First of all, I want to thank the people who helped get me to the beach at Sandy Point State Park: Bert Polacek, who has always instilled confidence in me, and CJ Pisano and Julia Galan, who’ve worked with me to make me a more efficient and faster swimmer. I also want to thank my sister and my kids, who are my greatest cheerleaders, Sarah, the best Sherpa in the world, for sharing such an awesome experience with me, and all of you who are reading this. I definitely felt your love before and after the race.
Sarah and I got to Sandy Point State Park and upon seeing the whole length of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge I broke into tears. I love Maryland and I consider it my home and standing on the park’s beach I thought how very blessed I was to be doing such an awesome race. GCBS is one of the best open water swims in the world according to WOWSA. After checking in and getting my chip and cap, we rested under the shade of a tree on a lovely blanket. This period should be known as ‘the calm.’ Just before ‘the storm,’ I donned my wetsuit and went down to the water to get acquainted because, after all, I’ve never swum in the bay before. The water wasn’t choppy, but it was opaque, green, and brackish. The latter qualifier was interesting to me since I grew up swimming in the ocean and I’ve done a handful of races on freshwater lakes, but never on a brackish body of water. Not too sweet, not too salty. What alarmed me most about my assessment was that the water was warm, as in the-Keys-in-February warm. I proceeded to fret about wetsuit v. no wetsuit, thinking that the water in the middle of the bay would be colder. I opted for wetsuit. I had brought a collapsible bottle with my trusty Gatorade-Carbo Pro mix, but soon realized that the edge of the bottle was too sharp and it would cut a gash in my tummy since I was wearing a two-piece under my wetsuit. I had intended to put the bottle inside my wetsuit. I opted to drink most of the bottle’s contents before the race. I saw a guy with packets of GU and at that point I wished I hadn’t forgotten my packets of Honey Stinger gel at home.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans the bay from Annapolis on the Western Shore to Kent Island on the Eastern Shore. Two spans cross over the bay’s two shipping channels. The suspended section of the bridge (at the towers) is the tallest section over the deepest channel. The trussed section of the bridge covers a shallower channel. Over 600 swimmers were told during the pre-race meeting that the tide would be pushing us south before the main shipping channel and north thereafter. If a swimmer found him or herself underneath a span, the swimmer would be DQd and pulled out of the water by the many safety personnel on watercraft, and there were plenty! Safety-wise, I’ve never seen anything like this race. The number of vessels–including kayaks, powerboats, jet skis, and Coast Guard vessels–was in the hundreds. In addition, two helicopters patrolled the swim area. Fire Rescue personnel were stationed at both ends of the bridge.
I was in Wave 1, swimmers who expected to finish in more than 2 hours and 30 minutes. We had the neon green caps. I was extremely calm, NOT cool, and collected waiting at the beach for the starting horn. I decided I didn’t want to fight anyone because I’m not very fast, so it doesn’t make sense to me to spend precious energy just to get kicked or swatted on the head. After the blast, I got in the water and quickly got into a nice rhythm. The field headed toward the buoys that marked the entry point to the bridge. Swimmers were supposed to stay in between the two rows of massive concrete pilings. The western terminus of the bridge is a bend. At the point one has a clear view of the straight section of bridge, one has swum a mile. The Mile 1 ‘marker’ is humbling. If one pops her head up, one can see the pilings towering over and the spans of the bridge. It was nothing but gorgeous. And being an engineer who loves bridges and swimming, I could only think that this was the best swim in the world. I thought again of how blessed I was to be able to be one of the 600 or so swimmers doing one of the most coveted open water swims in the world. Wow. I was in Nirvana. Mile 2 was a continuation of my elation. Again, being an engineer, I had diligently studied and memorized the piling numbers and shapes as a way to gauge my progress. When I hit the Mile 1.5 ‘marker’ I looked at my watch and realized I had covered the distance in 45 minutes. I was FLYING for my standards. I started having dreams of a finish better than I expected. Then I entered the main shipping channel and hell broke loose.
I got swept away by the current so quickly that the next thing I knew, I was under the southern span of the bridge. I’m not one to panic. I’m very comfortable in the water, particularly if it’s salty. However, I was more than concerned that I’d be pulled out. I looked at the kayakers near me and they didn’t seem to be minding me. Opportunity, I thought, to get out of my predicament. I swam hard and as efficiently as I could. I knew I was spending quite a bit of energy, but I had no choice if I was to have a chance at staying clear of the span. I was comforted by the fact that I was moving forward, but still concerned because I was still under the span. At some point I reached a piling surrounded by treated wood. I was so close, I could smell the creosote. I swam hard to get away and once I was clear, I popped my head up to see what other swimmers were doing. They looked like they were swimming almost perpendicular to the span. I had to try something different, so I figured I’d give that strategy a go. It worked! I got away from the span but not without effort. I continued my hard swim until I reached the first ‘hydration’ boat at the 2-mile point. We were allowed to hang on, so I did, but just long enough to get the last teeny tiny cup of Gatorade on the boat. I also drank some water. I forgot the volunteers had bananas in my elation, so I didn’t eat anything. I took off right away tackle Mile 3. I could tell I had spent quite a bit of energy, so I decided to go a notch below race pace. I reached the next hydration boat at the 3-mile point and all the volunteers had was hot water. I drank it and moved on. Mile 4, though warm, was quite enjoyable. I was right in between the spans with no one around me. I could zone out and enjoy the experience. I noticed the change in water temperatures, from chilly to hot to warm and so on and so forth. I poked a jellyfish, but unlike its two friends at around the Mile 1 marker, it didn’t sting me.
At the Mile 4 marker it was time to swim in between pilings and swim along the eastern abutment to the finish line at Hemingway’s Marina on Kent Island. I swam in between buoys marking the exit point and between the pilings, but making the turn toward the marina proved to be an ordeal. This time I expected it. Eddies form around an obstruction in flow and can be quite strong. I must’ve been caught in one because I got swept away toward a piling. There must’ve been a foot between the piling and me. I swam hard and got away and continued to swim hard under the eye of an amused kayaker. Once I reached the abutment, the eddies disappeared. I had 0.4 miles to go. I looked up toward the Marina. I saw swimmers WALKING. I found out the reason right away: the water was shallow and extremely hot. By then I was running out of gas and I was very hot. I didn’t want to walk in the hot sun, but I couldn’t swim either, so I dolphin dove. I chuckled to myself about the irony of practicing dolphin dives at the Aqua Crest pool on my last day of practice before the race. With a hundred yards or so to go, I swam to the finish line with a time of 2:59:16, nowhere near where I had wanted to be. But, hey! I had just swum across my beloved Chesapeake Bay!
Once on the Eastern Shore (ha!), volunteers took my chip and a silly Tyvek strip I had to have under my cap and a woman asked me if I was OK. I was a little wobbly, but having done a half Ironman, I had experienced wobbliness before, so I said yes. Sarah happily waited for me and took pictures. I posed and smiled, a bit in shock about what I’d just done. That, ladies and gents, is the beauty of being a newbie. You may only experience once that sense of awe about doing something you didn’t think you could do for the first time.
I trudged along the line. The thought of eating made me feel nauseated, so I reached for lemon-lime soda. I tried to eat a cookie and a donut, but they wouldn’t go down. I found oranges and was happy to find that I could get them down. I grabbed my swag bag and was sad to find there were no finisher medals. I would’ve liked one. I got a 4.4 sticker for my car instead. Yay! At the end of the line, a fire department volunteer has hosing down swimmers. He was kind enough to keep the water coming for as long as I stood under the stream; however, the warm water wasn’t cooling me down. I left my things with Sarah and went for a walk to find Coach Julia and the porta-potties. I found Coach Julia first and she seemed concerned about me. She asked me how I was feeling. I said fine. We chatted and took pics and I resumed my search for the porta-potties. I found Sarah again and decided to stand in line for the bus that would take us to her car. I started feeling so awful that I had to sit on the ground. Then I changed my mind about the bus and went off again to look for the darn porta-potties. I eventually found them and when I came back I was sweating so profusely, sweat was pooling at my feet. Heat injury, I realized. Thank God for hazardous waste worker training! At that point I told Sarah I had to go see the paramedics and walked over to the ambulance. I again sat on the ground because I couldn’t think of anything better to do and told the paramedics what was happening to me. They grabbed me by the arms and walked me inside the ambulance, where they monitored my vitals in the chilly AC while they piled ice bags on my back. I must have been really out of it, because I thought I had been there for all but 10 or 15 minutes, and Sarah later told me I was in the ambulance for 45 minutes. Let that be a lesson, missy!
Sarah drove back westbound on the bridge, which I found quite amusing given that I hadn’t been on the bridge eastbound. I swum eastbound. Ha!
After a few days of reflecting on this race, THE race of the year—and mind you, I did my first half Ironman in January and I’m planning for my first marathon in the fall, so I have no shortage of challenges—I can say that I’m truly happy to have put the work in, to have qualified, to have attempted and finished it even though I didn’t meet my time goal. I now understand why marathon swimming is such a tough sport. This race doesn’t qualify as a marathon swim (that would be 10K and above), but is close enough to get an idea of what the sport entails. My expectations might’ve been unrealistic. There is no substitute for experience, though. The beauty of open water swimming is that you can do the same race 100 times and it’ll be a different experience 100 times. I got plenty of work to do!
I learned a few things:
- No wetsuit at 76 degrees! – I should’ve had faith in my training and not worn the wetsuit. It’s quite dangerous to wear at that temperature for such a long time. For a half Ironman swim (1.2 miles), it would’ve been fine. For 4.4 miles, absolutely not!
- Practice as if race day! – If I had had the collapsible water bottle during my last practice, I would’ve known it wouldn’t have worked out. I didn’t even bring the bottle I did practice with to the race. Big mistake.
- When in doubt, carry gel packs. – Enough said. Rookie mistake.
Things I did well:
- I enjoyed the experience – Talk about living life fully! I felt like I was doing so, and I was and am grateful.
- I managed my emotions – I didn’t panic while being swept away by Poseidon. Instead, I concentrated on my technique.
- I sought help right away after I realized I needed it. – A hard thing to do for hard headed people like me.
- Weight training – Muscle soreness was never a limiter; the heat was.
Things that I didn’t expect:
- Poseidon’s strength – I’ve dealt with choppiness and nasty swells, never current this strong. As always, I love the ocean, but now I respect it more.
- To share the experience with a friend – Sarah made things so much more awesome and fun!
- The outpour of good wishes before the race and attagirls after the race – It fills my heart with joy. For that, I thank you!
In closing, I started swimming Masters in October 2012. Before that, the last time I had swum with a team and for a very short period of time was when I was nine years-old. It would have never occurred to me that three years later I would be attempting this swim. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my coaches and all the encouragement from my friends and family. Next year’s BIG swim goal: my first marathon swim!