10 mile swim

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


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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 4) What Will You Do if You Get Tired?

In two days, I will swim the USMS Ultramarathon Distance Open Water National Championship: 9.2 miles in the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. As I near the swim, people ask me questions about open water swimming, and these days the most popular question is my least favorite: What will you do if you get tired?

I find this question infuriating. It makes me want to strangle people. And since I am a grown woman slowly clawing my way toward self-actualization, I have spent some time thinking about why this question makes me want to hurt nice people who are probably just trying to make polite conversation.

It’s the word “if.”

There are a lot of things that I don’t know about this upcoming swim — there are a lot of things that I’m not going to know until I am actually swimming it — but I will tell you one thing for sure: I am going to get tired. I’m not playing hopscotch; I’m swimming 9.2 miles in a big river. There’s no question of “if” here.

Many years ago, I was in labor with my first child. About 10 or 12 hours into the process, I said, “I am done. I do not want to have a baby anymore.” Mercifully, no one laughed. I was not being funny: I was done, and I did not want to have a baby anymore. In every long race I’ve ever swum, I have had a moment like that, a moment where I am done, and I do not want to swim anymore.

In many ways long distance open water swimming is like childbirth, at least in my experience of both. They are beautiful and meaningful and occasionally transcendent. But they are also exhausting and painful and at times brutal. Most importantly, neither one allows you to call for a substitute; you can’t say, “Look, I’m tired. Could someone else take over now?” If it’s going to happen, it’s got to be you.

There’s no magic here.

This Sunday, if all goes well, I will swim 9.2 miles. My kayaker B will be beside me. There will be plenty of safety personnel and (I hope) a lot of food waiting at the end of the race. At some point I will get tired. And when I do, I will do the only thing I can do: I will draw on my training and on the strength of the people who love me, and I’ll keep going.

That baby is nineteen now, and she’s bigger than I am. I’ll let you know how the swim went when it’s over.


For the first time, I am doing a long open water swim as a fundraiser. I am swimming on Sunday for HIAS, the international refugee agency of the American Jewish community. You can read about why I am swimming for HIAS here, and you can learn more and donate here. Thank you!

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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.