What can I say about the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Swim, other than hot damn…
I knew it was going to be trouble when at 0630, I opened the back door to let the hooligans out and felt like I was stepping into the pool locker room after the age groupers have used up all the hot water in the showers. When it’s that steamy that early in the morning, things are only going to get worse.
We left the house later than planned, so by the time I got to the beach at Sandy Point, shade was at a serious premium. I was able to wedge myself in under a tree with some other L4 swimmers (thanks guys!), munched on a PB&J, and tried to stay hydrated.
View of the race course from Sandy Point State Park
At 11:30, about 45 minutes before the start, the air temperature was 80-something and rising, and the water in the bay hit 76 degrees (officially – my internal thermometer pegged it a degree or two warmer). I sat through the pre-race meeting, watching numerous other swimmers yanking themselves into their wetsuits, and waited for the announcement that due to the warm conditions, wetsuits were either discouraged or not allowed. It didn’t come. There’s an interesting discussion on the MSF forum about this; there are arguments for and against the safety issues involved, but let me just say here that following Fran Crippen’s heat related death in an open water swim, it stuns me that such a well-organized, safety conscious race would allow wetsuits in those conditions.
Eventually, after much bullhorn-amplified yelling, the first wave minced their way over blazing hot sand, through the cattle chute, and to the water line. The start seemed to take forever to come, and I cringed for the wetsuit wearers as they stood in the sun, wrapped from neck to ankles in their layer of black neoprene. Once they had waded their way into the bay (literally – I was surprised at how many people didn’t actually start swimming right away) it was the second wave’s turn to blister our feet on the way through the chute. More than one person had to sprint for the water, me included, to cool a nasty case of hotfoot.
I chose a spot along the shore that was relatively close to the stone jetty, but not so close that I would end up jammed up against it if I were pushed to the right by some large steamroller type guys. As I stood there, trying to choose my line to the buoys, a group of about five young teen boys crowded around me and started to edge in front of me. They were clearly competitive swimmers, and completely confident that they were faster than me. I tried to refrain from rolling my eyes too loudly, because that’s just not polite. But I did take note of one of their numbers –easy to remember because it was one up from mine- figuring that they would all be in the same age group, so I could check their results after the race. Not because I’m competitive. I was just curious.
The countdown started, the bullhorn blared, and we were off. I’m proud of myself, because I actually managed to stay relaxed and not sprint too hard in the first 100 meters. The water felt warm at that point, but not unbearably so. The scrum wasn’t too terrible either, with only a few mild knocks here and there, in spite of the crowding. What wasn’t so good was the fact that my goggles started leaking almost immediately.
We rounded the buoys, turned under the north span, and started the long trek between the bridges to Kent Island, and for once, I managed to tuck myself in behind someone of a similar speed at catch a bit of a draft. The first mile went pretty smoothly, with the pack strung out in a bit of a line that hugged the northern span due to the curve the bridges take to the north before straightening out. I had forgotten exactly how long it takes to get around that curve, but once we straightened out and were pointed directly at Kent Island, I told myself that that was just a warmup, and now the race was beginning.
I didn’t see a buoy marking the first mile, which didn’t bother me too much that early in the race. What did bother me were the swarms of little stinging things I swam through. I’m not sure what they were exactly. They weren’t big enough to be jelly fish, but they sure got my attention, especially when several ended up down my suit. Thankfully, they thinned out and disappeared after a couple hundred meters or so, but they had distracted me enough that I realized I had drifted southward toward the other bridge span. The next two miles were spent nervously eyeballing that span to make sure I didn’t drift away with the outgoing tide. It wasn’t until after mile three that I finally felt like I could swim more straight than diagonally.
Once past the 3 mile buoy, it became a mental game – I knew I had less than 25 minutes to swim until I hit mile 4 and the turn to go beneath the southern span and out towards the beach. The water was getting bathtub warm at this point, with a few jolts of cold water at random intervals. I saw a wetsuit swimmer ahead of me and tried to put on some speed to catch him, but at that point, I didn’t have much speed to put on (which is really not much different than usual). On the other hand, I saw a few red caps from my wave about 20 yards off to the left and realized that I was steadily creeping past them. Once we hit mile four and headed toward the finish, I wasn’t able to see much of anything anymore. My goggles had leaked the entire race, and my eyes were stinging and watery. I relied on the stone jetty to stay in a straight line as I worked my way the last 700 meters or so from the bridge to the beach. I gracefully exited the water in an almost straight line, without falling over (I thought about it for a minute, though), at about 1:46. I was a bit surprised – I’m not sure what I was expecting for a finish time, but I also placed better than I expected, especially considering the conditions.
There were a few surprises during the race this year. Unlike any other year, I not only saw but was in a good position to stop at the two feed boats they positioned near miles two and three. I got a shot glass worth of warm water at each one, unwilling to stop any longer, but it seemed to be enough. I also was surprised to not have any sort of a bonk throughout the entire event. I had tried that weird superstarch stuff, drinking about 16oz of it 30 minutes before the start, and I was shocked to not need either of the gels I had stuffed into my suit. There was no intestinal agitation, either, which was a huge bonus.
Finally, when I changed out of my suit after the race, I found this lovely surprise in the lining of my suit:
Why you should never wear a light colored suit for an open water swim.
It was a difficult race, which it always is, but the hardest part was waiting around in the heat for the awards ceremony. At that point, my northern European heritage was thoroughly mad at me for spending so much time in decidedly non-northern European atmosphere. I’m hoping two things for next year – first, that the race organizers decide to finally split the results between wetsuit wearers and non-wetsuit wearers, and second, that they order up some non-stifling weather. A rain storm would be nice too, as long as we’re making requests…
Oh, and those teenage boys who crowded in front of me at the start were only 14 years old. And I beat all but one of them. Not that I’m competitive, I swear.
So, the 2015 GCBS is in the books…next up, the 5K Steelman in Pennsylvania.