The trees were full of color as the grey cliffs surrounded me on a 10-mile swim through the Tennessee River gorge.  After completing a 6-mile swim earlier this summer, I wanted to test myself and see if I could go further.  My curiosity persisted and there was only one way to find out.  Swim the Suck is an open-water swim on the Tennessee River just south of Chattanooga.  Here’s a look back at what I learned this weekend.

At the Friday night pasta dinner, swimmers and pilots checked in with each other while timeline and safety considerations were shared by the race director.  A total of 116 swimmers and 116 pilots were present, it was a good size group.  A pilot, also known as a kayaker, was assigned to each swimmer for safety and feeding needs.  A pilot’s responsibility is to navigate the course and provide nutrition to the swimmer throughout the event.  I didn’t bring a kayaker with me, so I was assigned a local volunteer.  Chad and I had connected by phone earlier in the week to get to know each other, I knew we’d be a great fit immediately.

Sarah Thomas was our guest speaker after dinner and IMO the GOAT of open water swimming.  She holds various records for distance and duration in marathon swimming.  Most impressively, one year after recovering from breast cancer, she swam the English Channel four times!  England to France, France back to England, England to France, and France back to England, without stopping!  Her time of 54 hours and 10 minutes spent swimming (no sleep) is hard to comprehend!  She shared a message on goals, grit, and grace which was valuable, something I reflected on as I completed my swim.

Saturday morning arrived and it was time to eat!  One thing I find difficult is eating a big breakfast before an event.  It’s just not natural to wake up early and take in a ton of calories.  My typical days consist of a banana before each pool swim.  A different approach is called for when fueling for an event of this duration.  After a lot of trial and error, I’ve discovered a bagel and peanut butter, banana, coffee, and some super starch in liquid form work well for me.  The key here is experimenting with what works, and what doesn’t, and never trying anything new on race day.  Successful distance swimming, like running, cycling, and triathlons require an athlete to determine what works best for them individually.  The sustainability of calorie intake (preferably without issues) allows an athlete to continue racing and finish strong.

Feeding as they call it, is when your pilot hands you your preferred nutrition.  In addition to navigating the course and avoiding obstacles, your pilot will provide “feeds” on a predetermined schedule each swimmer sets.  A lot of trial and error here too in finding the right balance.  What I discovered that works well is swimming the first hour without stopping, then taking a feed.  Then keep swimming and feeding every thirty minutes or so until done.  These feeds are in liquid form, premixed in a chug bottle that’s easy to open, chug eight ounces or so, and hand back to your pilot without contact.  Open water swimming rules are clear, at no time can the swimmer touch the boat or pilot.  So, no hanging on and coasting for a bit.

I learned I was a lot hungrier than I imagined after an hour and a half of swimming, who knew?  I decided to shorten the duration to feeding every twenty minutes after my stomach was shouting at me.  This turned out to be a good decision.  When it was time for a feed, Chad raised the bottle and I eagerly looked forward to refueling.  The pilot watches the clock, so all the swimmer must do is swim.  One thing that needs to be tested in the future is including protein in my feeds as my distance increases.

The conditions were great, at times gusty with some chop, but mostly calm waters.  I had no idea how long I’d been swimming or where I was along the course.  My pilot communicated a rough idea at some point toward the end, as he chatted with the other pilots nearby.  I didn’t pay attention or want to get my heart set on reaching a certain mile marker, and then find out I wasn’t as close as I thought.  My game plan was to keep it simple, keep my head down, and just kept swimming.

Things that went well:

  • Having great chemistry and joking around with my pilot, it’s good to be loose and as relaxed as possible before and during an event.
  • My mental prep was as important as my physical prep.
  • My stroke rate was as consistent as a metronome, form is everything in swimming even when you get tired.
  • I finished, safely, and without injury, I consider this a win.

Things that could go better next time:

  • A mass start of 116 swimmers looking for their pilot downriver is messy.  I had a fast start, but then stopped for 3 to 5 minutes looking around to locate Chad.  It’s tough to remain calm when you go out quickly, then stop and watch a lot of swimmers pass you.  Lesson-remain calm regardless and meet up with your pilot further down the course away from the craziness.
  • Wearing larger goggles to site put a strain on my right eye and lead to a leak.  I trained with these goggles, but they aren’t my pool goggles and wouldn’t seal properly for the first hour.  Agh! Occasionally rolling on my back like a sea otter, emptying my right google, then back on my stomach to swim worked as it needed to.  Lesson- I don’t need larger goggles to site when I have a pilot who’s doing that for me.

I finished the swim with an official time of 4:01:26.  This placed me 26th overall out of 112 finishers.  Those three to five minutes at the start and fussing around with my goggles cost me some time, whatever!  To get better at things it’s important to learn and grow through adversity.  Staying stress-free and having a sense of humor, even in difficult times is important.  This can be applied to swimming, life, financial decisions, and just about anything.  There’s a lot I’m learning when it comes to open-water swimming.  One thing I know is that I can still swim further.  Not 54 hours further, but longer than 10 miles.  Stay tuned…

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