OK, so this last weekend I took part in a 6-person relay at the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. Alert reader(s) already know this. This post, which I’m sure you’ve been waiting for with baited breath, will cover lessons I learned in this swim.
(l to r) Kim, Patty, yours truly, Kelly
This is the first one of the “big” marathons for me, an iconic one. Tampa is up there with the English Channel, MIMS, and Catalina. According to four-time winner Chris Derks, Tampa is harder than The Channel. (You know which one I mean.) I take that seriously as Chris has quite a resume. Besides money, Chris’s sobering account of the difficulty of Tampa was one of the reasons I did not try it solo this year. Add to that the fact that I need(ed) more experience in the logistics of a big swim like this.
I showed up on Friday and met my team, none of whom I knew prior to this opportunity. Patty, her daughter Kimberly, Ted, Richard and Kelly are all great swimmers. And a bunch of fun to be around. This was definitely the group I wanted to do Tampa with for my first time.
The whole crew with Ted and Richard (in the hat) added.
The Dirty Half Dozen, as we were known, was one of three relays. But we were the coolest, and the oldest. There were 18 soloists, from young-gun Tommy T to the elder gentleman Carl Selles. Interestingly for me, and for my non-marathon swimming friends and family, is the fact that more than half the soloists were over 50 years old. I really enjoy being involved in a sport where you can continue to compete with an AARP membership card in your wallet.
Logistics was easier than I thought. Patty and Ted took care of the food. They stocked a big igloo cooler with sandwiches and sodas, and refused any offers of money. Very class acts. The boat driver, Wayne, had escorted this group in 2012 so knew well how to escort a swimmer. I had very little to do to prepare beyond making sure I had all my stuff ready: Desitin for my pits and crotch (marathon swimmers understand); water and Crystal Light for my liquids; sun protection for time in the water and on the boat. I was ready and had everything I needed in a backpack.
The start beach at the Magnuson Hotel
The plan was that we would each do 30-minute segments. That meant 2.5 hours sitting in the boat waiting for our turn to come back up. I figured this group would knock this race out in 8-9 hours, so I thought, because I got place #2, I’d get 3 sessions in the water.
Kim starting us out with Nicole kayaking
Kimberly started us out at 7:02am. It was cool out due to an overcast sky and quite the breeze, but initially the water was almost flat. It didn’t seem too bad really. As luck would have it, the wind started to get the waves up while I was in the water. It wasn’t too rough; in fact, it was fun. We had a kayaker (Wayne’s daughter, Nicole) for the first two swimmers. She was new at this, and the poor thing, apparently, was screaming to me to turn right or left. I can’t hear anything while swimming. She realized hand and paddle signals would be best, and once she directed me, I was on point from then on. Mostly.
After I got out, the waves started to get worse. Kelly went in and destroyed the water. She navigates well, needing very little direction. She’s also really fast. By the time she got out, the waves were cresting at 3-4 feet according to Wayne. It sure felt like it, as Nicole and I were in the bow (that’s boat-talk for the front of the boat, I think) riding the waves, which was fun like a roller coaster. (I’m lucky in that I’ve never had motion-sickness problems.) Ted jumped in but the waves overtook him so Patty took over his shift. (Ted later got back in the rotation with no problems.)
One of the soloists
This 2-3 hour period of rough waves led to 2-3 boats (I think 3, but radio traffic was difficult to understand and hear) took on water, one to the inevitable winner’s chagrin. Boat 3, escorting Chelsea Nauta, had a problem with its bilge pump (?) and began to sink. We heard about it on the radio, then finally caught up to it and took pictures, which you can see here. (The Coast Guard would eventually come to rescue the boat.) Chelsea and her kayaker attached themselves to a relay (NC State of Mind) and kept going. Chelsea would eventually win, only being beaten by the relay by 5 minutes! (The relay was composed of 5 swimmers aged 15-29 and one 55 year old…dad?)
Chelsea Nauta, the overall winner
Chelsea’s escort boat
Passing that boat was sobering. Shortly after, boat 8 came up to us. They were taking on water and needed to return to land, they asked if we could take care of their swimmer. #8 was Carl Selles, 66-years old and swimming strong. This was at about the 4-hour mark. I had just finished my second time in the water. Carl’s kayaker was his wife and she was beat. An avid yaker, she said she’s never seen water so rough. She came on our boat to rest. A short time later, after we caught up with Kelly (all along Carl asking us where she was as he didn’t want us “to lose [our] swimmer”), the race officials approached and told Carl’s wife that she’d have to get back in the water or her husband would have to withdraw. She was distraught; she said how much he wanted to do this, how long he’d been training, and it would kill her if she was the reason he didn’t finish. I have no idea why, but a couple hours later we heard he withdrew from the race. When I last saw him he was swimming strongly. Unfortunately, we had some of his feeds, which wouldn’t fit anywhere on/in his wife’s sit-on-top kayak, so perhaps nutrition is why he quit.
On my second time in the water I realized I forgot to reapply the Desitin. This is important, especially in salt water. My right pit started to feel like it was being rubbed raw. I hoped this wasn’t the start of what I’d felt in Cyprus. When I got out, I pulled the Desitin out and applied more, even though I was 2.5 hours from my next turn. I also applied some to my inner thighs (you know where I’m talking about!) as that area started feeling, well, you know. (Thankfully, I had no more of these “feelings” for the rest of the race.)
The race kept on. At some point, the 3-person relay withdrew, as did some soloists. I really think that couple of hours of washing machine action wore them out. We passed some soloists and following along on the radio as we heard #3 and the NC relay battling it out in front. On my third time in the water, at about half-way (as far as I can tell), the boat just cruised on by me. I like to keep the boat on my right so I can breath to my easy side, natural side, so I don’t have to raise my head forward. But the boat just kept going. My right-side breathing eventually became a 45-degree angle right side breathing, then a forward breathing. It just kept going, 200, 300 yards in front of me.
Then it started turning around. I thought maybe I had been going in the wrong direction and it needed the space in order to do the turn to redirect me (no, I don’t drive boats, so have no idea if any of that thinking makes sense…you ever try to make sense while stroking 60-70 times per minute and trying not to gag on water?). Eventually they were next to me again and I kept swimming. Come to find out when I got back on the boat that they weren’t paying attention and just kept going. Yikes!
While in on my fourth rotation I noticed we were passing yet another boat. I was so excited. I must have been swimming as fast as I felt! Then I noticed it was flying the #0 flag. So it was the officials. That’s no fun. When I got back on the boat, my partners told me the officials asked us to give up at 5pm if we hadn’t hit the Gandy Bridge yet, because that would mean we’d not finish till after dark. My teammates told them we’d go till 6 and then decide. But by the time I got on the boat, the rest of my team decided that we’d go till we hit Gandy or it was 6pm, then turn around. Apparently, after Gandy bridge we’d still have 6 miles to go, and at our rate, that would mean a 9-10pm finish. And we had no chem lights. I was upset, but figured it was still a learning process. And I agreed with the team.
I’ll tell you what, though. That damn bridge just never seemed to get closer. I really thought Kim would get us to the bridge (3:30 to 4pm shift). When she was done I jumped in, sure that I’d be the one to get to go under the bridge (what I really wanted). I kept my head down, not wanting to jinx it. When I didn’t see Nicole getting her kayaking gear on, I thought maybe I wasn’t going to touch the bridge. (The boat can’t fit under the area of the bridge we’d swim in, so you have to have a yaker bring you through.) I looked up and saw the bridge, as far off as it was when I jumped in. Dammit. 4:30 came and I yielded the bay to Kelly.
She had to get us there. She is so fast! Nope. Richard? He swam till 5:30 but we still hadn’t hit the bridge. Patty got in and got us to the bridge at 5:54pm. I hoped at that point someone would speak up and suggest we go all the way, but no one did. (I should have.) We were heading back.
Patty and Nicole getting us to the Gandy Bridge
The trip back was quick, less than 30 minutes I think. Maybe more, who knows. Another lesson learned was that 30 minutes swimming goes fast. I can say without invoking poetic license that each time Kelly gave me the hand signal that my time was up, I really was suprised. I asked every time, “Is that really 30 minutes?” I recalled Swim the Suck last year when the almost 5 hours went by so fast. Time really does go fast when you’re swimming and having fun. I also learned that I could do this. With practice, and lots of horizontal time, I could swim Tampa as a soloist.
In the end, only 6 of the 18 soloists finished. Chelsea at #1, Olympian Brooke Bennett in second only 4 minutes behind #1. Interestingly, the remaining 4 were all over the age of 45. Chris Burke, 51 years old, was #3 (12:16), followed a few minutes by his training partner and my father-in-law’s GP, 55-year old Mark Smitherman (12:33). 45-year old Sergio Salamone from Buenos Aires finished next in 13:37 and to round out the six was 51-year old Ann von Spiegelfeld in 14:37. Looking at those finishing times, and recognizing that we all started at 7:02am, I am with Richard from my group when he said we should have just continued on and finished in the dark with everyone else.
The whole gang at the end of the day
We got back to the start beach and said our goodbyes. I wasn’t sure I’d make the award ceremony at 9-ish. I was tired and in the mood to hang out with the fam. I hugged everyone, thanked them for including me in the group, and walked out to the front of the hotel at the exact moment that my wife and half my kids drove up to pick me up. Couldn’t have been a perfect end to a long day.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Swimmer