Border Buster 2017

And so, the time came for my second toughest challenge of the year: the Border Buster, a 25-km (15.5-mi) loop around the southern end of Lake Memphremagog, starting in Newport, VT, venturing across the border into Canada, and returning to Newport.

The Border Buster course (courtesy of Greg O’Connor).

I’d had a tough 10-mi race in the Northeast Kingdom last year, though that didn’t dissuade me from returning to this magical corner of the Green Mountain State. The ten miler had been my introduction to the fabulous tribe of marathon swimmers who travel the world in search of challenges in all kinds of waters. Last year, I showed up in Newport knowing no one. This year, I was blessed to have many new friends to connect with. Camaraderie and fellowship abound in the Northeast Kingdom.

I arrived on Thursday evening with enough time to settle in at the Newport City Inn and Suites (where the tribe seemed to have been staying judging by the number of kayak-carrying cars), grab a juicy burger at the Tavern on the Hill while listening to a live band, and go grocery shopping. I joined friends on Friday morning for an easy swim at Lake Memphremagog. Being immersed in water felt fabulous as I hadn’t swum in five days; I’d caught a cold strong enough to sideline me from work. Coach Patrick, in his infinite wisdom, ordered me to stay away from the pool and use the time to sleep. Now, swimming toward the jack-o’-lantern buoy (RD Phil White’s first buoy), I was glad I’d heeded my coach’s orders for I felt rested and I could actually breathe. The water was 72˚F (22.2˚C). I was concerned I’d feel hot during the swim, but I’d brought a fabric cap to replace the race’s silicone one as a heat-management measure. After the swim, we had a wholesome breakfast at The Brown Cow.

I spent the rest of Friday morning organizing my gear and preparing my feeds. Later in the afternoon, I had a delicious lobster roll from the Chowder Shack at the Gateway Center (a visit to New England is incomplete without one), checked in, and boarded the Northern Star cruise boat for a tour or the portion of the course that lies within American waters. I wouldn’t meet up my kayaker until race morning, so I tried my best to memorize landmarks. Identifying them is certainly a much easier task from the upper deck of a cruise boat than from the waterline. My favorite landmarks were Île Ronde, NNW of buoy #15, and the little islands (Black I., Cove I., Bell I., and Gull Rock) near buoys #4, #5, and #6. Île Ronde looked like a cupcake, an easy landmark to recognize. I adore the little islands on the east shore of the lake; colder water surrounds them. My Friday ended with the pasta dinner in the company of friends. I was ready to go to sleep. The border busters had an early start the following morning.

Lake Memphremagog from the public docks, Newport, VT.

I arrived at Prouty Beach at 0430 on race morning: plenty of time to meet with my kayaker Mark, get gear and feeds ready, ensure my passport was safely stowed in the kayak, and cover in zinc oxide. I have a very fond memory of last year’s Border Buster start. I was camping at Prouty Beach and woke up to the sound of swimmers entering the waters of a very foggy lake; I could’ve sworn the noise had been made by waterfowl. Perhaps that was the moment I decided to enter the Border Buster the following year.

Like last year, the lake was foggy. The 0530 start was delayed not by fog, but by the late appearance of a support boat. Phil indicated that he would try to keep on-land medical support for another half hour, but he wasn’t sure. That was the cue for the start of the mental game. Unlike last year, this year there was a time cutoff of 10.5 hours. I needed that lost half hour. Kayakers were dispatched to the jack-o’-lantern buoy. At 0600, the swimmers were given the go signal. Leaving Prouty Beach, I took with me the nagging thought that I’d be pulled out at some point.

Fog shrouds the jack-o’-lantern buoy prior to the start of the Border Buster.

With an air temperature of 48˚F (8.9˚C), the 72˚F (22.2˚C) water felt warm. I was wearing my silicone cap, but had my fabric one at the ready should I need it later in the day. I found Mark by the jack-o’-lantern and we took off toward buoy #1, which was shrouded in fog. By the time we reached buoy #1A, we’d established a ‘battle rhythm’ and the fog had lifted. This was my first race taking feeds every half hour. I’d always fed every twenty minutes due to my heat issues training in Florida. I do love to swim without interruptions; therefore, I found the new regime more suitable because it helped keep my head in the game and my body ‘turning the paddles,’ as my friend Bob—whom I consider a mentor—had told me the previous day. Buoy #2 and its associated light beacon appeared quickly. With buoy #2A came the realization that my legs should be higher. I made an effort to program that new body position in my brain so I wouldn’t have to think about it. I was pleased to reach buoy #3, the turning point for the ten milers. Ahead of us was the border. The thrill of entering Canada swimming, unlike driving or flying like I’d done when I traveled in two previous occasions to Montreal for the Jazz Festival, nearly eclipsed the nagging thought of getting pulled on my final approach to Prouty Beach. Between buoys #3 and #15 lay a vast expanse of glass-like, cooler water that offered no help and no hindrance. However, encountering such conditions is so rare, one would be remiss by failing to enjoy the novelty.

A swimmer/kayaker pair moved alongside us for a while. The kayaker was crowding me, but rather than getting upset, I took the opportunity to pull ahead when they stopped for a feeding. My kayaker and I were alone in the water, which is a feeling I enjoy. Our solitude was broken intermittently by an always welcome pair: Kellie and Greg on the pontoon boat that patrolled the northernmost section of the course. It bought me so much joy to watch Kellie wave at me! It also gave me comfort when Greg provided directions to Mark.

Always pointing toward Île Ronde, we crossed the border. ‘Welcome to Canada!’ said Mark. I took a few seconds to observe the border’s features. On the west shore of the lake stands a tiny white building with a red roof. Île Provence rose above the water east of us. The island is carpeted by pines trees except for the location of the border; a swath of land has been clear-cut. We continued our northerly sojourn. A red stick appeared in my field of vision. The water was still so glass-like, it reflected the buoy like a mirror, making the buoy and its reflection appear like a long feature.

I was pleased to have reached my northernmost point after seven miles and celebrated by backstroking around buoy #15. I wondered how many swimmers had rounded the buoy and whether anyone had come up with a more creative celebration. I had the impression that there were two swimmers behind me. I hoped they showed the buoy some appreciation before it was pulled from Canadian waters and brought back onto U.S. soil. Now we turned ESE across the lake toward buoy #16, a stretch of 1.8 miles. I’d seen the buoy the previous day from the cruise boat; however, I’d been facing north. With Greg’s help, we located the buoy and I made a beeline for it. My kayaker and I put a wide gap between each other. I couldn’t resist the pull of a straight line. Past the halfway point, I rounded buoy #16 and turned south. With the feeling of returning to my starting point, the feeling of wonder about my finishing the race intensified. My mind was mercifully distracted by the sight of Île Table à Thé, a tiny island with a beautiful house that appeared to have a Spanish tile roof. The impossibility of finding Spanish tile above latitude 45˚N caused me to doubt my eyesight. Though aided by contact lenses, I decided it should not be trusted. The water surrounding Île Table à Thé was shallow and clear enough to allow me to see the silty, ridged bottom peppered with rocks.

Oh, Canada! (Courtesy of track.rs).

Mark casually mentioned that we’d been in the water for six hours. I had another four hours to go, four and a half if fortune winked at me. Ahead of us was the quartet of small islands whose water I so much enjoy. A seed germinated in my mind: the thought that I would perhaps make it to Prouty Beach. The boot of doubt quickly trampled upon the seedling of success. I had DNFd my previous race. Perhaps I didn’t deserve to finish this one either. But from somewhere in South Florida thoughts sent by two very dear people came to my aid. My coach had said to me, ‘I believe in you’ and my son, ‘Finish.’ Armed with those two thoughts, I resumed what my mentor had told me to do: turn the paddles.

During the cruise, the captain had advised to head for buoy #5 and ignore buoy #4 since it marks the ten-mile course. I couldn’t locate buoy #4, so I assumed it had been pulled out because by that time all the ten milers would’ve passed the islands. We rounded buoy #5. I quickly located buoy #6 by looking for a landmark: a blue mountain with a dip at the top. A friend of mine had aptly named it ‘butt crack mountain.’ I had a chuckle. In my mind, I thanked my friend for providing me with some desperately needed levity.

Now began the most challenging portion of the course: the 2.5-mi stretch between buoys #6 (Bell I.) and #7 (Indian Pt.). Indian Pt. is low and marshy, which makes the identification of the point rather difficult. Past buoy #6 and out of the wind shadow of the islands, a NW wind appeared, which gave me an assist on the way south, but pushed the kayak toward Derby Bay. Once again, a gap appeared between my kayaker and me to the point that the safety boat that patrolled this part of the course presumably told Mark to rein me in because he motioned me to get closer after the exchange. Notwithstanding this warning, the gap kept appearing due to the kayak being swept east. Father Ocean, sensing my growing frustration from afar, summoned a gift: sailboats! Suddenly, many of them crisscrossed the lake, their skippers certainly enjoying the light breeze. The sailboats made my heart flutter and the joyful memories of sailing in Biscayne Bay carried me to Indian Pt. and buoy #7.

With a mile left, the worry of getting pulled returned even stronger than before. A pontoon boat motored near us; it was Phil. I had no intention of asking show much time I had left. I would simply turn the paddles until I reached the beach or Phil ordered me to cease and desist. I considered switching to my fabric cap, for I was getting warm, but abandoned that idea in favor of expediency. A swimmer closer to shore passed us. I worried that the probability of the pontoon boat singling me out was greater now. Once again, Father Ocean sent a harbinger of hope. A delightful sailboat flying a spinnaker in various shades of blue, ran by us. Its beauty obviated the Spartan efficiency of the pontoon boat. We passed buoy #8. Only the Prouty Beach buoy was left and toward it I swam. I rounded it and then and only then I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be pulled.

Final approach to Prouty Beach (courtesy of Phil White).

I breaststroked on my approach to the beach to avoid the tall submerged vegetation. With about ten yards to go, the water became so shallow it was not possible to continue swimming. I knelt, wary of standing after being in the water for what I thought was nearly ten hours. The volunteers beckoned me toward the ‘line in the sand.’ Feeling no lightheadedness, I stood up, and after thanking Mark, I waded out of the water and crossed the finish line. Bob, whom I was so glad to see, handed me a ‘woodal’ and informed me that I’d finished in 10:27 with three minutes to spare.

My ‘woodal.’

Stopping is often a tough affair. I tried to help my kayaker land on shore but bending at the waist proved to cause lightheadedness. An angel named Elaine came to my rescue and assisted my kayaker while I retrieved my drybag and cooler so we could transfer my gear and most importantly, my passport. I struggled to the picnic shelter to get some food. My body was sore and didn’t seem to know whether to feel cold or hot. My blood sugar was dropping, which added to my lightheadedness. I had a recovery drink and a burger and waddled to the bath house in order to get the zinc oxide off me. Once cleaned up, I returned to the motel to change and go back to the beach for the party. By the time I got a glass of the aptly named Border Buster hard cider I was so keen on trying, I had started to feel well enough to enjoy the company of my friends, delicious food, and good music. Phil knows how to put on a fun party.

Cheers!

On Sunday, I partook on two established post-swim traditions: ice cream with a friend at Tim and Doug’s and a recovery swim in Lake Willoughby. The drive to Lake Willoughby is quite scenic. Route 5A offers gorgeous vistas of the mountains in which the lake is nestled. The South Beach, across from the White Caps Campground, offers a stunning view of the lake and clear, cool water to soothe aching shoulders. After a day of serious swimming, frolicking among the wavelets of Lake Willoughby felt wonderful.

Lake Willoughby from the South Beach.

For two consecutive years, the waters of Lake Memphremagog have been good to me. As I left Prouty Beach after the party, I thought of the irony of the order of things. I had wanted to enter the Border Buster to prepare for Apache (the A in SCAR), but as it turned out, I had the opportunity to enter SCAR prior to the Border Buster. After completing the Border Buster, my longest swim to date, I can attest that I had no idea what it would have taken to swim Apache, which I DNFd. Conversely, Saguaro, Canyon, and Roosevelt (the S, C, and R in SCAR) mentally prepared me to swim the Border Buster. Even with two DNFs, it has been a fantastic year. I’ve learned countless lessons since I swam the Kingdom Swim’s ten miler last summer. As the sun sets on another magical swim in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I feel waves of gratitude toward the kayakers and volunteers who’ve supported me, my friends, my mentor, my awesome coach, the young ones at home, and the race directors that create opportunities for swimmers to continue their love affair with water.

8 Bridges Stage 4 – On Failure

Whenever I plan for a swim in a new body of water, I feel a certain reservation. Shall I trust these waters? Will they welcome me? The wisdom and experiences shared by other swimmers might give me an inkling of the kind of reception I might expect, but there is no telling until the moment the waters and I meet. Some waters have an instant chemistry with a swimmer. Perhaps the setting, the color, taste, and smell—even the weight—of the water, the way the sun reflects on the surface, or the latent power of endless water molecules moving in unison make a swimmer fall in love instantly. But other times, waters can be reserved and mysterious, not wanting to open up to a relationship, at least not right away. The latter is the case of the Mighty Hudson and me.

Encouraged by a dear friend, I decided to include one of the 8 Bridges swims in my season. 8 Bridges is a favorite of the marathon swimming community for the immense challenge it represents—at 120 miles the longest stage swim in the world—but also due to its impeccable organization and dedicated volunteers. My friend suggested Stages 3, 4, or 6 were more suitable for a newcomer. Being a fool for scenery, I picked Stage 4. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity swim by the U.S. Military Academy. The U.S. Army has been a part of my family for three generations.

The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.

Most people think of the city whenever New York is mentioned, but what they’re omitting is the natural beauty of upstate New York. The Hudson River Valley has always been a favorite of mine. Driving to the Garrison Metro-North Station through winding roads lined with lush trees was a beautiful prelude to what I expected would be a beautiful swim. The morning of Stage 4 was misty, with air temperatures in the lower 70s (21˚C). A group of about 50 people—swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers—boarded the train en route to Beacon, our starting point. From the Beacon Station one can see the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in the distance.

Next to the ferry dock is a boat house where the kayaks were stored after Stage 3. While the kayakers readied their craft, swimmers handed them their feeds and gear. By day four, many swimmers had already established a routine with their kayakers, particularly the intrepid nine who were swimming all seven stages. The through swimmers were five Americans, three Brazilians, and one Mexican, and one could tell these people had already forged a bond among themselves. One couldn’t find a more fun elite group of swimmers. I felt fortunate to be starting that day, not only because I’d be swimming for the first time in the Hudson and seeing West Point from the water, but also because there were many friends who were starting with me or volunteering, swimmers whom I’d met in Vermont and Arizona during the past year. I love the traveling circus atmosphere.

After checking in with my gracious pilot, Lizzy, I covered any exposed skin with zinc oxide. The day was overcast, but avoiding any potential sunburn is always a priority. The swimmers boarded Launch 5. We motored over to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge while the kayakers made their way from the boathouse.

I glanced south at the wide river. In the background, the Hudson Highlands were shrouded by the lifting fog. I gazed again at the river. Her gray-green, choppy surface pried my eyes away from anything and anyone. Underneath the waves, I could see the sheer power of the Hudson on its inexorable course south and I understood that it is called mighty because the instant I dove in, she would engulf me and punish me and either humble me or forgive my trespassing and let me go just as easily as it let me in. The mood in the boat was festive, but I’d picked a spot on the port gunwale to take the experience in quietly. Only one other silent swimmer stood beside me. I offered the Hudson a rock I’d picked up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay the week before. I had forebodings that it wasn’t enough to entice a welcome from the river. Perhaps I should’ve also offered a pink shell from Florida. Neither here nor there, the rock was all I had. I kissed it and threw it overboard.

The captain stopped the boat under the bridge. I looked up at the twin spans and recalled the Chesapeake Bay Bridge fondly. I knew that unlike the Chesapeake, these weren’t known waters; this wouldn’t be an easy swim, but I was determined to find it in me to finish it. Swimmers jumped in the water with glee. I was the last off the boat. Below the surface, the water was dark green and the visibility low. It felt very comfortable at 69˚F (20.6˚C). Lizzy and I found each other right away and soon I heard a loud ‘Go!’ I was grateful I didn’t have any time to consider how the swim would turn out.

Downriver Lizzy and I headed hugging the east bank. She was a fabulous paddler, smooth and steady, keeping her craft pointed on course through chop and wake. Throughout the first four and a half miles of the swim we were hit by unrelenting, deep head-on waves. On my left Lizzy guided me and on my right land features and barges passed by, but these were images that only existed in my subconscious, for I felt I was alone with the river and I belonged in its cool waters and breathing had turned from something vital for land dwellers to something amusing for water beings. The Hudson was punishing me, but she was still letting me through.

Lizzy pointed Bannerman Castle. The river narrowed after another mile at Breakneck Point. As we entered the Highlands the waves calmed. Further downriver, the wind died in the shadow of West Point. When we reached World’s End, just before passing West Point, we crossed the channel over to the western riverbank. Now the river enticed me with pleasantries like a fast current, lenses of cold water, and the magnificent views of the stalwart granite buildings of the Military Academy. The elation was not to last long. As I had expected, once past West Point, at nine and a half miles, the wind picked up and the river renewed her pummeling, invigorated. White caps, fast and shallow, hindered my progress. Every so often my arms would be knocked into a wave, but rather than fight it, I would dolphin through it. Gusts created ripples over the waves and filled the air-water interface with more oxygen than my lungs could breathe. Slowly Lizzy and I traversed the river. I stopped for a feed and looked back toward the Military Academy’s buildings. I was dismayed at how close they still were. Lizzy informed me that we only had two hours left before the tide turned and any remaining swimmers far from the Bear Mountain Bridge would be pulled. I judged I had another five miles left and realized I would never make it. Lizzy and I resumed our toiling while barges placidly sailed by. Lizzy took me into the wind shadow of the small peninsula of Con Hook. My goal was to swim to it so I could at least have a peek at the Bear Mountain Bridge that lay beyond. The safety vessels informed Lizzy the RDs would pull me. I swam nervously waiting for someone to actually tell me to stop. I paused to ask Lizzy when this would occur. She offered I could stop out of my own volition, but I declined. In the shallows near the shoreline the water was warm. My hand touched the bottom and it receded. It felt like a living, gelatinous, dormant creature, which briefly scared me. Lizzy guided me around the north side of the peninsula. Once we turned the corner, the safety vessels were waiting for me. The image of Cerberus appeared in my mind’s eye. I have never accepted defeat so readily. The Bear Mountain Bridge loomed three miles away. I’d swum twelve. The Hudson, gray and angry, impeded the way. I asked Lizzy if I could swim to green marker 35, only because that way I would know the exact endpoint of my swim. It was only fifty yards away, but it took a while to reach it because now I could feel the full brunt of the incoming tide. The Hudson, humoring the idiosyncrasies of an engineer while relishing in her power, declared it was finally time for me to leave. Humbled, I thanked her for the safe passage and touched Lizzy’s kayak. My swim was over.

The track Lizzie led me on is a thing of beauty.

A few days later, back at my team’s pool in West Palm Beach, I spoke with my dear coach about what this DNF means. He reminded me that I have lofty goals and with those come harder races, some of which I might fail. Improvement is made by taking on races that seem just beyond my reach, not by taking on the ones where I have a high likelihood to succeed. He reminded me of the words of Michael Jordan, whose work ethic and dedication I hold in high regard: ‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ My coach asked me if I’d do Stage 4 again. I said I would.

Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2017 – At Peace

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 Maryland flag contains the crests of the Calvert (black and gold) and Crossland (red and white) families.

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.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge stands watch over placid waters.

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.

 

 

SCAR 2017

Reporting for call

My SCAR journey started at the shores of Lake Memphremagog in Vermont, during last summer’s Kingdom Swim. Mine was the second ticket to be drawn by Race Director Phil White in a raffle benefiting a local environmental stewardship group. The prizes were entries to prestigious races and events. For reasons incomprehensible to me, the holder of the first ticket didn’t pick SCAR, so I did. At the time, I had only completed two marathon swims, so I considered SCAR much beyond my current abilities; however, time is a friend when it comes to training. Nine months later I was flying into Phoenix, AZ, accompanied by Tam, my friend and teammate from the Palm Beach Wahoo, who’d very graciously agreed to be my pilot.

Both of us got to swim in Saguaro Lake during the fun swim organized by the lovely Patty Hermann. I suggested to rename this the kayaker swim, since for many of these selfless friends this would be the only opportunity to share the water with the swimmers. The water tasted sweet to this Atlantic mermaid and much warmer than I expected at 69F (20.5C). The setting was nothing but gorgeous. This was my first time in Arizona. I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful and stately saguaros standing like sentinels all over the reddish hills and canyons.

The welcome dinner was at the Mesa Country Club. The buzz was that there was a surprise guest speaker. I got a hunch when Kent Nicholas, the creator of SCAR, handed me a copy of Swimming in the Sink, by Lynne Cox. I didn’t find out until Kent introduced her. Lynne spoke about her most famous swims and facing heart disease. Armed with additional inspiration, Tam and I returned to the hotel in Mesa to finish our preparations for the adventure of a lifetime.

S-day – Getting the show on the road

The four SCAR lakes are east of Phoenix. We start at Saguaro, which is due east, and we move further east as the days go by. The lakes generally run east-west, and we always swim from west to east. We still didn’t know this, but this was the easiest morning before a swim. We only had to drive thirty minutes to the Saguaro Lake Marina, which is north of the Stewart Mountain Dam, the finish line. As we drove, we saw a cactus fire that had caused the closure of the highway from Apache Junction, a town were many swimmers were staying. The night before I had prepared my gear: a dry bag with a towel, my giant dry robe, furry boots, and dry clothes; a small bag with essentials (cap, goggles, silicone ear plugs) and other things like baby butt cream, gloves, and a little bottle of Gatorade; and a mesh bag with my bottles, the line to hook the bottles to, baby food, and a spare set of goggles. Tam had the SPOT GPS transmitter and the marine radio.

We boarded the boats at the public floating dock by the picnic shelters. That’s where we’d mustered the day before for the fun swim. The boats were piloted by friends of Kent’s and they were the nicest people! Some boats were private and some were rented pontoon boats. The boat ride to the start—the Mormon Flat Dam—was my first time in the canyons. Oh, what a sight! There were hundreds of feet tall and every nook and cranny was different from the next. Saguaros grew on the most precarious spots. Our boat captain told us that the ones with arms were at least a hundred years old and could weight thousands of pounds because they’re full of water. Apparently every year poachers die when the saguaros topple over as they try to scoop the saguaros out of the ground. I’d never heard about cactus poaching.

About two miles in, past Ship Rock, the lake widens into a 2.5-mile long stretch that is very flat. Then the lake narrows again and winds in a zigzag to the Mormon Flat Dam’s tailwater. The boat dropped us off at a shady beach. One of Kent’s friends had slept there guarding about 50 kayaks, all tied together. Maybe there’s kayak poaching, who knows! Tam selected a kayak and we began setting it up. Then I got to work on my ‘sun protection.’ I slathered myself up in extra strength baby butt cream. I’m sure I stood out: I looked like Bibendum. Sun safety is important to me. As a sailor I’ve seen too many people get skin cancer due to sun exposure. We spent a long time at the beach waiting for all swimmers to be ferried in. I drank my Gatorade and was feeling so thirsty that I started drinking my extra feed. I made a mental note to bring more Gatorade the next day.

Bibendum practicing sun safety.

Kent told the swimmers in Wave 1 to board the pontoon boat. I waited with anticipation to turn around a corner and suddenly see the dam. One can feel very small at the toe of a dam. Kent told us to do our warmup swim from the boat to the line of orange safety buoys. We jumped in the green water. I’d measured the water temperature at the beach at 68F (20C), but it felt colder. Once at the buoys, we raised our hands to signal we were ready and Kent blasted the horn. My next stop would be the Stewart Mountain Dam, if I made it. Kent had said we had five and a half hours to finish the race. I’d calculated I needed six. I decided to shelve that thought for the time being and concentrate on the matter at hand: finding Tam.

I found her right away. She said the SPOT wasn’t working and handed it to me. It was impossible to turn on without grabbing the boat, so I just gave it back, bummed my friends wouldn’t be able to follow. I turned back to the business of swimming because that was probably the best thing I could do at that point. I was feeling good and was very entertained by the novelty of swimming in a lake within a canyon. I considered myself very fortunate. I’d had a right shoulder injury the previous month and was still wearing k-tape. Interestingly, my right shoulder felt great, but the left one started hurting after 2.5 miles. I started worrying about an impending collapse of my left shoulder and failing to finish the race, but the lake opened up and I was distracted by the leaders passing by: Stephen Rouch with Sandra Bergquist on his wake. Sandra waved at me and that made me very happy. She’d trained in my team’s pool earlier this year. I decided to ignore my left shoulder.

Swimming in Saguaro Lake. (Credit: Tam Burton)

That wide expanse of lake was warm and that perhaps made that portion of the swim never ending. It was only 2.5 miles long. Up to this point the wind had been calm. When I finally sighted Ship Rock, the wind started picking up a bit. At this point, the lake narrowed again. I was glad to be swimming within the all-encompassing beauty of the canyon once more. A quarter mile into it, I saw heavy smoke; it smelled acrid, like burning plastic. Occasionally power boats went by, some were recreational fishermen’s and others were Kent’s friends’ checking on the swimmers. I was dead certain there was a burning boat around the bend and suddenly I realized we’d have to go around it. I popped my head up and asked Tam, ‘What’s going on?’ She said it was the cactus fire. I didn’t say anything about my imaginary burning boat until after we were done. I coughed. After that, every time I took a feed, I felt it wanting to come back up. I somehow managed to keep my feeds down. A little breaststroke helped.

With about 1.5 mi to go, the lake widened again. Past a rock formation that looked like a sugar loaf, I spotted the marina. Judging by my feed schedule, I was past the cut-off time Kent had indicated. No one seemed keen on pulling me out, so I kept swimming. A second kayaker, Eri Utsonomiya, joined us, since her swimmer was done. It was fun to be flanked by kayaks. In this swim, one doesn’t see the buoys until turning the corner, and once one does, the buoys are a short reach away. I was ready to finish. The water felt warm and I didn’t like it. My stomach was still upset from the smoke. I was the last swimmer to come in that day. I was so happy to see the buoy, I kissed it. I made a promise to myself that I would kiss every finish line buoy I came across.

PDA with the Stewart Mountain Dam safety buoys. Oh! (Credit: Tam Burton)

I got on the boat, happy to have gotten my S. I didn’t particularly care I was last. I’ve been last before and didn’t die because of it. I’d just done something I’d never done before and was feeling a little ‘drunk’ by it. I felt fortunate to be swimming in such a gorgeous setting, surrounded by like-minded people, and having a wholesome time.

Stopping after nearly six hours of swimming is not easy. My body went haywire, but not as bad as the Kingdom Swim or my first Chesapeake. Suzie Dods very kindly offered me a sandwich, but the thought of food made me gag. I was a little loopy when I got off the boat. I changed into dry clothes and made myself eat a steak sandwich and drink a Coke from the Which Wich food truck. It tasted like heaven. I felt much better after eating. Then I realized I’d never touched my baby food. I don’t even know why I bother with it. I can’t eat anything solid while I’m swimming.

Back at the hotel, I was very focused. I went through my recovery routine: foam rolling, ibuprofen, Epsom salt bath, a second recovery drink. I had a light dinner of chicken and spinach flatbread. Got my stuff ready for next day and went to bed hoping I’d recover enough overnight to face C-day in the morning feeling better.

I now realize that much of what I was going through was a learning process. I was still worried about how my body would react to four days of swimming such long distances. My biggest training block had been 4.5, 9.1, 6, and 5.5 miles in four consecutive days, but only the 6-mi swim was a tough open water swim. The other aspect I was learning about was how much of stage swimming is a head game. One day at a time, focus on the matter at hand, ignore the stuff that distracts or keeps from doing the tasks that are vital, and improvise/adapt/overcome. Controlling one’s mind while swimming is key. I found that when I was in a tough spot (like the warm open area or the segment with the smoke) it was better to still take in the calming beauty of the adjacent setting and ignore the landmark I was swimming toward until feeding time. Not having to worry where one is headed is a huge reason to love one’s pilot.

C-day, which brought pleasant surprises, was next.

C-day – In love

I didn’t sleep very well; must’ve woken up four times missing the noise of my fan. We loaded all of our gear and luggage in the SUV and headed for Canyon Lake. Our route took us near Apache Junction. Now I was starting to get a taste of how remote the lakes were. The road to Canyon Lake was paved, but it traversed mountains up and down narrow and windy paths. The landscape was gorgeous: saguaro, prickly pear, and cholla cacti everywhere. When I got a first glimpse of the lake, I immediately agreed with the general consensus that it is the most beautiful of all four. It was idyllic. We parked at the Palo Verde Recreation Area and walked down to the boat ramp, which is in a large cove. To the north, canyon walls tower over the entrance to the long section of the lake. To the northwest is the headwater of the Mormon Flat Dam. The day before we had started the swim at its tailwater.

We waited at the boat ramp to be ferried once again to the staging beach near the tailwater of the Horse Mesa Dam. I didn’t chat much on this boat ride because I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the canyon. I was also looking for goats, which are known to live there, but couldn’t spot any. I hoped that by the end of the swim I’d see at least one. The canyon walls of this lake are much taller than any other. The lake is also very narrow. In my opinion, these two characteristics are what make this lake so incredibly beautiful. Near the staging beach there’s a section where one can see layers of sedimentary rock of many different colors. Some of the layers are more suitable for vegetation growth, so they look light green. Together with the beige, brown, and red layers, they lend the canyon an almost festive look.

Canyon Lake’s staging beach. Beware of plants (and the occasional snake)! (Credit: Tam Burton)

We disembarked. Unlike the beach at Saguaro, this one had practically no shade. Being a Florida dweller, the first thing I did was to find a shady spot. I found one in between a bush and a tall rock. While Tam readied the kayak, I covered my skin in my trusty baby butt cream. I’d made the mistake of leaving my sandals in the SUV (I was wearing boots), so I had to walk around barefoot. That made me miserable, because there was a green snake hanging around the nearby bushes and giant red ants practically everywhere. But was got me was not fauna. It was flora. I stepped on a spiky round seed. I felt a spike bore into my skin, but there was nothing I could do about it then. I measured the water temp at the beach at 64F (17.8C). Kent said it was 62F (16.7C). I’d never swum in water that cold. I was intrigued.

Kent called the swimmers in Wave 1 and when he got to my name he said I was the one completely covered in white stuff. I took a curtain bow because what else was I to do when everyone turned to look at me?

I boarded the pontoon boat and Kent took us to the tailwater of the Horse Mesa Dam. I jumped in the water. Oh, boy! It was COLD! It felt like upper 50s. I don’t know how I knew this. I’ve never been in water that cold. The funny thing was that I actually liked it. We repeated yesterday’s starting sequence. Next stop: the Mormon Flat Dam.

Tam en route to the Horse Mesa Dam’s tailwater. (Credit: Tam Burton)

I immediately felt fabulous. Whatever pains I had the day before were completely gone. I felt stronger than I was before I injured my right shoulder. I was also swimming a bit faster than usual. I was loving the water and the water was loving me back. I’ve never felt anything like that! I wondered how long I’d be able to keep that pace, but the thought quickly dissolved itself because I was having the time of my life. The splashing water glimmered under the sun. I was swimming through joy.

The look of love. (Credit: Tam Burton)

Tam later told me that one of the kayakers we were close to on S-day asked what was up with me. Tam replied that I was loving the water temperature. I was trying to pass Tom ‘Reptile’ Linthicum when the fastest swimmers passed by. Sandra said hello again as she torpedoed by me. I saw Mark Spratt moving quite well, too. Eventually I caught up to Mo Siegel and passed him. I waved at his kayaker, Eri Utsonomiya. Ahead of me was Meenakshi Pahuja, but I could never catch her.

As I advanced through the canyon, I searched the walls for my goats. So far, no joy. After the five-mile mark, the sky became overcast and I felt the air temperature drop. I was still feeling fantastic, and every once in a while curled my toes to find out if I could feel them. I always could! It made me happy my body was reacting well to the stress I was submitting it to.

Infinit in my bottle: almost as good as steak and potatoes! (Credit: Tam Burton)

We turned southwest into the steepest canyon and the last 1.5 miles before the Mormon Flat Dam. It was like hitting a wall. The headwind and the proximity of the canyon walls made the water very choppy. To make matters even more interesting, a double-decker tour boat passed by. One of the safety boats had flagged her down to indicate the swimmers and kayakers in the water. I stopped to wave at the gawking passengers and they waved back. Soon after, I saw Mo and Eri on the opposite shore. I was taking the shortest line, but he passed me anyway. I put my head down and concentrated on perfect form in order to clear the canyon. The tour boat went by again, but this time I didn’t wave. I was elated when I saw the two white buoys that marked the turn west toward the dam. The water was calmer. I heard Tam yelling at me. Tam never yelled. She had found my goat! It was standing atop the canyon looking down at me. I stopped to laugh. I was so happy! Not only I’d had the swim of my life, I had found my goat, too! And with that happy thought, I swam toward the dam and kissed one of the buoys. Two swimmers came in after me.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a goat! (Credit: Tam Burton)

I boarded the boat somewhat giddy. I was shivering a bit and had to ask for help to put on my dry robe. Tiffany McQueen was in the boat and told me it was better to take off the suit right away. That bit of information would be very helpful in two days. I was feeling so awesome, I couldn’t believe it. My body didn’t want to go haywire. Halfway through the trip back to the boat ramp, I had stopped shivering.

I got off the boat in my boots and immediately remembered the spike in my foot. I waited at the boat ramp for Tam to arrive and together we packed our gear. I changed at the parking lot. I pulled out three spikes from my foot with Tam’s tweezers. I loved my pilot even more at that moment.

The beautiful line Tam guided me on. (Credit: track.rs)

Up to this point things had gone perfectly well, but from here on, things went all wrong. I had been advised not to be on the road to Apache Lake when dark. I had my recovery drink before taking off, but I was hungry. We could’ve stopped at Tortilla Flat, but I was so afraid of the road, I didn’t. It took more than an hour to reach Apache Lake. The road turned into a two-lane dirt road and soon into a one-lane dirt road up and down a mountain. It was a scary drive. I was very calm and Tam distracted me from the very real possibility of an untimely death. I was relieved to check into the hotel at around 1900. Sunset was soon after that. The sole restaurant was closing at 2030, so we had to take quick showers and head over. Tam wasn’t feeling well, so she retired. It took an hour for the food to arrive. I was getting lightheaded. It was past 2030 when I got some food in me, more than five hours after I had stopped swimming. I knew that had been an awful mistake. It was 2100 when I started getting my gear together. I should’ve been sleeping by then. Tam helped me get ready, but I didn’t like that I was going to bed late after being ‘starved’ for five hours, after a meal that was not ideal, to face the longest and toughest swim in the morning. The National Weather Service had already issued a wind advisory. Lights out.

A-day – The lake monster shows its face

My head was not in the game from the instant the alarm went off. I had calculated that on a good day, I’d need 11 hours to finish Apache. I had no idea when we were supposed to start, but assuming it would be no earlier than 1000 and given that sunset was at 1900, I would only have 9 hours. That was simply not enough. I had a guaranteed DNF. So why not trade that for a DNS? I could’ve just as simply stayed in bed. But no, I’m a swimmer. I couldn’t leave Arizona having stared at Apache through the window of my motel room and not swum in its waters.

Then came the internal negotiation. When should I quit? The Apache Lake Marina was at the 9-mile mark. That seemed like a good place to stop. With that thought in mind, I dragged my tired body out of bed.

We were to meet at 0600 at the restaurant, where Kent recognized the intrepid kayakers and gave them SCAR mugs. Food, however, was not ready until 0700. I was aggravated. I could’ve eaten in my room. I could’ve slept some more. No matter. I was already there. When the restaurant doors opened, I smelled bacon and felt sick. The sight of heaping plates of food made matters worse. I managed to eat some oatmeal and half a banana. I was feeling like a Bimmer with cheap gas in the tank. Sputtering. No energy whatsoever. Obviously my recovery from the last two days of swimming had been very poor.

The sight of the water at the dock lifted my spirits. Perhaps it was because whitecaps were starting to peak from the surface of the water and that reminded me of all the fun I had racing sailboats in a previous life. We boarded a pontoon boat. As soon as we had put some distance from the dock, the engine coughed and died. Our boat captain and Reptile tried a few things, but the engine repeatedly coughed and died. They decided the fuel line needed to be changed and called one of the dock boys for help. There was quite a bit of excitement as the mechanic switched out the lines and both boats, ours and his, drifted together toward a moored house boat. The mechanic finished the repair just in time to separate the boats and putter away avoiding a collision.

The landscape of Apache was gentler than the previous lakes. The shores were rugged hills rather than canyons. For about half the trip the lake was wide, it narrowed in the remaining half, but it didn’t give one the sense of being funneled. As we neared the tailwater of the Roosevelt Dam, the wind died down almost to the point of stillness at the staging beach. The beach was small and crowded. Because of our boat mishap, Tam and I had to rush our preparations. I was not ready when Ken called my name. I didn’t have time to take the water temperature with Mr. Duck (my thermometer). I made sure I had my cap, goggles, and silicone ear plugs, placed my dry bag in the designated heap, and boarded the pontoon boat. I felt sad as we neared the imposing dam. It’s hard to start something knowing one cannot finish it. After seeing the chop and feeling the winds on the first boat ride, I negotiated down my quitting point to a 10K. I just stared at the concrete dam, rising hundreds of feet before me. Once again, I felt grateful for the opportunity to swim in such a beautiful setting. Kent told us to jump in. The water felt cool and comfortable, perhaps 67F (19.4C). I reached the buoys and continued to stare at the imposing dam until I realized Kent was waiting for me to raise my hand. After he gave the starting signal, I asked Apache for safe passage until it decided it was time for me to quit.

Tam en route to the Roosevelt Dam’s tailwater. The calmness is deceiving. (Credit: Tam Burton)

It was calm in the narrow section of the lake, about three miles. Once the lake widened, I felt the heavy chop. Tam was having a hard time moving the kayak forward. When we stopped for feeds, she was immediately swept back. I felt exhausted. I had already swum a 5K and didn’t have the energy to continue. I told Tam I wouldn’t be in the water much longer. She persuaded me to keep going. Interestingly enough, she thought I was swimming well. I looked at track.rs later and corroborated her observation. I was moving very steadily through the chop. I swam for another mile. Still thinking I ought to swim a 10K, I calculated how much longer it would take me. It seemed like a long time to be in the water for a DNF. A volunteer on a pontoon boat offered to fetch my dry bag. I kept on swimming. When I sighted the Burnt Corral Campground, a very clear thought invaded my head: if I continued the swim I would ruin Roosevelt, which was the swim I had looked forward to the most. At that point, I popped my head out of the water and told Tam I was done. She believed me this time.

Swimming alongside Reptile in Apache Lake. (Credit: Tam Burton)

A nearby safety boat picked me up. Tam would be picked up by another boat. She had a marine radio with her, so I felt confident that if she was in trouble she’d be able to call for help. The volunteer handed me his parka, which was kind because I was covered in zinc oxide, and a towel. I wrapped myself the best I could and we took off in search of the boat with the dry bags. On the way, we picked up two other swimmers. The weather had deteriorated. Now there were mad whitecaps on the water and the wind was blowing harder, buffeting my hood at times. The boat with the dry bags was at the head of the field of swimmers. The swimmers were moving steadily, but the kayakers looked like they were struggling. Some were lagging behind their swimmers. I hoped some of them would make it to the dam. I happily grabbed my dry bag and put on some clothes and my boots. We were dropped off at the marina.

The looks of a DNF. (Credit: track.rs)

I spent hours there waiting for Tam. She hadn’t turned off the SPOT, so I could see that she was zooming around the lake on my phone. She must’ve been aboard a safety boat. I stopped worrying about her. Swimmers and crews started coming ashore. Some were in good shape, others looked tired, and yet others were suffering from hypothermia. I worried for the swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers on the angry lake.

The Roosevelt Dam’s tailwater safety buoys on R-day. (Credit: Blue Mermaid)

After Tam came ashore we packed our gear and got cleaned up. I had an early dinner of salmon, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It tasted delicious! I went to bed early. This amazing traveling circus was about to close its doors and I wanted to feel well for my last bow. One thing nagged me: the weather forecast. The winds would be manageable, but the temperature was supposed to drop to 55F while I was swimming Roosevelt. I’d never experienced the cold water/ cold air combo.

R-day – SCAR’s curtain call

I woke up feeling as well as I did on C-day. My body was present; however, my mind was not. I was nervous. I’d never swum in waters in the 60s and air temperatures in the 50s, so I didn’t know how my body would react. So far, the only temperature-related discomfort I’d experienced was at the end of Saguaro, when the water was getting warm. Despite these concerns, I was still looking forward to a beautiful night swim, another first.

I confess that waiting all day to get going was a drag. In the morning, I packed my bags so as to cut down on the final packing I’d have to do before leaving for the airport early the next morning. I had eggs and potatoes for a late breakfast, which would be my last meal before the swim. En route to Roosevelt, we stopped at an overlook and stared down at the placid start line of the day before… What a difference a day makes!

The Roosevelt Marina is a floating village joined to land by a 1/3-mi walkway. It’s a long ways with gear bags and tired shoulders. At the bar, I chatted with other swimmers waiting for the pre-race meeting to start. Kent’s last speech was a bit bittersweet. After five days, the traveling circus was closing its doors. One last swim and SCAR 2017 would be history. He handed the coveted black caps to Apache’s four finishers. I was in awe of these intrepid men and women and their tough kayakers.

We boarded the pontoon boats for a tour of the lake and transport to the starting point at the Windy Hill Campground’s Bobcat Boat Ramp, which is about 6 miles east of the dam. I had my sailor hat on, probably because the lake looked like the best of all four for sailing. In fact, I’d seen a few sailboats at the marina. I knew that as soon as the sun went down, the WSW wind (13 mph) would die and the temperature would drop into the upper 50s during the course of my expected four-hour swim. Sunset was at 1908. Depending on the start time, it’d get dark when I was mid-course. We motored toward the Roosevelt Bridge and were told to use the red blinking light atop it as a waypoint. Previous instructions had stated not to use this red light, but rather another at the top of Inspiration Point, west of the bridge. Then we came about and headed east toward the boat ramp. I looked back at the bridge, trying to picture the layline in the dark. The wind would push us north, and if not careful, we could end up behind the land mass of Rock Island, thus obscuring the bridge. As long as the whole arch of the bridge was in sight, I would be certain that our course was correct. The medium chop would make the crossing lively. We rounded the Windy Hill peninsula, which would create a wind shadow for the first mile of the course. Our boat captain pointed to a small island (Shelter Island). We were to round it on its east side and turn west. By this day I’d been looking at all the courses from end to beginning and was now used to it.

The Roosevelt Bridge with the Roosevelt Dam (SCAR’s terminus) in the background. (Credit: Blue Mermaid)

At the boat ramp, Tam quickly selected a boat and got to work. I used two strings of rope lights to ‘decorate’ the gunwale of the kayak. I also clipped four green light sticks for the starboard side and four red ones for the port side. Tam affixed our team flag onto the bow. The boat was ready! Now it was my turn. Tam smeared the channel grease all over my body. This time people were noticing me because I was sporting my natural skin color rather than the very fetching white of the baby butt cream. Tam clipped a white LED light stick onto a ribbon on the back of my suit and two small LED white lights onto my goggles at the back of my head. She took off and I realized I hadn’t asked her to turn them on. I had to ask a swimmer to do it. Kent lined us up by number and checked our lights. He wasn’t satisfied with my light stick and called for a chemical one and a safety pin. I panicked. I told him he couldn’t pin the light stick onto my suit. He stared at me like I had escaped from an insane asylum (which was probably right because marathon swimmers do not appear sane in the eyes of the general population!). I explained to him that he had to pin it to the ribbon so that the pin wouldn’t touch my skin. My skin is very sensitive to metal. I cannot imagine all the weird things Kent hears from the swimmers. He’s understanding because he’s a swimmer, too.

Standing at the Bobcat Boat Ramp on R-day was like being near an electric substation. So much nervous energy! (Credit: Tam Burton)

Kent told us to wade into the water to knee length. I laughed because I’m so short in comparison to the people standing around me. But it was a nervous laugh. I was still afraid of the drop in temperature. I waited for the blast and off we went. I dove in and the water felt very cold. I guessed 64F, which wasn’t cold at all: the problem was in my mind. I was hyperventilating, but could still swim fast, breathing only on one side, which I don’t normally do, as if sprinting. After a 150 yds or so, I told myself that everything was fine because I knew how to calm down. By the time I rounded the little island, I had found Tam and was breathing normally. I enjoyed the swim in the wind shadow of Windy Hill. Near its tip, the water started getting choppy. I got sandwiched by one swimmer’s kayaker as I was passing him. He was so close, I could’ve touched him. Finally Tam decided to go around them. I passed some swimmers in the chop. It’s so curious to me that the only time I pass people is when it’s choppy.

The Wahoo flag flies over Roosevelt Lake. (Credit: Tam Burton)

Now I was in open water and feeling the effect of the full blown chop. I was worried because Tam was slightly behind me. I didn’t feel cold at all; that was promising. I was very focused on my stroke. The sun went down and the wind died gradually, just as I had expected. It took about twenty minutes to start feeling the cold air on my arms. Then Tam said we’d gone more than four miles and were close to the bridge. In the twilight, I could only see the left side of the bridge and panicked. As I had expected, we were getting pushed off course. I told Tam we needed to see the whole bridge. I started again, but I confess I was trying to lead her. I had to stop for her to catch up. She told me I needed to stay with her and I did, but I checked the bridge as if sighting a buoy. I had to work hard at getting my head back in the game. I tried a few things, but the one that finally worked was to repeat one of my favorite mantras (improvise, adapt, overcome). We were indeed close to Rock Island because the water warmed up. Later I verified that in track.rs. The air was much colder, but I still wasn’t cold. The last one and a half miles of the swim were magical. I was very focused on reaching the bridge, so focused that my feeds were gulps. But the sky! Oh, my! It was littered with stars! The quarter moon was out. I love looking up at bridges from the water. With the starry backdrop, the arched bridge was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen. What a gift! What a lovely reward! I thanked Roosevelt for a safe passage. All I had left was 300 yds or so of swimming through twigs or wood chips (I’m unsure). I touched the line of buoys and I was done. I lingered for Tam to take pictures. All that worrying and I never got cold! I kissed the buoy and swam around the two safety boats. Tam took off for the public boat ramp at the Roosevelt Lake Marina, about one and three quarters of a mile away.

I’m done! And yes, this buoy got a kiss, too! (Credit: Tam Burton)

I couldn’t get any purchase on the boat’s ladder because it was angled in. The boat captain, a huge man, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up as if I was a young child. I couldn’t believe his strength. The second I set foot on the boat, I started shivering uncontrollably. I pulled down the straps of my suit while the boat captain took my dry robe out of the dry bag. Sue Croft, the lovely British swimmer who’d just come in before me, helped me put my boots on and zip up my dry robe. Then I stripped the suit off under the robe. That was the best I could do. I couldn’t put a pair of pants on. I could barely talk.

Other swimmers boarded the boat and prepared for the ride back to the marina. I hugged Kent and thanked him for such a wonderful experience and for the assistance from his friends. Then he said something really nice to me: that I could do anything now. I believed him. After I took my place on the private boat that would transfer us to the marina, I looked at the gorgeous sky and felt incredibly thankful to be able to enjoy the beautiful waters of Arizona surrounded by passionate people. Swimming in the open water makes my soul happy.

I look at this line and I see things in my heart. (Credit: track.rs)

Last bow

SCAR didn’t turn out exactly as I had expected, but in some aspects it turned out better. I found out I love swimming in cold water, which is not surprising since I cannot tolerate warm water, but I loved the fact that my body seems to love it, too. I’m also tougher than I thought I was, though Apache is a tossup. I was trying to be realistic on that one. After getting my S, C, and R, I can say I’m a better swimmer than I was before.

My deep gratitude goes out to Kent for putting together the best swimming experience I’ve ever had. This is a swim that runs off love for this passionate sport. Seeing family members and friends working hard to make these five days in the High Country a challenging and worthwhile experience for marathon swimmers from all over the world, speaks volumes about Kent’s dedication. I’d love to come back to crew for a friend.

Many friends were instrumental in making SCAR a personal success: my pilot Tam Burton, my coach Patrick Billingsley, and fellow marathon swimmers Ed Riley and Mark Spratt. Tam trained for months in Florida waters to be able to handle her maiden piloting adventure. She enjoyed Arizona as much as I did. My coach Patrick has taken a personal interest in making me a better swimmer. That’s nothing but a labor of love. His guidance is priceless. Ed and Mark shared everything they know about stage swimming and don’t get tired of my many questions. This wonderful experience wouldn’t have been so without their advice.

The idea of doing SCAR was born out of the enthusiasm I felt while reading Stephen Key’s account. He’s also put together a map that is nothing but gold when it comes to understanding the logistics involved.

Finally, if I have any advice to dole out is with regards to swimmer/kayaker safety. As a sailor and a person who’s lost a family member to drowning, my message to anyone considering this swim is to be responsible for your safety and that of your kayaker. At night, you should want your kayak to be seen on the water. Get lights. Lots of lights. You should figure out ahead of time how to attach lights to your suit and bring anything you need with you. I was surprised to see swimmers who didn’t know how to do this or didn’t have string or safety pins. Finally, buy, borrow, or rent a marine radio to provide to your kayaker. If you or your kayaker encounters an emergency situation, your kayaker will want to be able to communicate with the people who can render assistance. Kent has plenty of them on the water.

I suppose I could also say something about training. What worked for me was back-to-back long swims (4-5 hrs) every other weekend and strength training 2-3 times a week. Yoga is great to keep your body limber.

The Arizona sun has set on the biggest challenge of the season. My next swims are in the waters of my beloved Chesapeake Bay and the legendary Hudson River. This mermaid can’t wait…

 

 

The Kingdom Swim: Nothing Short of Magical (Part III)

Wrap-up

Reaching a goal can be quite an emotional experience and if I had my choice, I would let someone else take over while I’m processing what just transpired. In addition, after swimming for so many hours, it’s just hard to stop. My body goes haywire. “What? You don’t want me to keep on swimming? But… Then feed me!!!” At times like this, I wish I had a friend with me, like dear Sarah during GCBS last year. But I don’t have that choice, so soldier on I must. It helps to have little goals: #1 eat, #2 say goodbye to my wonderful kayaker, #3 shower, #4 attend award ceremony, #5 rest, #6 eat again.

It took a while to do all those things. I even had to go into town following the awards to run an errand (MISSION CREEP!) before I could sit in the beer tent and put my feet up. Since the ten-miler was also the 9+ Mile USMS Open Water National Championship, awards were given six-deep into each age group. Since no age group had over six participants, everyone who stayed for the awards got USMS hardware to hang on his/her “I-love-me wall” or to make his/her head coach proud. Wahoo!

Hanging out in the beer tent turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things I did on my trip to the Northeast Kingdom. Oh, yes, the beer was great despite the fact that I’m not much of a beer drinker, but the company and the conversation were even better. I was still star-struck by the swimmers I’ve heard of and admire, who turned out to be quite friendly and unassuming. Plus I got to meet many swimmers from the East Coast, who were happy to share swimming stories and plans. What a lovely evening it was! During that time, the last swimmer to finish the Border Buster came in, and all the swimmers in the beer tent walked down to the beach to greet her and cheer. Reminiscing of that moment still gives me goosebumps. What a wonderful sport this is, in which its athletes celebrate each other’s triumphs, no matter how long it takes to reach those goals. Dinner at Prouty Beach was delicious and plentiful and by a surprising turn of events, I was committed to applying for the 2017 installment of SCAR. I capped the evening in Newport, surrounded by swimmers enjoying well-earned ice cream cones.

The following morning, I packed my campsite and started the journey back to South Florida, already awaiting my return next year to the magical Northeast Kingdom of Vermont for the Border Buster.

Lessons learned

Kayak escort – Swimming while escorted by a kayaker represents a whole new level of the sport for me. It incorporates the notion of teamwork. Swimmer swims. Kayaker guides. Swimmer lays out logistics. Kayaker keeps her eyes and ears on safety. It is so much easier to follow one’s kayaker than to attempt to spot a buoy! For my next supported swim, the Suck, I’ll already know what works. I had a fantastic escort who kept me right on those buoys.

Hydration (CarboPro/Gatorade mix) – I brought more than I thought I needed. I nearly drank it all. But then again, I swam longer than I thought I would.

Nutrition (banana/apple baby food in squeezable packets) – I didn’t eat at all. My stomach never felt like it needed food, though I was afraid that if I did eat it, I would get stomach cramps.

Pacing – I was very pleased with my pacing once I settled in. I was also glad that during training days that I was feeling off, I saw the workout through completion. That gave me the confidence that I could finish the swim even though I wasn’t feeling fantastic.

speed_over_time_mph
Speed over time elapsed.

Adequacy of training – A rule of thumb is to swim the distance of one’s race in a week as a minimum. I stuck to that rule, but added long swims of increasing length every other weekend. My mentor had recommended breaking those long swims by stretches of time, twenty to thirty minutes each, with a little rest in between. Three weeks before the race I did my longest pool swim, a 13K, followed two days after by a 10K time trial. I felt my training had been right on point, though when my mentor asked me what I would have done differently, I said I should’ve swum more at a tempo pace. Something to be discussed with my coaches…

TRACK.RS – A new tool offered to marathon swimmers by the Marathon Swimmer Federation. Not only TRACK.RS provides the swimmer with post-race data, such as the actual location and speed vs. time, but it also allows one’s ‘fans’ to follow one’s progress in near real time. Once I returned home, many of my friends commented on how fun it was to check on my progress. I blushed.

The Kingdom Swim: Nothing Short of Magical (Part II)

Race day

Notwithstanding the nerves of the previous week, I always wake up calm, cool, and collected on race day. Most of the time I stay in that frame of mind. Despite the conscious tapering, hydrating well, and extra rest, I woke up feeling off. It was nothing related to food, or camping, for that matter, since I’m an avid camper. It was just an off day. One must adjust on days like those, whether they happen during training or racing. I just accepted that fact and decided that I would swim very slowly. After all, I’d never swum ten miles before.

Out of my tent’s window, the Border Busters took off at 5:30 am. I was surprised at the racket they made; their strokes sounded like a flock of birds taking off from the surface of a lake. I wished I were starting my race that early, too, but the championship race was not supposed to commence until 8 am. I had plenty of time to eat breakfast, don my tech suit, cover myself in Extra Strength Desitin, and check and re-check my feeds and gear. By the time my kayaker arrived at the beach, there wasn’t much left for us to do other than load the kayak and turn on the GPS transmitter for the tracker.

My kayaker and I had discussed logistics the day before. This was also my first supported swim, so my instructions were based on what my mentor had advised. I asked my kayaker to keep the kayak next to me (as opposed to ahead or behind) and on my left. I breathe on both sides, so picking the left was merely an attempt at staying on course, since I tend to pull to the left.

The kayakers took off ahead of the swimmers, who started at 8 am.

Stampede! (Photo: Phil White)

A peaceful feeling overcame me as I waded in the lake waters and dove. I love water. I love swimming. I wasn’t concerned at how long the race would take. I acknowledged my physical discomfort and just took it along with me. For the next few hours, I would be the aquatic creature I’ve always wanted to be. It was comforting to know that I wouldn’t have to touch land for hours.

The kayakers had mustered by the first buoy; I found mine right away. It wasn’t hard! I was already lagging behind the bulk of the field after only one mile. The water was 73F. Pleasant, but I always welcome colder temperatures. The forecast called for a maximum ambient temperature of 74F, clear skies, and a NW wind less than 9 mph. The course was a clockwise loop around the US portion of the lake. For about 2.6 miles, we swam generally north along the west shore of the lake, passing the small Whipple Point light. Time seemed to fly. I was taking feeds every twenty minutes, which is my norm training in the South Florida heat. During that leg of the race, I could’ve changed the interval to thirty minutes, but kept the usual one in favor of staying hydrated and being disciplined. Ten miles is a long way and one doesn’t know what the course might throw at a swimmer later on.

The ten-mile course.

My kayaker and I had decided that before crossing the lake, a 1.7-mi stretch, I would take a feeding to then cross without stopping. We’d learned the day before that there is a current that pushes swimmers north the closer they get to the islands on the east side of the lake. We were advised by the experienced kayaker not to stop for feedings. Crossing the lake was my favorite part of the whole swim. Every time I breathed to my right, the mirrored surface of the lake reflected the cloudless sky. I felt I could’ve swum forever.

Crossing Lake Memphremagog. (Photo: Phil White)

Reaching the next buoy near Black Island, my kayaker and I looked behind us. Swimmers and kayakers had been pushed off course. Swimming around Black Island, Cove Island, and Bell Island was a treat. These small rock promontories are covered in trees and the most beautiful houses nestle among them. Lenses of cold water pleasantly surprised me during the 1.2-mi jaunt around the islands. But once we turned south, along the eastern shore of the lake, the water gradually turned warmer. The navigational chart shows those depths to be equivalent to the ones on the western shore of the lake, so I attributed the rise in water temperature to the rise in air temperature. Following the 2.5-mile stretch between Bell Island and Indian Point, emergent vegetation signaled the low depth of the water. It was the only part of the lake where I saw large schools of fish. It was also where I was seized by a sneezing attack. Between sneezing and laughing I’m certain I lost plenty of time. I felt I had kept my speed fairly constant throughout the race, which is what I aim for. I’m a slow swimmer: I don’t delude myself with a top placement, but I take pride in consistent pace.

Past the emergent vegetation, I had another mile to go. By then it was early afternoon and boats were leaving the Newport docks headed north. Their wakes slipped under my kayaker and me. At one point, such a pronounced wave lifted my body that I popped my head up in time to watch the kayak being side swept. When I sighted the Prouty Beach campground, with about half a mile left in my race, I decided to give a ‘sprint’ a go. Why not? I’d been swimming at the same speed for hours and I wanted to finish my first ten-miler with a little unplanned fun, even if I was the only one who knew about it. I was surprised to still have gas in the tank. The water now felt Florida-warm, but even so, I was so happy to be ‘almost there’ that I paid it no mind.

Near the beach, I was afraid of what would happen when I stood up, but I did so without losing my balance. I waded back to shore, where a volunteer told me my time and I promptly forgot it, though I held on to the notion that it was much longer than my goal time. I thanked my kayaker; her navigational skills and on-point assistance made my race experience the best it could’ve been.

The Kingdom Swim: Nothing Short of Magical (Part I)

Hello, Newport!

As a newbie marathon swimmer, I had planned for the Suck to be my first attempt at the ten-mile distance, but I decided that I wanted to do the Kingdom Swim’s Border Buster, a fifteen-miler, next summer. In order to qualify, I needed to do a non-current assisted swim ten miles or longer. Given the time of the year and my experience, I opted for the ten-miler in the same venue as the Border Buster: Lake Memphremagog in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I had a little over two months to train for it.

I was not prepared for the beauty of the locale, though a place name with the word ‘kingdom’ should’ve given it away. It was nothing short of magical. Driving on I-91 from Hartford, CT, the landscape took my breath away with the gorgeous mountains, the deep green pines and their sweet smell, the meandering rivers, the granite cliffs. I reached the lake at the end of the day, when the sun was hiding over the tallest mountain peaks, turning the water surface into a silvery mirror. The scenery stole my breath and brought me to tears. I can never help but think how blessed I am to be able to do what I love the most in these gorgeous natural settings.

My journey ended at the campground in Prouty Beach, Newport, which was nearly full. I pitched my tent on a spot overlooking the beach and went for (what else?) a swim. It was dusk and I didn’t want to waste time putting my contacts on. At the closest beach, I waded in and found the water surprisingly warm, in the mid-70s, perhaps. I didn’t stray too far from shore for fear of not seeing anything and for that reason never really got away from the submerged vegetation. My little swim felt fantastic after a whole day of planes (no trains) and automobiles.

view_from_tent
The view from the Prouty Beach campground.

The day before the race I woke very early. I had forgotten sunrise is just after 5 am during the New England summer. What else is there to do but to go for a swim? This time I tried the main beach and didn’t find as many snarling plants. Buoys were already out, so I swam to the closest one. One other swimmer shared an otherwise deserted lake.

Around mid-day I went into Newport for sign-in and to board the Northern Star for a cruise around the buoys located within the US portion of the lake. Lake Memphremagog is a glacial lake, so it is long and narrow. Most of it lies within Canada. Luckily, my kayaker was able to join me on the boat. It was quite a useful experience to be able to look at the course together and learn from another experienced kayaker who had joined us.

Lake Memphremagog from the Newport docks.

Later that afternoon, Phil, our race director, gathered the swimmers at the Gateway Center in Newport for a safety briefing. Glancing around the room, I recognized many a swimmer from the marathon swimming world. How exciting to be surrounded by swimmers who’ve accomplished such feats of courage and physical prowess, which in my mind can only be accomplished with hard work, dedication, discipline, perseverance, and yes, heart. At that point, this race started to morph into something I didn’t expect it to be, but couldn’t yet put my finger on it. Swimmers promenaded along the lake shore in good fun. The night ended with a delicious pasta dinner and lively music.

Gang of swimmers. (Photo: Phil White)

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.

 

GCBS 2016 Wind Rose Gusts GCBS 2016 Wind Rose

 

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!