This past Sunday was the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. This was my second Bay Swim and I had really been looking forward to it. It is such a fun and challenging event. But before I go into the recap of the event and race, please read about the fundraising efforts and benefits:
Brian Earley started the Chesapeake Bay Swim back in 1982 when he swam across the bay in memory of his father. Participation has grown from his single performance to a lottery system now that caps the swimmers at 650. It is one of the most sought after open water races in the United States.
The Chesapeake Bay Swim is a fundraiser event for the March of Dimes, Chesapeake Bay Trust and also has the Cynthia Earley Scholarship award for students who raise the most funds for the GCBS charities.
Arriving at the Race
The drive on a Sunday morning is great and peaceful. I woke up around 5:52 and just got out of bed since trying to fall back asleep was pointless and futile. Headed to the basement and did some stretching. Had some breakfast after that and was able to get my wife to apply the sunscreen on my back before I left. I do not need to have sun screen all over my hands when getting my goggles and race cap on. Headed down I-270 just after 7 a.m.
This is great. I leave early so I don’t have to stress about speeding and I can enjoy some tunes on the drive. Not allowing anyone to upset me on the drive, especially around the Capital Beltway. I do rather enjoy that “slalom” effect you get though between the Wisconsin, Connecticut and Georgia exits.
Driving over the Bay Bridge it starts to hit you. I did see they were starting to close the Bay traffic to the big ships. Got a picture while driving 50 mph. Note there is no noticeable blur on the jersey barrier (taken with an iPhone). Impressive may I say.
Park the car, happily engage in conversation with two young ladies in their 60’s who are almost as excited as I am to be here. I find Doug Saar, my good friend whom I shared some lake swims leading up to this event and who was participating in his 20th Chesapeake Bay Swim!! Impressive. We board the school buses that transport us to Sandy Point State Park where the race begins. By 8:45 a.m. we have found a decent spot under the trees and go get our race packets.
For the next hour and change we stretch, warm up in the beach area, drink, eat, drink some more. Chuck Nabit, race director, holds his pre-race meeting and goes over the rules and strategy. It’s now around 10 a.m. After that, Doug and I walk our stuff over to the drop off where they load all of your belongings into a truck that unloads at the finish. Very convenient.
For the next 45 minutes I just stay in the water, staying cool and loose. Stretching some, but mostly taking in the sights and sounds. The police chopper circling around us adds to the excitement of the moment.
Craig Dietz Did Make It Back!
Last year I talked about Craig Dietz (born without limbs) and the fact that he was not able to finish the race when that thunderstorm moved in, forcing the US Coast Guard to evacuate the last 73 remaining swimmers. He was 1/2 a mile away when they pulled him out!
Well, this year he was able to finish the race in 3:03:41 (coincidentally in my age bracket/group). He was given an early start. Wave 1 was set to go off at 11 a.m., wave 2 at 11:15 a.m. I think Craig started swimming around 10:45 to avoid the mad rush of flailing arms and legs typical of the start of the race – the Cuisinart start.
I did pass him, and I knew right away who he was. The only fellow with a blue cap, swimming on his back. Wave 1 wore yellow caps, wave two red caps. Truly awe inspiring. He is an inspiration to many and he set the stage before the rest of us got our chance to swim.
You can learn more about Craig by visiting his site HERE.
The Race Begins
Wave 1 takes off at 11 sharp. Time to line up and wait our turn. It’s a sea of chaos as you see this first wave take off, but slowly you start to see the crowd thin out as you get packs moving up and packs falling behind. I explained this last year, but they send you out in two waves. The slower wave of swimmers first and then the faster swimmers 15 minutes later. The goal for this is for the bulk of the swimmers to hit the center channel, the toughest part of the swim, around the same time, with the best support group available. That is . . . the US Coast Guard and other kayak, jet-ski and boating volunteers. Also, the point being that you hit that channel at it’s mildest tidal current (transitioning between flood and ebb).
I knew going into the race this year that the competition would be more intense than last year. Last year’s event coincided with the US Open Water Nationals, so a lot of the top swimmers had travelled to Florida to compete at nationals. I was impressed to see a strong pack of swimmers going for it early on. I want to say maybe 12 or so, but most of them started to fade before we even got under the first span to enter the middle of the bridges.
For almost the first two miles there was Andrew (who won the race), myself and I believe it would be Niklas Hammond or Brian Benda going at it. Not sure since I don’t know these guys. My strategy was to hang with this group of swimmers. They all had wetsuits and had the clear advantage over me. Sure, I won the event last year, but these guys are a lot tougher, so simply put I was going to try and hang with them as long as I could.
As the swim went on I was feeling amazingly good. My stroke was really smooth and long, efficient. Technique is key. My breathing was good, not forced and I wasn’t having any asthma symptoms. I figured I would continue on this course. The water was really smooth and calm compared to last year. Last year’s event the current in the center of the channel was real hard, forcing everyone to have to swim diagonally just to stay in the middle of the two spans and go forward. Rather than swim 4.4 miles, I think we all did 5+ miles last year.
It did get a tad tricky in two spots early on though. They are doing some maintenance work on the Bay Bridge and there were these two barges anchored on the side of two west bound pillars (northern span). They probably butted into the channel a good 30 feet or so (10 meters), so in those two instances it did create a bottleneck situation on the water. At both instances of this, we had already started passing folks from wave 1, so it was pretty crowded swimming past these barges. Some confusion and some punches here and there I’m sure. I think someone tried to grab my leg and pull on it, but I was too quick to let them grab on. That’s always fun. Do it again and I’ll smash my foot in your face.
Also, I mentioned the water was really smooth and easy to navigate, except for maybe two instances of having to fight through some pretty big swells. Both lasted a couple of short minutes, but then they passed and it was back to smooth sailing. Nothing too challenging. Again, compared to last year, the waters this year were really easy to swim and navigate. I’ll say the water visibility was worse than last year. I remember last year I could see my finger tips as I swam. This year I could barely make out my elbow as I pulled through the water. Also, we went through the 10,000 temperature changes that are typical of these events. You get these pockets of really warm water and then really cold water. Very interesting.
Breakaway Pelotón and Finish
Well, to borrow a term from the cycling world, probably after that second barge around two miles into the swim Andrew and I took off, leaving the rest of the fast swimmers behind us. We kept going, Andrew leading most of the way. A couple of times he tried to breakaway from me but I held fast and kept with him. I was not feeling very spent or fatigued. I didn’t start to tighten up until somewhere between the third and fourth mile, but I was consistently trying to stay with Andrew. We were getting closer to the finish and you can tell the two spans of the bridges tapering down to our level. A good 300-200 yards away from the buoys that signal where to turn and go under the eastbound bridge, Andrew kicked it up a notch. While trying to figure out where the buoys were and in that breakaway moment, he did get away from me enough to get some distance between us. It’s really hard after having swum close to 4 miles to change your pace. I did change the pace, just not as quick as he did.
We now had cleared the bridge and could see that little beach area some 600 yards or so away. Andrew was swimming like right next to the rocks to my left. I was further out and could kind of see him diagonally ahead of me. He was way ahead of me, but I did notice I was catching up ever so slightly. He was taking a beating I’d like to think from that sprint he had done earlier, but I never was able to catch him.
I came in 13 seconds behind Andrew, but I was very happy with the swim. I remember finishing last year and being really exhausted and tired, and completely sort of disoriented. I was really fatigued last year. Not so this year. I came out of the water without stumbling, with good balance and a clear head. I wasn’t exhausted or cursing the gods. I have to say I was feeling really good after such a strenuous swim.
I think the lack of a wetsuit, while definitely making me swim slower and with less buoyancy, did allow me to retain more fluids in my body. Hence the more lucid finish.
Last year and this year I had no aspirations of winning. At my age and level of training (limited training) I’m happy to just be competitive. Last year caught me by surprise, but I was realistic and realized there were several factors that contributed to that win. My mental aptitude and the fact that I was wearing a wetsuit were key. Also, the fact that those above mentioned US Nationals were taking place. I might also say that the fact that I was an unknown in the field came as a small bonus possibly.
I never really felt great about last year’s win though. There were plenty of things to be proud of. The fact that I only get about 7 hours of swimming a week and roughly 30,000 meters, plus having a FT job and kids to care for. I do find it pretty amazing that with the limited training I am able to perform at the level I do. It doesn’t compare to the monster workouts I used to do 12 years ago, and of course I am no where near that kind of shape, but considering the limited amount of time I do train, I do feel somewhat proud of last year’s and this year’s accomplishments.
Still, there was something unfulfilling about last year’s swim, and I tie it into this whole wetsuit controversy. All of the top finishers last year and this year wore wetsuits, with the exception this year of myself coming in second overall in the male category and coincidentally Abigail (Abby) Nunn also coming in second in the female category and 9th overall!! Very impressive. She was smoking fast! She will be doing a dream event of mine June 23 when she swims the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 28.5 mile course around Manhattan! You go girl! Wish I could be there.
After last year’s win, Brian Earley was nice enough to get in touch and congratulate me. We’ve been in touch here and there, but it didn’t take long before he hinted that I should swim without a wetsuit. I had already decided upon that after last year’s race.
So despite coming in second (let’s be honest, I am competitive and no one likes losing), I am happier with my swim this year compared to that abnormal win from last year (6 minute lead over second place). There’s something really fulfilling about open water swimming, regardless of placement, but I think part of that challenge is to test yourself and push your own limits.
Not everyone is capable of doing these open water events and I understand some might need the wetsuit. It helps drive registration numbers up, but I think the true competitors and enthusiasts out there know a true skin swim from a wetsuit enhanced swim. If you want to add to that debate, head on over to Evan Morrison’s blog at FreshWaterSwimmers.com. He got some nice traffic on his site yesterday.
As for me, I’m just happy I get to do the Bay Swim and any other event I might sign up for. For too long I allowed myself and the disappointment of the 2000 Sydney Games to drive me away from the one thing that a am somewhat good at. It took 10 years and putting on a ton of weight to realize that I needed to get back in shape and get healthy. One thing led to the next and that competitive drive started to flourish.
But it’s not so much about competing against others, as it is about racing yourself, challenging yourself and your limits, and putting your skills and mental health to the test. I think distance swimmers and open water swimmers are an interesting lot. In a sense we’re masochists. We endure long stretches of pain and exhaustion, but in the end I never feel more alive than when I am close to failure. It is hard to describe and maybe worth a future posting. I would love to pick the brains of some people like Evan himself who is an ultra marathon swimmer, Doug who’s crossed the Bay 20 times, and more.
Thank You All
Thanks for reading and I appreciate any feedback you may have, likes and shares, etc.
Again, congrats to Doug Saar and Craig Dietz who both accomplished so much this year. Also to Abby Nunn for an amazing skin swim. ; )
A big thanks to Chuck Nabit, the race director, and Linda Toretsky, Swim Processing Coordinator. They run an amazing charity event, and finally to Brian Earley for starting this back in 1982.
And of course to the boss-lady and kids.