10 mile swim

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


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On Swimming in Deep Water

There is a certain feeling of freedom that comes from swimming out, away from land, into deep water.

I don’t experience it often. Ninety percent of my swimming is done in a 25-yard long, three-and-a-half-foot deep pool. I love that pool. That pool is my neighborhood bar, my Cheers. And as the song says, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. But other times, you want to go where absolutely no one knows your name, to swim out, free, untethered.

Some years ago I heard a talk about the nature of consciousness. The speaker started by asking us to picture the last time we went swimming. After giving us a moment to think, he noted that most people see an image of themselves swimming, taking the point of view of someone else watching them. This thought-exercise had something to do with our development of consciousness, but I don’t remember exactly what, because I was thinking about swimming. And I decided that when I swim, I would be mindful of what I see and not think about what I look like.

Here is what I see in deep water. The color of the water darkens to spruce green as we move away from land. When I breathe to the side, I see light sparkle on the surface. When I sight in front of me, I see the long expanse of water and beyond it the soft blue of mountains.

Last September I went for a long swim with my friend B, who kayaked for me. I like B a lot. He’s the kind of guy who takes you out on a three-mile swim to a beautiful waterfall, and when you get there, says, “I know a better one, if you’re willing to go a little farther,” as if there’s any chance you’d say no. We were out in deep water when I felt something buzzing around me. It was a dragonfly. I stopped to look at it, and it landed on me, on my arm, in the middle of the lake.

It’s December now. It’s cold. I’m swimming inside. But sometimes I think about how I was once an island for a tired dragonfly flying across a lake.

That’s what it’s like, swimming in deep water.

Version 2

Me, in deep water, September 2016. Photo by B, the kayaker

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You Can’t Swim in the Same River Twice: On Personal Records

One of the many things I like about open water swimming is that I never think about my PR. PR stands for “personal record,” and it means, of course, your best time for a race. My running friends talk about their PRs: they beat their PRs, they almost beat their PRs, they want to beat their PRs. Jen A. Miller recently wrote a piece, Trying to Beat My 25-Year-Old Self, in the New York Times Well Blog about trying to beat her personal record, set ten years before, for a 5K run. That’s the thing about having a PR: you always want to beat it.

But thinking about your personal record in open water swimming is complicated. If you run 5Ks (or some other set distance), you can compare your time from ten years ago to your time today. The distance is fixed, and the conditions relatively stable. Open water swims, on the other hand, are not uniform. They come in a variety of lengths. And more important, courses and conditions make a huge difference: a swim in a lake is not comparable to a swim in a river, and a swim in rough conditions is not the same as a swim in calm water.

I know that the fastest I have ever swum was on May 24, 2014 at the Lowcountry Splash: five miles in 1:13:29. It seems impossible that I will ever swim that fast again. The current was unusually swift. All the course records were broken that day. I was the fastest I’ve ever been — and so was everyone else.

I keep a spread sheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. The entry for the Lowcountry Splash is highlighted. Zoooooooom.

I keep a spreadsheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. This is an excerpt. I’ve highlighted the entry for the Lowcountry Splash: zoooooooom.

The next year at the same race the current was not unusually swift; I swam the course in 1:26:37, thirteen minutes slower. Should I be disappointed that I didn’t beat my PR? What for? I don’t control the current. And it was a great swim on a beautiful morning. There’s no point in comparisons. You can’t swim in the same river twice.

River current isn’t the only factor to take into account: all open water swimming is dependent on conditions. Last August I swam two miles in 54:24 at the Lake Lure Olympiad. Last September I swam two miles in 1:03:17 at the Dam Swim for Drew in Lake Murray. I didn’t get nine minutes slower in a month. At Lake Lure the water was warm and smooth; we swam two simple loops around a one-mile course. At Lake Murray, the water was rough; we fought through waves the whole way across the lake.

I was faster at Lake Lure. I had more fun at the Dam Swim. Which one was the better swim?

Some people find it motivating to compete with their younger selves, to beat their PRs. But I’m not interested in playing that game. The great appeal of open water swimming is that each race is its own experience, new and incomparable to the others. Each swim is its own swim. Each swim can be your best swim on that day.


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Questions About Open Water Swimming: 3) What If You Get a Cramp?

I am doing a series of posts in which I answer questions my (non-swimming) friends have asked me about open water swimming. One of these questions is, “What if you get a cramp?” But no one ever asks me this question calmly; they usually ask it like this: “WHAT IF YOU GET A CRAMP???!!!11!?”

Let me allay your concerns. A cramp does not turn you to rock and cause you to sink inexorably to your death.

The Thing is covered with rock, and he can swim and fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position

The Thing is huge and covered with rock, and not only can he swim, he can fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position.

A cramp is just an annoyance, not a crisis.

I get cramps every once in a while, more often in pools than in open water (more on that in a bit), and here’s what I do when I get one that I can’t ignore:

  1. I stop whatever I’m doing.
  2. I do something else.
  3. If 1 and 2 do not solve the problem, I gently stretch the cramping muscle. And then
  4. I get on with the swimming.

I am not a medical professional. I can only tell you what it’s like being me living in my body. But I have never had a cramp that required me to get help — or even to get out of the water. I do steps 1-4 while floating.

When you train, you learn how your body works and what your issues are. For me, I get cramps in my calves or in my feet, and I get them during or soon after kick sets or after pushing off the wall. A change in activity is usually the precipitating event: maybe the kick set goes fine, but when I push off the wall in the next set, a calf cramps up. One crazy day in September this year, I swam 15,000 yards in a 25 yard pool — not my first choice of venue — and by the end my calves would cramp with every push off. But that was a day of several hundred turns. It was not a normal day.

More to the point, in open water, there are no kick sets or walls, and, as a result, I almost never get cramps in open water. In fact, I can only think of one time I got a cramp during an open water swim. Again, the trigger was a sudden change in activity. I was nearing the end of a two mile race and looking for the finish; I did a quick whip kick after two miles of steady flutter, and one of my calves cramped up tight. So I shook the leg out and kept swimming, cursing heartily. I lost a little time, and I may have offended some delicate sensibilities, but the cramp itself was not a big deal.

Preventing cramps is better than dealing with them when they come. I’m pretty sure that dehydration contributed to the cramp during the race: it happened at the end of a swim in a warm lake in August. A two mile swim is not long enough to require hydration mid-race, but I probably should have had more fluids beforehand. In a longer race (like the two ten-milers I’ve done) either you’ll have a kayaker along to hand you liquids or there will be hydration stations on the course. You should stay hydrated at practice too. You don’t notice yourself sweating in the water, but you do. Have a good drink before you start, and put a water bottle on the side of the pool for breaks.

While we’re on the subject, the claim that you must wait an hour after eating to swim or risk deadly stomach cramps is complete and utter nonsense. I eat as I walk over to the pool. Sometimes I eat on the pool deck. During a long swim, I eat while floating on my back in the middle of the water. We all do. And swimmers regularly eat through swim meets. You can eat your lunch and go right to swim. Be sure to have a good-sized glass of water with it.

Finally, if you have a medical crisis of any kind during a open water race, you will have support boats on the course to assist you. If you actually do turn to rock, perhaps they won’t be much help. But I’m willing to take the risk. Happy swimming!

 


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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 1) Don’t You Get Bored?

I asked friends to tell me what they wanted to know about open water swimming and about my experience at Swim the Suck, the ten mile race I swam in Chattanooga last week, and the most common question was, “Don’t you get bored?”

I don’t get bored. I didn’t get bored at Swim the Suck; I loved all ten miles of it. One of the people I met at the dinner the evening before the swim — she was swimming the event for the second time — said that she thought of it less as a race and more as a tour. And having swum the course, I agree: it was a tour of the beautiful Tennessee River Gorge from the water. You can see photos at my race report.

Open water swimming is like hiking. You look around. You see things. You need to pay attention to where you’re going, as you do when you hike — you’re looking for obstacles and making sure you stay on course — but you can enjoy the scenery as you go.

I think that’s what people may not understand about open water swimming, the fact that you can enjoy the scenery. The mechanics are simple. First, you see ahead when you sight. Sighting is when you lift your head to look in front of you; you don’t need to do it in a pool (in a pool you follow the black line), but you do have to do it regularly in open water. Sighting is tiring, however, and it slows you down. I’ve learned to sight like an alligator, lifting my head just enough that my eyes are above the water, but still, at the end of a long race, my neck is sore.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee last spring. There are no alligators in Lake Jocassee, just me. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

It’s easier to look around when you breathe. I breathe to the right and to the left equally well, so as I swim I can see what’s on either side of me. As we went down the Tennessee River last weekend, we enjoyed the mountains in early fall. Here and there we passed a house; M, my kayaker, pointed out a place that had a three-story-high tree house next to it, and we talked about it as a possible Airbnb location.

I pick races in beautiful places on purpose. The Lowcountry Splash is another example; you get an unbeatable view of the Ravenel Bridge (seen in the photo at the top of this blog). I suppose when you’re a serious competitor, you don’t spend time sightseeing, but I’d rather enjoy the view than win.

Of course, I don’t get to swim in beautiful places all the time — or even most of the time. But I don’t get bored swimming in a pool either.

When you swim two miles a day in a pool, you don’t just get in the water, swim two miles, and get out. Usually I swim a warm-up, a set with kicking and/or pulling, and a main set; maybe I’ll have a short cool-down.

At least a couple times a week I incorporate other strokes besides freestyle (crawl) into the workout. I developed a pain in my shoulder swimming backstroke (which is ironic, since I was swimming backstroke to protect my shoulders), so I’ve been doing more fly and breast. My favorite way to include those strokes these days is in 75s: 25 free, 25 other, 25 free. I do these in sets of four or six; for example, a possible 900 yard set is 4 x 75 with fly, 4 x 75 with breast, 4 x 75 with fly. Swimming a variety of strokes is one of the ways you keep the workout interesting.

Every day on my way to swim my workout, I walk through the fitness center. It’s a large room with two kinds of things in it: exercise equipment and devices to occupy people while they are using the exercise equipment. Music plays. Television screens are everywhere. It’s as if people have to be distracted from what they are doing in order to do it.

But I don’t need to be distracted from swimming. People talk about the need to practice mindful eating, to take pleasure in our food and be satisfied by it. I try to practice mindful swimming: I take pleasure in it, and I am satisfied.

Of course, there are days when I am no good at mindful swimming. I come in distracted. On those days, I use swimming to clear my head. Perhaps what I am experiencing other people would call boredom, but I call it a respite. My mind can rest as my body swims.

Over a year ago, a month or so before I did my first ten mile swim, I wrote a blog post called Why I’m Not Bored. It’s about the physical experience of swimming: what you see, what you feel. I wrote at the time, “When I’m swimming, I’m smiling.” Last weekend, at the end of Swim the Suck, my face ached. I realized the next day that it was from ten miles of smiling.


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Four Places to Swim Before You Die

I don’t like bucket lists. And when I get sucked into a bucket list about swimming (14 Places to Swim Before You Die is a typical example), I am invariably disappointed. Some of the places listed are good places to float, especially to float while drinking a cocktail, but they are not places to swim.

I think I can do a better bucket list. I offer you four places to swim before you die:

1) Across a lake

You don’t necessarily have to swim across a lake. You could swim across a channel or a strait, or you could swim from an island to the shore. What’s important here is that you swim across. Start on land and head out into deep water; swim and swim until you get to the other side, using nothing but your own body to get there.

You don’t have to swim a huge distance; you want to be able to see where you came from at the end. Then you can stand on the land and look back across the water and think, “I got here all by myself.”

You feel like you’ve gotten somewhere when you swim across a lake.

2) In the rain

Swimming in the rain is among the great joys of life. There is some voice inside you that says responsible, grown-up things like “Go to work” and “Don’t eat that cookie” and “Come in out of the rain.” When you swim in the rain, you can tell that voice to shut the hell up. Swimming in the rain feels like Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. It feels like Jeans Day.

When you swim in the rain, you feel the raindrops on your shoulders. You feel them on your arms when you lift them out of the water and on your face when you breathe. It doesn’t matter if you get wet, because you’re already wet — you’re swimming.

All rules are suspended, all debts are forgiven when you swim in the rain.

3) In the nude

If you swim a lot and you think about swimming a lot, eventually you’re going to come around to one inescapable conclusion: wearing clothes in water is weird. All the research into fabrics, all the fancy swimsuit technology — it is all to make swimming in clothes more like swimming naked.

For long distance swimmers, especially women, swimsuits cause as many problems as they solve. Lynne Cox notes in her Open Water Swimming Manual, “Because of problems with chafing, there were top female open water swimmers in the 1920s and ’30s who swam naked. Today there are women who wear two-piece swimsuits until they get in the water, and then they ditch their tops, hand them over to their escort paddlers, and when they finish their workout, they put their tops back on and head to shore.” When I’m swimming long distances — in a pool as well as in open water — I use Body Glide on my shoulders, neck, and arms to prevent chafing where my swimsuit rubs against skin.

It is important that we respect the conventions of the communities in which we swim. In other words, you can’t just show up to the pool naked. And goodness knows I have no more desire to be the only nude swimmer at a pool or beach full of clothed people than I do to be the only person in pajamas at the next faculty meeting.

But before you die, you should get yourself to a place — a physical location and a social space — where you can take off your clothes and swim. Wreck Beach in Vancouver is a good choice.

On this side of the sign, you can swim naked. On the other side, you have to wear clothes. Which side are you on? My photo. June 2015.

On this side of the sign, you can swim naked. On the other side, you have to wear clothes. Which side are you on? My photo. June 2015.

In the life I lead, I don’t get to swim naked often, but each time I do, I remember, “Oh, yeah, this is what swimming is supposed to feel like.”

You can approximate the feeling of swimming in the nude by swimming in a full wetsuit and then later in just a regular swimsuit. I do this in the spring sometimes, swimming in the lake in a wetsuit one day and in the pool the next. When you push off the wall the second day, all the nerve receptors in your bare arms and legs light up like the midway at the state fair. It’s as if you feel the water for the first time.

4) In the same place you swam yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

If I had one last swim, I would want to swim in the same place I swim every day — my home pool.

The key thing about your home pool is that it’s yours. You know how far it is from the T at the end of the lane to the wall, so you always hit the flip turns. You know the best lane and the worst lane. You know all the lifeguards and all the regulars, and they know you. You know your pool.

Before you die, swim at some place long enough and often enough so that it becomes your home. Make it yours.

I like to see new places, and I like to swim in new bodies of water. But when it comes down to it, the best place to swim is the place you’re in, in the body you have. Go swim there.


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How to Choose a Good First Open Water Race

So you think you’d like to try an open water race? In my part of the world, it’s race season; I have four races in three months. Some of those events are better suited for beginners than others, and if you have multiple options to choose from, you should take three criteria into account in picking your first race.

Note: I am assuming that you are a pool swimmer who’d like to experience competition in the Great Outdoors. But if you’re a triathlete who thinks it might be fun to swim a little farther and then go eat (without having to do all the cycling and running), this information might help you too, especially #3.

1) Experience

If this is your first race, pick an event that is not the organizers’ first race. It’s a lot of work to put on an open water swim. You need to mark the course, get all the safety equipment and personnel in place, arrange for water and food, have the timing system up and running, communicate with the swimmers — it’s a major undertaking. If you’re new, why not pick a race where you know the directors are experienced?

The one race that I do year after year is the Lowcountry Splash. It’s a beautiful course and a fast swim, but it’s also an extremely well-run event. The organizers communicate well with the swimmers, the course is well marked, and safety measures are visible at every stage.

Tired swimmers approaching the finish of the Lowcountry Splash being shepherded in by kayakers and paddleboarders. My photo. May 2015.

Kayakers and paddleboarders herding in tired swimmers as they approach the finish of the Lowcountry Splash, with the Ravenel Bridge in the background. My photo. May 2015.

The people running the Lowcountry Splash in Charleston have been doing it for fourteen years, and it shows. They know what they’re doing. Your first time out, surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing.

2) The course

Of course, you’re thinking about how far you’d like to swim: races come in all lengths, from 1K (you might even find a .5K) to 10 miles or more. But you need to think about more than just distance when choosing a race.

I live in an area where I can get to lakes, rivers, and the ocean relatively easily, and I’ve swum in all three. If you’re a pool swimmer transitioning to open water, you may want a lake swim for a first time. Unless it’s very windy, the water will be relatively calm. You won’t have to navigate a current or prepare for chafing in salt water.

I swam the Lake Lure Open Water Swim last weekend; the course is a straightforward one-mile loop (out along a straight line of yellow buoys, a turn, and back along a straight line of orange buoys) on a pretty little lake. It was not all that different from a swim in a pool — blown up much bigger and with a view of Rumbling Bald Mountain. I think it would make a great first race.

A river swim, if the course is uncomplicated and takes you downstream, can be a good first race too. Find out, though, if you’ll be swimming upstream or across a current, and think about whether you want to face those challenges on your first time out.

And if you love waves or if you’re living on the ocean and swimming there all the time, I don’t want to discourage you from an ocean swim. The Alcatraz Sharkfest swim in San Francisco Bay was my second open water race, and it was terrific. But keep in mind that ocean swims require careful attention to conditions; a swim that appears short becomes long when you are fighting the current and being tossed around by waves.

3) Race start

Swimming an open water race presents challenges beyond just swimming. You have to learn how to sight, that is, how to look at a buoy or landmark and aim for it. You have to learn how to pass people or to let people pass you. But the most challenging part of an open water race is the start. And because you can’t easily simulate start conditions in practice, it’s hard to prepare for them.

The most difficult kind of start is the mass start. I understand that it is the usual start in triathlons, which goes a long way to explain why so many triathletes don’t enjoy the swim. If you have hundreds of swimmers heading out in one big mob, either running in from the beach or treading water behind some line until a start horn is blown, people are going to get hit. People are going to get hit a lot.

If you enjoy mosh pits, go for a race with a mass start. But if your mosh pit days are past you, for your first time why not choose a race where swimmers head out in small waves — or even individually? At the Lake Lure Open Water Swim last week, we started from the beach in waves of fifteen. Last year at the Dam Swim for Drew, we went off a dock in groups of ten or fifteen.

Swimmers going off the dock at the Dam Swim for Drew 2014. Image from The State.

I would not recommend Swim the Loop for a complete beginner — it is a complicated course around an island and requires quite a bit of navigation — but they send swimmers off the dock one at a time, with a prize for the most exciting entry. CANNONBALL!

 

When you’re deciding on a first open water race, educate yourself about your options. Events will have websites and Facebook pages; they should have photos from past years and maps of the course. Find out how long the event has been going on, what the course is like, and how the start will be run. If you can’t find that information online, email the race director and ask.

You can’t prepare for everything. In fact, part of the fun of open water swimming is its unpredictability. In pool swimming, races are controlled and standardized; in open water swimming, conditions are fluid, and swimmers have to adapt. Nonetheless, you can choose an open water race that will be well suited to your preferences and abilities. Have fun out there!


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The Next Big Race: Swim the Suck, October 2015

Tennessee River Gorge, site of Swim the Suck. Photo by Blueway via Wikimedia Commons

October 2015 update: I swam Swim the Suck on October 10, and it was fantastic. See my race report here.


Big news here at the 10 Mile Swim: I have registered for Swim the Suck! It’s a 10 mile swim in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And it’s a hip race; it’s a cool race — in 2014 registration reached capacity in 27 minutes. Last Sunday at noon, I was anxiously refreshing my browser, trying to get in. And it worked. I don’t know exactly how fast the 100 slots filled up this year, but registration was closed when I looked again a few hours later.

Why is Swim the Suck a hot race? The swim is ten miles downstream in the Tennessee River Gorge, a canyon surrounded by the Cumberland Mountains. Go check out the website, with videos of previous races: the scenery is stunning, and the swimmers look like they are having the time of their lives.

Also, it is sponsored by MoonPie.

When I swam the 10 mile swim at Lake Minnetonka last July, a couple of the participants were talking about how they really wanted to do Swim the Suck, and I thought that I’d better check it out. And Chattanooga is practically up the street from me. I hope to see friends. I hope to make friends!

The 6th Annual Swim the Suck is October 10, 2015. I can’t wait!