Alas! It took a year to get a reprieve from Hurricane Matthew, which prevented me from visiting Chattanooga, TN last October. I’ve always wanted to “Swim the Suck” as it is a favorite of many a swimmer. The race is the brainchild of Dr. Karah Nazor, a Chattanooga native. It’s a great testament to the high “fun factor” of an event when the number of volunteer kayakers is greater than the number of swimmers. The check-in line for kayakers and volunteers was considerably longer than that of the swimmers at the Waterhouse Pavilion in downtown Chattanooga on Friday evening. After a catered pasta dinner, Karah explained to the audience the origins of the race. Her grandmother used to go “swim the Suck” as a kid, the Suck being Suck Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River. I’m glad Karah has kept alive her family’s love for swimming in this gorgeous river.
Swimmers awaited with baited breath the announcement of the water release rate from the Chickamauga Dam, which is located upstream of the race course. The forecast was 19,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which translates to emptying the volume of a fifth of an Olympic-size pool every second. Yes. That’s a lot of water. According to the race website, the highest release rate was in 2010 at 33,000 cfs and the lowest was last year at 0 to 7,000 cfs. 19,000 cfs would make for a nice push.
The Chickamauga Dam is managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). As many large water resources projects in the United States, TVA was authorized by Congress in the 1930s, its main purpose to address issues of navigation, water supply, and flood risk reduction in the Tennessee River Valley. The production of hydropower was added in the 1940s. These missions continue to this day. The Chickamauga Dam protects the city of Chattanooga from flooding. A lock allows vessels to transit across the dam and Route 153 provides for vehicles to transit along it. The dam is a hydroelectric facility that provides electric power to the city of Chattanooga. It creates the Chickamauga Reservoir, which extends 59 miles upriver to the Watts Bar Dam, offering many opportunities for recreation.
The highlight of the evening was Sarah Thomas’s talk. Sarah has completed two of the most epic marathon swims in the history of our sport: 80.0 miles (128.7 km) in Lake Powell in October 2016, for which she won the Marathon Swimmers Federation’s 2016 Solo Swim of the Year award, and 104.6 miles (168.3 km) in Lake Champlain in August of this year. She is certainly one of the greatest swimmers in history. But you wouldn’t know it. Unlike the self-aggrandizing marathon swimming frauds celebrated by media, Sarah was unassuming and honest about her astonishing accomplishments. Sarah requested questions through Facebook and answered them in her talk. My favorite was “Why do it?” Her answer was “To say I did it.” There is a lot of power packed in that short statement. To say one has done something one (or no one) has done before, is a testament to dedication, sacrifice, devotion, focus, and drive. Personally, to be able to say I’ve accomplished a swimming goal makes me feel “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” That, dear readers, makes me extremely happy. There are very many reasons to take on marathon swims, as many as there are bodies of water. I like to think that all of us obtain very personal rewards from it.
On race morning, I drove at oh-dark-hundred to the Tennessee River Gardens, the terminus of our swim. I arrived much too early, but luckily two of my friends from SCAR were there and we chatted while the field filled with cars. Four school buses arrived to pick up swimmers and volunteers and take us to the Suck Creek Boat Ramp, about a half-hour ride.
At the boat ramp, I went over my usual routine of meeting with my pilot, handing over feeds and tracker, and lubing up in baby butt paste. The sky was overcast and the forecast was for it to remain so. The air temperature was 73 °F (22.8 °C) and the water temperature 76 °F (24.4 °C), too warm for me, but as long as the cloud cover remained, I had a good chance of finishing without much misery. After the safety briefing, kayakers entered the water and positioned themselves near four red buoys according to swimmer number. My pilot would be waiting by the first buoy. Swimmers lined up at the boat ramp in numerical order and entered the water. As I dove in, the feeling of warm water on my skin made me doubt my initial forecast of finishing without much misery. The men were wearing pink caps and the women yellow caps, which I found rather confusing in the water. I try to avoid the men, as I am not tall and fending them away requires too much energy. I am not a fan of pink, but neither of yellow. Orange, however, is a great color. While we treaded water waiting for the go signal, we gently floated downstream en masse, like a smattering of petals.
Once the go signal was given, we swam across the river toward a cow floatie near the opposite shore. I really wanted to hug it because I grew up in a farm and am quite fond of cows. However, Karah was using the MSF rules rather than the new USMS rules, which I suppose would’ve allowed for holding on to the floatie. Thankfully, the MSF rules permitted me to keep my dignity intact. I chuckled at the funny floatie and proceeded to swim to the first red buoy, where I found my pilot. Together we headed downstream aided by the current among many other swimmer-pilot pairs. After the race, I checked the flowrates from the dam. It remained at around 18,000 cfs throughout the race, enough to get a nice push, but not enough to feel the waterslide effect of the Hudson two weeks before.
|Date and time||Flowrate (cfs)|
I hadn’t swum in four days due to a cold. My coach had advised to stay away from the pool and rest. Heeding his advice paid off because on race day I was feeling great and as a bonus, my stroke also felt great. The initial couple of miles felt crowded as the field of over 100 swimmers spread out. There was virtually no wind. Even so, a distracted stand-up paddler bumped into me, but I pushed her board away. I got into a rhythm from the start, bringing my effort to the point that if I pushed a bit more, I’d feel hot. My pilot stayed next to me most of the time, though sometimes the kayak would lag out of my sight and then catch up.
The river was very placid. Beautiful, green, gentle mountains lined each side. Karah had pointed out landmarks during her briefing, but I didn’t commit them to memory except for TVA’s Racoon Mountain pump house at mile eight. I was content watching the mountains pass by. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of turkey vultures circling suspended in thermals. Every so often the high-pitched whine of motorboats cruising along the opposite shore would interrupt my tranquility. At some point a large, black butterfly flew above me, so close I could’ve reached for it. Instead, I backstroked just to watch it flit away. The cloud cover remained, allowing my body temperature to remain in check. A gentle southern breeze caused ripples, which slapped my swim cap. I welcomed the subtle change in the conditions. I was swimming in this state of contentment when I noticed that my pilot hadn’t caught up with me. I looked under my left arm and didn’t spot the kayak. I stopped and turned facing upstream. To my surprise, my pilot, as well as the kayak, were on the safety pontoon boat and the volunteers aboard signaled me to keep swimming. I wondered what had happened.
I disliked the idea of swimming by myself, notwithstanding the fact that the course was well marked with red buoys. I am not afraid of many things, but I am of powerboats. I felt reassured in that there was a swimmer in front of me who was swimming a little slower than I had been, so I matched her speed and stayed behind her pilot. I thought that the pontoon boat crew would come by and pull me out once the volunteers had assisted my pilot. The idea of having my race cut short didn’t really upset me since whatever happened to my pilot was completely out of my control. I hoped my pilot was doing well and that I could somehow continue swimming.
The pontoon boat caught up with me. Thankfully, my pilot was fine, though I later found out a minor injury had been sustained. Apparently the kayak had been swamped by a wake. The volunteers again told me to keep swimming. I was so happy to stay in the water, I failed to ask what the plan was. I had no pilot and no feeds. The last time I had talked to my pilot, I was at the four and a half mile point. I caught up to the swimmer-pilot pair I’d been trailing and stayed behind them again. At that point the river widened and slowed down. The water felt a bit warmer and I felt thirsty. I was still wondering what the plan for me was. I decided that if I felt in an unsafe situation I would signal the pontoon boat or ask any pilot to call for assistance. I was pondering on my situation when I came upon a lonely stand-up paddler. I figured she was probably safety, so I stopped to ask her my position. She indicated five and three quarter miles, which meant I’d been swimming alone for one and a quarter miles. She asked why I was swimming alone and I told her my pilot had fallen in the water. The paddler offered to accompany me for a while and I instantly felt safer. After a short while, the pontoon boat pulled up alongside the paddler and handed her my feeds and tracker. I didn’t see my pilot on the boat. The paddler would escort me for the remainder of the swim. I felt so grateful!
I took some of my cold feed and was able to resume the cruising speed I was maintaining prior to my pilot’s accident. It was very reassuring to have the paddler abreast of me. Her paddling skills were impressive. She would change positions every so often (standing, kneeling, sitting) and would maintain her speed and balance flawlessly. It was a joy to watch her. Now that I was feeling more relaxed, I took the time during feeds to look at the tranquil scenery of the Tennessee River Gorge, strips of limestone peaking close to the tops of green mountains.
When I spotted the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant, I felt elated. At this point, we were hopscotching with another swimmer-pilot pair, the same one I’d been trailing when I was swimming alone. I enjoyed swimming next to the water control structure, its scour wall about 550-ft long. The pumphouse carved within the Raccoon Mountain limestone pumps water from the river to a mountaintop reservoir. During times of peak power demand, water is released from the reservoir through its hydroelectric turbines. The facility generates fourteen times the power of the Chickamauga Dam, though its purpose is to match peak load and serve as a back-up power source.
Past the pumped-storage plant, my paddler handed me a feed and announced it was my last one. The river’s shoreline was protected by rip rap beyond the water control structure. Past the rip rap and the vegetated shoreline stood the Tennessee River Garden’s barge cell and the finish buoy. My hopscotching partner had taken a line closer to the shoreline. I increased my speed for what I judged to be over a mile, just to see if I could beat her to the finish, though I knew she had the advantage of a shorter line. Even so, it felt good to be able to pick it up toward the end of the swim. With about 100 yds to go, I sprinted toward the buoy. My hopscotching partner beat me to it, though. I slapped the buoy with great gusto. There is no better way to finish a 10-mile race than to sprint at the very end. I thanked my paddler for “adopting” me and making my swim possible. Later on I heard from my initial pilot. A full recovery was in order.
And so, on the shore of the Tennessee River, my 2017 season came to an end. Ten races, eight of them marathons, two DNFs, ten opportunities to learn something about the sport and about myself. When I look back at this season, I see the immense challenge that SCAR posed, count the many friends I made in Arizona, and dream of Canyon Lake’s water, which gave me all its love, and of the sea of stars above Roosevelt Lake, winking at me while the cold air on my face reminded me I am alive and my life is only mine; I see the mighty Hudson teaching me a lesson in humility just to turn around a few months later to allow me the most fun I’ve ever had swimming downriver, I see the granite buildings of the United States Military Academy rising over a portentous river covered in whitecaps; I feel the playful Memphre dialing down the water temperature so I could finish my longest swim to date; I feel the waves and the swell and the wind off Coney Island; I hear the lovely Chesapeake telling me to explore new waters; and I feel great gratitude toward the paddlers who accompanied me in all of these watery journeys. I hear the ocean calling me by my name and telling me to come back home.
By William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.