Aaron Vaughn Memorial Frogman Swim, June 2016 – Race Report

Sometimes it is not about you.
For five years, Operation 300, a non-profit organization that raises funds to provide adventure experiences to the kids of fallen servicemen, has run the Aaron Vaughn Memorial Frogman Swim in Jensen Beach, FL. My first experience with this race was last year doing the 5K. The water was warm and my body still seemed to be suffering from the effects of a heat injury sustained during GCBS two weeks before. It was a slow slog. But what I remember most about the race is not my poor performance, but the emotion of the pre-race activities. It was a solemn moment when the names of all the Treasure Coast servicemen fallen in the War Against Terror were read. These young men gave their life for our country, and now their families carry on without them, wives without husbands, kids without fathers, parents without sons, siblings without siblings. What struck me was the look of pride in the faces of the SEALs who attended. I consider them the bravest men in our land.
I had planned to do the 5K again this year. However, Saturday morning I was not in the mood for a swim in warm water. I checked the nearest NOAA buoy and the water temperature was reading 83F. I had promised myself that after the GCBS heat injury and a DNF in a 5K in 86F water, I would not race in water 80F or above. Driving to the venue, I struggled with the idea of downgrading to a 1K. I’m not a quitter, or at least I don’t consider myself to be one, but starting a race with the possibility of a DNF didn’t seem like a good way to spend the morning. Plus there was the matter of the promise. Do I continue to fail in warm water races, or do I accept reality and stick to my threshold temperature?
I called one of my coaches. He simply said, “Honor your body.” That was all I needed to hear. As soon as I arrived in Jensen Beach, I asked the timer to switch me to the shorter race.
During check-in, a gracious volunteer handed me a tag that read “I swim in honor of Richard “Buck” Hubbell, DOD: December 3, 2002” and said, “You can find out more about him on the website.” I couldn’t hold it together. I started crying. This young man, a helicopter mechanic, died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident while stationed at Ft. Hood, TX. I didn’t find out these details until I was back home, but at the time I reflected on the fact that I was at the beach on a hot and beautiful day, celebrating life and the ability to swim freely in the ocean, while dozens of servicemen were being remembered for giving their lives to our country. I’d better make this a good swim, I thought. Who cares if it is not a 5K? Not me. Not anymore.

Many of my teammates showed up for the swim, too. They were all doing the 5K, so they took off first. The 1K swimmers were sent about ten minutes later. The blast went off and I ran down the beach to the surfline and slowed down a bit. I didn’t want to get pummeled. I dove in as soon as the water became deep enough. Many swimmers were still wading. I’m not a fan of wading. Soon I reached the turning buoy and headed north.
I felt good in the water. It was pleasant, but I could tell that after 5-1K laps in 90F air temperature I’d probably be feeling the same way I did last year. I figured I would swim a little faster than my one-mile race pace.
I’ve been training for the USMS 10-mile open water Nationals. I’m putting in quite a bit of yardage and three of my coaches have been tweaking my hand entry, my rotation, and leg position. I was thinking about all these adjustments as I navigated between swimmers. Passing others is very thrilling to me because I get passed a lot.
To my delight, the turning buoys came up rather quickly. Up to that point, I’d been swimming behind a guy who kept zigzagging in front of me and whom I couldn’t pass. After I made the turn, I decided to lose him. He sped up, but then I got lucky and he veered from my right toward left of center and onto oncoming swimmer traffic. To my delight, I didn’t see him again. With a couple hundred meters to go, I crept up to a young kid. He must’ve been in grade school. He tried to hang with me for a while, but eventually I passed him. I liked the fighting spirit of that little tadpole! In five years he’ll pass me like I’m standing. You just wait.
I made the final turn leaving the buoys on my right shoulder and made a beeline for the beach. I wasn’t looking forward to standing up and running up the sandy ramp to the timing mat. In fact, I never look forward to the on-land finish. I’m no longer a runner; last year I quit running due to injury. People pass me. Swimmers. On land. How about an in-water finish for a change?
But I did stand up when I could no longer swim and yes, two swimmers passed me. I glanced at the clock and calculated a 25-min swim. Ugh. Slow. I didn’t dwell on my time. I was happy I participated and that I made the decision to stick with my promise and stop forcing my body to do something it clearly cannot do. Next year I’ll be back for the 1K. I grabbed my things and headed for a swim meet 90 miles away to cheer for my team. While at the pool, I received an email from the timer stating that I had finished 41 out of 99 swimmers. Upper half! Ha! Moving up in the world!

A couple of days later, the results were posted. To this engineer it is quite exciting to analyze swim data. By this point I had attributed my speed to the warm water; however, one of my coaches reiterates that in open water swims, it is most advantageous to compare one’s performance against the field’s, since it is a truer measure. I finished 2nd out of 6 women in my age group and 15th out of 40 women. That age group finish was a nice thought to close this racing experience with.

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.

Delray Ocean Mile, May 2016 – Race Report

Beautiful morning for a swim in Delray Beach! The Delray Ocean Mile has traditionally been held the first weekend of the year, but due to uncooperative weather, it was moved to May. I arrived at Anchor Park before sunrise and the lifeguards were already staffing the registration table. A walk on the beach revealed a little chop. My big toe determined the water was borderline bearable at 78F. Soon the beach was flooded with my fellow Wahoo (Palm Beach Masters) teammates. Our team always supports our city and county ocean lifeguards. This would not be another lonely swim, oh, no!
At the beach, the race director, another fellow Wahoo, gave instructions to the 200 or so swimmers. The course started perpendicular to the beach heading east toward a buoy, turned 90 degrees due north to a buoy with a flag, turned 90 degrees to another buoy 50 yards away, then turned left toward the first buoy, making that diagonal the longest leg, to finally turn right at the first buoy toward the beach.

Race course

The gun went off and the swimmers started en massetoward the first buoy. I hung back. Why get pummeled in that madness? I wasn’t winning any awards, I thought. This was a C race for me: plain old fun. Many swimmers hung on to the first buoy looking scared or out of breath. I calmly navigated around people, turning on my left shoulder and heading north toward the buoy far in the distance. I got quickly into a rhythm since I’d already warmed up a bit with my friend Roy. For these short races I actually need to, since otherwise I’d spend 10 minutes warming up of the 35 or so minutes I should actually be racing.
The water had a bit of chop to go along while swimming north. I couldn’t see the second buoy. All of them were very small, so I figured I didn’t want to spend my energy trying to find it. I followed the field of swimmers ahead of me, staying within the line of lifeguards on surfboards. I wasn’t quite on that second buoy when I finally saw it, which aggravated me a bit. I veered left to turn. The turns at the second and third buoys were uneventful, but as I started the longest leg, I confirmed that it would also be the most challenging. The waves were hitting me almost broadsides. The waves were turning my body to a course too high for the last buoy. I kept trying to right myself, which proved a little frustrating particularly because the field had thinned out and there was no line of lifeguards to follow on that side of the course. I ended the diagonal too early because of that, which caused me to follow a straight course for the last buoy. That was even worse in terms of keeping a straight course. Luckily, I could spot the buoy and Iined it up with a building, which made staying on course easier. I was a bit mortified because I didn’t think I’d handled the diagonal well and thought I’d be embarrassed at being one of the last people not only on my AG, but overall. My teammates would be there to witness my embarrassment, so the thought made me feel worse.
I always feel embarrassed at being a slow swimmer rather than being proud of myself for improving significantly since I started swimming with Masters 3½ years ago. After 5 months, I attempted my first open water race, the swim leg (1.2 miles) of a half-iron aquabike (the first two legs of a triathlon). I continued the aquabike and triathlon swims until last year, when I became more interested in long distance swimming. I attempted my first 5K at 2½ years of experience. Two months after, I successfully attempted my first crossing of the Chesapeake Bay. I completed my first marathon swim after 3½ years of swimming with Masters. I have planned another crossing of the Chesapeake and 3 marathon swims before the end of the year. Yet somehow I feel embarrassed I’m slow.
My friend Roy and I stayed to watch the awards. I wasn’t expecting anything. When I got out of the water, I got a popsicle stick with a 125 written on it. I gave my stick to a lifeguard who asked my age group and name. I couldn’t read the page, because I was wearing my contacts, but I did see lots of checkmarks. 7 to 10, if I remembered correctly. So oh, well, I thought. Not such a good swim.

It was Wahoo domination! The teal green of my team dotted the age groups and in a few cases, it was a sweep. When the announcer, who mispronounced everyone’s names, got to my age group, he read a name but no one came. Then he said it again and Roy gave me a little push saying “That’s you!” I was so stunned I actually walked slowly in case the announcer had made a mistake. I told the announcer the correct pronunciation of my name and he gave me my third place medal. I put it over my head, very happy about my status as a middle of the pack swimmer and the fact that my embarrassment was spared.

Wahoo Nation!

Hurricane Man Race Report

Two years ago I stood on St. Pete Beach waiting for the start of Hurricane Man, a 2.4-mi point-to-point swim. Registration had literally been under water. It was raining buckets and the street was flooded. Volunteers struggled to keep paperwork dry. By the time swimmers were shuttled to the start at the Pinellas County beach access, the rain had stopped, but menacing dark clouds moved swiftly towards shore. There were rumors that the race would be cancelled—first time in the eighteen years the event had been running. Soon lightning started snapping horizontally within the clouds and with their scary drumroll an agonizing RD called the race off. I was shocked. I’d dutifully trained for what would’ve been my longest open water race to date. I thought my training had been for naught (such a noob thought!). The swimmers took off running down the beach toward breakfast and I joined in. Once we arrived at the Hurricane Restaurant, swimmers were treated to the best breakfast buffet ever offered by a race. Still true to this day. The sky tore open and we huddled the best we could under the wrap-around porch to eat the yummy calories we didn’t burn. I met a few swimmers from the Tampa area that soggy morning, among them John, a former age-group star and triathlete.
All breakfast, no swim in 2014.
 It took me a while to learn to process what a cancelled race meant. At the time, I was trying to collect little successes in my life. I needed them badly. This race would have been one. But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I eventually learned that one mustn’t put all eggs in one basket, so I signed up for the Tropical Splash 5K in October 2014. That race was Hurricane Man déjà vu. Torrential rain and lightning delayed the race to the point that the 5K was cut to a 2.5K. I didn’t get to do my 5K until April 2015. It took me a whole year to get to my starting point. Life takes detours, but we all know about that.
The 2016 installment of Hurricane Man was the complete opposite of my 2014 experience. The day was nothing but glorious! The water temperature was 74F and the air temperature 70F. The wind blew gently. The sun shone. Swimmers smiled.
After registration, I met up with my friend John and we tried to catch up with two years of swimming and triathlon stories. One of the gracious volunteers shuttled us to the race start. The water was beautiful! As I drove into Tampa the afternoon before, whitecaps dotted the bay and the wind was blowing a gale, but the day of the race the ocean was flat and there was only a very gentle swell. John warmed up in the water. When he got out he reported it was chilly at first but then it was perfect. He was shivering a little and got back in. I ended up not getting in the water before the start. The Masters ladies were in the third wave and silly me didn’t want to stand on the shore wet.
The Masters men started after the age groupers. Off John went. I expected him to do well. Two minutes later the ladies started. I was calm, cool, and collected—as I usually am at the start of an open water race—and hung toward the middle of the pack in the back. I’m a slow swimmer, no point in getting flustered by faster people swimming over me. I find starts at swimming races much more civilized than at triathlons, which I’m retired from. Just an observation.
Masters ladies dive in.
The water was lovely. I expected a fantastic swim. I got into my rhythm quite quickly; realizing that this was a much shorter race than my last one, a 10K three weeks prior, I aimed to hit my 10K pace right after I felt warmed up. Since the beach is a gentle arch, I figured that a line from point A to point B would be the shortest route, as opposed to hugging the white boys located about 300 ft from the beach. I used the field of yellow caps before me as a guide, until I found a volunteer paddleboarder who was maintaining a course I really liked and who was easy to sight. I stuck with him until the mid-point at the Don Cesar hotel, checking every so often that he hadn’t changed his course toward Mexico. At that point he peeled off to talk to other paddlers. I picked up the pace and followed the line of stationary paddlers for the next quarter of the distance. I started passing some white caps (guys) and yellow caps (ladies). Since I’m not a fast swimmer, I always get a kick out of a guy who when he realizes I’m passing him, picks up the pace to eventually drop off. I found one such guy and had a chuckle. With the last quarter of the distance to go, I skirted the white buoys and honed in on the red turning one. The water was lovely, I wasn’t tired in the least bit, and was really enjoying myself, so I did not want to finish. Yet I maintained my pace and reluctantly swam to shore. I got on my feet with a smile
A volunteer handed me a numbered card and another volunteer wrote the time. I immediately subtracted four minutes from it to account for the staggered start and was happy to find that I’d come under 1:20. Before the start, John had asked me what was my goal and I realized that I didn’t really have one. Since October, my training had been focused on Swim Miami, the first A race of the year. Hurricane Man was a B race, but I still felt deficient in not setting up a goal. While I swam I calculated my goal time and came up with 1:20. Turns out I swam faster at Swim Miami. Since I don’t wear a fancy GPS watch, I have no idea whether I swam longer than I thought in St. Pete or if the Swim Miami course was shorter than expected. The difference in pace was a minute.
I found John at the beach. He’d finished well before I did. We’d both enjoyed the swim immensely. We partook of the fabulous breakfast and stayed for the awards. We were curious as to the time for the winners of our respective age groups. The lady who won mine finished a good 20 minutes before me. She’s a fabulous swimmer. Yup, I’m slow, but happy. Later in the day, the results were posted and I was pleased to find out that I ended up in the middle of my age group. That was a nice surprise!
I said good-bye to John and to Pass-a-Grille Beach. St. Pete Masters puts on a fabulous race. I would love to come back next year with some of my teammates, if I can talk them into joining me. I had stayed the night at Fort De Soto Park campground and loved it! I’m seriously considering repeating this trip in November for the Swim Around Fort De Soto.
I always do Lessons Learned, so here we go:
What went well – Races with friends are always more fun! I was glad that John had signed up, too. Camping at Fort De Soto was very relaxed, definitely an experience to be repeated. I had fun, from beginning to end!
Room for improvement – Always have a time goal, even if the race is not an A race.
Next up: the Delray Mile and GCBS, my second A race of the year.

Swim Miami 10K Race Report

After the race, a swimmer described the 10K as Hunger Games-like. I couldn’t have thought of a more apt comparison! Despite the mayhem, I had a great race. This was my first marathon swim. My goal was 3:30 and I finished in 3:15. Even better is the fact that when I came out of the water, I felt I could’ve done another loop comfortably. Miles are smiles! Now I feel I’ve finally overcome a pelvis injury from last fall. I’m a very happy mermaid.

I arrived at the race venue, the Miami Yacht Club, around 0700. A friend, his wife, and the ladies from my swim team who were doing the 10K were also there. We calmed each other’s nerves. I covered my body in Desitin, since a fellow teammate and accomplished distance swimmer had recommended I do so. I took care not to put any around my eyes, where the googles would come in contact with my skin, or my forehead, so that my silicone cap wouldn’t slip. I mixed Desitin and Vaseline and applied that goop to areas that chafe.

The women’s 10K was scheduled to start at 0817, two minutes after the men. The 800-m Special Olympics race starts before the 10K. The 800-m start is usually away from the 10K, 5K, and 1-mi start, but this year, for reasons unbeknownst to me, the start was the same for all groups. The 10K swimmers were about to go and I heard the official say, “Don’t run over the Special Olympic kids.” Did I hear that right, I thought? That was not only poor planning, but also creating an unsafe condition. The 10K swimmers would’ve headed out straight into the path of the returning 800-m field. Reason prevailed and we were ordered to wait until the 800-m race was over. The result of the half-hour delay was that I was expecting to swim the first 5K in peace—because the 5K and 1-mi swimmers didn’t start until 1000—but now, I’d have to swim with the crowd starting mid Loop 3. In the meantime, we watched two dolphins playing right in front of us. Every time they broke the water’s surface, people cheered and clapped. One of my fellow teammates said that it was good luck. She was right!

Loop 1 – The course was a north-south 1-mi loop, squeezed in between a shoreline festooned with docks and a field of moored boats. The women set off a minute after the men, heading south. The water was warm, but still comfortable at 78F. Warm water is my kryptonite, so I hoped the cloud cover would stay throughout the race. Just like last year, the ends of the course were marked with green buoys, large enough for easy spotting. The buoys in between were all red. The wind was blowing from the northeast, so I knew that as soon as I turned around the southernmost buoy, I’d be swimming against the chop, which I like. I’d been swimming all winter in the ocean in a bit rougher water, so I found the chop quite manageable. Swimming north it was evident that the course wasn’t quite a straight line. Turning the northernmost buoy, I briefly stopped to take a swig from the collapsible bottle that I had stuck down my suit. Kryptonite antidote. I stayed away from the line of buoys, making a beeline for the dock where a friend was managing my feeds. My sighting wasn’t fantastic on this loop mostly because I was having a good time swimming and was zoning out. My feed went without a hitch. My friend told me I was doing really good time, but he didn’t tell me how much and I appreciated that. I don’t wear a watch in races. I’d rather go by feel.

Loop 2 – I was more disciplined and started sighting every nine strokes. The wind was gradually picking up, so I didn’t want to go off course because I wasn’t focusing. Up to the point I’d swum 1 ½ loops, I’d been using a two-beat kick. Starting the northward leg of the second loop, I changed to a four-beat kick. I would do this from then on and whenever the water was feeling too choppy or congested with swimmers. Once again, I had a nice go around the loop, this time with the benefit of knowing the course.

Loop 3 – After I turned the southernmost buoy, I noticed an anchored boat had shifted, blocking the view for three quarters of the distance. That made for a confusing bottleneck. Past the boat, the lead 5K swimmers started passing me. The wind had not only pushed the boat, but also the buoys. I stayed close to the buoys, but was getting too annoyed getting bumped by the 5K people. I’ve learned to defend my watery real estate, so I wasn’t run over by anyone. At the northernmost buoy, a breaststroker kicked me in the stomach unintentionally. I stayed far from the stream of green caps on my way to the dock.

Loop 4 – I saw a couple of pink caps swimming left of center and in my path. I yelled at the two women, but I don’t know if they actually changed course. The pink caps were the milers and I didn’t really see many of them, probably because I was hugging the line of boats as I swam north, staying right of the buoys and the crowd. I started dropping my left elbow every once in a while. Not sure why I was doing that, perhaps because the underside of my upper arm was starting to hurt. I had to concentrate to get rid of the creeping bad habit. I felt no pain after correcting my stroke.
Loop 5 – The field started thinning out and I was grateful for it. Now I could go back to swimming close to the buoys. Before the boat that was blocking the view, I found a lady in a green cap who’d stopped to figure out which way to go. I pointed the way to her and gave her directions and kept swimming. At this point I started to think “I got this” and smiled to myself every so often. I was surprised I was feeling so well. I thought about picking up my speed, but always worried about the warm water, I decided to keep doing what I was doing. Once I rounded the northernmost buoy, I swam by the spectator dock and waved. I smiled and people smiled in return.

Loop 6 – My friend handed me my last feed. His wife had just finished the 10K and looked fabulous. They’d wait for me at the finish line. One advantage of being a slow swimmer is that at some point you’ll be left alone. I actually like that. Most of my weekend ocean swims have been by myself at Reed Reef, which is guarded. Most swimmers had finished, but odd things started happening. First, a group of four jet skis crossed the course. They were moving slowly, but I still wondered why such a thing was necessary. Then a guy in a dinghy just paddled along the course. I gave him a nasty look, but I don’t think he noticed nor cared. After that, I swam a little faster, hoping to avoid the interlopers. At my last buoy turn, I thanked the lifeguard posted on a boat and headed for the finish line. Past the spectator dock, I turned toward the yacht club. Finally going with the chop! I was really surprised when I saw the clock marking 3:16. Since the women had left a minutes after the men, that meant that I had finished 15 minutes ahead of my goal of 3:30. I was pretty happy crossing the finish line. What I was most surprised about, was that I was feeling so good, I could’ve gone for another loop!

Wrap up – It was fantastic to be greeted by my friends and the ladies from my swim team at the finish line. I was happy to find out that all of my friends doing the 10K finished. This is my third year doing Swim Miami. I’ve moved up from the mile, to the 5K, to the 10K. I still remember looking at the 10K swimmers with awe my first year. This time I was one of them. I don’t think I’ll come back next year, though. I don’t like swimming so close to a stream of people going in the opposite direction. Last year a guy swimming left of center swiped my goggles off my face. I was lucky not to lose them or my contacts, but was rattled for a while. I had no incidents this year, perhaps because I avoided being close to the crowd, which surely increased the distance I swum. I did hear tales of head-on collisions and one swimmer wore bloody nail scratches on her face.

Overall, I had a great race and felt my training had been spot-on. I beat my goal and finished strong. I’m so thankful for my coaches, who every day challenge me to be a better swimmer, and for my friends, who’ve generously supported me before, during, and after the race with their help, love, and confidence in me. 

Things that went well:
  • Yoga – It had a great effect on core strength and avoiding fatigue.
  • Strength training – Twice a week workouts made for happy shoulders.
  • Drills, drills, drills – Maintaining good form during a whole 10k was less of a challenge when muscles memorize it (or in my case, keep bad habits away).
  • Sunscreen – Desitin was my friend.
  • Temperature management – I DNFd at my previous race due to high water temperature. Knowing this, Coach challenged me to stay well hydrated for a week before the race. I did so for two weeks before the race. I usually wear a speedsuit (with legs ending above the knee), but Coach told me to wear a one-piece. The way she explained it, the gain in speed wouldn’t have mattered if I DNFd again by getting too hot to continue. I would’ve worn a two-piece but then I wouldn’t have been able to carry a collapsible bottle with me. I hydrated well every time I went by the feeding dock and I took a swig of my collapsible bottle every time I passed the northernmost buoy. My feeds were Gatorade mixed with Tailwind.
  • Pacing – Swimming in the pool at my target speed has helped me hold my target speed in the open water. Coach knows best.
  • Frame of mind – I mentally broke up the race into two 5K swims. To help me get there, I also thought of it as three training sessions in a row. I helped me that I had swum the race’s distance in the pool, so I knew I was capable. One of the reasons I love long-distance swimming is that I stay in the moment. At no point I wished the race was over, I simply managed my mind and body as external or internal input presented itself (once I stopped myself from zoning out!).

What needs improvement: 
  • Must continue to work on my stroke and avoid zoning out and the creeping in of bad habits (like dropping my left elbow).

Next to come: 
Hurricane Man (2.4 miles), the Delray mile, and GCBS. My next block of training will target GCBS. My goal is to be better prepared for the wicked current of the shipping channel.

Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2015 Race Report

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!