (new for me at least). I did it first for fun and then later because I was in a hurry. Really, K was in a hurry. He said, “Will you be done by 12:30 pm?” at 11:50 am, when I had 2200 meters to go, “I know you can do 2000 meters in 40 minutes.” His faith was touching, I suppose, but I had already swum over five and a half miles at that point, and I was not moving all that fast. But I wanted a burger, and I didn’t want him to be late.

Straight swimming is the fastest way to eat up distance, but it’s kind of dull. To make it more interesting, I repeated a set that I had done a couple times already for two more 1000 meter chunks:

(100 breathe every 3 strokes, 100 breathe every 5 strokes, 100 breathe every 7 strokes) x 3
100 breathe every 3 strokes

Counting to three, counting to five, counting to seven kept my mind busy while I churned through the laps. I did the final 1000 meters in a little under 17:30, not world-record pace, but perfectly respectable.

I went in to the swim with fewer calories than usual–it’s Passover, so my usual bowl of oatmeal was not an option–but it did not turn out to be a problem. I had a 250 calorie drink at 4900 meters and maybe a half of another (125 calories or so) at 9100. I destroyed a burger (no bun) and fries at Five Guys, and I’ve been eating steadily ever since. I’m tired, but I’m not wiped out. It was a good swim.

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How to Swim a Long Way in a Short Pool: Practical Considerations

These days I’m swimming long distances in a short pool. Soon, very soon, we will swim in the lake, and in two months I’m doing a five mile race in Charleston, but most of the time, I am (and will be) swimming in a 25 yard pool. As the weeks go on and the distances get longer, I’m developing techniques to make these long swims work better. This weekend, I swam 11,200 yards, and it was the best long swim yet.

How do you swim a long way in a short pool?

1) Break it up

I have said this before, but it’s even more important at longer distances: you can’t just swim one big unbroken stretch. I had a really enjoyable 7500 yard swim one Friday when I was short of time, but I can’t do that often. Long distances are much easier to manage–mentally and physically–when they are broken into chunks.

I recently found FactorNumber.com, my new favorite tool for making a long workout. I don’t know what other people do with it, but I’m using it to figure out different ways to break a given distance into equal units. For example, if you look up the number 11,200, it tells you that it can be broken up the following ways:

2 x 5600
4 x 2800
7 x 1600
8 x 1400
14 x 800
16 x 700
28 x 400
32 x 350
56 x 200
64 x 175
112 x 100

(11,200 can be broken up in other ways too; these are the ones that will work in a 25 yard pool.)

I like to swim long distances in equal sections. It makes me happy, thinking about swimming part 1, part 2, part 3, etc. I decided to swim 8 x 1400, but I could have picked 7 x 1600 or 16 x 700 or some other combination.

Then I decided what I was going to swim for each 1400 section:

1400 swim
700 pull, 700 swim
8 x 350 alt kick (free, fly, breast, free) and swim (that’s two 1400s)
14 x 100 alt IM and free
4 x 350 alt pull and free
4 x (100 kick + 250 free)
1400 swim

There is variation in each unit, which keeps the workout interesting, and completing each unit is a little achievement along the way. I don’t have to swim 11,200 yards all at once; I just swim one 1400 yard block at a time.

2) Get a lap counter

I recently read a blog post, now lost to me, about counting strokes and laps. The post made a compelling case for the importance of knowing your stroke count every lap, your lap count every swim. But the author lost me when he or she stated that counting accurately was simply a matter of mental discipline.

I don’t buy it. I can read long, complicated, arcane texts. I can knit intricate lace patterns. I have buckets of mental discipline. But I can’t count laps, and I am not going to feel guilty about it.

I’m the kind of person who processes information by looking at it. If you read aloud a crossword puzzle clue (“City in Belgium, or insect’s annoying little brother”) and tell me that the answer is seven spaces with the third letter T, I will write on a scrap piece of paper “_ _ T_ _ _ _” in order to figure out the word (“Antwerp”). I can figure out a tip or solve a quadratic equation, but I need to write the numbers down. When I have a student talking to me in my office, I take notes as we talk. I need to see things to keep track of them, not just laps, but other kinds of information as well.

(Perhaps Socrates is right when he says in the Phaedrus that writing destroys memory, but there’s not much I can do about it.)

I certainly can’t accurately count the 448 lengths of a 25 yard pool that make up a 11,200 yard workout. For me, the Garmin Swim lap counter has been a terrific tool. It’s made specifically for pool swimming; it keeps count of laps by sensing when you push off the wall. I still haven’t figured out all the things it can do, but it’s doing what I need most: it keeps track of my yardage. It has made these long pool swims much easier.

3) Lubricate

My friends, the fact is that the swimsuit strap that is perfectly comfortable at 4000 yards may viciously chew through your neck like some kind of cross between a vampire and beaver at 10,000. Until I started swimming long distances in the pool, chafing was a problem I had only encountered in open water swims, particularly in salt water. But if you swim far enough and you’re wearing a swimsuit, it doesn’t matter where you’re swimming: eventually the swimsuit is going to start to chafe.

In her Open Water Swimming Manual, Lynne Cox writes, “Because of problems with chafing, there were top female open water swimmers in the 1920s and 30s who swam naked” and goes on to note that women today will often wear two piece suits and take off the tops once they’re out in the water (20).

Unfortunately, neither of these solutions is going to go over well in my home pool. So I’ve starting using Body Glide for these long swims, mostly on the areas rubbed by straps, but also on the undersides of my upper arms where they repeatedly brush against my suit. Petroleum jelly would work too.

Men don’t have to deal with straps, but I understand that they have other problems. I’ve heard men complain about beard burn from stubble. As for other kinds of chafing, Cox writes, “Some swimmers apply the lubricant only to key points of friction along their bodies. Some male swimmers apply lubricant to all the unexposed areas beneath their swimsuits” (24). I advise you to do what you need to do.

4. Wait for the dolphins

I love swimming. But not every second of every swim is wonderful. Even in a good swim, there are bad moments, when you are tired or sore or hungry. But I’ve found in my long pool swims that often when I’m dragging, another swimmer–friend or stranger–will show up and swim with me for a while.

When someone does, it makes me think of stories of dolphins rescuing people in the ocean–you know, stories where the boat overturns or the surfers go out too far, but the dolphins appear and swim along until rescue comes?

Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gebl/3240892240/

The dolphins. Image from gebl

This weekend R the triathlete (married to S the triathlete–they are a power couple) appeared in the lane next to me around the 7000 yard mark. He swam at my pace for 300 yards or so. We didn’t stop and talk–we were swimming–but I enjoyed the company. He was my pod of dolphins.

In any long swim there will be good moments and bad moments. You enjoy the good moments when they come. And in the bad moments, you wait for the dolphins.

Do you have other advice about how to swim a long way in a short pool? I’d love to know.

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We’re Home

The Man in the Black Swimsuit said to me today, as he got into the lane next to me, “We’re home!” And we are: my home pool, which had been closed since Dec 9, opened this week. There weren’t many swimmers for a couple of days, but traffic has been picking up, and today most of the regular midday crowd was there.

The director of campus recreation saw me as I was coming in and asked me how I liked the renovated pool. I said it was great: the water is clear, and C the lifeguard is looking out for me. And it’s true: when I walked in on Monday, C asked me what my mileage goal was for the year. I told him that it’s 500 miles (he knows I’m doing the USMS Go the Distance program), and I told him about my plans for the 10 mile swim, and he’s been asking about my yardage every day since. On Thursday, I did my long swim of 6600 yards, and when I stopped for a drink around 5000, he yelled encouragement from the lifeguard stand, “You can do it!”

It’s good to be home.