Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2016 – Race Report

 Standing on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, the day before the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, I cannot help but think what a blessed woman I am, having the opportunity to attempt another crossing. I came to Annapolis looking for redemption and I got it. This year’s installment of GCBS was quite a different experience from last year’s, all for the better.

The race was scheduled for Sunday, June 12. I had been religiously—obsessively, rather—watching the water temperature a month prior to the race. NOAA makes such obsessiveness possible by making its Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System available on the web and smartphone app. If one feels compelled to check the Annapolis buoy’s water temperature and other parameters at o’dark hundred, one can do so! The Annapolis buoy had seen a 20F rise in water temperature in less than a month. Living in Florida makes acclimation to cooler waters nearly impossible, so naturally I was concerned at the readings in the 60s. But once the water reached 70F, I was ecstatic. Then it was on to praying the water would stay in the low 70s. Warm water is my Kryptonite. Last year, I misguidedly wore a wetsuit in 76F water and 86F air. I finished my race in an atrocious amount of time and in the good care of Kent County paramedics. This year it was all about swimming smartly and managing temperature and hydration in order to avoid another visit to the ambulance.
Chesapeake Bay water temperature at Annapolis (NOAA data)

 On Saturday afternoon, I trekked over to Sandy Point State Park after a lovely late lunch in Saint Michaels with my dear sister. A year ago, I stood on the beach with tears in my eyes, overcome by the emotion of returning to my adoptive home to swim in the bay I love. This year I was excited to come back, certainly more confident in my ability to complete the swim in style. During lunch, I’d found out the wind forecast from a teammate who is a Maryland resident: 20 mph winds and a 2-ft chop. I hadn’t factored winds in my plan. The Swim Miami 10K and the Delray Mile Swim had been choppy, but not so much. We were talking white caps! The last time I swam in such conditions was during the Alligator Lighthouse relay back in September 2015. My coaches, my mentor, and my lane buddies were confident that I could handle it. A little external reassurance is sometimes necessary.
I plunged into the water at Sandy Point. It felt oh so familiar! Green, brackish, and fabulously comfortable temperature-wise. It didn’t take a long swim to realize that I had made a good decision in foregoing the wetsuit. I went back to Baltimore eager to start the race.
The air temperature Sunday morning was in the mid 70s. I left Baltimore early. I would rather wait at the venue than rush to make the start of a race by the skin of my teeth. The view from the Bay Bridge was fantastic. The rippled surface already glinted in the sun, ready for 600+ swimmers. I couldn’t wait to start. I parked at the Park and Ride in Stevensville, early enough to have my pick of parking spots, and boarded the school bus that took the early risers across the Bay Bridge once again and to Sandy Point State Park. I checked in and got my chip and cap and extra number strip and found a shady spot in the woods by the southernmost restrooms. Soon the ground was littered with swimmers. Some chatted avidly while others plugged themselves onto their headphones and tuned the world out. I lay on my back and rested and drank my fluids. It was getting hotter rather quickly. About 45 mins before the safety briefing, I started my warmup/stretching routine. I took ballet in my teens, and still practice some of the stretches I learned back then. I was doing a very nice straddle side stretch when another swimmer, a woman, turned toward me, snapped my picture, and turned away. I was flattered, but I also felt she should’ve asked. If anyone sees a picture of a swimmer on a beach towel posing as a ballet dancer, let me know.
Next I got into my speedsuit. This is not the high-tech kind pool swimmers use, but the TYR economy version. I love it because it is comfortable and offers some protection against jellies, if any were to be found. Finally, I lathered the skin the speedsuit didn’t cover with Desitin. The stuff works, perhaps because it stays on. I have yet to find sunscreen that does. I placed my swim bag in a trash bag marked with my bib number and set it at the staging area for the volunteers to transport to Hemingway’s Marina on Kent Island, the terminus of our swim.
I walked to the safety briefing with the extra number strip tied to my ponytail, and a grocery store bag with a big jug and two silicone collapsible bottles filled with hydration mix, goggles, cap, and ear plugs. I found one lone, scraggly shrub near the race director and wedged myself between the leaves to protect myself from the sun. I didn’t want to overheat because I knew the race director would be talking for over half an hour.
I love the energy at the start of a race. It was a gorgeous day, hot, and the wind was picking up very quickly. White caps already shone in the middle of the bay. A total of 636 souls awaited instructions. Of those, 413 (65%) were men and 223 (35%) women. 112 (27%) men and 55 (25%) women were swimming in skins, which makes 26% of the field. I was one of the skins.
The good news was that the wind was somewhat favorable. It was a northwest wind, so while one could get a little assist toward Kent Island, that same wind would push south, and the tide, at some point, would do the same. The rules state that if swimmers find themselves under one of the Bay Bridge’s spans, they are out of course and pulled out. Last year I was swept under the southern span by the wicked tidal current in the main channel, which is located between suspension towers. I spent a lot of energy trying to regain my course and stay out of the sight of the kayakers, feeling like Frodo and Sam hiding from the Eye of Sauron…

Frodo will get caught by the Eye of Sauron if he doesn’t duck.
I have two qualms about this race. The first one is the sacrilegious mix of skins and wetsuits. AG results make no distinction on who wore what, which I consider unfair to the skins. A separate listing of skins is posted, though.
Anti-DNF silicone collapsible bottle
The second qualm is the hydration support. Last year two boats carried hydration in the form of water and Gatorade. By the time I got to the second boat, the volunteers had run out of Gatorade and were rationing the warm water they had left. This year, when a swimmer asked the race director about hydration, I thought I heard him respond that she needed to drink now, which left me believing that the boats had no hydration at all. I could be wrong. I have to drink, though. Not having enough hydration contributed to my heat injury last year. This year, at the behest of one of my coaches, I took matters into my own hands and filled two collapsible silicone bottles with the stuff I train with and stuck them down the front of my suit. Extra weight, of course, but since I’m not fast and don’t aspire to placing, a little extra weight might keep me away from a DNF, which is more important to me. The only DNF I’ve ever had was because the water temperature was too high and not having enough to drink with me contributed to my overheating.

The start was planned for high tide, 12:30 pm, but because the wind kept picking up, the first wave of swimmers—my wave—took off at around 12:10 pm. The yellow caps—swimmers expected to finish in over 2 ½ hours—seemed to be the bulk of the field. The green caps—swimmers expected to finish in under 2 ½ hours—were to take off 15 minutes later.
GCBS course

Originally, I was standing at the left end of the field, but all of a sudden I no longer liked that spot because it made the leg to the bridge entry point longer. I didn’t like the right end either because that put me too close to the jetty and didn’t want to risk being sandwiched between it and aggressive swimmers. I picked the middle, toward the back. That turned out to be a good decision because I reached the bridge entry point without drama.
When the blast went off, I waded into the water and immediately dove in. Ah! At 72F the water felt refreshing and welcoming! The start of a race affords the opportunity to think about how much more one has left to go, but I always push that thought out of my mind. I like to stay in the moment. What matters to me at any given time is how I feel and what is happening around me. I look to the future as far as the next feed. Having sailed in the local beer can races, I understand how quickly conditions can change on the water. I used to zone out during swims, but I’ve abandoned that practice—as comforting as it feels—for one of awareness, which I find helps me make better decisions.
I entered the bridge a little west of the recommended location. I wanted to avoid contact. The further I got away from shore, the choppier the water became. The oft used ‘washing machine’ term was apt for the conditions. I swam close to the northern span, because at some point both the tide and the wind would be pushing swimmers south. I had seen the first green caps swim by and was enjoying the anticipation of arriving at my favorite location, just out of the western curve, where one can see three straight miles of bridge. It’s a glorious sight! I was minding my form when out of nowhere a wetsuited man smacked me square on my cheek, knocking my goggles down. The rush of adrenaline left me breathless and I had to make a conscious effort to exhale so I could inhale again. To his credit, wetsuit man said ‘Are you okay?’ but I was busy controlling my breathing and only managed an unladylike ‘Damn!’ He swam away. I was able to put my goggles back on without losing my contact lenses and resume swimming. My cheek burned.
I exited the curve near Mile 1 and was rewarded with my favorite sight. But I also got a better look at waves that I estimated to be 2 feet. Instead of a field of yellow caps dotted with some green ones, I saw caps bobbing and disappearing. Whitecaps roiled on the bay. The four suspension towers seemed to be the guardians of the channel that nearly defeated me last year. I took a swig from one of my bottles and pressed on. Still close to the northern span, I swam by the west concrete support and thought about how these monoliths are built, using caissons. Suddenly something pelted my cheek, whose burning had abated but not disappeared, taking me out of my reverie. The wind gusts were so strong that the crests of the waves were turning into spray. I remained calm and ensured my catch and pull were steady. After passing the first set of suspension towers and entering the channel, the waves became bigger. Every once in a while I felt as if my feet were higher than my head. I crossed the channel and passed the second set of towers, just a little before Mile 2. The wicked current wasn’t there. Part of me was disappointed. I wanted to measure myself against the channel, but the channel wasn’t interested.
Between Mile 2 and Mile 3, I noticed that I was drifting just like a sailboat in a strong current. I realized that the reason the channel hadn’t been the challenge it was last year was because the tide wasn’t moving as fast. However, it was picking up now and I found myself halfway between the two spans. Past Mile 3, the tidal current was in full force. I continued to drift until I was just north of the southern span. However, there were plenty of wetsuited men between the span and me, so their presence helped me gauge my location and adjust my course. Though I could very well feel the effects of the tidal current and the wave component that was pushing south, I was very pleased that I was making progress, perhaps due to the wave component that was pushing east. The numbers on the bents kept increasing at a steady pace. I felt energetic and was in great spirits. I was truly enjoying myself.
At Mile 4, swimmers have to cross under the southern span and turn east along the bridge’s eastern abutment toward Hemingway’s Marina. The area south of the abutment is shallow and warm, so I was not looking forward to swim in it. I was preoccupied at the moment with the crossing under the southern span. Last year and eddy got hold of me and flung my body near a piling, which was a big scare. This time, I positioned myself so that I would swim parallel to the direction of the waves and right in between pilings. I felt like a rock propelled by a slingshot. I crossed fast and didn’t get trapped by the nasty eddies.
While I swam along the abutment, a lady in a wetsuit, who was wading, took a look at me and said ‘Good job!’ I presumed she was referring to braving the race in a swimsuit. That was a nice compliment. Near the finish line, I couldn’t help but think how different this finish would be compared to last year’s. Then I was hot, struggling, and wishing the whole thing would end. This time I was cool, had plenty of energy left, and felt somewhat sad that my experience was coming to a close. I came looking for redemption and I got it. I crossed the finish line 20 minutes earlier than last year, in worse conditions. Proof that warm water is indeed my Kryptonite.
I was pleased when a volunteer handed me a medal. I didn’t get one last year, but I don’t know if it was because there weren’t any or because they had run out. GCBS 2016 was the 25th installment of the race and the medal reflected so. A nice keepsake.

I chugged two bottles of red Gatorade (which I don’t like) and wolfed down a turkey sandwich. I was still hungry and wanted a big, juicy burger and a beer. I wouldn’t get those until much later. Walking along the line, I heard someone say ‘Come take a shower with a firefighter!’ and everyone laughed. A Kent County firefighter hosed me down. I supposed the invitation was true in a literal sense. I looked around for the Kent County paramedics. They were standing at the ready near their ambulance. I felt a lot of love for them.
After calling close friends to share my good news and posting a quick report on FB, I lined up on the queue to take the bus back to my rental car. I took a good look at Hemingway’s and at the bay and the bridge beyond and hoped that I would be lucky enough to win the entry lottery for a third year in a row. I do love GCBS.

Unlike the year prior, I made many a good decision this year, starting with going skins. After some reflection, perhaps one of the reasons I wore the wetsuit last year was because I wasn’t confident that I could finish the swim without it, a thought that was magnified by the hundreds of swimmers clad in neoprene. But I am tougher than I think. That was a lesson learned. The second one was that I should’ve built more ‘insurance’ against the tidal current. I didn’t fight the drift from just south of the northern span to the center of the spans; perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t have had to do so when I found myself just north of the southern span. I’ll remember that for next time.

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