10 mile swim

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


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On Swimming like a Girl

“It appears that open water swimming is unique among the world’s various athletic competitions. In particular, in the marathon swimming world, not only are women holding their own against their male counterparts, but they are also waiting on shore for the men to finish.” Steven Munatones analyzes records from marathons, triathlons, and open water events and concludes, “Based on the data, it appears that open water swimming may be the most competitive amateur sport when men and women race together. The race is on. May the best (wo)man win.”

Lynne Cox, swimming like a girl. Photo by Michael Muller for ESPN, from Hell in High Waters: The Lynne Cox Story.

I’m thinking about swimming and gender again because of a video going around (an advertisement for Always) about the phrase “like a girl”: how saying someone does a physical activity “like a girl” is a way of saying that the person does it weakly or badly. The point of the advertisement, of course, is that “like a girl” should be reclaimed as a compliment instead of an insult.

But I have also seen comments online from people claiming that it’s simply a natural fact that women are weaker and slower than men. Men are (on average) bigger. Men have (on average) more muscle mass. Women should accept their weakness as a biological inevitability.

And it’s true that in most of the sports I am familiar with men are better than women. Men compete against men, and women compete against women — otherwise men would win all the time. Most competitive sports have men’s leagues and women’s leagues, or even men’s versions and women’s versions: in the US we have baseball for men and softball for women. When men and women play together, rules are put into place to compensate for women’s inferiority: for example, in our local co-ed soccer (football) league, a minimum number of women have to be on the field for each team to keep it fair. We take it for granted that men will win athletic competitions, that the men’s 50 meter dash will be faster than the women’s 50 meter dash, that the male skaters will do the quadruple jump while the female skaters do the triple.

But men are not always better in open water swimming. Munatones’s analysis shows that women often win competitions. It’s not every race, it’s not every time, but women hold the records in several key events, such as the Catalina Channel swim (both directions). Not only that, the average women’s times compare to the average men’s times in events such as the Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon.

Munatones doesn’t speculate about why men and women are so closely matched in open water (and so mismatched in other sports), but it seems to me that there’s at least one specific physical reason: women float.

Last year, three men and I swam 50 x 50 yards on 50 seconds to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the men. This is a thing swimmers do: swim a special workout, maybe with some numerological significance, for a birthday or holiday. One of the three guys is a bit slower, and I figured he would swim at pace as long as he could, taking off a 50 here and there. It’s a perfectly respectable thing to do; I’ve done it in other situations. Instead he appeared at the pool wearing his wetsuit. Wetsuits make you faster by improving your buoyancy, but wetsuits make you warmer too, and I would not want to swim in our 80-degree pool in a wetsuit.

So I said to him, “You’re wearing your wetsuit?”

And he said to me, “You have a built-in wetsuit.”

Now, just think about that for a second: this man was saying that I had a natural advantage on him because I am a woman. I have more body fat than he does. In other words, I have a built-in wetsuit.

Is there another sport in which women have a physical advantage? Most of our sports are designed (you could say, rigged) to reward the things that men’s bodies are good at. Men are tall and they have muscles, and most sports reward taller, muscly bodies, either big and muscly or lean and muscly. Men aren’t naturally better than women at sports; the sports are set up so that they win.

In most sports, fat is bad, and breasts in particular are in the way. Think of the sports bra industry, selling elaborate garments to female athletes so that they can strap their breasts down. Think of the legendary Amazonians, cutting off one breast so that they could shoot arrows more accurately. Think of gymnastics, a sport for girls rather than women: a post-pubescent woman’s body, with breasts and hips, is such a disadvantage that you rarely see adult women in competitive gymnastics.

Here's another reason I'm not interested in running.

Here’s another reason I’m not interested in running.

But open water swimming rewards technique, efficiency, and buoyancy, and fat floats. A higher percentage of body fat is not a disadvantage. You can use your energy to swim. And the longer you swim, the less important it is to be tall and have long arms and the more important it is to float.

I swam the Alcatraz Sharkfest swim back in 2011. It was a race with about 700 people, many more men than women, and people ranging in age from 10 to 70. The water temperature was 61 degrees, and wetsuits were recommended: most people wore them, including me. But that day the race was won by a woman in her 20s who was not wearing a wetsuit; she beat us all, men and women, in wetsuits and without.

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; sometimes the swim is to the one who can float.

Swim like a girl. Swim like a woman.


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How to Be Happy: Open Water Edition

A long time ago I was in a conversation with a colleague in the Psychology department who intoned, “Everyone wants the same thing.” Of course, I asked, “What is that?” And he smiled as if he were about to say something very wise and replied, “To be happy.”

At that moment, I was filled with an unhappy and uncollegial desire to shake him till his teeth rattled. It may be true that everyone wants to be happy—I am not certain, but it could be true—but even if it is true, the pronouncement “Everyone wants to be happy” has got to be one of the least useful true statements ever. Maybe we all want to be happy, but that doesn’t tell us much about ourselves or other people because we all become happy by doing different things.

Which brings us inevitably to the topic of open water swimming. Open water swimming makes me happy. It makes me insanely happy. When I am swimming, I am filled with what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

This swimmer’s high occasionally hits me in pools, but it usually takes a good two miles in a lake. I imagine it can be explained by biochemistry, which suggests that swimming might make lots of people happy. But most people seem to have no interest in trying it. They have different ways of becoming happy.


On Thursday K and I went to the lake for our second swim of the spring. It was a beautiful day. The water temperature was still cool at 71 degrees F, but not cold enough to require wetsuits again. The air temperature was also 71, perfectly fine; the wind, though, was blowing at 13 mph (according to my magic hyper-local weather app), and I said on the drive that the water was going to be choppy.

It was. I was delighted. The first half-mile out was crazy: it was cold, and the waves were coming at us, and I thought, “This is fantastic!”

If I’m going to swim in open water, I want it to feel like open water. If I want glassy calm and 78 degrees, I can go swim in a pool. I was fighting waves out there, getting tossed around; I was lifting my arms high to clear the water and breathing far back to keep from getting hit in the face. It was hard work, and the water was cold, and I was thinking about Beowulf swimming through the north ocean, battling sea monsters all the way. I was smiling as I was swimming.

When we got to the turn around point, K was waiting for me. He was not happy. He said something about how much better it had been last week. I was noncommittal. He said something about how I couldn’t possibly like swimming in these conditions. I said I quite possibly could.

We started back.

As we swam back and the waves pushed us in and I sang “The Sea Refuses No River” to myself, I thought about the previous week’s swim, when I had been trying very hard not to whine so much about my wetsuit: I couldn’t feel the water, I was floating too high, I was getting abrasions on the back of my neck. I find wearing the wetsuit disorienting. In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” people have dreams about a city (later found on an uncharted Pacific island) where the angles are “wrong”–there’s some alien non-Euclidian geometry at work, horrifying to the human mind–and that’s kind of how I feel about swimming in a wetsuit: the angles are wrong. And yet wearing a wetsuit doesn’t bother K at all. He likes it. He was happier last week.

All in all, I swam three miles. When I was done, my face hurt from three miles of smiling.

Everyone wants to be happy, but we all become happy by doing different things: the swim that makes me very happy might make you miserable and vice versa. The trick is to find out what makes you happy–and then to do it.

Waves at the lake. My photo.

Waves at the lake. May 1, 2014. My photo.


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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.