Inspired by the beautiful Tennessee River Gorge as well as by her grandmother, the late Evelyn McNabb-Davis Lancaster, Karah Nazor started the Swim the Suck in 2010. A lifelong avid swimmer, Nazor had moved back to her hometown of Chattanooga that year after a spell in San Francisco where she first learned about open water swimming and destination races. Instinctively, she knew that people would travel from near and far to participate in a challenging mid-distance swim in her hometown. After all, there weren't too many freshwater races which traveled through a beautiful river canyon.
Nazor's grandmother was born in the Pot House, which is in the gorge not far from Suck Creek. “When she was little, she said she would go swim the suck,” Nazor says, “meaning she would go swimming in Suck Creek near where the creek confluences with the Tennessee River." This is how the event got its name.
This year's Swim the Suck will be held on Saturday, October 11th at 9:30 AM. The race starts at the Suck Creek Boat Launch and ends at the “Living Water” Residence. The after race party will be held at Living Water. Hosted by the Chattanooga Open Water Swimming Association and Outdoor Chattanooga, the 10-mile event attracts swimmers from all over the US and other countries. Historically, it has welcomed and hosted swimmers from 22 states and several countries, including famous names like Ashley Whitney of Nashville and professional marathon swimmers, Penny Palfrey of Australia and Martin Strel, aka the Big River Man, of Slovenia. The entrants’ list this year is no less impressive.
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.
Although the water can be as warm as 75 degrees for the event, the temperature of the river drops about 15 degrees from mid August to mid October so it is usually on the cooler side. “I’ve had many people request that I move the race to the beginning of September or even to August when the water temperature is warmer so that they can swim in the race, but they miss the point entirely," she says. The race is scheduled for a time when the water is going to be a bit cooler; this guarantees a certain type of open water swimmer, one who wouldn’t consider wearing a wetsuit in a race, because it’s cheating. Additionally, the air temperature is generally between 60-80 degrees, further adding to the challenge.
Additional challenges for the novice, in addition to water and air temperature, are the distance and learning to take nutrition or feed every half hour. A 10 mile swim is considered a marathon swim because it takes most people 4-6 hours to complete, about the same amount of time it takes the average runner to run a marathon. An interesting challenge for the advanced swimmer, is that the race is neither short nor incredibly long. “Because it’s considered mid-distance,” Nazor says, “the highly qualified swimmers might feel obligated to sprint the entire thing!”
Aside from the rewards inherent in training for and competing in the event, every time a swimmer takes a breath, “they will inhale the stunning scenery of the Tennessee River Gorge,” Nazor says. The gorge is densely forested and the leaves are in the early stages of their spectacular transformation. “In some parts of the gorge, it is difficult to spot a man-made object. It’s critical to protect the natural integrity of this open space and keep it free from developers, loggers, and rock-harvesting,” Nazor adds that it is critical that we enjoy the beauty of the gorge now, in case we aren’t able to protect it long term.
In case you haven’t signed up to swim, but you are a proficient paddler, kayakers benefit from getting to enjoy the view the entire race. They also get the pleasure of helping a swimmer achieve a significant goal. Safety is a priority in this race. Every swimmer has a kayaker that they either bring along (a friend or family member) or they are assigned a volunteer kayaker to paddle alongside them the entire race. The kayaker is called a pilot, because their role is to guide the swimmer through the course and provide them with nutrition every 30 minutes. The pilot is also constantly checking on the health or other needs of the swimmer and can call a race motor boat if assistance is required. Outdoor Chattanooga and this year, sponsor Jackson Kayak , will be generously providing kayaks and gear for every pilot in need.
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 an afternoon in Chattanooga's scenic gorge.
Click here for a profile about one of this year's competitors.