Swim for the Potomac 10K – DFL

I’ve been working on building a swimming resume worth of SCAR. After the fabulous Kingdom Swim, I had two more races left in my season: Swim the Suck and Fort De Soto 10.5K. I thought I needed to wedge in another race. I’d been eyeing Swim for the Potomac 10K in Maryland for a while, but had been scared of the undefined cutoff time. According to race reports, the course closing had been arbitrary. In one account, the course closed 75 minutes after the first finisher. Well, what if that person was one of those blazing fast swimmers who can crank out a 10K in a little over two hours? On a good day I would need 3:45, so I was reluctant to travel to Maryland without knowing if I even had a chance of finishing.

For this year’s installment, the event website indicated the course would close in approximately four hours. Encouraged, I signed up. In hindsight, this was a fateful decision since I ended up missing the Suck thanks to Hurricane Matthew. My training after Kingdom had included lots of technique work and plenty of threshold workouts; I was eager to find out if I could keep a pace near threshold throughout a 10K.

The night before the race, I got conjunctivitis. Crisis! I wear contacts for open water swims; without them, I cannot see a thing. I don’t wear prescription goggles because they don’t do anything for my high astigmatism. I figured I’d show up at the race venue and reassess my situation.

The venue for Swim for the Potomac is the National Harbor in Maryland. I arrived early, as I usually do, and took in the nice morning. The air temperature was in the high 60s. The water temperature 77F. Buoys were already out. The course was located in the North Cove, which is bordered by I-95 on the north, National Harbor Boulevard on the east and south, and the ferry pier on the west. Part of the western section of the course faced the Potomac River.

North Cove
The course (Credit: Swim for the Potomac)

The giant, yellow buoys by I-95 would be easy to sight. I spotted a few smaller yellow and orange buoys on the east and south sides of the course, but none on the west side. I decided to give it a go.

The day prior to the swim, when I was already in Maryland, I received an email advising swimmers to bring bottles that could be tied to a paddleboard. I had brought bottles without loops. Those were in my kitchen in Florida. My lines with the shock cord hooks were home, too. We were given the option to leave the bottles on the dock, whose surface was out of arm’s reach from the water, or put them on a paddleboard near the start line. Thinking my bottles would fall off the paddleboard, I opted for the dock, my first mistake.

The seventeen 10K swimmers would go around the counterclockwise, rectangular course six times. We took off at 7:15 am. The water was pleasant. I would’ve loved it to be colder, but it was within tolerable range. I found I could see the small orange buoys on the short sides of the course. Swimming north, the I-95 buoys were good guides. Swimming south, the buoys were so small, I could only glimpse a flash of orange every so often. Instead, I picked a building to sight, though it wasn’t quite distinguishable from the ones nearby. For the long northbound and southbound legs, I used other swimmers as guides, though soon the distance between us began to stretch. In addition to my speed issues, there were weeds. Large mats of floating vegetation littered the course. The tide would fall until 10:30 am or so, so I expected the mats to be a nuisance for most of the race. I got trapped by them three times and made a mental note of their position, bearing in mind that they would move toward the river with the falling tide. As I finished my first lap, I thought I could continue to swim as long as I had other swimmers in front of me. I also realized my mistake in leaving my bottles on the dock. I had to ask a lady to hand me one, which I took to the nearby paddleboard. Immediately, I realized my second mistake was to ask for only one bottle instead of two. I would deal with that problem later on.

Before starting my second lap, I looked at my watch. I never wear one, but I thought that for a loop course it would be useful to. I was surprised that my first lap had taken 38 minutes. Seemed too slow, even for me. I felt I had been swimming at my target pace. I avoided most of the floating vegetation on my second lap. Lap time was 38 minutes. At least I was holding my pace.

By the third lap, the swimmers in the shorter races had joined in. I didn’t really have any issues with them, other than a girl swimming around me and brushing my head with her foot. She was as surprised as I was. Near I-95, I kicked what felt like a large piece of concrete. I stalled for a couple of seconds while the jolt of pain coursed its way out of my body. A heard a kid behind me swear. I suppose he kicked my piece of concrete, too. I came in at 39 minutes. I was satisfied.

Most of the floating vegetation was gone by the fourth lap. The wind started to pick up a little, but I felt I was maintaining my speed. My time had been 40 minutes. As I finished that lap, I drank the last of my hydration. I would get my second bottle at the start of the sixth lap.

I started my fifth lap thinking I would make the cutoff. There was a light chop. Swimming against it felt nice. After my turn toward the north, I realized there were no swimmers to follow. All good, there was the giant yellow buoy to swim toward. I rounded the north side of the course and headed south toward my target building. About halfway down that leg of the course, I realized the Capital Wheel was in front of me. I popped my head up. I was not supposed to be there! I was terribly off course. The building I was sighting looked just like the building I should’ve been sighting, my third mistake. Luckily, a kayaker paddled on my left. I could barely see the ferry dock. In silent agreement, I followed the kayaker until I spotted the dock and the small buoys. I thanked him. Near the end of the dock, I looked at my watch and my heart skipped a beat. Somehow that whole ordeal had taken 41 minutes and I was running out of time. It would be a miracle if I didn’t get pulled out before the cutoff time. I decided I wouldn’t stop to get my second bottle. There were plenty of bottles left on the paddleboard, so the 10K swimmers must have been right behind me, already on their last lap.

Do not follow the Capital Wheel! (Credit: The Capital Wheel)

I started my sixth lap thinking I would swim it like a one-miler, and so I did. It hurt. But if I was going to get pulled out, I’d do it in style. After I rounded the I-95 buoys, I swam as hard as I could, this time sighting the correct building. I couldn’t make another mistake. I made it to the ferry dock. There were only two bottles left on the paddleboard. One was mine. I later found out that the other bottle belonged to a swimmer who was cheering for me from the dock. What a sweet thing to do! As I climbed the dock’s ladder, I looked back and realized I was the last to finish: a man on a RIB was towing the large yellow buoys. The swimmer told me he’d only swum five laps. I told him that was more than enough. My last lap was 41 minutes. I thought it would have been faster, but was certainly good enough to sneak under the cutoff time. I was very grateful to the race director, Denis Crean, for allowing me to finish. It was a good race. It would make for an excellent first 10K.

So there it was: my first DFL. I always thought that if I was last I would be horribly disappointed, but I was surprised to find that was not the case. I raced this swim, I didn’t just swim it leisurely, and my last lap was all heart. I was pretty pleased with my training and with the fact that I fought to finish. I felt ready for the Suck, even though unbeknownst to me it was not to be.

The results were posted a few days later. Of seventeen swimmers, thirteen finished. I was happy to be one of the thirteen, even though I was last.