Swim for the Potomac race report

So, this past Sunday, 16 September, I swam the Swim for the Potomac 10K. Or, rather, I registered and started the race. I have yet to finish it.

Flash forward from 08:40-ish, Sunday morning. Flash forward two hours. Consistent and irritating pain in my lower back. The kind that isn’t debilitating. If you’re walking on solid ground. Where you can bend over and stretch. Hard to do while swimming in the (dirty) Potomac.

I started the race with my 7 fellow swimmers. One woman and six men. All the talk was how the woman would beat us all. (Spoiler alert: She got out after 5 laps.) The other swimmers all put “nutrition” or water on a floating, round and flat buoy (looked like a big tire with a lid, no other way to describe it). I scoffed at that…in my head! Which is important. Talk went back and forth about “just want[ing] to finish.” I seconded (or thirded) that emotion.

We all jumped into the Potomac to prepare to swim our 8 laps. Yes, as explained below, the race consisted of 8 x 1250 meter laps. And one of the most interesting routes ever. Not 8 simple loops. It was described by the organizer as an envelope. Here it is.

SFTP_Course1 with edits
At the start, I swam directly NE to point 1. From there, a hard left turn to point 2. At point 2, there was a green buoy on the eastern side and a large red buoy on the western side, about where the orange arrow is pointing. At 2, I turned right to buoy 3, where I did a 270 degree turn and swam to 4. At 4, a left turn and down to the start/finish line, and that equals one lap.

The 10K started first (after the 500m swim, more on that later), with the 5K starting after the 10K finished one lap (which translated to “when Mike completes one lap”). Then, about 10 minutes after that, the 3K, with almost 60 swimmers, mostly young upstarts, started.

Where you have a problem, is with the 3K. The 3K guys did a simple loop, from start to 1, to 3, to 4, back to start, which was 1000 meters. The problem came when the 10K guys (and 5K guys) were approaching and turning around buoy 2 and the 3K guys were swimming from 4 to the start/finish buoys (orange arrow is pointing to the problem area). On one of my laps, I had to stop around buoy 2 as a group of four passed between the green and red buoys, swimming abreast. No big deal. I wasn’t going for a record or anything.

My first 4 laps (so, 5K) was apparently swum fast. My wife and kids went away after my daughter finished her 500m swim, to allow her to change and to walk around, get coffee, all that. They came back somewhere around 10:15 or so, as I was finishing my 5K. So that’s somewhere around 1:35-ish. Good for me. I screamed to them that I had 4 laps to go. They disappeared.

Lap 5 even felt okay. Until about half-way. That’s when my lower back started to hurt. My shoulders, usually in pain for the first 1000-2000 meters anyway, never really warmed up. I should have realized that was just my body saying I didn’t have enough hours on them.

Anyway, back to my back. It got to the point that I started doing side-stroke around the buoys, just so I could curl up on myself to stretch my back. It was really hurting. Still, I figured I could continue. It didn’t (yet) hurt enough that I was thinking of quitting. I just knew at the end, I’d be in pain.

At the end of lap 6 my wife and family appeared again. I was surprised and worried. I screamed that I still needed 2 laps. I started to wonder, “How long were they away?” I hate stopping to look at my watch. At one point during lap 5 I glanced at my watch to see it was 10:58, so knew that I had been swimming just over 2 hours. But lap 6 felt like it took forever, and my back was screaming. Still, I thought, if my lap was even 30 minutes (it was probably longer, but I thought 30 minutes was a “worst case”), it was only around 11:30. Uh-oh!

During lap 7, besides thinking of my back every stroke, I thought about the cut-off time. Oh shit! What if I did finish lap 6 at 11:30? Wasn’t noon the cut-off? How the hell am I going to do 2500 meters in 30 minutes? Lap 7 hurt so much I even resorted to breast stroke, after the side-stroke, for a few after each buoy. It was taking forever.

I asked one of the SUP volunteers what the course cut-off time was between buoys 3 & 4; she didn’t know. As I passed my family, I told them I might be done. They were cheering me on something fierce. It was great to hear, but didn’t overcome my pain. As I approached the start/finish spot, I asked about cut-off. “We’re thinking noon,” was the answer. I looked at my watch. 11:54. I was done. I stopped my watch. 8750 in 3:15 [link in pdf].

Lessons learned. For one, more long swims. I’ve just been out of practice. Since leaving Moscow, I’ve been swimming coached workouts, but nothing on my own. And nothing more than 90 minutes, which occured once a week, if I was lucky. I need to take advantage of the fall season not having a Wednesday night workout. I need to find a place to go swim for 2-3 hours straight after work on humpday.

Second, core workout. I think along with longer hours horizontal in the pool, some core work to strengthen my transabdominal would be beneficial. Additionally, perhaps some ibuprofin right before the race. I really was so poorly prepared for this 10K. For one, we got our household goods from Moscow the day prior. So I was busy all day Saturday with the house. I didn’t have anything for my skin for the race, so I had a sore/hot spot between the thighs after the swim. I didn’t bring any water. I didn’t drink enough water prior. I had a slice of pizza as my “pre-race nutrition” for God’s sake. The tank might have been empty, along with my poor muscular prep.

The fam and I went out to eat in the National Harbor area after. Besides drinking some Gatorade and eating a huge (probably 800 cal) muffin after the race, I downed a lamb burger and tons of fries, along with two pints of black and tan (the wife was driving).

Positives: As far as the race goes, for a triathlete-run race, this had the absolute best buoys I’ve ever raced. Hell, for any race this one had the best buoys. Plus, no foolishness, beyond the standard a) wetsuits for ridiculously warm water (~70) and b) the director stating “you can rest on the kayaks.” Seriously, though, no triathletisms. No one joking about not being able to count that high. Organizers who paid attention to the laps and/or swimmers who were honest when they didn’t finish. Even with the young brats in there, no one was annoying.

But back to the buoys. Huge! Bright! Very easy to see. Also, mid-way buoys between all points except for the little envelope maneuver (1 to 2; 2 to 3). So very easy to navigate, I think that was the best part, at least for laps 1-4, and possibly 5. I really felt straight most of the time.

Oh, and I realized how nice it is to have family cheer you on. It really did matter that they were there. I felt so sorry for my wife stuck there for over 3 hours after our daughter finished her swim. Because of parking logistics, she didn’t want to leave and then come back, and National Harbor is only so big…

And the organizers were very strong on safety. They had eyes on each swimmer going in and coming out. There were organziers on the pier as I finished each lap. The SUP and kayak volunteers were everywhere. I never felt like I had to worry. I could have, at any moment, raised my hand and had someone there almost immediately.

So, first “flat” 10K an epic failure. But not in the lessons learned department. I certainly learned a lot. And, who knows? If there weren’t a cut-off, I might have swum the last lap, despite the pain. I really don’t know. All I know for sure is, I was so relieved when they said “noon.”

Oh, and even better: my 12-year old had her first OW experience. And she loved it! She competed in the 500m swim. The longest continuous swim she’s done to date. (Her swim team experience, started only this July, has been 50s and 100s.) She said she was so bloody tired at the end of lap 1 (they did two 250-meter laps), but she didn’t want to not finish. I just wish I could have made it a two-fer for team Tyson!

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