10 mile swim

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


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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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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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How to Be a Swim Kid Your Whole Life

Oh, the joys of being a swim kid! The swim parents I know have been sharing MacKenzi Thibodeaux’s To The Little Girl in the Swim Cap and Goggles, written as a letter from an adult to a child. The adult reminisces about the many joys of summer swim team, telling the little girl, “You are so, so lucky to be a swimmer. I hope that you do not take this time in your life for granted.” It’s signed, “A girl who doesn’t have her swim cap or goggles anymore.”

It’s a sweet article, and many people I know have enjoyed it, but I find it so very sad. The writer believes that the child can only be a swimmer for a limited time, that she can only have her cap and goggles for so long before she has to put them away forever. But that’s not true. I know that’s not true. You can be a swim kid your whole life.

I swam as a child, and I remember all the things Thibodeaux talks about and more: the early morning practices, the travel, the friends. My friend K swam as a child too, and every once in a while we come up with some common memory — like eating Jell-O powder at swim meets. In the 70s and 80s, kids at swim meets would eat powdered gelatin straight out of the little boxes, mouths and fingers dyed bright orange or red or green. Jell-O powder is mostly sugar, and it was supposed to give you a quick energy boost. I don’t think swim kids eat powdered gelatin now — they have gels and sports drinks instead — but they do write their event numbers on their hands and arms so that they don’t miss their races, just like we did. And children still race each other during practice and whack each other with kick boards on birthdays. They still make great friends.

Now I’m old enough to have children of my own, but I’m still a swim kid. I go to the pool, and I see all my swim friends, just like I used to. We talk. We race each other. We don’t usually whack each other with kick boards, but we celebrate birthdays. We have fun.

In some ways, swimming as an adult is better than swimming as a child. The travel is better. Last summer, K and I drove down to Charleston on a Friday afternoon to swim the Lowcountry Splash. We spent the night with friends who fed us a terrific dinner, including a trifle for dessert; then we got up in the dark, ate leftover trifle for breakfast, and swam a beautiful five miles down the Cooper River on Saturday morning. After the race we drove home with the top down, and when we stopped in Columbia, I had a peanut-butter banana bourbon milkshake for lunch. It was called The Elvis, and it was a lot better than Jell-O powder. I got home just over 24 hours after I left, bruised, sunburned, dehydrated, half-drunk, and about as happy as I’ve ever been. There was no child on this earth having more fun than I was.

Thibodeaux writes to the little girl in the swim cap and googles, “Cherish this time you have, time of learning new things and making new friends, because all too soon one thing will lead to another and life will get busy or you will grow up and have to ‘throw in the towel’ on something that defined a major part of you for such a long time.” But why should any of us give up something that defines us? Why should we give up something that makes us happy?

Life does get busy, and we do grow up, but we never have to give up swimming. If you need to, you can take a break; the water will be there when you come back. You can learn new things. You can make new friends. You can be a swim kid your whole life.


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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.


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Race Report: The Dam Swim for Drew 2015

I was less than halfway through the Dam Swim for Drew when I thought, “K is going to ditch me in the parking lot.” I had talked my friend K into driving down to Columbia for the two-mile race by describing my experience at the event last year. It’s a simple course: jump off a dock in Irmo, swim along the dam across Lake Murray, and get out on the beach in Lexington. When I swam it in 2014, it was an easy swim.

In open water swimming, however, conditions make a big difference. You can’t step (or jump off the dock) into the same lake twice. And the 2015 swim was not the easy swim I had promised K.

We should have known something was up when we checked in at registration. The woman behind the table asked for our names and then asked, “Are you swimming this morning?” It was a confusing question — why else would we be checking in? In retrospect, I think maybe people were checking in — and then bailing out.

This year, the water was choppy, much choppier than last year. And it was relentless; we were tossed around for the entire two miles. I overheard one swimmer say this was his fifth Dam Swim, and he had never seen conditions like this.

Choppy water requires you to swim differently. I saw many swimmers switch to breaststroke, allowing them to breathe more easily and see straight ahead. But I’m not enthusiastic about breaststroke, so instead I adjusted my freestyle, lifting my arms higher to clear the water. Because the waves were coming from the right, I breathed to the left for most of the race. That’s the advantage of being able to breathe on either side; I could take a breath without getting a wave to the face.

I breathed when I could, and I didn’t panic when I couldn’t. I held on and enjoyed the ride.

I like swimming in rough water. It’s a challenge. You put your head down, you pick your arms up, you think about Beowulf swimming five days and nights in icy water, slaying sea monsters all the way, and you swim.

As the race director assured us at the pre-race safety meeting, there was plenty of kayak support. And those kayakers were terrific. I had one herding me like a collie herding a sheep in the middle of the race and another steering me toward the finish line at the end.

I was tired by the end, and my time was nearly ten minutes longer than last year’s (and nearly nine minutes longer than my two-mile time at Lake Lure last month). It was a hard swim. But I placed about the same in the standings as last year, and I had fun. And while the first thing K said to me when we met after the race was, “You’re walking home,” he did drive me back afterward, so I guess it wasn’t that bad.

It’s hard to beat the feeling of accomplishment you get by jumping into a lake on one side and fighting your way to the other.

Finish line. My photo. September 2015.

Finish line. My photo. September 2015.

The Dam Swim for Drew is a great race. But it’s also a memorial for Drew Smith, an eleven-year-old boy who was killed by a drunk boater, and its purpose is to promote water and boating safety. Drew’s mother spoke before the swim, and she reminded us that small bad decisions can have huge bad consequences.

Drew’s parents lost their son eighteen years ago. He lives on in his family’s love for him and the good that is done in his name.


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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.