Not only did I totally rock the mile swim, but I did it in record time! It only took me 35 years, one hour, and thirteen minutes! Here’s the story of how I did it!
The Mile Swim is a traditional offering at Boy Scout camps. They allow Scouts or adult leaders to do it as a personal challenge. It is typically done during summer camp and done in open water (not in a swimming pool).
These days we do Mile Swim challenges at Hood Scout Reservation in Hazlehurst Mississippi, but back in my Scouting days we did them at Camp Kickapoo (now known as Camp Down Range) in Clinton, MS. I’ve also talked to Scouts from before my time that said that they’d done the Mile Swim at Lake Tangipahoa in McComb, MS.
When I was a Boy Scout I was a good swimmer, but I never challenged the Mile Swim. Fast forward about 35 years and my oldest son declared that he was going to do the Mile Swim. So I went and watched and cheered and sure enough, he was awesome! He finished his mile in about 47 minutes and he was about a half mile ahead of the other participants when he finished!
He made such an amazing and inspiring swim that I decided I wanted to do it the next year! Problem was I hadn’t done much swimming in about 30 years so I would need a good bit of preparation and practice – and summer was drawing to a close.
How NOT to train a manatee
My adventurous bride sprang into action and bought me a 3mm neoprene spring suit so that I could extend my practice swims into the autumn and get started back early the next spring. You should see that spring suit! I like to think it makes me look like a super hero, but it really makes me look more like a manatee! I wonder how it is that no photos of me wearing that thing are known to exist?
But it works great so I began a regimen of swimming.
Almost every day, well before dawn, I’d get up and wriggle into that spring suit and drive to the pool. I was getting into a routine and doing great. My laps and endurance were progressing nicely. Everything was going great when I nearly cut my toe off! Here’s how that happened –
See, the spring suit is a wet suit – it does not keep the cold water off of you but it does dramatically slow the amount of cold water that can flow across your skin. It basically traps a layer of water against your skin that warms up pretty quickly and then acts as an insulator. After a few seconds in the water it works great, but the initial shock when you jump into the water can still be severe.
As the autumn progressed and the nights got cooler and cooler, it took progressively more willpower each day to face that initial shock of the cold water. I would have a mental battle with myself as I drove to the pool and by the time I got there I’d have myself steeled against the cold, but each day I’d have to hurry a little more to get into the water before my mental toughness broke.
One day a couple of months into the really cold-water season I was standing next to the pool arguing with myself about whether or not it was worth it. Before the weak part of me could call it off, I took two or three running steps and leapt into the pool – and as I was taking off I snagged the side of my big toe on an uneven piece of tile at the side of the pool!
So there I am in the freezing water trying not to drown from the combination of cold shock and toe pain. I thought I’d just stubbed my toe on something, and it was still dark so I didn’t realize I was bleeding. I guess the cold water helped me recover from the pain in my toe, so I went about swimming my laps as soon as I could.
And it was my best swim ever! I swam farther and faster than ever before! It was glorious!
It wasn’t until I got out of the pool and was drying off and the sun was coming up that I saw I was standing in a pool of blood and wondering where it came from. Then I looked at my toe and realized that I’d torn a huge crescent moon shaped gash from the corner of my toenail around the side of the tip of my toe!
I’d had the best swim of my life with my toe flapping and blood trailing in the water after me! By the time I got home and got it bandaged it was throbbing terribly. I figured I’d lose the toenail and that huge flap of flesh. I probably should have gone to the ER and gotten it stitched but I didn’t.
It eventually healed and I retained my nail and the flap even re-grafted itself, but it put me out of training for my swim until the next spring.
Back in the water again!
I didn’t manage to get back to training until about two months before my appointment with destiny, but I did return to swimming laps and making some good progress when I made a discovery! The spring suit really does provide a good bit of buoyancy!
As the water warmed up, I eventually returned to swimming in trunks instead of the swim suit and I discovered it was much harder. The spring suit turned out to be sort of like swimming with a kickboard. When I had to start actually keeping myself afloat in addition to making forward progress, I gassed out pretty quickly.
Back to the starting point again! I kept training and making incremental progress, but I was not really anywhere near a mile of laps in the pool before I had to go to summer camp.
Practice laps at camp
At camp they have to actually see you swim a mile of laps before they will let you challenge the mile swim in open water. I guess they don’t want to have to rescue folks or something, so they have this 400-foot course roped off around the pier and diving area and you have to swim two 400-foot laps the first day, four laps the second day, eight laps the third day, and 16 laps (one & a quarter miles) the fourth day. Then they declare that you can challenge the mile swim the fifth day.
Those laps are the worst!
Two is easy. Four is not bad, Eight makes nearly everyone wonder why they wanted to do this in the first place, and sixteen laps is pretty much the most unending torture I’ve ever participated in!
For one thing, you’re swimming in 85° to 90° lake water in the scorching hot Mississippi sun! In order to keep from burning to a crisp, I swam in a tek shirt. Just like when I took off the spring suit and had to fight harder to stay up, the shirt was even more drag.
Then the third day (8 laps) I figured I’d be out there so long I’d better wear some sunscreen. Bad move! It got wet and ran down into my eyes and blinded me halfway through my laps. Rather than make me flounder blindly around the lake, the waterfront guys turned the other way and accepted a microscopic white lie when I reported that I’d finished the 8 laps. I came back the next day and swam 16 interminable, hellish laps wearing a floppy jungle hat instead of sunscreen, and it was much better even though it was even more weight and drag.
The worst thing about swimming laps is it breaks your momentum. Just when you get into a comfortable rhythm with your swim stroke, you reach the corner of the swim area and have to turn 90°. The choice is either swim in a big arc around the corner (increasing your distance) or stop, turn, and restart swimming. Swimming 8 laps with constant start-stop every 100 feet is much harder than swimming a mile in open water with no stops.
There were days I could barely drag myself back up to camp from the waterfront. Many times I had misgivings (like every stroke after the second day), but I completed all the preparation (except those 4 laps the 3rd day) and was as ready as I’d ever be.
My date with destiny
Friday finally came and it was time for the main event!
The procedure for the mile swim is to hop off the pier feet-first into water over your head, level off and swim 1/2 mile to the dam using any stroke or combination of strokes you like (so long as you’re making strong forward progress), turn around, and come back to the pier.
They send a boat with each swimmer in case he gets in trouble, and I should have told my rower to bring lunch because I was in this for the duration!
I took my time and alternated sets of 15 or 20 right-sided sidestrokes with the same number of left sidestrokes and the same number of elementary backstrokes. I was in no hurry – especially with my full-body sun armor and especially when I discovered the deep water was marginally cooler farther from shore. It was my day and my lake and my swim!
There was one old guy in my group of swimmers that completed his mile swim in about 25 minutes and when he finished he decided to do it again! He lapped me twice in about 50 minutes and was standing on the pier, already dried off, clapping and cheering me on when I finished at the 1 hour and 13 minute mark!
But listen up – I consider that year-long comedy of errors as totally rocking the mile swim for 3 reasons –
- I had the nerve to try it instead of sitting on the couch wondering about it.
- I finished it and survived!
- I owned it! I swam my swim in my lake in my own time.
Heck, I figure I got a lot more swimming in my mile than all those other poor fellows that finished so quickly! I feel sorry for all those guys that had to get out early because they swam too fast!