Chattanooga's Swimming Event of the Year: The Swim the Suck

An aerial view of the 2014 Swim the Suck
An aerial view of the 2014 Swim the Suck Swim the Suck
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The setting for Chattanooga's ultra-distance swimming event of the year, the Swim the Suck, is the Tennessee River Gorge—an ecologically diverse, scenically beautiful, and historically significant river canyon that is easily one of the most unique natural treasures in the Southeast.

According to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, an organization that works to protect the river, “The Tennessee River Gorge is the only large river canyon bordering a mid-size city (Chattanooga), and it is the fourth largest (at 27 miles long) river canyon east of the Mississippi.” So whether the athletes realize it or not, as they make their way 10.33-miles downriver, from the Suck Creek Boat Launch to the Living Water Property, they'll be gliding through one of the most impressive backdrops in the entire state of Tennessee.

Karah Nazor, the race founder and director, began the event in 2010 when she returned from the Pacific Coast and wanted to create an event for her hometown that celebrated its beauty in one of her all-time favorite venues. She wanted an event that would be challenging for experienced distance swimmers but accessible for people getting into the sport. And if you look at the athlete profiles for this year's competition, you’ll see that she's created just that, as there are plenty of pros and newcomers that have registered, and they come from all over. You’ll see Tennessee locals as well as a good number of people from the Southeast and even plenty of people from Western states like Colorado, California, Arizona, and beyond. 

Swimming through the Tennessee River Gorge on a beautiful bluebird day
Swimming through the Tennessee River Gorge on a beautiful bluebird day Swim the Suck

The marathon swimmer forum indicates why so many people come to Chattanooga for the event. They love every aspect of it: the venue, the distance, the help from volunteers, the before-and-after party, and of course, the many amenities that Chattanooga offers. Kent Nicholas, Arizona native, SCAR Swim Challenge race founder and director, and experienced endurance swimmer says, “I cannot think of an open water swim in the US that has such a decent distance, prides itself on a good time, and is at capacity within 30 minutes of open registration. Karah Nazor is doing something very right out in Tennessee.”

When she started thinking about the event, the distance just made sense to Nazor: “Ten miles seemed more manageable to people just starting out with distance swimming, and Swim the Suck is one of the few races of this distance in the country; it’s the equivalent time-wise of running a marathon.” 

Nazor says the challenges posed at the Swim the Suck are interestingly diverse, and the rewards are indescribable. First, the race takes place in October at a time when the air and water temperatures begin to become a little uncomfortable for your average Southeastern swimmer. “Water and air temperatures in the mid 60s are fine with me, and most people who sign up for the race are prepared to swim in those conditions (which after my CA experience, are warm actually),” she says.

Nazor says people can become hypothermic at 68 degrees and even with the possibility of the water temperatures being that low, participants aren’t permitted anything on their bodies other than a swimsuit, goggles, and a cap. So anything running the gamut of insulated booties, shirts, wetsuits, skin suits, gloves, etc. is out of the question. The absence of this extra insulation only adds to the challenge. Not only will swimmers be required to swim the distance and stay in the water anywhere from 3 to 6 hours, but they'll also have to work to stay warm.

Swimmers must follow the English Channel swimming rules, which is why no wetsuits or extra protection or means of buoyancy are allowed. Additionally, swimmers aren’t allowed to hang onto their pilot boat, or touch other people. Most importantly, there is a 6 hour cut-off.

For this reason, each swimmer has a pilot boat to help guide and to provide floating rest stops. While the race and the waiting lists fill up quickly, there is often room for those wishing to man a pilot boat. Participants can bring their own pilot and boat or have the race provide one for them. The boats are called “feeding stations,” and most swimmers stop every 30 minutes to refuel.

Swim the Suck 2014
Swim the Suck 2014 Swim the Suck

For a first-timer, and even an experienced distance swimmer, one of the biggest challenges is realizing it might take longer to cover the distance than planned.

“I like to think I can cover two miles per hour, but I often end up being slower. When a person starts to think ‘how will I be in the water for 5 hours’ they’re really understanding the challenge of distance swimming,” Nazor says.

For Nazor personally, when she does an event, she actually counts the time in the water according to the number of feeding intervals because it’s less overwhelming than considering the entire distance overall. And her strategy is presumably pretty sound, as she’s had some experience. She’s the first person from Tennessee to successfully swim across the English Channel, and she’s done plenty of other marathon distance events, including swimming around Alcatraz Island.

The gorgeous Tennessee River Gorge in fall
The gorgeous Tennessee River Gorge in fall Michael Hicks

Kent Nicholas is coming back for his second time because he hasn’t swam in many rivers where, “the banks and surrounding hills are covered in such a lush green landscape.” He also likes the finishing party: “It was also so well done—rather than a mass of nameless, faceless competitors grabbing stale 1/2 bagels and a banana, it was a large group of friends that accomplished a long swim together eating Mexican food and drinking keg beer from a local brewery. There’s a big difference between a hyper competitive, ‘I’m going to beat you’ atmosphere and the event that really brings people together.”

Swim the Suck has managed to bring together a fine challenge, scenic beauty, competition, and camaraderie all in one. 

The event will be held this year on Saturday October 10, 2015. Swimmers will take off from the Suck Creek Boat Launch at 9:30 a.m. If you’re not planning to swim or pilot, come to the start or finish and cheer the participants on. There are few better ways to spend a fall afternoon in Chattanooga than in its most scenic gorge.

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