Open Water Revelations in Seneca Lake: Finger Lakes Open Water Fest 10.5-miler

When Hurricane Irma hit Florida this year, my tiny view of the open water swimming world was drastically expanded. I wasn't directly impacted by the wind and water, but the chain of events following in the wake of that storm seemed to have an otherworldly hand at work, leading me right to the place I belong. 

It started with Irma's devastation in the Florida Keys forcing cancellation of the 8-mile Swim for Alligator Lighthouse in Islamorada, FL, an event in which I was registered. I set off on a desperate internet search for a way to capitalize on the months of training I did for that event. There were only a few drive-able options in September and October, but I was severely limited by commitments on several of those weekends. However, there WAS a perfect fit: a 10.5-mile swim in New York's Finger Lakes on the same weekend as the cancelled event. The hitch: event entry was already capped (at 15 swimmers).

I wasn't giving up so easily, so I wrote an email to the event coordinator, Bridgette Hobart Janeczko, in hopes she might accept my case. I offered to bring my own support kayak and kayaker (my husband, Jim), and she graciously accepted. I will never be able to thank her enough. This event would eventually be somewhat of a revelation to me - on many levels.

Friday morning, Jim and I packed up the car - kayak on top - and drove 4.5 hours to Watkins Glen, NY. We had no idea what to expect but it all started on Friday night with a course preview in Seneca Lake. With several of the other swimmers, we were given a tour by boat of the course and points of interest such as mile "markers" in the landscape. Bridgette explained areas of concern and gave navigation tips. I'm not gonna lie - while on that boat, I was beginning to feel like I was in way over my head. Listening to conversations, I realized I was surrounded by swimmers who specialized in distances much longer than 10.5 miles. I think I spent the entire boat trip cowering in a corner of the deck. But it was no fault of theirs. It was all me and my disaster-magnet insecurities. After the boat tour, Bridgette generously served a catered dinner to the swimmers and kayakers who came out that evening. We were also able to leave our kayak there overnight. I went to bed that night worrying about surviving the water temperature and being the last one to finish. I even considered not starting. I did NOT belong here.

Here are some photos of the Friday night tour:

Surprisingly enough, I was able to get some sleep that night, and the next morning, we did arrive at the staging site. I've rarely seen such great organization. Yes, the swim was small.. but every kayaker was given a radio and a whistle for safety. All kayaks had numbered flags on suction-cup bases. The biggest question everyone had was: "What was the water temperature?" A few of us (less hearty) swimmers still needed to decide whether to wear wetsuits. After last week in Lake Erie at 70 degrees, I was all but certain I could handle the cold, but a couple other swimmers put the temperature question back in my head. Seriously, I had not even brought a full wetsuit - all I had was a sleeveless neoprene vest. After the Ocean City wetsuit debacle, I decided on swimsuit only. The convincing argument was air temperatures forecast in the high 80s.

Some pre-race photos:

The kayak line-up:

Swimmers listening to instructions and being paired up with their kayakers:

Our little set-up:

Waiting on the dock and our boat shuttle to the start:

The swim start was in deep water. It was a beautiful cloudless morning and we were boated out to a jetty to meet up with our kayakers who launched about 15 minutes earlier. It all happened so fast once we arrived. Most of the swimmers jumped off the boat with gusto. I went the wimpy route and climbed down a ladder to slip quietly into the water off the back of the boat. (At least three of us chose this option, I think mostly fearing a "goggles" disaster.) 

Several people said the water was "perfect," but I thought it was ever-so-slightly cold. It wasn't necessarily worrisome-cold, but in the waaaay back of my mind, there was concern. However, swimming out to the kayaks relaxed me enough to put fear to rest and within seconds, Bridgette counted down to the start and we were off - headed due West to the shoreline. Once out of impending boat traffic, we made an L-turn and swam north along the shoreline of Seneca Lake. I swam relaxed and easy and the first two miles flew by. My 20-minute feedings went quick, and I felt very little cold. I glanced at my watch only during feedings to see my pace was around 1:30 per 100 yd (26.4 minutes per mile) - just where I wanted it. The water was calm and clear and, seriously, we couldn't have asked for better water and weather conditions.

It was all near-perfect... until I hit a warm patch of water near the salt factory (mile 2) on the shoreline. The warm patch was very deceiving. Once I felt it, going back into the cold water was disconcerting - it had a profound effect on my comfort level. I tried not to think about it. It was the same temperature as before - it just FELT colder. My fingers started getting numb and by the end of mile 3, I started to shiver. Yep, my core temperature was dropping. Anxiety was taking over.

I was only three miles in, but memories of two bouts with dangerous hypothermia sent me into panic mode and that old bugaboo - negative self-talk - sent me into a downward spiral. Some thoughts that went through my head: "Oh no, I'm not going to finish," "Holy crap, I'll be the only one that dropped out, and I'll have to face all the other finishers as a complete failure," "What am I doing wrong?," "Why am I colder sooner than last week in Lake Erie?" I was doing that THING. I wasn't fighting the urge to give up. I was giving myself permission to quit.

I HAD to fight this narrative. I decided not to tell Jim what was going through my mind. Telling him would give it a voice. I had to just keep swimming. Hypothermia was NOT inevitable! It COULD, and WOULD, get better. If other swimmers can do this, I can too! I fell back on things I knew: pick up the pace to generate some heat; take feeds as quickly as possible to keep moving; take deeper breaths to stay calm and ward off the shivers; think of warm fuzzy feelings (like my cuddling up to my cat).

And then my mind quieted enough to remember something - there was hot water in the kayak! Before the race, Bridgette had made available several airpots of hot water to those wanting them. Jim had carried one in the kayak just in case, and at the next feed, asked him for it to warm up my hands.

(Afterwards, Jim told me what a complete disaster it was for him to manipulate that big pot and not demolish or mix up his whole system in the kayak. But I was so thankful that he was able to work it out.) Once he had it out, Jim expressed concern - worried the water was too hot and it was a really bad idea to pour boiling water on my hands. I told him to DO IT!! I had no feeling in my fingers anyway. He obliged. It actually worked (and seriously, I wanted to take a shower in that boiling water). Some feeling in my hands returned, but I still had to fight, and I kept fighting.

And, while I battled my hypothermia demons, time kept ticking away... before I knew it, we were in sight of the 5.25 turn-around. And the sun was warming things up. And by the time we turned, I had almost regained all feeling in my hands. I was thrilled enough to wave to the people waiting for us at the turn-around buoy.

And a new thought creeped into my head... I began to believe I could, and would, finish.

That's all it took. The 5.25-mile swim back was mostly marked by the ability to watch things go by on the shoreline (since I breathe mostly to the right) and increasing fatigue. A couple major landmarks (the salt factory and the jetty) seemed to remain frustratingly far away no matter how long or far I swam (we all joked about that after the swim). Even when I eventually reached them everything went by in slow motion. Unfortunately, my Garmin watch lost GPS reception at 6.82 miles, so I no longer had any idea how fast or far I was swimming except when Jim clued me in. I focused on keeping my stroke long and relaxed and swam hard enought to catch the swimmer in front of us without blowing myself out. I kept the lead until the last few hundred yards when he and his kayaker cut the L-corner to the finish and beat me by about 30 seconds. I was surprised but I didn't care - it was over! I finished. Without a disaster.

Jim took video snippets from the kayak - shows how amazing the day was: 

I climbed onto a pontoon boat that took the latest group of finishers to the main boat where we could warm up and get dry while waiting for others. There, I found out I finished fourth (and first female). I'm STILL a bit shocked. We were eventually boated back to the staging area where we had time to hang out and socialize with swimmers and kayakers (most of the kayakers were from Nazareth College Swim Team - this event is actually a fund-raiser for them). AND Bridgette generously fed everyone again - it was one of the best post-race meals I've ever had.

It was at this post-race gathering that I had the opportunity to meet the remarkable people I swam with in Seneca Lake that day. They all have smiles a mile wide. They have swim stories that will blow your mind and make your hair stand on end. Collectively, they have done the events and big swims I've only ever read (and dreamed) about. And there was amazing camaraderie among these swimmers. 

There was Craig, the swim electronics geek - he and I accidentally swam three events together this year. (I may be his jinx because he came in second overall in most of them.) There was Mary and Eric (it appears they often come as a pair as she's his coach) - they have done more mileage in a year than I will do in a lifetime. Their collective stories involve a total of three collarbone breaks. I got the feeling that to know them is to "get" the true marathon swimming mentality. They were both only about a month after the 20-bridges 28-mile swim around Manhattan. Mary swims these (colder-water) things in a two-piece suit to avoid extra stress on her shoulders. Yep, that's bad-ass in my book. Eric pointed out a muscle spasm in his calf that would have reduced me to a screaming lump, and when I asked "does it hurt?" His reply was "it's not comfortable." (Pain doesn't even phase these people.) Then there's Steve. He just swims. And swims. And swims. In 2017, he completed one of my bucket-list events, the Hudson River 8-Bridges Swim - seven days of swimming more than 15 miles daily. He said he lost 17 pounds that week. There was Jia and Lyn who had stories (and gah!, pictures) of sea lice rashes from swimming in the Florida keys. There was Kim, who struggles with cold water, who, in the boat afterwards was in a state of shivering that bordered on full body shudders. All she said was "don't worry, this is normal for me." I hope she wasn't offended that I kept trying to put my arms around her to warm her up. There was Jane who did the eight mile Boston Light Swim in 65-degree water (warm for that event) and said that Seneca Lake was "almost too warm." And finally, there was Bridgette, who set up this race - an accomplished marathon swimmer herself - who ran a tight ship to make sure everyone had a support kayaker, was safe, had what they needed, and finished. She's the reason everyone who started reached the finish line. (Another thing I love about the marathon swimming world: time cutoffs for events are usually disregarded to let everyone finish. It happened in Key West. It happened in Seneca Lake.)

Seriously, I think the more we learned, the more Jim began to fear what I might ask him to support in the future.

I'm looking forward to 2018.

Here's a photo of me after the finish with my custom-designed shark suit (I had the design printed by Q Swimwear - very comfortable and well-made):

Review of 10.5-mile open-water swim event in Seneca Lake on September 23. I had to fight some demons in this one, but I learned a lot about myself. The event is incredibly well-run, and I had the fortune to meet some very inspirational swimmers.

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