Category Archives: Caroline

Glossary of (pool) swim terms

If you’re new to competitive swimming, then the whole insider language can seem intimidating. There are a lot of people in masters swimming who grew up on swim teams, but while I had enough in the way of informal lessons and swimming experience as a child to be a solid, competent swimmer as an adult, I’d never participated in a swim team in my life when, pretty much out of the blue, I took up open water distance swimming at 45.  What did I know from descends and negative splits?

Today I came across a helpful glossary of terms via the Mountain View Masters web site.

Now if someone could just explain exactly HOW you descend (I mean really — “descend :02 on each 100.”  Seriously, are there swimmers who have such minutely calibrated sense of pace that they can do that?).


About that target heart rate

Turns out it’s maybe not so accurate for women.  According to a recent NYTimes article:

Last week, researchers at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago announced a new formula for calculating a woman’s maximum heart rate, a measure commonly used by athletes to pace themselves and monitor their progress. In a study of nearly 5,500 healthy women, scientists discovered that a decades-old formula for calculating heart rate is largely inaccurate for women, resulting in a number that is too high.


The commonly used formula subtracts a person’s age from 220. But based on the data collected in the Chicago study, the right formula for calculating a woman’s maximum heart rate is a little more complicated: 206 minus 88 percent of a woman’s age.

Yeah, whatever.  Maybe this obsessive training-by-numbers deserves a rethinking anyway. As the article also notes:

Of course, the new formula for women also raises new questions about the reliability of the old heart rate calculations for men. The original formula stems from research in the early 1970s that reviewed average maximum heart rates from 10 studies of men. The formula was a general calculation made for discussion purposes among academics, never intended to be used by the public.

However, the simplicity of the calculation appealed to a generation of exercisers who were looking for guidance about how hard to push themselves to improve fitness and improve their heart health. Companies promoting heart rate monitors, fitness clubs and family doctors all embraced the formula as a simple measure of fitness and the 220 minus age calculation became standard fitness advice.

But many researchers say it is ridiculous to base exercise goals on a person’s age rather than individual fitness level.

“The fitness industry, by attaching this to every treadmill ever made, kind of perpetuated this formula,” says Dr. Tim Church, an exercise researcher and director of preventive medicine at the Pennington Biomedical Research center in Baton Rouge, La. “There’s the idea that the formula was somehow not working out for women, but I’d make the argument that it doesn’t work out for anybody.”

In 2001, a University of Colorado team also concluded that the standard heart rate equation was inaccurate for both men and women. They devised a similar formula they said applied to both sexes — maximum heart rate equals 208 minus 0.7 times age — but the equation never caught on with the public.

Inspired by Eva

She’s only 16, and she’s only 5’3″ (hey, me too!  Well, not the 16 part, but the 63 inches, and that’s why Eva’s my particular hero), but she’s already making a big name for herself in open water swimming.  She’s on the US National Team, and this week she was interviewed on Swim Network.  Go Eva!

A Chris Greene Lake Victory Story

There are a lot of different ways to win a race, and coming in first isn’t always one of them.  At the Chris Greene Lake 2-mile swim I was seeded next to Janet Manning in my wave. I heard her mention it was her first OW swim just before the race started.  Later, I learned that it was more than her first OW swim—it was a triumph against odds.  Here’s Janet’s story, with thanks to her for sharing it:

Janet Manning: Chris Greene Lake 2009

With apologies to Abigail Nunn with her impressive double victory, there was an even bigger winner at the 2009 Chris Greene Lake Cable Swim.  You might have seen her in the 2 mile race.  She was the crazy woman with the unremarkable time of 1 hour 4 minutes who was celebrating at the finish like she had just finished a marathon.  I am that crazy woman.  I probably shouldn’t have been alive to see that day, might very well have been paralyzed and certainly should not have been crossing the finish line of my first 2 mile open water swim.

My story is kind of amazing…I truly should not have been at this race.  In February, I had a pretty bad ski accident.  Hot dogging off a mogul, I miscalculated and caught my tips on the landing, diving head first into some very solid H2O.  I was, as a friend said, writing checks my 45 year old body couldn’t cash.  Fortunately I had on my helmet, but upon landing heard a crack.  My friend immediately called for the ski patrol, and I was transported to the hospital.  There, a CT scan showed nothing but possibly a degenerated disk.  I was sent home in a collar with pain meds.   The next day an orthopedic surgeon looked at my x-ray and concurred, probably just a muscular or ligament injury.   Take it easy for a few days and you’ll be fine, he said.  A few days later, I felt a pop followed by excruciating pain and went back to the doctor who put me on cortisone.  Two weeks later I was told to stop wearing my collar and noticed some major bruising on my chest that I had not noticed before.  An X-ray indicated a broken sternum.  By this time I was up and walking around with relatively minimal pain, but after two hours, I always felt pain shoot down my arms.  I tried to resume my life.  I travelled down to Annapolis to watch my daughters compete at their state championship meet, sitting long hours in the stands for three days.  I went to physical therapy, stretched daily and did my exercises religiously.  Still, I couldn’t shake the shooting pains.  My PT and several other friends in the medical field thought I should get an MRI because it had now been a month and I was still needing heavy pain medication to get through my days.  My orthopedist flatly refused, so I called a friend for a second opinion.  He immediately set me up for an MRI the next day.

Crazy as it may seem, the MRI [pictured below] showed that I had been walking around with a broken neck for about four weeks.  And it was a bad one: My C5 and C6 vertebrae had shifted .5 cm and the disk between them was crushed.  My neurosurgeon said it was a miracle I wasn’t paralyzed or dead.  I was in surgery the next day for 5 hours.

from Janet's MRI

I woke up sporting a titanium plate and 10 screws in my neck.  I have an impressive 6 inch battle scar down the back of my neck and a 3 inch one in front.  My neck mobility is somewhat limited, but there are no pity parties going on in my house.   I know am just about the luckiest girl in the world.  I had been in physical therapy for weeks with a broken neck and actually had traction done the day before my MRI.  With all that twisting, pulling and prodding, I cannot believe I am alive to tell this story.

After surgery, I continued PT but was not gaining enough range of motion in my neck.  I was also not happy about being so inactive.  I was on leave from my job as a teacher, going crazy from the lack of mental and physical stimulation.  A friend of mine was training for the Chesapeake Bay crossing.  I got to thinking…It wasn’t looking like I was ever going to be able to run again, but maybe I could start swimming  with a goal of crossing the bay by my 5oth birthday in 2014.   I had been a competitive swimmer through college; however, I had never raced a distance longer than 200 yards.  Would I be able to build the strength and endurance to try the one mile race by next summer?  My friend would have nothing of that sissy goal and insisted I amp up my goal to cross the bay (4.4 miles) in 2010.  Why not?  Looking online for a qualifier swim this summer, I stumbled upon the Chris Greene Lake cable swim.  Perfect for a beginner, I thought, with no chop or current to deal with plus the cable to help me go straight.  I joined MAC Masters in Frederick, MD and began my training.  I was not real keen on the idea of getting back in the pool and following that dreaded black line lap after lap again after a respite of nearly 20 years.  I had tried masters once before, but with no race goals, it was pointless and just no fun.  But this time it was different—I had a goal.

Happily I discovered that two other women from my neighborhood were also swimming at the Chris Greene Lake event.  We all enjoyed the camaraderie of driving down to Virginia together.  Sarah, the most experienced of us, offered tips.  Kathleen and I laughed at how just the week before we had both swum our first 1650 time trial.  Now here we were entered to swim 2 miles…in a LAKE!  Crazy, middle-aged women….What were we thinking?

So later that morning when we all met up at the finish line, I think my friends were the only ones who understood why I could barely contain myself.  After all I had

Janet Manning with friends after a victorious finish

Janet Manning (in blue, on right) with friends Kathleen Igo (left) and Sara Levine (center) after a victorious finish

been through in the past four months, I had just done the unthinkable.   What a high…You know, winning is a relative term.  Achieving one’s goal, whether it’s to place first, drop time or just finish can make you feel every bit a winner.  And now I’m hooked on open water swimming thanks to that positive first experience at Chris Greene Lake.  It’s the perfect sport: real nice supportive people, great exercise and a feeling of accomplishment every time you step out of the water.  Hope to see you all again next year!

Chris Greene Lake Cable Swim 09 – Race Report

Results from 2009 Chris Greene Lake Cable Swim are available online here or download Chris Greene Lake Results 09.

If you want to skip the synopsis, you can go directly to the 2009 Race Report:

The event: 1- and 2- Mile lake swim at Chris Greene Lake outside Charlottesville, VA. Chris Greene regularly serves as the USMS National 2-mile Cable Swim Championship (this year, it’s in Lake Placid) but even in a non-championship year, should you set a national record, it counts.

The Course: The setting is a small lake in a public park, so this is one open water race where you don’t have to worry about extraneous conditions like wind or waves affecting your swim.  The course is a precisely measured 440 yards, marked by a rope stretched between posts and floated by small buoys. (The header photo for this blog is from the Cable Swim.) You swim down one side of the rope and back on the other (which means an about-face turn at each end)—2 complete loops for the 1-mile swim and 4 for the 2-mile. Waves of ten, seeded by 1650 time, are sent off in 30-second intervals. The finish is at the same end as the start, between two inflatable buoys.

USMS sanctioned event? Yes, so you’ll need a US masters swimming license to participate.

Wetsuit legal? No

Qualifying time/swim required? No, but you do have to be able to complete the 1 mile within an hour or the 2 mile within 2 hours. You seed yourself in your race entry form by entering your 1650 time.

Novice-friendly? Yes.  A sheltered lake setting, small wave starts, comfortable water temperature and relatively easy sighting, this is a great swim for first-timers, but year after year it also attracts seasoned veterans at the top of their form as well.

What you have to contend with: The water can be quite warm, though this year it was a perfect temperature.  Other than that, about all you have to worry about is the occasional floating weed and the possibility of a rope burn from getting too close to the cable.  You might also want to keep in mind that the hard-core swimmers treat CGL like a sustained sprint; if your 2 mile time is in the 55-plus-minute category, expect to be lapped.

How we trained: Allison had to miss CGL this year due to schedule conflict.  Since the Bay swim I’ve been focusing more on shorter distance, 3000-4000 meter workouts with more emphasis on shorter, speed-focused sets.  But it’s only been a month since the Bay, and the week immediately after was really just recovery for me, so what I’m saying is that I’ve really only had a couple of weeks with this speed focus.  And speed, of course, is a relative term, but the point is that I’m trying to go faster.

Nice features: Even in a championship year, this is an extremely well run and  very friendly, low-key event. Chris Greene Lake features a pleasant sandy beach, plenty of parking, and a bath house with running water (including cold-water outdoor shower). Good post-race food and friendly people too.

2009 top finishers: Just so you know.

In the 1 mile race, the overall winner was 19-year-old Abigail Nunn with an age group record time of 20:02.38.  The men’s winner was 18-year-old Luke Robbins in a time of 21:46.62.

In the 2 mile race, having put in a good warmup with the 1-mile, Abigail Nunn came back to be the overall winner again, and broke a 12-year-old age group record (and set a new CGL women’s record) with a time of 40:39.67.  The first place male finisher was Chris Stevenson, yet again breaking his own age-group record to finish in 41:03.05.

Web site:

2009 Race Report

2009 conditions included pleasantly cool water and a lightly overcast day that quickly turned sunny, but not oppressively hot.  There were about 100 swimmers registered for the 2 mile race, and 63 for the 1 mile (which was first), with some of those swimmers registered for both.

Although it is possible that you, our reading public, are all agog for the moment-by-moment details of my particular swim, I suspect that what you’d really like to know is information you might generalize to your own swims.  So here goes:

1) Preparation: I didn’t eat enough.  Chris Greene Lake is pretty much a sprint, but instead of keeping that in mind (sprint=energy demand) I let myself get lulled by the relatively undemanding distance into being very unfocused about eating the whole week.  It’s not like you need to stuff yourself, but the week before a 2-mile sprint race is not the week to be saying, “oops, forgot to eat dinner again.”  Race day is too late to make up for this, and yet I didn’t really eat enough on race day either, and when my blood sugar crashes, it really crashes, and I am thereafter useless.  Everyone seems to have a different eating strategy, but I think the key is to have a strategy.  And practice it in training, and stick to it come race day.  I’ve decided that part of my future strategy will need to be planning out my eating for the week before so it’s not something I keep forgetting to get around to.

2) Pacing: I am good at maintaining a steady pace over a distance.  What I realized Saturday is that I’m not so good at estimating what that pace is.  Amy (a fellow member of what I am here and now officially dubbing our Local Cohort) set a goal pace and checked her splits at every 1/4 mile turn, which was smart!  Why can I never remember these things in the middle of a race?  I am almost positive I went out too fast, and if I’d taken my splits I’m pretty sure they would have shown me doing the second mile slower than the first.  That second mile really hurt, too, and I had to resort to the desperate maneuver of doing a Gu Roctane (which I’d stuffed in my suit before the race in anticipation of the coming to unfortunate fruition of #1 above, “Preparation: I didn’t eat enough”) with 3/4 mile to go just to make it to the end with any shred of decent speed left in me.  And what did I learn from all this?  That I will be focusing in my training more on “feeling” my pace—what level of effort translates to what kind of time?  What level of effort can I sustain  in a nonstop swim? Also that I will try to remember to set a goal pace and check my splits to see if I’m on track.

3) Sighting: Someone told me last year that the “cable” is not actually straight, that it curves a bit, and after 2 years of wobbling around trying to follow it, I have decided in the future just to sight along the rope without trying to stay right on it. On the “out” leg I was always finding myself ten feet off from it and trying to correct for that, and on the “in” leg I was always blundering into the rope.  (John, another of our Local Cohort, got some rather nasty rope abrasions).

4) So what, I still had fun: even though I was clawing my way to the finish and my arms kept begging me to just stop already. My goal for 2009 was to go faster than 2008, and I did by more than a minute. That wasn’t as much faster as I wanted to go (see “Pacing”), but it was faster.

4) 1650 to open water: It’s very hard, possibly impossible, to guess how your pool time will translate to open water time, but CGL gives you the best setup for comparison, because it’s a measured course with no external factors like current to affect your time.  A browse of the seed and finish times suggests this very broad formula to translate from your 1650 pool time to the CGL 2-miler: double the 1650 and add 5-10 minutes.

2009 Results

Volunteers needed for Chris Greene Lake Swim

In our last post,  Chris Greene Lake race director Dave Holland noted that the swim’s success depends on the help of volunteers.  If you’re not swimming (or if you have a friend or family member who’s swimming and you’re going along for the trip) Dave could use your help.

He’s looking for the following volunteers for the July 11 event:

T-shirt distribution – 1 person to get the correct sizes to the swimmers as they check in.

Timing – 4 people

Finish line – 3 people, 2 in the water, one with Popsicle sticks (this is not a treat for the finishers.  The sticks have each swimmer’s order-of-finish number written on them.)

Finish table – 2 people to record and collect Popsicle sticks

Social – 2 people to prepare in the morning

I volunteered at Chris Greene 2 years ago.  My job was to keep people in their order of finish as they entered the “finish chute” after crossing the finish line. It was a great way to get an up-close perspective on some hotly-contested finishes.

If you are interested in volunteering or know others who might be interested, contact Dave Holland at

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!