Swimming in the Potomac

I’ve been meaning to post this forever, mostly cause I have these totally awesome photos sitting in a folder.

As some of you may know – you’re not allowed to swim in the Potomac river in the waters of the city of the District of Columbia.  You are allowed to swim in it upriver of DC a bit – where the water is ‘cleaner’ (actually, it’s quite nice about 50-60 miles upriver near Harpers Ferry).  And you are allowed to swim in a bit further south as there are a few ‘beaches’ that allow it.  But in the city itself…nope.

It has to do with the National Park Service and water quality or something.  Buuuuuuuttt – there is one day a year were you can swim in the Potomac.  And that’s the Nation’s Triathlon held in mid-September.

So how is swimming in the Potomac?  Not as bad as everyone thinks actually.  It tastes and seems just like every other river.  You can’t see very far underwater, but that doesn’t mean anything really – as a perfectly clean river could just be more silty than others (not that the river is clean of course).  There were no floating toilets, and none of those funky mutated fish attacked me.

So I have to go by the only metric I know – the quality of water leaving my wetsuit after the race (no, not during – that could be sketchy).  Last year during the race I took my wetsuit off during transition, threw it over the bike rack bar and then left it there in the sun for an untold number of hours before collecting it and bringing it home.  Once home, I hung it up in my shower and left it there.  I didn’t run any water, and the wetsuit wasn’t wet per se, but slightly damp.  I wrote a post about it here.

Well (in 2007), about six hours later I went to check on the suit…and found this below it:


(2007 photo)

Those are muck droplets (technical term).  The funny thing is that they were actually kinda lumpy.  I’m nt sure what thier deal is – but they were fairly dark.  It then took five whole minutes of washing my wetsuit before the brown water turned a clear color.  Not.so.good.

So…let’s fast forward to 2008.  I did the same thing this time as well, and how did it look?

(2008 photos)


Actually…MUCH better!   You have to ignore the grass, it just came along for the ride.  But, the muck droplets were actually pretty clear this time – not an icky brown lumpy thing.

So there ya go – my extremely scientific analysis says the Potomac river is getting cleaner.  There may be some truth to that however, as in 2007 the race directors sent many e-mails basically saying “Swim pending water tests”, whereas in 2008 there wasn’t a single e-mail that mentioned “Pending testing”.

So…go signup – it’s the coolest race around (signup began Monday – Dec 1st, and will likely sell out very quickly).  I’m already signed up to play in the Potomac again.  :)

(Oh, and yes, that’s a rubber elephant in the photo above)


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  1. Very scientific of you. I can just picture a bunch of scientists sitting around discussing how they will measure the cleanliness of their river, when you come bursting through the door and say, “I have a better way!”

    … And all rejoiced.

  2. so i am considering the Nation’s Tri…but holy expensive. that is the most expensive olympic i’ve ever seen…

  3. Your PR spin there could use a little more oomph. I’m not sure that “there’s way less lumpy, brown muck than last year” is much of a selling point. Then again, you’re pitching it to triathletes and we all know they’re a bit whacked to begin with! So belay my last.

  4. Hey Audrey I think the Escape from Alcatraz has the price beat…(grrrr)

    Anyway um glad to hear it’s cleaning up nicely… :-/

  5. but where will all the hermaphrodite fish go if the river gets cleaned up? clearly dc needs to get its priorities in order

  6. phew…i was worried there for a minute. thank god i only swam in it in 2008!

    nations is $$$…who has that kind of dough laying around 3 weeks out from christmas! damn them…

  7. Nice test! Like discovering penicillin, you discovered quite by accident that the Potomac is dirty. Whoda thunk?

  8. Did you swim in the Potomac this year?

    link to youtube.com

  9. I have a goal to swim in as many rivers as possible, having swum thus far in 1) Colorado River (AZ), 2) Salt River (AZ), 3) Verde River (AZ), 3) San Juan (utah, 4) Snake (Wyoming) 5) Urubamba (Peru) 6) Madre de Dios (Peru, along with the U, headwaters of the big A), 7) Greene (Utah, which is where John W Powell started his voyage down the C);8) Sycamore Creek (AZ300 cfs)in which my friend nearly drowned); 9) the river that flows out of Shoshone Lake (Wyoming – YNP); and the Susquehanna (PA). MFB de AZ

  10. Dcorn

    I swam in the Potomac around DC once and will likely never again. I took my wave runner out at Gravelly Point a few times a couple years ago, probably ’09. Just putting around the city looking at the sights and jumping the wake of the large tour boats driving around. One time on my way back to the marina, the ski started running funny. I thought something was stuck in the intake grate, so I hopped in to check (full disclosure: I wear board shorts with under armour boxer briefs underneath to swim). That was the only time out I actually got fully in the water. So after my adventure, I headed to meet my gf for dinner before getting back to my apartment, maybe 2-3 hours after I had taken a swim. Both my shorts and boxers were finally dry at this point, and I finally got a shower. I ended up with a nice rash on my thighs and groin area where my boxers were for almost two weeks. No idea what it was, but finally went away on it’s own.

    Oh, you know that DC has open sewage discharge areas on the banks of both the Potomac and Annacostia, right? When we get a big storm, the city runoff and sewage mix and if they overwhelm the sewer system, it overflows into the rivers. Hope there isn’t a lot of rain before the Tri…

  11. Ted

    Totally nasty river…Totally awesome race!