10 mile swim

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


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You Can’t Swim in the Same River Twice: On Personal Records

One of the many things I like about open water swimming is that I never think about my PR. PR stands for “personal record,” and it means, of course, your best time for a race. My running friends talk about their PRs: they beat their PRs, they almost beat their PRs, they want to beat their PRs. Jen A. Miller recently wrote a piece, Trying to Beat My 25-Year-Old Self, in the New York Times Well Blog about trying to beat her personal record, set ten years before, for a 5K run. That’s the thing about having a PR: you always want to beat it.

But thinking about your personal record in open water swimming is complicated. If you run 5Ks (or some other set distance), you can compare your time from ten years ago to your time today. The distance is fixed, and the conditions relatively stable. Open water swims, on the other hand, are not uniform. They come in a variety of lengths. And more important, courses and conditions make a huge difference: a swim in a lake is not comparable to a swim in a river, and a swim in rough conditions is not the same as a swim in calm water.

I know that the fastest I have ever swum was on May 24, 2014 at the Lowcountry Splash: five miles in 1:13:29. It seems impossible that I will ever swim that fast again. The current was unusually swift. All the course records were broken that day. I was the fastest I’ve ever been — and so was everyone else.

I keep a spread sheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. The entry for the Lowcountry Splash is highlighted. Zoooooooom.

I keep a spreadsheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. This is an excerpt. I’ve highlighted the entry for the Lowcountry Splash: zoooooooom.

The next year at the same race the current was not unusually swift; I swam the course in 1:26:37, thirteen minutes slower. Should I be disappointed that I didn’t beat my PR? What for? I don’t control the current. And it was a great swim on a beautiful morning. There’s no point in comparisons. You can’t swim in the same river twice.

River current isn’t the only factor to take into account: all open water swimming is dependent on conditions. Last August I swam two miles in 54:24 at the Lake Lure Olympiad. Last September I swam two miles in 1:03:17 at the Dam Swim for Drew in Lake Murray. I didn’t get nine minutes slower in a month. At Lake Lure the water was warm and smooth; we swam two simple loops around a one-mile course. At Lake Murray, the water was rough; we fought through waves the whole way across the lake.

I was faster at Lake Lure. I had more fun at the Dam Swim. Which one was the better swim?

Some people find it motivating to compete with their younger selves, to beat their PRs. But I’m not interested in playing that game. The great appeal of open water swimming is that each race is its own experience, new and incomparable to the others. Each swim is its own swim. Each swim can be your best swim on that day.


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The Fastest Five Miles of My Life: Lowcountry Splash 2014

Yesterday I swam the fastest five miles of my life. I have never swum so fast before, and it is unlikely that I will ever swim so fast again. I was swimming in a river (really, two rivers) down to the ocean, and the current was unusually fast and the conditions perfect. The event was the five mile swim at the Lowcountry Splash; the course took us down the beautiful Wando River, which joins with the Cooper River and heads toward Charleston Harbor. There were new records set for the 2.4 mile race (it was the 13th year for that distance) and the newer five mile length. We were all flying.

I went down to the Splash with my friend K. He is an excellent traveling companion (and not just because he has a convertible and we drive back from Charleston with the top down). We have both swum the 2.4 mile twice before; it’s a good race. But the five mile race is even better, from the very beginning: for the five mile start, you jump off a pier in waves of ten people, which is lots more fun than the mass in-water start for the 2.4 mile.

You swim down one side of the river, with Daniel Island to your right and the heavy-lift cranes across the river to your left.

Early in the race. Shiploaders across the river to our left.

Early in the race. Heavy-lift cranes across the river to our left, piers on Daniel Island to our right. My photo, from the water. May 24, 2014.

Then you cross the river at that last crane, yell out your number to the check-in boat at the halfway point, and continue down the other side, catching up with the 2.4 milers along the way.

Halfway point, the check-in boat, behind me after I passed it. My photo. May 24, 2014.

Halfway point, the check-in boat, behind me after I passed it. My photo. May 24, 2014.

You swim under the beautiful Ravenel bridge, alongside the Yorktown (a retired aircraft carrier) at Patriots Point, and up to the marina. The water is mildly salty: less salty than ocean water, but salty enough that you can feel you are floating higher than usual. And yesterday the sun was out, the wind was behind us, and the water was 78 degrees. You couldn’t ask for a better day.

We swim backstroke under bridges. My photo. May 24. 2014.

I swim backstroke under bridges. My photo. May 24. 2014.

The only hairy part was at the check-in boat. I had never been in a race with a mid-course check-in before. This procedure was required by the Coast Guard, the race official said, because the shipping lane had been shut down for the race and they wanted to make sure all the swimmers were out of the way before it was reopened. My problem was that I was too close to the boat when I came by and the current pulled me toward it. I was briefly caught on its anchor rope; it hurt a bit, but mostly it was scary. Still I didn’t panic, and I swam away fine.

And I hate to even mention that moment because the rest of the race was so perfect that I spent the whole time in a state of disbelief. How could this be so beautiful? My only regret is that I feel as if I didn’t work hard enough. I intended the race to be a warm-up of a sort for the 10 mile swim, testing my endurance, but it was no test: it was a holiday, a lovely Memorial Day weekend vacation in Charleston, SC.

The Ravenel Bridge. A 2.4 miler in a green cap is visible.

The Ravenel Bridge. I caught up with a 2.4 miler in the green cap. My photo. May 24, 2014.

My official time was 1:13.29, which is screaming fast. We take more time to swim three miles at Lake Hartwell. It was a terrific day in the water.


Here’s a image of the race course from my friend K:

Lowcountry Splash 2014: 5 mile course.

Lowcountry Splash 2014: 5 mile course marked in red. Image from Google and my friend K.