Wetsuits are Overrated: 2017 GCBS Race Report

On Sunday, I completed the first "race" of my 2017 open-water season. I put race in quotes because I struggle to call my open-water swim events races the way I used to call my triathlons and marathons races. Unlike the latter two, I approach swim events with different goals - to finish, to feel strong, to beat my previous effort (if there was one). Open water swimmers are different that way. Most of them swim to swim, as I do, and not to win. They swim to get to the other side. They swim to conquer the water - the elements - or because they feel a kinship with the water. During pre-race check-in on Sunday, I met a guy who "does only one event [this one] every year." He does it to stay in shape, and he always finishes in the middle "somewhere," but he loves the idea that swimming is just him and his speedo against the elements - and that's it.

The event I did was the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. It's a 4.4-mile swim across the bay between the two separate lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I did it last year (2016) and had a less-than-enjoyable experience because of overheating in my wetsuit. This year, I had no intention of wearing a wetsuit, which would obviously make me slower, but the goal was to have a strong swim. You know, one with no stopping, no lolly-gagging, no eating and drinking, no molesting a kayaker for water, and no consideration of dropping out.

Because all those things happened last year (2016 race report).

This year's race was different in many ways. As I said, I swam without a wetsuit. But my preparation has been different. I'm swimming a lot more and a bit faster in training. I also knew what to expect in terms of the course. And the race day was different. The swim started at 8:30 am instead of noon. Chesapeake Bay was about three degrees colder, but it was also calmer. And the tides were slightly different.

The day started for me with that old racing bugaboo: a sleepless night. It was most surprising for me because my husband Jim and I had spent a lovely evening in Washington, DC, with dear friends, and I was in a very relaxed and happy mood. I wasn't thinking about the swim, but apparently my subconscious was preoccupied with it. I don't know why. I was trained well, I had finished it last year, and I had no designs on placing.

When the alarm went off at 5:30, I had to remind myself of how many races (including Ironman Kona) that I had, indeed, completed on no sleep. But I was disappointed in myself because I ALWAYS feel better when I get even just one hour of sleep.

When I got up, I quickly ate a banana and a liquid protein/carb drink, we took showers, and headed to Sandy Point Beach for the start.

Here are some photos of the Bay Bridge from Sandy Point State Park (location of the start) in Annapolis, MD. This shows almost the full distance we have to swim (the bridge span is just over 4 miles long):

Mile two is somewhere between in the middle of the suspension bridge span (in the shipping channel), here:

Mile three is somewhere under the truss bridge span, here:

With a predicted high of 90 degrees F, it was already warm, so we stayed in the shade while I doused myself in sunscreen, and waited for my start in the second wave. The race director gave us the lowdown on what to expect: almost perfect conditions, with tides changing from right to left halfway through and a water temperature of 71 degrees F. As it did last year, the statistic on number of volunteers blew me away: near 750 volunteers helping about 650 swimmers (that's more than one per swimmer!). It's impossible to overstate how well-organized this event is.

Before my start, I got in the water for a short warm-up just to be sure the water temperature was ok. I was surprised that it felt much colder than when I swam the day before, but after about a minute, I felt very comfortable and was confident in my decision to go without a wetsuit especially after seeing people struggling with that same decision and remembering how I overheated last year.  I decided before the race that I would not need to drink or eat during the swim, and I made sure I was well-hydrated by drinking 32 ounces of SkratchLabs hydration during the two hours beforehand.

Pre-race photos (from Jim's camera):

In a matter of moments, it seemed like we were on the starting line. I still felt like the only woman without a wetsuit (in fact, I was one of 46 women without). I started way to the left which, afterward, we realized was a much greater distance than those who started on the right near the breakwall along the side of the bridge. But I wanted to stay out of the congestion at the right. Even so, I still got pummeled by other swimmers for the first five minutes or so. Once we turned left to get between the bridge spans, we had much more space, and I rarely ran into other swimmers unless they were stragglers from the first wave.

I had decided to swim as steadily and continuously as possible with pauses only to avoid hitting others or catch my breath. From last year, I remembered the locations of the mile markers, and I still hadn't decided if I would check my time and pace when I reached them. I reached the first pylon of the suspension bridge (just under two miles) having successfully NOT checked my Garmin at mile 1. The water wasn't nearly as choppy as it had been last year and I felt relaxed and strong and swam pretty easily for most of the first two miles. I focused solely on trying to keep my pace steady with very little effort. But when I saw the giant orange 2-mile buoy, I couldn't stand not knowing if how I felt corresponded to my pace, so I flipped over on my back to check my time. I saw 51 minutes - just about where I wanted to be.

Some of the unique moments I remember from the race this year were noticing the different water temperatures in the sun and in the shade from the bridge, almost accidentally noticing both of the two aid stations (even though I didn't stop), being passed by a guy towing a personal swim buoy with a GoPro mounted on it, and watching a paddle-boarder glide majestically past me within about three feet. All of these things made me smile.

In 2016, my struggle began around 2.5 miles. I remember looking at my watch at that point and thinking there was no way I still had two miles to go. This year, I never even knew that feeling. When I saw the second aid boat near the truss span of the bridge (and the 3-mile buoy) and noticed people from my wave stopping there, the competitive instinct kicked in, and I decided to pick up my pace to catch at least one person. One turned to two, and three... and then I found myself in a battle with another woman who took to drafting off my feet. At one point I got tired of her touching my feet, so I stopped to let her pass me. But I stayed within sight of her and a guy who were swimming my pace. Her stroke looked choppy and strained, and by the time we all reached the far-end breakwall and turned to get out from under the bridge, I had enough of following them and made my break. I would swim as hard as I could to the finish. Last year, this part of the swim was extremely warm, and I had to stop several times from overheating. It seems like forever from there to the finish line, but I held on strong to stay ahead of them and pass several more swimmers in my wave.

When I crawled out of the water at the finish, I saw the clock. I was certain I would beat my goal of under two hours, but, unfortunately, I came out at 2:05 - only four minutes faster than last year (although the distance on my GPS watch was over 4.7 miles). It was disappointing, discouraging, unsatisfying... all those things, but those feelings lasted only a few minutes because I felt great! I was sore, but it was so SO much more fun.

In analyzing my swim, I checked out the pace graph after uploading the event file to Garmin Express. My pace was even but just slower between miles 3 and 4 and then I picked it up again (when I made the conscious decision to push hard). Unfortunately, I have to attribute it to lolly-gagging - I wasn't even conscious of it. There was a bit of chop that hit me a few times in that segment, but I wasn't fatigued. If nothing else, it gives me a tiny bit of confidence to face a few longer races in the near future. I didn't taper this week, I only cut back my yardage Friday and Saturday because of lingering soreness from an extra-long swim on Tuesday.

I am thankful for the support from Jim in this new sport despite having to cut short a business trip and get up early on Sunday just to wait around for me to start and wait around for me to finish. On a hot day. If it's any consolation, I think I'm finally doing the sport I love most.

On Sunday, I completed the first "race" of my 2017 open-water season, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. It's a 4.4-mile swim across the bay between the two separate lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I did it last year (2016) and had a less-than-enjoyable experience because of overheating in my wetsuit. This year things were entirely different.

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