Jack King Ocean Swim ’09 – Race Report

Who would have thought conditions could change so dramatically in the course of a 1-mile swim?  Sunday’s Jack King Ocean Swim in Virginia Beach was a classic lesson in the realities of open water swimming: assume nothing, expect anything.

But first, a quick overview (for more detailed points, read on to the full race report below):

The Event: a one mile, point-to-point ocean swim from 24th street to 38th street in Virginia Beach.

Also a USA swimming (youth 11-18) 1 mile swim is held simultaneously, though with a different start time (this weekend, the youth heats began going off 15 minutes after the masters start).

The Course: Nothing complicated here.  A straight one mile.  Mass start from behind the floating buoy anchored at 24th street, swim north along the beach to 38th, swim around the end buoy, in to the beach, then run a short distance to the finish, where you’re handed a card marking your order of finish.

USMS sanctioned event? Yes.  You’ll need a USMS license or you can buy a USMS one-event pass.  The youth race is open only to USA Swimming licensed swimmers.

Wetsuit legal? You can wear a wetsuit, but you won’t be eligible for an official time or award.

Entry fee: For the masters race, in 2009, $25 for registrations before June 5, $30 thereafter, $50 on race day. (USMS one-event pass is an additional fee).

Qualifying time/swim required and/or or seed time requested? No and no.

Novice friendly? Depends on how you define “novice.”  No qualifying time required, and it’s only a mile. On the other hand,  you should be an experienced and confident enough swimmer that you’re ready to mix it up with body contact, wind, waves and current in ocean water.  And that mile can take a lot longer than you expect.

How we trained: This race was a week after the Great Chesapeake Bay swim.  We weren’t so much training for Jack King as we were hoping we’d recover enough from the Bay swim.

What you might have to contend with: As noted—wind, waves, current, and a scrum of fellow swimmers.  This was the most physical race I’ve swum in the 2 years I’ve been racing.

Also, godawful beach traffic on the drive home (consider taking the alternate 664 tunnel).

Nice features: Well, it’s the beach.  Some people make a weekend, or at least a day of it. Allison gives a thumbs-up to the post-race food, though takes issue with what seems to be a trend towards low-calorie/artificially sweetened beverages in the post-race drinks.

Also, public restrooms at the start location, and convenient nearby parking, although you’ll have to hoof it back from the finish line.

Also, trucks were provided to transport gear bags to the finish.  This was a nice service, but the trucks were parked on the other side of the boardwalk with no signs or anything clearly marking them as the designated trucks.  There was also some confusion as to whether there were supposed to be separate trucks for the youth and masters swimmers.  In  the end, Allison and I both tossed our bags in what we hoped were the right trucks, and happily did find our gear safely arrived at the end of the race.  However, these bags aren’t supervised in any manner, so I wouldn’t advise putting anything really valuable in them.

Caroline’s Race Report 09: Allison and I both signed on for Jack King, along with Elizabeth (who is falling prey to our scheme to rope her in as official OWSwim photographer).  Since we’d all clawed our way across the Chesapeake Bay in the 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim a week earlier,  I wouldn’t say any of us had had a robust week of training or tapering.  Mostly, we were all just recovering.

The forecast for Sunday, the day of the Jack King race, was improving over most of the week: diminishing likelihood of storms, wave heights predicted 1-2 feet.   Then, towards the end of the week the forecast changed.  Wind 15-20 mph with higher gusts were a possibility.  Wave heights 2-3 feet.  I was having mixed feelings about another race against adverse conditions.

On Sunday morning at 6AM though, while the forecast was continuing to look questionable (and now calling for even higher waves), the beach cam showed calm, placid waters and the race was still on.

So, OK.  It’s only a mile. Self and family drove to VA Beach arriving around 8:30 AM to find continued calm water and wind and people gathering on beach.

I’d put in three short swims during the week, the longest of which was only 2000 meters.  The day before Jack King I’d done 800 yards and felt like a perfect slug, plus my appetite had been off all week (I had the same experience after the Bay swim last year. I think it’s a combination of both general fatigue and food fatigue after a week of pre-Bay-swim constant eating), so I had no real expectations for this swim one way or the other.  I might feel great, I might feel terrible.  Usually, I don’t really know until I start to swim.

But I had my two not-terribly-secret Secret Weapons on hand: pre-race power beverage (coffee, milk, Ovaltine) and Roctane (new from Gu, and good stuff! Stay tuned for our Roctane report). Oh, and I ate a Cliff bar too, and breafast at 6 AM was my usual pre-swim/pre-race combo of oatmeal,raisins, and banana.

Before the Race
After on-the-beach registration and some general standing around, I went for a short warmup swim.  My son, an age-group swimmer, was doing the youth race, so we hit the water together.  It was cool but not cold (temp around 70 degrees) and conditions were absolutely perfect.  There was a slow, undulating swell, the water surface was glassy smooth, and there appeared to be very little current.  We swam comfortably for a few minutes then exited to be ready for the pre-race briefing.  I took my Roctane about 10-15 minutes before the swim was supposed to start.

In the briefing, one helpful piece of information for people thinking about this swim: the race director said that you could, if you felt you needed a break, exit the water then re-enter and continue to swim.  If you bailed out of the race, you were to notify one of the lifeguards, but simply getting out of the water would not disqualify you from completing.  Later I saw some swimmers walking in the surf, and this also seems to be acceptable within the race’s rules.

The masters entered the water just before 10 for a 10 AM mass in-water start.  The age-group/youth swimmers would have staggered beach starts: 10:15 for 15-18, 10:20 for 13-14, and 10:25 for 11-12.

We had a short wait in the water and the race was off.  With the beach and all the hotels on your left, sighting ought to have been a relatively easy matter, but it was hard to gauge with each quick grab of breath to the left just how far I was from the beach, and whether I was swimming anything like a straight line.  I’m a bilateral breather, so I tried to keep myself in the middle of the swimmers as my best hope for swimming a straight line.

Pardon my elbow, again
This was a very physical race—it never really seemed to thin out, and at one point I had a woman on my left who was either (a) trying to draft off me, (b) just oblivious, or (c) actually trying to be aggressive with me.  She kept bumping into me and whacking me with her arm and swimming half over me.  Look, lady, I’m not really the competition you need to worry about. Eventually I got tired of all this World Wrestling Federation business and dropped behind her and swam off to her left.

I also found myself swimming on other people’s toes at various points. The challenge with drafting in a race like this is that you have swimmers of all different speeds, and it’s obviously no advantage to draft on someone slower than you are.  I can’t say I’ve really mastered the art of drafting anyway, but if I’m swimming fast enough to catch and begin running over someone then I move around and keep going.

Someone Cranks Up the Wave Machine (and the wind, and the curent)
Unless I look at my watch—and I didn’t bother in this race—I never have any idea of how long I’ve been swimming, but at some point it seemed to me that conditions were changing.  And indeed, that was the case—the wind was picking up and shifting to the north, pushing the waves towards us.  The waves were becoming larger and the water rougher, with whitecaps and spray, and the current was becoming stronger.  It wasn’t just that conditions got worse.  They got a lot worse, going from ideal to poor—or at least much more challenging—in very short order.

Jack King waves

This photo doesn’t really do justice to what it felt like in the water, but you can see that it is messy and whitecapped, which is not at all  what the water was like when we started the race.

I put my head down and just kept swimming, trying to keep my turnover as fast as possible in the conditions, and constantly looking ahead for any sign of the buoy.  Because the water had become pretty rough and choppy, it was hard to sight very far ahead, but eventually I caught a quick flash of orange maybe 200-300 yards ahead.  It seemed to take a very long time to get to the buoy—I believe that in fact I was making slower and slower progress as conditions continued to deteriorate—but finally I arrived, and without bothering with any fancy turns, just sloshed around it and swam hard for the shore.  I didn’t get smashed by any waves during the exit, fortunately, and I ran up the beach to the finish where I was handed a card with my order-of-finish number (61) on it.  I turned the card in at a table at the end of the finish chute (masters swimmers were funneled to the left, youth to the right).

I felt fine physically during the race (thank you Roctane), but my time of 38:10, although it placed me fourth in my age group, was definitely slow for me, even allowing for a certain amount of open water wobble and so forth. (Click on the link for PDF of final race results, including men’s and women’s overall order-of-finish:2009 Jack King Final Results).  In the pool I can do a mile in under a half hour (yes I know the Olympic committee won’t be calling me, but I have steadily lowered my pool times in the 2 years I’ve been swimming seriously). I have to assume the change in conditions was a significant factor in my time.

My impression is that the slower you went, the slower you went. That is, the fastest swimmers managed to complete the race under the best conditions, but if you were in the middle or further back, as I was,  when conditions began to deteriorate, then it was going to take you much longer to get to the end.

Here’s a look at the wind data for Sunday (from Weather Underground).  This data is from the Oceana Naval Station which is further south down the beach, so assume this lags a little behind what was happening to us:

Weather Jack King

As you can see, the wind began picking up around 9:45 and increased dramatically over the next 90 minutes.  It also changed directions, shifting from the west to the north.  The waves, which before the race had been rolling in pretty much straight on, started coming in much more at an angle from the north, and were much rougher as well.

Allison took this picture after the race: the sign reads “if RED flag flying, water is DANGEROUS.”  There were still swimmers—including youth swimmers—in the lifeguardwater at this point, and the wind was so strong that the sand was blowing horizontally and really stinging. This brings up an issue worth considering in regard to open water swims in general and this swim in particular, which combined both a masters and a youth race, and that’s the question of safety and risk in OW swimming.  We’ll look at that in an upcoming post. (We’ll also do a follow-up post to talk some about finish-time comparisons between this and past years)

But first, here’s Allison’s report (yep, this is a long post—wait until we do the Bay swim report):

Allison’s Race Report
I’ve heard that the critical night’s sleep comes two nights before the race, not the night before. Due to exhaustion from the previous week and a grueling Chesapeake Bay Swim the Sunday before Jack King, I got 11 hours of sleep the Friday night before the race. (The New York Times says that sleep could be the key variable in improving athletic performance.)

I drove to the race from Richmond the morning of. Arriving by 8:30 gave me plenty of time to feel completely ready to begin the race. Parking was a breeze. There was a lot one block up and away from the race site. Trucks to carry your stuff were literally that, unlabeled pickup trucks that swimmers flung bags into with no one checking who was taking stuff in or out. My pink mesh bag did make it to the finish, albeit crushed by age-group swimmers’ Speedo and TYR monstrosities. Yes, I own one of those monstrosities; no, I didn’t find it worthwhile to bring all my swim apparatuses to a race.

A good start
The race started off…beautifully. I was not being pushed backward by the current as I was last year. For sure I would beat last year’s time.  I made sure to stay out far from the shoreline, so I wouldn’t be swimming on top of waves and getting too close to the shore for comfort. I felt fast and strong as I kept up a constant stroke rate and breathed bilaterally. I began to draft off a woman who swam at a similar speed. (I would see her out of the corner of my eye for most of the race.) Life was good…until midway through the race, when the winds picked up to almost 20 mph and I hit a wall. A water wall.

What was that about waves?  and wind?  and current?
Crap, I thought. All I can do is keep swimming through this and pray the hotel to the left of me goes behind me at some point. As I breathed left, I could see the Sheraton, with its round arches atop windows near the top of the building. For what seemed like five to 10 minutes or more, the Sheraton went nowhere. And neither did I. If I stopped sprinting, I would be pushed back. I thought I was caught in a rip current, but Wikipedia defines a riptide as “a surface flow of water returning seaward from near the shore.” I don’t think I was being swept to sea, but for a while, I couldn’t move. Never before in a race have I felt like I might not finish, but I did during those two times, and it shook my confidence.

At one point, I tried to stand up, and did, but just barely. I thought it would buy me time to strategize, but I realized I’d just get pushed backward. At what point would they have to pick me up on a boat? I thought. If I was pulled out to sea? If I didn’t make some cutoff time? I was sure I’d be out there for a LOT longer before I missed a cutoff time (the last person finished in 1 hour and 53 minutes), and I was pretty sure cutoff times weren’t adhered to as strictly as in last weekend’s Chesapeake Bay Swim, where more than 100 people missed cutoff times or were swept outside of the Bay Bridge.

Finally, I decided I had to try something different, because swimming forward wasn’t working. The first time I got caught in whatever it was, I swam out farther, diagonally. It was a little scary to feel like the furthest swimmer out, though I doubt I was. I eventually got close to other swimmers again. After I got back in my groove, I found myself up against a second bout of current, this time sandwiched between two men! We fought it for a while, to no avail. All I could think was, “Why don’t you just try something different already?” I managed to break away from them and swam toward the shore, for lack of a better plan. At one point, I could nearly touch the bottom with my hands while I was swimming, but I was still not near the beach. I swam behind some surfers/boogieboarders (perhaps they were race marshals, but they looked like ordinary citizens), and that just felt weird. But at least I was moving forward.

The blessed buoy
Finally, I saw the big, orange finish buoy. That gave me hope. I swam out toward it, fighting each and every inch of the way. Ahead of me, I saw the lady I’d drafted off (and probably irritated as I got close to her feet and body) earlier in the race, and made it my goal to beat her. I did my backstroke turn around the buoy and swam in, sighting to the right of the finish line. I’d failed to do this last year and ended up fighting current after the buoy, too, which is a total waste for someone who’d swam out to the buoy, parallel to the finish line.

So much for avoiding zig-zagging, but I managed to escape the currents and finish the race in the same time as last year, 43 minutes. And I’d come out ahead of the lady I’d drafted off!

I thought this race was rougher than 2007’s — at least, the wind was blowing faster. And it was a beautiful, sunny day versus last year’s dreariness and drizzle.

Returning to my opening topic, sleep. I’d gotten about six hours of sleep the night before the race, partly due to travel, partly due to me prioritizing other things ahead of sleep. Do I think additional sleep would have helped me the night before Jack King? Yes. Would it have made a great difference in my performance? No. The conditions really dictated my strategy, which required thinking as much as strength and energy. I’d felt relatively rested from the sleep I’d gotten two nights before. As I swam, I felt fatigue settling in, and if I’d had to swim much further in those conditions, I wouldn’t have felt I had sufficient energy to go at full speed. Energy-wise, I was glad I’d taken a Gu right before the race.

Give us our carbs!
Post race, the refreshments were appropriate for such an event. Panera bagels (kudos to the race organizers for having multigrain and a tasty french-toast variety), bananas, animal crackers, water, and Gatorade were served. But I want to point something out. This is the second or third open-water swim I’ve done this year — and I’ve only done three races in ’09 — where low-calorie Gatorade was served. This Gatorade contains sucralose (Splenda), an artificial sweetener. I know, the FDA has supposedly found it to be safe. I, and many other athletes and health-conscious people, don’t generally put artificial sweeteners into our bodies, and sucralose definitely has an aftertaste. And don’t we need the extra calories after such exertion? I often cannot eat right after I race, so liquids are the way for me to get some quick recovery calories in my body. Fortunately, I dug up some lemon-lime, non-low-cal Gatorade from the Gatorade bucket.

White caps adorned the waters throughout the day. The red flags, indicating dangerous waters, flew straight out in the wind for the entire rest of the day. I was extremely glad the race took place in the morning!


4 responses to “Jack King Ocean Swim ’09 – Race Report

  1. Hi Allison,

    Great race report. This swim was my first ocean swim and first swim race of any kind in almost 20 years and because of the conditions, you were probably halfway back to Richmond before I finished!

    Hopefully the conditions will be better next year.


    • I’d call that diving into ocean racing with a splash! A lake swim is sounding better and better to me, after Jack King. Consider the Chris Greene Lake cable swim coming up in July–a fun and friendly race with 1- and 2-mile options.

  2. Cortney Langley

    Hi Allison,

    I’m a reporter with the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg. About a year ago I heard that swimmers were training in and racing in the James River near Williamsburg, and I’d like to do a feature on local open water swimmers. I heard then that there was a site devoted to the swims, but I’m having a tough time finding any information now. What would you suggest? I’m hoping folks haven’t inexplicably stopped swimming here… Do you know of local contacts for out this way and, if not, would you and Caroline consider posting a request for local swimmers to contact me?

    I appreciate any help and advice,

    Cortney Langley
    Staff writer
    Virginia Gazette

  3. I just started open water swimming, but I have only swam in lakes, so it was interesting to hear about an ocean swim. I would like to try it some time but I think I need more training for something like that.

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