Chesapeake Bay Swim – Race Report

THE RACE: 4.4 miles in the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis. Most of the race takes place between the spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but you start at Sandy Point State Park on the mainland, swim south and under one span of the bridge, cross the bay between the spans, then swim out under the other span and another short (well, perhaps a quarter-mile) distance to the finish on the Eastern shore side.

ESSENTIAL THINGS TO KNOW: (1) This is a wetsuit-legal swim, and in fact wearing a wetsuit is encouraged, as the water can be in the low 60s, though this year the temperature was around 70 degrees. I say “around,” because I hit pockets that definitely felt a lot colder. At first I wanted to be a purist in the spirit of the hard-core, Channel-swimming types, and go only in my swimsuit, but when I read that most of the swimmers wear wetsuits, and that no time distinctions are made between wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers, and when I considered that I can get hypothermic in the grocery-store produce aisle in July, I decided I’d wear a wetsuit too.

(2) The whole swim is timed to take advantage of the point where one tide is ending and the reverse tide beginning, so the currents are at their least powerful (in early days of the swim, before it was so timed, things could get ugly; as the Bay Swim’s web site notes: In 1992, swimmers encountered strong currents and scores had to be plucked from the bay. Only 48 out of 331 entrants finished. In 1991, 720 swimmers out of 884 had to be taken from the water by rescue boats.)

These days thanks to the timing with the tides, the majority of the swimmers complete the race.  However, because of the timing, the start time changes from year to year.  In ’07 it was around 7:30 AM, and this year it was 10:00 AM.  There are two heats in this event, based on whether you anticipate swimming the distance in more than 2 hrs 30 minutes or less than that time (the second heat is the faster heat). There are also time limits for each mile, though they’re pretty generous, to make sure that all swimmers are on track to finish before the tide really picks up.

(3) The Bay swim is very popular, but limited to about 600 swimmers, so entry is by lottery, which takes place some time during the fall. This is not an event for the last-minute and the hesitant-to-commit. If your entry is picked, you have something like 48 hours to sign on and pay, or the lottery moves on to another round. I’m one of those people whose finger always hovers uncertainly over the “SUBMIT” button, but when the e-mail came through saying I’d made the first-round pick, I was online and entering my credit card number before the hour was up.

There is also a 1 mile race, which is not lottery; entry stays open longer, but this also fills up.

RACE ORGANIZATION: Excellent. There are nearly as many volunteers as participants, and that means many, many boats in the water, from kayakers paddling along with the swimmers to power boats stationed just on the outer edges of the bridge spans. I saw at least one or two boats stationed between every bridge support. The race course is closed to all other boats during the swim, which is impressive considering this is a major shipping channel. Nice to know you wouldn’t look up and find an ocean freighter bearing down upon you.

Two feed boats are stationed along the course with water, vanilla wafers, bananas, things like that. You are, by the way, allowed to hang on both the feed boats and the support kayaks as long as you don’t make forward progress (in some OW swims, you’re disqualified if you touch the boat). For the record, I stuck Gu in my wetsuit so I didn’t use the feed boats. They aren’t necessarily THAT easy to spot (they’re little Boston Whalers)and several Bay veterans I spoke to when preparing for the race said they’d done the entire swim without seeing either one of the feed boats, so it’s good to be prepared not to need them.

At every stage of the event, things were well-staffed and ran very smoothly.

RACE DAY: For the 4.4 swim, you park on the Eastern Shore side at a Park-N-Ride and are transported back across the Bay Bridge by yellow school bus to the start on the mainland. The Park-n-Ride was already pretty crowded by the time I got there around 7 AM, with a longish line of swimmers waiting for the buses. Nice feature for a crowd in serious hydration mode — plenty of Porta Potties set up at the Park-n-Ride.

My seatmate for the rather sweaty ride (school bus without AC + temps already in the high 80s) back across the bridge was a veteran of a number of swims, so I asked for any last-second advice. Can’t remember any of what he said except that when you get to the finish, swim as far in as possible. It gets shallow, he said, and too many people end up standing up and trying to run to the finish, which is slower than swimming right up to the end. Fortunately, I’m short—no seven-foot wingspan on me—so I can take full strokes in knee-deep water.

At Sandy Point, there is a large grassy field with a handful of runty pine trees and several bath-houses with running water and all the, ahem, modern conveniences, again a nice thing for 600 people drinking fluids by the liter.

Body marking takes place at Sandy Point, and here you are also handed a small packet that includes your timing chip, a numbered swim cap color-coded to your heat, and your race number.

The slower heat is the first heat, and that’s the one I’d entered myself in, because while I can do the distance in a pool in well under 2 hrs 30 min, I really had no idea how different my time might be in open water, with currents, chop, etc., and I really didn’t want to be the last person hanging far off the back of the faster heat.

So I had an orange cap, and we were instructed to place our race numbers under our caps, and our timing chips on the ankle (under or over the wetsuit, if you were wearing one. I chose “under” so I didn’t have to worry about the strap coming off during the swim). The race organizers are very insistent about the cap, chip, and race number under the cap, all for safety reasons. They want to account for every swimmer going into the water and coming out.

Everyone lounged about in the field, eating and further hydrating. I ate a Cliff Bar (at this point I was so sick of eating from a week of carbo-loading that it was several days before I had even the vaguest appetite again, but it did pay off in the swim. No bonking.). A few people, me among them, went for a warm-up swim during this time. I slathered on a lot of sunscreen too (not enough–I still ended up w/ sunburned shoulders). I also smeared on nearly half a tube of Body Glide (thanks, Mary Call!) at every conceivable chafing point, with the happy result that the only place that ended up chafed was the inconceivable chafing point of the inside of my upper left arm, a spot I didn’t cover. I’m guessing too much crossover in my stroke is to blame; I didn’t notice it at all in the swim, but afterwards I very much did. It left a big red welt that hurt like a bad sunburn. Therefore I advise generous applications of BodyGlide in all conceivable and a few inconceivable locations. Some other swimmers wore close-fitting UnderArmor t-shirts under their wetsuits to prevent chafing.

You can bring a bag with you to Sandy Point with whatever you want/need pre-race—iPods, food, beverage, clothing, flip-flops, car keys, etc—and before the race, the organizers give you a trash bag with your number on it, in which all your gear will be transported back over to the finish line, where it will be kept in a secure area until you pick it up. Nice feature!

Finally, there were pre-race announcements as everyone struggled into their wetsuits (great, gouged a hole in mine, and after I’d trimmed all my fingernails to avoid exactly that fate), and then the first heat entered into the fenced-off start area, crossing the chip mat as we did so.

It’s an in-water start, with everyone standing around, a short countdown, and then off we went.

Having participated in the Endorphin Fitness Open Water camp this spring, I was fully prepared for the opening body scrum, though I did take a sharp elbow to the nose in the first few hundred meters. We were aiming for a couple of buoys that marked where we were advised, but not required, to pass under the bridge, but honestly I couldn’t spot them once we were swimming, so I just followed the crowd. It was pretty rough swimming—lots of bumping into people and swimming over legs and being swum over, and no stretching out and hitting your stride—until we reached the bridge and the swimmers started spreading out.

After that…well, I just kept swimming. My goal was to get to the other side in under 2 hours 30 minutes. The water was a little choppy, and I eventually discovered that long, elegant pool strokes aren’t all that effective when you’re being sloshed this way and that and up and down. When the faster heat started passing us (passing us! and they started after us!), my read was that they tended towards a fast turnover, so I tried just turning over faster in the latter part of the swim. I hadn’t really trained for a fast turnover, so my shoulders did tire out, but I think it was more effective.

There was a strong enough current for the first half of my swim that I had to swim on a diagonal. If you go under either span of the bridge, you’re pulled, so I wanted to stay far away from the north span, towards which the current was pushing me.

Orange inflatable balls mark miles 1 through 3. I think there’s one at mile 4 also, but honestly, I can’t really remember. At the mile 3 buoy, another swimmer told me “One and a half miles to go,” and after that I was just focused on getting through that last 1.4 miles.

Bay veteran Mike Stott had told me that when he did the swim, he drove over the bridge noting what parts of the bridge corresponded with each mile on his odometer, so I had made that mental note as well, though I found (surprise!) that everything looked a lot different from in the water, but it did help give me another sense of what kind of progress I was making. More generally—once the bridge starts sloping down, you know you’re heading into the (long) home stretch.

The last 1.4 miles did feel the longest, and I passed through that “If I ever get to the end, nothing on Earth will convince me to do this again,” mental stage, such vows entirely forgotten, of course, upon reaching the finish. When I swam out from under the bridge and around a little corner of land, though, it was much further to the end than I’d expected (maybe a quarter mile?), so I had to put my head down and keep reminding myself to finish strong (this is the part in any event or hard workout when I start saying to myself, “A quarter mile? How hard can that be? 200 yards, how hard can that be?” So even if it is, in fact, pretty hard, somehow that little mental pep talk helps. Alternate mantra: “You’ve given birth. How hard can this be?).

And I did manage to finish strong, putting on a sprint for the last 100-200 yards, swimming all the way to the end until I was only 5 or 6 feet from shore. Turned out I seemed to have forgotten how to move forward while vertical—I stumbled across the finish line thinking I was going to fall flat on my face, though somehow, I didn’t.

Once you cross the finish, they get your chip, take your race number from under your cap, and help you unzip your wetsuit because, I suspect, most of us at that point are too half-witted with fatigue to remember to do that, and then I funneled into a line of swimmers all getting ice-cold water or soft drinks from big bins (wonderful!), and sandwiches or donuts or chips (blah–no thanks–I didn’t really want to eat anything), and this line led eventually to a table where we were handed the swag bag with the T-shirt (you gotta EARN your t-shirt in this race).

Which was….memorable. And will come in handy if I ever attend a Van Halen concert.

FINISH TIME: 2:22.58–under 2:30! This placed me: 14 out of 34 in women 45-49; 90 out of 195 in women overall, and 304 out of 602 total finishers, though if one should want to quibble, which I do, I shared the same finish time as #303, the no doubt delightful and personable Richard Wallace of Manalapan, NJ, though I did not have the pleasure of making his acquaintance.

Of course, the top finishers, including the first place finisher in women 45-49, knocked this swim off in well under 2 hours. The winner overall was an 18-yr-old who’d graduated from high school in NC the day before, driven all night, slept a few hours in his car, then hopped in the water for a little swim. Ah, youth.

Now, of course, I really want to do this swim again, and train for speed and perhaps a faster turnover. Stay tuned for tips from some speedy Bay Swim veterans.

In case you want to know: Though I’ve always been a perfectly competent swimmer, as of a year ago, I’d never swum in a competitive event in my life. Indeed, a year ago was the first time I’d ever even swum a continuous mile (in the James River “Splash” 1-miler, part of the James River Adventure Games). I don’t swim with a Master’s group, and I only swim three days a week, so I made up my own training plan based on the guiding principle that the most important goal would be to get across and finish, so I’d focus on distance first and speed, well… I’d focus on distance.

I’ve been putting in a dutiful fifty minutes, three days a week in the pool for a couple of years, but when I set my sights on the Bay swim, I started training for it in September, before I even knew whether I’d get in. I figured I didn’t have the luxury of a lot of years and miles of training to rely upon, so I’d better get working on it. By early November (when I signed up for the Bay lottery) I’d worked up to three miles. By the end of December, I’d put in some 80 miles in the pool since September. Sometime in early 2008 I gave up bothering with any stroke but freestyle. By February I’d knocked off my first 4.4 distance. I tried to keep up a fairly regular “long day” when I felt like it/didn’t oversleep/didn’t run out of steam at mile two/etc.

What I’m saying, in short, is that mine was not a rigorously structured, highly disciplined training program. On the other hand, except when I was feeling really slothful (always a challenge to work up a robust level of enthusiasm for jumping in the pool at 7:30 on a January morning), I rarely put in less than two miles on any day I was in the pool. More experienced and no doubt better swimmers have told me that it’s not so much about distance but about doing a lot of shorter, faster sets, but I found that:

(1) it’s somehow easier to wuss out and cut your workout short when you’re doing sets, whereas when I set my mind, “I’m going to do 4000 yards,” and then put my head down and kept swimming, that sheer cussed determination would keep me going all the way to 4000; and

(2) I wanted to feel really, really confident I could swim 4.4 miles without stopping.

WHAT I DIDN’T EXPECT: (1) Swimming the Bay was significantly harder than swimming the same distance in a pool. I hear you all saying “Well, duh!” but nevertheless I was surprised that it was notably harder, not just somewhat harder.

(2) The water was not as salty as I feared it would be—the Bay tends to get less saline as you move north, but the actual degree of salinity can vary widely depending on how much fresh water has been moving into the Bay from the major tributary rivers. This year, at least, the water didn’t seem very salty at all. However, there were frequent patches where the water smelled unpleasantly of gasoline. Perhaps from all the boats stationed along the course. No jellyfish though, and no other signs of life except fellow swimmers. I’m sure all sea creatures stayed far away from all our noise and disturbance.

So that’s the Bay Swim, 2008, as concisely as possible—until I think of other things to add—as experienced by a first-timer and novice open-water swimmer.


One response to “Chesapeake Bay Swim – Race Report

  1. Thanks for the race report. What a great read for people about to take it on for the first time. I wish I could have read it before the swim! And what an impressive time!
    Anyway, it was great to meet you at the race. If you want to read my longer (is that possible?), mushier version, you can find it here:

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