10 mile swim

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


6 Comments

How to Read Water: In Memory of Charles van der Horst

A few years ago, over the winter, I read a book called How to Read Water, a guide to the “rare art of natural navigation.” I enjoyed the book, but I was unsatisfied with it in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t until the next spring, when I swam in open water again, that I understood why: the book teaches how to read water from above it, from land or from the deck of a boat. I wanted to learn how to read water from within it.

It’s hard to navigate from the water. That’s why open water swimmers need kayakers to keep us on course during races (thank you, kayakers). But it’s not that we don’t see. We have a different view. I remember the first time AJ the kayaker and I went to the lake together. We were approaching a rocky point, and I had my head down, watching the bottom rising up beneath me until it was shallow enough to stand. When I did stand, AJ expressed relief. He said he was about to warn me to look out for the rocks. And I laughed: I had been looking at the rocks. AJ saw the water from the surface up. I saw it from the surface down.

In my day job, I often teach an Old English poem called “The Dream of the Rood.” The work exists in two copies: one handwritten in a tenth-century manuscript, the other carved into the sides of an eighth-century stone cross, five meters high. My students and I talk about the difference between reading while sitting in a chair, looking down at a book or a screen and turning pages or scrolling, and reading while standing under a tall stone sculpture, looking up and walking around it. In the first case, you read by moving the poem; in the second, you read by moving you.

That’s how it is with reading water: you read by moving you. I read the current from comparing how fast I’m moving to how hard I’m working. I read the depth of the water from its color darkening as I swim out into the lake and then lightening as I near land again. In Lake Jocassee, the water I know best, I can read how close I am to one of the cold mountain creeks which run into the lake from a drop in water temperature.

I want to learn how to read different waters. Last November, I went to Baja California, where I swam in a shallow cove in the Sea of Cortez, my husband watching from the beach. The first day I set out in bright sunshine through light green water. Then abruptly, maybe a half mile across the cove, the water turned dark brown. I stopped and stared in front of me. Incomprehension felt like fear. What did it mean?

Absurdly, I thought of a time, 30 years ago, when I got off a train in Brussels. I was meeting a friend, and I was nervous about my French. As I stood on the platform, a man spoke to me. I understood nothing — absolutely nothing. In that moment, my friend appeared, and looking at my face, he said, “It’s OK. He was speaking Dutch.”

I was alone, and I understood nothing. For all I knew, the water was speaking Dutch. But there was only one thing to do: you read water by moving you. Cautiously I started swimming forward. After fifty or a hundred yards, just as abruptly, the water turned green again, and then a bit later brown and then green as I moved across the cove. And then I swam back and met my husband on the beach.

Sometimes when you’re reading, you have to accept not understanding. You mark a line or a passage for later so that you can return to it and try again. That evening, I lay in bed and thought about the color change. Probably it was the effect of patches of dark volcanic rock on the sea floor. But I didn’t know. I swam across the cove next day, not knowing. Thinking back on it, I still don’t know for sure.

But I remember the blue of the sky, and the taste of the salt, and a little dot on the beach, my husband, waiting for me.


Last week, the world lost a great man. His name was Charles van der Horst. I met Charlie through swimming, but the more I learned about him and his life, the more I admired him. From his work caring for patients with HIV/AIDS to his advocacy for social justice to his articles about his own mental health struggles, encouraging others to seek help, he changed people’s lives. He made the world a better place. He saw what needed to be done, and he took up the work.

Charlie drowned during a swim, during a well-established, well-run, well-respected event. I don’t understand. Nobody understands. But I do understand that we can’t hold still, turning over the memories of his life. We have to act in the world, taking those memories with us. The way to honor him is the same as the way to read water: by moving ourselves.

May Charlie’s memory be for an eternal blessing.

 


Leave a comment

Race Report: The 2019 Lowcountry Splash

Jellyfish. I had swum the Lowcountry Splash six or seven times, and I had never seen a single jellyfish. I had never heard anyone say they saw a jellyfish. There had never been any mention of jellyfish.

But three miles into the swim, I began to see . . . things . . . floating in the water. And then a blob the size of a baby’s head passed by my face. I was swimming through jellyfish.

Cannonball jellyfish

Cannonball jellyfish. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I had focused my preparations for the 2019 Lowcountry Splash on hydration and nutrition, not jellyfish. Because the usual start location for the five mile race was unavailable, the race directors had found another site up the river, making the course six miles. Swimming five miles without food or drink is often a bit of a stretch for me; swimming six miles was too much.

Now, I should note that the race always provides water for swimmers: there are boats on the course with water. Plus, the boat at the halfway point would take any food or drink you wanted. But all boats look the same to me from the water, and I didn’t want to get lost or run into a dock looking for the right ones. I made plans to carry my supplies on me.

The week before the Splash, I did some experimenting. It was simple to carry an energy gel while swimming; the little packet would lie flat against my back, held in place by the strap of my suit. But energy gels don’t provide any hydration, and I was more concerned about fluids than food. So I turned to a tried-and-true open water staple: applesauce. Applesauce provides sugar and hydration, and it comes in squeezable pouches. Through trial and error (the details are best passed over), I found that the best place for me to carry it was in the back of my suit, angled so that the top was sticking out and the bottom of the pouch was pointed to the side. Here’s a photo of me from the start of the race rocking the look.

Me at the start of the race

See the green top sticking out of the suit? I know it’s a fashion statement. Image from Lowcountry Splash.

Not only could I carry the pouch this way, I could take it out, consume the applesauce quickly, and stick the empty pouch back in my suit to be thrown away on land.

The days leading up to the swim were unremarkable — except for the heat. The temperature in Charleston reached 101 a few days before the event, a record high for May. The morning of the swim, the race director noted that the water temperature was 82, which is well above average. We were all urged to stay hydrated. I patted the applesauce in the back of suit.

The course takes swimmers down the Daniel Island side of the Wando River to the shipping container cranes, where we cross the channel to the other side to continue down the Cooper River, under the Ravenel bridge, to the finish at Patriots Point. The water at the start was warm and still, but the current picked up as we went along; I could really feel it as I made the crossing. When I checked in at the safety boat on the other side, I took a moment for my applesauce and set off again. Everything was going according to plan.

I first noticed the jellyfish about a mile after the crossing. For a moment, I panicked — but only for a moment. Honestly, I couldn’t panic for very long; three miles into a six mile race, I just don’t have the biochemical capacity for panic.

Instead, I took stock of everything I knew:

  1. The jellyfish seemed to be your standard South Carolina beach jellyfish.
  2. I have been stung by jellyfish before, and while I didn’t like it, it was not the end of the world.
  3. There were no emergency whistles being blown, and therefore this was probably not an emergency.

It occurred to me that getting tentacles in my mouth might be a problem, so I made certain my mouth was closed underwater, but otherwise I just kept going. I would swim a little while without seeing any jellyfish, and then another group would come along. But aside from a brief sting on my foot (I kicked the top of one), I was unaffected.

At the end of the race after we passed the bridge, the water became choppy. If there were jellyfish, I was too busy to pay attention to them. I was coming into the finish too far to the left, but a kayaker directed me in (thank you, kayaker!). And then it was a zip under the finish boom and down the chute to the ladders where a kind person hauled me out, and I was done.

When I got to the water station on the dock, I drank a whole bottle non-stop. Then I picked up a second bottle and drank it more slowly. Unsurprisingly, given the heat, I was a bit dehydrated. As I drank, I thought about climate change.

Warm water is dangerous for swimmers. In 2010, Fran Crippen died of hyperthermia at the age of 26 at a race in Dubai where the water temperature topped 88 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result of his death, swimming authorities have set standards for temperature; USMS, for example, says that an open water race of 5K or longer should not start if the water temperature exceeds 85 degrees F.

But the water temperature itself is not the only danger: warm water attracts jellyfish and other sea life. As our climate changes, we will face new challenges. You can stick an applesauce pouch in your suit to swim an extra mile. But what do you do to prepare for jellyfish?

The Lowcountry Splash is a well-run event in a beautiful location. I’ve swum it in fast years and in slow, in good weather and in bad. And now I’ve swum it in jellyfish. I’ll be back in 2020 to see what the river comes up with next.


2 Comments

Race Report: Lowcountry Splash 2018

If there is one thing open water swimming teaches, it is humility. I have heard plenty of inspirational speeches about the qualities that other sports instill: leadership, teamwork, persistence. But the key lesson of open water swimming is that no matter how important you think you are, the water is not impressed with you. It is not interested in your problems, your issues, whatever it is you are carrying around.

The water says, You need to drop that crap and swim.

And there is no event that makes all that clear to me more than the Lowcountry Splash. I have swum the Lowcountry Splash six of the last seven years, twice at the 2.4 mile length and four times at the five mile length, and every year I learn — again — to drop the crap and swim.

The day before the race, though, we weren’t sure we were going to get to swim at all. As K and I drove down to Charleston on Saturday, the event organizers were coming up with contingency plans for bad weather. Storms were in the forecast. We went to sleep not knowing whether we would swim in the morning or just head back home.

But the storms held off. So we got up at 5 AM Sunday morning and headed for Patriots Point, the race finish, to ride the buses to Daniel Island.

I love the five mile start at the Lowcountry Splash: 150 or so mostly naked people hanging around a park, slathering themselves (and sometimes others) with sunscreen and Vaseline. The Vaseline is important; the water is brackish, and any chafing is going to sting. Then we line up in our unclothed greasiness and jump off the dock, 10 or 15 at a time, and head down river back to Patriots Point.

I’ve swum the Lowcountry Splash in years when the current was strong and years when the current was weak. But this year presented a new challenge: while we had a strong current helping us along, we also had a strong wind blowing in our faces, directly into the current. And that kind of wind against current produces waves — big waves.

The first half of the course was a bit choppy. The second half of the course was more than a bit choppy. K says he saw white caps. I don’t doubt him. All I saw was water coming right at me — a wall of water in my face every time I tried to sight ahead. Some years the hardest part of the Lowcountry Splash is looking at the Ravenel Bridge in the distance and wondering how long it will take to get there. This year I barely saw the bridge at all.

lowcountrysplash2018

Screen shot from my Garmin Connect app. I started at the green marker and ended at the red. May 2018.

It was the kind of swim that fosters humility. The water is all around you, both above and below. You are not in control of the situation. You’ve got one job, and you’ve got to do it.

It was a very satisfying swim.

The only disappointment was the food. In years past, there have been tables full of food after the race. But this year when we made it to the picnic area, those tables were mostly empty, with only a few sad trays of quartered bagels. Maybe the 2.4 mile swimmers were ravenous and ate everything. Unfortunately, we were ravenous too, and instead of hanging out the way we usually do, we each grabbed a drink and left to shower and eat.

On occasion, I meet someone who is impressed by my swimming. Just last week, I met a guy who burbled on about how incredible it was that I swam long distances. It was very sweet. I love flattery as much as anyone. But I take it all with a big helping of salt, the kind that you find in the water of the Charleston harbor. I’m a great swimmer. But I know my place in the world. The water is not impressed.

 


2 Comments

Questions about Open Water Swimming: 5) Can You Rest?

Last week, an old friend and I had a conversation about swimming. We’ve been having variations on this conversation for years. This time, he asked me about the distances for the four swims that make up SCAR Swim. I told him.

Then he asked, “Can you rest during the swims?”

I said, “Yes. Of course. There’s nobody there with a cattle prod.”

He looked at me as if I were being deliberately obtuse. “Can you swim to the shore and sit there?”

“What?” I said. “Why? Why would I do that?”

It’s taken me a while to figure what people are talking about when they ask, “Can you rest?” Different people think about swimming in very different ways. When I talk about swimming, I am thinking of it as the process of using my body to move through water. In order to rest, I stop moving. When someone like my friend talks about swimming, though, he is thinking of it as a struggle, an activity in which you use your energy to stay afloat. In this way of thinking, swimmers can only rest on solid ground; if they stop moving, they sink.

Let me assure you: when people like me swim 5, 10, 17 mile swims, we are in no way struggling to stay afloat. These aren’t exercises in long-distance drowning avoidance. When we swim, we are using our energy to move through the water, not to stay on top of the water. We float.

I’ve done experiments. (You can try them too.) If I go under water and curl into a tight little ball like a doodlebug, I will slowly float up and come to a stop with my shoulders and neck breaking the water’s surface. If I put myself into a vertical position — as if I’m standing — in a deep pool or lake, I will float so that the top of my head will be above the water, with the water line going across my forehead at the goggle line.

I can float on my back for hours. I might be able to float on my back for days; I’ve never had the time to find out.

I can rest floating in the water.

I was a grown woman before I realized people use pool floats because they can’t — or think they can’t — float on their own. Up to that point, I thought you used them as platforms from which you could launch yourself onto your sister.

In contrast, heading to shore and getting out of the water is a terrible idea. First, going off course (and then returning to it) wastes energy; you’ll swim farther than you need to. But more important, getting out of the water is dangerous. Gravity is out to get you, my friend, and when you stand up after a long swim, you are likely to fall right over. That’s why there are people waiting just past the finish line at long swims, to grab you and help you out. Combine the difficulty of standing up with the unknown dangers of a strange shore — slippery rocks, poison ivy — and you are asking for trouble.

There are a few reasons why you would head for shore, and they all involve serious emergencies: dangerous weather, a medical crisis, sharks. In those situations, the race director may need to clear the course, directing everyone to the closest land.

To rest, however, you don’t need to go to land. You can rest anywhere: lie on your back, look up at the sky, and float.


If you are concerned about what happens when an open water swimmer gets tired, you might want to read Questions about Open Water Swimming: 4) What Will You Do if You Get Tired?


2 Comments

On Fat Thighs

I have fat thighs. They are permanent. I know this because some time ago I injured my jaw and had difficulty eating. I lost a lot of weight; my hipbones and collarbone stuck out, and my face became thin. It was all very interesting until it became scary. But during the whole experience, my fat thighs did not budge. It was then that I realized there was nothing to be done about my fat thighs except to love them. They are with me for the long haul.

Swimming may be the only sport that rewards fat thighs. The number one problem I see in the swimmers around me is that their legs sink. From the next lane, these swimmers look like they are riding a bicycle, their legs much lower in the water than their torso. You can work to improve your body position, of course. But you have to admit, it’s much easier to position your body correctly when you have the advantage of fat thighs floating your back end up.

This is why so many people actually swim faster with a pull buoy stuck between their thighs. It seems impossible: shouldn’t immobilizing a swimmer’s legs slow them down? But the pull buoy compensates for their dragging legs, bringing their body into a more efficient position.

I never use pull buoys. My fat thighs keep my legs up.

Pullbuoy

This is a pull buoy. You stick it between your legs for pull sets. I never use them. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

So this is a shout out to all my people with fat thighs. Don’t listen to those who tell you to hate your body. Your thighs are your strength. Make the most of your natural advantages. Come swim with me.


Leave a comment

An American Swimmer in London, Part 2: The London Aquatics Centre and the Ladies’ Bathing Pond at Hampstead Heath

A few years ago, I learned that the pool for the 2012 London Olympics had reopened as a public swimming facility, the London Aquatics Centre. And I began stalking it online. I didn’t send it threatening emails or anything like that. But every once in a while, I’d go to the website and look at the photos, check the schedule, maybe review the prices. I’d plug the address into Google Maps and see where it was located and figure out how I could get there on public transportation — all perfectly normal behavior for a person living 4000 miles away from London.

Of course, when I went to London for a month in fall 2017, swimming at the London Aquatics Centre was very high on my list of things to do. I swam three times at the LAC, and each time it was fantastic: it is both an incredible world-class pool and an accessible public facility.

First, getting there: I was staying in central London, and I had originally planned to take the Underground to Stratford (special note for Shakespeare fans: this is Stratford in East London, not Stratford-upon-Avon). A knowledgeable friend told me to take the Javelin train instead. It was easy; you get the train at St Pancras and take it one stop to Stratford: seven minutes on the 140 mph train. You can use your Oyster card. Then follow the signs to the London Aquatics Centre.

At the time I went, one swim at the LAC cost £5 for an adult. You need a pound coin for the locker, but you’ll get that coin back. There is one large all-genders changing room, with cubicles for privacy.

I did two things wrong before getting in the pool. First, I tried to take a photo on deck. The lifeguard very politely told me that photos were not allowed on deck. That is a good rule, and I should have asked if photos were permitted before I tried to take one. Second, I tried to take my towel on deck. Another lifeguard very politely told me that towels are not allowed on deck. That is a weirder rule, but I was not going to argue with him. I left my eyeglasses in their hard shell case by the side of the pool, and they were fine.

In spite of my gaffes, I made it into the water. And after stalking the pool for years, I was not disappointed. I have a tiny bit of experience with quality competition pools, but this pool is on a higher level. The water is clear and deep and calm. The pool design minimizes waves, so even though there were multiple people in every lane, I felt as if I were swimming alone. The pool is set up for long course, 50m. I picked a center lane and pretended I was Katie Ledecky winning the gold in the 800.

meLAC

Me, taking a post-swim selfie from the gallery at the LAC. October 2017.

LAC

The view of the London Aquatics Centre pool from the gallery. You can take photos from the gallery, not from the deck. My photo. October 2017.

I saw people of all ages and abilities in that pool, plus a bunch of children taking lessons in the warmup pool. If you find yourself in London without your swim gear, you can buy everything you need there for reasonable prices. They even have a vending machine that sells goggles. If you are a swimmer and you are in London, get yourself to this pool.


The London Aquatics Centre is the new must-do swim experience in London. The bathing ponds at Hampstead Heath are the classic must-do swim experience. People have been swimming there for over 200 years. They are an institution.

For all the times I had been in London, I had never been to the bathing ponds before. I once swam at a surprisingly cold Parliament Hill Lido, also at Hampstead Heath; I mention it here. But the bathing ponds are not really my style. You don’t swim in the bathing ponds in the way I usually swim. You bathe there. You take a dip. It’s like the difference between running and going for a walk in the park: swimming at the London Aquatics Centre is like going for a run, while swimming at the bathing ponds is like going for a stroll.

But I don’t mind strolling. Strolling is a fine activity. And I was in London; my free time was my own. I thought that I would go experience the bathing ponds.

bathingpond

The sign for the Ladies’ Pond. My photo. October 2017.

I made it out to Hampstead Heath at the end of October, taking the bus. There are three bathing ponds, the Men’s, the Ladies’, and the Mixed, but since the Mixed Pond was closed for the winter season, the Ladies’ Pond was my option. I found the sign, went through the gate, paid my £2 at the ticket machine, and made my way back to the changing area. A chalkboard said the water temperature was 11° C, 52° F. I thought two things: it was kind of them to put the temperature in Fahrenheit as well as Celsius, and that’s really cold.

But I am older and wiser than I was at the time I nearly froze at the Parliament Hill Lido. I asked a woman in the changing room how long she thought a first timer should go in, and she suggested that 10 minutes would be enough.

There were three or four women in the pond when I got there, plus assorted ducks. The women were circling around, swimming breaststroke with their heads above the water. One was wearing a wooly hat.

I got in slowly, using the ladder. Not to be melodramatic, but cold water shock can kill you, and I did not intend to die in a pond in London. Then I started my own slow circle of breaststroke.

At first the water burned, but as I swam I become numb and relaxed. I stuck my head under, telling myself “Don’t swallow the water!” and promptly swallowed a mouthful of water. I swam a little freestyle. I swam a little breaststroke. I floated on on my back and looked up at the blue sky. After about 10 minutes, the lifeguard called out to two women who had been in the water before me, saying that they had been in long enough. I followed them out soon after.

In the changing room I took a shower. Other swimmers told me to fill a basin with warm water and stick my feet in it, but, unfortunately, the water was not warm that day. I got dressed quickly, pulled on my own wooly hat, and headed for the nearest cup of tea at Kenwood House, my feet completely numb as I walked up the hill.

I slowly thawed in a corner of the tea room, nursing my tea, surrounded by families having a Saturday out. I am not convinced that I need to swim in the bathing ponds again, but I don’t regret going. It was a must-do, and I have done it.


You can learn more about the experience of being an American swimmer in London (including discussions of jelly doughnuts and breaststroke) here: An American Swimmer in London, Part 1: The Oasis Sports Centre.

 


5 Comments

How to Design an Ultramarathon Swim Workout

I am in training for a four day, four lake, 40 mile open water swim challenge in April. Due to factors beyond my control (i.e. I am not independently wealthy), I do 90% or more of my training for ultramarathon length open water swims in pools. That’s a lot of swimming in a small box of water. How do you design very long workouts for the pool?

An ultra length distance pool workout has to be satisfying for your mind and your body. Swimming seven miles straight in a pool is not going to make you happy. And simply multiplying your regular workouts by some factor is not good either: a 20 x 50 yard set is fine, but a 200 x 50 yard set (or a 20 x 500 yard set) is monotonous. In addition, swimming nothing but free (front crawl) for hours and hours is hard on your shoulders; I like to have some stroke work and drills in my workouts to give my shoulders a break.

When designing a very long workout, I keep two things in mind: structure and variety. Structure makes clear where you are in the workout. Variety keeps your mind engaged.

I love to swim pyramids. You increase the distance of each unit by even increments up to some point, and then you decrease back down. It’s useful to know that 100 + 200 + 300 + 400 + 500 + 600 + 700 + 800 + 900 = 4500. The last time I swam 10,000 yards, I did it like this:

100 free
200 pull
300 kick
400: 4 x 100 w/a moving stroke 25 (25 back, 75 free; 25 free, 25 back, 50 free; etc.)
500 free
600: 2 x (200 free + 100 back)
700 pull
800: 8×100 alternate IM and free
900: 300 swim, 300 kick, 300 swim
1000 swim
Repeat backward, starting with the 900 and decreasing down to the 100.

It was a great 10,000 yard workout; I always knew how far along I was, and the whole thing flew by. If you add a second 1000 free in the middle, you have a 11,000 yard or meter workout.

Pyramid of Khufu

Pyramids are inherently satisfying. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

If I can’t work out a nice pyramid for my distance, I like doing sets of some standard distance with variation within each set. So, a 12,000 yard/meter set could be 6 x 2000:

1st 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 kick
2nd 2000: 8 x 250 ladders (each 250: 100, rest 5 sec, 75, rest 5 sec, etc.)
3rd 2000: (6 x (200 free + 100 back)) + 200 free
4th 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 kick
5th 2000: 10 x broken 200s (each 200: 100, rest 10 sec, 50, rest 5 sec, 50)
6th 2000: 4 x 500 (each 500: 4 x (25 stroke + 100 free))

Or I do the beads-on-a-string workout, alternating sets of different sizes (big bead, little bead, big bead, little bead, etc.). Here is a 13,000 yard workout, made up of 2000 yard sets with 200 yard kick in between:

1st 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 pull
200 kick
2nd 2000: 6 x (200 free + 100 back) + 200 free
200 kick
3rd 2000: 8 x 250 ladders (each 100, 5 sec, 75, 5 sec, etc.)
200 kick
4th 2000: 20 x 100 alternating IMs and free
200 kick
5th 2000: 10 x broken 200s (each 200: 100, 10 sec, 50, 5 sec, 50)
200 kick
6th 2000: 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim

These last two workouts won’t give you the feeling of rolling downhill in the second half like a pyramid structure does, but you always know where you are in them. And you can play with fractions and percentages in your mind as you swim if you enjoy that kind of thing. I enjoy that kind of thing.

I’ve got a lot of swimming to do, and I’m always looking for new structures and sets. Please leave your suggestions in the comments.