10 mile swim

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


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What We Talk About When We Talk About Water Temperature

Life is complicated here at the 10 Mile Swim blog. My home pool has been closed for a month. I’ve been swimming at Westside Aquatic Complex — a beautiful pool — but it’s not easy for me to get there during their open hours. As work gets busier, it’s harder for me to swim. I hate it.

However, there has been one pleasant surprise in the midst of it all: the water heater at WAC broke.

At any pool there is a conflict between those who think the pool is too hot and those who think it is too cold. This conflict is always present, even if it’s under the surface (ha ha) and even though the participants — the people using the pool — have no control over the water temperature anyway. But in any pool on any given day, someone may be planning a Very Angry Letter to the management about how no one could possibly be expected to exercise under such conditions.

(Of course, this is only true of pools that are temperature controlled. Barton Springs Pool in Austin is naturally 68 degrees F every day, all year around. I don’t know who you’d complain to if you don’t like it — the naiads of Barton Springs, I guess.)

The conflict over water temperature divides the users of the pool into two clear teams: the lap swimmers want it colder; the walkers, floaters, and water aerobics people want it warmer. If a person in the locker room complains that the water is too cold, I know that person is not a swimmer. For that reason, I never say anything about the water temperature to anyone I don’t know. It would be safer to bring up religion or politics.

Unfortunately, I live in a part of the world where pools are usually kept warm, too warm for lap swimmers. My home lap swim pool is usually 82-83 degrees F — with a therapy pool that is kept at 88-90 degrees right next to it. In contrast, the American Red Cross says lap swim temperature should be between 78-82. FINA sets the same range for pool competitions, including Olympic swimming.

I rarely get to swim in a pool under 82 degrees — unless the water heater is broken.

My first sign that something wonderful had happened was when a woman in the locker room said the pool was cold. Now, many people in the locker room complain about how cold the main pool is at Westside Aquatic (even though there is a warm therapy pool there as well), so I didn’t think much of it. But when I walked on deck, another swimmer came up to warn me. The water is really cold, he said. It took his breath away when he jumped in.

I became hopeful.

A white board had been placed near the pool. Someone had written in big letters, “POOL TEMPERATURE 76.”

I said to the lifeguard on duty, “People say the water is really cold.”

The lifeguard said, “They’re a bunch of babies.”

My opinion of the lifeguard — already high — rose higher.

When I dove in, the water was cold, wonderfully cold. But within 300 yards, it felt like the perfect temperature. If I lingered at the wall for too long, I started to get chilly. So I didn’t linger at the wall.

When swimmers talk about cold water, we are asserting our identity as “real” swimmers. Real swimmers swim hard enough to raise their body temperatures. Warm water is fine for children’s lessons and water aerobics classes and cocktail sipping. But if you’re in the pool to swim and swim hard, you want it cool.

The water at WAC was cold Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It was terrific. I told the people at the desk — who were swamped with complaints — not to rush on fixing on the water heater. Then I traveled for Thanksgiving, and on Friday I swam in a YMCA pool in Atlanta that was easily 10 degrees warmer. And the water aerobics class there looked a little cranky. Maybe it was too hot even for them.

Any pool is a good pool when you’re in it. But a cool pool is a great pool.

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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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On Drafting

Drafting is the technique of closely following another swimmer so as to take advantage of his or her slipstream and swim faster with less effort. I have swum many open water races, and I have read about drafting, and once I even went to a one-day clinic on open water swimming where we discussed and practiced drafting. I have one key piece of information for you about drafting:

Don’t draft off me.

In all that I have learned about drafting, theory and practice, I have never heard anyone explain how to do it without being annoying as hell to the person you are drafting off.

In theory, when you are drafting, you are simply following behind (or beside, for side drafting) a slightly faster swimmer. But in my experience, when you are drafting, you are repeatedly poking my feet.

Look, if you are an Olympic athlete swimming the 10K in Rio for the honor of your country or if you’re a pro competing for huge monetary prizes, then go ahead and draft (also, hey, thanks for coming by the blog). But if you’re in races with me, you’re just swimming for fun. There are no big awards. The last race I swam, a race in which someone tried drafting off me, I won the old women’s division (I didn’t know that there was an old women’s division — they called it “masters female”). My prize was a drawstring bag, a tube of Body Glide, and a $15 gift card. It was nice to win a prize, but there was nothing there that made me think, “I’d be a jerk to a fellow swimmer to win this stuff!”

These women are practicing drafting in a pool. The one in pink is planning to drown the one in black.

These women are practicing drafting in a pool. If I were the one in pink, I would be planning to drown the one in black. Image from FeelForTheWater.com.

Most articles I have read on the topic (see this one) emphasize that drafting in swimming is “100% legal” and “something ALL the pros do.” In contrast, drafting is not always legal in the cycling portions of triathlons, and one online commentator suggests that drafting in swimming should be considered cheating too.

I don’t know that drafting is a form of cheating. Open water competitions are not like pool competitions: in a pool we endeavor to make sure that the competitors in a race swim in nearly identical environments, but in open water we cannot control the conditions. The swimmers take different routes. They hit different waves. The varying conditions are part of the joy of open water swimming.

What I do know, however, is that drafting is annoying: it’s annoying to have someone hitting your feet while you’re trying to swim.

Deep in the core of my being, I am a ten-year-old swim team kid who swam packed in a lane with four or five other swim team kids. Swim team kids are taught to space themselves out in a lane, leaving five seconds or so between each swimmer and letting the fastest lead the lane. But kids don’t always do this. Sometimes a swimmer goes first, and the next swimmer doesn’t wait; instead, he leaves right after her and pokes pokes pokes at her feet until she outswims him or kills him with her bare hands. Ask any swim team kid: repeatedly poking at someone’s feet is an act of aggression.

And I don’t just hate people drafting off me; I also hate drafting myself. Why would I want to swim with someone kicking bubbles in my face? In the beginning of a race, when people are often boxed in, I’m most interested in getting out of the pack and swimming clear. I want to swim in open water, not on top of your feet.

If you know how to draft in such a way that you enjoy your swim and don’t annoy others, please tell me in the comments; I’d love to know. In the meantime, I have learned how to take evasive action when someone is drafting off me. I can get you off my feet if I need to. But why should I need to? We have a great big body of water to swim in.


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On Travel Swimming

I love my pool. It’s not perfect. It’s not even close to perfect. But it’s my pool, and, you should be true to your pool, just like you would to your girl or guy.

Nonetheless, sometimes a person needs to go somewhere, and that means travel swimming. I mean, you could take a break from swimming when you travel. But you don’t stop eating just because you leave town, right? They have food in other places. They also have water in other places, and some of it is swimmable.

(I’m not talking about the travel that you do for the purpose of swimming — vacation or holiday swimming. I swam the Great North Swim in Lake Windermere as vacation swimming, although I piggybacked it on a work trip. Closer to home, I recently swam Swim the Loop in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina and made a fall weekend at the beach of it. Those were both great swims, though very different experiences. If I fell into a huge pile of money, I would book myself a trip with SwimVacation or SwimTrek.)

When I travel, I pack a swimsuit, goggles, a cap, a lock, maybe an old pair of flip flops, and my second-best towel. If you’re lucky, there will be a fluffy towel for you where you are going, but you might not be lucky. And you might have to abandon that towel if you need room in your bag on the trip back. So don’t bring your favorite towel (I have a favorite towel. Don’t you?).

As The Hitchhiker's Guide says, "A towel has immense psychological value."

As The Hitchhiker’s Guide says, “A towel has immense psychological value.”

I have swum laps in tiny hotel pools. It’s not much fun, but it’s better than nothing. Some years back I swam laps in this swank little Art Deco pool at the Millennium Biltmore in Los Angeles.

It was hot and nearly impossible to flip turn, but I bravely preserved.

With some preparation, you can find more swimmable pools. The best resource I know is Swimmers Guide. I have used it to find pools in the UK, Ireland, and all over the US. It’s easy to navigate and has reliable information.

It’s never a bad idea to check with the locals as well. I was staying at a hotel in Kalamazoo, Michigan and was prepared to truck across town to a public pool; the people at the hotel let me know that I could swim at a health club associated with the local hospital system just across the street.

What you’re looking for is a pool that will let you pay for one swim or buy a short-term pass. Some places that’s easier than others. Don’t neglect to check websites about the possibility of getting a free day pass. I don’t mind paying to swim, but there are private centers that admit members only, and it’s not possible to pay for one day.

You never know what you’ll find at a new pool. Sometimes they come in interesting lengths: the Stratford Leisure Centre pool in England is 33 1/3 meters, while Deep Eddy Pool in Austin, Texas is 33 1/3 yards. The first is indoors and warm (in my experience); the second is outside and 68° F all year round. Sometimes pools come with interesting people — or features. I swam at the Buckhead YMCA in Atlanta over Thanksgiving; the locker room was full of old women speaking Russian. The health club in Kalamazoo? There were signs in that locker room saying “Forget something?” and noting that you could buy underwear at the desk. I still think about the brilliance of that scheme: everybody forgets their underwear sometime, and when I do, I wish I were in Kalamazoo.

But while each pool is different, swimming is reassuringly the same. Travel is disorienting. Maybe you’re in some weird place with some weird people (they might be your own relatives). Maybe you’re jet-lagged. But you jump in a pool. The water is wet. You know what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter where you are; you are yourself again.


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How to Share a Lane Redux (For New Year’s Resolution Swimmers)

You can buy a t-shirt with this happy swimmer on it at Toad Hollow

You can buy a t-shirt with this happy swimmer on it at Toad Hollow Athletics. I have one in blue.

We are barreling toward New Year’s Day here in the Gregorian calendar, and everyone knows what that means: soon, a new crowd of swimmers in the pool, working on their New Year’s resolutions. And good for you, New Year’s resolution swimmers! Life is good in the pool.

Before you jump in, however, there’s something you should know: while there is much to be said about the isolation of swimming, that isolation is only in the swimmer’s mind. You may be alone in your head, but most of the time your body is in a narrow space with other wet, nearly naked people, all moving at different speeds.

In addition — and this is key — a person swimming freestyle correctly cannot see ahead of her when she is swimming.

When you are swimming, you are looking down at the bottom of the pool. That is why pools have black lines on the bottom; the swimmers are following them. When you get to the cross at the end of the black line, you know the wall is approaching.

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These lines on the bottom of the pool: not just for pretty (my photo).

When you breathe to the side, you can see in that direction, but you never lift your head to see in front of you in a pool. The exception, of course, is if you are practicing sighting for an open water swim. In open water you do have to look in front of you because there are no black lines to guide you.

What does that mean for you, New Year’s resolution swimmers? It means that if you hop in a lane without warning the people in it, they may not see you. Last fall a woman got into my lane without telling me. I was swimming at full throttle when I realized she was there. I pulled up in shock inches before a huge, painful crash.

If you get in a lane in front of me, especially if you are slow and don’t splash much, I won’t know that you are there until I am on top of you like an eighteen-wheeler on an armadillo.

The National Wildlife Federation notes, “Nine-banded armadillos have a tendency to jump straight up into the air when they are startled. This often leads to their demise on highways.” Image by Jerry Segraves (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/photos/64102) via Wikimedia Commons

The obvious lesson here is that you don’t get into a lane with a swimmer until you get that person’s attention. It’s not so much that you are asking permission to join — although it is conventional to ask, “May I share?” — as that you are establishing how you will interact in the lane. Two people can split a lane down the middle, each keeping to one side; three or more need to circle swim, staying to one side.

If you are walking into a new pool for the first time, and there are no signs indicating which lane you might choose, you can always ask the lifeguard. I went to a YMCA pool in Atlanta over Thanksgiving; every lane was packed, and there was no guidance about speed. So I asked the lifeguard for advice, and he directed me to the appropriate lane. I ended up in a lane with a family of three cousins together for the holidays. We had a grand old time.


I’ve written about lane sharing before, but I have been thinking about the subject again because last week I shared a lane with my friend K, who is big and fast. He’s easy to share with; he knows what he is doing, and he swims straight. But it is always just a little bit nerve-racking when we share a lane, and it occurred to me that sharing a lane (especially with someone big and fast) is like doing a trust fall.

The trust fall is a staple of group team building exercises: one person falls backward with eyes closed and another (or group of others) catches her. You can find a video and description here.

In a trust fall, you can’t see: you have to trust that the catcher will be in the right place and you won’t hit the ground. In the same way, when you share a lane, you can’t see: you have to trust that your lane mate will be in the right place and you won’t hit each other. You communicate to establish trust.

I hope to see you at the pool, New Year’s resolution swimmers! Say hello before you jump in.


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The Nine Mile Report: Getting Better All the Time

The nine mile report comes in a little late. I was supposed to do a nine mile swim in June, and I didn’t get to it until July 5. I had the problem I had anticipated from the beginning: finding a pool that was open for a long enough stretch of time. The last two weekends of June, Westside Aquatic had events going on, so there was no long Saturday lap swim.

So, the last two Saturdays of June, I went to my home pool, got in the water as close to 9 AM as possible, and swamswamswamswamswam until 1 PM instead. I got in eight miles in four hours both Saturdays, a lot of straight freestyle swimming. It could have been unpleasant, but the temperature at my home pool has been very comfortable lately (i.e. cooler than average) and the swims were just fine.

I also got in two longer swims at Lake Jocassee, 7.2 miles or so with R and S (and their friend L) in the middle of June and 4.8 miles or so with K last Thursday. K and I had planned to go to Lake Hartwell, but the water temperature there is unswimmably hot — 90 °F (32 °C) — so we decided on Jocassee instead.

R kayaking for me on Lake Jocassee, June 2014. My photo.

R kayaking for me on Lake Jocassee, June 2014. My photo.

Yesterday I went to Westside Aquatic and swam the nine miles (14.5 K). For much of the time I had my own lane, although for a little while I shared with a guy who was unfamiliar with the most important rule of lane sharing: the fastest person goes first. If you have a person coming up behind you when you’re coming into the wall, it’s polite (and safer) to stop for a second or two to let that person pass you, rather than making her swim beside you to pass, trying not to hit you. I was in no mood to sprint, so I passed him slow and steady each time. Strangely, he was always way behind me on the next lap, suggesting either that he was stopping at the wall after I passed him or that he sped up when I was trying to pass him, slowing down to normal pace later. Either way, I didn’t have energy to waste on figuring out what was going on.

Otherwise, the nine mile swim was largely without incident. I wasn’t hurrying: I did two 500m kick and three 500m breast/back along the way, as well as some pulling. My primary interest was getting the food right. I stopped for an Ensure-like beverage at 3500, 7000, and 10,500, and I had a squeezy applesauce at 12,500. Over the course of the 14,500 I drank about half of a 20 oz. Gatorade bottle; I slugged the rest down at the end. I’ve been hungry today, but I didn’t wake up in the night desperate for food, which suggests I’m doing a better job with calorie intake.

I swam it like this:

2000 straight
500 breast/back (alt by 100), 500 pull, 500 swim
(food)
2000 straight
500 kick, 500 pull, 500 swim
(food)
2000 ladders (4 x 200, 150, 100, 50)
500 breast/back (alt by 100), 500 pull, 500 swim
(food)
2000 ladders (4 x 200, 150, 100, 50)
(food)
500 kick, 500 pull, 500 swim
500 breast/back (alt by 100)

The nine mile swim is the longest distance I plan to do. I will keep swimming shorter daily distances, maybe put in five miles or so this coming weekend, but nothing longer. The swim was tiring, but it was completely doable. I sang this for most of the way:

It’s three weeks to the race. I’m ready.


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Why I’m Not Bored

“Isn’t it boring?” asked the man in the parking lot. The conversation was C the lifeguard’s fault; I could see him looking in my direction and talking to a man on the side of the pool as I swam on Friday morning. But I didn’t worry about it at the time. Lifeguards look in my direction a lot: it’s kind of their job. It turns out that C was telling the man about me. And then I encountered him and his friend, the one who asked me the question, on my way to the car. They wanted to know if I had really swum 4000 yards that morning (yes). They wanted to know what I was training for (10 mile swim). They wanted to know about boredom.

It may be that I’m a bad judge of what is boring. I’m interested in many things that other people find dull (day job: English professor). That’s OK with me; as I’ve said before, we don’t all have to like the same things.

But I don’t find swimming boring.

There are things to look at in a pool, from other swimmers to light sparkling on the surface. You have to pay attention; you have to know where you are in space, how far you are from people, lane lines, walls. But pools are also beautiful, and I’m happy to watch bubbles off the fins of the woman in the next lane every time I pass her. I never get tired of the view of blue sky upside down through the water in the middle of a flip turn. Small beauties, length after length.

And while it is impossible to talk to people while swimming, I frequently find myself in conversations. Last week I stopped at the wall between sets, and the young man in the next lane over politely asked me teach him how to flip turn. Asking me to teach you how to flip turn is like asking me to teach you how to put on your socks — I’ve been doing it so long I can’t describe the process — but I did my best. Swimming is social; when you go to a pool, you become part of a community.

Finally, there’s a key aspect of swimming that people forget: even when there’s little to see and no one to talk to, there’s so much to feel. I was thinking about it yesterday, the constant tactile stimulation of swimming. When you’re moving through water, all your skin is feeling something all the time. I don’t have to see, and I don’t have to hear because I’m busy feeling.

I’ve complained before that I don’t like swimming in a wetsuit because I can’t feel the water. But the times when I swim in my wetsuit one day and then swim without the next, all my nerve endings light up like Las Vegas as soon as I hit the water, and I feel everything. It’s not boring.

On my way to my regular pool, I go past people walking on treadmills and climbing never-ending stairs in the fitness center, huge screens with FOX and ESPN in front of them and the Sirius satellite radio station playing “Mr. Roboto.” There’s a lot to see, and it’s plenty loud. It looks like hell, frankly, and not a single one of them is smiling.

When I’m swimming, I’m smiling.