Blogs tagged with "racing"

It's a weird thing to finally find my tribe at age 52. It's not even like I was looking for them. Maybe, in actuality, it was they who found me - it was never more apparent to me than at this year's Ocean Games in Ocean City, Maryland, this past weekend.

First I want to say that I've never been happier in a sport than I have been in open water swimming. I can tell because although I still get nervous, I no longer obsess over my times and my training and what place I finish. Yes, I am aware of those things, but that's not what keeps me up at night. Whether I win or lose or PR does not occupy my thoughts before a swim race. MAKING it to the finish line has become the bigger deal. Swimming fast is only important because it gets me to the finish more quickly. Praying for smooth seas, weak currents, and ideal water temperatures - and laughing about it when it doesn't happen - has become my new reality. Caring whether the swimmers I meet have a safe swim has also become my new reality. My experiences in 25 years of marathon running and Ironman triathlon-ing has barely prepared me for this new battle with the elements. Open water marathon swimming is governed by rough and always-changing water and weather conditions and the few who embrace it. I say "few" because these events are not populated by every other person you know. It's a very small group compared to the many hundreds - or thousands - toeing the line at a marathon or Ironman triathlon start.

The fact that anything can go wrong in open water was never more obvious to me than in last year's attempt at the Ocean Games Nine-mile Swim in Ocean City, Maryland. More than in any event of the past, I learned a great deal about myself as well as the power of the ocean and the weather (blog post from last year: "Playing Ocean Games, aka Finding Corey"). But the true silver lining of dropping out of last year's event with hypothermia was revealed to me this year.

It started Friday night at the pre-race meeting. Because I did this year's race as a fundraiser, I had the opportunity to get to know race director Corey Davis a little better before we arrived in Ocean City. At the pre-race meeting, he introduced me to the all the race organizers and officials and many of the swimmers who come back year after year to support him and the charity it supports, Swim Ocean City. I left Ocean City on Sunday with a whole new group of friends who seem to have an amazing capacity to challenge themselves and appreciate the people around them. No one cared how fast or slow I was, there was no sizing-up or gear-head talk. They just welcomed me into their "crazy family." I felt like I belonged in a way I've never experienced before even though I was kind of the oddball because I live almost 500 miles away.

I was also lucky to have my friend Doug serve as my kayak support. He lives much closer to Ocean City and he agreed to come back and try to get me to the finish this year. Just like me, he was also better-prepared than last year. He usually paddles with his daughter in the kayak, so this year he added a 50-lb sand bag as a ballast in the front of his boat to help with balance.

There was no better group of athletes I'd rather toe the line with. And that we did.

On race morning, the swim direction was declared: north to south, which was in the direction of the wind but against the current. Water temperature was 72 degrees F, and after last year, my fear of a sharp drop in temperature kept me from going without a wetsuit. 72 is too warm for a wetsuit, and I struggled to make the call, but my first and foremost goal this year was to finish this thing no matter what - and it was a long race. And anything could happen. I had to err on the side of caution.

Unfortunately, the morning would also see the return of Disaster Magnet, jinxing both Doug and me before the race even started. During my warmup, I tried to body surf a huge wave and got twisted and tossed onto my back and into the hard sand. When I finally got up, there was pain in my back ribs every time I took a deep breath, and my left side and shoulders were traumatized. Had I just compromised my race? We would soon find out.

Here's a photo taken by my husband Jim right before it happened:

I shook it off and tried to not let it bother me because we would soon have to deal with a more pressing issue. The morning shore-break made it incredibly difficult for kayakers to get on the water, and Doug's attempted launch became the the worst of all. He got hit by one wave and then a larger one. It flipped his kayak, dumping everything - including the sand bag which was forever lost at sea. Doug's legs got banged up pretty bad, and Jim told me he may not be able to start. I ran over to check on him.

Of course, right after Doug's mishap, they started dry-launching kayakers - which worked much better. And Doug ("I don't need my legs to kayak") refused to be deterred - he brushed the whole thing off, got right back in the boat, and got out there. In retrospect, it was a rather comical start to the day with all these race people and bystanders on the beach cheering each time a kayaker got past the immediate danger of the breaking waves.

Soon enough, it was 10 am and we swimmers were lined up on the beach ready to start. I got hugs and high-fives and a new nickname ("Cleveland") from my new friends, and in no time, our little team was off swimming and paddling, determined to finish despite our rather unfortunate start to the day.

Here are some photos and video Jim took at the start:


With Doug before the race.


With my new friends Jay and Bobby (in wetsuits)
who "said" they hadn't trained. They were the last two swimmers to enter the event
but had done it every year at the urging of race director, Corey Davis.

 

I don't want to bore you to death with a play-by-play of nine miles of swimming, so I will try to relate the major moments of the swim with the thoughts that occurred to me while we were out there. My readers can be assured this event wasn't nearly as smooth-going as my swim in Key West. (You can see from the video that the conditions were far from "flat water.")

The first two to three miles were significant in that all I did was worry about the soreness and fatigue already plaguing my left side. I worried I wouldn't reach the halfway point. I worried I might have broken a rib. I worried a broken rib might puncture a lung. Seriously. I was a mess. A disaster. I was fighting myself every stroke because I remembered last year, when I was tough enough to swim through all of mile 4 while hypothermia was setting in BEFORE I dropped out. Saturday, I was two miles into this thing, and I couldn't even get a grip on my own mind.

Then, somewhere around three miles, I had to make an extended stop to adjust my goggles strap because I was getting a headache. Why was it too tight? Because, I'm an idiot. In a truly unthinking maneuver, I tightened the strap after the goggles were ripped off my head in the earlier wave incident - after it had been PERFECTLY adjusted for twelve miles in Key West.

So.. yeah, I was having issues. And Doug was having his own issues. He had to work extra hard to control his no-longer-ballasted kayak in a stiff northwest wind that wanted to blow us out to sea. At one point, I stopped swimming to look around and found that we were way out to sea and WAY off course - that is, if the location of all the other swimmers was an indication of being "on course." This manifested in us covering a much-longer distance than planned - we hit the mile markers with increasing distances.

The wetsuit turned out to be a bad decision. I did it because I had reservations about acclimating with only cold showers and in the warming waters of Lake Erie. But I really I should have trusted my instincts better. Open water swimming is still very new to me, and conditions change so quickly in Ocean City (as we found out last year). But during the race, the only way I could cool off was to dive down a few feet underwater every ten minutes or so to get cold water into the suit.

The pain and fatigue from my pre-race folly started to fade before mile 4, and I was finally able to stop worrying about that. But I was frustrated with my very slow pace, constantly struggling against the current, and always fighting swells. Doug kept me on schedule for feeding every 20 minutes. But it seemed like every time we stopped, the kayak would start to drift and smack me in the head while he was getting me a bottle. When we reached mile 7, it was the first time all day I felt confident we would finish. Then, I accidentally swam right into the back of Doug's kayak, and I snapped. I stopped caring and just burst out laughing. All of a sudden, everything was hilarious. The surf. The wind. The wetsuit. I felt like I was on a treadmill and going nowhere for almost four hours. My only reaction at this point was to crack up and mentally check out.

I started singing Jimmy Buffett songs in my head.

Here are some photos Jim took of us out there on the water. He was with Doug's wife, Kaz, and their daughter, Kat, and they were able to leap-frog down the beach to see us four times during the event.

Things seemed to ease up in that last two miles. The current wasn't as strong and I almost felt like I could get a push once in a while between waves. And Doug finally pointed out the orange finish buoy. He had seen it last year although I had not. By the time we reached it, we had traveled almost ten miles according to my Garmin. I didn't care, I was so done. And thus, I will let the finish video speak for itself because humor is the best medicine. I still laugh while watching it. At least I got accolades for "best finish."

At the finish (yippee!), my Garmin GPS watch had a total distance of 17,295 yards (9.83 miles) in 5:14. My total "moving time" was 4:55. I was never so glad to be done with a race, and I was never so ready to celebrate. I felt bad for those who were pulled out for not meeting cut-off times (45 min/mile), but they were all troopers on a very rough day. One woman had to pull out with seasickness. It was mind-boggling to me that she got sick about 20 minutes into the race but managed to make it three miles before calling it a day. Swimmers are tough.

I was very honored to win the "top fundraiser award" for raising the most money for Swim Ocean City. This trophy meant a great deal to me because I had promised Corey - who'd been so generous in 2016 - that I'd be back in 2017 to finish AND do it as a fundraiser. Mission accomplished, and a heartfelt thank-you to all who donated. I can't say enough about the organization of this race and how well they look after people on the course. It's a very small event - 17 swimmers started (hopefully that will change) - but they really made me feel like family, and I understand why so many of them come back year after year.

Next year? NO WETSUIT.

Some photos Jim took at the finish line:


These two - Jay and Bobby - were so inspiring. They were the last two
finishers, but they're the best! They gave me a new nickname: "Cleveland"
(it's better than "Disaster Magnet") and promised to train for next year.


This is Dave - he did the Swim Around Key West with me three weeks ago.
He's also a veteran of the race having done it every year since the beginning.
I look forward to learning a LOT about swimming from him.
(I beat him in KW, he beat me in OC. GAME ON!)


And this is me with Corey Davis, the race director.
He's an inspiration to everyone who knows him.

Race report from Ocean Games Nine-mile open water swim that I promised to finish this year after having dropped out with hypothermia last year.

It was back in early 2016 that I first learned of the existence of the 12.5-mile annual Swim Around Key West (SAKW). I had thrown in the towel on triathlon and embraced the fact that when it came to endurance sports, open water swimming was likely my first best destiny.

The SAKW (as well as my previous swim, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim) showed up in a list of America's Top 50 Open Water Swims. I added them both to my bucket list. Seriously, the Island of Key West was already on the bucket list, and it was a place I wouldn't have to twist my husband Jim's arm to go - he's the one who made me a Jimmy Buffett fan, and I've always dreamed we'd someday be "strolling down the avenue that's known as A-1A."

But getting an entry in the SAKW was a little tricky. Solo swimmers needed a support kayak, and the window of opportunity was usually less than a week because the field gets capped at 110 swimmers. For an extra fee, 35 swimmers can "purchase" a kayaker, i.e., a race coordinator will pair them with a support kayaker. I couldn't possibly ask someone to foot the bill to come to Key West with me, so I needed to be one of those 35 swimmers. I knew as soon as race registration opened in March, I would have to sign up. I set my calendar to remind me, and when the reminder popped up, I evaluated my training situation.

Did I have enough time to train? I hoped so. It was still four months away, and I had already committed myself to the Chesapeake Bay 4.4-miler and the Ocean Games 9-miler in mid-July, so, heck, what was a few more miles really? I registered and then frantically started combing through all the swimming and open water online forums and blogs for Key West course details and training plans, nutrition plans, strategic plans, and mental plans for completing a 12.5-mile ocean swim in ridiculously warm conditions. I read as many race reports as I could find. I even joined US Masters Swimming hoping for advice.

There was a lot of info out there, and strategies were as varied as they could get. The minimum rule-of-thumb from my favorite open-water expert, Lone Swimmer, was that the distance a person "could" swim in one shot was four times the distance of their longest training swim, and one should swim at least that total distance on a weekly basis. In math terms, 12.5 miles was 22,000 yards which meant the following: I had to swim 22,000 yards weekly, and my longest swim had to be at least 7,040 yards.

Those were the minimum requirements. Have you ever known me to do anything at a minimum? (Except for cleaning my house, that is.)

I didn't think so. By the time we left for Key West, I had been able to complete the following (and I still worried it would not be enough):

  • swimming 5-7 days per week at a weekly yardage of between 26,000 and 45,000 yards
  • two 8,000+ yard workouts
  • two 10,000+ yard workouts
  • one 12,000-yard continuous swim in the pool
  • and one 14,000-yard continuous swim in the pool

The last two workouts in that list were also necessary for practicing race nutrition. I wanted to use SkratchLabs hydration mixes and Carbo-Pro (a high-carb drink of glucose polymers). Luckily, my pool water temperature was between 82 and 84 degrees F - perfect for practicing nutrition requirements in conditions (read: heat) similar to those I would experience in Key West. In my 14,000-yard session, 10 days before race day, I spent almost four hours in the pool and learned that my triceps would be prone to cramping without proper electrolyte consumption. (It happened in the final half-hour but was quickly remedied with SkratchLabs Rescue Hydration.)

About two weeks before the SAKW, I was given contact details of my assigned kayaker, Nancy. She was also a first-timer, in both the SAKW and serving as race support for a swimmer. But talking to her gave me confidence in her abilities: she was highly experienced and even possessed a certification in kayak rescue.

In the two weeks we had to plan, Nancy and I discussed her responsibilities: navigating the course, keeping me out of trouble (if you know me, you know this is not an easy task), and nutrition for both of us. Jim and I found a soft-sided cooler for my nutrition that could be mounted behind her seat on her 16-foot kayak. She could clip bottles to a 10-foot rope tied to her kayak and toss them to me. Race rules forbid swimmers from hanging onto kayaks (or boats, or anything) or standing up during the swim. I spent weeks researching the best way to carry all the fluids and fuel I would need in the heat. I decided on several 32-oz plastic milk bottles fitted with flip-top lids I found on Amazon (much easier to open than their screwtops). They were translucent so I could mark the volumes I had to drink, and the handles were sturdy for clipping onto the rope. I also had bike bottles fitted with zip-tie loops. Some of it would be frozen for later in the race. My nutrition plan was water for the first hour and then 32-oz per hour of a high-carb drink made with Carbo-Pro and Skratch. My feeding intervals would be 20 minutes. Nancy would use a countdown timer on her phone to keep me on track.

Nancy and I met the day before the race at Smathers Beach, the event start/finish location, to work out the engineering details. Jim was very instrumental in fabricating all our mounting, bungeeing, and zip-tying. Here are some photos:

Then Nancy and I went for a practice swim to make sure everything worked and that she was comfortable with me swimming on her left. We grabbed lunch out and returned to the beach for race check-in and the mandatory pre-race meeting. The course layout was explained in great detail by the race organizer, Bill Welzein who would also be completing his 90th circumnavigation of the island with us. He described the tides, the water depths, currents and winds, and how it all would affect our races depending on what time we reached certain points on the course. I took notes on the course map (which Nancy actually taped to her kayak on race day):

Basically, we would start with the current, get a slight push around the west side of the island while the tide was coming in, then had to navigate under a bridge at mile 5, into the main harbor and through the moorings, around a little island to the north, and into a channel where we would be going against the wind (miles 7-9). At mile 9, we went under Cow Key Channel bridge (hopefully we would see Jim there), and then, swimmers planning a 6-hour swim would get a second push where the Gulf meets back with the Atlantic Ocean as the tide was going out. Around mile 10, the water would get very shallow as time wore on (basically, if we got to that point early we would have a much easier time swimming through it). By the time we rounded the southeast corner, we would have less than two miles go and should see the finish line. Various sighting points were also described - like yellow buoys for the relay exchanges and features in the landscape.

Weeks before the race, my estimated finish time - based on how I felt in my long pool swims and how others had described their experiences in Key West - was about six hours. If I had a good day, I might be able to manage 5:40. If I fell apart, it would probably be more like 6:30. After factoring in feedings, current, wind, waves, etc., I was relatively certain that my time would he outside of any awards. Yes. I checked. There were only seven: top three, top two masters (40+), top grand master (50+), and top senior grand master (60+). And I looked at the times in years past. Last year's winner of the grand master category (mine) finished in 5:31. I accidentally saw that the awards were individually made and highly-coveted (they were conch shells). I had to block it out of my mind. I had to have one - and only one - goal in Key West. To finish. To prove to myself I could finish.

But I can't say I wasn't nervous. Being walked through the aerial view of the course terrified me - especially when the mile "markers" were pointed out. It was going to be a long day, and I had only a few hours left to come to grips with that and figure out how to get some sleep. Sleeping the night before was crucial to my morning mind-set. And to my (and Jim's) surprise, unlike two weeks prior in Annapolis, I managed to drift off to that elusive sleep zone using a self-relaxation tape. Well.. ok, so it took THREE tries, but it finally worked, and when the alarm went off at 4:45 am, I had about four hours solid rest and my nerves were not frayed like all those times in the past. 

I ate breakfast, put on sunscreen, packed everything up, and Jim drove me down to Smathers beach at 5:30 to get prepped for the start. The race officials handed me number 8 (Jim yelled "the OCHO!") - and Nancy and I joked at our luck because we didn't have to worry about how to tape it on the kayak since it looks the same upside down. Before I got in the water, I put on another layer of sunscreen (note: this still would not be enough to avoid a burned back and shoulders).

Here are some photos Jim took at the beach that morning showing Nancy and me, her kayak and the start:

Wave 1 went off at 7:15. Wave 2 (us) went at 7:45. The kayakers were sent out first and they would hook up with us after we started swimming. Watch the video Jim took of the start.

It was one of the most chaotic starts I've ever experienced in a race - not chaotic in terms of being pummelled by other swimmers but chaotic in terms of confusion. There were swimmers and kayakers all interspersed together trying to pair up. Unfortunately, few things made it easy to find Nancy. She wasn't the only one wearing a bright yellow shirt, and I swam after two of them before realizing they weren't her. I kept stopping to do breaststroke and look around to see what was happening. I was sure we had passed mile 1 by the time I finally found her. The thing that helped the most was the silly orange and white cooler that I picked out much to Jim's dismay (he made fun of me for choosing the most ridiulous-colored one). When we finally hooked up, I checked my watch and we were already 26 minutes into the race. And I had missed my first feeding. When we got relatively clear of the mayhem, I stopped and she was already prepping to throw me a water bottle.

Then, I just settled into an easy stroke and let Nancy lead the way. The time (marked by 20-minute feeds) seemed to fly by and in an instant, I could see the satellite dish that marked mile 2, then we took the corner that marked mile 3. And somewhere between mile 4 and 5 miles, I stopped because I smelled what can only be described as a "cookout." I had to mention to Nancy "that smells good." She pointed out there was a restaurant responsible. I swear, that was downright criminal. We weren't even half-done. I had to stop a few times in the first four miles because my eyes started to sting and water like crazy. I figured it was from sunscreen - I had to stop and take my goggles off twice and pour fresh water in my eyes to make it stop.

Jim went to the far west edge of the island to watch us pass around mile 3. He got some pretty cool photos there:

Somewhere around mile 6, when we reached the moorings, I flipped over onto my back to see the most amazing boats anchored all around me. Nancy piloted me through this area like a pro. There were ropes and buoys that I could have easily got hung up on. It was at this place I remember starting to hear Jimmy Buffett songs in my head. It made me ecstatically happy and it would continue on for the rest of the swim. These words were particularly stuck on repeat, from "A Pirate Looks at 40":

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You've seen it all, you've seen it all

I was making my peace with the water in a very spiritual way. It was fun and truly fulfilling. When we hit mile 7, Nancy stopped to remind me that we were about to enter the "difficult" part - against the wind. She advised a feeding so we could push through and I agreed. I checked my watch and almost went into shock to find that we were on a ridiculously fast pace. I was swimming 15 seconds per 100 faster than my fastest expected pace. All I could think is that we're about to get slammed by the current and the wind. I drank a little extra and put my head down to power through. The waves got rougher, and I swallowed water a couple of times - I told myself not to fight, to relax and work with the rhythm of the water. It must have worked because I started to notice we were passing people during this stretch. Surprisingly, I didn't feel particularly bad even though I expected to hit the "wall" around 8 miles because it was the distance of my longest training swim. But I didn't. Maybe knowing I'd see Jim on the bridge at mile 9 is what kept me strong. Who knows?

Here's a shot Jim took of us coming toward the Cow Key Channel Bridge:

I looked up to wave at Jim when we reached the Cow Key Channel Bridge, and then we headed for the very shallow water. We had successfully conquered the windy part, and we were about to get another push. I stopped to check my pace. Shockingly, I was still 10 seconds per 100 ahead of expectations.

Of course, Jim has a photo of me checking my watch (which I only did three times in this race):

Here's video Jim took from the bridge:

OK. Here's when I thought: "Seriously. It's gotta hit me sooner or later. I'm going way too fast. I'm feeling way too good. Something isn't right."

Nancy perfectly navigated the shallows, which, at this hour, weren't all that shallow. The water was much hotter here and I was starting to get a little nauseous. I stopped with the high carbs and went for my high-electrolyte drink. But I kept swimming and I wasn't slowing down. When we rounded the far end of the island, we stopped a second and Nancy said to me: "do you know where we are?"

I said: "We have TWO MILES to go!!" She was clearly pleased with how fast we were going.

And, of course, it was here that Disaster Magnet reared its head. I was about to make a huge mistake. I was tired and slightly nauseous, and I wanted a surge of energy for the finish. I decided to do the ONE thing that has always worked for me - in Ironman races and marathons. I drank some Coke. What's wrong with a little caffeine and sugar in the last hour, right?

Ugh. I continued to swim a steady pace until we reached the final stretch - a line of wooden poles within earshot of the finish. My arms were tired, but I wasn't, by any means, falling apart. And I was shocked and bewildered to find I was on pace to finish in under five hours. We could literally see the finish line, and Nancy excitedly pointed out the final yellow buoy that I had to round before swimming in. It was right about then I started to feel a bit woozy. I've read about people vomiting during English Channel swims and always wondered "How the hell do they do that? Treading water?"

The first heave came about five poles from the finish. I stopped swimming and there it was. Vomit stops for no man. The Coke came up with a vengeance - in fact, that's pretty much all it was. I started swimming again. And again came another round of coke-flavored vomit. Nancy was perplexed, frustrated even: "The finish line IS RIGHT THERE!" Why the hell was I stopping? I was like, "ummm hold on..." It was the most ridiculous, maddening thing. I could almost reach out and touch that yellow buoy, but I just COULD NOT GET THERE. Meanwhile, once you stop swimming in an event of this length, everything locks up. My arms were no longer working the way they had five minutes ago. Finally, the vomiting was over, and I swam as hard as I could, but I couldn't hold off the guy coming up behind me. He had a much faster finish kick than I did. I consoled myself knowing he wasn't a female competitor.

Here's me finally rounding that last buoy: 

And just like that, I was up and running to a line in the beach sand.

Here's video Jim took of my finish: 

I heard Jim's voice over all the others. It reminded me of my swim coach from college yelling in my face when I was close to a NCAA championship qualifying time. I felt the FEAR. All I could think was that I MUST be extremely close to some goal time. I ran with everything I had across that line and hit the stop button on my watch. Whoa. There it was: a few seconds under 5 hours. Jim confessed later he had no idea about time, he was just cheering for me to finish. Whatever. It worked. I might have just walked it in, but because of him and the FEAR, I was the last finisher to make it under 5 hours. I still can't believe it.

We sat around at the finish for a long time while other finishers came in. It was a while before I felt like standing up or even eating something. When I finally gathered my strength, I inhaled a burger and lots of watermelon. I checked the results and was blown away by the fact that I was 17th overall, the 6th female finisher and 2nd female master (only two minutes from the 1st master). Official results are now posted online. Even more surprising was that I managed to get one of those amazing trophies, and I will cherish it forever. I chose not to kick myself after finding out how much time I wasted stopping to feed (in the heat, I had to make sure I got all my fluids each time I drank), to look around, slowing down to check out the fish swimming below me, or to lollygag and laugh with Nancy. My Garmin said I did about seven minutes of that. But I wasn't there to race, I had nothing to compare it to, and we were having fun.

If I have something to say to wrap this up.. First of all, I couldn't have done it without Jim and Nancy. Jim has been ultra-supportive through this whole open-water swimming learning process. He made sure I didn't worry needlessly about all the logistics and equipment. And Nancy was calm, professional, navigated the quickest route around Key West, and kept me from swimming into buoys and drifting off while swimming (yes, both of those things almost happened). At one point I swam right into the side of her kayak when I breathed on my left a few times. She asked me if I had "zoned out"  and it just cracked me up - I told her I swim in circles when I breathe on my left. My swim around Key West was similar to my fastest marathon and my fastest Ironman in that I truly enjoyed every moment of it. If my face weren't in the water, I would have been laughing the entire way. Even when I started to get sore and tired, I was still happy and singing to myself. The pain barely registers when I feel good and the time certainly flies by. The only struggle came in those last few hundred yards, and then, I was still kind of in a state of euphoria because I was almost finished, and it was amusing to me that I can rarely pull anything off without at least one glitch in the process.

Later the next day we walked through the Key West Cemetery and found this amazing grave marker, which perfectly summed up my trip to Key West. The inscription reads:

Sir Peter Anderson
1947-2014
Secretary General
Conch Republic
'He Had Fun'

Race report from my 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West with photos and video.

Number 52: not my age, but close enough!

My last open-water swim event this year was Epic Racing's "Swim to the Moon," an event that takes place somewhere near Hell (Hell, Michigan, that is). I suspect the reason I chose this event was because I loved the name. It's actually several swim distances - one-half mile up to 10K - that take place in a chain of lakes near Ann Arbor (Jim, with his two degrees from Ohio State University, in fact, finds this region of the USA to be his personal version of Hell, as he is surrounded by Michigan fans).

I chose the 10K... because.. why not? It was a lake swim so the water would likely be calm and warm, unlike the ocean in my last one.

We stayed overnight about 30 minutes east of the starting line, which was at Halfmoon Lake. The 10K swims across Halfmoon Lake and through channels and small lakes connecting it to Patterson Lake, where it turns around on private property, and goes back. There's also a 5K that starts at Patterson Lake and goes to the same finish line as the 10K. At the turn, 10K swimmers are required to exit the water and can partake of any nutrition or other items they stashed there in a special-needs bag.

I got very little sleep in the two nights before the race because I've been battling anxiety issues (which, incidentally, have nothing to do with pre-race jitters... just dealing with health problems and family issues). When the alarm clock rang race morning (Sunday), I could barely open my eyes, and the last thing I wanted to do was deal with a race that might take about three hours. But I had made a commitment, and I reminded myself how much I love swimming. I would make the best of it.

That morning, unlike the two weeks leading up to it, saw a drop in temperature into the low 60s. This meant that the water temperature, at 76 degrees, actually exceeded the air temperature. It also meant I didn't bring warm enough clothes to wear that morning. All I could think was: Oh great! This time I'll get hypothermia BEFORE I even get in the water!

But there wasn't a lot of time to wait around, and by 6:30, we were standing on the small sandy beach being accounted for as we were shuffled through the starting line arch to wait for the gun.

Early morning start under the moon.

Everyone was mumbling about the cold. Some people were actually getting in the water to keep warm. My fingers started to get numb. It took a little while to count everyone - so long that I decided to put my raincoat back on to keep warm. I was told by one group of men that I "could use a little more weight in order to stay warm" (I assured them I'm trying, maybe swimming in progressively-colder water next month will take care of that).

One way to keep warm.

After a quick singing of the Star Spangled Banner, we were finally off. Here's a video of the start:

In about five minutes, I had completely forgotten about the cold and was now in the melee of arms and legs and people all trying to spot buoys in dim morning light. That didn't last long (the dim morning light or being stuck in the melee), and before I made the turn into the first inter-lake channel, the sun was out and illuminating the far side of Halfmoon Lake. It was quite beautiful - I was no longer feeling tired but just happy to be swimming along at a speed that allowed me to appreciate the day.

Just before we took that turn - and based on my swim the day before, I determined the distance to be about a mile - I settled into a pace that had me swimming steadily alongside two others: a man and a woman. I would go into the first channel with this little group.

Before the race, a guy had told me the channels were shallow and you could walk through them. What he really meant was you might HAVE to walk through them. I found myself completely tangled up in weeds and trying not to run aground. I had to keep my underwater arm-pull against my body just to avoid punching the ground below. Unfortunately, the woman swimming next to me occupied the slightly deeper water, and I couldn't force myself into her space without sending her into another bank of weeds. I had to back off in order to get into her wake and avoid beaching myself or slamming into the wooden uprights of a foot-bridge over the channel. The two of us also had to stop a few times to find course-marker buoys.

Once we cleared the first channel, as long as I stayed close to the course markers, it was smooth swimming. I had only one or two run-ins with weeds until the second channel. Our little group stayed together through the second channel as well, which was equally shallow and treacherous and included swimming through a huge-diameter metal pipe (that had another bridge over it).

I found myself actually grabbing onto the weeds a couple times in a desperate attempt to pull myself forward. The first time I did it, the image that leapt to mind was one of standing on the pool deck and yelling at my swim team kids for grabbing onto the lane-lines during backstroke to pull themselves along. (They always think I don't notice that.) Hey, it works! I will have to come clean when I see them again.

When we finally reached Patterson Lake, the sun was well up. I stopped for a moment to free myself from a weed that had wrapped itself around my neck. My watch had us at 2.29 miles. Swimmers would now be on their way back. I got my bearings and started swimming toward the next bright orange buoy, only to have a stand-up paddler blowing a whistle at me and pointing me in the perpendicular direction. Swimmers were being directed to swim "directly into the sun" (what kayakers were telling us). By the time I was able to see the next marker, I had almost burned out my retinas, and spotting anything was now an issue. I almost had a head-on collision with a swimmer going in the opposite direction.

Finally I stopped. The girl next to me stopped. The guy next to me stopped. We had to flag down a kayaker to give us directions. It was then I saw the boat with a guy on the back carrying one of the big orange markers. Apparently the buoys had blown off course. He dropped this one directly in front of me and just like that!.. we were back on course.

When I made it to the beach turn-around, the first thing I saw was the time-clock. It said 1:19:something. Before the race, I told Jim that the 10K would probably take me close to three hours - at best, 2:45. This was very good news indeed. I was half-way through and under my predicted "fast" time. A volunteer handed me my special-needs bag containing nutrition.

The woman I had been swimming with gave me the slip on the beach and got back in the water well before me. I had a 21-oz bottle of SkratchLabs hydration mixed with Carbo-Pro, and I needed those calories. But I also didn't want to just "swim through" the second half of this race, so I drank only 3/4 of my bottle and ran back into the water to chase her. The guy from my original group was right alongside me.

He was the clobbering-type swimmer and his stroke was so strong it was like he had a tractor beam - I kept getting pulled toward him as though I was stuck in a gravitational pull. I had to get out of that influence so I swam hard and fast and pulled out in front.

Swimming the flip-side of Patterson Lake was easier because we were pointing away from the sun, it was a clear day, and the markers were now obvious. When I reached the channel, I realized that I was right behind the woman in our original three-some. I did not want to lull myself into swimming her speed again, so I worked hard in in the channel to get ahead. Instead, I swam off course and ended up in that group again - the three of us with me stuck smack in the middle.

Upon exiting this channel, I finally had enough. I swam hard to wrestle myself free of the group and the weeds.

I got out ahead and finally had the last two miles of this race all to myself. There was a lifeguard on a paddle-board who kept coming around to make sure I stayed on course, but I had no problem whatsoever spotting buoys and enjoying swimming hard to the finish. I stopped a couple times when we got back into Halfmoon lake to check my watch. With about a half-mile to go, my stroke finally started falling apart. Overall, I wasn't really that tired, I was just having trouble getting enough strength to keep a strong underwater pull. But I was alone in the water, and I told myself to enjoy it because it was almost over. I did backstroke just to look up at the clear blue sky, and then I flipped back over and pushed to the finish.

Getting out of the water after swimming for that long was a weird experience. It felt a lot like "the wobble" when you first step off the bike in an Ironman. I almost fell. I was disoriented for a few moments. Embarrassingly, it was caught on video, and since I have no shame to speak of, here it is:

My finish time was 2:39:03. And even though I swam hard, my second half was less than a minute faster than the first half. Awards-wise, I finished second in my age group (33rd overall) but the first female masters swimmer was also in my age group, so my time was actually third in my age group. I have a long way to go because there are some really fast women over 50.

Beer glasses are always the best trophies.

And I'm still loving this swim thing... and ready for the next one.

Just for kicks, here's the GPS plot from my Garmin:

Post-swim with race director
and living-testament to the human spirit, Corey Davis

It's not often we have the opportunity to be truly inspired by a another human being. But there are miracles (there's that word again) all around us and many of us will live our entire lives and never notice them. If you've been reading my blog, you know I've undergone many changes in attitude and the choices I make and that I have been fortunate to witness the power of the human spirit - mostly through music and friends.

But since this blog focuses mostly on my athletic pursuits, I will post about my latest swim event at the Ocean Games, a nine-mile swim in Ocean City, MD, where I witnessed what could be viewed as a lapse into my "disaster magnet" (read: negative) luck of old, but I was rescued this time by amazing humans and my new-found ability to see miracles all around me.

Most endurance athletes spend many years training to perfect their race performances. Very few people are born with bodies that can sustain high levels of activity over long periods of time. And even if someone is athletically-gifted at birth, it takes years of training and experience to get to the top of their sport. For us non-elite athletes, it's even harder and requires many more of those years and experience just to finish well and accomplish goals.

Knowing this, it was surprising to me when I experienced a high level of success very early in my "careers" as both a marathon runner and a triathlete: I qualified for Boston in my first marathon, and I qualified for Kona in my first Ironman (which, I might add, was only my fourth triathlon).

Go big or go home, right? There was no reason for me to start out "small" in my latest sporting pursuit, open-water swimming. My previous early-success pattern gave me a false sense of security, and eight years of competitive swimming from age 14 through 22 did nothing to deter me. I believed I had the ability to accomplish big things right away.

But I'm 51 and we all know trends don't last, and my first year of open-water swimming, although fun, has already become both a curse and a blessing.

And I don't mean curse in a bad way - more like a curse in an uncomfortable way. Because I have to make mistakes first this time. Early success is actually the curse. It always resulted in the devastating mental process of setting unreachable goals for future races, and for years I interpreted less-than-stellar performances as failures.

Now, even though I've given up the stress of Ironman by choosing to do the thing I enjoy most - swimming - I still chose a nine-mile ocean swim as my second open-water event. Live and learn, right? And I was about to find out how stupid... or ridiculous... or utterly hilarious... that was.

And it started out in classic Disaster Magnet fashion.

The kayak is almost bigger than their car.

The reasons I chose to swim in Ocean City had as much to do with the race support and travel as the distance. First of all, my great friend Doug (who lives near DC) agreed to be my support kayaker. He would feed me and guide me and get me through this thing. His wife and two daughters and my husband Jim would all be there, and I looked forward to spending time with them as much as I did having them as race support. They were a few of the true blessings of this weekend. It was like gaining a loving sister and brother and a two wonderful nieces for three days.

But the Disaster Magnet curse was not about to go down without a fight.

The day before the race (Friday), Doug and I decided to practice a bit to determine how kayaker support worked for us: which side he would be on, how close I could swim to him, etc. Jim also came out for a kayak lesson. We put the kayak in very shallow - and hot! - water on the bay side of Ocean City. During the swim, I caught some seaweed on my legs and arms. And shortly after, I felt some itchy stinging pain on my arm and my ankle and had to stop for a moment.

It wasn't seaweed. It was JELLYFISH! I panicked. I grabbed onto the kayak, terrified. I think I almost flipped Doug and Jim into the water trying to get away from the stinging jellyfish. GET ME OUT OF HERE. We turned around, but on the way back, I swam face-first into a jellyfish, and completely flipped out, grabbed onto the back of the kayak and had Doug just paddle me in. Fortunately, the face-sting was so quick and light that it never even registered as a rash. My arm sting was so superficial that after I swam in the ocean water a little, it wasn't even noticeable.

Disaster #1, averted!

Pre-race with Doug, all smiles.

That night, Doug, Jim, and I went to the race meeting, got briefed on the next day's event and how it would work, and then went back to the house we were all sharing for a very nice dinner. Everyone was happy, calm, and ready for the next day.

Until 5:00 am.

I had been sleeping well - again, most of my readers know about my anxiety issues that keep me up all night, so this was sort of a miracle (I owe my new-found ability to relax to my friend Olly). Something woke me up. It was still dark. I heard Jim come into the room and sit on the bed.

"I'm sick."

I shook off the sleep.. what? Did he have a cold?

"I'm vomiting."

Disaster #2 hit. Jim - and Doug's daughter Erika - had food poisoning. This was NOT GOOD. Doug's wife was also feeling ill and may have a touch of the same thing. Panic. I frantically searched for answers... was I next? Was Doug next? We all ate the same food last night. But we also had sandwiches for lunch. Jim and Erika were the only ones that ate ham, so I concluded that to be the culprit. But it didn't matter, Doug and I were going it ALONE. All of our transportation plans for the next day were washed out, and it would be the first big race in 14 years that Jim would miss. For a few minutes, I considered not swimming that day, but Jim urged me to go saying it would make him feel even worse. I understood - for him, I needed to start this race.

Me 'n Doug race morning, still smiling:

 

That morning, the conditions were announced on the Ocean Games Facebook page. The current was north-to-south and the race would swim down the shoreline in that direction. The water temperature was 74 degrees F. Perfect - I felt relief as I had already decided not to wear a wetsuit for two reasons:

  1. In the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, I overheated in my wetsuit in 74 degrees F.
  2. If I'm going to continue these open-water challenges, I need to swim without a wetsuit because that's usually the rule.

 

It looks friendly enough.

Fast-forwarding to the start of the race. I remember two things at the starting line. One was that Jim was noticeably absent. The other was I talked to a surfer named Drew who was questioning the decision to swim north-to-south because everything pointed to difficulty in this direction: the wind was coming from the south and the waves were coming from the southwest. But to me, the surf looked almost non-existent. All I could think of was how awesome it will be to finish a nine-mile ocean swim.

And my feelings were validated when I hit the water at the start and swam out to meet Doug in his kayak. The water temperature was ideal and I was smiling to myself for at least the first two miles. I stopped to feed mostly on schedule and I didn't feel at all taxed through the first three miles.

But then something changed. The surf got a little rougher and my hands started going numb. It happened pretty quickly. I tried swimming harder to warm up. It worked a little. I tried stopping and drinking warm fluids. I asked Doug to get me closer to the shore where the water was warmer (but rougher). I kept swimming, but I kept losing more feeling in my hands. I also started to shiver. It was discouraging when Doug said most of the swimmers were in front of me.

Around four miles, I stopped and tried to warm up, but the sun had gone behind the clouds. My teeth were chattering, and I was starting to shiver uncontrollably. I didn't want to quit, but Doug saw the writing on the wall and signaled to the lifeguard on shore.

The lifeguard came out and towed me in. All I could think about was getting warm (although Doug said I kept turning around saying I wanted to finish, but I don't remember that). When I was finally out of the water, the lifeguard and a bunch of beach-goers came over to warm me up. My whole body was shaking and I couldn't make it stop. A man gave me some gatorade, and a woman named Ashley (I'm surprised I even remember her name) and her two children put their towels over me and she held me while I shook uncontrollably waiting for EMS. It was a small thing, but the best of humanity was embodied in those people, and I don't think I ever thanked them.

Miracles all around.

The EMS guys took my temperature at 93 degrees F (not my personal Disaster Magnet record, but close). They gave me a warm IV and took me to the ER where I was covered with warm blankets and my temperature returned to almost-normal. I called Jim, who was laid up in bed with some of the worst digestive issues of his life, and he actually came to the hospital to pick me up. I don't know which one of us looked worse, me or him, but it was nothing short of miraculous.

I actually felt ok, but tired. I drove him back to the house and picked up Doug's wife Kaz to go to the finish line to collect Doug, their car, and the kayak (kayakers were required to stay on the water for race support even if their swimmer dropped out).

I had no idea how much time had passed, but Jim said my iPhone (in Doug's possession) was registering him still out on the water. Ocean city traffic was horrendous and it seemed like forever before Kaz and I got to the finish line. We (miraculously) found parking and walked onto the beach where she immediately spotted the kayak. Doug was exhausted but he looked good. He told us he was able to help another swimmer complete the three-mile race that day. That made me so so happy.

Miracles, I say.

As for me? Was this Disaster #3?

Not by a long-shot. For the record, I'm sad that Jim and Erika got sick - that was the biggest bummer of the weekend. And, I'm sad about having to abandon my race. In fact, I cried A LOT at the hospital. But, surprisingly, the fallout from this event is very different than other races I've DNFed. I don't think I'm a crap athlete this time. I got hypothermia. It wasn't something I had any control over (this time). I'm glad I started this race, and I wouldn't have done anything differently. I had the strength to finish, just not the ability to withstand the cold. I have none of my usual regrets.

Curious, I asked one of the race officials if anyone else got hypothermia. She said at least one other swimmer dropped out but for unknown reasons. I talked to a few others at the finish and was told the water temperature definitely dropped from the starting line. It may have been due to the wind ushering in colder water. And then the biggest miracle of the weekend happened.

Looking for stats on finishers, I approached the announcers table. The race director, Corey Davis, was there. He asked how it went, I told him I had to drop and just left the ER after being treated with hypothermia. His biggest concern was if I was ok. Then, he thanked me a million times for supporting the race (I think I told him we came from Cleveland). We had the most amazing conversation. Corey imparted a huge amount of his knowledge to me about open-water swimming (especially in cold water) and gave me some tips on training for next time.

Corey isn't just anyone. He's actually a huge inspiration to all who know him and I would have felt very fortunate to have had just a moment of his time. He is the survivor of a horrific accident that left him unable to walk due to a traumatic brain injury. The doctors and his determination in rehabbing have allowed him not only to stand on his own two feet again but to return to a very active lifestyle. He founded the Ocean Games to give back to the program that helped him and give hope to people who suffer similar injuries. You can read his story here (or watch the short video below, his recovery is quite remarkable).

Talking to Corey changed me. I have been able to put the entire thing in perspective and learn my lessons thanks to my new attitude and our conversation. One of Corey's most recent accomplishments was completing a 17-mile paddleboard race. Seriously, I can't even STAND UP on a paddleboard without falling down! Corey did 17 miles after being told he would never even walk again!

I am determined to enter this race again next year with the goal of finishing and doing it as a fundraiser.

And I have been able to look at all the blessings of this race instead of the curses.

So, what if I finished? Then, I might have a lot more open-water miles under my belt. I might have a lot more confidence in myself going into my next open-water challenge. I might be jumping up and down and patting myself on the back right now. And I might have impressed some people.

But, I wouldn't have learned the lessons I learned this weekend. I wouldn't know how unprepared my body was for cold water. I wouldn't have a plan for dealing with the cold water in the future. I wouldn't have been treated to the best of humanity in the form of Good Samaritans. And I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet Corey Davis, one of the most extraordinary humans I've ever known.

And so, let the miracles continue...

The trials and tribulations of open water swimming in the Ocean Games nine-mile event where conditions can and will change abruptly, and I had to deal with the fallout of not being prepared for very cold water.

A week from today, I'll be toeing the line in my longest swim ever - a nine-mile race in Ocean City, Maryland. I don't know what I was thinking when I registered for such a long distance as my second open-water swim race. Well, yes I do. I was thinking: no problem, I'll have plenty of time to train. Go big or go home, right?

However, at the time of registration, I had no way of knowing I would be going to the Glastonbury Festival only three weeks before the race. I didn't factor in the eight-day hiatus from training - or the jet lag. Now, I find myself up against the wall and not at all confident in my current ability to finish nine miles.

Swim first,
ask questions later.

The difference this time is that I don't lack the confidence in myself. I don't have that fear anymore. I'm actually looking forward to this race even if I cannot finish. I'll be doing the thing I love - swimming in the ocean - where I feel most at home. If I don't finish because I don't have the training or racing experience behind me, then I don't finish. It will be because I didn't do what I needed to do to get to the finish line. And it will not define me. I've sloughed off the burden of assuming I'm a crap swimmer or a crap athlete because I don't finish a race.

What I WILL do is kick myself for not thinking ahead. (Obviously, I'm already doing that, but not as an excuse.) In fact, I'm laughing at myself because of how ridiculously unprepared I am for a potentially grueling experience. It's just that it's not the ultimate goal.

One thing is for sure - I would never have missed Glastonbury for all the training in the world. I will happily live with that. The lessons I learned there were more powerful than those training or racing could have taught me.

In fact, the only reason I'm writing this particular blog post is to put it "out there" so that when the going gets tough, I can remind myself I wrote this. It's a commitment for me to honor. To not give up. To tell the story of the struggle. If I don't get to the finish line, I will have to be dragged out of the water unconscious.. or injured.. or sick because of nutrition mistakes. It will NOT be due to lack of will.

I want to finish, but most of all, I want to enjoy the process. I want to make mistakes. I want to learn. Swim races are not the goal for me. Swimming is. The act of swimming, that is. Open water swimming gives me a high and a challenge no other sport has given me. It's me against myself. When I'm out there, I don't feel competition around me. I only feel the water.

And that's what sport should be.

Hopefully I'll look this happy after 9 miles but I'm not expecting to.

I've raced twice since my last blog post, but I've been feverishly working on other projects and web sites and haven't had time to reflect and post anything meaningful. Here's my latest attempt at that (and perhaps at pulling something meaningful out of a seemingly-lost racing season).

The first of the aforementioned races was the USAT Olympic-distance Age Group National Championship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It came about two weeks after I was able to start swimming after my surgery and while I was still desperately trying to get my running legs back. I had no idea how I would perform overall, but at the very least, I was expecting a decent split on the bike. Cycling was the only sport for which I was able to solidly train. And as luck (?) would have it, the location of my surgical incisions forced me into doing 99% of my riding in the aero position - JUST for comfort. Could I be the first person ever to utter such a statement?

My race expectations were fulfilled: it was my slowest swim split - ever, my fastest bike split - in Milwaukee, and a very slow run - by my standards. Looking for positives, I can say that despite being exhausted after the swim, I "felt" strength in my legs on the bike AND on the run. And I do wish I had pushed harder in the bike leg because, despite my snail-like running pace, my legs felt much fresher than usual in T2.

Photos from USAT Nats in Milwaukee:

Swim wave start, age group: women 50+
Swim-to-Bike Transition
Let's get this thing going.
Starting the run.
Finishing

My overall time - 2:20:46 - was good for 6th in my age group - my best placing in Milwaukee in their three years of hosting the event. Disappointingly, it wasn't my fastest time on the Milwaukee course.

Immediately, I went back to the grind to spend a few weeks whipping myself into swim shape and lengthening my longest run to 14 miles. I needed a test, and I longed to have something - anything - to hang my hat on this season. I decided to register for a half-ironman distance race - but where? Heading into Autumn (or as my husband Jim "Stark" would say: "Winter is coming."), we were running out of places that were not only drive-able but also made good vacation spots. The latter was necessary just in case the race is a total fail (obviously, you learn these tricks when your nickname is Disaster Magnet). Since my income is almost nonexistent, the location also had to be affordable.

The event appearing to fit the bill was Challenge Maine, a Challenge Family race in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Many things could be accomplished by a trip to New England. We could visit my mom in Connecticut. We could sight-see. We could go to the beach. I could satisfy my yearly craving for fresh fried clams.

Thus, I registered and started researching Old Orchard Beach (a.k.a. OOB). Yes, this was indeed the place of my New England dreams. There was a boardwalk and pier. There was an amusement park on the beach. There were clam shacks. There were lighthouses on the coast. (In fact, some of the best-known Edward Hopper lighthouse paintings were just north of OOB.) The hotels in OOB were old-style and handed down through families - not a single chain hotel among them. And the kicker - my mother told me it was my grandparents' favorite vacation spot when they were young.

We drove to Connecticut, spent two days, then drove up the New England coast with stops in Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester where we ate dinner. When I stepped out of the car in Salem, my first thought was: Oh, how I've missed the smell of the ocean!

Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester are old-style New England fishing towns:

Salem harbor
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables" 
There are piers like this everywhere 
Lighthouses on Thatcher Island off the coast of Rockport 

That night, when we pulled into the town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I was instantly transported back in time. To the time of my youth spent on New England beaches. To my grandparents' time, when the hotels were grand and had large common rooms and screened decks where guests could commune or just relax and read a book. I imagined people sitting on their hotel porches in the morning and strolling the boardwalk in the evening. There were no cell phones or air conditioners or TV. There was sun. And sand. And salt water. That was all WE needed for a vacation. Handheld technology did not interfere. Is it coincidental our hotel clerk gave us real keys and the room had only old-style tube TVs (no flat screens here) and no TV remotes? I hope not. I was determined to be renewed on this trip.

The strip of old hotels along the main drag in Old Orchard Beach
The view of the beach from our hotel
Our hotel, the Ocean House Hotel, taken from the sandbar
The ferris wheel at Palace Playland

The weather in Connecticut and Maine - including race day - was unbelievably nice: clear skies, 80s by day, 60s at night. The water temperature was in the 60s. It was perfect!

On to race morning....

Challenge Maine took place on Sunday, August 30. The morning was clear and in the 60s. The 1.2-mile ocean swim was a point-to-point that started on the beach with a run into the water. It was low-tide at race start - 6:30 a.m. - so the race organizers drew a giant starting line in the sandbar (how cool is that?). My wave (women 40+ and relays) was the last of four for the half. There was also an olympic-distance race that started after us.

Here are some great race morning and swim start photos that Jim took:

Sunrise was beautiful
Yes, we have to swim all the way to that pier
The line-drawn-into-the-sand, a.k.a., The Start

All I have to say about the swim leg is this: I love ocean swims! The best part is diving into the waves at the start. Because of the waves, I found myself laughing my way through the first few minutes of the swim, but once I got into a rhythm I was able to focus on the task at hand. The deeper water was relatively calm by the time we turned parallel to the beach, and the swim went by lightning-fast. One of the great things about Challenge Maine is that when you make the final turn towards the swim finish, you no longer have to spot buoys. There's a huge ferris wheel at that amusement park - Palace Playland - and all you have to do is align your swim with that. It leads you right in to the finish.

Swim finish photos:

The low-tide situation on Sunday unfortunately added more running time to an already-ridiculously-long transition run. The transition zone of Challenge Maine was on the road alongside the OOB Chamber of Commerce grounds. To get there we had to run quite a long distance from the beach - past the Palace Playland arcade and grounds and several concession stands and clam shacks. There's even a Dunkin' Donuts along the transition run (we are, after all, in New England - no Starbucks here).

By the time I got to my bike, my legs were toast. But I had a quicker-than-normal exit from my wetsuit, and I was on my bike quickly. The organizers almost made up for the long transition run by putting the bike-mount line only a few yards from the exit of transition.

What I didn't realize was that I put my bike helmet on crooked and I looked like an idiot. I never did fix that. Go ahead, you can laugh.

Bike start

The 56-mile bike leg was amazing. It took us through rolling hills of Maine - nothing major in terms of climbs, but significant enough that you had to be prepared to deal with hills. The air temperature was still cool and comfortable and cloudy conditions for at least the first half of the bike. It also helped that most of the roads were shaded by trees. My nutrition on the bike consisted mostly of about 30oz/hour of Skratch Labs pineapple hydration drink and a couple gels. I didn't need much more than that and I didn't use any electrolyte supplements until the end of the ride when things started to heat up a little. To my surprise, I was able to maintain a speed between 20 and 22 mph for the entire bike course. I was also impressed that all the 10-mile markers were dead-on accurate.

I played leap frog with a few women on the bike. One of them must have stayed in my slipstream a little too long because as she passed me, I heard the familiar motorcycle sound of a USAT official... I looked to the left and saw that her number was being noted for a penalty (at this race, time penalties are allotted after you finish, no serving penalties on the course as in Ironman brand races). Then she finally gave me the slip and I never saw her again. The other one was the girl who would eventually win the women's race. At one point, a guy managed to get away with drafting off her for about five minutes. I couldn't stand that anymore so I sped up to pass them, and as I did, I told him he was "cheating" by drafting off her. He looked at me and yelled "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" then took off. Don't worry, I made sure to beat him in the race. In fact, I caught him before the bike leg was over so I didn't even have to run him down.

The bike leg was a little short (maybe also making up for the marathon run out of the water), so it caught me completely off-guard when I rounded the last corner and saw the crowd on the lead-in to transition. I was like "wha?" and then realized what was going on... and somehow by the grace of God, I managed to get out of my shoes in time to not launch myself over the handlebars at the dismount line. It was really close, and I saw fear in the eyes of the volunteers yelling "DISMOUNT!" while ducking out of the way.

Bike finish - yep, my helmet was still crooked

I had to regroup mentally once I was off my bike. Seriously, I usually have time to prep for the dismount so I was a little shook up. I racked my bike and struggled a bit to get into my running shoes while a spectator coached me through the transition. She noticed my Punk Rock Racing kit and said "I have a Punk Rock Racing t-shirt!!!!" (Seriously, Ron, we are EVERYWHERE - shameless note to my sponsor).

Once again, I screwed up the splits on my Garmin in multi-sport mode as I was leaving transition, but then I saw Jim and all was ok. He cracked me up when he said "I have NO idea where you are, just RUN YOUR OWN RACE." (He usually tries to keep count of where I am in the age group or overall race). It was getting hot, and I had no idea how long I could last on this run, but my legs felt good, so I just settled into a pace and hoped I could hold it. I passed a few women at the beginning of the run, and the eventual winner went blowing by me like I was standing still.

Starting the run, I was pretty happy to be feeling good for a change.

The 13.1-mile run took us through slight rolling terrain before turning onto a dirt-and-gravel road around the 3-mile point. Temperatures were in the 80s but there were some great cool breezes. I dumped ice and ice-water on myself and drank what they were handing out. My mile pace was relative steady, near 7:30s, until about mile 8 when everything started to fall apart. At that point, it was all I could do to just keep running, and I walked the aid stations. At every mile marker I reminded myself "It's only 4, then 3, then 2 miles to the finish." At the last two aid stations I grabbed coke because my stomach was a little woozy, and I felt much better in the last two miles, which were mostly downhill.

Coming into the finish, I out-kicked the guy in front of me - don't ask me where I got the energy - to finish just under 4:46. And it was over. I managed to clock a 1:42 on the run - looks like I still have a lot of work to before I'm happy with my running, but I had eight promising miles in there.

The finish
Butt shot, only for showing the back of my awesome PxRx kit.

I saw Jim at the finish line. He told me I was 3rd overall. Whoa. Really? I knew there were women in front of me, but I didn't realize there were only two "ahead of me" and I always forget that I started behind everyone else, so I had a 5-minute lead on any women under 40 that I passed.

I also have to mention that this race has one of the best finisher medals I've ever received - it's the KRAKEN.

We hung around at the finish to grab some food and drinks, and while I was waiting to get into transition to pick up my bike, I noticed legendary pro triathlete Karen Smyers was standing in front of me. I got up the nerve to talk to her - she raced in the Olympic-distance race but had some problems with her lungs so I think she dropped out. She asked me about my race, and it came up that I was from Connecticut. She told me she grew up in Weathersfield (I did not know that). I told her I grew up in Meriden. A lightbulb went off... who knew? Of course Karen Smyers swam for the Meriden Marlins - the best AAU swim team in Connecticut back in the day. Everyone who was anyone swam for them. We rattled off names.. recalling some of the great swimmers from the region including Megan Wright and Lisa Zeiser. It was just before my time as a swimmer (Smyers is 4 years older than me, I started swimming in high school just after she would have graduated).

Do I even need to say? It's a very, very small world.

The women's podium

It was a short walk back the hotel to take a shower and run back out to gorge myself on New England fried clams before the awards ceremony. Jim and I spent the rest of the day sightseeing up the coast of Maine and playing skee-ball at the arcade. Jim hit the skee-ball jackpot on Saturday, but all we managed to afford with our ticket winnings was a souvenir mug. Here are photos of food and the spoils of the coastal Maine skee-ball follies of 2015:

Fried clams - they always remind me of my dad.
OMG look at all these tickets. 
What do I do with all these?
Buy this lovely souvenir mug, of course.

Anyone who's grown up and moved away from a place they loved when they were young knows what it's like to feel a longing for home and a great sense of nostalgia upon return. This trip hit me inordinately hard and I don't know why. Even though I had never been here as a kid, when I took a final walk onto the beach in OOB, the tears welled up and I had to fight them off. I didn't want Jim to see me like that. I didn't want him to think we can't come back here or that I had a bad race. I'll have to live with the knowledge that New England is in my blood and even though we live in Ohio, I always know where home is in my heart.

The lighthouse at Two Lights (Hopper painted this one)
Cove at Two Lights 
Lighthouse at Portland Head (Hopper painted this one too)
"I still have some sand in my shoes"
Stupid giant iPhone ruined this shot.

I'm not sure exactly how to start this post - or how to write the middle or end, actually - but I guess I better start where I left off on my last post.
I said I would write a race report about Ironman Texas.

Indeed.. so I did. Unfortunately, it got almost infinitely delayed because all the analysis in the world could not help me with those important "lessons learned" from my race in Texas. It started out so great. In fact, the beginning and the middle went surprisingly well. I just don't know what happened at the end, although I have a possible explanation now which is something I didn't have a month ago.

Ron and me - before swim start.

I really wanted to have a great race in Texas for many reasons. One of the big reasons was that my great friend, Ron, founder of Punk Rock Racing and designer of the new race kit I was wearing here, surprised me by showing up in my hotel room the day before the race. I was therefore super-jazzed to have extra support on the course and at the start that morning.

Ironman Texas started with a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Woodlands. Before the swim, I was told my more than one person that this would be a long swim and do NOT expect a fast time in this particular swim for many reasons. The swim - a rolling start - did a U-turn, then made a right into the waterway channel. I swam wide, as usual, to avoid getting clobbered, and surprisingly had a rather uneventful swim. My stroke felt great and I took it easy until the U-turn, after which I picked up my pace and passed a lot of people before - and even after - we made our way into the channel.
Swim start in Lake Woodlands

Because the swim was "long," I took it very easy, and I hadn't been able to get in the pool more than twice a week during my build-up, I was expecting to see something around 1:10-1:15 (or worse) on my watch when I stepped out of the water. The 1:02 on my watch was a blinding surprise. I tried to keep a lid on my emotions in T1.

We were encouraged to carry our bike shoes through the transition zone because of ankle-deep mud - it was gross, but we were able to rinse our feet before starting the bike leg. I knew I was in good shape when I got to the rack to see most of my age-group was still in the water. When I finally got on the bike, my legs felt great, again surprised with none of the usual fatigue after the swim.

Leaving T1

So I rode relaxed for the first 50 miles (I was told the second half of the bike course is when the hills show up) and made sure to drink at least a bottle and a half of fluids per hour. My new fuel regimen included Skratch Labs hydration drink mix and solid fuel - mostly rice-based recipes from the Feed Zone Portables cookbook.

I took in about 250-300 calories per hour and as the day got hotter (in the high 80s and very humid), I remained relaxed and didn't push too hard, even on the rolling hills in the second half. I did not feel any thirst or hunger during the ride, and much to my surprise, Texas was the first Ironman bike leg during which I had no nausea. Convinced my fueling was perfect, I was actually looking forward to a good - and strong - run.

When I pulled into T2, my time was one of my best 112-milers, my legs still felt good - albeit a little stiff - and I knew I was in the race although my husband Jim and I decided beforehand that he would withhold from me my position in the age group so that I wouldn't chase anyone.

The first mile off the bike was about 7:40 (too fast), but my legs were feeling great and I was trying to run relaxed. The second mile was right around 8 minutes (goal pace). And that was the last moment I felt good.

Inching along

Then everything seemed to fall apart. My legs started to give and I was overwhelmed with a sense of fatigue that I can't explain. It was like every molecule in my leg muscles was screaming at me that they were tired and I needed to stop. It wasn't the heat. It wasn't thirst. It wasn't hunger. It was just .. fatigue. I had no explanation and I could not will myself to go any faster or any slower.

I inched along - running, then walking, then running again - pouring water and ice on myself - and at one of the aid stations around the midpoint, someone stepped right in front of me, and I went down hard, twisting my ankle in the process. I figured that was it, but the volunteers and medical staff helped me get back on my feet, gave me ice on the ankle and I was determined to get back on the course and finish, no matter how slow.

I was angry, confused, hot, and feeling pretty woozy by the time I saw Jim with about 3 miles to go. He kept telling me that everyone in front of my was slowing down, but that did little to help because I had nothing in my legs. I stopped and proceeded to vomit right in front of him. I can't imagine what he was thinking, but I remained on the course and kept going forward. I was never so happy to see a finish line in my life, and - yes, shockingly - I managed to pull out an age-group 4th even with that dismal almost-five-hour marathon.

By that point, I didn't care about anything except getting my medal. I tried to eat and drink after the race but ended up in the med tent with severe nausea and dizziness.

For a couple weeks after the race, I was still very confused about what went wrong. Was it not enough long-distance training? I had only one 100-mile bike ride but several close to 90 - winter training was difficult in Cleveland this year because of extreme cold. And I only ran 18-20 miles a couple times. I had several confidence-boosting long bricks though. Was it my fueling? Maybe solid food doesn't process as quickly as liquid? I really had no clue.

Now I'm starting to rethink it because of a recent illness that has sidelined me. Here come the "gory details" mentioned in the title. And it's really embarrassing to talk about, but hell, it's the truth.

About 4 weeks ago, shortly after Ironman Texas, I started to get a strange pain in my butt, kind of up near my tailbone and to the right. I was also feeling extremely fatigued - so much that Jim kept insisting something was wrong because I was sleeping so much. I sloughed off the pain as being muscular in nature - maybe from riding my road bike for the first time in a while. I thought nothing of it.

A week later, when the pain did not subside, I started poking around and felt what can only be termed a "lump" - or hardness. Still thinking it was muscular, I went to Google (yep, I Googled "pain in the ass"). Googling is not something I recommend to anyone contemplating a lump of any sort in their body. GO TO THE DOCTOR.

In the second week of butt pain, there were also other symptoms - ones I did not associate with my butt. I had a headache that wouldn't go away, I lost my appetite and was constantly feeling nauseous, and I had pain in my skin (the kind of pain you might associate with a fever but my temperature was only 99ish). When I did a training ride or run, I would get fatigued and be dragging after about 20 minutes. I told Jim I would call the doctor if it didn't go away, but it felt like it was subsiding by that Thursday, so I put off the call.

BAD IDEA. By Monday, I was in severe pain with all the other symptoms and now a larger elongated lump. Scared sh*tless about what it might be, I called and begged my doctor's office for an appointment, which they couldn't provide until Thursday. Tuesday, I called our health insurance "nurse on call" for advice - which was, duh - SEE A DOCTOR WITHIN 24 HOURS. The Cleveland Clinic has same-day appointments, so I took one Tuesday afternoon with a nurse practitioner. I didn't care. I was in severe pain.

The diagnosis? The first diagnosis was that I had a pilonidal cyst - this is basically an infection/abscess located near your tailbone usually caused by a plugged up hair follicle. She gave me antibiotics and sent me home. Two days later, I saw my family doctor. There was still pain. Some fever. Major fatigue. The lump was unchanged -- maybe bigger, it was hard to tell.

She had a different diagnosis: I had a peri-anal abscess. She gave me a different antibiotic in case the first one didn't work and referred me to a colorectal surgeon, just in case - if it needed to be "lanced and drained" it would be a simple office procedure for him. Ok, now I was freaked out - I've failed to mention in this post that eleven days from then I had a trip to Sweden to race in the ITU Long-course Age Group World Championship. My doctor reassured me that the surgical consult was "only for the worst case scenario."

Yep, I went home and Googled the hell out of this one.

My Google findings turned up the following: this type of abscess will not respond to antibiotics. It must be drained, either on its own or by lancing by a doctor.

My surgical consult was Tuesday. By Monday, I was almost comatose with an ever-expanding lump (this thing was now covering about a third of my butt cheek), pain, headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and now a 100-degree fever. I called Jim, he called the surgeon's office -- they sent us to the emergency room "where it could be lanced and drained if necessary." In the ER, I was pumped full of a DIFFERENT antibiotic, pain killers, anti-nausea drugs and given a CAT scan for more information. The ER doc said no way was he touching this thing because of its location - better leave that to the colorectal guy.

(JUST A QUICK ASIDE: while we were chatting with the emergency room doctor, we found out that he was in attendance at my first Ironman, Ironman Utah in 2002 - his brother raced - and he happened to be one of the medical personnel trying to revive the man who drowned in Utah Lake that morning. Talk about bizarre coincidences!)

So... after reading the scan, he gave me the third diagnosis. I had an ischio-rectal abscess that was no longer full of fluid but now had blossomed into a case of cellulitis. It "had not become gangrenous" (yeah, i know, WTF!?!?). I was sent home from the ER with more instructions and info to deliver to my colorectal surgeon. When I got home, my fever went up to 101 degrees.

I had the worst night of fitful sleep ever.

Tuesday morning, I saw the surgeon and found myself in tears just telling him how bad I felt. He took one look, checked the CAT scans, and sent me to the hospital to prep for surgery in the OR at 2pm. No problem, he even said I'd be able to race in Sweden the next week. REALLY?

When I woke up from surgery, the overall feeling of illness was gone. Seriously. The drugs were not masking it.. my headache and nausea and fever were all gone. I still had pain, but now it was from three incisions and drainage tubes sticking out of my butt cheeks.

Jim gave me the lowdown - the abscess was much worse than even the surgeon expected - hence it wasn't a simple lance-and-drain kind of thing. It was deep and extended to my left side (they call it a horseshoe abscess). No, I wouldn't be racing in Sweden - no lake swimming with open wounds.

I didn't care. I was so happy to be free of this thing - and I spent the next three days in bed. We contemplated still taking the trip to Sweden, but I couldn't envision sitting on that plane for many hours and spending the entire trip worrying about gauze and drainage and - omg - what if there were complications?

So, it was a drag to do, but we canceled the whole trip, and I've been recovering from this surgery for one week as of today. I saw the surgeon this morning and - yay! - my drainage tubes have been removed and he hopes it will heal up in 4-6 weeks. But no swimming (Boo!)

I can't help but wonder if my fatigue in Texas might have been the beginning of this illness. Either way, and true to my nickname, I seem to have picked a great way to start out a new age group.

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