When you think of a race-cation, or destination race, you probably think of an iconic triathlon like Escape from Alcatraz or a super-scenic offseason marathon somewhere warm. Maybe you choose a destination because it’s home to one of the easiest Ironman courses, or perhaps you go for the brutally hard ones so that post-race burger tastes even more delicious. But have you ever traveled for a swimming race?
Open water swimming is a great way to explore new locations, and this round-up of some of America’s most spectacular, challenging, and iconic open water events could serve as the road map for your next cross-country adventure.Section divider
July 23, 2022
There’s a distance for every athlete at the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont’s annual Kingdom Swim, held each July in Lake Memphremagog for the past decade. Originally started as a fundraiser to save a local fitness center, the Kingdom Swim has grown from just a few hearty 10-mile racers in 2009 to more than 200 competitors in recent summers.
In 2022, swimmers can enter one of five separate race distances ranging from 1 mile to 25 kilometers in crystal-clear Lake Memphremagog, which straddles the Vermont/Quebec border. The flagship 10-mile course takes competitors north along the Canadian border, while the 25K “Border Buster” course crosses into Canada—bring your passport! Keep an eye out for the swimmer-friendly lake creature Memphre while you’re plying the depths, and enjoy the local flavor in downtown Newport after the swim.Section divider
S.C.A.R. Swim Series
April 27–April 30, 2022
A robust challenge for even the toughest of marathon swimmers, the S.C.A.R. swim sees competitors racing four marathon distances in four remote Arizona lakes over four days. The event starts with a 9.5-mile “warm-up” swim in Saguaro Lake and day two offers a 9-mile outing in stunning Canyon Lake. Day three serves up the “big enchilada,” a 17-mile suffer-fest across Apache Lake, one of four reservoirs on the Salt River. (The only access road to Apache is the stuff of legend.) The final swim is a night-time 10K in Roosevelt Lake that finishes at Roosevelt Dam under a full spread of stars.
Swimmers can enter one, two, three, or all four swims, and the winner (calculated by cumulative time) receives a massive belt buckle prize, reminiscent of the Western States Endurance Run. The party atmosphere and the desert beauty of these four Western lakes keeps many coming back year after year.Section divider
Great Chesapeake Bay Swim
June 12, 2022
One of the largest open water swimming events staged in the U.S. today is the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim that starts at Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis, Maryland, and crosses the bay to Kent Island, 4.4 miles always. The event, which launched in 1982, is so popular that the 650 competitors (who must be pre-qualified) are drawn by lottery. Wetsuits are permitted and encouraged, as there’s no separation in standings based on attire.
Swimmers must stay between the spans of the William Preston Lane, Jr., Memorial Bridge that was built in 1952 across the narrowest width of the Chesapeake Bay. If the current is ripping, be prepared to swim Maryland crab-style to stay on course. Over the past five years, between 79% and 97% of entrants have finished, but it can be a difficult swim. Proceeds from the event support the March of Dimes Chesapeake Bay Trust and the U.S. Coast Guard.Section divider
Long Bridge Swim
Aug. 6, 2022
Swimming along a long bridge is also the plan with northern Idaho’s hallmark open water swim, the 1.76-mile Long Bridge Swim. Founded in 1995 by the effervescent Eric Ridgway, the Long Bridge Swim has grown into one of the largest open water swimming festivals in the country, attracting about 700 swimmers each year over the past several outings. The spectator-friendly course runs from the south end of the Long Bridge to Dog Park Beach in Sandpoint.
Set in the wilds of the northern Idaho panhandle, Sandpoint is a friendly small town at the base of Mt. Schweitzer and the northern end of Lake Pend Orielle, the fifth deepest lake in America. Tall pines, bald eagles, and plenty of friendly folks abound in this high-alpine environment that features sparkling blue water, and plenty of it. Proceeds of the event support kids swimming lessons in the Sandpoint area.Section divider
The George F. Wendt Memorial Big Shoulders Swim
September 10, 2022
The conundrum in Lake Michigan, and indeed all the Great Lakes, is how they look and act like an ocean, but taste and feel like a lake. Founded in 1991 by Olympic gold medalist Bill Mulliken, the Big Shoulders swim in Lake Michigan capitalizes on the friskiness of big water with a stunning, urban buoy course overlooking downtown Chicago.
Today, there are three distance offerings at Big Shoulders, which is held on the first Saturday after Labor Day each year. The traditional 5K race has frequently been the site of U.S. Masters Swimming’s 5K Open Water National Championship event. A single-loop, 2.5K race was added in 1999 to accommodate sprinters and newer open water swimmers. And a Little Shoulders distance for kids was added in 2010 to help introduce the next generation to open water racing.
Sadly, in 2021, veteran competitor George F. Wendt, who’d swum in every Big Shoulders event since it started, died while competing. The swim is now named in his memory.Section divider
Swim the Suck
Oct. 8, 2022
Some swimmers opt to enter Swim the Suck just so they can say the name. For others, it’s the scenic and winding 10-mile downstream course that’s the real draw. Offering some of the best swag in open water swimming, STS sells out almost immediately after registration opens each spring.
The swim starts at the Suck Creek boat launch and finishes at the Tennessee River Gardens. With water temps in the mid- to upper-70s and plenty of warm, fall air, there’s little need for a wetsuit in this event. The pre-race dinner and presentation the night before offers competitors a chance to check out charming downtown Chattanooga. And the post-swim party in the grass features free beer, plenty of food, and wide open space to sprawl out and soak up some sun.Section divider
20 Bridges Swim
New York, New York
If you’re ready to really stretch your wings, why not reach for the iconic 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan Island? Competitors swim a loop of the Big Apple with the support of kayakers and a powerboat. While the swim is timed with the tides and is considered current-assisted, it still takes most competitors at least 8 hours to finish.
Along the way, you’ll get a squid’s-eye view of New York City and the many people and boats that frequent her three tidal straits. Dubbed 20 Bridges, the swim guides swimmers along a glittering cityscape and under each of the nearly two dozen bridges that connect Manhattan to the rest of New York.
Since NYOW took over administration of the event from the preceding organization, NYCSwim, they have shifted away from a mass start to smaller group swims that run several times each summer. During each swim window, two to four swimmers of similar pace and ability launch from The Battery in lower Manhattan and begin a counterclockwise navigation of the city that never sleeps. If you can make it there—up the East River, through the turbid Harlem River, and down the broad Hudson—you’ll make it anywhere.Section divider
DC Marathon Swim
Potomac River, Maryland/Washington, DC/Virginia
Another soon-to-be-iconic urban swim is the 20.5-mile DC Marathon Swim that takes competitors right through the heart of the nation’s capital. Starting at Fletcher’s Cove just north of Georgetown and finishing at Ferry Point, about a mile south of Mount Vernon, this tidal Potomac River swim offers unparalleled views of most of DC’s famous monuments, bridges, and even the infamous Watergate Hotel.
The swim was first contested in 2021 with a field of seven swimmers and three relays. In 2022, the organizers have shifted the format to smaller pod swims on different dates akin to what’s used in the 20 Bridges event. Look for this swim to gain in popularity in the coming years as athletes step up to challenge themselves in the “Nation’s River” and the heart of DC.Section divider
Sharkfest Swim from Alcatraz Island
San Francisco Bay, California
Aug. 7, 2022
One of the most iconic open water swims in the world is the short but potentially treacherous crossing from Alcatraz Island—site of the infamous prison that once housed Al Capone among other notable criminals—to Aquatic Park in San Francisco. The 29th annual Sharkfest Swim from Alcatraz Island offers competitors a chance to make a prison break just like the brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Lee Morris, who are believed to have survived their daring swim to freedom in June 1962.
The water in San Francisco Bay is never warm and typically ranges at this time between 55 and 60 degrees; many competitors prefer wearing a wetsuit, but some hearty swimmers make the crossing without neoprene. In addition to cold water and potentially tricky tides, swimmers may cross paths with sealions, sharks, and other marine life in this active waterway. In addition to the Sharkfest event, several other swim groups in the area arrange smaller or private crossings at various times throughout the year.Section divider
Waikiki Roughwater Swim
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii
Sept. 5, 2022
One of the oldest swims on this list, the Waikiki Roughwater Swim’s first outing, initiated by Jim Cotton, took place on Oct.11, 1970. These days, the swim starts on the Sans Souci Beach between the Natatorium and the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel. Competitors follow a buoy-marked course about 2.4 miles to Duke Kahanamoku Beach in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Considered to be among the most famous open water swims in the world, the Waikiki Roughwater swim has attracted a variety of illustrious swimmers over the years, including Olympic swimmer and actor Buster Crabbe. Each year, upwards of 1,000 competitors arrive on Hawaii’s most iconic beach to undertake this lush event. With an abundance of tropical, warm water, there’s no need for wetsuits; in fact they’re expressly forbidden in the event’s rules.Section divider
Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival
Wetsuits are also banned from the coolest (or is that coldest?) swimming event in the United States, the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival. Head back to the Northeast Kingdom and Lake Memphremagog in late February 2023 for the quirky winter swimming festival that features a 2-lane, 25-meter “ice pool” cut into the frozen surface of the lake. With water temps hovering at or below the freezing mark, a fleet of volunteers (called Skimmers) continually remove ice from the surface of the water to keep the swimming area liquid enough for competition.
Events range from a silly, 25-meter hat competition (the swim piece is almost an afterthought as the hat competition is especially fierce) to the grueling 200-meter freestyle event. You’ll be left gasping for breath from the extreme cold but warmed all over by the unpretentious affability of the winter swimming community. In 2023, the event is expanding to include three days of swimming to accommodate overwhelming demand.