10 mile swim

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


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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.

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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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In Hot Water (Splashville Open Water Challenge 2016 Race Report)

Hot. Damn hot. Hot and wet.

For much of the first ever Splashville Open Water Challenge, I had the weather report from Good Morning, Vietnam running through my mind (Robin Williams, link here, rated R). It was hot, damn hot, hot and wet. Every body of water I’ve been in all summer long has been hot, and Percy Priest Lake in Nashville was no exception.

Some places, it’s been too hot to swim. The Lake Lure open water swim, which was supposed to be the 1 mile and 5K USMS championships, was called off due to high water temperatures — up to 89-90° F. (I blogged about the 2015 Lake Lure race here.) Last week I was talking with another swimmer about the cancellation of the Lake Lure swim when a third person interrupted excitedly, “Was it because of bacteria? Brain-eating amoebas?” “No,” I said, “it was because of the heat.” I suppose brain-eating amoebas get all the press, but heat, as boring as it seems, is much more likely to hurt you. Since the death of Fran Crippen in 2010, swimming organizations have put upper limits on water temperature for open water races; USMS rules state, “A swim shall not begin if the water temperature exceeds 85° F.”

After the Lake Lure swim was cancelled, swimmers started worrying about the water temperature for Splashville. The race director posted updates in the Facebook group. A week before the race, she put up a photo of a thermometer reading 82° F, and there was much rejoicing. But on the morning of the race, as we stood on the shore after warmups, it was announced that the water temperature was 88° F, and a sheet of paper was passed around for the swimmers to sign, indicating that we understood USMS did not sanction the event and we were swimming at our own risk.

I suppose that if I were less experienced at open water swimming, I might have freaked out. But I’ve done this before. And I had swum over four miles in Lake Hartwell about a month ago in 87° F water; it wasn’t ideal, but I knew what to expect. A coach came up to some of her swimmers, standing in line behind me, and told them to swim at 10% of maximum. We all agreed we were going to take it easy.

So I took it easy. I enjoyed the scenery. It was too damn hot to do anything else.

Percy Priest Lake at Hamilton Creek Park. Before the race. My photo August 2016.

It’s a good-looking lake. Percy Priest Lake at Hamilton Creek Park. Before the race. My photo. August 2016.

Since the swim, the Splashville race director has contacted the participants to say that she’s hoping to move the event to April next year. I think that’s a terrific idea. I had a great time in Nashville. I stayed with nice people. We went to Hattie B’s for hot chicken. But while I like hot chicken, I don’t much like hot water. I’d be delighted to come back — in April.

On the positive side, I am not at all worried that the water will be cold for Swim the Suck in October. It’s been a long, hot summer. Bring on the fall!


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Race Report: 2016 Lowcountry Splash

Halfway into the 2016 Lowcountry Splash, I was already done. I was being tossed around like an old teddy bear in a front-load washer. I wanted out.

Here at the 10 Mile Swim blog, we take as given that any swim is better than no swim, but that does not mean that every swim is joyous and transcendent. Some swims hurt. And because conditions make such a big difference in open water swimming, the race that was easy one year can be a struggle the next. The 2016 Lowcountry Splash was one of the hard ones; the winning time at the five mile distance this year was about twenty minutes slower than last year’s.

(This is why you can’t spend too much time worrying about your PR — personal record — in open water swimming. This year I was nearly forty minutes slower than my best time for the race. The difference has almost nothing to do with me and almost everything to do with the race conditions. 2014 was super fast. 2016 was slow.)

So what do you do when you’re getting the stuffing knocked out of you and you still have two and a half miles to go? Your options are limited: keep swimming or don’t. I picked option #1. In all seriousness, I could have floated until someone came to get me, but I wanted food and drink and the hell out of that river, and the best way to get those things was to swim.

The hardest part was the calmest, the end of the fourth mile and into the fifth. When the waves were rough earlier in the swim, I was focused on getting through. But the water was calmer for the stretch as I approached the bridge, and I had a chance to think about how tired I was. My right hand had gone numb — not unusual for me, but a sign I was wearing out. And I was alone. I was on course — I saw buoys — but I went a good distance without seeing another swimmer.

So in the hardest part, I called on my team. The central paradox of open water swimming is that, while it looks like an individual sport, it requires a team: swimmers, kayakers, friends. You can’t swim on your own. I thought of all the people cheering for me. I thought of my friend C, the strongest woman I have ever known. It’s been a year since she died, but she is always swimming with me. She swam with me for the fourth mile.

After the swim, I found my friend K, who looked every bit as grim as I felt. He lay on the ground. I drank two bottles of water, one right after the other. I drank a Gatorade. I ate some kind of wrap. I nearly ate the toothpick holding the wrap together; I pulled it out, thought vaguely of Sherwood Anderson, and kept eating.

But after the food and drink, I came back to myself. We were sitting on the grass in the shade. The sky was bright blue. It was a beautiful morning. There is no place I would rather be than on the grass in the shade on a beautiful morning after the Lowcountry Splash.

The view of the bridge after the race. Big blue sky. My photo. June 2016.

The view of the bridge after the race. Big sky. My photo. June 2016.

The first year we did the five mile Lowcountry Splash, the current was so fast I came out saying I wanted to go back up river and swim it again. This year, once was enough. But now K and I have bragging rights: we’ve swum the course in easy years and we’ve swum it in hard. It’s still the best race I know. We’ll be back for 2017.


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How to Swim in a Lake

Sometimes you don’t realize how hungry you are until you taste that first bite of food. I didn’t realize how much I needed to swim in the lake until I put my head down and began my stroke.

People sometimes ask me — pool swimmers, parents of pool swimmers — why I want to swim in open water. It’s not because I don’t like pools. I am trained as a pool swimmer. I love to flip turn, to follow the black line. I love to race the guy in the next lane. But there are some things a pool can’t do for you. For some things, you have to get into open water.

In a pool, the conditions are static. The water is calm, the temperature moderate. If I have my own lane, I am the master of my domain, the little prince on my little planet. I’m raking out the volcanoes and rooting up the baobabs. I’m in charge.

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The little prince, raking out his volcanoes. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

But in a lake, the conditions change. I’ve been out to Lake Hartwell three times this spring, and every time the water has been choppy. Once the water was relatively calm for the first mile, but then the wind came up right in our faces, and suddenly we were fighting through the next mile.

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Lake Hartwell. It’s a bit choppy. April 2016. My photo.

I am one of those women who do too much. I spend a lot of energy holding back the forces of chaos. I make lists. Before we went out to the lake the first time this spring, I downloaded an app that allows me to keep lists on my phone, and I made a list of all the things I needed to pack for the swim. It is twenty items long. It has check boxes. And it’s saved on my phone so that every time I pack for the lake I can check the items off and make sure that I have everything. With the list, I feel I’ve got things under control.

But when I started swimming in the lake that first time, I completely forgot about all twenty items on my list and just about everything else as well. Swimming in choppy conditions is all-consuming. It becomes manifestly clear: I am not in charge here. I don’t have things under control.

Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive, but for me, giving up the need to be in control is a great relief. I can’t control the conditions; I have to adapt to them. And so I do.

Hanya Yanagihara writes of swimming in Hawaii, “There, water is a metaphor for life itself: something that should be approached with confidence, but with the knowledge that, finally, it is unconquerable and uncontrollable.” In a choppy lake in South Carolina, you can get a little taste of that too. Swimming in open water puts me back in the right relationship with the rest of the universe. I am not in charge of holding back the forces of chaos. I am not responsible for raking out the volcanoes. I am a small woman in big lake. And I have confidence. This is where I’m supposed to be.


Terry Laughlin, the Total Immersion swimming guy, has an article about techniques for swimming in rough water in H2Open Magazine, April 2016: Take the Rough with the Smooth.

 


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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 2) What Scares You?

What scares you? I asked my (non-swimming) friends what they wanted to know about open water swimming, and one asked, “What scares you?” That’s a great question. I am scared of all sorts of things. But almost none of them can get me in the water.

There are people who head out into the wild, climbing mountains and flinging themselves off cliffs, as a way of confronting their fears, but that’s not me. I returned to swimming as an adult as a way of dealing with anxiety. When I am in the water, I am literally swimming away from my fears.

When my children were small, one of my fears was that I would fall down the stairs while holding a baby. It’s a completely rational fear. I know someone who fell down the stairs while carrying a baby. The baby broke a leg. It’s the earth that is out to get you, my friend: one wrong step, and gravity will suck you down and break you.

But one wrong stroke in the water? There’s no such thing. Water is a great big buffer between you and all that could hurt you: the crazy man with the gun, the phone call in the night, the slip on the stairs. And it is absolutely reliable. The water wants to hold you up. It will always hold you up.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote to Oliver Neave, “You will be no swimmer till you place some confidence in the power of water to support you.”

It is possible to swim in dangerous water. You can swim from Cuba to Florida through box jellyfish. But you can also cover yourself in honey and sit on fire ant hills. I’ve had scarier encounters with squirrels on land (really, squirrels are crazy) than with anything I’ve ever encountered in water.

Table 1Last time I swam in Lake Jocassee, a little bass nipped at my leg while I was standing in shallow water. I yelped and looked down. There were a half dozen fish around me. I was yelling at them when I realized that my kayaker couldn’t see the fish and that, as far as he was concerned, I was shouting, “Back off, you little buggers!” at my feet. That is my most dangerous animal story: a fish nipping at my leg while my kayaker questioned my sanity.

I am not a risk taker. I check conditions; I swim with friends. If I have any doubt about safety, I don’t swim. I have driven an hour to the lake, waited thirty minutes for a storm to pass, and driven an hour home without sticking a toe in. But if the conditions are good, I feel safer in water than I do on land. I’m not scared when I’m swimming.


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How to Swim Ten Miles Again: Swim the Suck 2015 Race Report

Here are my two main thoughts about Swim the Suck: it was terrific, and it was over much too soon. I had estimated a four-hour swim, given my time swimming ten miles in Lake Minnetonka last year and my understanding of the anticipated current in the Tennessee River that morning. When my kayaker said, “I think I see the finish” about three and a half hours in, I thought, “Already?” I came in at 3:35:35, ten minutes ahead of the average time that day and much faster than I expected.

Me in the foreground, beautiful mountains in the back. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

Me in the foreground, beautiful mountains behind. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

I loved all ten miles of Swim the Suck, and I loved all ten miles of the Lake Minnetonka swim. But ten miles down the Tennessee River was a very different experience from ten miles across Lake Minnetonka and back. That’s the best thing about open water swimming; the experience of swimming is so variable, so dependent on conditions, that every swim is something new.

One big difference, of course, was in the two courses themselves. When I swam the Minnetonka swim in July 2014, it was five miles across the lake and five miles back, with buoys every mile. I swam from buoy to buoy, marking off the distance. For most of the swim, I was in the middle of the lake, a great expanse of water around me, a great expanse of sky above. The water was calm, the weather unchanging. I imagined myself a little dot slowly moving on a big flat map.

When I swam Swim the Suck, on the other hand, it was ten miles downstream in the Tennessee River. There were no markers on the course. Since the course was S shaped, I had a vague sense of where I was; I could tell when I was in a big bend. But I didn’t really know how far I’d gone. I was just going to swim until I reached the end.

The course for Swim the Suck. From http://www.swimthesuck10mile.com/

The S-shaped course. From Swim the Suck

In the Tennessee River Gorge, tree-covered mountains surround you. Once I looked up to see a few buildings together in a clearing near the shore with the mountains behind them, and I thought, “I’m in Ox-Cart Man.”

This is Barbara Cooney’s illustration of New England in the 19th century, and I was in Tennessee in the 21st, but imagine me in the water there, in the middle, looking up. I’m waving! Image from Ox-Cart Man, 1980 Caldecott Medal winner, written by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

The weather varied during Swim the Suck. For short periods it rained. I struggled with conflicting emotions: I love swimming in the rain, but I worried that my kayaker was getting wet. The best part was near the end, though, when the clouds darkened and the wind strengthened. I was delighted. I love choppy water. I put my head down and picked up my stroke. I had a short period of hard swimming before the wind calmed again, and soon after we saw the finish buoy ahead.

A second difference between the two swims was my interaction with other swimmers and kayakers. In the Minnetonka swim, I rarely saw another swimmer. There were only 28 entered in the ten mile swim. We set out in three waves, so there were only ten of us, even at the start, and we easily found our kayakers and spread out. My kayaker and I were on our own for long quiet stretches.

At Swim the Suck, in contrast, 89 swimmers set out together in a mass start. It was the least violent mass start I’d ever been in; I guess there’s no need for elbowing and kicking people when you have ten miles ahead of you. The start was complicated, however, by the task of finding your kayaker. Fortunately, people who had swum the event before had given me good advice; I made a point of keeping an eye on my kayaker and met up with her relatively easily.

The race start. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

Just before the race start, the kayakers waiting for the swimmers to enter the water. Swim the Suck, October 2015. Photo by M the kayaker.

And the crowd set off in a grand parade of swimmers and kayakers down the river. I was incredibly cheerful: the water temperature was perfect (74 F — no need to worry about hypothermia), and we were trucking along. In fact, I started singing the Grateful Dead song “Truckin’” in my head until I decided I couldn’t go ten miles singing about “living on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine” and switched to Whiskeytown’s “Sixteen Days.” Although the pack stretched out over the course of the race, I could see other swimmers and kayakers throughout the swim. I swam with companions.

My two ten mile swims were different, but one thing that stayed the same was that I did them with the help of my friends. In Minnesota, I had friends and family waiting for me at the end, and I swam toward them. In Tennessee, I had my friend M kayaking beside me, handing me food and offering me encouragement. Not only did she kayak, but also she drove us to the race on dark, foggy, narrow, twisty, and downright terrifying mountain roads. And my friend C from Kentucky appeared as if by magic at the race finish; she hugged me, and she helped push M’s SUV out of the muddy field everybody at the race was parked in.

You can’t get far without your friends; without mine, I might still be in a muddy field in Tennessee.

I met people at the spaghetti dinner the evening before the race, including Jeff from Alabama (thank you for the peanut butter!) and some terrific women who told me about swimming in Sitka and swimming the Catalina Channel. And at the race finish, I met one more. I had enough strength in the last half mile or so to feel that I needed to catch the swimmer in front of me, so I sprinted for it. I passed him briefly, but he caught up with me again just as we reached the finish buoy. We looked at each other — I was smiling a great big smile with the joy of it all — and he put up his hand for a high five and said, “Good race!”

It was a good race. It’s always better with friends.


I asked some friends what they’d like to know about swimming ten miles, and they came up with lots of questions, some about Swim the Suck in particular and more about open water swimming generally. I plan to answer them over the next few blog posts (sneak preview: the most common question is some variant of “Don’t you get bored?”). If you have a question, please ask in the comments.