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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500-Mile Go the Distance Cap

As promised, a photo with my 500-mile Go the Distance cap for 2015, now that it has finally come. If you swim 500 miles in a calendar year (and log it with US Masters Swimming), you can buy this nifty cap.


Me with new cap. And we have new lights in the pool. It’s so much brighter. March 2016.

It fits well for a silicone cap. They are usually too big for me.

In other Go the Distance news, as of March 10, I have swum 104.55 miles in 2016:



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New Year’s Day

“I admire your dedication,” said my new ophthalmologist. I was in his office (more on that later), but we know each other socially, and he was talking about swimming.

When people find out how much I swim and how regularly I swim, they often say something to me about my dedication, whatever that means. I don’t feel particularly dedicated. I’m not a person with a lot of will power. If you put me in a room with a good-looking cake, for example, I will eat that good-looking cake. And yet I’m in the pool five days a week, swimming at least two miles a day. I swam just under 575 miles in 2015.

Today (January 1st) my regular pool is closed, and my usual backup pool is closed, but I wanted to go swimming anyway. So I went for Plan C, the Kroc Center, and paid for a day pass. The Kroc Center is a perfectly acceptable place to swim: the water is too hot, and the pace clock is in a weird location, and I swear there’s a cross current, but the pool itself is clean and bright. I realized that I could see my watch while I’m swimming, unlike in my regular (very dark) pool; my eyes are bad, but in a place with reasonable light, I can read the watch well enough.

Also there’s a kids’ pool next to the lap pool, with a surprisingly good water slide. I went down it three times, just because I could.

The last time I was in the kind of aquatic center where you can swim laps and go down a water slide was the day of my friend C’s memorial service. If you have read the blog before, you know about C; she came for the first ten mile swim in Minnesota. My toenails are always painted teal for her, to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. Early detection is the best weapon we have against ovarian cancer; educate yourself about the symptoms.

On the day of C’s memorial service, I swam at the Kennedy-Shriver Aquatic Center, one of the places she used to swim. The pool is so much like the pool she and I swam in as children on a swim team thirty years ago — not when you look at it from the deck, but in the pool itself, the way the lanes are set up in relation to the deep end — that it was easy to imagine she was in the next lane, swimming with me. When I was done, I went down the water slide, just because I could.

In the afternoon, we said goodbye to C.

I didn’t swim on the day of C’s memorial because I’m dedicated. I swam because swimming is what I do, in good times and in bad. Swimming gives me time to think. C and I used to talk about the mental aspect of swimming: she swam through chemo more than once — she didn’t need a cap, she said, when she had no hair — because it gave her time to think.

It’s New Year’s Day, and it’s traditional to set goals for the year. But I’m not making any big swimming plans right now. I have entered the lottery for the Chesapeake Bay Swim, and we’ll see if I get lucky. I’d love to do Swim the Suck again, if I can swing it. And I have set up my USMS Go the Distance goal for 500 miles for 2016.

But I was at the ophthalmologist last week because I’m having trouble seeing. I have been having trouble for some time, and things are getting worse. I can’t do what I need to do because I can’t see. So, while my number one rule for this blog is that it’s about swimming — not about my family or my work or anything else — I’m noting here that my big project for now is getting my vision problems resolved. If I do, maybe I’ll be able to drive myself to some beautiful open water swims this summer.

Whatever happens, you know I’ll be swimming. Happy 2016, everybody. Hope I see you in the water.

This is my friend C’s obituary, on the Teal Toes website. You should read it, even if you did not know her, because it shows you what a good life looks like — it shows you how to live a beautiful, meaningful life in far too short a time.

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Out With 2014, In With 2015: The Go the Distance Report

My goal for the 2014 USMS Go the Distance challenge was 500 miles. And as of December 31st I had swum . . .

624 miles!

Screenshot from my USMS flog (fitness log), Dec 31.

Screenshot from my USMS flog (fitness log), Dec 31.

It’s a smidge over 1000 km, which is one megameter (1 Mm). One megameter!

I’ve plotted 1000 km from my house at Free Map Tools, and it looks like this:

1000 K from here

1000 km from my house. Generated by Free Map Tools.

From here to Toronto is 1000 km. I’m just short of Miami in the other direction. I’ve been to Toronto, but I’ve never been to Miami. Coincidence?

I plan to set my goal at 500 miles for 2015 again. I could set it higher, but there’s little incentive; at 500 miles, you get a swimsuit, and there are no prizes for more.

If I estimate 250 swimming days a year (five days a week for fifty weeks), I need to swim 3520 yards each day. We’ll round up to 3600.

And my pool is open today.

Happy New Year!


The Eight Mile Report

For the first three to four miles of my eight mile swim I was mentally composing an angry blog post about how I had been unfairly prevented from swimming eight miles that day. It was going to have lots of boldface and ALL CAPS and extra exclamation points!!! I was expecting to get yanked out of the water around 6000 meters. But no one came to stop me. And as an object in motion stays in motion, I just kept swimming.

I went to Westside Aquatic to do the eight miles. Two weeks ago I went out there on a Saturday and was turned away; there was no lap swim because of lifeguard training. I protested at the time that the website had said nothing about a closure, but I was told it was an exceptional circumstance. So this Friday I called to confirm that the competition pool would be open for lap swim on Saturday, and I was assured multiple times that there would be lap swim and it would be in the competition pool.

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. When I got there, there was no lap swim lane (two are scheduled); one person said he would make me one, and then a supervisor came to say that he couldn’t. The supervisor offered me the therapy pool, but I said no way; that pool is 86 degrees F, and I don’t want to swim eight miles in a hot pool. It’s borderline dangerous and absolutely unpleasant.

There were intense negotiations, but to make a long story short, I was allowed to swim in the 50 meter pool in a lane with a loosely fastened lane rope on one side and no lane rope on the other. On my lane rope side there were lifeguard classes; on the open side there was a floating bouncy inflatable. And I was told that when the birthday party scheduled for 1 pm for the bouncy inflatable showed up, I was going to be moved to the hot pool.

The floating bouncy inflatable. Image from Westside Aquatic.

I swam the first half or so of the swim filled with righteous indignation, which means I swam it way too fast. But I was expecting someone to grab me, and I wanted to get in all the distance I could. On the lane rope side of me, two different lifeguard training classes were going on (there was a third in another corner of the pool), and they were jumping in and rescuing each other in different ways and configurations. There were splashes and waves, and the loosely fastened lane rope was pushed into my lane. But I had enough space to swim, and watching the lifeguard training kept me amused. I kept swimming.

As time passed and no one stopped me, I took a break for food and asked the one lifeguard in charge of me — she was sitting on the starting block of the next lane, my own personal lifeguard  — where the birthday party was. She said they didn’t know. I kept swimming.

Eventually the birthday party kids appeared to play on the bouncy inflatable. My personal lifeguard moved to guard them. More kids (and adults too) appeared, but still no one stopped me. I was concerned that flying children might drop on me, but they didn’t. The only person who got in my way was a grown man; he and he alone floated into my lane three different times, in spite of the fact that I stopped and told him it was the lap swim lane the first time. It’s always the grown men. Still, I kept swimming.

In any case, I swam the full eight miles in the 50 meter pool. It was a hard swim, mostly because I started too fast and ran out of energy. Angry swimming is not sensible swimming. I think, however, that it was a useful training exercise simulating race conditions; I tend to get excited and go out faster than I should. I also swam far more straight freestyle than I would ordinarily — again to get in as much distance as possible — and my shoulders were sore by the end.

I pulled myself onto the deck. And then, my friends, I was the belle of the ball. Three lifeguarding classes had been watching me swim for four hours, and the lifeguards and trainers all wanted to know how far I had swum and what I was preparing for. They said complimentary things. It was all very flattering.

Next Saturday I’ll be swimming the Lowcountry Splash in Charleston, and the Saturday after that Westside has a planned closure for a swim meet. Perhaps by June it will be safe to swim on a Saturday again.

I swam the eight miles in 2000 meter blocks, with 200 kick in between. After I realized that I might be allowed to stay in the 50 meter pool, I introduced some breaststroke, but I was never comfortable enough to try backstroke: far too many obstacles in my path.

  • 2000 swim
  • 200 kick
  • 2000 swim
  • 200 kick
  • 2000 swim
  • 200 kick
  • 4 x (100 breast, 400 free)
  • 200 kick
  • 4 x 500 ladders (200, 150, 100, 50)
  • 200 kick
  • 4 x (100 breast, 400 free with breathwork)

The total was 13000 meters, just a smidge over eight miles. I was hungry early in the swim; I had started late with all the negotiations and it was closer to lunch than breakfast. I sucked down one Ensure-like beverage at 4400 and another at 8800.

Here is my progress for the year as of May 18: 287.68 miles

May 17 totals

Image from my USMS fitness log


The First Lake Swim of 2014

Lake Hartwell, from the water. My photo.

Lake Hartwell, from the water. That buoy is the half-mile mark. My photo.

We finally made it out to the lake yesterday, the first time this year. It’s been a cold spring. I looked at my records (my USMS flog), and our first day out last year was April 10, a full two weeks earlier. Even so late in April, the water temperature was still below 68 degrees F, so we put on our wetsuits. I don’t like wearing a wetsuit. I was cranky about it for the first mile, but then I perked up. It’s hard to be cranky when you’re swimming under a sky like that.

The first race of the year will be May 24, exactly a month from yesterday: the five mile Lowcountry Splash.

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The Six Mile Report

It occurred to me as I swam six miles on Saturday that training is a way of making the extraordinary mundane. Last year, I would have considered swimming 10,000 or more yards to be a big deal, a special occasion swim. But this month I swam 10,000 yards twice, two Saturdays in a row. The swims were neither horrible nor fantastic. They were just swims–good long swims. And I am now a person who swims 10,000 yard workouts.

I swam 10,000 yards on March 8th. Following my training plan (such as it is), I didn’t have to swim that far so early in March, but I was close to 10,000, and I thought I would go for the round number. Everyone likes a round number. Then I swam 10,600 yards, or six miles, on the 15th, which puts me where I need to be for the month of March; I will swim seven miles in April, eight in May, nine in June, and finally ten in July for the big race.

I didn’t have high hopes for the six mile swim. I slept poorly the night before, and I wasn’t feeling great on the drive to the pool. But once I started swimming, I felt fine.

It helped that the swim was much less lonely than the five miles I did in February. There were people coming and going almost the whole time. One colleague was there when I arrived, although he finished up soon after. Then I was joined by two women walking and a student-athlete I know, and then suddenly there was a bloom of men in black swimsuits, both walkers and swimmers. One man, a regular with a snorkel, told me, “You’re going to get a speeding ticket.” He always tells me, “You’re going to get a speeding ticket.” I have no idea how I should respond, no matter how many times he says it, so I smile and say, “Thank you.” I guess it’s a compliment.

I am like the Flash.

I am like the Flash (according to the man with the snorkel). Image from funnyjunk

I decided before I got to the pool that I would swim the 10,600 as a series of familiar 2000 yard sets, the sets I used to do (and sometimes still do) when I was swimming 2000-2500 yards a day, with short kicks in between:

  • 1000 warmup
  • 8 x 250 (100, rest 5 sec, 75, 5 sec, 50, 5 sec, 25)
  • 200 kick
  • 10 x 200 (100, rest 10 sec, 50, 5 sec, 50)
  • 200 kick
  • 20 x 100 (alt IM/free)
  • 200 kick
  • 40 x 50 (on :55)
  • 200 kick, 200 pull, 200 kick, 200 pull, 200 swim

I ate oatmeal (mmmmm oatmeal) for breakfast before heading to the pool, and I drank an Ensure-like beverage at 5400 yards and another when I got out. I tried to drink the Ensure-like beverage while floating, but it did not go well. Food is not permitted in the pool–I feel as if I’m abusing my VIP privileges having it–so I was avoiding spills by drinking through a straw rather than gulping from an open cup (see Steven Munatones, Feeding Fast in Open Water). It was slow and difficult. I need to get myself in the lake and practice there, where I don’t have to worry about spilling a little.

Nonetheless, the six mile swim was a positive experience. I am struck mostly by how it seemed like a completely normal thing for me to do on a Saturday morning. And that is the point of training for the ten mile swim: not to feel like some kind of superhero, but to feel like myself, able to swim ten miles.

Speaking of round numbers, the six mile swim put me at exactly 140 miles for the year.

My USMS flog total for March 15: a nice round number

My USMS flog total for March 15: a nice round number

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The Five Mile Report

My training plan, such as it is, is to increase my distance slowly. I swim 4000 yards four or five times a week, but I swim a longer distance once a week, building so that I gain one mile a month. Last Saturday, I did my five mile February swim.

The five mile report is positive, although the swim was a strange experience, especially compared to the four mile (or to my daily 4000 yards). The first 3000 yards, I was surrounded by people. But for the next 2500 yards or so, I was all alone in the pool.

Now, I don’t require a lot of entertainment while swimming–or maybe I create my own entertainment while swimming–but I do look around and see what other people are doing. And as the yards stretched on and on and it was just me and six black lines on the bottom of the pool, I began to wonder if I were the only person left on earth.

I stopped to drink my store-brand Ensure-like beverage at 4500 yards. An older man came by from the therapy pool at that time, so I had some brief human interaction. He told me he used to swim two miles a day when he was younger. His son does triathlons now, but they only swim a mile or even a half a mile. We agreed with swimmerly camaraderie that a mile or half a mile is ridiculously short compared to the long bike and run sections. And then I got back to my swim.

Around 5500 yards two people got in the pool. I know one of them as a regular. He can swim, and I was originally pleased to have company. But he and his friend stood at one end or the other talking to each other for an hour. Every once in a while they would swim a length and then resume their conversation. In the last 3500 yards I swam, I don’t think they swam 200. I became increasingly perplexed as these two fit young men, at least two decades younger than I am, stood in the water chatting while I dragged myself through the second half of 9000 yards. What were they doing? Competing to see whose fingers became more pruney?

Eventually, other people started to appear. The chatting men had to move to share one lane together, making their conversation more intimate. And as other swimmers came in and started swimming, I perked up. The last 1500 yards were better than the previous 3000; I don’t know if I got my second wind or I liked the company, but I finished fine.

All of this makes me think that I need to consider the psychological effect of swimming for five plus hours. I don’t know how I will feel in a lake, and I’ll have a kayaker to keep me company, but I don’t expect to be surrounded by competitors. I should be prepared for a little loneliness.

I swam the five miles–really 9000 yards–in 1500 yard blocks:

1500 yards
5 x 300 (kick-swim-kick-swim-kick)
1500 yards
5 x 300 (back-free-breast-free-back)
1500 yards
12 x 100 swim
300 cool down

The whole thing took over two-and-a-half hours. I drank the chocolate drink (250 cal) halfway through at 4500 yards, after becoming hungry around 4000 yards. Once I had the drink, though, I did not feel hungry for the rest of the swim. On the other hand, after the swim and into the next day, I ate like a newborn baby, feeding every 2 hours.

I would call the five mile swim a success. I learned things. Most important, I am confident that I can swim twice that. By July, I will be ready.

The big swim on Saturday put me over 100 miles for the year. Here’s my progress toward my 500 mile Go the Distance goal:

My Go The Distance 2014 total through February 23rd

My Go The Distance 2014 total through February 23rd

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On Pull Buoys and Ankle Bands and the Trousers of Michael Phelps

A lot of people love pull buoys, and that’s just fine with me. Other people’s love for pull buoys in no way impacts me; I hope that those who enjoy using pull buoys will continue to enjoy using them for many happy years to come.

But while I like doing pull sets–that is, swimming using arms only–I don’t like using pull buoys. I don’t like them for the same reason I don’t like wetsuits: they mess with my body position. Most pull buoys are made of a piece of foam (or two pieces of foam) that you stick between your thighs to help your legs float behind you when you are not kicking. I don’t need help floating, and I especially don’t need a piece of foam designed to keep my butt bobbing near the surface.

Here I have to admit to a physical advantage: I am proportioned like Michael Phelps–if Michael Phelps were a five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch-tall middle-aged woman. Phelps has a long torso and short legs; he’s 6′ 4″, but he has the torso of a 6′ 8″ man and the legs of a 6′ one. As Bob Costas says in this video, “Phelps is perfectly tall–and short.” I too have a long torso and short legs. It’s an advantage for swimming. It’s a disadvantage for buying trousers. I sometimes wonder if Phelps has to hem his own trousers and if he’s better at it than I am. But these proportions (and good body position) mean that my legs float just fine and I don’t need or like pull buoys.

But I do like to do pull sets, and I am doing more and more of them in preparation for the ten mile swim. When I was a child on swim team, instead of using pull buoys we tied our ankles together with an inner tube. I don’t know what kind of inner tubes they were, but I know mine was an actual, complete inner tube, not a cut piece of rubber, because I remember how you had to be careful when you twisted it not to end up with the valve stem digging into an ankle. It was like this:

Image from Don Gambril's Swimmer and Team. Found at http://aquavolo.com/journal/article/2011/10/pull-buoy-or-not

Image from Don Gambril’s Swimmer and Team. Found at AquaVolo.

I liked using the inner tube, and that’s why I was especially pleased to learn that in the 21st century you can buy ankle bands that do the same thing without the ankle-piercing valve stem. The kind I own appears at 6:10 on the video I’ve embedded below, the yellow one from Finis. I think it’s terrific; it’s cheap and portable, and it works just fine. You can’t kick, not the least little bit, but you can still do a reasonable flip turn and push off the wall. The woman in the video uses it with a pull buoy, but I don’t; I just twist it around my ankles and go.

If you like pull buoys, more power to you. But if you don’t, or you’d just like to try something new, consider the ankle band.

This SWIMMER Magazine (from USMS) video review of pull buoys goes on for over nine minutes. It presents more types of pull buoys and ankle bands and other things than I ever thought possible: