After a few discouraging months of training, everything came together on race day. I Swam the Suck with flying colors. The race was a breeze compared to the training.
As I've mentioned before, the Tennessee River is a dam-controlled river. On any given day, there may be a fast current or no current at all. So, the 10-mile race course might feel like 7 miles, or it may feel like 10.
I was secretly hoping for a light current or no current for Swim the Suck.
If you saw the graphs in my last post, that will sound crazy. After all, 15 out of my last 19 long swims would have been too slow to make the cut-off without a major boost from the current.
But in my heart, and in my gut, and in my bones, I knew I could do it. A deep, important part of me wanted to prove it.
If that doesn't raise doubts about my sanity, how about this: Remember that graph? I think almost everything on it is an anomaly. Most people, if they know anything about swimming (or math), think the fast swims are the anomaly. After all, there are so few of them, they must be a mistake.
It gets crazier: I don't just think the bad swims are an anomaly. I think the mediocre ones are too.
I believe that 33 minutes per mile is my natural, easy, "forever" open water pace. If I'm slower than that under normal conditions, something has gone horribly wrong. And I believe that nice little 1500m from 10/6/11 is me at my truest, best swimming self.
I believe that I'm (maybe) starting to understand how to summon my inner good swimmer.
I've always known that swimming my best makes me feel like a creature. I'm all instinct, emotion, and sensation. But maybe it's the other way around: Feeling like a creature makes me swim my best. Feeling not thinking might be the way to get there.
So back to the race report.
We had planned to get into Chattanooga on Thursday evening. That would have given us 24 hours before the pre-race dinner to relax, mix feeds, and explore Chattanooga. Maybe even take a dip in the river.
Nope! We spent Thursday night stranded in Dallas, thanks to American Airlines. We got to Chattanooga with just enough time to hit Steak 'n Shake (yum!) and Target, rush back to the hotel to mix feeds, and head to the pre-race dinner.
Karah announced we would have an average of 10,000 cfs of current per hour during the race. That would be the weakest current in the 3-year history of Swim the Suck (33,000 cfs in 2010 and 15,000 in 2011). I was happy to hear that.
She told us the water temperature would be about 75°F. Perfect for me. According to the website, a swimmer should expect 70°F for that event. I can definitely handle 70°F, but I would have been tired of it by the end of the swim.
When we got back to the hotel, I had a nice message from my lane mate from Masters. He and I had done a 3-mile swim together back in August. My goal was to feel the same way Swimming the Suck that I felt swimming with him on that day. Relaxed and energized at the same time. With my animal brain switched on and my human brain switched off. At an easy, 33-minute mile pace. His message said he had a good feeling about my race, and he knew I could do it. That was exactly what my inner sea creature needed to hear.
The race didn't start until 9:30, but the kayakers needed to be at the start between 8-8:30. Since we didn't know where we were going, we left the hotel at 6:30.
Getting ready in the hotel room, I started shivering after putting on my sunscreen and drinking a cold bottle of water. It was in the high 50s and raining outside.
When we got to the start, Rob, my kayaker/husband/love of my life, started helping to unload kayaks. I stayed in the car with the heat on. Eventually, the sun came up, the rain stopped, and it warmed up a few degrees. I could get out and socialize. My top priority, as always.
Karah announced that we'd be getting even less current than we'd expected: 13,000 cfs 30 minutes before the race start, and 6,000 per hour after that. For a five-hour finisher, that would be an average of 8,438 cfs per hour. Just over half the amount of current from last year.
I have to admit, that scared me.
I'm in the 2nd row, 3rd from the left, adjusting my goggles.
The kayakers got in the water before the race start and paddled a few 100 yards downstream. They were supposed to wait until the pack of swimmers thinned out a little and then find their swimmer. Rob got an Angry Birds cap especially for the occasion to make it easier for me to spot him.
I hung back a little at the start, trying to find him. Once we found each other, I concentrated on feeling the way I feel when I'm swimming well. Not what I do to swim well. (Who knows what that is, BTW.) I felt happy to be swimming next to Rob in the kayak and seeing his handsome face whenever I took a breath.
There was a stand-up paddleboarder next to Rob. I thought that a.) she was a lifeguard and b.) that meant I was the last swimmer. She was actually paddling for another swimmer a few yards behind me.
As I got into my rhythm, I started looking for swimmers and kayakers ahead of me. I tried to see if I could pass anyone without increasing my effort. Just stretch out my body a little further to reach them. I passed a few people that way.
The first three hours were easy. Sometimes I imagined swimming with my friend. Sometimes I concentrated on a lengthening sensation of pushing down with my armpit. I smiled at my husband whenever I caught his eye.
At one point, Rob told me I'd been swimming against a current for about 10 minutes. I don't know how that could happen, but he said I was swimming normally without making any forward progress.
After about 3 hours and 15 minutes, Rob told me we were at the halfway point. This was not good news. 3:15+3:15 = 6:30. The cut-off was 6 hours. Even with the current assist we had at the beginning of the race, I was on pace to miss the cut-off by 30 minutes. With the slow current for the rest of the race, I might be close to 7 hours.
I didn't like hearing this at all. I thought I was swimming really well. (That happens a lot, BTW.) I started to notice my achy shoulder and my tight swim cap. But at that point, there was nothing I could do. I was going to keep swimming until they pulled me. Whether or not it was fun.
I could see a pack of swimmers ahead of me. I'd been trying to catch up to them for awhile. I started to concentrate really hard on catching them. I even switched to a 6-beat kick. (I always use a 2-beat kick unless I'm freezing.) Instead of relying on Rob for navigation, I started sighting on the kayak ahead of us. I thought that if I caught up to that pack, the race organizers would let me finish no matter how far I was past the cut-off.
I love racing. As soon as I went on the hunt for that pack, I went back to having fun. Pretty soon, I passed the last two swimmers in that group.
Suddenly, one of the other kayakers spotted the finish line and pointed it out to Rob. What?! We weren't expecting to see the finish for another 90 minutes. I hauled the rest of the way--maybe 1.5 miles. I ended up finishing in 5+01.21.
So I guess we weren't at the halfway point when we thought we were...
I estimate that the current gave us an 11% advantage. I did beaucoup analysis to come up with that number, but I won't post it here. (You're welcome.) That means we ended up swimming just under 9 miles. If that's true, I swam it in just under 33 minutes per mile, plus 5 minutes in feed stops. Exactly where I thought I should be.
Rob and me at the finish. I like this picture because you can see how much he loves me.
On the left: I'm high-fiving the guy in the water, not helping him up. On the right: Can you see the marks from my goggles? Those really hurt after 5 hours.
Once we finished, we headed over to The Pot House for a post-race party and awards ceremony. And maybe the best meal I've ever eaten. Instead of medals, the swimmers and kayakers got to choose a piece of original art. I chose this coffee mug.
Mainly: Go for it!
Event photos courtesy of Phyllis Williams.