April marks the start of another marathon swim season. While I started last season at a place I’d never visited—Arizona—this year was quite the opposite. The Tampa/Sarasota area is well known to me: St. Pete Beach, Fort De Soto, and Siesta Key are places where I’ve swum many times. This was my first time swimming in Lido Key, though the waters in the Gulf of Mexico in this area are a bit cloudy, shallow, and generally not as rough as the Atlantic Ocean, where I train on the opposite coast of the state of Florida. One remarkable feature is the whiteness of the sand. Walking on Siesta Key Beach, for example, gives the impression of walking on super fine sugar. Lido Key, just south of Siesta Key, boasts the same otherworldly sand.
I was very disappointed when the second installment of the swim around Fort De Soto was cancelled last year due to a low number of registrations. The race director, Dave Miner, very kindly transferred my registration to the Lido Key swim, a seven-mile circumnavigation. In its fourth year, Lido Key attracts swimmers from across the country, not just us ‘locals.’ I met a swimmer from Alaska! Lido Key has a reputation for being well organized and quite fun. As always, my concern was high water temperature. This time of the year the Gulf is in the lower 70s (21-26C)in Tampa/Sarasota. With so many shallow areas, I expected the course to get much warmer, something my body doesn’t handle well.
One of my Wahoo teammates and I arrived in Sarasota the Friday before the race after a three and a half-hour drive across the state. I met my paddler, Linda, at the sign-in social at the Daiquiri Deck in Lido Key. Linda was a veteran paddler and knew the course well, something that made me extremely happy. I was grateful for her willingness to spend a good part of her Saturday alongside a swimmer she’d never met before. It was great to see friends from the Tri-State area and Indiana, some of whom I hadn’t seen since Spuyten Duyvil or the Suck. It was happy energy at the Daiquiri Deck.
The race started at 1005 for the ladies, but I was at Lido Key Beach at 0800 as the schedule required. I grabbed a good parking spot for my diligence, which would come in handy when putting my bag and my friend’s in the car since there was no bag check. During the 0900 race meeting, I finally decided to cover myself in zinc oxide. Apparently, I’d just been milling about for an hour. My feeds, which consisted of Infinit in bottles full of ice topped with cold water and placed in a cooler full of ice, were safely in Linda’s kayak. I was doing just about everything I could think of to manage the temperature. For the first time I was wearing a two-piece suit. I’d brought a pink fabric cap but decided to stick with the silicon race cap unless it became a problem.
The field was 110 solo swimmers and 25 relays. The men promptly left the beach at 1000 in their green caps. The ladies, in pink caps, then swam to the starting line, just north of the jetty. Our paddlers were positioned behind us. I had no problem in finding my happy paddler. I loved her energy! A horn blasted and we took off. The relays, in orange or yellow caps, were to follow.
We swam north. At 74F (23.3C), the water felt manageable. The sky was clear, something that wouldn’t change throughout the day. With a flood tide and a 11-mph (17.7-kph) southeast wind, we were moving at a good clip. After half a mile the water became shallow, but we moved a little west and I was in deeper water once again. Past the one-mile mark, the course started turning west. As we rounded the northwest corner of the island, the waves ricocheted off a seawall. I had a similar experience at Fort De Soto, when one feels waves in two different directions. Makes for lively swimming. Now we were moving due west along New Pass and the island created a wind shadow. The water was calm, but I could feel the pull of the flood tide. It’s always fun to swim fast. I felt a sudden urge to backstroke under the John Ringling Parkway bridge. When Linda noticed what I was doing we both burst laughing. It felt beautiful to be in the water. It felt like home. We enjoyed a little over a mile of those fun conditions. I knew they would come to an abrupt halt as we rounded the northeast corner of the island.
I love choppy saltwater perhaps because it’s what I grew up with. With the wind still blowing from the southeast, we were now swimming into a headwind. Time to put my head down and focus. For the next three miles—the length of the lee side of the island—I just swam. I wasn’t concerned with who was passing me, who was ahead of me or behind me, or what big yachts were sailing by. I even missed a dolphin that swam underneath me! I simply swam and stopped when Linda offered me a feed. I felt great in the water. My stroke felt efficient, which made me think of my coach and good friend Patrick, who has been working with me for years making me a better swimmer. I felt the swim along the lee side of the island was a tribute to him.
At noon we passed under the John Ringling Causeway bridge. I backstroked, but quickly switched back to freestyle because I felt change coming. Several shifts were at play: it was high tide and the wind changed direction and increased speed. It’s easy to tell the effect of the tide in shallow, grassy bottoms. Before the second bridge, I could see the grasses bent in the direction I was swimming since it was flood tide. At high tide, the grasses were slack. But the wind veered from the southeast to the southwest and increased to 15 mph (24.1 kph). I felt very slow until I started feeling the effect of the outgoing tide. Now the grasses were bent in the direction I was swimming once again, but not much. As we neared the southern tip of the island, I glanced at a natural beach on my right. I heard kids squealing and saw families wading in the water next to their anchored boats. I could feel their eyes on me. At moments like this I wish kids and adults are inspired by the lunatics in the water to swim far someday. The water was shallow and a bit warmer, but still bearable.
Soon we found ourselves at Big Sarasota Pass. The conditions changed quickly and drastically. The water was bright aquamarine, warm, extremely shallow, and turbulent. The white bottom was suddenly very close and the aquamarine waves three feet (0.9 meters) above my head. Linda maneuvered her kayak deftly ahead of me, hugging the tip of the island. To my right, a couple in the water tried to upright a tandem kayak very calmly. I felt the surf side sweeping me toward the pass, but I managed to follow Linda and stay close to the island. Back in the Gulf, it was a different one than the one I’d left hours before. There were many whitecaps: the wind had picked up to 18 mph (29 kph). Two-foot (0.6-meter) waves pushed kayaks and swimmers towards the beach. I felt like swimming at home, just moving alongside the shore, with the difference that with the beach on my right, I was moving north. The water was very warm; I slowed down considerably, but with a mile to go, I focused on following Linda and swimming at a consistent pace. Past the jetty I turned into the beach. I finished two minutes over my expected time and felt fantastic when I got out of the water.
Lido Key was a great swim thanks to my paddler Linda, who kept me on a very efficient line, hydrated, and happy, to Dave Miner, who organized a safe and fun event, and to many Wahoo teammates, who were doing their first seven-mile swim. I have told my coach and teammates that this will be my last Florida race, since I have to add more cold water swims to my ‘resume’ in order to be better prepared for my future goals. However, this is an event that I would love to come back to as support for a friend. As far as my training, I feel I’m on the right track. I felt fantastic after the race, no aches or pains whatsoever, and had plenty of energy left to have a fun dinner with friends in Siesta Key and not be a bore.
Swim on, friends!