The Chesapeake Bay Swim is a unique race. How many people can say they swam between the spans of a huge bridge, across a major shipping channel, and to the other side of the Chesapeake Bay? That’s just one reason it’s one of my favorite races (except for a certain point in the race when I HATE it. But more on that later). The huge, looming, elephant in the room question for me before the event was whether or not to wear a wetsuit. The water temperature was at that borderline stage where I could go with a wetsuit and get the advantage of increased buoyancy and reduced drag, but risk overheating. Or I could go without and not have to worry about overheating but then face a somewhat tougher, slower swim. I haunted the Weather Underground marine report page and watched the temperature fluctuate for a whole week before making my decision when I saw it hit 74. There was no way I would make it across the bay without a catastrophic meltdown if I wore a wetsuit.
So, skins it was. We got to the race a bit early because Nerfy and Sister were doing the 1 mile, which started earlier than the 4.4. After the trip back over the bridge to the start, I set up camp under a tree, got in line for packet pickup and numbering, then settled in to wait. Until a non-swimming family decided to fire up a grill five feet away and smoked me out. I pulled up stakes and found a a couple fellow CUBU swimmers to chill with, and was able to relax a bit before the final scramble to get in a warmup, hit the bathroom, put on my fifth layer of sunscreen, pack all my stuff, and take my bag to the bag drop before the start. During the wait, I had a few interesting moments when two guys in short succession approached me and asked if I was Grappledunk. Why yes, I am! It was nice to meet you Ruffwater and Rich! I hope to see you at some more races in the near future.
My favorite part of this race has always been the start – the sight of hundreds of people lined up along the water’s edge, all in bright red or yellow caps, the sounds of cars and trucks crossing over the bridge and honking their support, the excitement of the countdown, the air horn start, and the mass of bodies surging into the water to start their adventure. Since I was in the second wave, I was able to enjoy the first wave’s start before crossing over the timing mats (someone was writing down the numbers of non wetsuit swimmers – sweet!) and beginning the ritual goggle fidgets. Ah, yes, the goggle fidgets. Some of you may have the same problem. I have to endlessly fidget and fuss with my goggles until the very last minute because they never sit right or feel right, or I know they’ll fall off. Then we start, they’re fine, and I forget all about it. Or maybe that’s just me.
Mile 1: (Soundtrack in my head: “I Don’t Wanna Be in Love” – Good Charlotte)
The start was not quite the violent scrum it has been in the past, but the scrum part lasted longer than usual, at least where I was swimming. We were crammed pretty close together for a while after clearing the north span and turning east. When the bodies finally spread out, I tried to lengthen my stroke out a bit. I made sure not to get sucked into the ‘sprint the first 1000 meters’ mentality because I knew my training wasn’t what it should have been and I’d be sorry later if I wrecked my arms now. The current felt light, and I tried to maintain a position at the center of the bridges until the bridges began to curve. Then I moved a bit north and cut as much of the curve as I could without getting too close to the span. Believe it or not, I think I actually caught some first wave swimmers within the first mile. They started fifteen minutes ahead of us, so I think they were in for a long day.
Mile 2: (Soundtrack in my head: “Dragula” – Rob Zombie)
When I hit the first mile marker, I tried to pick up my stroke count a bit and ramp up the effort. For about half a mile, I and a non-wetsuit guy went stroke for stroke about ten feet apart. We were eyeballing each other when we breathed the same direction. He’d pick up the pace and pull ahead, and I’d speed up and catch him. Then I’d pull ahead a bit, and he’d speed up to catch me. That worked well until the swells really started to pound us, and it was hard to keep track of where people were. I’m not sure if he eventually dropped me or vice versa, but it was nice to have the company for a while. Toward the middle of mile two, I could swear the ebb tide started pulling me toward the southern span. That surprised me because the ebb tide wasn’t supposed to kick in until later in the race – but then, maybe I was swimming lopsided. Whatever the reason, I remember I looked up at one point and realized I was much closer to the southern span than I expected. Some diagonal swimming rectified that, and I was much more mindful of the current for the rest of the race.
Mile 3: (Soundtrack in my head: “The Beautiful People” – Marilyn Manson)
During mile three, there were some interesting moments of large rollers, heavy chop, or both, and a few moments of relative calm. During those moments of relative calm, my stroke felt good, my arms were holding up, and my back, which tends to hurt from all the sighting during open water, didn’t. It was an effort to keep my stroke count up through the rough water, however. There was one notable instance of inadvertent water consumption that gave me a few moments of concern – salt water never goes down well, especially in the midst of athletic endeavor. Thankfully, the water didn’t re-enter the bay. Unfortunately, because I am never able to find the feeding boats, that was all the water I had the whole race.
Mile 4: (Soundtrack in my head: “Never Gonna Stop” – Rob Zombie)
At this point I thought I was never gonna stop because the mile markers seems farther and farther apart. I still tried to keep my stroke rate up, but the waves were taking their toll. Finally, about halfway through mile four, I hit the wall. This was a hardcore, sudden, physical reaction that hit me like a ton of bricks. My arms froze nearly in place, and I could feel my blood sugar plummet. I felt weak and slightly dizzy, and it was a chore just to lift my arms out of the water and put them back down again. The combination of no feeding during the race and insufficient training beforehand all came to bear here. This is the part where I wonder why I’m doing this to myself. What possible reason could I have for torturing myself like this? I remember clearly thinking, “I’m not doing this again. This sucks. This absolutely sucks.” In spite of that, there was no way I was going to stop. The sight that really kept me going was seeing the bridges descend closer to water level. I wasn’t there yet, but I was getting there.
Mile 4.4: (Soundtrack in my head: “I’m So Sick” – Flyleaf)
Although the saltwater I swallowed hadn’t returned to the bay, it was making it’s presence known. The bright orange buoy that marked the end of mile 4 was thankfully followed in relatively close succession by the multicolored beach ball buoys that marked the right turn to exit the bridge spans to the south. Once I made the turn, the water warmed up remarkably (not the best thing for me) and the swells and chop subsided (a good thing for sure). With the end literally in sight and the conditions easing a bit, I made an effort to pull my stroke together and not look like a drowner as I approached the finish. I dragged my carcass across the timing mats in 2:04. Yikes! Not so quick.
Yet, looking at the times of the other competitors, and figuring that with a wetsuit I’d gain a few minutes on my time, it wasn’t really all that bad. Not great, but not bad. I finished the race, didn’t need to visit the medical tent, and I *gasp* placed second in my age group. Really? After posting a two-hour-plus time? Yep, I guess so. Go figure.
Post Race: (Soundtrack in my head: “Who Let the Dogs Out” – I don’t know who sings it. But the DJ played it over. And over. And over. Holy crap. Play some Audioslave or something. Please??)
Sister and Nerfy were waiting for me by the cattle chute that the organizers herd the swimmers through at the finish. They had considered bringing me a beer at the finish but decided against it. Drat. The orange slices, however, were heavenly after 4.4 miles and a large mouthful of bay water. The GCBS team pulls off the best post race spread of all the open water races I’ve been to. The family camped out under a tree until the awards were handed out. I had a nice chat for a few minutes with a former swim coach from my age group days, then it was off to Middleton’s in Annapolis to celebrate my dad’s birthday.
The organizers posted non-wetsuit results this morning, which I think is the first time they’ve done that. I feel a bit better about my race after seeing where I finished among the skins crowd and after a night to sleep on it. The thing about this race is that you tend to forget the pain, but the sense of excitement, fun, and accomplishment remains. And in spite of what you might have heard me say during mile four, lottery gods willing, I’m going to do it again next year.