10 mile swim

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


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.


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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How to Swim Forever / How to End the Race

A couple times in the past few months I’ve encountered the phrase “forever pace,” and though I hadn’t heard the expression before, I knew immediately what it meant — it’s the pace at which you (feel you) can swim forever.

Some days you swim hard, faster than your forever pace; some days you struggle to find it. But some days you slip into your forever pace, like you slip into your old jeans or your favorite book, and there you are, swimming forever.

The term “forever pace” appears in this video about the Deep Enders, a group of open water swimmers. The video itself is one of the new Fueled by Water advertisements by Speedo (although Jim McConica is wearing a Real Swimmers Swim Naked t-shirt during the video, which seems a bit contrary to Speedo’s message).


If swimming forever is the beautiful dream, ending the race is the sad reality. It doesn’t matter how long the swim is — I’ve swum two-mile races and I’ve swum ten-mile races — the hardest part is the last half mile. A half mile away is when I can see the end; I start looking for the finish line, and wondering where it is, and feeling as if I’m never going to make it in.

It’s all in your perception. When you’re way out in the water, you pick out one big thing, and you head for it. If you jump off a boat in the middle of San Francisco Bay, for example, you head toward San Francisco: it’s the big sparkling city in front of you. And you feel you can swim toward it forever. But when you’re nearing the finish and you’re heading for a beach or dock, there are suddenly a lot of little things in front of you, and you need to aim for the right one.

At the last race I did, Swim the Loop in Wilmington, North Carolina, I could not figure out where I was supposed to go. There was a big sign, of course, saying “FINISH” or something. I could see the sign. But somewhere near the sign on the docks there was a ladder, and I couldn’t work out where it was.

Lake Castaic, California. Photo by Mike Lewis, Ola Vista Photography. From SwimSwam.

A paddle boarder yelled encouragingly, “You’re almost there!” and I shouted back, “I don’t know where I’m going!” So she yelled, “Follow me!” and she guided me in.

The paddle boarders and the kayakers and the people on safety boats — there aren’t enough thanks in the world for them. I don’t know of a race where they get paid in anything more than a t-shirt and a lunch, and yet they will save your sad wet butt when it is at its saddest and wettest.

Of course, if you swim a race over and over, you have a big advantage; you know the route, and you know what the end looks like. The first time I did the Lowcountry Splash in Charleston, I missed the entrance into the chute that directs incoming swimmers past the official finish. I was able to duck into it quickly and ended up in the right place. Now that I’ve done the swim three times, twice at 2.4 miles and once at five miles, I know where I’m going. Last year when the current was much faster than previous years, many people missed the entrance into the chute, but I knew the course, and I was ready for it.

Registration is open for the Lowcountry Splash 2015 on May 30th. I’ve signed up for the five-mile race. It’s a beautiful course and well-run race. I already know that last half mile will be the hardest part.