It all seemed like such a good idea at the time. In this case the time was September 2017, and my friend Penelope and I decided to throw our names in the hat for the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim lottery. For the 99.99% of you not familiar with the Mid-Atlantic long distance open water scene, this is a 4.4 mile swim race across the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland. It more or less (**foreshadowing**) follows the span of the Bay Bridge, which is a location familiar to anyone in the region who has tried to visit the beach during a summer weekend…and spent hours stuck in traffic on said bridge.
Depending on what you read, the Chesapeake Bay is quite polluted (but also improving) and home to crabs, jellyfish, sharks, dolphins, and cargo vessels. So who would pay money to spend 2-3 hours swimming in this soup? Apparently, a lot of people. Hence the lottery. Hence our carefree attitude in entering said lottery–we probably wouldn’t even get selected, so no harm, no foul, no risk, right? And we were right. Come January, we learned we did not get selected. Oh. Darn. Time to move on and…check my email a week later to learn I had been accepted in the second round of the lottery. (Penelope got accepted in round 3 and declined the spot, so apparently quite a few people come off the waitlist.) I sent the confirmation email to Coach Liz. “Heheh, oops. So…?” She pointed out that I didn’t have anything else scheduled for that weekend, so I should go through with it. Yay?
Swimming 4.4 miles (around 7750 yards, or 7100 meters) sounds perfectly reasonable when it’s nine months away, ambitious but doable when it’s six months away, and increasingly daunting after that. Even before I registered for the swim, Liz built up a solid swim base for me, usually 12,000-15,000 yards of swimming per week. I did a big swim of 80 x 100 as part of a Coeur teammate’s community event in January and an hour straight swim in February, but by and large my training didn’t change much until the last month or so, when Liz added some longer sets and additional swims to the mix. The swim block helped me learn some valuable lessons, including that I get bored easily while swimming long distances. Great.
In the days leading up to the event, I also realized that logistics would be a challenge. Although the event has been going on for nearly 30 years now, the communications have not exactly been ironed out. Every time I read the athlete guide, I interpreted it differently. Luckily, I was able to pick the brains of my friends Victoria and Shannon, who had raced it previously. To pay it forward, here’s a synopsis of the logistics: drive to the east side of the bridge (Kent Island). Park there. Take all your swim gear (including photo ID) onto a shuttle bus, which will take you back over the bridge to the west side (Sandy Point State Park). Use your ID to pick up your packet, then change into your suit and wetsuit (maybe) and put your street clothes and ID into a numbered trash bag (super classy) for bag drop off. Then wait around for a long time. Finally, get in the water and swim back to the east side, where you are reunited with your bag and get back on the shuttle bus to the car parking lot, so you can drive west over the bridge again. Phew. I do wonder if there’s some collusion between the race organizers and the Bay Bridge toll operators.
Speaking of logistics, to wetsuit or not to wetsuit? You can check the water temps on the NOAA website, but keep in mind that temps change during the course of the day, the temperature is taken close to shore so the majority of the swim is colder than that, but there’s also a long shallow section at the end that is warmer, and the air temperature matters, and also the amount of sunlight matters. These things combine to a big ol’ jklolidk. Liz and I decided that after around 72-73 F, I should skip the wetsuit, since, as she pointed out from my training logs, I get very cranky when swimming in warm water (I’m looking at you, Barry Farm pool). It was 71.9 that morning so I decided to go for it…then at the race briefing, they announced it was now 73. Crap. But I also didn’t want to deal with all the sunscreen required to prevent a full-body burn, so I opted for the wetsuit and hoped for the best. If you have a sleeveless wetsuit, that’s probably the best combination for this situation, but the water and air temperatures vary each year, so it’s anyone’s guess. Luckily, I have a super comfortable wetsuit (Roka Maverick) and remembered to put a bunch of TriSlide on my neck to prevent chafing. (Pro tip: an even better prevention mechanism is KT tape, though despite having the same name, I am not awash in free product. Ahem.)
After waiting around for a bit with fellow DC Tri Club masters swim coach Laurie and swimmer Kelly, it was finally time for the race briefing. In a nutshell, we should swim through two tiny buoys to enter the 100m wide space between the bridge span, keep swimming there for a long time, then look for two more tiny buoys and exit right toward shore. There would be two food boats with saltines and water (but no info on what they look like or which side they would be on so good luck with that), and also a paint barge around mile 3, when we would probably be tired and not thinking well, and the current would be pushing us toward it. But don’t worry about that. We should, however, worry about drifting outside the bridge spans (automatic disqualification), or lightning. In fact, the lightning worry was sufficient to warrant starting the race an hour early. Great.
Finally, it was time to swim! There were two waves–the first wave (green caps) was for slower swimmers and second wave (yellow caps) was for faster swimmers. This way, slower swimmers could have longer to make the time cutoffs. I was in the second wave. Just like in a triathlon, it was a bit crowded at first but people settled in for the long haul after a few minutes. Before the race, I was most worried about staying sane because during practice swims, I started to get bored/antsy/frustrated after around 500 yards, or under 10% of race distance. Once again, Victoria saved the day with useful information: the bridge span columns have numbers, but they are in random order and sometimes repeat numbers. She gave me this tip in terms of, “so you can ponder what they mean and be entertained,” but little did she know, I tend to get confused very easily when racing or training hard, and likely would have flipped out or thought I was swimming the wrong direction if I had encountered non-sequential bridge column numbers. Likewise, I would have probably filled my goggles with tears had she not warned me that the race does not actually end when the bridge does; it’s actually around a half mile further, around the bend. In sum, thanks to this research and a healthy mental soundtrack of pop hits, I was in a pretty good mental place.
Mental place, sure, but physical place…a bit of a struggle. In the immortal words of George Costanza, the sea was rough that day, my friend. Because the race started an hour earlier than originally planned, the tides did not help us as much as expected. I frequently found myself nearing the columns and had to swim at what felt like a 45 degree angle to prevent going out of bounds. Finally, at around the halfway point, I found them. The miracle feet. I don’t know how I found this person, but she was keeping an even pace and swimming straight down the center. It was amazing. I always tell my swimmers that drafting is significantly easier than swimming solo, and I felt very smug for proving myself (ok, and every other coach) right. We swam together until nearly the end of the race. I was starting to wonder if we reached the finish together, should I let her exit first because she had pulled me for over two miles, or should I do the smart thing and use my extra energy to sprint past her in the last 100 yards? Answer: she faded with about 500 to go, so I surged ahead, thanked her mentally, and went for it. As did everyone else–suddenly, there were dozens of other swimmers with yellow caps. Where did everyone come from? Crap, time to empty the tank. I managed to exit the water and not fall down until after crossing the timing mat and being off the finish livestream. Ever so graceful.
The finish line is a bit like the international arrivals terminal of an airport. You stumble, legs barely working, blinking in the sun, as hundreds of people wait behind a barrier, looking for loved ones and holding signs. I walked to the food tent in a stupor, grabbed a bunch of drinks, was unable to make a coherent decision about which of the half dozen sandwich choices to eat, and instead sat down in the grass for Elliott to find me.
Overall, it was a pretty good experience. I hadn’t come in with a goal time or place, wound up 2:20/5th AG, and felt pretty meh about it. I later learned that due to the early start time and missing the current, people’s times were around 25-30 minutes slower than usual…though some of the slower swimmers missed the tides in both directions and were out there for 3.5-4 hours. Ouch.
Next up: Tour of Washington County stage race (biking) this weekend!