Race Report: Swim the Suck (Chattanooga, TN)

Swim the Suck would be my last race of the year: an epic season finale, the longest swim of my life, and a test run for even longer events next year.

There was, unfortunately, some question as to whether I’d even make the trip. I had gone to the doctor Tuesday for my MIMS checkup, and made the fateful decision of getting my tetanus shots updated (this is required for MIMS). Turns out, those suckers can make you sick! Not incapacitated-sick… but fever, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues. Mild flu symptoms, basically.

Thursday morning I had some difficulty getting through my 2000-yard taper workout… 10 miles sounded impossible.  Thursday night was mostly sleepless, from all the trips to the toilet. By Friday morning, though, things seem to take a slight turn for the better. So I packed up and made my way to the airport.


Did you know Chattanooga lies in the Eastern time zone? I sure didn’t. Lucky for me, I rolled into town a couple hours early. We gathered Friday evening at Outdoor Chattanooga, the local adventure-organizing outfit. After meeting our kayakers/pilots (unless you brought your own) we went for a practice swim in the river - just a short walk across Coolidge Park.

Coolidge Park, Chattanooga

Coolidge Park, Chattanooga

Tony (my pilot) and I went out for 40 minutes - 20 minutes upriver, then back. There wasn’t much current. Afterward, a warm shower, pasta dinner, and race briefing awaited us back at the barn. Karah’s PowerPoint deck was detailed and informative, but basically boiled down to: Stay right of the green buoys!

The river flow, apparently, would be greater than expected, thanks to an extra release from the upstream dam. I prepared myself mentally for a 3 hour swim.


In the morning, we left our cars at the historic Pot House, the location of the post-race festivities and just upriver from the finish. The swimmers and pilots were then shuttled back to the start near Baylor School, just downstream from Chattanooga.

The kayak put-in and race start were in a small inlet 75-100 yards from the main river. You crossed through a narrow opening under a bridge before entering the river. Once the pilots were in the water and beyond the bridge, the swimmers lined up on the dock. Some put their feet in the water. I was the first to fully immerse, mostly because, well, I had to pee.

Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill

Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill

(Minor gripe: The race had advertised “English Channel rules,” so I was disappointed to see two guys - including the eventual winner - wearing legskins. Oh well… perhaps I should have brought my B70 out of retirement?)

A few moments later Karah, in the dual position of swimmer and race director, said something like, “I guess we should go now,” and started swimming. Having foreseen a bottleneck at the bridge, I had positioned myself on the portion of the dock nearest the bridge.

I passed under the bridge with 2 or 3 others and swam out toward the kayaks. I figured it would be easier for Tony to find me than vice versa, so upon exiting the inlet I turned right (downriver) and didn’t look back for half an hour.

Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill

Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill

By the time I made the turn downriver I was by myself - that is, nobody ahead of me and nobody in my peripheral vision. When Tony found me after a couple minutes, I put my head down and settled into a rhythm.

Feeding plan: 10oz Hammer Perpetuem every 30 minutes. 1 Hammer gel pack every hour. Water as necessary.

After 30 minutes I saw Tony use our pre-arranged “feed” signal, so I pulled up and shot a glance behind me for the first time. One guy about 25 yards back. I downed the feed in 10 seconds or so and set off down the river again.

Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill

Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill

60 minutes. Feeling great. Guy behind me a little further back, maybe 35-40 yards.

90 minutes. Still in a good rhythm. Lead back to 25 yards.

2 hours. Starting to falter now. Feel out of energy but my stomach can’t handle any more. Lead down to 10 yards.

Photo Credit: Amanda Hunt

Photo Credit: Amanda Hunt

2 hours, 30 minutes. Really bonking badly now. Andrew passes me sometime around here, but I hardly notice and have no energy to chase. Current seems to be picking up, though - I can see the trees moving by unnaturally fast.

3 hours. Just trying not to pass out. I’m somewhere near the finish, but have no idea how near or far. It might be a quarter-mile, it might be a mile.

3 hours, 5 minutes. Tony says, “See the boat right there? That’s the finish.”

3 hours, 7 minutes. Done.

Thankfully, no one else passed me. I clambered into the boat with Andrew; within the next few minutes two others finished and joined us. The head pilot shuttled us back to the Pot House, and the only thing on my mind was a warm shower.

A few words about my pilot, Tony: What a pro. Seriously; he’s the best. He’s never piloted for a swimmer before, nor, as far as I know, does he know much about swimming. But he paddled straight and true, managed my feeds efficiently, and communicated effectively with nothing more than his paddle. He’s not a big talker (which I prefer), but when he did, it was with just the right words to buck me up during a rough patch. So, thanks Tony.

Anyway, I got my warm shower and changed into something comfortable. The boat brought swimmers back from the finish, 4 or 5 at a time, over the next couple of hours. There was food and beer, but I was still shell-shocked and had no appetite. Literally, no appetite - I didn’t eat anything until dinner.

I got the chance to talk with almost all the other swimmers during the after-party, which is a benefit of a small race. The afternoon was sunny and warm - just a nice day on the deck, next to the river. It was easy to forget we’d just swum 10 miles. After the last swimmer got back, Karah handed out awards. Beautiful hand-made pottery.

This may have been my poorest race of the summer, performance-wise. Being sick didn’t help matters - my energy reserves were lower than usual, and my still-sensitive stomach prevented me from refilling them even when I desperately needed to. But I should have adjusted my strategy accordingly - laying back the first hour so I was sure to have something left at the end.

It’s scary to admit this, but I may not have made it another hour. Can you imagine? A DNF after leading the first 2+ hours? I guess stranger things have happened in marathon swimming.

And… that’s a wrap for the 2010 open-water season. Back in Chicago the lake is cooling fast, and will soon be out of my thermal comfort zone. Back to the pool!