GCBS was the race that made me fall in love with marathon swimming. Granted, GCBS is not considered a marathon swim, but it was the training exclusively for a long-distance swim and spending hours in the open water that enthralled me. Before my first GCBS, I’d done the Swim Miami 5K and it didn’t have the same effect. Perhaps the love affair had to start at a place permanently embedded in my heart.
I ended up in the ambulance after I completed my first GCBS in 2015. Suffice to say that my gut told me not to wear a wetsuit in 76F (24.4C) water, but being a relative newcomer to open water swimming and seeing 600 people wearing neoprene made me think they knew something I didn’t. Truth is my confidence was not high enough for me to believe I could make the crossing in a swimsuit, so I wore the wetsuit and paid for it dearly with a heat injury.
Many have argued that wetsuits are used in this race as safety aids or as a way to promote participation since the race is a fundraiser. Ultimately, it was my decision to enter the lottery and to wear the wetsuit. Because of the heat injury, I learned that my body has an upper temperature limit, one that I keep revising down. I’m still looking for my lower temperature limit. I do not know what that is yet.
Last year I was fortunate to enter GCBS again. That time I wore a speedsuit, which I can now see signals that I still wasn’t so confident in my abilities. I had a good race in tough conditions. Even so, failing to make the crossing in a swimsuit still nagged me.
For a third year in a row I was selected by the lottery. This year the conditions were more favorable: water temperature was 72 to 74F (22.2 to 23.3C) throughout the swim, the lowest of all three installments, and we were starting relatively early compared to the two previous years, which would preclude me from swimming during the hottest part of the day. The air temperature remained between 73 and 74.5F (22.8 and 23.6C). The sky was clear. The bay had a very light chop. ESE to S winds remained under 7 mph and gusts under 9 mph. The stats below are from NOAA’s Annapolis buoy. It was a gorgeous day to be in the water.
For the occasion, I wore my Maryland flag suit. Before starting the race, I felt this might be my last time, so I wanted to pay homage to my adoptive state for fostering my love for the open water. I have gotten used to small races where swimmers understand there is enough room in the water for everyone. Before I set foot on Sandy Point State Park’s red sand, I’d realized I’d become weary of races with hundreds of swimmers. It was bittersweet to acknowledge this would be my last GCBS start as long as I completed the crossing.
The horn went off for the Wave 1 swimmers. I didn’t wait for others to go ahead of me, as I usually do. I waded and then dove into the greenish water. It didn’t taste as salty as other years. My body felt comfortable and limber; I fell into a rhythm with my first stroke. Soon enough I had reached one of the ‘beach ball’ buoys that mark the ‘gate’ where swimmers cross under the northern span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I swam along the northern span. My plan was to hold that line until at least the third of 4.4 miles. By then the tide would be pulling me to the south.
The chop was so light I almost wished for last year’s rough chop and pelting spray. It does no good to be in that frame of mind, so I abandoned it. Mile 1 is at the point where the west end of the bridge straightens and one is regaled with the most glorious sight of this swim: the twin spans stretching for three miles, the four suspension towers reaching toward a clear sky, and the Eastern Shore in the distance.
This curve can also be very frustrating. I was constantly bumped into by men in neoprene. When I pass a swimmer, I either go left or right, never over. I consider that lack of sighting sloppy, lazy swimming. Typically I just lean into a swimmer who has just bumped me and the swimmer veers away. I’m short and small compared to most male swimmers, so I’ve learned to defend the space around me. Even so, this race is chockfull of incidents. Last year a man hit my face so hard that my goggles came off and by cheek stung. This year, a man hooked his arm around my neck and pushed my head deep into the water. I instinctively turned toward him and slammed his chest with both my hands in order to cause him to release the hold on my neck. He popped his head up and apologized, but by then I was swimming away from him. My timing chip was about to fall off. I supposed he’d kicked it, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I stopped briefly to readjust it, though I had to repeat the procedure once more during the swim. My heart rate was quite elevated by the adrenaline slug that coursed my body when my head went under. I had already reached one of the massive concrete monoliths and was approaching the shipping channel. I slowed down to let my heart rate settle before picking up the pace again.
While crossing the shipping channel, the Wave 2 swimmers caught up with me and once again I was annoyed by people bumping into me. Past the channel is the second mile marker, where the first ‘food boat’ sits. I had put down my suit two 0.5-L silicone bottles filled with hydration mix, so I had no need to stop. The stretch between miles 2 and 3 is always peaceful. By then I had drifted just left of the centerline between the spans. I felt I was swimming alone, something I truly enjoy. Every so often I’d gaze toward the southern span: many swimmers were following that line. Past the second set of towers and mile 3 (and incidentally the second ‘food boat’), the tide started pulling me. I regretted having migrated to the centerline so early. Now I found myself right of center, swimming at 15 to 20 degrees from the southern span. I was steadily making progress, so I maintained my heading. I’d reached the point where the course crosses under the southern span. Unlike previous years, this one was fairly easy: no big waves or eddies to fight. All I had left at this point was the quarter-mile stretch before Hemingway’s Marina. I have true contempt for this part of the race. The water is always shallow and very hot and many swimmers walk. I swam until my fingertips touched bottom. I stood up and crossed the finish line with a smile. At last, I’d crossed the bay following English Channel rules.
Swimming GCBS 2017 was a very different experience than the previous two years. Between this and last year’s installments, I’ve completed six marathon swims. Before GCBS 2016, only one. The long stretches of time in the water have made me a more patient swimmer, which allows me to enjoy immersion more fully. Perhaps that is the ‘swimming to the next feed’ mentality many swimmers speak of. I’m unsure. I broke my feeds by mile given my limited supply of hydration and lack of a watch. In my beginner days, I used to zone out and constantly wonder how much more I had left to swim. Now I’m aware of my surroundings and swim thinking about every breath, every stroke, and every kick as if it were the most natural thing for humans to spend hours immersed in waters, whether they are sweet, salty, or brackish, clear or murky, flat or choppy, in order to go from one point to another, or to start at a point and after a roundabout, return to it.
Glancing back at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge after finishing the race, I felt with certainty that this would be my last crossing. I thanked the Chesapeake Bay for the safe passage she’d just granted me and for the gift of realizing that the open water is where I belong. If the Atlantic Ocean is my father, the Chesapeake Bay is my mother, and as her child she’s telling me it is time to explore other bodies of water.