2017’s Swan Song: Swim the Suck

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.

Race course (10.36 miles). (Credit: Swim the Suck).
My line. (Credit: track.rs).








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.

View upriver from the Tennessee River Gardens.

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.

Suckers! (Credit: Karen Nazor Hill).

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)
10/14/17, 0900 18,035
10/14/17, 1000 18,072
10/14/17, 1100 18,057
10/14/17, 1200 18,109
10/14/17, 1300 18,118
10/14/17, 1400 18,106

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.

In the zone. (Credit: Lana Burl).

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.

The end of the season. (Credit: Karen Nazor Hill).

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.


Swimming Around the City

CIBBOW’s Triple Dip

Having no swims between the Border Buster in July and the Suck in October, I was persuaded by a friend into signing up for back-to-back September swims in New York: the Triple Dip, run by CIBBOWS in Coney Island, and the Spuyten Duyvil 10K, run by NYOW in the Hudson River. These swims seemed like a fun way to spend the weekend. Then Hurricane Irma struck Florida. The week leading up to the storm, South Florida became a hysterical madhouse: long lines at the gas stations, hardware stores, and grocery stores. The pre-storm stress was dovetailed by the one brought by watching the path of the storm creeping toward Florida and finally feeling its effects. My neck of the woods was left with downed power lines and trees, though sadly other parts of the state were left in much worse conditions. Once the storm passed, communities grappled with the lack of power and kids enjoyed their break from school. The pools were closed. By the time I had to leave for New York, I was ready for a break from two weeks of constant stress.

I arrived in a very hot New York City on a Friday and on Saturday morning took the subway to Coney Island in Brooklyn. Coney Island features a beach, boardwalk, and amusement park. The Triple Dip is one of the races run by CIBBOWS and offers 1-, 2-, and 3-mile options which start within ten minutes of each other. Capri Djatiasmoro, the affable leader of this cheery pod of swimmers, put on a fun, safe and well-organized race. Close to a hundred swimmers participated.

The morning was foggy, but not enough to obscure the buoys marking the course. The air temperature was 71 F (21.7 C). I measured the water temperature at 70.8 F (21.6 C) at the shore. The safety meeting was held right on time just outside of the New York Aquarium’s Education Hall on the boardwalk. The course for the 3-mile swim was one and a half loops. Swimmers would head south for half a mile, turn at the buoy adjacent to the Steeplechase Pier, swim a mile north, turn at the northernmost buoy, swim a mile south, and finally swim half a mile north and toward the finish line at the beach.

Triple Dip course map (CIBBOWS).

The 3-mile swimmers (pink caps) started in the second wave. The water felt cooler, perhaps in the upper 60s. Because of Hurricane Irma, I hadn’t swum in ten days. My stroke felt terrible. My shipment of contact lenses had also been delayed due to the storm so I had to dig out a pair of ancient prescription goggles. I was certainly glad I hadn’t thrown them away because without those goggles I would’ve strayed from the course as I did on the Potomac last September. I was happy to be swimming in cool saltwater―my favorite kind of water.

Heading south, there was a gentle push from the wind and the waves. After rounding the buoy at the southernmost, I felt the chop, which is always fun to swim against. Rounding the northernmost buoy I was grateful the volunteers in the safety boat offered me water, but I had some Gatorade left in the silicone bottle I stuck inside my suit. Swimming south I had to contend with the swell, which pushed me toward the shore. That was not a good thing, since the beach has rock groins jutting perpendicularly into the water. I passed a couple of two-mile swimmers, but for the most part I was swimming alone. I rounded the southernmost buoy for a second and last time. A volunteer in the safety boat offered me water and this time I took it because I had run out of Gatorade. Swimming into the chop again I caught a flash of what I thought was another pink cap. Soon I heard someone yelling at me from behind. It was one of the swim angels in an orange cap. She was shouting encouragement. I felt somewhat taken aback because I didn’t feel I needed it. I figured the swim angel probably thought I did because I’m a slow swimmer. In any case, I smiled and resumed my swimming but now I was stopping every so often because she kept encouraging me and directing me toward the finish. My rhythm was now lost, but the swim angel was so happy I couldn’t help but feeling happy, too.

Three-mile race start (photo by Sebastian Moll).

I walked out of the water and when I saw my time my heart skipped a beat. It was the worst time for a near 5K I’ve ever had. I don’t get many finisher medals these days, so I was happy with the one I got from CIBBOWS: a little bottle opener shaped like fish bones. Capri told me there was one last swimmer in the water. The fog had not yet lifted. I walked back to Education Hall wrapped in a thermal blanket. Awards were already being delved out. I received an award for being last, not without protesting since I really wasn’t and didn’t want to take the prize from the rightful winner. It was given to me anyway and I hoped the lady still in the water got one, too. I got another award for finishing fourth in my age group. Fourth out of four was quite amusing. The Triple Dip was a fun swim. Most of all, I felt grateful to be back in the water.

NYOW’s Spuyten Duyvil 10K

On Sunday I had the season’s second appointment with the Hudson. Back in June, I attempted Stage 4 of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim and did not finish. I had mixed feelings about returning to the Hudson, though given the forecast of light winds, I judged the likelihood of finishing much higher.

On its second installment, the Spuyten Duyvil 10K was purported to be a very fast race. The start was timed to get a good push from the ongoing tide. The race takes its name from the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which connects the Hudson River to the Harlem River just north of the finish point at La Marina Restaurant in Manhattan. In Dutch, Spuyten Duyvil means spouting devil, a reference to the turbulent flows in the creek before it was channelized from the late 1800s to the early 1900s to accommodate shipping traffic.

On race morning many swimmers congregated at La Marina Restaurant to board the shuttle buses to the starting point a the JFK Marina in Yonkers. Just like the previous day, fog hovered above the water. After preparing for the start, we turned in our bags to be taken back to the restaurant. During the safety meeting, Dave Barra, one of the race directors, announced that a film crew would be documenting the event for a short film for Riverkeeper. The filmmaker, Jon Bowermaster of Hudson River Stories, aims to demonstrate how people can enjoy a much improved Hudson River. I’m looking forward to his piece.

Spuyten Duyvil 10K course map (NYOW).

About 200 swimmers were numerically ordered in five waves, slowest to fastest. To my surprise, I was in the second wave. Rondi Davies, Dave’s co-race director, saw swimmers off a the dock. My group gasped when we realized how fast the river pulled the first group of swimmers downstream. The second wave swimmers jumped into the water and laughed while we waited for the go signal and drifted downstream as a group. Soon enough Rondi gave us the go and we took off.

I enjoy seeing how much a body of water can change from one day to the next, from one month to another. Stage 4 was very present in my mind as I started Spuyten Duyvil. The conditions couldn’t have contrasted more. The water was glassy and the wind very light as opposed to the choppy water and the wicked headwind back in June. The water was warmer, which surprised me. Perhaps the Hudson and I would kiss and make up. I swam uninterrupted mile after mile. This was a new and welcome feeling. Whether the Hudson punishes me or carries me gingerly, it always makes me feel like I belong in the water. But not having to stop… who does that? Fish… Mermaids…

Knowing that the deepest part of a river is the fastest, I tried to hug the line of kayaks that herded the swimmers downstream. I saw many swimmers on my left, closer to the shoreline, but I enjoyed my spot since not many swimmers were close to me. Every once in a while the water rippled, but for the most part it was like glass. The kayaks looked like cars driving down a highway that disappeared in a mirage. The George Washington Bridge (a double decked suspension bridge) appeared within the fog. I knew that we wouldn’t swim under it, but its appearance signaled the finish was near. The fog lifted and I immediately felt hot and wished for the race to end. As if summoned, the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge (a railroad swing bridge) and the Henry Hudson Bridge (a steel arch bridge) beyond it appeared on my left. I was ecstatic. The kayakers directed the swimmers toward the restaurant’s marina. We had to make a hard left, otherwise the current would sweep us downstream past the finish.

The GWB from La Marina Restaurant.

The timing mats lay on a concrete boat ramp. Swimmers had been warned about how slippery the boat ramp would be. In addition, water chestnuts―an invasive water plant whose fruits have sharp barbs―could make our stepping onto the boat ramp painful. Shuffling was recommended. Well, I tried to stand up and promptly sank into a gelatinous mud. I fell on my butt. I tried to stand again and my knee met the boat ramp’s concrete. Very ungracefully I gained some balance and finally stood up. Rondi gave me a hand and I was able to walk toward the timing mat. I’d finished in less than two hours. That was indeed very amusing. After a quick shower, I enjoyed the perks of finishing a race at La Marina: good drinks and good food. The mood was festive as this was NYOW’s season closer. The winners received awards and all swimmers received glasses emblazoned with the funny logo of the race.

Hello, little devil! (NYOW).

At the end of my swimming weekend in the city, I was glad I returned to the Hudson. If I’m fortunate enough to swim in the river next season, there’ll be no hard feelings, at least on my end. I can only offer the Hudson an honest swim and the Hudson can only give me whatever it’s got in store that day.