Swim the Suck 2019: the swim

[Part I here.]

While kayakers and volunteers were amassing at the Suck Creek boat launch, I was happily snoozing away in my AirBNB. No, I’m joking. As usual, I got up earlier than my alarm; I’m always nervous before a big swim.

Doesn’t mean I showed up early. Ha! Nope. Took my time. Got a bit of food and water in me. Knew the Uber would take a while, so ordered it early enough that I’d get to the boat launch at 8am.

Had a great ride with Zachary, who, besides being an Uber driver, works at a school for special folks. And he teaches ASL! We had a wonderful drive to the start, and as he pulled in, he asked me if I was doing some sort of kayak race.

Nope. Me and 120-odd others are swimming 10 miles down the river today and those kayaks are for our escorts.

Then came the usual disbelief, concern for the cold, along with a hearty good luck. Thanks Zachary! You got 5 stars and a big tip!

Zachary got me there early by about 10 minutes. I was the only swimmer there for a bit. Once they got the marking table set up I got my arms marked (#110) and put the sweats back on. A bit cold and cloudy, reminiscent of last year’s race. Can’t believe I almost didn’t bring the sweatshirt.

Karah’s got the logistics for Swim the Suck down pat. Those who were driving had to show up at the finish before 8am to park their cars. If they were bringing kayaks, then they had to show up at the boat launch first to drop off their boats prior to driving to the finish. Then everyone at the finish had to jump onto one of the four (I think) school buses to be brought to the start at the boat launch. The buses began showing up and the start began to get crowded.

The worst part of this swim, and I mean the absolute worst, is walking from the point where you drop off your clothes bag to your place in the start line. The entire boat launch parking area is teeny-tiny little pebbles, designed to hit the most sensitive parts of the bottom of your feet. Well, I learned my lesson last year, so I brought some throw-away two dollar shower shoes. My plan was to wear them to the water, then put them on the side for one of the volunteers to throw out.

It took 10 years, but Swim the Suck now has carpet for the walk to the water! (See first picture above.) Despite that, I kept my shower shoes on; we lined up by last name thus yours truly was way at the back. But once I got to the carpet, off came the shoes.

Another change from previous years: we were able to keep our clothes bags with us till we got in line. In previous years we’d have to drop the bag about 20-30 yards (depending upon your last name) away, then walk on those hell-stones to our spots. Now, we can simply drop the bags to the side, and one of the volunteers would take it to the truck which in turn takes it to the finish. So nice!

The way this swim starts is all swimmers enter the water then await behind an imaginary line till Karah starts us. The important part is that we have to swim to a floating cow buoy, swimming to the left of the buoy, then head down river, staying “river left.”

But with 122 swimmers and each one with a kayak escort, how does one find his/her escort? Karah solved this by assigning each of us one of four buoys and giving us one of four colored swim caps. My cap this time was pink and my buoy was #4. What this meant for me was that I should just put my head down and swim (once I passed the cow) until I either a) find Guillermo (my kayaker) or 2) hit the fourth buoy. Do not swim past that buoy without an escort!

In the picture above, if you look across the river at where the water and green meet, on the left side of the picture, you see a white blur. That’s the cow. Keep your eyes moving along the water line to the right, and you’ll see two of the orange buoys. The buoy/wait zone stretched half a mile, so once I was in, I swam for quite a bit. But the current was strong. In fact, when we first got in, we had to swim up river to remain behind the start boat-line.

I got to buoy #4 and stopped. I raised my hand and yelled “Guillermo” as instructed the night prior. I saw one kayaker wave his hand at me and start paddling towards me. I put my head down and swam. As he got close, I realized it wasn’t Guillermo. He and I both realized we had the wrong person; he went looking for his swimmer. Almost immediately I found Guillermo. He saw me, thumbs up, and I put my head down and swam.

Let me ruin the ending for you: I have no pictures from on water. Except at the finish. But I’ll tell you what: this is the most beautiful swim! It was overcast for the first few hours, but at hour 3 the sun came out and wow, that really did a lot for my morale.

But to the swim. As usual, I don’t feed the first hour. I felt the current very strongly and the first feeding came quickly. Or seemingly. I’ve gotten much better at ingesting a lot of liquid in a little time. I used to only drink maybe 2-3 oz. But now I can down 4-6 oz at a go. That’s important for swims of this length (talking time vs. distance); if you’re not properly hydrated, your swimming will be affected.

Feeds went well. Every half hour after the first feed. I felt Patty’s swim early on! But I still wouldn’t have not attended her swim the day prior. This river is just so pretty and the people are just so great.

I think I had my first food at 2:30; it was a Justin’s peanut butter packet. To be more specific, it was honey almond butter I think? I don’t know, but it was good. I also asked for the ibuprofen at that feed, so I had it at the 3:00 feed. And even there I impressed myself. Normally I drink the ibuprofen-laced bottle over 2-3 feeds, but I drank the entire thing at that one feed, and that’s like 8 oz of liquid with the 20ml of children’s painkiller.

I started with the Babybel cheeses at around 3:00 I think. Damn those are so good. I had the gouda version. So yum. I think I had two of those cheeses over the feeds. Like I said, the sun came out around 3:00. That’s such a morale boost I really just love it. The valley is quite beautiful. At the 4:00 feed I was ready for the swim to be done. Really tired. Back was hurting. Water was quite warm (maybe 78F?) Knew I could finish. Just wasn’t gonna push hard.

As my friends and kayakers know, I don’t want to know where I am in the swim at any time. Don’t tell me how many miles or minutes I’ve swum. I don’t want to know. The Tennessee river also has some buoys and other signs of your progress, and I always try to avoid them. I did, however, see something during this swim. A bit before the 2:30 feeding I saw a huge orange buoy. In fact, we swam right by it.

That got me thinking. What did I remember from the night before? Wasn’t there supposed to be a buoy at the 5th mile? Oh damn! Doesn’t that mean I’m halfway done at less than two and a half hours. Oh hells yeah! My goal for this swim was sub-5:00. That means I’m on track.

Then some things happened. At the 3:00 feed I looked backwards and saw an orange buoy. Oh damn, is that the same one? It’s taken me 30+ minutes to swim what looks like maybe 500 meters? Can’t be. No way. Shit. Maybe there’s more than just a 5-mile buoy. Oh crap, is there a 4-mile buoy? Dammit.

I don’t look forwards, or try not to, but I had to. Didn’t see another orange buoy, but with the current going crazy like it was, that buoy behind me couldn’t have been the same one I saw a bit before the 2:30 feeding. There must be more buoys out here.

After hour 4 I started breathing to the left a bit. Why? Well, I wanted to see the pump station. When Annie Loveless was giving the overview Friday night, she mentioned the pump station. But when is the pump station? Mile 8 or 9? All I remember is Annie suggesting not starting your kick/sprint at that point because you still have a ways to go. Annie might be able to sprint for two miles, so maybe the pump station is at mile 8? I can’t sprint for two miles. Where’s that damn pump station?

I finally saw the pump station, or what I figured was a pump station, and thought I’d be done soon. Still took forever. (Turns out the pump station is 1.5 miles from the finish; see map below.) Or at least felt forever. I got to a feeding at hour 5. Damn, not gonna hit the goal. Well, that’s ok. Still not looking forward. Kept swimming. But a few minutes after that feeding I had had enough. I stopped to look ahead. And there in beautifully bright orange was the finish buoy!

I asked Guillermo if that was the finish and he said he thought it was. I put my head down and sprinted…for only 100 strokes. Then I was done. Nope. No sprinting. Pooped. Still had to swim 400 or 500 strokes (can’t remember) after that first 100 sprint till I finally got to that damn finish buoy.

So glad to be done! I really wasn’t much help to Guillermo when it came down to dragging the kayak outta the water; sorry Guillermo! All I wanted was to change and eat some food. Karah gets a local restaurant to cater for us and wow is their food great. It was ground beef and chicken, Tex-Mex style, with all the fixins. Hit the spot, both plates!

And of course, the beer. Chattanooga Brewing hosts this part of the apres-swim party. Two styles and I had a pint of each one. Can’t remember what the beers were last year (must check your blog, Mike!) but this year I was smart enough to get pictures of the tap handles.

They were both so very good, but outta the two, I gotta say the Oktoberfest was the star.

And if there is beer and swimming, then you know marathon swimmer extraordinaire Elaine Howley will be there. This is very possibly the awesomest picture of the entire swim.

(c) Blaik Ogle and Derek Tingle

Once I was fueled, I made my rounds to the folks I wanted pictures with; unfortunately I didn’t get pictures with everyone (Karah, MJ). This is the community aspect of this great sport. This is why I love it, even though for many of these long (for me) swims I wonder why the hell I’m doing it.

Patty Hermann and I
Denis Crean (3:53, #15 male) of WaveOne Swimming
Victoria Rian (3:27, #4 overall & #2 female) and Christopher Graefe (3:31, #6 overall & #3 male)
Liz Uribe (3:53, #11 female)
Tim Root (4:34, #32 male)
(L-R) Valerie Yankauskas and her sister Paula (4:53, #40 female)
Elaine Howley (4:56, #43 female)

Guillermo wore my GPS watch so I’ve got the map of my swim. But the time isn’t correct. I asked Guillermo to start the watch the minute he got past the cow buoy. I was more concerned about getting the distance I swam versus the time. I knew I’d get the time from the swim. So here’s my map.

But I really want to zoom in to a few areas to show you how great of a kayaker Guillermo is. Remember that we had to stay “river left” to avoid the speedboats and stay within the rules set out by the river authorities. So Guillermo had to balance my safety with finding me the fastest course. I think he most certainly did.

Great lines, Guillermo, thank you!

Oh! My time? 5:23.24. Despite not making my sub-5:00 goal I’m happy with the result. I was #45 out of 51 males.

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