10 mile swim

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


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.

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How to Share a Lane Redux (For New Year’s Resolution Swimmers)

You can buy a t-shirt with this happy swimmer on it at Toad Hollow

You can buy a t-shirt with this happy swimmer on it at Toad Hollow Athletics. I have one in blue.

We are barreling toward New Year’s Day here in the Gregorian calendar, and everyone knows what that means: soon, a new crowd of swimmers in the pool, working on their New Year’s resolutions. And good for you, New Year’s resolution swimmers! Life is good in the pool.

Before you jump in, however, there’s something you should know: while there is much to be said about the isolation of swimming, that isolation is only in the swimmer’s mind. You may be alone in your head, but most of the time your body is in a narrow space with other wet, nearly naked people, all moving at different speeds.

In addition — and this is key — a person swimming freestyle correctly cannot see ahead of her when she is swimming.

When you are swimming, you are looking down at the bottom of the pool. That is why pools have black lines on the bottom; the swimmers are following them. When you get to the cross at the end of the black line, you know the wall is approaching.


These lines on the bottom of the pool: not just for pretty (my photo).

When you breathe to the side, you can see in that direction, but you never lift your head to see in front of you in a pool. The exception, of course, is if you are practicing sighting for an open water swim. In open water you do have to look in front of you because there are no black lines to guide you.

What does that mean for you, New Year’s resolution swimmers? It means that if you hop in a lane without warning the people in it, they may not see you. Last fall a woman got into my lane without telling me. I was swimming at full throttle when I realized she was there. I pulled up in shock inches before a huge, painful crash.

If you get in a lane in front of me, especially if you are slow and don’t splash much, I won’t know that you are there until I am on top of you like an eighteen-wheeler on an armadillo.

The National Wildlife Federation notes, “Nine-banded armadillos have a tendency to jump straight up into the air when they are startled. This often leads to their demise on highways.” Image by Jerry Segraves (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/photos/64102) via Wikimedia Commons

The obvious lesson here is that you don’t get into a lane with a swimmer until you get that person’s attention. It’s not so much that you are asking permission to join — although it is conventional to ask, “May I share?” — as that you are establishing how you will interact in the lane. Two people can split a lane down the middle, each keeping to one side; three or more need to circle swim, staying to one side.

If you are walking into a new pool for the first time, and there are no signs indicating which lane you might choose, you can always ask the lifeguard. I went to a YMCA pool in Atlanta over Thanksgiving; every lane was packed, and there was no guidance about speed. So I asked the lifeguard for advice, and he directed me to the appropriate lane. I ended up in a lane with a family of three cousins together for the holidays. We had a grand old time.

I’ve written about lane sharing before, but I have been thinking about the subject again because last week I shared a lane with my friend K, who is big and fast. He’s easy to share with; he knows what he is doing, and he swims straight. But it is always just a little bit nerve-racking when we share a lane, and it occurred to me that sharing a lane (especially with someone big and fast) is like doing a trust fall.

The trust fall is a staple of group team building exercises: one person falls backward with eyes closed and another (or group of others) catches her. You can find a video and description here.

In a trust fall, you can’t see: you have to trust that the catcher will be in the right place and you won’t hit the ground. In the same way, when you share a lane, you can’t see: you have to trust that your lane mate will be in the right place and you won’t hit each other. You communicate to establish trust.

I hope to see you at the pool, New Year’s resolution swimmers! Say hello before you jump in.

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How to Share a Lane

I swim in a pool where I often have my own lane. It is a great thing. There are pools where you almost always have to share a lane, maybe with several people circle-swimming; there are pools where there are no lanes, which is another kind of experience altogether. My pool is relatively easy: at times when we have two people in a lane, we usually split it down the middle.

If I walk onto the deck and the pool is empty, I always get in lane 3; my reasoning is that in any race where I’m the only swimmer, I’m the first seed. In a six-lane pool, that’s lane 3. If there is someone in 3, I take another open middle lane—2, 4, or 5. Lane 6 is my last choice; it’s against the wall.

I have recently given up on trying to swim in lane 1. Not long ago I asked to swim with someone else when lane 1 was open; she said, “That lane is open,” pointing at it. I explained to her that I can’t swim in lane 1: on one end, steps and a rail stick out into the water; on the other, the wall has no cross, so it’s hard to figure out when to flip turn. If I swim in lane 1, I mangle myself either running into the rail on the near side or misjudging the turn on the far side. The other swimmer looked unimpressed. She said she would swim in lane 1. So I got lane 2, and she got lane 1, and I thought it was a good deal. She wasn’t doing flip turns or swimming fast enough to accidentally hit the rail anyway.

On the other hand, just last week, I got in to share a lane with my friend K (who counts laps infallibly) instead of swimming alone in lane 1, and he didn’t say a darn thing. I appreciated that. He’s good at sharing a lane. It’s true that when K and I hit each other, it’s like a Mack truck hitting a Mini–and I’m the Mini. But we both know what we’re doing, and we don’t hit each other much. I’d rather take my chances with him than spend the workout negotiating the obstacle course in lane 1.

If I walk onto the deck and all the lanes have someone in them, I have to start making decisions. There are several factors to consider when deciding which person you should ask to share: size, speed, relationship, competency. Ideally I want a small person about the same speed as me, swimming straight. Practically I just want someone who will stay out of my way as I do my best to stay out of hers.

On Thursday, there was only one lane that didn’t have two people in it, so I asked the man in that lane if we could share. He said yes. He warned me that he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Our problem, though, had nothing to do with his eyesight; it was that we swam at very different speeds. It’s hard to share a lane if the two swimmers are not going similar speeds; one of you is going to be trying to pass the other one all the time. I was passing this guy every other lap.

Here’s how you pass someone: as fast and as smoothly as you can. You don’t want to be swimming side by side for long. If the slower person slows down and the faster person speeds up, the process is easier on everyone.

Not long ago I was sharing with a friend who is a little slower than me, but not by much. And I was swimming slowly–I was not feeling well and I was doing a long warm-up–while he was swimming fast doing sprints. Ordinarily, it’s good to share with a person about the same speed as you. But if one of you is swimming a long distance steadily and the other is swimming short sprints with rests in between, you will be out of sync. You’ll keep leapfrogging each other.

The first time he came up behind me to pass, I slowed down so that it would be easier, like a good lane-sharing swimmer should. But I was not happy; I don’t like letting others pass me, and I knew I could take him. He stopped at the wall, and I caught up and was ahead after the turn. And then he started coming up behind me again. I said to myself, “I give up,” and kicked it into gear. I couldn’t let him pass me twice, not even when I was sick, not even when I was warming up. That was not good lane-sharing behavior. But as I’ve said before, I was trained in my swim team years to never let a boy pass me without a race, and it’s hard to overcome that kind of conditioning.

The man I shared with on Thursday was very nice about sharing, and I was too; I passed him quickly and carefully, and he didn’t fight me. We got on well. When he got out, he told me it was an honor to swim with me. I hope I see him around again.

Besides courteous passing, another piece of lane etiquette is to swim straight and stay to your side of the lane. Backstroke is trouble because you can’t see where you’re going. Breaststroke and butterfly are trouble because you are wider in the lane. Once I was swimming breaststroke while sharing a lane with the university president; in my desire to avoid kicking him, I stayed close to my lane rope and ended up kicking a woman in the next lane. It would have been better to avoid breaststroke altogether.

Butterfly is even worse than breaststroke: it is both wide and turbulent. You take up a lot of space, and you make a lot of waves. If I swim butterfly in the same lane as you, that means one of two things: either I hold you in high esteem and I trust you know what you are doing and I believe that our relationship can handle a few hits or I don’t care whether I hit you.

I didn’t know the man I was swimming with early on Thursday; I didn’t think he would be able to handle my swimming butterfly, and I didn’t want to hit him. So I was waiting till he got out to start swimming IMs. Unfortunately, as soon as he left, the Man in the Black Suit joined me. I like the Man in the Black Suit, and I didn’t want to hit him either, so I waited some more. I waited a long time. Meanwhile the two guys in the lane next to us were entering into their second hour of aquatic line dancing (or whatever they were doing). I was running out of time. I decided the Man in the Black Suit would forgive a few IMs.

I did one 100 IM, and mercifully the line dancers got out.

I said, out loud, “Thank goodness!” The Man in the Black Suit said back, “Thank goodness!” He grabbed the free lane. I swam IMs as fast as I could for the rest of my workout. We remain friendly.

Sometimes the most important skill in sharing a lane is figuring out how to get out of it.

There are lots of guides to lane-sharing etiquette online; they tend to pop up around New Year’s, as pools get busy with New Year’s resolution athletes. Busy Pool? Lap Swim Etiquette for Sharing Lanes from Active.com is written for new swimmers. Don’t Be a Fool at the Pool is an oldie but a goodie.

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Swim and make friends (with wet, nearly-naked people)

Swimming is not a sport for shy people. There’s no way around it: if you swim you are going to be hanging out with other people while all of you are wet and nearly naked. Any kind of competition, pool or open water, involves meeting even more wet, nearly-naked people of all ages and shapes. If you end up at cold open water swims that permit or require wetsuits, you’ll soon be helping your fellow swimmers into them. And they will help you: the number of men who have zipped me up in back since I started open water swimming has increased enormously.

Me, in a wetsuit

Me, in a wetsuit, June 2013 (the zip is in the back)

Swimming also involves physical contact. I don’t think non-swimmers realize it, but if you’re sharing a lane with one or more people, you will hit each other sometimes, even when everyone is practicing good lane etiquette and especially when they aren’t. I spent nearly three weeks in the fall of 2008 swimming in a wonderful pool in Dublin. I still dream about this pool; its ceiling was all windows, so you could do backstroke and look up at the beautiful Irish sky. But my last day I collided with a man in such a way that he bent my thumb right back. It was badly bruised, but there wasn’t much I could do. I was leaving in the morning for a three-week bus tour with 39 undergraduates, so I treated it with ice and alcohol and ibuprofen. My thumb ached for nine months after. I’ve had plenty of other bruises from practice, before and since, though none nearly so bad.

So, swimming is not a sport for the shy or the contact-averse. Nonetheless, it is also a sport that involves a lot of time in your own head, without distractions. I love swimming in beautiful places–I go out of my way to swim in beautiful places–but practice for me means a pool, and that means face in the water, following the black line at the center of the lane. If you ask a swimmer what’s she’s been up to, and she says, “Following the black line,” that means swimming, lots and lots of swimming.


You’ve got to be willing to spend a lot of time with yourself, if you’re going to swim. Next post, I’ll talk about how.