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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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.