This is a little article about open water swimming. And we’ll start right off acknowledging that open water swimming is NOT for everyone. You know who you are. You don’t like weeds, fish, mud, and murky water. There are others of us who consider it just another version of the sport we love. So, when the pools closed due to Covid, I was one of the swimmers who headed out to our beautiful lakes and rivers. From mid-April through mid-October, I swam in the open water a couple of times a week.
TEMPERATURE (Variations on Cold)
When it comes to open water swimming in Oregon, we have to start off with temperature, because in Oregon, it’s a big deal. Prior to this summer, I had only a rough idea of the effects of various temperatures. After all, during an open water race, there’s a lot to distract you from the specifics of the water temperature. Like trying to keep track of the course markers and trying to keep up with that neighboring dark shape whose pace is a stretch. ( I must admit I do have a bit of a competitive streak when it comes to open water races) But now that I had to pay attention, here’s how it breaks down for me: 66° and over, regular swimsuit; 60° – 65°, shorty wetsuit; 54° – 59°, long wetsuit; 50° – 54°, long wetsuit and get out in 10 minutes. By the time it gets down in the mid-50’s, the amount of swimming I can do related to the amount of time it takes to get ready and then get recovered is not worth it. Keep in mind that there is a lot of individual variation when it comes to water temperature. We know some swimmers who were getting ready to swim the English Channel in a swimsuit only. Those folks would just scoff at my wussiness!
WETSUITS (Variations on Cellophane Body Wrap)
We can’t talk about temperature without talking about wetsuits. Before summer 2020, I hated wetsuits. In a wetsuit, you float like a cork. Arms flail, kick is useless. And friction sores? Wetsuits can rub friction sores on the most unsuspecting body surfaces. But, out of necessity, I have now developed a grudging peace with wetsuits. I slather on the glide everywhere that could possibly rub. For mid-range temperatures, I cut the legs off a sleeveless long- legged wetsuit just below the knees. The resulting leg length provides enough coverage to boost my warmth, but allows my legs to sink sufficiently for an effective kick. Without sleeves, my shoulders and arms are blissfully free to stroke. I did do a couple of swims in this modified ‘shorty’ wetsuit that should have been done in a long wetsuit, but the freedom was worth the chill.
IT’S LIKE HIKING (Without Sore Feet)
Some hiking trails are close and convenient. Some are pristine and isolated. Some are popular with other hikers, and some more solitary. Same with open water swim sites.
Some were favorites for workdays when I had limited time in the evening, and others needed a Saturday or Sunday. Best of all were the pristine lakes in southern Oregon near our family’s vacation cabin. SOMA swimmers know all about those!
IT’S LIKE BIKE RIDING (Without Traffic)
If you’ve ridden a bike against a headwind, you know how it feels to swim upstream. You’re diligently working away, but the effort expended does not match the rate of progress. Similarly, swimming downstream is like having a tailwind. I always swim on my back when going downstream under a bridge so I can watch the bridge zoom by.
DOGS (Fetching Toys in Water)
How could a dog know that goggled moving latex bumps in the water are people? Not. So, I usually stop swimming and talk to them. It’s so fun to see the light dawn as they realize I am human. Some of them even share their toys.
A SWIM WORKOUT (Maybe)
I deceived myself into thinking that tooling up and down lakes and rivers all summer would keep me in swimming shape. Well, think again. Now that I have gotten back in a pool with a pace clock, it is clear that there is a reason we do intervals and watch the clock. Perhaps, in the open water, with no clocks or teammates, some people can honestly exert themselves beyond their comfort level. Which is of course what is needed to stay/get speedy. (Or at the very least slowing down at a rate consistent with the aging curve) Me, I’m a little more into waving at kayakers and SUP’ers,and enjoying the scenery. Still, better than not swimming at all.
Having experience with and love for other outdoor sports is a definite advantage when it comes to open water swimming. You need to plan for contingencies, variables and buddies that are not relevant when heading to a pool. But there are incredible joys: Every swim is different. Every swim offers a new challenge. And during the summer of 2020, every swim was a chance to be grateful to be swimming at all.