10 mile swim

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


What We Talk About When We Talk About Water Temperature

Life is complicated here at the 10 Mile Swim blog. My home pool has been closed for a month. I’ve been swimming at Westside Aquatic Complex — a beautiful pool — but it’s not easy for me to get there during their open hours. As work gets busier, it’s harder for me to swim. I hate it.

However, there has been one pleasant surprise in the midst of it all: the water heater at WAC broke.

At any pool there is a conflict between those who think the pool is too hot and those who think it is too cold. This conflict is always present, even if it’s under the surface (ha ha) and even though the participants — the people using the pool — have no control over the water temperature anyway. But in any pool on any given day, someone may be planning a Very Angry Letter to the management about how no one could possibly be expected to exercise under such conditions.

(Of course, this is only true of pools that are temperature controlled. Barton Springs Pool in Austin is naturally 68 degrees F every day, all year around. I don’t know who you’d complain to if you don’t like it — the naiads of Barton Springs, I guess.)

The conflict over water temperature divides the users of the pool into two clear teams: the lap swimmers want it colder; the walkers, floaters, and water aerobics people want it warmer. If a person in the locker room complains that the water is too cold, I know that person is not a swimmer. For that reason, I never say anything about the water temperature to anyone I don’t know. It would be safer to bring up religion or politics.

Unfortunately, I live in a part of the world where pools are usually kept warm, too warm for lap swimmers. My home lap swim pool is usually 82-83 degrees F — with a therapy pool that is kept at 88-90 degrees right next to it. In contrast, the American Red Cross says lap swim temperature should be between 78-82. FINA sets the same range for pool competitions, including Olympic swimming.

I rarely get to swim in a pool under 82 degrees — unless the water heater is broken.

My first sign that something wonderful had happened was when a woman in the locker room said the pool was cold. Now, many people in the locker room complain about how cold the main pool is at Westside Aquatic (even though there is a warm therapy pool there as well), so I didn’t think much of it. But when I walked on deck, another swimmer came up to warn me. The water is really cold, he said. It took his breath away when he jumped in.

I became hopeful.

A white board had been placed near the pool. Someone had written in big letters, “POOL TEMPERATURE 76.”

I said to the lifeguard on duty, “People say the water is really cold.”

The lifeguard said, “They’re a bunch of babies.”

My opinion of the lifeguard — already high — rose higher.

When I dove in, the water was cold, wonderfully cold. But within 300 yards, it felt like the perfect temperature. If I lingered at the wall for too long, I started to get chilly. So I didn’t linger at the wall.

When swimmers talk about cold water, we are asserting our identity as “real” swimmers. Real swimmers swim hard enough to raise their body temperatures. Warm water is fine for children’s lessons and water aerobics classes and cocktail sipping. But if you’re in the pool to swim and swim hard, you want it cool.

The water at WAC was cold Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It was terrific. I told the people at the desk — who were swamped with complaints — not to rush on fixing on the water heater. Then I traveled for Thanksgiving, and on Friday I swam in a YMCA pool in Atlanta that was easily 10 degrees warmer. And the water aerobics class there looked a little cranky. Maybe it was too hot even for them.

Any pool is a good pool when you’re in it. But a cool pool is a great pool.


One Week Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll report back after the swim.


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.


How to Talk like a Swimmer: Pool Temperature Edition

Friday I went back to swim at Westside Aquatic Center. I hadn’t swum there since my regular pool reopened at the beginning of January. I needed to go to Westside because I was busy Friday evening and most of Saturday and Sunday doing work-related things, and there was no way to get a long enough stretch of time at my university pool on a weekday to swim my weekly long swim. If I was going to get that long swim in, it had to be Friday at Westside. I managed to clear enough time in the day, and I went out there and paid them seven dollars. It was a fantastic deal. The more I swim, the better the deal is: seven dollars for 10,000 yards works out to seven cents per 100 yards, or 1.75 cents per 25 yard length. A bargain at twice the price!

I was happy to be back at Westside; I saw some friends whom I hadn’t seen since I was swimming there in December, and we all caught up. But I was especially happy to be back at Westside because the water temperature there is perfect for lap swimming, and my home pool has been very warm this week.

As I’ve said before, a warm pool is terrific for hanging around, getting in and out, floating, and drinking fruity drinks. It’s not so good for sustained swimming, especially if you’re doing it for a couple hours.

Good for drinking in warm pools. Get a plastic glass though.

Good for drinking in warm pools. Image from Modern Design Ideas.

But one positive thing about the warm pool is that I got to have the traditional swimmers’ conversation about how the pool is too hot a couple times this week. It’s one of my favorite conversations. It’s a shibboleth. It marks the participants as members of the group: we are swimmers; we complain that the pool is too hot.

You can’t complain about the pool temperature with non-swimmers, because they are delighted when the pool is warm. And people who aren’t swimmers want to have other conversations, like this one, which happened Thursday:

Me, standing in pool, removing fins, looking at pace clock

Woman, coming into pool area: I’m here for class. I guess I’m early.

Me, adjusting goggles

Woman: What class are you in?

Me, watching pace clock: I’m not in a class. I’m swimming.

Woman: Oh, they let you swim? I used to swi–

Me, pushes off wall

I assume this was another one of those awkward pace clock conversations; she saw me looking up in her general direction and thought I was looking at her. But I was looking at the pace clock behind her on the wall, and I don’t know anything about classes or whatever else she was talking about. I was swimming. They do let me swim. That’s why they fill the pool with water: for people to swim in it.

If you want to establish your cred as a swimmer and the water temperature is 82° F (28° C) or higher, make a comment about how hot the pool is to the lap swimmer in the next lane, and you will have it made. I had the water-is-too-hot conversation with two different guys on two different days this week. We talked about how warm it was. We talked about how slowly we were swimming. We talked about how the water was sapping our strength. All the while, we were talking like swimmers.

On Tuesday night I met a group of students for the first time. They were doing a swim test for a course I am teaching this May. These are undergraduates, by the way–young adults, not children. Some of them got in and hopped around with their elbows up in the universal water-is-cold dance. But two women, obviously friends, got in the water at the same time, and one said to the other, “It’s so warm!” Her friend nodded vigorously. Only a swimmer gets into an 82-degree pool and says, “It’s so warm!” I didn’t have to see them take a stroke; I thought, “These two are swimmers.”

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Waiting for Spring

It is March, and I have started to haunt the US Geological Survey National Water Information System website. I have it bookmarked on my home computer, my office computer, and my phone. It updates every 15 minutes, and it will give you all kinds of information in graphs or tables (take your pick), but I’m looking mostly at one thing: the water temperature of my lake.

My lake temperatures in Fahrenheit from Jan 1 to Mar 22. From the USGS.

Water temperatures in Fahrenheit from Jan 1 to Mar 22. From the USGS.

I like swimming in pools. I grew up swimming in pools. In fact, I get somewhat grouchy when people make a point of dividing swimmers into pool swimmers and open water swimmers. You run into it here and there, especially open water swimmers who talk in tragic tones about the deprivations of swimming with walls. But I love to swim, anywhere, anytime. I will swim inside or out, I will swim in a pool or open water, I will swim in fresh water or salt: look, if you give me a body of water big enough, I’ll swim in it.

The truth is, given where I live and how I live, I’m just not in a position to be choosy.

Nonetheless it’s March. The daffodils are out. I’m checking the USGS site. I love swimming in my pool with my pool people, but it’s time to go outside and swim under the great big blue sky of South Carolina. It’s not just me: S the triathlete said in the locker room the other day that she looked up the email about group open water swimming last year, and it was scheduled to start in 2013 on April 2, the first Wednesday of April. She wanted to know if I had heard anything about 2014. I said I hadn’t heard anything about 2014. She said she was ready to go. I said I was ready to go. It’s spring. We’re ready to go.

Another friend sent me a link to a site from the Outdoor Swimming Society: Wild Swim Map. The Outdoor Swimming Society is based in the UK, and you can tell, given the proportions of swimming sites mapped in the UK and Western Europe to those in the rest of the world. But all that means is that the rest of us need to join in; I added my lake, putting the first marker on South Carolina, and made a comment about the joys of swimming at Lucky’s Lake Swim in Orlando, FL, which already had a marker.

The weather is beautiful today, but there’s cold coming in tomorrow. Still, I have hopes for April. I’m willing to wear my wetsuit if I have to. It’s time to go outside and play.

My lake, May 2013

My lake, May 2013

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The Four Mile Report

Here’s the short version: I swam four miles, and it was fine.

Here’s the long version: I planned to swim four miles in a session by the end of January, and Saturday morning was open. I don’t know how representative a Saturday morning in January is of Saturday mornings in general–we are still very close to New Year’s resolution swimmers and all–but the crowd at the pool was much younger than my weekday lunchtime swimmers. Most of the swimmers looked like students (I swim at a small university pool–small university, small pool), and they were almost all male. A lot of the guys did the workout where you and a friend swim one length of the pool splashing splashing splashing and then stand at the end and talk for five minutes; you repeat this set a few times, increasing the length of the conversations as you go. I believe that if people are standing in the pool chatting for long periods of time, it is evidence that the pool temperature is too warm; if it were colder, they’d be swimming.

In any case, they made me laugh, the young people, and they gave me something to watch. And they weren’t all splashing and talking. One pair of guys was fast; they passed me swimming backstroke while I was swimming free. I would have had my feelings hurt, but I was into my third mile by then, and I felt I didn’t have anything to prove.

Here is what I swam:

900 free
300 swim, 300 kick, 300 pull
900 free
9×100 alternating IM/free
900 free
18×50 on :50
900 free
300 back, 300 kick, 300 free
= 7200 yards

I really did not want to do the set of 50s. I had to talk myself into it: “Woman, it’s only fifteen minutes of your life. Just do it.”

I drank two-thirds or so of a chocolate nutritional drink (< 200 calories of a 250 calorie serving) at 5400 yards–after the 50s–and finished the rest at the end. I went to bed that night with visions of the incredible breakfast of eggs I would cook myself, but woke up at 2:30 am starving, with itchy ears, nose, and throat. So I had cold mac-and-cheese and Benadryl and went back to sleep; then I had muesli for breakfast. No aches or pains in the morning.

Here’s my USMS flog since the beginning of January:

Jan 18 flog 1

And here’s my progress toward the 500 mile goal for the year:

Jan 18 flog 264,000 yards so far this year. It’s a good start.


On Water Temperature: Cold Water Edition

At least a couple times a month, a person at my pool will say to me enthusiastically, “The water is good today. It’s warm!” And I will smile back weakly. How you feel about water temperature depends on what you are doing in the water. If you are doing light aerobics or vigorous floating, you want a warm pool. But if you are swimming laps with some intensity, you want it a little cooler.

According to this Livestrong article, the American Red Cross recommends that a pool for fitness swimmers (i.e. people swimming laps) should be kept at 78° F (25.5° C), while a pool for recreation should be at 81° F (27° C). My pool is kept at the 81-82° F level most of the time, which makes it a little on the warm side for me, but not bad. We also have a smaller therapy pool, a former diving well renovated to have a shallow side and a deep side. It’s kept much warmer, at 90° F (32° C), which is good for those doing rehab exercises. Sometimes I chat with people in the therapy pool after we’re done swimming, but I can’t even sit in it for long; I hang out by the side and periodically pull myself out to sit on the edge to cool down.

In my everyday life, I meet people who want to swim in warmer water than I do, including open water swimmers. At Lake Hartwell in the spring, I often wear a regular swimsuit while others are wearing wetsuits. Once I encountered a little hostility when I was getting into the lake at a time when a local triathlete group was starting out. I smiled at two large wetsuited men, but they looked back at me strangely; one said in an unpleasant way, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I was taken aback. Of course, I said, “I’m from Texas,” and swam off, fast. They didn’t catch up.

The thing is, some people like wetsuits. Wetsuits don’t just keep you warm; they make you more buoyant. A wetsuit will compensate for your poor body position or your sinking muscly legs. In so doing, it will also make you a lot faster, which is why many races will allow you to swim in a wetsuit but won’t let your time count in the standings–and others don’t permit wetsuits at all. When I did the 3.5 mile Swim the Loop last fall, the organizers added five minutes to the time of any competitor in a wetsuit; the water was 78° F–American Red Cross recommended pool temperature–but there were still a lot of people in wetsuits.

But unlike those wetsuit wearers, I’m plenty buoyant. I find a wetsuit disorienting; I’m floating too high, and I can’t feel the water. That’s why I spend spring days obsessively checking the lake water temperature on the US Geological Survey website to see if it’s getting warm enough to swim without one. I’d rather go without and swim extra fast to warm up. I’m looking for a temperature of 68°-70 F (20-21° C). That’s about the temperature of Barton Springs Pool and Deep Eddy Pool, two spring-fed pools in Austin, Texas, where I used to live, and I would feel darn silly putting on a wetsuit to swim in either one.

While the people I meet in person think I’m crazy to swim in 70° F (21° C) water without a wetsuit, online I encounter people who find that kind of temperature downright balmy. The Facebook group Did You Swim Today? welcomes swimmers from all over the world, swimming in all kinds of temperatures. DYST is one of the happiest places on the internet; it’s an open group, and if you ask to join, they will sign you right up. In posts to the group, people answer the question, “Did you swim today?,” often including photos, workouts, and reports of the conditions, whether pool or open water. Those in the Southern Hemisphere are enjoying warm beaches and outdoor pools right now. But this week alone I’ve seen reports of people swimming without wetsuits in a lake in Switzerland and in the frigid waters of Branksome Beach in Poole, UK. One woman posted a photo of a group at Malahide Beach near Dublin, Ireland in their swimsuits with snow. A CIBBOWS (Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers) swimmer shared this shiveringly beautiful video; she’s in the water off Brighton Beach in New York City. The video looks as if it were shot in black-and-white, but those are the rich true grays of the north Atlantic ocean and sky in winter:

The coldest I have ever felt swimming was last June at Parliament Hill Lido in London. When I got there, the posted temperature was 17° C (or 62° F). There were some people in wetsuits, but many without. It didn’t even occur to me to bring mine; in my experience to that point, pool swimming was sometimes too hot, but never too cold. Parliament Hill Lido is a London institution, a public pool, unheated, built in the late 1930s. It’s 60m long and there are no lane ropes; you find yourself a clear line to swim along and you swim it. I swam 2000 meters before I decided that I was too cold to go on. I was shaking like a sad puppy getting a bath in the changing room, barely able to get dressed. Fortunately, the cafe was open, and I had a hot chocolate and pulled myself together before I caught a bus back to the flat.

I didn’t feel nearly as cold when I swam in the actual North Sea earlier that trip, but then I was wearing my wetsuit. We were in Whitby, and we learned that there were lifeguards at West Cliff Beach. The lifeguard station had the temperature posted as 11° C (52° F). I didn’t have much time to swim–we had to catch a train that morning–so I swam from the lifeguard station to the pier and back, a cold but clear 1400 meters.

Whitby Piers, view from the water, West Cliff Beach. My photo, June 2012.

Whitby Piers, view from the water, West Cliff Beach. My photo, June 2012.

Given the chance, I would swim it again tomorrow.

Please tell me your tales of water, cold or hot, in the comments!