10 mile swim

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


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Race Report: USMS Ultramarathon Distance OW Championship 2017 (Swimming for Refugees, Part 2)

On June 4, I swam 9.2 miles in the Tennessee River in the USMS Ultramarathon Distance Open Water Championship. The current was fast, the scenery was beautiful, and I raised over $3000 for HIAS. But what I really want to tell you about is the rainbow.

In seven or eight years of open water swimming, I had never seen a rainbow from the water. It was way high up and a bit behind us in the second mile or so, just a little piece of the arc. When I saw it, I yelled to B, my kayaker, “There’s a rainbow.” He didn’t see it. He said something about my goggles. I pointed up at the sky emphatically. He nodded. Later he told me that he never saw the rainbow; he didn’t want me to waste time arguing. He’s a sensible man and a good kayaker. But I saw the rainbow. It was there.

When I was a little kid, I didn’t believe in rainbows. To be more accurate, I believed there were rainbows, but I thought the neat arcs I saw in children’s books were artists’ exaggerations of the real thing. There are lots of things pictured in children’s books that aren’t exactly real: bears cooking breakfast, dogs driving convertibles, you know. I had seen sunrises and sunsets, and I thought rainbows were like them: big areas of color, not perfect bands curving across the sky. So the first time I saw a real rainbow, I was impressed. And I’m still impressed.

The thing about rainbows is that they seem like should be impossible: how can something like that be real? But rainbows aren’t impossible, and they aren’t magic: they are sunlight passing through raindrops. And swimming 9.2 miles? That isn’t impossible either, and it sure isn’t magic: you work hard, and you get your friends to help you, and then you go out on a Sunday morning and do it.


I was anxious going into the swim on Sunday. The forecast was terrible, the worst possible swimming weather: thunderstorms due to start in the middle of the swim. On the bus taking us to the swim start, I heard a man describing being pulled off a course because of lightning. On the walk down to the water, I heard a woman saying that she’d left shoes with her kayaker in case we had to get out in poison ivy. I didn’t want to be pulled out of the water, and I didn’t want to walk through poison ivy. More than anything, I didn’t want to tell the many people who had donated to HIAS in support of my swim that I hadn’t finished because of lightning.

But when I saw the rainbow in the second mile, I thought, Maybe the weather will hold. And it did.

The whole swim went well. First, B the kayaker and I found each other easily. The start is always difficult in this kind of race; you have to find your kayaker in the midst of chaos. But B and I had our not-so-secret weapon — the big yellow duckie — and when I saw that duck strapped to his kayak, I headed right for it.

The yellow duck, ready to go! Photo by B the kayaker, June 2017.

Second, the course was clear and beautiful. We started out under a series of bridges in downtown Chattanooga and then headed around the big turn in the river at Moccasin Bend and ended down river at the Baylor School. B and I had gone up Lookout Mountain, which looks out over Moccasin Bend, and seen the course from above the day before, so I had a good sense of how far along we were at any time in the race.

My arm (left foreground), with mountain. Photo by B the kayaker, June 2017.

And finally, the current was fast. I swam 9.2 miles in a bit over 2.5 hours, and I wasn’t anywhere near the front of the pack. In comparison, I swam Swim the Suck –10 miles in the same river — at a bit over 3.5 hours in 2015 and a bit over 4.5 hours in 2016. We were so fast that when we got to the finish, the race organizer announced apologetically that the pizza was still on its way: we’d outswum our lunch!

Coming into the well-marked finish! Photo by B the kayaker, June 2017.

But it wasn’t long before the pizza appeared, and it was good pizza with a kale salad that I dumped on the top of my two huge slices and ate as a topping. I didn’t bother with a fork; it was only going to slow me down.

This race was new, and the course had not been swum as an organized event before. But I knew that Karah Nazor was the organizer, and I was confident that it would be a well-run event. I was not disappointed. Karah and her crew know what they are doing. I’d love to come back and swim it again.


So far, I have raised over $3000 for HIAS, the international refugee agency of the American Jewish community. The Greenville News ran a front page story about my swim the Saturday before the event, online here: Furman professor to swim to help refugees: ‘I know what happens when we don’t help refugees.’ There is video as well, if you would like to hear and see me in motion: Swimming to raise money for refugees. Finally, HIAS posted about the swim on their blog: Going the Distance for Refugees. Literally.

My fundraising page is still open, and the need is still urgent.: 65 million people, just like me and you, in search of freedom and safety. Please consider donating. Thank you to all who have already contributed!

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One Week Away

I’m one week away from Swim the Suck, a 10 mile swim down the Tennessee River, and it’s time to get nervous. There’s no point in saying, “Don’t be nervous.” I’m not going to play hopscotch in the park. I’m going to swim 10 miles in a river I’ve never seen before. Only a fool would not be nervous.

So, what am I nervous about? First, hypothermia. It did not occur to me to worry about hypothermia until I read this article about the event, Chattanooga’s Swimming Event of the Year: The Swim the Suck. The photos are beautiful, but this little nugget is sticking with me:

Nazor says the challenges posed at the Swim the Suck are interestingly diverse, and the rewards are indescribable. First, the race takes place in October at a time when the air and water temperatures begin to become a little uncomfortable for your average Southeastern swimmer. “Water and air temperatures in the mid 60s are fine with me, and most people who sign up for the race are prepared to swim in those conditions (which after my CA experience, are warm actually),” she says.

Nazor says people can become hypothermic at 68 degrees and even with the possibility of the water temperatures being that low, participants aren’t permitted anything on their bodies other than a swimsuit, goggles, and a cap.

Let me say that temperatures in the mid 60s are not fine with me. I swam 2000m in a 64 F (17 C) pool in London once (the beautiful Parliament Hill Lido), and it was numbingly cold. The frightening part was when I got out of the water; I was so cold in the changing room that I couldn’t work my fingers to get my clothes back on. I pulled it together that time, but I learned a valuable lesson about being prepared: even though I’ve never swum anywhere as cold since, I keep hand warmers and an emergency space blanket in my swim bag. I’m not making that mistake twice.

Coping with water temperature is not a matter of strength of will; it’s a matter of what you’re used to. If I regularly swam in 65 degree water, I would adapt to it. But where I live, we worry about the lake temperatures being too hot to swim, not too cold.

I can’t find any information about the current water temperature of the Tennessee River, but the temperature for Swim the Suck the last four years has been in the mid 70s. I have no problem with mid 70s; I swam seven miles in Lake Jocassee last weekend, and the water temperature was in the mid 70s then. It seems unlikely that the water in the Tennessee River will be ten degrees colder this year than it’s been the last four years. But if it is, I’ll have something substantial to worry about.

The second thing I’m concerned about is sunburn. I don’t know if it’s possible to get sunburn and hypothermia at the same time, but I’m pretty sure that if it is, I’m the person to do it.

Of the two concerns, sunburn seems more likely than hypothermia. The worst sunburn I ever got was thirty years ago on a cloudy day in October, a day outside with no sunscreen. This swim is also going to be on a cloudy day in October. Again, I’m not making that mistake twice: I will sunscreen myself thoroughly. But even the most water resistant sunscreen is not waterproof. I’m thinking about getting some good old-fashioned zinc oxide. I will look a bit odd, but I look a bit odd anyway.

The swim starts at 9:30 AM; if I swim it in five hours, I get out at 2:30 PM. That’s peak sunburn time. I will need substantial sun protection.

Finally, I’m nervous about the unknown. The ten mile swim I did in Lake Minnetonka in July 2014 was a great experience (look, I’m doing it again), but there were unanticipated difficulties. The main one was the weeds. I had been warned about weeds, but I didn’t understand the scope of the problem. I assumed weeds would be a hindrance toward the shore, at the start, turn, and finish. I didn’t realize that they floated in the middle of the lake and that I’d need to swim around them or, failing that, stop to untangle myself frequently. They were an annoyance during the swim, but they were more of a problem afterwards, when I developed a nasty rash from the vegetation that had been trapped in my suit.

There will almost certainly be something like weeds on this swim — not vegetation itself, but some problem that I did not anticipate and did not prepare for.

I know I can swim ten miles, but I don’t know if I can swim ten miles in the Tennessee River on October 10th. And that is, of course, the point of open water swimming, where the conditions are beyond your control and the water is unknown.

I do know that the scenery will be gorgeous and the organizers promise Moon Pies. And I will have my friend M kayaking for me. It’s good to have a friend on the journey.

I’ll report back after the swim.


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Race Report: Lake Lure Open Water Swim 2015

On Saturday I swam the two-mile race at the Lake Lure Open Water Swim. The swim is part of a long weekend of events hosted by Rumbling Bald Resort every August. Lake Lure itself is a pretty little lake in western North Carolina, overlooked by Rumbling Bald Mountain.

View of Rumbling Bald Mountain from the water during warmups. My photo. August 2015

View of Rumbling Bald Mountain from the water during warmups. My photo. August 2015.

The swim is in a bay; the water is cool, clear, and calm. And the race is simple enough: one-mile loop of buoys, yellow ones on the way out, round orange one at the turn, and orange ones on the way back. If you swim the one-mile race, that’s it; if you swim the two-mile race, you do it twice.

View of the course. Lake Lure. My photo. August 2015.

View of the course. Lake Lure. My photo. August 2015.

Then you run onto the sandy beach and over a mat to stop your time. Piece of cake.

My swim was uneventful. I was accidentally seeded in the first and fastest wave of the two-mile swim (I belonged in the second), but I did not get walloped by speedier swimmers as I had feared. It was a happy little swim in a happy little lake.

I took third out of nine in my age group — it was the biggest age group in the women’s competition — and I got a bronze medal. Everybody received an attractive t-shirt, a perfectly acceptable swim cap, and a snazzy neon green and black sling bag, which might be the best of all. Swag is nice, and the bag was completely unexpected.

Snazzy sling bag. Bronze medal.

Snazzy sling bag. Bronze medal. My photo. August 2015.

I traveled with my friend K, who is an excellent traveling companion in that he wants to listen to Counting Crows and HAIM in the car, and on the way back we had lunch at The Hare and Hound in Landrum. They had cider on tap, which was also nice and completely unexpected. We sat at the bar. I wore my medal.

The Lake Lure Open Water Swim offers an easy to follow course in a beautiful, calm conditions. I don’t know if the set-up will change much for next year — they will be hosting one of the 2016 US Masters Open Water Championships and plan a one-mile swim and a 3.1-mile swim — but as it is, I think it would make a great first race for a new open water swimmer.


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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!


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The Fastest Five Miles of My Life: Lowcountry Splash 2014

Yesterday I swam the fastest five miles of my life. I have never swum so fast before, and it is unlikely that I will ever swim so fast again. I was swimming in a river (really, two rivers) down to the ocean, and the current was unusually fast and the conditions perfect. The event was the five mile swim at the Lowcountry Splash; the course took us down the beautiful Wando River, which joins with the Cooper River and heads toward Charleston Harbor. There were new records set for the 2.4 mile race (it was the 13th year for that distance) and the newer five mile length. We were all flying.

I went down to the Splash with my friend K. He is an excellent traveling companion (and not just because he has a convertible and we drive back from Charleston with the top down). We have both swum the 2.4 mile twice before; it’s a good race. But the five mile race is even better, from the very beginning: for the five mile start, you jump off a pier in waves of ten people, which is lots more fun than the mass in-water start for the 2.4 mile.

You swim down one side of the river, with Daniel Island to your right and the heavy-lift cranes across the river to your left.

Early in the race. Shiploaders across the river to our left.

Early in the race. Heavy-lift cranes across the river to our left, piers on Daniel Island to our right. My photo, from the water. May 24, 2014.

Then you cross the river at that last crane, yell out your number to the check-in boat at the halfway point, and continue down the other side, catching up with the 2.4 milers along the way.

Halfway point, the check-in boat, behind me after I passed it. My photo. May 24, 2014.

Halfway point, the check-in boat, behind me after I passed it. My photo. May 24, 2014.

You swim under the beautiful Ravenel bridge, alongside the Yorktown (a retired aircraft carrier) at Patriots Point, and up to the marina. The water is mildly salty: less salty than ocean water, but salty enough that you can feel you are floating higher than usual. And yesterday the sun was out, the wind was behind us, and the water was 78 degrees. You couldn’t ask for a better day.

We swim backstroke under bridges. My photo. May 24. 2014.

I swim backstroke under bridges. My photo. May 24. 2014.

The only hairy part was at the check-in boat. I had never been in a race with a mid-course check-in before. This procedure was required by the Coast Guard, the race official said, because the shipping lane had been shut down for the race and they wanted to make sure all the swimmers were out of the way before it was reopened. My problem was that I was too close to the boat when I came by and the current pulled me toward it. I was briefly caught on its anchor rope; it hurt a bit, but mostly it was scary. Still I didn’t panic, and I swam away fine.

And I hate to even mention that moment because the rest of the race was so perfect that I spent the whole time in a state of disbelief. How could this be so beautiful? My only regret is that I feel as if I didn’t work hard enough. I intended the race to be a warm-up of a sort for the 10 mile swim, testing my endurance, but it was no test: it was a holiday, a lovely Memorial Day weekend vacation in Charleston, SC.

The Ravenel Bridge. A 2.4 miler in a green cap is visible.

The Ravenel Bridge. I caught up with a 2.4 miler in the green cap. My photo. May 24, 2014.

My official time was 1:13.29, which is screaming fast. We take more time to swim three miles at Lake Hartwell. It was a terrific day in the water.


Here’s a image of the race course from my friend K:

Lowcountry Splash 2014: 5 mile course.

Lowcountry Splash 2014: 5 mile course marked in red. Image from Google and my friend K.