Hurricane Man Race Report

Two years ago I stood on St. Pete Beach waiting for the start of Hurricane Man, a 2.4-mi point-to-point swim. Registration had literally been under water. It was raining buckets and the street was flooded. Volunteers struggled to keep paperwork dry. By the time swimmers were shuttled to the start at the Pinellas County beach access, the rain had stopped, but menacing dark clouds moved swiftly towards shore. There were rumors that the race would be cancelled—first time in the eighteen years the event had been running. Soon lightning started snapping horizontally within the clouds and with their scary drumroll an agonizing RD called the race off. I was shocked. I’d dutifully trained for what would’ve been my longest open water race to date. I thought my training had been for naught (such a noob thought!). The swimmers took off running down the beach toward breakfast and I joined in. Once we arrived at the Hurricane Restaurant, swimmers were treated to the best breakfast buffet ever offered by a race. Still true to this day. The sky tore open and we huddled the best we could under the wrap-around porch to eat the yummy calories we didn’t burn. I met a few swimmers from the Tampa area that soggy morning, among them John, a former age-group star and triathlete.

All breakfast, no swim in 2014.

It took me a while to learn to process what a cancelled race meant. At the time, I was trying to collect little successes in my life. I needed them badly. This race would have been one. But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I eventually learned that one mustn’t put all eggs in one basket, so I signed up for the Tropical Splash 5K in October 2014. That race was Hurricane Man déjà vu. Torrential rain and lightning delayed the race to the point that the 5K was cut to a 2.5K. I didn’t get to do my 5K until April 2015. It took me a whole year to get to my starting point. Life takes detours, but we all know about that.

The 2016 installment of Hurricane Man was the complete opposite of my 2014 experience. The day was nothing but glorious! The water temperature was 74F and the air temperature 70F. The wind blew gently. The sun shone. Swimmers smiled.

After registration, I met up with my friend John and we tried to catch up with two years of swimming and triathlon stories. One of the gracious volunteers shuttled us to the race start. The water was beautiful! As I drove into Tampa the afternoon before, whitecaps dotted the bay and the wind was blowing a gale, but the day of the race the ocean was flat and there was only a very gentle swell. John warmed up in the water. When he got out he reported it was chilly at first but then it was perfect. He was shivering a little and got back in. I ended up not getting in the water before the start. The Masters ladies were in the third wave and silly me didn’t want to stand on the shore wet.

The Masters men started after the age groupers. Off John went. I expected him to do well. Two minutes later the ladies started. I was calm, cool, and collected—as I usually am at the start of an open water race—and hung toward the middle of the pack in the back. I’m a slow swimmer, no point in getting flustered by faster people swimming over me. I find starts at swimming races much more civilized than at triathlons, which I’m retired from. Just an observation.

Masters ladies dive in.

The water was lovely. I expected a fantastic swim. I got into my rhythm quite quickly; realizing that this was a much shorter race than my last one, a 10K three weeks prior, I aimed to hit my 10K pace right after I felt warmed up. Since the beach is a gentle arch, I figured that a line from point A to point B would be the shortest route, as opposed to hugging the white boys located about 300 ft from the beach. I used the field of yellow caps before me as a guide, until I found a volunteer paddleboarder who was maintaining a course I really liked and who was easy to sight. I stuck with him until the mid-point at the Don Cesar hotel, checking every so often that he hadn’t changed his course toward Mexico. At that point he peeled off to talk to other paddlers. I picked up the pace and followed the line of stationary paddlers for the next quarter of the distance. I started passing some white caps (guys) and yellow caps (ladies). Since I’m not a fast swimmer, I always get a kick out of a guy who when he realizes I’m passing him, picks up the pace to eventually drop off. I found one such guy and had a chuckle. With the last quarter of the distance to go, I skirted the white buoys and honed in on the red turning one. The water was lovely, I wasn’t tired in the least bit, and was really enjoying myself, so I did not want to finish. Yet I maintained my pace and reluctantly swam to shore. I got on my feet with a smile.

A volunteer handed me a numbered card and another volunteer wrote the time. I immediately subtracted four minutes from it to account for the staggered start and was happy to find that I’d come under 1:20. Before the start, John had asked me what was my goal and I realized that I didn’t really have one. Since October, my training had been focused on Swim Miami, the first A race of the year. Hurricane Man was a B race, but I still felt deficient in not setting up a goal. While I swam I calculated my goal time and came up with 1:20. Turns out I swam faster at Swim Miami. Since I don’t wear a fancy GPS watch, I have no idea whether I swam longer than I thought in St. Pete or if the Swim Miami course was shorter than expected. The difference in pace was a minute.

I found John at the beach. He’d finished well before I did. We’d both enjoyed the swim immensely. We partook of the fabulous breakfast and stayed for the awards. We were curious as to the time for the winners of our respective age groups. The lady who won mine finished a good 20 minutes before me. She’s a fabulous swimmer. Yup, I’m slow, but happy. Later in the day, the results were posted and I was pleased to find out that I ended up in the middle of my age group. That was a nice surprise!

I said good-bye to John and to Pass-a-Grille Beach. St. Pete Masters puts on a fabulous race. I would love to come back next year with some of my teammates, if I can talk them into joining me. I had stayed the night at Fort De Soto Park campground and loved it! I’m seriously considering repeating this trip in November for the Swim Around Fort De Soto.

I always do Lessons Learned, so here we go:
What went well – Races with friends are always more fun! I was glad that John had signed up, too. Camping at Fort De Soto was very relaxed, definitely an experience to be repeated. I had fun, from beginning to end!
Room for improvement – Always have a time goal, even if the race is not an A race.

Next up: the Delray Mile and GCBS, my second A race of the year.

Swim Miami 10K Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loop 4 – I saw a couple of pink caps swimming left of center and in my path. I yelled at the two women, but I don’t know if they actually changed course. The pink caps were the milers and I didn’t really see many of them, probably because I was hugging the line of boats as I swam north, staying right of the buoys and the crowd. I started dropping my left elbow every once in a while. Not sure why I was doing that, perhaps because the underside of my upper arm was starting to hurt. I had to concentrate to get rid of the creeping bad habit. I felt no pain after correcting my stroke.

Loop 5 – The field started thinning out and I was grateful for it. Now I could go back to swimming close to the buoys. Before the boat that was blocking the view, I found a lady in a green cap who’d stopped to figure out which way to go. I pointed the way to her and gave her directions and kept swimming. At this point I started to think “I got this” and smiled to myself every so often. I was surprised I was feeling so well. I thought about picking up my speed, but always worried about the warm water, I decided to keep doing what I was doing. Once I rounded the northernmost buoy, I swam by the spectator dock and waved. I smiled and people smiled in return.

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

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

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

Things that went well:

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

What needs improvement:

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

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

Point of Origin

Can you remember the exact moment when you started loving open water swimming? Can you remember the place?

I grew up on an island. Standing up atop the hill where my parents lived, one could enjoy a lovely view. To the north: the ocean. To the south: a creek, a green mountain, and the blue rainforest. Clouds crowned the highest peaks on most days. Frigatebirds drifted high in the sky, usually the harbingers of bad weather.

My father used to take the family to the beach, but I cannot remember when he started doing so. It was something he did. I loved the water, its saltiness and the shimmering bits of sun on its surface. I loved playing hide and seek with the waves. I loved the mangrove at the east end of the beach, with its thousands of fiddler crabs. I loved the forest of palm trees I used to run through, jumping over coconuts, to get to the beach in order to build sandcastles with moats that would be swallowed by the surf. I loved to look for shells on the sand. But most of all, I loved to see my father swim. I don’t know where he learned or how or who taught him. He was a great swimmer. He used to tell me, “See that buoy? I’ll swim to it, touch it, and return.” He’d smile and set off—no goggles, only swim trunks—on what seemed to me a grand adventure with a small audience. I stood at the beach watching him. His figure would shrink as he steadily cut through the waves in a straight line toward his destination. As he swum out to sea, I would think that I wanted to be able to swim to the buoy and touch it, too, but I didn’t know how. He wouldn’t teach me. That was not something he did.

Luquillo Beach

It took a near tragedy for my parents to enroll me in swimming lessons. I must’ve been nine years-old. Apparently my backstroke was good enough for me to be included in the age-group swim team. I made it to my first meet and though my name was on the psych sheet, the coach had another girl swim under my name. Disillusioned, I quit because nine year-olds don’t know how to deal with cheats. Since age-group swim teams didn’t abound in my island, for years I thought my swimming ‘career’ was over. My love for the ocean never wavered, though.

My life continued its happy twists and tortured turns and I eventually found myself on a peninsula with many a pool. At the time, I desperately needed to feel better about myself, so the obvious choice was to do something positive: I would pick up swimming where I had left off thirty years before. First step: buy a gym membership and a training suit. What followed was a defining moment in my life. I showed up at the gym’s pool with the goal of swimming ten laps. The modesty of that goal is sobering. I took off and when I finally reached the far end, I stopped, completely out of breath. I cried. Thankfully, I was alone. I told myself there was no way I was leaving without swimming my ten laps. So I composed myself and carried on.

That was in 2009. In 2012, I mustered my courage and signed up for Masters because I had registered for a half-iron aquabike (1.2-mi swim, 56-mi bike) and I needed help in figuring out how to swim the distance in a lake. Signing up for Masters was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My life has been enriched with wonderful coaches who have tinkered with my stroke, challenged me to try new things (fly!), encouraged me when swims haven’t gone so well, believed in me when I didn’t, and made me curse Fast Friday in order to help me become a better swimmer. And Masters has given me opportunity to make so many friends! Lovely people to chase and be chased by, to chat with during the rest portion of the intervals, people who’ve happily shared what they’ve learned and who’ve included me in their wicked swimming adventures.

Tomorrow I’ll be attempting my first marathon swim, the Swim Miami 10K. Very present in my mind is the injury that caused me to bail out of four races and which ended my triathlon career, not as much because of its seriousness, but because I made the decision that I won’t beat up my body doing something I don’t like (running). I’d rather honor my body–as my lovely yoga instructor Terri says–and do what I really love (swimming). Also present in my mind are the visit to the ambulance at the end of GCBS due to heat injury and the DNF at the Pompano 5K due to high water temperature. My body doesn’t handle well the heat. And since Miami is a *hot* city (caliente!), I get water temperature at 82F and air temperature between 72F and 78F. Cloudcover is in my favor, though. This time, I have a well thought hydration plan that Coach CJ helped me put together.

So while I stand at the beach tomorrow morning waiting for the air horn blast, I’ll be thinking of the coaches and friends who have helped me get to the point where I can make this attempt, of my kids, who listen to my swimming stories every day, and my sister, who thinks I’m the coolest sister ever because I swim in the ocean (luv u, sis!). And I’ll inevitably be thinking of my father swimming out in the ocean to a buoy far away.

Obituary for a Great Season

Thirteen days before what would’ve been my first marathon, I blew out my pelvis dancing. Zumba is not out of the ordinary for me; I didn’t fall, I wasn’t airborne. It was a very bad ‘pop’ that rendered my right leg wobbly. I immediately realized my marathon was not to be. The diagnosis was a stress fracture of my pelvis. I cannot walk without a pronounced limp, I can’t lift my leg, nor I can kick while swimming. If I step the wrong way it hurts. Not good. Not good at all.

I should be heartbroken about this injury. However, I’ve learned one thing in three years of endurance sports: setbacks do happen and in many cases athletes bounce back. Even if they don’t bounce back to where they left off, they bounce back to a condition that lets them stay active. Again, this is most of the time, not always. An athlete can have as intense a focus on healing as in training for a race. Time, patience, and common sense are the body’s allies, though perhaps not so much a friend of an athlete’s competitiveness.

I’m dropping out of four races: Swim Miami Beach, Marine Corps Marathon, Challenge Florida Olympic Tri, and the Frogman Swim. Frogman isn’t until January, but I was planning an intense training block for it that now is quite unrealistic.

Despite its early and goofy demise, I had a great season. I’d like to share its highlights because some of the people who made it happen might be reading this post. I’m grateful to you, because I cannot do this alone.

HITS Naples Half Distance Tri – My first attempt at a long distance tri (70.3 miles). It was a perfect race day. The best part was when Sherna handed me my 3rd place AG plaque, because I didn’t know I had placed. I cried.

HITS Ocala Olympic Tri – I’ve never enjoyed a race’s weather so much. It was COLD! My body loved it! This race has two of my favorite things: hills on the bike and a dirt trail for the run. I trained very hard and was rewarded with a 2nd place AG. Flying high! My trip to Ocala was a blast thanks to fellow triathlete Susan M. A total riot, that awesome lady.

Swim Miami 5K – My first 5K swim! I enjoyed every minute of it. It was a confidence builder for the big race of the year, Chesapeake Bay.

Great Chesapeake Bay 4.4-mi Swim – Epic race! It was so awesome to swim across the Chesapeake along the Bay Bridge! I got hooked on marathon swimming, even though this race is a bit short of a marathon swim (10K). I want to do it again, over and over, and that’s despite ending up in the ambulance with a heat injury. No wetsuit in the next installment, though it won’t be as fun a trip without Sherpa extraordinaire Sarah.

Power Challenge 5K Swim – My first DNF. (Great season, I said, not perfect!) I learned my body doesn’t really like swimming in hot water. Nope.

Alligator Lighthouse Swim (aka Jellyfish Swim), 4-person relay – My second year doing this race because it’s always so much fun! Who doesn’t like jellyfish dodgeball? Who doesn’t like swimming out into the ocean to a lighthouse that looks like a dainty miniature from Route 1? Who doesn’t like swimming with three other friends (Cat, Roy, and Gary) in the beautiful turquoise waters of the Florida Keys?

Columbus Day Duathlon Relay with my kids – I’m a blessed mom. It’s so much fun to share cycling and running with one’s kids and cheer at the top of your lungs for them and to be rewarded with their proud and accomplished faces at the finish line. We all got ‘spinny’ 1st place medals. On a personal note, I PRd on my run. I was very happy marathon training was having a positive effect on my pace. Unbeknownst to me, this would be the last race of the year, but it couldn’t have been a better one.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll find out what my prognosis is. I’m signed up for the Swim Miami 10K and wanted to put in for the Chesapeake Bay Swim lottery and to sign up for Swim the Suck (10-mile swim for crazy people). We shall see. In the meantime, thank you for all your love, encouragement, and advice, for keeping me grounded in reality (Astrid and Stefan), for helping me be a better swimmer (Bert, CJ, Linda, and Julia) or challenging me to be one (Roy), a better cyclist (Scott H.), and a better runner (Sandra). You guys are awesome!

Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2015 Race Report

First of all, I want to thank the people who helped get me to the beach at Sandy Point State Park: Coach Bert, who has always instilled confidence in me, and Coach CJ and Coach Julia, who’ve worked with me to make me a more efficient and faster swimmer. I also want to thank my family, who are my greatest cheerleaders, Sarah, the best Sherpa in the world, for sharing such an awesome experience with me, and my friends reading this post. I definitely felt your love before and after the race.

Sarah and I got to Sandy Point State Park and upon seeing the whole length of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge I broke into tears. I love Maryland and I consider it my home and standing on the park’s beach I thought how very blessed I was to be doing such an awesome race. GCBS is one of the best open water swims in the world according to WOWSA. After checking in and getting my chip and cap, we rested under the shade of a tree on a lovely blanket. This period should be known as ‘the calm.’ Just before ‘the storm,’ I donned my wetsuit and went down to the water to get acquainted because, after all, I’ve never swum in the bay before. The water wasn’t choppy, but it was opaque, green, and brackish. The latter qualifier was interesting to me since I grew up swimming in the ocean and I’ve done a handful of races on freshwater lakes, but never on a brackish body of water. Not too sweet, not too salty. What alarmed me most about my assessment was that the water was warm, as in the-Keys-in-February warm. I proceeded to fret about wetsuit v. no wetsuit, thinking that the water in the middle of the bay would be colder. I opted for wetsuit. I had brought a collapsible bottle with my trusty Gatorade-Carbo Pro mix, but soon realized that the edge of the bottle was too sharp and it would cut a gash in my tummy since I was wearing a two-piece under my wetsuit. I had intended to put the bottle inside my wetsuit. I opted to drink most of the bottle’s contents before the race. I saw a guy with packets of GU and at that point I wished I hadn’t forgotten my packets of Honey Stinger gel at home.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans the bay from Annapolis on the Western Shore to Kent Island on the Eastern Shore. Two spans cross over the bay’s two shipping channels. The suspended section of the bridge (at the towers) is the tallest section over the deepest channel. The trussed section of the bridge covers a shallower channel. Over 600 swimmers were told during the pre-race meeting that the tide would be pushing us south before the main shipping channel and north thereafter. If a swimmer found him or herself underneath a span, the swimmer would be DQd and pulled out of the water by the many safety personnel on watercraft, and there were plenty! Safety-wise, I’ve never seen anything like this race. The number of vessels–including kayaks, powerboats, jet skis, and Coast Guard vessels–was in the hundreds. In addition, two helicopters patrolled the swim area. Fire Rescue personnel were stationed at both ends of the bridge.

I was in Wave 1, swimmers who expected to finish in more than 2 hours and 30 minutes. We had the neon green caps. I was extremely calm, NOT cool, and collected waiting at the beach for the starting horn. I decided I didn’t want to fight anyone because I’m not very fast, so it doesn’t make sense to me to spend precious energy just to get kicked or swatted on the head. After the blast, I got in the water and quickly got into a nice rhythm. The field headed toward the buoys that marked the entry point to the bridge. Swimmers were supposed to stay in between the two rows of massive concrete pilings. The western terminus of the bridge is a bend. At the point one has a clear view of the straight section of bridge, one has swum a mile. The Mile 1 ‘marker’ is humbling. If one pops her head up, one can see the pilings towering over and the spans of the bridge. It was nothing but gorgeous. And being an engineer who loves bridges and swimming, I could only think that this was the best swim in the world. I thought again of how blessed I was to be able to be one of the 600 or so swimmers doing one of the most coveted open water swims in the world. Wow. I was in Nirvana. Mile 2 was a continuation of my elation. Again, being an engineer, I had diligently studied and memorized the piling numbers and shapes as a way to gauge my progress. When I hit the Mile 1.5 ‘marker’ I looked at my watch and realized I had covered the distance in 45 minutes. I was FLYING for my standards. I started having dreams of a finish better than I expected. Then I entered the main shipping channel and hell broke loose.

I got swept away by the current so quickly that the next thing I knew, I was under the southern span of the bridge. I’m not one to panic. I’m very comfortable in the water, particularly if it’s salty. However, I was more than concerned that I’d be pulled out. I looked at the kayakers near me and they didn’t seem to be minding me. Opportunity, I thought, to get out of my predicament. I swam hard and as efficiently as I could. I knew I was spending quite a bit of energy, but I had no choice if I was to have a chance at staying clear of the span. I was comforted by the fact that I was moving forward, but still concerned because I was still under the span. At some point I reached a piling surrounded by treated wood. I was so close, I could smell the creosote. I swam hard to get away and once I was clear, I popped my head up to see what other swimmers were doing. They looked like they were swimming almost perpendicular to the span. I had to try something different, so I figured I’d give that strategy a go. It worked! I got away from the span but not without effort. I continued my hard swim until I reached the first ‘hydration’ boat at the 2-mile point. We were allowed to hang on, so I did, but just long enough to get the last teeny tiny cup of Gatorade on the boat. I also drank some water. I forgot the volunteers had bananas in my elation, so I didn’t eat anything. I took off right away tackle Mile 3. I could tell I had spent quite a bit of energy, so I decided to go a notch below race pace. I reached the next hydration boat at the 3-mile point and all the volunteers had was hot water. I drank it and moved on. Mile 4, though warm, was quite enjoyable. I was right in between the spans with no one around me. I could zone out and enjoy the experience. I noticed the change in water temperatures, from chilly to hot to warm and so on and so forth. I poked a jellyfish, but unlike its two friends at around the Mile 1 marker, it didn’t sting me.

At the Mile 4 marker it was time to swim in between pilings and swim along the eastern abutment to the finish line at Hemingway’s Marina on Kent Island. I swam in between buoys marking the exit point and between the pilings, but making the turn toward the marina proved to be an ordeal. This time I expected it. Eddies form around an obstruction in flow and can be quite strong. I must’ve been caught in one because I got swept away toward a piling. There must’ve been a foot between the piling and me. I swam hard and got away and continued to swim hard under the eye of an amused kayaker. Once I reached the abutment, the eddies disappeared. I had 0.4 miles to go.  I looked up toward the Marina. I saw swimmers WALKING. I found out the reason right away: the water was shallow and extremely hot. By then I was running out of gas and I was very hot. I didn’t want to walk in the hot sun, but I couldn’t swim either, so I dolphin dove. I chuckled to myself about the irony of practicing dolphin dives at the Aqua Crest pool on my last day of practice before the race. With a hundred yards or so to go, I swam to the finish line with a time of 2:59:16, nowhere near where I had wanted to be. But, hey! I had just swum across my beloved Chesapeake Bay!

Once on the Eastern Shore (ha!), volunteers took my chip and a silly Tyvek strip I had to have under my cap and a woman asked me if I was OK. I was a little wobbly, but having done a half Ironman, I had experienced wobbliness before, so I said yes. Sarah happily waited for me and took pictures. I posed and smiled, a bit in shock about what I’d just done. That, ladies and gents, is the beauty of being a newbie. You may only experience once that sense of awe about doing something you didn’t think you could do for the first time.

I trudged along the line. The thought of eating made me feel nauseated, so I reached for lemon-lime soda. I tried to eat a cookie and a donut, but they wouldn’t go down. I found oranges and was happy to find that I could get them down. I grabbed my swag bag and was sad to find there were no finisher medals. I would’ve liked one. I got a 4.4 sticker for my car instead. Yay! At the end of the line, a fire department volunteer has hosing down swimmers. He was kind enough to keep the water coming for as long as I stood under the stream; however, the warm water wasn’t cooling me down. I left my things with Sarah and went for a walk to find Coach Julia and the porta-potties. I found Coach Julia first and she seemed concerned about me. She asked me how I was feeling. I said fine. We chatted and took pics and I resumed my search for the porta-potties. I found Sarah again and decided to stand in line for the bus that would take us to her car. I started feeling so awful that I had to sit on the ground. Then I changed my mind about the bus and went off again to look for the darn porta-potties. I eventually found them and when I came back I was sweating so profusely, sweat was pooling at my feet. Heat injury, I realized. Thank God for hazardous waste worker training! At that point I told Sarah I had to go see the paramedics and walked over to the ambulance. I again sat on the ground because I couldn’t think of anything better to do and told the paramedics what was happening to me. They grabbed me by the arms and walked me inside the ambulance, where they monitored my vitals in the chilly AC while they piled ice bags on my back. I must have been really out of it, because I thought I had been there for all but 10 or 15 minutes, and Sarah later told me I was in the ambulance for 45 minutes. Let that be a lesson, missy!

Sarah drove back westbound on the bridge, which I found quite amusing given that I hadn’t been on the bridge eastbound. I swum eastbound. Ha!<

After a few days of reflecting on this race, THE race of the year—and mind you, I did my first half Ironman in January and I’m planning for my first marathon in the fall, so I have no shortage of challenges—I can say that I’m truly happy to have put the work in, to have qualified, to have attempted and finished it even though I didn’t meet my time goal. I now understand why marathon swimming is such a tough sport. This race doesn’t qualify as a marathon swim (that would be 10K and above), but is close enough to get an idea of what the sport entails. My expectations might’ve been unrealistic. There is no substitute for experience, though. The beauty of open water swimming is that you can do the same race 100 times and it’ll be a different experience 100 times. I got plenty of work to do!

I learned a few things:

  • No wetsuit at 76 degrees! – I should’ve had faith in my training and not worn the wetsuit. It’s quite dangerous to wear at that temperature for such a long time. For a half Ironman swim (1.2 miles), it would’ve been fine. For 4.4 miles, absolutely not!
  • Practice as if race day! – If I had had the collapsible water bottle during my last practice, I would’ve known it wouldn’t have worked out. I didn’t even bring the bottle I did practice with to the race. Big mistake.
  • When in doubt, carry gel packs. – Enough said. Rookie mistake.

Things I did well:

  • I enjoyed the experience – Talk about living life fully! I felt like I was doing so, and I was and am grateful.
  • I managed my emotions – I didn’t panic while being swept away by Poseidon. Instead, I concentrated on my technique.
  • I sought help right away after I realized I needed it. – A hard thing to do for hard headed people like me.
  • Weight training – Muscle soreness was never a limiter; the heat was.

Things that I didn’t expect:

  • Poseidon’s strength – I’ve dealt with choppiness and nasty swells, never current this strong. As always, I love the ocean, but now I respect it more.
  • To share the experience with a friend – Sarah made things so much more awesome and fun!
  • The outpour of good wishes before the race and attagirls after the race – It fills my heart with joy. For that, I’m grateful.

In closing, I started swimming Masters in October 2012. Before that, the last time I had swum with a team and for a very short period of time was when I was nine years-old. It would have never occurred to me that three years later I would be attempting this swim. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my coaches and all the encouragement from my friends and family. Next year’s BIG swim goal: my first marathon swim!