Today it was announced that Walter Poenisch, the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida, will be inducted as a 2020 Honor Swimmer into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. I’ve written about Mr. Poenisch before here. Instead of reiterating what I’ve written before, how about we just read what IMSHOF wrote:
Walter Poenisch at the age of 65 was the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida: 128.8 miles/ 207 km in 34 hours and 15 minutes. The swim ended on July 13, 1978, when he reached Little Duck Key, Florida. Walter swam under pre-announced rules, under independent witness and the observation report was in the public record. The observer/authenticator was J. Marvin Mims the President of the International Federation of Professional Ocean Swimmers and Divers. Their rules allowed: fins, snorkel, shark cage and getting out of the water four times for no longer than five minutes at a time to administer emergency medicine, receive critical nourishment, or for any reason that directly threatened the life of the swimmer. These facts were never in dispute and he broke his own record for the longest ocean swim.
As a young man his occupation was listed as a cookie baker, rodeo competitor and strongman. Walter was late to marathon swimming (50 years of age) – first entering (but not finishing) the 1963 Jim Moran Lake Michigan Swim. He was credited as the “World’s Strongest Endurance Swimmer” for such feats as towing 30-ton paddlewheel boats while swimming with his hands and feet shackled.
Walter set world records for the longest ocean swims before the Cuba swim: 90.75 miles/146 km in the Atlantic Ocean and four year later 122.5 miles/197.1 km from the Florida Keys to the tip of the Florida peninsula.
Motivated by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Poenisch conceived of the idea of Swim for Peace, swimming from Cuba to the USA: “to further better relations between my country and Cuba.” It took him 15 years of letter writing and lobbying, to both governments, to obtain permission. Walter was the first swimmer to use publicity to deliver a positive political message (now called “Speedo Diplomacy”) – other IMSHOF Honorees including Lynne Cox and Lewis Pugh have since followed.
Cuban Leader Fidel Castro was on hand (proposing a toast honoring his efforts and his dream of peace between their two nations), on Walters’ 65th birthday. The next day he started and completed the swim.
Congratulations to Mr. Poenisch. The induction ceremony will be in May next year and I hope to see his lovely wife there to accept in his honor.
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.
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.
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.
Saturday, 12 October, was my third time swimming Swim the Suck, a 10-ish-mile swim down the Tennessee River, the #1 beyond-10K-marathon-swim in the world. Not an exaggeration. I’m serious.
This was also the swim’s 10th annual running. And what a great anniversary it was. 122 swimmers and kayakers in the water, with dozens of volunteers and observers out there to make sure everyone was safe.
Friday night was the pasta dinner and race briefing. This is always a good time, almost like a reunion (or, homecoming…see a future post on this) for us marathon swimmers. But even before that, there is the annual Patty (Hermann) Invitational Swim on Friday morning.
I’ve never been able to make this swim. I usually only take Friday off from work and fly out in the morning. I’ve not had much luck flying out of Boston, at least flying out on time, and Chattanooga is not a direct flight from Boston. Therefore despite an early take-off (5:45am), I wasn’t going to get to Chattanooga until 10:20, and Patty’s swim starts at 10:30.
Imagine my surprise when we landed at 9:55! I immediately texted Patty telling her I might make it. I changed into my swim suit in the airport bathroom (gross), ordered my Uber, waited 10 minutes (damn, should have ordered it before changing), and headed to the swim, with an estimated time of arrival of 10:45. Texted to Patty and another swimmer friend Tim Root telling them I’m on my way.
I arrived at 10:43 and saw some swimmers still there. Those folks were debating whether or not to swim all the way to Patty’s cabin, so I went down by the water to see if anyone I knew was there; I needed to find someone who could hold onto my backpack. Thankfully, Tim’s wife Amanda was there with their three little boys, and she agreed to take my backpack to Patty’s (thanks again Amanda!). I took my clothes off, put my goggles on, handed Amanda my backpack, and tried to catch up to the pod 10 minutes ahead of me.
The Tennessee river valley is just so beautiful. Speedboat drivers were screaming up and down the river on the left, so I stayed to the right; Patty’s house and the boat launch where we started were both on the right. I did, however, try and cut some of the corners to catch up to the other swimmers, and creeped out too much into the middle of the river. Since I never expected to make this swim, I didn’t bring a swim cap or my buoy, so I wasn’t very visible out there, and Stephen Rouch, marathon swimmer extraordinaire, had to come out and advise me on getting back to river right so I didn’t get run over.
The Patty Invitational Swim was about 2.8 miles and with the river running well it took me only 70 minutes. Very nice, shake-out swim prior to the big event. Hopped out at Patty’s cabin and hung out with some of the other swimmers; I think about 20 of us did the swim. Patty’s got a great view of the river from her cabin’s deck. Wow.
Was lucky enough to get a ride from Patrick McDermot and his wife to my AirBNB; they both drove down from Salem, NH, with two kayaks on their roof. More on them later.
Back to the pre-race briefing. I sat with my kayaker, Guillermo Uribe and his wife, Angelica, and daughter, Liz. Liz is a SCAR veteran, Catalina swimmer, and an all-around great person. Her mom and dad are veteran kayakers and I was lucky to have been assigned Guillermo as my kayaker for Swim the Suck 2019.
Karah Nazor, race director of Swim the Suck, briefed all of us on her fantastic swim. What I like about Karah’s briefing is she doesn’t do it all herself. In fact, she enlists the help of the biggest Sucker of them all, Annie Loveless, to brief the actual course. Annie has swum every single Swim the Suck since it began in 2010. She knows the river and gave a good overview, beneficial for beginners and veterans alike.
Karah also made a point of how great this community is. I’m talking the community of marathon swimmers and volunteers. Just one example is the case of the aforementioned McDermots.
A couple weeks prior to the race, Karah sent out a request for people to bring kayaks to Chattanooga; seems that every year Swim the Suck rents out all kayaks in the city. But she still needed more. The McDermots brought two kayaks with them from New Hampshire. One for themselves, another to offer up to the race.
Meanwhile, Guillermo and his wife flew from Arizona to come kayak for swimmers. Angelica kayaked for her daughter, with a rented kayak. Guillermo kayaked for me with a McDermot kayak. Imagine that on a map, arrows from NH to TN and from AZ to TN, and me, an arrow from MA to TN. Well, you don’t have to imagine it ’cause here’s my crappy picture of Karah’s slide:
Even more wow was one kayaker who came from Denver to kayak for a swimmer. Did she know a swimmer in the race? Nope. She contacted Karah and said she wanted to come to Chattanooga to volunteer to kayak for any swimmer who needed one. How incredibly great is that?!
(Even more telling about how big and great this swim is: On the morning of the swim, I got to talking to the chief safety officer. He told me that 40-odd of the kayaks being used that morning were all from a company who was closing up shop and had sold all their kayaks…two weeks prior. They sold their stock of kayaks but told the new owners that they couldn’t come get their kayaks until after Swim the Suck!)
Karah still wins for race briefings for one simple reason: this one slide with the best and most succinct marathon swimming advice anywhere.
Karah always has special guest speakers at these briefings too. In 2012 it was Martin Strel who talked about his Amazon swim. Last year I had to leave before the speech due to needing to prepare feeds. This year we had two guest speakers.
Stephen Rouch gave a great short speech about the importance of crew, and how right he was. He highlighted his crew from his speedy 50-mile swim in Vermont.
Elaine Howley, crazy-incredible marathon swimmer, gave a talk on her support to Sarah Thomas’s monumental four-way English Channel crossing. She was honest in what turned out to be the unexpected (but welcome, Elaine?) media interest in Sarah’s story. Really great talk, Elaine.
Then back to my AirBNB with the giant Charles in his tiny Chevy Aveo, or whatever that tiny car was. I know all about Charles’ car problems, I promise you. Anyway, back to the house, finish my prep, and get some sleep. Next up, show-time at the Suck Creek boat launch at oh-eight-hundred, Saturday morning.
Quick post to just inform my dear reader(s) that Swim the Suck on Saturday was a success! I finished. Phew! Official time: 5:23.24. Slower than last year despite more water from the dam, but that’s ok when I look at the pathetic number of hours put in training prior.
Sarah Thomas, already holder of the longest current-neutral swim in the world at 104.6 miles (67 hours 16 minutes), went and changed what we thought about human endurance by swimming the English Channel four times in a row without stopping. Yes, dear reader(s), that means she entered the water from England, swam to France, turned around and swam back to England, turned around and swam back to France (at that point becoming only the fifth person to swim a triple), then turned around and swam back to England, where she finally got to lay down and rest.
No one has ever done this. Only four people had ever done a triple, and none of them got back in the water and even started to swim a fourth leg. Sarah swam straight for 54 hours and 10 minutes, and her comment at the end was “I’m pretty tired right now.” No crap!
Sarah is a powerful swimmer and one can see from the plots that she had some serious fights with the water during those 2+ days. English Channel rules for multiple legs require the swimmer to clear the water and immediately re-enter, but if any part of the swimmer is still in the water, the swimmer then has 10 minutes before they have to start swimming again. All other rules are the same: no one can touch the swimmer, swimmer can’t touch anyone else. But the swimmer’s support can hand them food, lanolin, etc, as long as the swimmer does everything herself.
Currents were such for the first leg that Sarah “landed” at a rock in France where all she could do was hang on; no beach to rest on for 10 minutes. She held onto the rock while her support swimmer, another incredible marathon swimmer named Elaine Kornblau Howley, handed her lanolin and cooked rice. But, as Sarah reflects in her after-action report, those 10 minutes were up pretty quickly and she was off on lap 2.
Lap 2 took Sarah back to England and again, because of currents (and some other swimmers starting their swims on the beach), she got pushed to a seawall and had to tap the wall, signifying end of lap 2 and start of lap 3. She was so looking forward to a moment of zen on the beach there but had to go straight back to work. But as those of us who follow this amazing swimmer have grown used to seeing, she was all business and continued her powerful swim.
It wasn’t until the end of lap 3 that Sarah finally got to rest, on a rock that she could sit on. Still not a beach. And after more than 36 hours of swimming.
Her 10 minutes up, Sarah headed out for lap 4, making history. Lap 4 sounds horrible, and I don’t know how the hell she did it. To see the video of her landing, one wonders how she could even hold herself up long enough to clear the water. And how she was still awake.
Oh, and did I mention Sarah was nauseous throughout? Puking throughout the first three laps? She’s a “freak of nature,” right Sarah‘s mom?!
Sarah is an international star, especially in Britain. She’ll be back in the states this weekend and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of her on the news in this country next week. She has in every media event lauded her crew as the reason she made it through. She’s an incredible swimmer but even more so, she recognizes that this is not an individual sport. None of us can make any of our swims without the support of awesome people who volunteer their time for our insane pursuits.
Observant readers may wonder why I’ve linked every instance of Sarah‘s name in this post. Well, every single linked “Sarah” is a different news outlet telling the world about this incredible feat. To include foreign press, so you might be surprised at some of the links.
Dear reader(s) know how much I love and admire marathon swimmer-extraordinaire Sarah Thomas. She still holds the record for the longest non-current assisted swim ever at 104.6 miles straight in 67 hours and 16 minutes. Yes, no sleeping. No resting. No bathroom breaks that didn’t happen in the water, treading water. This woman is unstoppable.
Her next adventure? A quadruple crossing of the English Channel. Yes, I said four times. For those in the back who just now woke up: Yes, she intends on swimming from England to France to England to France to England. No one has ever done this. Only a handful of people have swum a three-way Channel crossing. Sarah is going for four crossings. Most of us, if we even consider doing one of these things, are happy to cross just once. Oy vey. This woman cannot be stopped.
Even. Better: Sarah and Elaine Howley, another incredible marathon swimmer, are filming everything! From the Kickstarter:
The Other Side is an in-production documentary short film covering Sarah Thomas’ upcoming English Channel quadruple crossing attempt scheduled for September 2019—that’s four consecutive crossings without stopping—an 84-mile round-trip swim that could take upwards of 50 hours to complete.
This is so monumental it is not to be missed. There is still time to support their Kickstarter campaign. They got fully funded less than 6 hours after starting, but they could still use some bucks. None of the money raised will pay for Sarah’s swim; the money raised is solely for production of the film.
So if you have some extra bucks, please visit the Kickstarter and support this awesome endeavor. You can support them with as little as one dollar. So what’re you waiting for?
The logistics on race morning are a little different now that they’ve changed the finish spot. We had to bring the kayak to the starting spot at Suck Creek boat ramp and then drive to the finish. Problem is, the finish is on river left while the start is on river right. There’s no bridge crossing the river, so we couldn’t simply follow the river to the finish. We had to drive around the city to get there.
Once there we parked the car and waited for the school buses. I slept. Not sure what Aunt Donna and Uncle Tony did. Before long, the buses arrived. We got on the bus, where I met a nice neurologist named Steve who was doing his first marathon at Swim the Suck. We had a great talk on the bus and I was glad to see later that he had finished the swim. Congrats Steve!
We got to the start and Tony set about getting the kayak ready. I lined up in the bathroom queue. Still had plenty of time before splash so I walked around talking to old friends.
Before long, I had to Desitin-up and get in line. The worst, and I’m serious: the worst part of StS is walking on the boat ramp. Small pebbles, like little torture-Legos, digging into my wimpy-soft toddler feet. And even worse, you have to drop your finish-line clothing bag at the top of the ramp, then the death march to the line. I was at the end of the line (#1598, based on last name), so then had to walk to the water, and just got in the water right before Karah called the start.
Different this year (than 2012), we had to immediately swim to river left around a particularly interesting buoy: a cow. That’s right, a huge white with black spots cow. This is undoubtedly a buoy owned by the good people of COWS. It was very easy to spot and we all got to feel the wonderful push from the river: Every time I sighted on the cow, it was to my left. I was getting a really nice push from the dam output.
Then we had to swim to one of four buoys spread out over a half-mile distance to meet up with our kayakers. I got buoy four, based on my last name. The buoy sequence was red, red, cow, red. These were smaller than what would be the finish buoy, but still big enough and red-enough (except the cow) to be seen…if your goggles weren’t severely fogged. I saw the first red and the second red, then nothing. I stopped to try and see where the cow was. A kayaker asked me if I’d found my team yet. You see, you’re not allowed to go beyond your assigned buoy without your kayaker. I asked him where the cow buoy was. “You passed the last (red) buoy already.” Uh-oh, I better stay here and start shouting.
You can just see the cow buoy to the left of the woman sitting on the closest boat. That’s the cow we had to swim to and around to get us to river left. And if you look right under Karah’s left elbow, you can see the first of the red buoys. That span of red buoys stretched out approximately a half-mile. You can see where my team were waiting for me at buoy four based on where they were when they started my Garmin at the start of the race.
The white blob between the Trail and Rd is the Suck Creek boat ramp. That is where we started from and immediately swam to river left. My uncle started my Garmin when Karah hit the siren on the megaphone. That was about 600m of swimming before I got there. And yelled. I started swimming backwards a bit, heads-up; I didn’t want to be disqualified. After just a few shouts, I found them. There were only a couple tandem kayaks so it wasn’t hard. And I noticed my aunt had a wonderfully easy-to-spot purple hat on, so knew I’d have no trouble keeping them in sight. I put my head down and got to work.
I felt good! I had no right to feel so good, with my lack of prep for this swim. But I did feel good. No shoulder issues, no right elbow issues. I did have one little bit of pain in the tendons of my left elbow, similar to what I’d get in my right elbow. Why my left? That made no sense! That pain went away almost as quickly as it appeared. Sometime during this first hour of uninterrupted swimming, my stab wound started to nag me.
Yes. Stab wound. You see, Murphy reared his ugly head on the Thursday prior to the swim. I was at work, already changed into my riding-the-train-home clothes, to include my sandals. I was picking up my lunch dishes to wash them when my steak knife flew off the plate angrily and landed, point end first, in the top of my left foot. Right in the meaty part near the outside edge. And then it bled like a stuck pig. All over. I did my best to staunch the bleeding, but not much you can do on the top of your foot. I stuffed toilet paper around it and my sandal and walked the office looking for the first aid kit. I found some generic bandaids, grabbed a bunch, and went back to my cubicle. Still bleeding. A lot. I put a bandaid on and tried to keep weight off my foot. I still had an hour of work. Sitting for an hour seemed to help, but the minute I got up to leave for the day, it started bleeding badly again. The bandaid was covered in dark red. I got to the train, sat down and covered the old bandaid with a new one, just so I wouldn’t scare the other commuters. Then I walked home and did a better cleaning.
So here we are about 36 hours later and I’m still limping a bit. It hurts. And now I feel it throb every once in a while. My mind immediately going to tiny evil bacteria coursing into my wound and bloodstream. I’m gonna finish this, then go get my foot amputated. If I finish quickly enough and the evil didn’t go farther up my leg. The mind is a funny thing. The throbbing, real or imagined, only lasted a bit and was temporary and intermittent. Before long I forgot about it.
I swam to the first feed at 1:00. Still felt good. Drank fast and got my head back down and to work. From here on out it would be 30 minute feeds. I got to 1:30 and the team asked if I’d peed yet, just like I asked them to. I was close, but no cigar yet. Feed, keep moving. Somewhere between 1:30 and 2:00 I peed and shouted “Peed” to them on one breath. They smiled. From then on, I was able to pee with no issues. Hydration plan successful.
I used Rubbermade Chuggs. I bought the 10 oz ones this time; I had the bigger versions before but they’re just too big for what I need. What I didn’t notice about these is they have a straw/suck flip-top, instead of a flip-top which reveals a large whole in the lid. I like the latter better than the former. Easier to get a large quantity of liquid in ya in a short time. With these smaller Chuggs I had to suck the liquid out. Took a bit longer. The smaller size was nice though. I tried to drink about half the bottle each feeding. So I must have gotten on the order of 45 oz of liquid in during StS.
To make the time go by I started counting laps. I’d done this before while training on straps for Issyk Kul. It helps me take my mind off the swim. I knew I was stroking somewhere in the 50s per minute, so something along the lines of 1500 strokes should get me to the next feed. Of course, I’m sure I missed some counts, or counted 400 twice, but the three times I counted strokes between feedings, I was in the 1600-1700 range each time. That jives with my usual spm pace.
I think at the 1:30 or 2:00 feed, I licked the inside of my goggles. Fog gone finally. Now I could see what Tony was signalling to me. The fog was so bad prior to this that I could barely see his hand signals. Now I could see clearly. Only issue was I could see clearly. You see, the river has buoys and signs that give you an indication how far you’ve gone. I don’t need that kind of support! The last thing I want to hear is “You’re halfway!” I actually want the finish to surprise me.
As the 2:30 feed came up, I entertained the idea of asking them to “feed” me the ibuprofen bottle at the next feed. I was just starting to feel my back. Not in the usual place, the lower back, but in the trapezoids. I was surprised. I never feel it there. But I could feel I was using my traps for the event today and perhaps I should get ahead of the pain? But it wasn’t really that bad. And wow! I still couldn’t feel anything wrong with my right shoulder or elbow. I didn’t say anything about pain relief. I did eat though. I got a Babybel cheese. So yum. Head down, back to work.
Still feeling good at the 3:00 feed. I asked one question: Am I in danger of not finishing in the six hour time limit? The team responded “Not at all.” I felt good, so I ate some more, this time a Justin’s nut butter packet, drank a lot, and took some time to pee vertically. I told them to go ahead and give me the ibuprofen at the next feeding. I wasn’t hurting that much more, but knew it was coming so thought it better to get ahead of the pain. At least, that’s what my Issyk Kul doc told me to do. And by this point it was just over 4 hours since I took 800mg. The bottle is filled with 400mg of liquid ibuprofen. And the max per 24 hours is 2400mg, so I still had plenty I could take tonight. And I’d been eating, so my stomach should be ok. Head down, back to work.
Somewhere around this time the sun finally came out. The forecast called for sun right at the start, but it was overcast forever. I was afraid it would be blah like 2012. Amazing how your mental state, attitude, body feels so much better when the sun comes out. It was glorious. I could see some of the beautiful houses on the right bank, the gorgeous trees, the blue blue sky. I drank up the medicine at the 3:30 feeding and dared a glance up and down the river. No, I’m not last. Good. Ate a Justin’s dark chocolate peanut butter cup. Oh yeah. I can swim forever with these as rewards. (No, I’m not sponsored by Justin’s, but maybe I should be.) Head down, back to work.
As the 4:00 feed came I started to get tired. I really wanted this to be over with. I was happy that nothing really hurt. I was just ready to be done swimming. I started actively seeking out things on the right bank, trying to determine if I remembered anything from 2012 or if I was looking at something new. The finish is now 0.36 miles farther than in 2012, so surely if I see something new, I’m close to done, yes? Well crap, all those trees look the same. Not the same as 2012. I mean the same. I am moving, yes? It was also at this time that I thought back to one of my rules for my team: If I insist on being told how far I am or how I’m doing, and I’m not doing well or I’m not halfway yet, lie to me. Uh-oh! When I asked them if I was in danger of finishing, were they lying? Crap. The 4:00 feed came and went. Head down, back to work.
Sun still out. Body still tired. Mike still wanted to be done swimming. Somewhere after the 4:30 feed I saw something that definitely wasn’t there in 2012.
This is the view from my uncle’s camera. The view closer to the water level looked more like a wall lining the side of the river. Ending in a white hotel with a red roof. At least, that’s what I thought it was. I even saw one of our race motorboats approach the hotel and park. This sure as hell was not there in 2012. I’ve got to be past the 10-mile mark by now.
They stopped me a little after 5:00 for my final feeding. My rule-set did not prohibit them from telling me where I am if they can see the finish buoy. And sure enough, they pointed it out to me. 600-800m away. I threw the bottle at them and put my head down and sprinted. For about 10 strokes. Then I was tired. Hell, that was the 5:00 feeding. I’ve got an hour to make it those 600-ish meters. I’ll get there.
What I remember from the pre-brief was that there would be another (the same?) big cow buoy right before the finish buoy. I couldn’t see the cow anywhere, but I sure could sight on the red buoy. The first red buoy. My brain started playing tricks on me: Didn’t they say there’d be two or three buoys leading up to the finish buoy? Is the finish buoy around the bend up there? Oh my God, do I still have a half-mile or more to go?
The thought of having to swim even farther than that one red buoy was killing me. I just want to be done. I want to be vertical. I want to eat. I want out of the water. And before I knew it, I was.
That’s me right before I touched the buoy. You can’t see it, but I’m smiling ear to ear. Another Swim the Suck in the records!
Finishing a bit before me was my Army friend Tiffany. She jumped back in to get a selfie with me. Then I noticed another recent finisher getting back in the shallow end so her kayaker could take a picture of her with the cow in the background. Yeah! Where the hell was that cow?
Yep, there it was. And I swam right past it.
The announcer here, like in Salem, had fun with my name. “Few people know that the boxer Mike Tyson was named after the marathon swimmer Mike Tyson!” He had so much fun with my name that some folks asked me if I knew him. Nope.
Here is my track from the Garmin. You can subtract 5:00 from the time as Tony didn’t remember to press stop till we were already on the beach. Final official time: 5:15.56. Happy with that, especially considering the lack of prep. And you can add about 500m to that distance, so just shy of 11 miles. The dam pushed us pretty good, especially at the start. I had some periods where my 100m times were 1:30 or less.
I looked around for the changing tent area, couldn’t find it, so hid behind some guy’s Uhaul trailer and changed into dry clothes. (Later, before leaving, I would walk right past the changing tent area, which turned out to be about 30m from where I changed. What is with me and not being able to see things in front of my face today?) Next stop? Taco bar! Karah got a restaurant to cater and damn did she do a great job. Beef and chicken choices. All the fixings. Tortillas. I’m sure they weren’t low-carb tortillas and I didn’t care. I had two. And beer! Chattanooga Brewing sponsored the event and they had two brews available (a Maibock and Brown) I had to try each. Of course! (If you’re in town, go sample their beers. Very tasty.)
(I also found out that the “new” thing I saw near the end of the swim was, in fact, new. But it wasn’t a hotel. Turns out it was a barge that found out about our swim and decided to pull over to allow all of us to finish! What a mensch! He was pushing four huge barges full of who knows what. That would have created quite the wake for us to swim through. From all of us swimmers of StS, we salute you, Captain!)
We also got our finisher awards. StS is great in that everyone, including kayakers (and other volunteers I assume?) get a piece of original art. Karah finds a local artist and gets him/her to create something original for everyone. This year was pottery by 423 Pottery. I had a helluva time choosing. In 2012 it was “fish on a stick” which I still covet.
Then it was reunion time. Met so many great swimmers. Half of them I’ve already “met” online. So great to meet them in person finally. We also stayed to cheer in the final male and final female swimmers. Despite the 6:00 time limit, Karah got permission (from whom, I’m not sure) for Felicia to finish the swim, which she did in 6:45. StS is a unique swim in that you get an award for being the last one to finish. And the award is nothing to sneeze at: A very beautifully framed and matted photograph of some part of the swim. Nice touch, Karah! And it turns out that the final finishing male was escorted by a longtime FB friend, MJ, whom I met for the first time here. She said her swimmer had overheard another swimmer at around the 3:00 mark. That other swimmer asked how far she’d swum. “Halfway,” was the answer. “I don’t think I can swim another five miles in the three hours I have left. I quit.” Apparently this worked against MJ’s swimmer. MJ persuaded him to continue. “Karah’s not gonna kick you out at six hours when you’re close.” Sure enough, that guy finished in 5:48! Congrats James!
Before long I realized Aunt Donna and Uncle Tony were MIA, having gone and put the kayak on the truck. I felt bad, so I ran around and hugged all the swimmers I knew and then ran to the truck. That was a mistake; longest 100 yard run of my life. We got in the truck and headed back to the house. It was on 5:30pm by now, maybe later, and we were all full, so we opted for no dinner out and instead stopped and got ice cream for dinner. Best. Decision. Ever. Peanut butter chocolate. No better.
Bed by 10. So gloriously tired. Up at 3:30am for the Uber to the airport. Back home in Boston before noon. Already planning next year’s Swim the Suck.
Swim the Suck actually starts on the Friday before. This is when packet pick-up and (evil carb) pasta dinner happens. If you don’t know your kayaker, this is also the time to meet him or her. And of course it is time for the race briefing.
That right there is the “Suckiest Suckster,” the one swimmer who has done every StS since the beginning. She’s describing the course. This briefing is pretty in-depth. When I first did StS back in 2012, I was so thankful that Karah takes the time to brief so thoroughly. I now am thankful that she’s still briefing it that way, and I like how she’s letting the suckiest suckster brief the course. Nice touch. But the most amazing thing? And I’m not sure if it’s been like this for a few years, but I can tell you this was not part of the briefing in 2012: Swim giveaways.
Odds weren’t bad, compared to something like a lottery. Every swimmer had a chance to win an entry to SCAR, or Swim Hobbs Island, or Bridges to Bluffs, or a Viking swim. I mean really, holy crap. SCAR itself is worth $1500. The Viking swim includes paying for the boat escort. Jesus, how I hoped that one of the winners would announce that they couldn’t accept so that I got another chance at winning one of those swims! Beggars can’t be choosers, though; I was lucky to even get this spot in StS this year.
Karah is an esteemed marathon swimmer in her own right, so we are lucky to get her not only as the race director but as the briefer. And from her years of experience, she’s got a lot of great advice. Her best is illustrated below.
Can’t get much better advice than that right there.
Karah got the food catered and there were no complaints anywhere in the room. My aunt, uncle and I had eaten a late lunch so weren’t too hungry. And me eating LCHF, I opted for the salad. It was good, but damn did the meat sauce for the pasta look good. I seriously contemplated taking a plastic cup and filling it, but I chose to behave. Instead I decided to eat one of the homemade cookies they had there, chocolate chip.
The briefing took about an hour, to be followed up with a briefing by Dr. Andreas Fath. Dr Fath has swum the entire length of the Tennessee River while doing a study on water quality. I did want to listen in to his briefing, but it was already 7pm and I wanted to get back to the AirBnB and rest.
We made our way back to the house and settled in. We had already gone over my gear and needs. I briefed them on my rules: Let me swim for an hour, then feed me every 30 minutes from then on. Never tell me how far I’ve gone, in distance or time. Stay to my right, between 2 and 4 o’clock. If I need food I’ll either tell you during a feed or shout it while breathing. Don’t engage me in trivial conversation while feeding. At the 1:30 feed, ask me if I’ve peed and if I haven’t yet, ask me every feed until I have peed. Simple.
I also told them to not be offended if I was short with them. I just want to put my head down and swim after a feed, so I’ll throw the bottle back to you. We had the bottle on a nylon thin rope. It worked great. At one point in the swim, I ended up talking more, but I’ll get into that in part III.
Then I went to bed. At a pretty decent hour, 10:30-ish. I expected to not sleep and I failed to bring melatonin, so figured I’d be tired the next day. However, when the alarm rang at 5:15am, I was initially shocked to be on my wife’s side of the bed. Then I remembered I’m not home, but in Chattanooga and realized that I slept all the way through! This is gonna be the start of something great…
Saturday October 13th was the ninth iteration of my favorite marathon swim and the best named one, Swim the Suck. Swim the Suck is a 10-(ish) mile swim through the Tennessee River gorge nearby beautiful Chattanooga and the brain-child of the indefatigable Karah Nazor. The swim is with the current, which is variable based upon the whims of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Chickamauga dam. The water is always warm; temperatures being context-based for open water swimmers, I’ll say that most, if not all, swimmers of this event never complain about the water temp. I say ten miles-ish because the race course changed slightly in the last few years. The finish line has been pushed a bit farther down the river, resulting in some swimmers’ Garmins registering closer to 11 miles when they’re done. In this post, I’ll recount how I got to Saturday.
This swim usually opens for registration early in the year (Feb?) and is filled if not in an hour then by the day’s end. And that’s for 115 slots (a huge amount for a swim like this)! Back in Feb I was still in Moscow, but knew I’d be living in the states in October. However, that would have been only about a month and a half after getting here to Boston and starting this job, so I didn’t sign up. I didn’t want to show up here and immediately ask for a Friday off!
Politics happened and as you dear reader(s) know, we got here significantly earlier. (Early enough to crew for B in the Boston Light Swim!) On August 20th, sitting in our living room on our new couch (thanks to the lowest bidding moving company losing half our original couch), I see on the StS FB page a simple message from the race director:
Three slots open. First three to email me are in.
Holy crap. Of course I immediately emailed her and a little bit later got this:
Dang it. You were the 9th to reply out of 12 Thanks for your interest and wanting to swim the suck again. Ugh. Wish i could open to everyone but i cannot.
Sad, but understandable. I could always try to get in for 2019.
Everything changed a few weeks later. One Tuesday night early in September I was again sitting on my couch and got the following message:
Want in to swim the suck still? Had another cancellation! Let me know
Oh my crap! Hell yes I do. I told my wife I had a slot if I wanted it. I don’t remember what she said in response because I was too dang excited. I wrote Karah back and after some registration paperwork, I was in!
My next thought was my uncle Tony, who kayaked for me in StS 2012. But would he be available on only 31 days notice? I sent him a simple email asking him what he was doing on 13 October, and I included the link to the StS webpage. (Just a month or so prior at his son’s wedding he mentioned to me that kayaking for me in this swim was one of the most fun things he’d ever done kayaking.) His response was simple: Hmmmm!
Turns out he and my aunt already had vacation scheduled for the week of, but had not yet decided where to go and what to see. And apparently my last minute entry into StS 2018 decided it for them! Not only that, they would bring their tandem kayak and both escort me down the river. How lucky am I? By the next day they’d planned out their vacation, first in Nashville, then Chattanooga on Thursday through Sunday. Logistics covered.
So next was the swimming. I had kinda petered off on my yardage after what I thought was my last swim of the season in Salem. In fact, between that swim and the email from Karah, I had only swum 4.5 miles. Not good for three weeks. I set about to improve on that. The outdoor pool near work had closed on Labor Day, so my only option was swimming before work at the Y. I’m not a morning worker-outer. But I’m also not good at going after work. So I went in the morning.
But not enough. The past few months I’ve had a nagging issue with my right shoulder. I’ve been in denial that it is anything to worry about. But someday I’m gonna have to get it looked at. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing exercises for people with frozen shoulder. That’s what my WebMD-ing had determined it was. (Later, I will re-diagnose my shoulder as tendinitis.) The shoulder would really feel good while swimming, only later hurt when I’d turn my arm weird, or reach back to grab a seatbelt, that sort of thing.
I’ve also had long-standing issues with my right elbow. It’s an orthopedic doc’s dream with all its issues, but in the last few years I’ve had occasional pain with the tendons there. After my successful Issyk Kul two years ago we were driving back to the city and I reached forward to adjust the air conditioning vent and BAM, sharp pain in the inner part of my right elbow, the tendons were screaming. I’d have to hold that arm like it was in a sling. This pain would reoccur off and on since then. Rarely if ever while swimming though, only outside the pool. Regardless, a royal pain in the butt.
So back on my swim schedule I went, fully intent on ramping my swimming back up to at least doing 10 miles in the week two weeks prior to the event. In other words, the last week of September. Did 5 miles to finish off the week, to include a nice 1.5 swim in the ocean on the Sunday. But the next week I spent three days traveling and the hotel had no pool. No matter, because when I got back I was sick, so still no swimming. I did feel better on the Saturday and got 1.5 miles in at the beach. The next week, the week I was to do 10 miles, I did a whopping 4.3 miles. Uh-oh.
I had a few options at this point. I could try and make the first week of October the 10-mile week, then ramp down slightly leading up to StS. Or I could continue on as I’ve been doing, knowing that there’s not much I can do at this point and I did have a pretty good base from the summer. StS is a forgiving event and regardless, it is so nice down there that I’d have a good time whether or not I made it, right? Then the demons began. What little swimming I did in the two weeks prior (7250 yards, sum total) had my brain playing tricks on me. Oh jeez, another DNF? What’ll you tell the people at home? at work? online? Ugg…get out of my head!
Some mornings I’d wake up early enough to go swim and my shoulder would be screaming at me, barely able to move. I’d have to grab my right arm with my left hand to move it up or down, the shoulder hurt so much. I’d choose a long shower with the massage flow of hot water working my shoulder muscles. Or the inside of my elbow. Basically, I chose rest over swimming. I did a lot of walking, especially the last two weekends prior. The wife and I did three 5-mile walks around our town. That was about it for the exercise. I think some of that helped. It certainly couldn’t have hurt. But really, I had no business starting a 10-mile swim on Saturday, so ill-prepared was I.
But sometimes, rest is what you need, as you’ll see in Part II.
I think any and all followers of my blog know how much I freaking love Swim the Suck. Maybe if another swim had been my first longer-than-marathon-distance then maybe I’d feel the same about it. But I doubt it. There’s just something about Swim the Suck.
Is it Chattanooga? Perhaps. Sure seems like a nice place, what little I’ve seen of it over two StSs. It’s hilly and green, two great things for a city. It’s got an airport, which is a plus. And it’s got beer, including local beer, which was excellent. But that’s not it.
Is it the swim? Well, it very well may be the swim. Hard to get a nicer, softer intro to something beyond 10K. The river is very welcoming. Even when the dam doesn’t release much, or any water, you’re still going in the right direction. And wow is it ever scenic; plenty to look at as you float on. But that’s not it.
Is it the t-shirts? No, but they sure do rock. Always different, and none of them white (I hate white t-shirts!). I only have two and I love them both and take care of them. Both beautifully designed and soft fabric. Simply wonderful. And I intend on collecting more over the years. But that’s not it.
It must be the finisher gift, yes? No, but I also love (cherish?) those. Karah, the race director, finds a local artist every year and has him/her design something for everyone. To include pilots! In 2012 it was “fish on a stick” or a unique piece of pottery. This year it was coffee mugs. All different! It was a helluva time trying to decide on which one, but I think I chose well. But even with these unique gifts, that’s not it.
It’s the people! This swim is like a family reunion. Everyone is so happy to see everyone else. And if you don’t know someone yet, you’ll know them while waiting in line to enter the water, your feet in pain standing on the lego-esque tiny rocks. You’ll meet them wearing your Swim the Suck paper crowns the Friday night before. You’ll meet them and hug them and cheer them in to the finish. You’ll meet them while taking pictures with them enjoying the beer.
It’s the people. So many volunteers to make this swim run. A minimum of 115 kayakers! I say a minimum because, at least in my case, I had two, my aunt and uncle having brought their tandem kayak down to TN to escort me, and I know of at least one other swimmer who had two kayakers with him. Then there’s the safety cover. I have no idea how many kayakers and SUPs that involved, but there were many. And the safety boats. I think three? And their crews. The set-up, the guys watching over the kayaks in the morning. The guys who marked our arms in the morning and took our ‘after-swim’ bags to the finish for us. The folks who provided the food and directed us to our parking spots.
It’s the people! The faces you’ve only seen on FB. Friends you made on social media, through swim groups years ago, friends you’ve written to and shared pains and joys with over the years, and finally meeting them in the reals.
And it’s the race director. One of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and certainly one of the most dedicated to marathon swimming. Karah Nazor deserves more credit than she gets for continuing to hold one of the most successful open water swims in the world. How she’s managed to keep this thing going is just amazing. She is probably responsible for more people successfully transitioning to their first beyond-10k-distance marathon swim than any other race director out there. She is vital to this community and I hope she understands how much we all love her for what she does for us.
In the coming days, I’ll write up more on this swim and my preparation (or lack thereof), my experiences, compare it to 2012, and lots more pictures. Stay tuned, dear reader(s)! Now I’m off to take more ibuprofen.