Behind the scenes of Chattanooga’s annual ‘Swim the Suck’ open-water swimming race in the Tennessee River

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Swimmers enter the water before the start of the Swim the Suck race at the Suck Creek boat ramp on the Tennessee River.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Swimmers enter the water before the start of the Swim the Suck race at the Suck Creek boat ramp on the Tennessee River.


There's just something both fascinating and befuddling about open-water swimming — swimming for miles and hours in unusual bodies of water, swimming across channels and around islands, enduring sometimes highly challenging conditions, from currents to cold to creatures, underwater obstacles and churning waves.

Your average non-swimmer, even seasoned dry-land athletes, wonder, "How do you do that?" While any typical open-water swimmer will respond, "How do you not?"

Like most endurance sports, open-water swimming is addictive. You're always planning for your next jaunt into the water, always searching for new waters to swim in, always training for the next swim or the swim after that. Sore shoulders and bathing-suit tan lines are your norm. It becomes such a part of you that you sometimes don't even know why you need to keep swimming. You just know that you can't stop.

Karah Nazor Rivers is the creator, director and mastermind behind the annual Swim the Suck event, a 10.2-mile swimming race in the Tennessee River held each October. She also founded the local open-water swimming group known as the C.O.W.S., or Chattanooga Open-Water Swimmers, who do a "social swim" of 1 to 2 miles in the river every Wednesday night in the summer.

  photo  Photo by Karen Nazor Hill / Race director Karah Nazor Rivers oversees the happenings during the event to make sure everything is flowing smoothly.
 
 

A long-time open-water swimmer herself, having swum the English Channel, Lake Tahoe and many other liquid stretches, Rivers understands the training and mental moxie that go into doing a longer race such as Swim the Suck. She can also relate to the appeal it holds for people who are happiest when they're wet.

"I love the question 'Why do you do these crazy swims?' The best answer I have heard is, 'We do not know yet. All we know is that we see it; we swim it,'" she says. "And we do it to spend time with our friends and be a part of the [swimming] community, to feel strong and be in shape, for our mental health and to eat."

Although preparing for such a swim can be intense on the swimmer's side, putting on such an event is no swim in the park for the race director either. There are many moving parts that go into planning a major swim like this, and Rivers says that the logistics of organizing the event are the biggest challenge for her. Getting everything to fall into place can feel a little bit like swimming upstream. "It reminds me of planning a two-day wedding for 350 people," she says. "I organize the website, the registration, the licenses, the insurance, the hotels. I work with caterers for the meal the night before, the main event, the busses, the post-event meal; I work with local potters (423 Studio and Front Porch Pottery) for the [finishers'] gifts (trophies) and work with local breweries for the beer."

She also has to work with local paddlers to make sure that every swimmer in the race is paired one-on-one with a kayaker or paddleboarder for safety and support. Most swimmers are able to recruit someone to be their paddling escort on their own, but with swimmers coming from 30 states and around the world to do this swim, it's a lot harder for visitors to get their own paddler. And even harder to have their own boat — kayaks don't pack well. "Finding kayaks to rent and local kayak volunteers can be a challenge, but local recreational water-lovers have always stepped up to pilot for an out-of-town swimmer to make this event a success," Rivers says.

The inspiration to create this swim race came from Rivers' long-standing connection with the Tennessee River Gorge and Suck Creek. She spent a lot of time there with her family as a kid. Her now-husband proposed to her on the water there. And her last name is Rivers, after all.

But perhaps her biggest motivation was her grandmother's stories of taking a dip in the swimming holes at Suck Creek — a pastime that she referred to as "swimming the Suck." Rivers decided to take that idea and swim with it, turning it into an official race. This year will be the 13th year of the event.

Over a hundred swimmers compete in Swim the Suck every year. Some are regulars who come back to do the swim year after year, while others are first-timers just looking to test the waters. And swimmers of all speed and skill participate. But regardless of where you fall on the swimming spectrum, finishing this race is still an impressive feat. "Swimming from four to seven hours is a pretty serious undertaking for swimmers of all levels," Rivers says. "Swim the Suck is considered a mid-distance swim and has become a foray into the sport for those looking to get a taste of marathon swimming."

Because doing a swim of this distance and caliber is nothing to shake a waterlogged stick at, Rivers tries to make sure that the event is unforgettable. Even the last-place finisher gets a trophy, with the glory of being honored as the "longest in the water." "I try to make it about the experience and make sure everyone feels welcome and celebrated," she says.

So why do they do these crazy swims? For the camaraderie. For the 3,000-calorie burn and a celebratory large pizza afterwards. And to feel like they accomplished something unusual and amazing. As for Rivers, the people are what motivates her to keep putting on this particular crazy swim. "Congratulating swimmers as they exit the water at the finish line is the absolute best," she says.

Swim the Suck 2023 is taking place on Saturday, October 7. For more information, go to swimthesuck.org.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Swimmers enter the water before the start of the Swim the Suck race at the Suck Creek boat ramp.