Swim and Learn (or "The GCBS Hazing")

First race in just a swimsuit in 29 years.

Yesterday, I took on the challenge of my first open water swim event. I had decided to start "small" by choosing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (GCBS), an event that was "only" 4.4 miles. It is considered one of the top 50 open water swims and is referred to as the "Boston Marathon of open water swimming." It takes place between side-by-side lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge(s) and therefore would supplement my love of bridges with a view from below - even below boat-deck level - rarely experienced by anyone.

There is so much I don't know about open-water swimming strategy. And yesterday, I made mistakes and bad decisions fueled by both ignorance and inexperience. But I'm here to live and learn, and write about it.

My ignorance comes first. Damn my introvertedness! I should have read more. I should have consulted more open-water swimmers. I foolheartedly assumed "I'm a swimmer" and I knew what I was getting into. I assumed I knew how to train for distance. (I swam the mile in competition for crying out loud - who cared if it was 30 years ago?) I assumed I knew how to fuel for a two-hour excursion. (I had the experience of ten years of running marathons for crying out loud - who cared if swimming was a totally different sport?) I also assumed I knew WHEN to fuel. (Who cared if this event started five hours later than my marathons and triathlons?) And finally - I assumed I was completely comfortable in open-water chop. (I had survived some of the worst and most-freakish Ironman swims in history for crying out loud.)

Well, 30 years is a long time - and I've changed a lot since I was "a swimmer." I'm built like a runner now. My arms might be a little more muscular than they were eight months ago, but they're still waif-like compared to real swimmers (or compared to my former swimmer self). I may be a good swimmer compared to my fellow triathletes, but I have a long way to go in the distance-swimming realm. I have a lot (note: TONS) to learn about fueling for long-distance swims. After yesterday, I've confirmed what I hadn't been able to convince myself of yet: that swimming requires way more energy than the same amount of time running or biking. Therefore, I canNOT fuel (and hydrate) the same for swimming as I do for marathoning or triathlon-ing. This would be one of the proverbial lightbulbs I saw go on in the air above my head between the bridges.

On to the race report.

Here's Jim standing (waaay) in front of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
The swim covers the entire length from left to right.

I was nervous enough beforehand that my old bugaboo - inability to sleep - came back to haunt me the night before. The saving grace was that the GCBS started around noon, so I had time to sleep in. Thankfully, I managed three to four hours of decent sleep. My husband Jim was REALLY happy about the late start. He didn't have to get up at 3:30 AM to go out and find a 24-hour coffee shop.

We were able to grab breakfast at the hotel around 8:30. I had juice, coffee, a bowl of oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. I grabbed a banana to eat before the start.

Right before start with my trusty
Here's the start showing swimmers headed to the bridge.

The start was on the beach. We ran into the water, and swam out to the very beginning of the bridge, then turned left to go between the bridges. I swam on the left periphery of the mass of swimmers and had a relatively easy time getting to the bridge. I was actually surprised how quickly I made it out to the first pylon of the suspension bridge.

Shot of bridge showing main suspension span/shipping channel

The chop WAS quite bad. It was the worst I had ever experienced in a race - the conditions would surely have resulted in cancelation of a triathlon swim leg. I was mostly alone in the water, and I got a thrill body-surfing the whitecaps, but underneath the suspension bridge (in the shipping channel), we got pounded by surf and spray. It was a bit disorienting at times, and I'm sure it contributed to my eventual fatigue, but I remembered to stay on the left (pretty easy). I even remembered to turn over to look up at the bridges.

The view from there was nothing short of spectacular, and I was thankful I wore my wide-view goggles (the one good decision I made even though they were untested). The sheer size of the bridge pylons, cables, and uprights was magnificent to behold at such close range. It was like heaven for the nerdy engineer in me.

Here's an official shot (from GCBS Facebook page)
taken from one of the boats in 2014

Two miles was on the far side of the suspension bridge, but I never saw the aid station boat - not that I needed it. I felt compelled to check my watch shortly after that, and I misread the figures. I had gone 2.38 miles and my time was 1:22 which surprised and discouraged me. It was actually a 1:22 (/100yd) pace!! (In retrospect, had this been an Ironman swim, it would have been my fastest ever by two minutes.)

Because of the error, I decided I had way-overestimated my abilities as a swimmer and figured I just had to get through the rest of this thing. I kept an eye out for the 3-mile buoy and support boat to stop for water because I was starting to feel a little hot.

I stopped at the boat and drank a couple tiny cups of water and Gatorade, and then checked my watch again. Here's where I realized my earlier blunder (phew!) - and DID notice my pace was still well under 1:30 (my original goal pace).

After this stop, everything started to go downhill. My first mistake: I should have drank more. I was in too big of a hurry to get back to swimming.

Shortly thereafter, I started to overheat in my wetsuit. Somewhere around 3.4 miles, I started to feel a little nauseous - presumably from dehydration and swallowing salt water, although I considered sea-sickness as well. Feeling extremely hot and ill, I began to take intermittent breaks to fill my wetsuit with water to cool off. The greatest feeling was when the water surrounded my arms - it renewed me and I regained the ability to turn over my arms well for about a minute - until I had to stop and cool off again.

The heat was getting the best of me. I started started to feel dizzy and depleted. It didn't feel like muscle fatigue - it felt like complete lack of energy. I needed food or water or I wasn't going to finish. I tried to rest doing breaststroke and backstroke but nothing was easy in the waves, and I was being dragged way right. I noticed a guy near me flagging down a kayak. I took the opportunity to rest and get some water (thankfully, kayakers were carrying water). I drank almost a whole bottle of water and hung onto the kayak so long that the kayaker wanted to "take [me] to a boat" - I think my reaction was "NO! I want to finish!"

I thanked him and finally got back to swimming, very slowly, and had to flag down another kayaker shortly after. He had Gatorade - which I hoped would give me energy. At this point, I was very close to the end of the bridge, right around the corner from the finish. I was almost done - but spent.

The water got even warmer as we approached the finish line, and the water-in-my-wetsuit trick no longer provided the slightest bit of cooling. Fortunately, my energy came back (probably from the sugar), and I was able to swim hard while most people around me were standing up in the shallow water and walking.

Jim's view of the bridge from the finish line.

 

So glad to be done.

It was too little too late, but I got to the finish. As soon as I was on land, I was gripped with a horrible desperation to get out of my wetsuit. I saw Jim and begged him to help me get it off, but he wanted to wait until I was out of the crowd. I was frantic - "no, now!!" I struggled, he struggled, but it was finally off and I could breathe again. I was about to tear it off with my bare hands.

Unlike usual, I was able to drink right away while recovering post-race. Had a random few muscle cramps, the weirdest of which was my ring-finger on my left hand. It locked up, the pain was excruciating, and I couldn't bend it for several minutes. It was so bizarre. Other than that, I didn't feel bad, only tired, and after a short sit-down, I was up and about pretty quickly.

Wait.. what did I just do? All smiles afterward.

I checked my time and place - 2:09, 1:35 pace, 13/35 in my age group - and immediately went into post-race analysis mode, albeit with nice cold beer in hand.

There are many lessons to be learned going forward in this new sport. The most important thing was that the words "never again" we're not uttered. My first thoughts were more like "ok, I have a lot to figure out before my next one," "I love open-water swimming," and "this is a very well-run event with amazing volunteers."

One of my strengths is the most difficult thing about swimming: we must fight an element not part of the natural environment for a human. I love water, I love rough water, and I feel at home in it.

Everything else is a weakness that will need to be addressed and tested during training: not knowing how or how much to eat and drink before and during a swim, not knowing what temperature is my personal wetsuit-cutoff-temp, and not knowing how to pace myself in all conditions.

I've also reviewed my training and preparation for this particular event. The day before the race, Jim mentioned I had gotten "really skinny." I looked at myself in the mirror and realized he was right. I've been suffering some emotional despair lately and had lost my appetite. In two weeks, my weight dropped about four pounds, and I've skipped or abbreviated my training sessions because of low energy and mental fatigue. I suspect that also had an effect on my swim yesterday.

I'm looking forward to many more open-water swims in the future and embracing the learning process. The most encouraging news I got after the race was that conditions yesterday were some of the worst ever experienced at the GCBS, and there were a lot of people forced to abandon the race. It restored a little confidence knowing I was able to tackle it unprepared and push through to the finish.

Here's the official tracking of my Garmin GPS watch.

 

Taken in Memorial Hall while getting a quick tour of the Naval Academy
with great friends the day before the race.

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