Wednesday, September 26. 2012
This race has been on my bucket list for a while. I'm from Denver and regarding destination races I've mostly gone west, La Jolla Rough Water, Waikiki, Alcatraz etc., have hit the Midwest twice with Big Shoulders and the USMS championship in Noblesville, Indiana. This is the first time I've raced on the East coast and New York City no less.
First a salute to the NYCSWIM organizers & volunteers, a race like this takes a tremendous amount of man hours and logistical support to pull it off, Thanks!
I worked a half day on Friday morning (negotiation with the boss and had a afternoon flight), blew out there and headed to the airport all went as planned arrived at my departure gate just minutes before they started boarding the plane. I was a bit worried about this as I wouldn’t get in to NYC until after 8 pm, and my Hotel near Times Square not until 10 pm. Along with the two time zone changes which studies show west to east not so conducive to athletic performance. Race start was for 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
I had pre-planned my subway trip from my hotel to the race start & finish via the MTA website, for someone who hasn't been to the Big Apple in over 25 years this went off without a hitch, thanks for the tip Dave Barra.
Was in the 7th out of 9 waves for the start, waves started from slow to fast about 5 minutes apart. I had minor goggle leak right at the start that I stopped and fixed putting me in the tail end of my wave but I felt strong right out of the gate and passed my entire wave within a half mile, I had a feeling I might be under seeded and was correct. I continued to feel strong, loose in the calm water and played my favorite motivational game of pass the person ahead of me, since there were at least 200 swimmers in front of me I was able to play this game for a while. A couple of things changed as I closed in on the George Washington bridge, most of swimmers disappeared as I had passed them, except a few orange hats (speedsters in the last wave) showed up, but it became kinda lonely. I started to bonk just a bit, I was assuming a race time of around hour and half based on previous years times and did not feed, thinking I could do entire course on good pre-race nutrition/hydration. Apparently if I had participated in the webinar presentation a couple of days prior to the race, I would have learned they expected a longer swim time this year due to an expected weaker assisting current. Not that it would have mattered much, as I had forgotten to pack a gel. Finally the water became noticeably rougher as we approached the bridge, post race many swimmers commented on this. I didn't find it to big of a deal as I had done many laps in July with English Channel swimmers Sarah Thomas and Joe Bakel rocking & rolling along the north wall of the Dover Harbor which more then prepared me for this, plus I had done the 1 and 3 mile races at La Jolla just two weeks before. Once past the bridge, water calmed considerably and cruised the last mile, but becoming aware that even though I didn't have a watch on this was going well past an my expectation of an hour and a half, I finished just under two hours. Yes I did do a couple of backstrokes going under the bridge.
Regarding navigation, per the pre-race instruction I concentrated on the East Stanchion of the George Washington bridge however this was a bit problematic with my typical gator style sighting, most of the time I had the stanchion directly in front of me but was not getting a good east/west side perspective. On more then one occasion I was admonished by the patrolling kayaks I was out of the five yard range of the course buoys that I suppose to be in. My greatest frustration and issue in all of my races this year was my swim cap kept coming off, after twice stopping to put it back on I finally stuffed it in my suit but put it back just before the race finish as I wasn't sure of the rule. I need to cure this problem, don't normally train with a cap. Water temp around 70F, I prefer a bit cooler but I think for most folks this is a good temp.
Nice area for the finish, camped out on the patio with a young triathlete named Mark had a fun conversation while waiting for the awards. There was a shower at the finish, plenty of snack foods and a decent goody bag. Very much like the long sleeve event shirt, nice finish medal and a award to boot, first place in my age group about 13th overall. Overall two thumbs up! Do this race, it's a good one!
Friday, March 19. 2010
Crazy day. First, more sunshine. I think we own it now.
We all had a lot of fun dancing the night a way at Willy T’s in The Bight of Norman Island last night, so we got off to a bit of a slow start this morning. We decided to do a shortish swim to the beach and do a clinic on beach starts and finishes, which is always a lot of fun.
Hopper was demonstrating a good beach start and I was recording it when I felt a searing pain to the back of my arm. it was a Box Jellyfish, which are extremely uncommon in these waters this time of year, but we’d heard a few reports of them in the area, so I knew instantly what it was. The sting was stunningly acute, and within a few minutes I was very uncomfortable. Everyone stayed calm and responded perfectly to the situation. After a few very uncomfortable hours and a lot of benedryl and some other smelly substances, i was feeling much better.
The great news here is that our team was tested in a concerning situation and everyone did everything right, and with a cool head. It’s good to know that our crew is so efficient and level headed in an emergency. Swift action by Hopper, Fitzy, Lisa and Rich made a difference. Thanks also to Neil, the guy on the beach with a big jug of vinegar!
Here’s the thing: The sea is a wild place, and it doesn’t belong to us. We visit, but we always remember that this place is home to other species, and we are subject to their rules. Considering the number of people who go in the oceans of the world every year, the odds of something bad happening are pretty low. The sea that gave me a box jellyfish today is the same sea that gave me two spotted eagle rays yesterday, and a Manta ray the day before.
We’re all here because we’re passionate about swimming, and about swimming in the open water. The challenges that come with that - surge, current, distance, and yes, the occasional jellyfish - are the means by which we push ourselves. We trust in our abilities and fitness that we can make it from point A to point B even though we may never have done that before and may have natural or psychological hurdles before us. And when we arrive, we are better than we were before. This thing we do builds confidence and trust within each of us, while honing our fitness and body awareness. And all the while, the sea treats us to dynamic sights and experiences. How can we be anything other than grateful for our time here?
We sailed from Norman across the way to Salt Island, where our swimmers had a snorkel on the wreck of the Rhone. We lunched on burritos and salad, before which i think i saw a guest abs workout lead by Emma! How they have any more energy for exercise I’ll never know. Perhaps we should work them harder! Later, while some rested on the boat, others went to shore for some hiking, running and beach combing. We planned a short but ambitious island to island swim - from Cooper to Salt. Rich dinghied us to Cooper and we all swam back to the Promenade anchored at Salt. It was good to get back on the horse for me, and everyone proved to themselves, yet again, that they have embraced the challenge of swimming open water.
Cocktails- the bushwacker. It has too many ingredients to mention but they sure do go down nice and easy. Fantastic steak dinner with potatoes and gravy (thank you Lisa!) and into the boat salon for our stroke clinic. Hopper did an expert job discussing our digitally recorded strokes, and the process was really collaborative, with everyone contributing to the discussion. There is nothing like seeing yourself swim from underwater to help you make adjustments to be more efficient.
Hard to believe we’re on the back half of our week. It’s been another special SwimVacation day - I think our guests and crew all feel like a family tonight. We are bonded by this thing we love to do and all that the sea has to give us in the process.
Tuesday, December 22. 2009
The Coney Island Cyclone was to my left and the Pier was behind me, it was just another sunny July day in New York. I guess I was swimming about an eighth of a mile out. My plan was to develop a pace that I could hold for eight miles. Why eight miles? That is the exact distance of the Boston Light swim (less than thirty days away). The current shifted and my landmarks seemed much closer even though I was slowly drifting out to sea. I kept stroking on an angle that brought me closer to shore. I was alone and almost a quarter of a mile out at this point yet I was comfortable and relaxed -- my concentration was getting stronger -- the ocean water at Brighton is my water and my home away from home. About a half-hour later, I touched ground at Grimaldo's lifeguard chair. One more training swim under my belt.
I walked out of 70 degree waist-deep water onto warm summer sand. There were about a dozen CIBBOWS (Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers) hanging out behind the chair. I walked over to Abe right away. Abe was talking with a few people but he stopped and greeted me with his usual warm smile. He is about sixty but he could easily pass for forty five. He has a stylish goatee and interesting tatoos that cover his legs and arms. He asked, "good swim?" Yea, not bad, I found a good pace coming back with the current --you know" I responded. "Yea, I know, where I'm going in three weeks there are no friendly currents, I guess that is one of the things that makes the English Channel the English Channel," he said seriously. I paused and asked, "Are you ready to go, Abe?" He waited a split second and said. "I think I am. I have paid my dues in cold water, brother. I believe a swimmer has to handle the cold water issue first. Look at it this way, if you can't hack ten hours in water that is in the low-sixties, it doesn't matter how good of a swimmer you are, as for me, I plan on swimming eighteen, maybe twenty hours at my own pace --slow and steady. I'll be heading up to Boston again this Thursday to get some more cold water swims in. Aren't you heading up there soon for the Boston swim?" "I am. How are you getting up there?" I asked quickly. "Fung Wah bus in Chinatown -- twelve bucks, it's not too bad, really... It's only fair that I let you know that there was a time when the driver turned on to a side-road at about eighty miles an hour though --quite memorable." We both laughed loudly like we usually do together.. Then, Abe picked up his goggles and headed for shore but shouted "Revere Beach is your best bet in Boston." I walked over to my blanket to talk with other swimmers.
There was a swimmer talking to my friend, Sil, at the blanket next to mine. She looked like a real cold water swimmer to me-- big and solid. I quickly introduced myself. She then said, "I'm Julie Sheldon, hi." She recognized my name as one of the swimmers on the Boston Light entrant list right away, and, yes, I recognized her name. She was a serious swimmer alright. Not only was she on the Boston Light swimmer list, but she was training for the NYC to Sandy Hook, N.J. 17.5 mile Ederle swim in October. She came from the midwest and she impressed me as being very independent-minded. She seemed to have an individual plan for everything she did when it came to training. She also drove from New Jersey to Brighton Beach to put in her ocean swimming time. Most of the swimmers left the beach at noon that day. Sil, Julie and I spent three or four hours just sitting on our blankets taking in the bright sunshine, telling stories and laughing at our crazy experiences out in the open water. It was all good fun. In between the stories, she gave us some valuable open-water tips... We walked off the beach when it was time to go home for dinner! To close, Julie eventually pulled herself from the Boston Light because she was focusing on the great Ederle swim in October.
A few days later, I took my usual twelve mile bike ride out to Riis Park Beach in Rockaway. I used to do a lot of triathlons, so Riis Park has long been one of my favorite places to train because of the long bike ride and rough surf. I locked the bike in the usual spot near the boardwalk then I walked to the lifeguard chair straight ahead. Cindy, the lifeguard greeted me: "Hey, John, the sweep is this way (she pointed east)." All good for me since I always liked to go east because i had much better on-shore sightings. I also wanted to swim with the current because the Boston Light is current assisted. I always feel more comfortable in the water with a current --I'm much more patient. I wait for my stroke to develop, therefore, my extension is better - thus my stroke is longer. Solid distance swimmers will tell you that efficiency is the name of the game when swimming a marathon (over 6 miles). This would be my focus from here on in (till the Boston Light) --a long and efficient stroke with a lot of roll. Anyway, I turned to Cindy and shouted, "later." Then I walked into the ocean until I waist deep, waited a moment, then I dove into the rough surf. The good thing about Rockaway is that there is usually a sand-bar seventy or eighty yards out and the ocean gets smoother if one goes out far enough. I did. I swam for two hours. I just swam directly east and ended up in the next town over. I body surfed a few waves into shore, slipped my goggles in my swimsuit, then I jogged back to pick -up my clothes before the lifeguards went off-duty. I rode my bike the same twelve miles back to my apartment near Prospect Park. To close, I swam about 4 miles (with a current assist), jogged 4 miles and rode a total of 25 miles on my nineteen year old Cannondale mountain bike. I have always felt best when doing the swim , bike & run thing. What I lacked in my preparation at this point were serious cold water training and speed -work (hitting tight pool intervals or doing open-water swims with faster swimmers).
I decided to follow up on Abe's Fung Wah bus lead to Boston in a hurry. I figured I needed some hard cold water time to help deal with the conditions I might face in the Boston Light swim. Why not train close to the event? That's what worked for me in the Pennock Island Challenge 8 mile swim in Alaska last year, right? I called up the Fung Wah Bus Company on Canal St and they told me that a bus leaves every hour on the hour and that all I had to do was come a half-hour early. So, that's exactly what I did. But before I bought my ticket, I stopped by Wo Hop restaurant at 17 Mott St. It was only 3 blocks away and it's absolutely one of favorite places to eat Chinese. I ordered a large bowl of Wonton Soup with plenty of egg noodles and spinach. After a great lunch at Wo Hop, I boarded the Fung Wa bus. I got a window seat about ten rows back. The seat itself didn't seem to bolted all the way, no complaints here though, there is nothing wrong with a little play in the seat for a $12 fare to Boston -- agreed?
The driver couldn't speak English very well but he sure knew the quickest and easiest way out of New York City via the Brooklyn -Queens Expressway, and, yes, my friend was right; the drivers' had no problem applying heavy force on the gas pedal. I plugged in my old CDs headphones and began listening to Michael McDonald's "No Lookin' Back." There is something about being on the highway or on the road that makes me feel like I have no problems or no problems worth thinking about. I also believe the road helps me to stay in the moment. In other words, I was going to Boston to complete a task: to get at least 6 hours of cold-water swimming in and I would accept nothing less from myself. The "present" was the only thing that mattered. There is no auto-pilot mode when one travels to new places to do challenging tasks. One stays focused on the present moment or bad things happen -- fast! Back to the driver --he simply got down to the business of getting us to Boston pronto and passed slower vehicles in a no-nonsense fashion. Hey, all of a sudden, I found myself in downtown Boston boarding a train marked - Paul Revere Beach. About a half-hour later, I touched sand. I was 50 yards from shore - I felt at home. I always feel at home when I'm near the ocean, no matter what ocean.
It was close to 5PM and I had a slight issue: what do I do with my bag? Leave it on the beach while I swim? No, not a good idea. I asked the first lifeguard I saw: "Do you know a safe place that I could leave my bag for a few hours?" She responded quickly: "We get off in less than an hour, maybe you could leave it at the lifeguard station," she pointed to a building about a half of mile south. I walked into the station and asked for the chief or head lifeguard. Six or seven lifeguards were hanging out. One of the lifeguards asked me: "Can I help you with anything?" I responded by saying: I plan on swimming for a few hours, I need a safe place to leave my bag." He replied: "Two hours?" I figure I'd be up-front and said: "Yea, I just got off a bus from NYC - I'll be swimming from the the Boston Lighthouse to Boston Harbor in three weeks, so I need to get some cold -water time in." He responded: "You're kidding?" I said: "No, I'm serious -I just got here from NYC and I need some cold water time badly." He replied: "It's not too cold --mid sixties." I was surprised. Then the chief walked through the back door and said: "I overheard you - sorry, we can't be responsible for your bag, anyway, we leave here in a little over an hour, sorry." Just as I was about to say something, a lifeguard quickly stood -up and said: "It's okay, i'll be responsible for his bag, I have to stay late to workout anyway, I'll lock-up tonight." The chief's facial expression turned serious then he said: "Well okay then, we usually don't do this --just this once." I smiled and thanked him and the lifeguard: "I'll set my stop-watch --I'll be back by 8pm," I said quickly. I took off my street clothes and got my goggles and cap and took to the Boston sea. Then I walked to the shore and quickly entered the surf and dove under the low waves. I spotted a bright pink house at the end of the 1.5 mile beach. The water was calm but there was a pretty strong sweep heading north. The temperature felt like upper-sixties to me. I started my stroke. I kept a solid or steady pace and swam the length of the beach in forty minutes. I jogged back to the lifeguard station and did the whole thing again. I was not cold in the least and felt comfortable and strong all the way. The water seemed saltier than New York water. I always swam well in salty water. My kick is not my strong-point to say the least, so the more buoyancy I have -the better-off I am. I finished the second trip, dolphin-kicked to shore and jogged back to the station, i walked in at 7:50 (ten minutes to spare). I hung-out with a few lifeguards for about fifteen minutes. They wished me luck and I walked out with my bag.
I walked along the shore for a few minutes and I looked out past the Harbor to see a huge lighthouse far out at sea in the twilight. I wondered, could it be the famous Boston Lighthouse? It must be. It looked to be about ten miles out. I stopped, sat on the beach and just kept looking. I asked myself, am I really going to swim from that lighthouse all the way to shore? Then I asked myself, "why?" After thinking it over, I had no real answer for either question in my conscious mind. I just knew deep down that the time was right for me to make the Boston Light attempt. I thought, if my life was the sum of all the decisions that I had ever made, then this one seemed to fit right in. After all, people asked me why I travelled to Alaska to do the Pennock Island Challenge in 2008. I had no real answer outside of, "why not." But it turned out to be the right move for me at that time - after Alaska, things seemed to change for me. It's hard for me to explain, but finishing that swim was like opening a door to a room with a key that I always had but had never used. I got the feeling that people viewed me and my feat in a very positive way, but, much more importantly, I viewed myself in a more athletic and positive way! For example, two guys that I didn't know tapped me on the shoulder before an MIF Hudson River race and asked: "Are you that dude that swam around an Alaskan Island?" I said with a slight smile: "Yea, it was a nice refreshing little swim." They both laughed and shook my hand. It was all fun and cool. It was like a brand new starting point for me at an age in life when many people are looking for finishing points. For example, a few months after my Pennock story was picked-up, I started recieving emails from readers who wanted to share their views or interpretations. It was all good... The truth is that when I wrote about my experience of "finishing the race," I thought that touching the buoy (finish line) was major, but, in my mind, the story was more about "trying with all my might" to finish the race. I hadn't ever felt passionate enough about anything to surrender my "whole being" or my "life-force" to it. Yes, after Alaska, things had changed for the better. I had completed an event that a good number of swimmers thought I could not do, but, again, more importantly, I had finished an event that "I, myself," wasn't sure I could finish. I remember boarding the small plane at Ketchikan Airport realizing that I wasn't the same. Something changed deep-down inside of me. I had more confidence in myself and my ability to follow -through in highly demanding circumstances. To close, yes, my life's story has more than just begun, but I now had solid evidence that my path should go more in the direction of my own hopes and dreams, no more side-tracking, no more long "pit-stops." Yes, I was moving forward on a new and exciting journey with more challenges and more adventures ahead, and, yes, more decisions.
So, was the Boston Light the right marathon swim for me? Why I'll just "give it my best shot" once more - right? Wasn't my best usually good enough? I started asking myself more questions then I stopped for a moment. I sat alone on the beach listening to the soft sound of waves as I looked to the shining Lighthouse far out at sea. There was something very extraordinary about the whole scene. I couldn't help but ask myself one more question -- did I ever imagine or believe that I could be a distance swimmer capable of being dropped off eight miles out at sea in sixty degree water with the ability to make it to shore? Just the fact that I was in a prestigious marathon event for the second straight year made me proud. I then looked up over yellow Harbor lights to see bright stars appear over low sea clouds. I kept listening to the soft and soothing sound of low waves breaking close to shore. Then I thought of a poem that I wrote in New York City on a snowy January night:
Far Away Destinations
Snow falls past
as I walk alone
on a dimly lit
I think of days
when I'll find
that lead me to
the open sea
where I'll swim
beyond the breakers
and dream of
I walked along the shore until I left the beach, then walked a block to the train, got on, switched once and checked into the Boston YMCA at 316 Huntington Ave for $48. It's a great old pre-war YMCA with history. The next day the sun was shining so it was easy and fun to make it back to Revere Beach. After taking NYC subways my whole life, I appreciated the Boston train system. In short, much cleaner and friendlier than NYC but one major issue: the trains do not run twenty four hours! Anyway, back to swimming, I dove into the warm sea (still upper sixties) about 10AM and swam for about 2.5 hours. I thought the depth of the water had something to do with the temperature. Sometimes I would hit cold spots where I could not see the bottom, but, overall, I was swimming in water no more than 4 or 5 feet deep.
Time to catch the Fung Wah bus back to Chinatown, NYC. I found a window seat about fifteen rows back! As a matter of fact, the seat I was sitting in was bolted down a little tighter than the first one. A little less rocking this time out. But again, for a $12 fare to NYC, I'll rock, or, heck, I'll even rock hard straight through the night! ...Ha.... That said, there was another no-nonsense driver behind the Fung Wah bus wheel with a strong urge to cut corners and keep a heavy foot on the gas pedal! --- All good.
It was time for me to finally get someone I knew and trusted to be my crew. I had asked two very experienced swimmers on my Chelsea Piers masters team, Lance Ogren and Kenn Lowy. I asked Lance first but he wasn't sure when he would be getting back from England. It just so happened that he was crewing for Abe's Channel swim. He also would be going back to England in late August for his own Channel attempt. Back in June, he swam solo around Manhattan Island. Needless to say, he was booked through the summer. To sum -up, Lance was my number one choice. I asked my longtime teammate, Kenn Lowy, also a MIMS soloist and an English Channel crew member, because he is an open open-water veteran who knows swim marathon events inside and out. In addition, he knew Boston well and he seemed to have an interest in swimming the Boston Light himself, so I thought it could be a win-win situation. I was optimistic when Kenn gave me a maybe. After Lance, he would be the best guy I could get to be my crew. Besides that, I always thought he was fun guy to hang-out with. About a week later, his maybe turned into a no when he decided to enter Grimaldo's Mile race (the same day as the Boston Light). I was disappointed. Why not ask Lance again, I thought. After all, he said maybe too. So, I asked him again. I said this time I would need a "yes" or a "no" because time was running out. He responded enthusiastically: "We're on, JD!" I soon found out that there was room for one more on the boat, so Lance would be coming up with Carlie Brown, our very cool CP coach. Lance was the only swimmer to finish the great 2008 17.5 mile Ederle race (NYC to Sandy Hook, N.J) in sub-sixty degree rough water --no one questioned his determination or ability.. Oh, yea, some ocean swimmers were very talented, some talked a good game on our beach, but everyone knew that Lance had the best chance of a successful English Channel crossing, but, more than that, he was an inspirational guy with a real passion for the open-water. So, to wrap-up: I had a proven pilot in Bill, one of the best swimmers and motivators at Brighton Beach in Lance Ogren, and, to-boot, Carlie Brown, my coach, was on board. The universe seemed to be aligning itself up just for me!
I took a summer lecturing job near Jones Beach, Long Island. The upside was that I could get some rough water ocean swims in --the downside was that it pulled me away from my Manhattan masters team. For my Alaska marathon race, I mainly trained in the ocean. Why not take the same approach for Boston? Very different environments, and, yes, the Inside Passage in Alaska is damn cold (mid-fifties) but the race is around an island -- I was never more than a few hundred yards off-shore. The Boston Light Swim is eight miles off-shore. Open water swimmers know all too well that things can change in a flash out at sea.
A few weeks passed. There were less than four days before the race. I hooked up with some of my swimming partners, Silverio and Patrica Sener. Sil was training hard for his upcoming 5K Coney Island race -- he simply has a great work ethic. I was concentrating more on my Total Immersion techniques. Only a few years ago, I swam flat (little roll). Along with rolling more, I now concentrate on distance per stroke while trying to maintain a good streamline position by keeping my weight on the top-half of my body. I am still working on a more efficient recovery (high elbows) while "skating" on my side. In my view, these skills are critical or crucial for older swimmers (40 or 45 and up). P.S. gave me some solid feedback about rolling or connecting my upper body more during the pull. She is one of the original CIBBOWS founders. She works part time as a swim instructor so she was more than able to find stroke issues with swimmers that usually go unnoticed.
More good news -- a swimming partner of mine, Amy Wu, called me to tell me that she hooked -up with another swimmer for a relay attempt. It turned out that Boston Light relay slots were open late. She was going to connect with her her partner, Becky, at the pre-race meeting and swim the next day. This worked out well for both of us -- we could share travel costs and save energy by renting a car. We could now go to Boston in style and maybe even shop at a fancy designer outlet on the way up! Did I just say that? Okay, I admit it, I like to buy stuff at J CREW. Sure enough, somewhere in Connecticut we came across a huge outlet mall. Amy and I walked off in different directions but we wound up meeting in, you guessed it, J CREW. It turned out that J CREW was one of Amy's favorite stores too.. To close, we both bought a few things, stopped in at Starbucks and then continued on 95 North. When we opened the trunk, something smelled slightly sour or foul. I didn't pay too much attention to it, since the only thing I had back there was my gator-aid which was mixed with Twin Lab ultra-fuel powder. When we got to Boston, the trunk smelled pretty damn sour. I mean it really stunk! I had to throw -out eight pre-mixed energy-drink bottles.
We arrived in Boston with an hour to spare. The Boston pre-race meeting started on time at the Boston Yacht Club. This was the same place we would be meeting in the morning. There was a long dock where our pilots would be able to boat-in and pick us up to take us to the Boston Lighthouse. Greg O'Connor, the race director, introduced himself right away, gave me a number , a cap, race instructions and a cool Boston Light tee-shirt. Lance and Carlie called me to tell me that they were stuck in traffic on 95. Amy went her own way to look for her race partner. She soon found Becky and sat with her at Becky's table. I found a place at a table with other swimmers. Hearing their stories was all very interesting to me. I saw swimmers that I recognized, Willy Blumentals, who just finished a Manhattan Island solo swim and Sebastian N, who won the great Ederle swim going away in 5.5 hours. Willy and I talked, joked around a little and got some coffee and pasta at the table in the back of the room. Willy and I knew a lot of the same people from CIBBOWS. He also knew Amy Wu well since they recently swam The Tampa Bay Marathon as a team. The meeting progressed and Greg talked about the tricky parts of the course. I found out that currents sweep around some of the islands and can create some issues for swimmers. He also stressed that we would be getting a push or a current-assist most of the way. There was an absolute cut-off time of 5 hours due to safety and tide issues. Twenty minutes passed by and I turned to see Lance and Carlie (my all-star crew) behind me taking notes about the race. It was great to see them. I walked over to sit with them right away. We admired our official Boston Light Tee shirts. Then we took more notes, in between, we joked and laughed. The meeting progressed further, Greg went on to talk about the great history of the Boston Light Swim. In short, the first documented swim was in 1907 - - it's the oldest marathon swim race in the USA! Each year it starts at the foot of the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island and runs through Harbor Islands to the finish at the L Street Bathouse during a flood tide. Greg made it perfectly clear that sometimes wind and other issues could or would offset the push from the tide. One only has to look at the variation of the recorded winning times of the Boston swim to fully understand his point. Greg wrapped things up by wishing everyone luck, then we all headed for the door.
It was race day and race time. We were instructed to wait at the dock for our pilots to pick us up and take us out to sea. The sun was shining and there seemed to be a light wind coming out of the west. The water in the harbor seemed fairly calm -- all good. Bill sent his brother in a small boat and Carlie, Lance & I jumped in. It was important to look back and watch for landmarks because I would be swimming using the same route. We passed under a bridge where the Boston skyline appeared in full. Lance and Carlie seemed more excited than me as they looked out at the islands in the Harbor. About twenty minutes later, we connected with Bill and his huge 28 foot cabin -cruiser --a sweet ride indeed. We met Bill and his wife and started to get things together. I got my Aquasphere goggles out first and quicky used my Barracuda ant-fog liquid on the inside and outside. I then rubbed Bull Frog 30 gel sunblock all over my face and arms. I didn't have grease -- but I had pure vaseline- I put it on my chest and arms - After that, Carlie spread the Bull Frog gel all-over my back.. I pulled the cord on my Dolfin swimsuit tight and tied a tight knot, after that, I adjusted my goggles. My eyes then lit-up as I saw the great Boston Lighthouse under deep blue skies from a few hundred yards away!... The wind picked-up and the water started to get choppy very fast. All the boats were lined-up in a row. Our boat drifted back so I asked Bill to get me as close to the pack as possible. Bill knew that I wasn't going to be a frontrunner, but, hey, I didn't want to come in last place.. who does? He said, "sure, John, " then he quickly maneuvered the boat to get some great position to the far north of the Lighthouse.
All the swimmers were standing on the sides of their boats waiting for the horn to sound. I couldn't help but take one more long look at the Lighthouse -- I was told it was the oldest manned lighthouse in the USA -- simply a great scene. Lance and Carlie both gave me huge high -fives and then the horn sounded --long and loud! I jumped into the dark blue sea! I didn't really know what temperature to expect because New England waters can get cold fast from northern currents. I was told depth also has something to do temperature -- yes, I was in going into deep water alright! I hit the water leaning a little forward so that i would not sink too deep. The water felt like it was somewhere in the low-sixties to me - it actually felt good. I started stroking right away and looked ahead to the boat. the truth is that I never swam with a boat before. I swam with kayakers in the 2008 Alaska race and in the 2009 Manhattan Island relay race. In my judgement, swimming with a kayaker makes things much easier if one trusts the kayaker to do the right things, e.g., choose the best line, watch for tricky currents, etc --simply much less to think about when swimming with a solid kayaker, but, hey, I was lucky to have a boat with an experienced pilot -- many swimmers couldn't find one. A few swimmers had both, kayakers and pilots.
I was only a few minutes into the race, Bill was on my right, a little ahead. I could hear Lance and Carlie cheering me on. Now was the time I had to find a pace that I felt comfortable with and KEEP IT. I remember Erica, one of the English Channel CIBBOW swimmers, said these words to me when I asked her for some last-minute advice or tip: She said: "John, find a pace that you think you can hold all day!" It was her message that echoed in my mind. I tried to find my pace. The water got choppy and there were ocean swells I had to deal with. After all, I was eight miles out at sea so the conditions were not unusual in my opinion. I swam for fifteen minutes following Bill's lead but he was changing speeds to deal with the ocean conditions. I could clearly see the first two islands in front of me. I decided to look more ahead to my landmarks rather than look at the boat for direction. I was starting to feel more comfortable.
I was about a half-hour into the race when I noticed two other swimmers climbing back into their boats. I later found out that three or four swimmers had abandoned their attempts due to the cold water. I began feeling temperature fluctuations but nothing major. I was now starting to swim more like a "Total Immersion" swimmer -- my weight was up-front, my head felt like it was in-line, my extension was good, my body was rolling freely -- hey, I even held my arm extended arm out there for a moment to glide or "skate" on my side --all-good! Could I keep it all day? Answer: Not sure. I was over a mile into the race and was closing in on the first island. I would only look at the boat every few minutes but i could hear Lance and Carlie shouting: "Go, JD, gooooooooooooo!" Something happened between the Lighthouse and the first island that was very special. I was completely aware that my energy and swimming ability was getting me closer and closer to Boston. I could actually see my progress early in the race. It felt absolutely wonderful to be moving forward so far out in the "open sea". It was me and the sea and a few islands in the distance, in other words, it was very liberating and even empowering to look up at the deep-blue sky one second and closer to my clear and real destination in the next second. I thought, why don't I just reach-up to touch the sky one of these times? I nixed the idea though - I would lose time in the process!... Ha... Reality soon set in as Lance shouted: "JD, GU break, come on over!" I took 3 or 4 sips of gator-aid and an orange-burst GU. Carlie asked: "How do you feel?" I said "good, very good." Everyone on the boat cheered me on. It was a good stop but time to move. The first island was less than a quarter mile away. Time to go -- straight ahead!
I passed the first island and was heading for the second. At this time I was using the boat more for direction because I wasn't too sure how to cut the island. The water got more choppy and I started to swallow more salt water than is usual --do I need to say --not good? I felt myself being pulled south of the island slightly, so I started to angle north. I would need to pass north of the island to continue on. I tried to maintain my rhythm and pace but i saw that Bill was meneuvering the boat to try to lead me out of the current.. He was far ahead of me but he got directly in front of me..Lance and Carlie started waving forcefully. For the first time in the race, I started to worry... I picked up my turnover rate -- time to get into a semi-sprint mode. I now realized that I needed to turn the corner or I was done --adrenaline started to flow. I picked up my pace to ninety percent following Bill's lead. I was starting to taste the boat's gasoline. Ten minutes later, I finally turned the corner of the second island. I was back on course but not without a price -- a heavy price. Obviously, the whole thing caught me by surprise. My arms felt tired and my breathing was irregular, but, hey, I had plenty of time to recover, right? It's a long race. Whoever said open water water swimming was highly predictable? I would need to settle down fast. I slowed down. I heard Carlie and Lance scream: "Pick it up, JD." The cold spots started to feel colder and my arms felt heavier. The truth is that I was breathing much heavier than I should have at this point. I was only about 3 miles into the race but it felt like I was 6 miles into it, but, hey, all was not lost, I could see the half-way point (the old bridge) about a mile away. To sum-up, I needed to get things together aerobically after my early sprint. I also needed to find my form again - fast!...
I passed under the bridge on the right side as Greg instructed. I looked up at the bridge to notice I was getting a push from the current. I was starting to feel a little colder. My form still wasn't perfect but I was beginning to feel that I might make it to the finish if there were no more surprises.. Carlie and Lance screamed out again: Coooommme oooonnn, JD" as I swam through the final Harbor islands -- there it was: -- THE BOSTON SKYLINE! I was about five miles into the race and getting a push from the current. Yes, I wasn't myself since the second island, and, yes, I never truly found my rhythm, but, hey, I was still in the race, other swimmers were not far away, and, most importantly, I had less than a mile to go before the turn for home -- the last two miles! Time to step up, i thought. Heck, I've been tired and cold before. I thought of the last mile in the great Pennock Island Challenge race, then I thought of my last four miles gutting it out in the NYC Marathon. Yea, maybe a different time, and, yes, maybe a different place but I've been here before! Hey, time to suck-it-up and show some heart! Questions: Had I lost too much time along the way? Could I realistically make the cut-off time of 5 hours?
Lance signaled me over to the boat -- he looked much more serious this time. He's usually easy-going even in the midst of serious issues or competitions.. He shouted "drink - up, JD." Then he asked: "Are you okay?" He obviously saw that my stoke had slowed down. He looked at me deeply and said: "You have a little over two miles to go, you have only an hour and ten minutes left --do you want it? ..you can do it!" Carlie screamed "You can make it!" Bill and family shouted: "Go for it!" I tried to drink the gator-aid but I couldn't take it in -- I didn't want anything. At this time, I really had no choice but to cut the last island closer than Greg instructed. If I went wide, I would never have made the 5 hour cut-off time. The truth is that I would not have made the cutoff time even if i swam perfectly for the last 2 miles. I understood this perfectly well at the time--so did my crew. Nevertheless, a competition is a competition and the Boston Light is the Boston Light. So what if I would finish in 5 hours, 20 minutes? Anyway, we went for the most direct route to the finish by cutting the last island. It was really my only chance. I kept my head down and forged ahead. I saw the rocks on the tip of the Island get closer --than much closer. Lance yelled: Now JD, pick it up" I could see the Harbor and the straightaway to the Boston Light finish! I looked to the rocks and I was not moving forward --maybe a little, very little.. I kept swimming in place and picked up my turnover. I was tired and cold. I thought of some of the speed workouts that I missed at the CP club. I needed speed and power fast. Real fast. I looked to the rocks again --no progress. Everyone on the boat screamed -- goooooooo! But no matter how hard I tried - I couldn't move forward. I thought about quitting but something inside of me would not let me. I knew I was stuck in the same spot for over fifteen minutes, so the best I could hope for was a finishing time of 5.5 hours (30 minutes past the cut-off). I stopped -- I needed to catch my breath. I needed to get things together. I started to shiver.
I must try again, I thought --one last try to break free! By stopping, I had been pushed backwards by the current. I had to start again fast or lose more ground! I started my crawl stroke with the hope that I had regained some long-lost power. I heard Lance and everyone screaming from the boat -- I was making a little progress now -- just a little more, i thought --just a little longer! ... I swam as hard as I could for five more minutes -- still stuck... My tank was very close to empty -- I looked up at Lance and Carlie.. I said, "I don't know guys, I'm not moving, it's not happening." Lance shot back, "you're moving, JD." I started my stroke again. At that moment, Lance dove off the side of the boat! He swam along-side of me and quickly pulled ahead. I swam for a few more minutes but I could not keep-up. He came back and said: --"Just stay with me!" I could not. Lance was aware that I had zero left and that I had absolutely no chance of making the cut-off time, and, yes, sadly, I was aware of it too. He asked: "Do you want to stop, JD?" I said: "Yes, it's over." It was the right time to end the struggle. There will be more swims ahead. I picked myself up to the boat deck. I heard kind words and phrases by everyone on board like, "great job!" and "awesome try, John." Carlie wrapped towels around me in a hurry.
My stomach was queasy and I was cold. I went into the cabin below and felt my legs and arms getting warmer. Yes, I was disappointed but I had no regrets -I simply did not meet my goal of finishing the race. I found out that better swimmers than me did not finish the Boston Light on that day. No matter -- I will need to train harder to build needed speed for another attempt.
Bill dropped us off at the dock. As I was leaving the boat, he looked directly at me and said loudly: "See you next year!" I smiled and said: "Thanks, Bill, great job --yes, I'll see you." Bill waved goodbye as his big cabin-cruiser left the Harbor. Lance and Carlie went off to get lunch. We would all meet up with Amy later-on. It was mid-afternoon, the sun was shining, the sky was bright-blue and the great Boston skyline was near...
Note: Field of Dreams (Amy Wu and Becky relay team) finished the Boston Light in 4: 13: 00
Willy Blumentals finished the Boston Light in 4:15: 00
Lance Ogren succesfully crossed the English Channel in 11.5 hours in September, 2009.
Carlie Brown crewed for Lance's Channel swim.
Julie Sheldon won the 2009 17.5 mile Ederle Race in 6:13:25 in sub- 60* ocean temperature.
I went on to swim the Bridge to Bridge 10k (Golden Gate Bridge to Bay Bridge) in 2 hours in sub- 60* - 10/ 09.
My marathon swim adventures live on ...
Thursday, September 24. 2009
This past summer 2009 I discovered a new long distance swim thanks to a friend who lives in the area. It is called the Point to La Pointe swim, located in Bayfield, Wisconsin. It was held on Saturday, August 8. The swim is 2.09 miles, a perfect length for any triathlete wanting to train for an ironman-length swim or for any open water swimmer wanting a shorter distance challenge. It’s a good one to train for any of the “Escape” from Alcatraz swims.
It begins on a wide beach, which can easily accommodate hundreds of swimmers, and is a straight line to Madeleine Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands in the southern part of Lake Superior. The weather was perfect this past year with it being overcast; therefore, no sun in your eyes. The water temperature was a “balmy” 64 degrees, which is higher than it can be that time of the year. Organizers of the event required wetsuits; however, I think you could probably swim it without one if you were so inclined.
There was a little current flowing in the direction of the swimmer’s right side. There really were no swells to contend with this year. Not having done a competitive swim race in many years, I had forgotten what a mass start is like with hundreds of competitive swimmers kicking and elbowing you. I was wondering what I was doing at the young age of 61 starting at the front with all the younger, aggressive swimmers. Once in the middle of the pack there is no stopping, so I gutted it out until I was able to eventually get to point I could settle into a normal rhythm of breathing with no one right on me. In the end, I think it helped my time a lot to start out fast. The buoys along the way were easy enough to see without the sun in your eyes, keeping them on your right, and the huge balloons on the island at the finish line were easy to sight about half way there. Several kayakers are out in the lake prepared to guide you in the right direction in case you get lost. Each year the dynamics of the race do change depending on the weather.
The race begins promptly at 7:20 AM for the competitors. Ten minutes later, the “community” swimmers take off, which is a division for non-competitive swimmers. Community swimmers must have a kayak to support their crossing. Competitive swimmers need no kayak support. There are awards for first and second place winners in their age groups. First place was a locally, handcrafted mug filled with fresh blueberries. Sweatshirts were given out last year to all competitors. They were worn in abundance after the cold swim. With 220 registered swimmers they had to turn away some in only its fourth year of existence. I understand that next year they will be taking registrations for 300 swimmers. Food is great, catered by friendly volunteers on the island side. Overall it is a very well organized race. They make it enjoyable for both competitive and non-competitive swimmers alike. It is fun to take in the local sights on the island before catching a free ferry ride back to the mainland.
It is by far one of my favorite races ever. What I love about the swim is that you are swimming from the mainland to an island, having a specific destination and not swimming in a loop. Also, it is nice to not have to deal with the thought of sharks or stinging jellyfish. Having lived on Madeleine Island in 1973, and having done a solo swim in 1990 from the island to the mainland, it was like a homecoming for me. Great to see my friends again!! Also, it was great to return to “God’s Country.” It is one of those undiscovered, beautiful spots in the U.S.A., which has not changed much in the nearly 40 years I’ve been going there. Of course, there are more summer tourists than in years past, but it doesn’t take away from the experience of a fun vacation. There are lots of other activities to do when visiting.
The only downside is that there is limited lodging available in Bayfield. Some swimmers had to camp out. However, there was a Joan Baez concert in Bayfield the same weekend. Maybe next year it might not be so bad. Overflow lodging can be had in Ashland, only 20 miles away. If you don’t live in the area, like me coming from Colorado, you can drive of course, but I flew into St. Paul/Minneapolis and rented a car. It is an easy 4 hour drive. You can also fly into Duluth and rent a car from there, which is only a little over an hour drive to Bayfield.
Visit their website at http://www.bayfieldreccenter.com/Point_to_LaPointe_Swim.html
Sunday, May 10. 2009
The Point to LaPointe swim started out two years ago as a local fund raising event for the Bayfield Area Recreation Center. However, judging by the strong interest and attendance this year, I predict that this event will become one of the preeminent open water swim events in the Midwest – if not nationwide.
The swim course itself is spectacular. It’s a point to point 2.07 mile jaunt in Lake Superior from the Bayfield mainland to Madeline Island, the largest of the world famous Apostle Islands. The water is stunningly clear – the most pristine lake water I have ever encountered. And the mighty Lake Superior lives up to its name by providing swimmers with ample challenges in the form of bracing water temperatures and strong currents.
However, it’s the surrounding area of Bayfield and the Apostle Islands that makes this an absolutely magical event. The Point to LaPointe swim takes place in early August when the brief but glorious Lake Superior summer season is in full bloom. And nowhere do people cherish their summer months more heartily than in the far north shores of Wisconsin and Minnesota. It is a land rich in culture and tradition that’s steeped in the ancient history of the Ojibwa migration and has its “contemporary” roots in the fur trade of the 1500’s and in the timber, iron ore, and fishing industries that provided the foundation upon which America was built throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s.
Go there for the swim, and stay there for the true experience of summer at its finest…
There were 120 swimmers this year – a huge jump from last year’s count of 57. Swimmers came from as far away as Long Beach, CA to brave the channel crossing, and they got to experience all facets of Lake Superior’s mercurial personality.
The first wave of competitive swimmers took off at 7:20am under near perfect conditions. With sunny skies and water temperatures hovering around 66F, the first mile was about as ideal as it could get. Halfway through the race, though, a northeast wind arrived and whipped up the waves so much that most of the swimmers had to fight a strong sideways current that literally came out of nowhere. I myself went home with several souvenir mouth/lungfuls of Lake Superior water, but I managed to make it to the swim finish in 1 hour 15 minutes without overshooting the target.
Others, though, had a bit more of a workout…
The community swimmers took off at 7:40am and experienced the brunt of the current for most of the swim. Many found themselves drifting southwest of the finish area only to have to backtrack along the coast with the guidance of a kayaker. Still, they all gutted it out, and the last swimmer exited the water at just over 3 hours – which makes me exhausted just thinking about it!
When you think about how swimmers train you realize how intense it is! Many swimmers start training before the crack of dawn, and swim for miles before breakfast! It is such a complete discipline; building strength, flexibility, coordination, and timing means a lot of hard work. Next time you feel tired after a jog, tennis match, perhaps a long chess or http://www.onlinepoker.com/ game, spare a thought for your swimmer friends. Swimming in open water makes the whole experience that much more challenging! Even if you aren't a big fan of the sport, you should go check out the Point to LaPointe swim next time. These athletes are truly incredible!
Wednesday, April 22. 2009
How is swimming in the Tennessee River you ask? Dam(ed) good I’ll say. Thanks to the TVA and their power generating stations, the river is now a series of lakes connected by few miles of winding scenic riverbanks with pools of slow moving water between them. In Chattanooga, the river banks are lined with herons, duck nests, fishermen, running/bike paths, parks and floating restaurants (including the Delta Queen). Without the benefit of boat travel, you would generally miss much of the beauty along the river.
Thanks to the Chattanooga Rat Race organizers, you can now enjoy the benefits of river travel without the cost, hassle and inconvenience of boat ownership. For a small fee (proceeds going toward a good cause) you can sightsee and swim this lovely section of the Tennessee River at the same time. While rare, you may even have the opportunity to dodge a river barge while it travels through the area as well. Where else can you have that opportunity?
The shotgun start for the 4.5-mile swim begins at the bottom of a boat ramp just below the Chattanooga Lock and Dam (Creating Chickamauga Lake). The bottom is a bit rocky but it doesn’t last long as you begin your tangent to the apex of the first bend in the river. Kayak support ensures that you do not veer too far in any direction, but while towing is not permitted, course sighting is. No fear of dragging your feet (or other appendage) on the bottom for the next 3+ miles until you reach the end of the 3rd green on the golf course above. [Close to the start of the 1.2-mile event] As you watch from the surface, a big sandbar will suddenly come up from below. It is only with this perspective that you will note the aiding current of the river. The sand bar lasts just long enough for you to realize that the finish is within sight.
As you sight down river you see all four bridges connecting one side of The Scenic City to the other. The second (one of the longest pedestrian-only bridges in the world) stands as your finish line. Swimming through the shadow of the first bridge is somewhat eerie but it prompts the urge for that “sprint to the finish” since people now line the river bank watching you arrive. As you catch your breath and lounge in the river you will be treated to a unique (water level) view of the fabled Mississippi Delta Queen paddleboat.
Once out it’s a quick rinse in the park fountain, change in the adjacent restrooms and into an enclosed pavilion for delicious and well deserved post-race food and drink. Unique awards with local flavor are always popular for those who need additional motivation to take-it-out-hard. In the alternative, take your time and enjoy all that the river has to offer along the way.
Wednesday, April 15. 2009
Hi. My name is Ashley Ellis and last year I competed in my first open water race ~ The La Jolla Rough Water Swim. This event takes place in beautiful southern California. The water clarity is fantastic as the La Jolla Cove is known for snorkelers and divers ~ most likely seeing seals, unique fish and even a leopard shark! I highly recommend this race for people not only locally but people who want to experience a fantastic city. La Jolla is only minutes from San Diego and Del Mar. Being the home of thousands of Tri-athletes and other elite athletes you will find people constantly enjoying the amazing weather and environment. I recommend planning your trip for a long three day weekend. On Friday night you will find TONS of people swimming in the cove while on Saturday take a hike in Torrey Pines. Also depending on the date of the race you might be lucky enough to see a Horse Race at the Del Mar Race Tracks. You will find TONS of great restaurants too all along the coast.
Last year I competed in the 1 mile where this year I plan to tackle the Gatorman. These races feature some of the best open water racers where as a spectator you will enjoy watching the race from the CLIFFS.
Monday, January 5. 2009
Clear skies and a calm sea greeted sixty-six sleepy swimmers as they awoke to prepare for the 8th Annual Bonaire Eco Swim. Ambling towards Captain Don’s for their race number markings, participants happily swilled java and water and exchanged warm, slightly nervous greetings. People from all over the world—Venezuela, Canada, as well as Alaska, California, New York, and many places in-between—gathered together in an air of anticipation and bonhomie for the 10k, 5k, 3k and 1k races. The stellar water—famous for its amazing clarity, and beauty—waited in its 82F splendor. The colors ranged from a brilliant turquoise to rich cobalt, known locally as “the deep blue”.
Not without a touch of awe swimmers jumped in for the water start, just as the clouds kindly rolled in just in time to shade the fair-skinned swimmers. Boat support, generously provided the Bonaire Marine Park and Captain Don’s, were already in place, as were the dedicated kayak support team. The air was a comfortable 83F as the countdown began. As swimmers started off towards their respective buoys, the race was occasionally interrupted by excited shouts of “turtle!” drawing swimmers off-course for a closer look. Sea turtles, giant blue parrotfish, great barracuda, and moray eels were some of the many exotic (at least to the non-locals) species that were encountered during the event. Bonaire, famous for it’s exceptional sea life and coral reefs, also thankfully has very little in the way of nasty critters, making for an idyllic swim.
Jimmy Wellborn, winner of the 10k swim, was rewarded with a frosty Polar as soon as his hand left the finish buoy. As swimmers left the dock, they gathered at Rumrunners for icy refreshment and to await the award ceremony. Afterwards, an impromptu dance party broke out, spurred on by the Venezuelans. Cave tours, a huge school of dolphin, groups swims (one to Klein Bonaire), eagle rays, a sunset snorkel aboard the very special Siamese junk Samur, octopus, seahorses, the famous flamingos—these were all part of the swimmers’ experience of Bonaire. Shared laughter while watching for the green flash at sunset cemented many an old and new friendship, as swimmers vowed to return to paradise next year. And maybe stay a bit longer next time….
Tuesday, December 2. 2008
Polar Bear Swim? No big deal! It’s not like we need to chop a hole in the ice, come on, we live in sub-tropical Texas; how bad could it be? Besides, there was an option. For the faint of heart the “Plunge” was a mere 200 meters. And the “Double Crossing” is less than a mile; just around the big orange buoy and back. Not nearly as bad as that 5K when you had to take it on faith that there was a buoy and just follow the other swimmers and aim for the water tower on the horizon. In this swim there was the buoy, big as life, and not too far away. No big deal. Besides, I’ve done, there was New Year’s Day in ’76 when the set was 76 x 100s.
But back to the Polar Bear Swim. On this race day, the temperature was an uncharacteristic 46 degrees and there was a blustery wind. No problem; it would give me a chance to pull out my old college sweats; you know the old fleece kind that they retired in the 70s. And besides, the water couldn’t be that cold. But then, as I stood on the dock in my Speedo (I know, nobody wears Speedos anymore, but I am an old guy!), waiting to jump in the water, I heard our Iron Man coach, Keith Bell, mumble, “I’m not so sure about this.” If old Iron Man Keith is unsure, I know that I am not! Turns out that, with the lake being very low that year, the water had cooled considerably, down to 53 degrees. Whoa!
But, in we went. I gotta admit that in all my 5 decades of swimming I do not ever remember being panicky in the water but this time I was - it literally took my breath away. This was the point at which several of our compadres opted for the “Plunge”. And this became my first open water race in which I didn’t even mind those swimmers who felt the need to cheat on the starting line – if someone would just blow the damn horn so we could start.
Then we were off and it didn’t take long to feel at least somewhat comfortable. And there began that lovely burn in my arms and legs as I stroked the water. Ok, I was around the buoy, and although I don’t do this to “win” anymore, (sure I don’t!) there were two swimmers within striking distance I just be able to catch. (I couldn’t catch them which led me to remember that I sometimes change my goals several times in a race like this.) It didn’t help at all when I discovered that the two in front of me, whom-I-did-not-catch, were women about half my age. Oh well, no need to be sexist, they were faster than I – AND they were half my age.
Finally, there was the triumph of having once again challenged my body and myself and succeeded. As I walked to the bank the water didn’t feel all that cold and they air, well, it was still that cold, but everyone was smiling and, I think we all knew that we had “won”!
Now in the old days it might have been beers on the beach to celebrate, but this day, and at this age, we were very content with, and grateful, for hot chocolate. And we did what swimmers do with a race just completed; we talked a little, lied a little and bragged a bit too.
Not a bad way to begin the New Year!
Monday, November 24. 2008
Set in paradise, again, this race compliments the Maui Channel Relay giving its participants (and locals) an open water race that does not require going to Waikiki. A very well run event that starts and finishes on the beach in front of the Maui Prince Hotel in Makena Beach. The water is a beautiful blue and about 80F and teaming with aquatic spectators (turtles, fish and coral). Towards the end of both distances, there is an optional underwater arch each swimmer can dive through for a time bonus. The awards ceremony is held shortly after the last competitor crosses the finish line and dishes out nice local art for the top three in each age category.
Set in paradise, this race is worth doing just because of where it is located. It is 10 miles between the Hawaiian Islands of Lanai and Maui. Well run by Ian Emberson, who hosts a Captain's meeting the night before and an awards banquet the night after. The race starts at 8 am at the Lanai Beach Club every Saturday before Labor Day. It is a six person relay in beautiful blue water with average temp around 80F. The format is each swimmer swims a 30 minute leg. After three hours (six legs), you keep the same rotation of swimmers but for 10 minute legs until your team finishes on Kaanapali Beach, Maui. The water is usually flat but can get rough depending on weather and wind. You are left to find your own teammates and boat (although Ian does assist teams that have difficulty with the latter) and it is pricey, but worth it at least once.
For the ambitious, Ian allows for ten soloist each year. A typical year will have around 50 teams and ten to fifteen soloist (Ian will allow extra soloists if there is demand and fewer teams than expected).
The start is a water start (~waste deep) and the end is a beach finish. There are a plethora of divisions with the OPEN division being the most hotly contested. Top three teams in each division get beach towels with extra towels going to divisions with the most teams. This is a very social event as the awards banquet is a swimmers' party.
Tuesday, November 18. 2008
My long New York training swims seemed like long ago as I boarded my Alaska Airlines plane heading north (way north) from Seattle. After only 45 minutes over British Columbia, I could see white capped mountains high and clear from my window seat. I wondered, where are the towns? What about the houses? Where are the roads? I turned to the woman sitting next to me, “ Hey, are we that far out into the wilderness already?" She said with a surprised smile, “where are you from?" I said, “I live in New York.” She smiled again and asked, "are you on vacation." I figured I’d be upfront and said, “ I’m not sure it’s a vacation --I’m going to try to swim 8.2 miles around Pennock Island this Sunday.” She said with a slight expression, “Oh, you’re kidding -- you’re one of them? So, do you think you can do it? I mean to say, are you ready for it?” I waited a second and asked, do you want the short answer or the long answer?" "I want the long answer!" she said emphatically. I paused again, then responded, "alright, here it is: yes, I think i can do it -I trained six months, I like the open water and I do better in distance events. I think once the race starts, I‘ll be very determined to finish. It will take some very serious issues for me to throw in the towel, but, hey, let’s face it, there are a whole-lot of variables. Guess I’ll need a little luck. Who knows what can happen?- currents, wave action, high chop, nasty wind, water temperature changes, a kayaker from hell, weird fish or maybe even some eye-to-eye contact with a killer whale.” She smiled and said, “ killer whales! Ha! --You will do it!” I smiled, then nodded and turned away to look for signs of life out the window --nothing …For the next half -hour, we talked about small town living vs. city living, winters in Ketchikan, Seattle in the summer and the now infamous “Bridge To Nowhere” (before the national exposure). Then, suddenly, I saw an island up ahead with a narrow, single runway. Yes, it was Ketchikan airport. After the plane landed smoothly, I quickly headed down the aisle for the exit & walked down the ramp into what has to be one of the smallest commercial airports anywhere. I walked away with two carry-on bags filled with clothes for a week, a laptop, my sports gear consisting of power bars, a sleeveless wetsuit, plenty of GU gel (energy gel packs), two pairs of goggles, anti fog liquid and some other necessary swimming gear.
I then walked to the small ferry that would take me to the southernmost Inside Passage town. Like always, my attention was drawn to moving water. It looked greyish and cold, but, be that as it may, I had five days until the big day and I had a race plan, and, yes, I knew I had to stick with it in order to have a chance to finish. In addition, I needed to keep a positive frame of mind, and, again, hope for a little "luck." Truth be known, I guess I tried to appear confident and cocky with my swimming partners and friends in New York about my chances of finishing, but deep down I knew that this event would push me and my swimming skills to the limit. I believe that “luck” has to be thrown into the equation in an event like the Pennock Challenge. I reflected on a swimmer’s short story that I read a few weeks ago: it was all about what could go wrong in a marathon swimming event, and, believe me, he made his point about "luck." In short, he wound up rescuing his kayaker after the kayak sunk before lightning canceled the event. End of story.
It was now 2PM and I waited for a bus to take me a few miles south to a swimming area. The race director, Willie Schulz, recommended Buggy Beach as a good training spot. He was the one who advised me to pack my wetsuit before I left New York since the water temperature was hovering around 55 degrees through August. As I entered the bus, I figured the air temperature was in the upper sixties but the sun was shining in the bright blue Alaskan sky, so I thought it was definitely the right time to start my Alaska cold water acclimation. As we passed Ketchikan (approximately one mile from the airport), I could not help but notice plenty of snow on the mountain tops that surround the town --do I need to say “not good?” After 15 or 20 minutes, I found myself lugging my gear to a 40 or 50 yard beach with rocks and 5 to 10 feet of sand. There may have been 30 people on the shore and a half a dozen kids playing in the water close to shore.
I found a young woman who appeared to have a kind and friendly face. I asked: “Do you mind if I leave my suitcases near you while a take a swim.” She smiled, “not at all, I’m here all day and two of my kids will be in the water for another few hours.” I quickly took off my clothes, slipped on my tight speedo, spit in my goggles, inserted my ear plugs and buckled up my neoprene cap. No time to waste, I thought…I walked out on the rocks to get to deep water and jumped.. “Whoa.”
Yes, it was cold, damned cold at that, but I’ve been in colder water --try Brighton Beach in April or Montauk in May for starters. I started doing breast stroke and figured I would do breast stroke to keep my head out of the water for a minute or two. I then got my crawl stroke going and took it nice and easy. I was concentrating on stroke form and enjoying the wild, interesting environment simultaneously. It was all very new and exciting to me --I was able to see interesting rock formations 35 feet straight down with bright colors and cool reflections. At one point, I actually saw the crystal-clear outline of my body off a huge, smooth, white rock 15 or 20 feet below! What really looked strange to me (which I could never quite figure out) were kelp branches that seemed suspended 5 or 10 feet underwater. Anyway, I stayed focused and set my watch to 45 minutes. Then I spotted some cool, old cabins with faded pastel paint as landmarks or direction points. In short, and in my view, one of the hard parts about cold water swimming is dealing with the first 10 or 15 minutes of tingling all over the body with varying degrees of numbness. So, to sum up, 45 minutes of cold water swimming in the bank…
I was heading back to my suitcases on the beach when a guy walked over to me and said: “I like your stroke.” I stepped back a little. He said, “you look surprised.” I said “Yea, I guess I am, the truth is that I don’t hear that too often. I guess swimmers just swim, anyways, it’s nice to hear, thanks, I guess distance swimming isn‘t much of a spectator sport.” He responded, “Sure, but are you kidding? Most people on the beach were watching you. People around here usually don't go out that far --you were "way out" there! By any chance, are you a swimmer in our big event this Sunday?” I said, “Yea, I am - guess I‘ll see what I have.” He responded: “My name is Tracy and it’s great to meet you, and , you know what? I have 2 kayaks on the top of my jeep in the lot, why don’t we meet later? -- we could kayak around the island, you want to see the course, don’t you?” I said “I’m John, and, sure, it would be great to see the course. We exchanged cell phone numbers and set up a 6:30 meeting at the marina. I then boarded a bus back to town, needless to say, happy and surprised (remember: I‘m a New Yorker, and, generally, friendly offers don‘t come from strangers -- I’m used to all kinds of “other” offers though).
As I sat on the bus looking at the Inside Passage from my window, I got a call on my cell phone from a guy named Mike, a Pennock race kayaker. He asked, “John, we heard you were coming to town and we’re having a party, more like a barbecue, later , can you make it?” I wanted to say "yes" right away, but I already had plans to kayak and I still needed to check into my $14 a night hostel (important note: one with a 10PM curfew). Hey, guess that didn’t leave much time for partying --not to mention the slight issue that I didn’t have a car. Could I have said, “sorry guys, I have to be home by 10PM, otherwise I will be locked out of my room?” So, to sum up, I had to say no to the party, but I ask you, the reader, could I have been more “lucky” on my first few hours in Ketchikan?
Anyway, we had a great kayak trip around the Island and now it’s the second day. I had to find my way back to the Inside Passage for another hour plus of swimming. It was a another rare, warm, sunny, beautiful day (more luck?). My plan was Buggy Beach again. My cell phone went off again. This time it was a guy named Bruckner. “I'll be swimmimng in the race this Sunday too. Just wanted to know if you would join us for a swim at Settler’s Cove, John? We got your number from another swimmer." I said, “well I’m already at Buggy.” He responded, “Okay let‘s do it tomorrow.” “No problem here, all good with me,” I said quickly.
The next day, Thursday, I found a diner without “too many cruise-ship tourists” and I started loading up on protein (3 eggs over medium). After that, I met Bruckner and Michelle (his wife) at a cool, little Red Bridge (I stopped at this bridge the day before to watch kids reel-in salmon every other minute -I’ve never seen anything like it). Anyway, we forgot to tell each other what we looked like, ha! “Luckily,” we were both holding sports bags, so it wasn’t too hard to make a connection. Bruckner & Michelle are from the east coast and it turned out that we knew some of the same distance swimmers. I was beginning to feel more comfortable and “at home” by the minute.
After a 10 mile drive north parrelel to the Inside Passage filled with little green islands backed by deep blue skies, all three of us hiked down to the water and got ready to jump in at the Settler’s Cove shoreline. We did it! Surprisingly, the water at Settler’s Cove felt about 5 to 7 degrees warmer than Buggy Beach. We started swimming north out towards some small, uninhabited Alaskan islands. Bruckner pulled ahead right away and I just did my best to follow his lead. As it turned out, Bruckner was not just a fast swimmer, he was the swimmer who won the Pennock Challenge in 2007. Michelle was also a great swimmer, so I found myself falling behind but stayed “within myself,” and, therefore, comfortable with my pace. We swam for about an hour and headed back towards the great snow-capped mountains of Ketchikan.
Bruckner asked, "would you like to do a radio interview with us at a local Ketchikan radio station that is covering the Pennock Challenge - it's tomorrow, can you fit it in?" I wanted to wait a moment and shoot for a low-key response, maybe something like “I’ll check my schedule” but I guess I waited all of a split second and said loudly and emphatically: “Yes, count me in.” The fact of the matter is that the Pennock Island Challenge USMS race is not only on the calendar of events in Ketchikan and talked about with frequency around town, it attracts some of the most-serious cold water distance swimmers out there. It is also a MAJOR fundraising event for diabetes. The director, Willie Schulz, founded the race five years ago and swims around Pennock Island each year. Willie has also completed a Catalina Island swim.
Anyway, back to my race preparation plan and to sum up: on my third day in Alaska, I had three cold-water swims under my belt, met some first-rate swimmers and very interesting people, and, to top it all off, I had plans to do a radio interview!
On Friday, I did the high protein (again, 3 eggs over medium) breakfast thing again . After that, Bruckner, Michelle and I met at the ‘Little Red Bridge” then we took a two minute walk to do the fun radio interview with Willie and his family. At this time, I think I was starting to feel like a rock star. After the radio interview, I made it a point to let people know I was one of the swimmers in the Pennock Challenge. By taking this approach, I was able to get free organic popcorn, discounted prices on health food, free tasty granola bars with almonds, some extra time at the offbeat Alaska Internet Café, and, lastly, some non-filtered ego gratification. Ha, people I didn’t know started introducing me to other people I didn’t know! Go figure? Hey, now all I had to do was handle the slight issue of swimming around Pennock Island on Sunday!
A few hours after the radio interview, I met Bruckner and Michelle at the "Little Red Bridge" and we drove north again to Settler’s Cove. We stopped along the way to pick up Claudia Rose (a California swimmer & Catalina Island finisher) and a friend of hers. Fifteen minutes later all five of us were back in Alaskan water! Claudia and I were swimming side by side for 20 minutes when she shouted, “John, there is a sea otter right behind you.” I turned around and did not see anything but crystal-clear, blue-green water. Later on, she told me the huge sea otter was trailing me for about 10 minutes. Be that as it may, all of us headed back but Claudia and I tried to take a shortcut by turning into a cove. Bad move: it took us 10 minutes to find our way out and another 10 minutes to swim out. We finally made it back to the starting point safe and sound. No sea creatures to be found. Did I/ we get “lucky”again? To close: add another hour of seriously cold water swimming to the race preparation log!
After the swim, we all met Willie Schulz, the race director, and Michelle Macy at the local Ketchikan diner for a nice pre-race get-together. Michelle swam the English Channel in 10 hours (very fast) a few years ago and did the Pennock Challenge in 2007. In 2008, she did the great Boston Light swim. Needless to say, she is one of the top cold water distance swimmers on the circuit. She showed us all a neat trick at the dinner table --she had a way of placing a spoon on her nose so that the spoon would not come off no matter which way she moved…She seemed to be having a lot of fun with it. After the trick, she gave me a few cold water tips. She knew exactly what happens to a swimmer’s body at varying temperatures. Did she think 55 or 56 degree water was cold? Yes… Like other elite swimmers that I have met or known, she seemed unpretentious and simply “fun to be around.”
After dinner we all met at the airport hotel for a race briefing. The chairs were marked with swimmers’ names. In the chair next to mine was a friendly young woman. She said, “John? Hi, I‘m your kayaker, Amanda, I'm from Southeast Sea Kayaks.” I smiled and said, “Hey, thanks for being part of this. So, ready, Amanda?” I guess I had five important questions (maybe more) on my mind but I quickly posed the most basic one. So, I guess you are very familiar with Pennock, Amanda, right? “Not really, I’ve never been out that way,” she said quickly and firmly. Guess my follow-up questions wouldn’t work well at this point. She read my surprised facial expression immediately. “It shouldn’t be too much of a problem, I know people that do it all the time,” she said as a matter of fact. “Alright, do you kayak a lot?” I responded. “Not really, I handle a lot of the office work at Southeast Sea Kayaks, I wish I could get out much more, the weather is not that great up here,” she said as she shook her head from side to side. At this point, I tried to analyze things or put things in perspective. The first and only phrase that came to mind was “not good.” I tried to get beyond that but when I tried to take a different perspective about the situation, the same thought kept popping up in my mind - not good... not good... not good…not good... not good... not good... not good...
The meeting progressed and we were all given maps of the course while Willie walked us through the tricky parts of the course. Amanda and I took notes about eddies, kelp, point to point direction, currents, possible wind action, waves on the south end, etc. We talked about GU, Gatorade and back up equipment (spare goggles, ear plugs, etc). As the meeting moved forward, Amanda looked involved and seemed to have a very quick and sure grasp of the information given. She then turned to me and said, “Oh I forgot to tell you, I used to kayak a lot as a summer camp instructor a number of years ago. The Pennock will be fun for me too -- I haven’t gone longer than 2 hours though.” Anyway, Willie then ended the pre-race meeting and we all parted.
The next time we would all see each other was on Sunday morning at 9AM at Thomas Basin (right next to the “Little Red Bridge”). So, in short, I walked away feeling good about the race and Amanda. She was honest, smart, had adequate kayak experience, and, more than that, she seemed to be very intuitive and task oriented. I also sensed that she had a no-nonsense side to her. If I needed a push or to hear the words “get moving or no slacking off, John,” she would say them with no second-thoughts. I was also sure she would take care of the feeding part without issues, and, yes, I was “lucky” to have Amanda as my kayaker. To sum up succinctly, things seemed in order, the rest would be up to me and me alone. It was almost time. One day left.
Some people made plans to meet up pre-race day and some made plans to party right after our meeting, but me, I wanted to be on my own at this time. I headed towards home (my hostel bed), but, on my way, I stopped off at the Sourdough Bar in town. After all, I was a tourist too. The Sourdough bar had dozens of interesting, huge photos of Alaskan shipwrecks on the walls. Truth be known, I guess I just wanted to connect with average Alaskans for awhile. I ordered a Heineken (carbohydrates?) and talked about Alaskan bears, camping, Jon Krakauer, Robert Service, Jack London and The Bridge To Nowhere (pre Palin) with a few people next to me. Have to admit, I drank my second Heineken (more carbohydrates?) when me and this Seattle guy traded ideas about Krakauer’s INTO THE WILD book. Oh, by the way, population statistics show that there are about ten guys to one woman in Alaska , and, yes, the population in the bar seemed to reflect those numbers exactly (counting the woman bartender). Oh well…
On Saturday morning (pre-race day), my plan was to play tourist. I took photos of white capped mountains outside my door and hung around with some cool Australian guests at the hostel, in short: I just wanted to relax and build up my strength, which brings me to my last race preparation issue besides getting a good sleep: eating a damn good meal filled with carbohydrates. As you probably guessed, I was on a tight budget (no car rental, hostel sleeping arrangement). I just remembered my long-time swimming partner, Tom Blatt, gave me the phone number of a family relative that owned a Chinese/American restaurant in Ketchikan. So I called Rudy & Clara (the owners) and they gave me directions. As it turned out, their cool Diaz Café was only 2 blocks away from the “Little Red Bridge.” More “luck?” I walked in and sat at the counter with mostly locals and fisherman. Rudy & Clara and the Diaz Café are an interesting success story. They came to Alaska from the Philippines and made the Diaz Café into a popular, first class café.
Both Rudy and Clara were as nice as could be to me. We talked about the race, New York, Tom’s family and Ketchikan. Since I have a true and real weakness for Chinese food , it wasn’t hard for me to order. I saw some orders (huge bowls) coming out of the kitchen. I asked Rudy, “that big bowl of soup over there is what I want , what is it?” He responded right away by saying, “Chinese noodle soup with vegetables - trust me, it’s good -real good,” I looked it up on the menu --it was 9 dollars. “Okay, let’s do it,” I said. Soon after, Rudy brought the huge noodle dish out from the kitchen himself. He smiled and said , “we made it especially for you, John.” I saw 3 or 4 boiled eggs right on top with all sorts of Chinese vegetables hanging from the sides. It seemed to me that the bowl Rudy was carrying was truly heavy. Anyway, I ate it all! (I didn’t even have to pace myself). I wanted to stop at the health food store before it closed, so it was time to go. I asked for a check, and Rudy said “No check, John, don’t even think about paying.” “Are you sure? Well, thanks. That’s awfully nice,” was all I could think of saying. I think they both sensed that I really appreciated their kindness, and, again, I was on a tight budget. We said goodbye and I got halfway up the block when I realized I had my camera with me. I rushed back to the Diaz Café, then we all posed for some great photos. In parting the second time, Rudy and Clara told me they would be rooting for me to finish with all their might. As I walked away down the street (a block short of the “Little Red Bridge”), I smiled and asked myself: more “luck?” Hey, I then made my way up a steep hill on an old side street to the cool, little Alaska Internet Café. To close, it was late in the afternoon on the day before the race , and, to sum up, my stomach was full, my body felt fine and my mind was free of issues. Nothing else but the race mattered to me at this point…
After emailing friends and swimmers, handling some business issues and surfing the internet, I left the Alaska Internet café. I walked 4 or 5 blocks to the hostel. It was 9PM. I got my race supplies together and I planned to get a full 8 hours of sleep. There were only 2 other people in the hostel room and both were already asleep so the lights were out. I pulled my sleeping bag over me and looked up through my window to the bright Alaskan stars. The next thing I heard was my alarm clock - it was 6AM. Eight full hours of sleep -perfect!…I got up, took a warm shower, put on comfortable clothes, then I picked up my race bag... Hey, time to go...
I stopped by the same diner (the one without tourists) and ordered a lightly buttered roll with a large cup of coffee to go. The waitress recognized me, and, yes, she knew where I was headed. “Hey, good luck, big guy,” she said with a warm smile. “Thanks, I’ll do okay,” I smiled back. I walked out the door then over the the “Little Red Bridge” to Thomas Basin. The air was damp and cold (50 degrees), the sky was grey, but the wind was still. I entered the marina an hour early. I looked out at the marina as the rugged and weathered Alaskan fishing boats started up their engines and headed out to sea one by one.
Sue Free, a San Francisco swimmer, waved to me and I walked over to be with her and the group. We all talked and bonded for a little while and then we walked to our assigned boats. I rolled on globs of Body-Glove all over my neck before slipping into my four year old sleeveless Orca wetsuit then I jumped into the 32 foot boat with nine or ten other swimmers. Soon after, the boat was at a red buoy (starting and finishing point). The kayaks were already lined up and ready to go. I saw Amanda and she waved to me with a big smile. I tossed my race bag to her with all I needed packed inside. The wind started to pick up and the cold, grey water got choppy fast. The conditions didn’t matter to me at this point, I just wanted to go.
It was time to jump. I pushed off from the boat with a slight sigh. Somehow, the water seemed to be colder than before. I met Amanda behind the red buoy near all the other swimmers. The gun went off! Finally! Amanda was on my right side paddling away and I tried to follow her lead. That was our plan, she was to lead the way, going from point to point. For the first 15 minutes I tried to find my pace and rhythm. I was holding back knowing that my adrenaline would speed up my stroke count naturally. I saw a few swimmers pass but I was fully aware that I was in it for the long haul and I had to be focused and stay “within myself.” At this point , I wanted to use my body for power. I rolled from side to side while extending my arms fully and holding my glide a little longer than usual (Stefan -Total Immersion coach) “You’re doing great,” Amanda shouted.
Time for my first GU break. Amanda was only a few feet away and passed me the wild berry GU. “I’m so impressed with you,” she said. The words were nice to hear -the break was fast and smooth. I couldn’t help but notice dark grey clouds coming down upon us. The water was also dark and the wind seemed to pick up. I quickly started my stroke. I felt myself on top of the chop and below the chop. I was starting to swallow saltwater so I changed to left-side breathing. Things started to get interesting. I was now into the second hour of the swim and I tried looking ahead for the southernmost tip of Pennock. All I saw were trees, dark seas and dark skies. Better to look into the mysterious Alaskan salty sea depths below, I thought. Some time passed and now I was at the south end of the island. Amanda was right beside me as usual. Time for more caffeinated GU and more orange Gatoraid. Done. Amanda and I knew this part would be tricky (heavy kelp, eddies and wave action). We planned right from the get-go to cut the island as close to shore as possible even if there were heavy kelp issues. After a few minutes of knocking into kelp branches and ducking under waves, I decided to go with my breast stroke. Guess things couldn’t have gotten too much worse, right? Wrong: now add-on an eddy from hell. I turned my crawl stroke up to ninety percent and ten minutes later I finally broke free. Amanda was getting closer now (she circled the island about 20 yards wider than me to stay clear of the heavy kelp). We were now heading north and past the half-way point, from a swimmer’s point of view that meant that I was “heading home.”
The water got smooth which enabled me to get my body into a much more streamline position. From that point on, I would be swallowing a lot less saltwater due to the changed swimming conditions. Amanda was now by my side in perfect position. The wind disappeared and the sky seemed brighter. Time for another GU. “John: look, look , a huge cruise ship, we‘re almost there!” Amanda said excitedly. Sure enough , it looked no more than a mile away to me. Yet, I knew that it was over 3 miles away according to the charts. “Are we getting a push,” I asked. “We could be,” Amanda said. It felt like we were, and, at that time, I thought I had a good hour of swimming left in me. I decided to pick up the pace.
I kept swimming for another half hour at a faster pace but I noticed that the cruise ship wasn’t getting much closer. Could it be that I was in denial from the first sighting of the cruise ship? Answer: yes. After all, I knew the distance of the race and the length of the island. I found out later that there was no assist on the way back - it was simply dead water. Back to the race, I swam on as hard as I could and tried not to look at the cruise-ship. For the first time I “needed” to stop. I was over 4 hours into the race. At this point, my arms were very sore- I was having trouble lifing them out of the water. My face was starting to feel very numb and my stomach was queasy. I think Amanda knew I didn’t have much left but she didn’t let on. “Not far now, John,” she said firmly. “I’m damn tired, Amanda, I don’t know.” “Look, the red buoy (finish line) is right around the corner,” she said as she pointed north. As I turned to look, I started to throw-up. All that was coming out of my mouth was warm liquid, and lots of it. When I turned back to Amanda, she turned away quickly (pretending not to see what just happened). She waited a moment or two, her facial expression turned very serious as she looked deeply into my eyes, then she just pointed her finger forward toward the finish without saying a word... The water seemed to turn colder -it started to feel like ice. I started shivering. I was also getting a nasty cramp in my right thigh that seemed to spread through my entire body when I moved it (I have never felt anything quite like it)... Obviously, things were not good: I was starting to doubt myself, I was damn cold and my body had lost a lot of power, but, that being said, I had the feeling that my kayaker thought I might be able to make it to the finish.
Deep down, I knew I had a little something left but I still wasn’t sure if what I had was enough. I turned on my back and did backstroke for twenty or thirty yards. I flipped over to begin my very slow crawl stroke. Now I would have to use everything I was taught to make it to the red buoy. I thought of my coaches at the CP club. What could I use now? Could I swim using less breaths like Lauren taught? What about Rod’s focus on straight leg kicking? How about Brian’s body rotation points? Could I get my elbows high like Cami wanted? The truth is that I was swimming on instinct now. The real question was, “how much did I want to finish?” I guess I knew all along that it would be my heart that would ultimately determine my fate. Back to the race: I continued on. My concentration was slipping away. I was weak, very weak.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if my arms were clearing the water. “John, look, there’s the buoy, you’re almost home!” Amanda shouted. Yes, there it was! She was not kidding this time. It was maybe 200 yards away! I put my head down and just kept my very slow pace consistent. I started counting strokes to myself: one, two, three... I knew that I would be a Pennock Challenge finisher before I got to one hundred fifty!Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine... I heard Bruckner Chase and other swimmers cheering me from two boats just south of the red buoy. I felt like it was all a dream. I was now within five yards of the red buoy. I held my breath and didn’t pick my head up until I touched it or hugged it. I was now at the center of Alaska’s Inside Passage-- it felt like I was at the center of the universe. I then turned to Amanda--she winked and I smiled. People were still clapping. I made a fist and lifted my arm as high as I could!
Monday, October 22. 2007
Women's Race Swimming Smart Leads to Victory
Written by Steve Munatones
Micha Burden, originally from Alaska and currently training in Mission Viejo, California, upset a stellar field of open water stars to win the USA Swimming Open Water World Championship Trials on Saturday, October 20 in Miromar Lakes, Florida. Kirsten Groome, 17 of First Colony Swim Team, just edged out Chloe Sutton, also of Mission Viejo Nadadores, to take second. Both Micha and Kirsten will represent the US in the 10K Olympic selection meet in Seville, Spain in late April 2008 with Chloe as the alternate. The top 10 swimmers in the Seville Olympic meet will be chosen to participate in the 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August.
The 10K race between the best 20 open water swimmers in the U.S. started just before 9 am until cloudy skies. The water temperature was nearly 85° with an air temperature of 82°F and 74% humidity. “It was very hot out there and hydration is very important,” said Dave Thomas, Sport Development official with USA Swimming. “But this will be very similar to the weather and swimming conditions in Seville and in Beijing.”
The course was a very well-marked 10K loop course in Lake Como, a man-made lake near Ft. Myers. The race included 4 loops nearly 2.5K in length with a special 400+ meter straightaway sprint to the finish chute off the main course. There were small white directional buoys every 10 meters throughout the loop course, with the ends of the loop course marked by large orange turn buoys. In all, the swimmers had to navigate around 24 turn buoys before heading to the 400-meter finish straightaway.
The 20 female Olympic aspirants ranged in ages from 14-year-old Eva Fabian of Greenwood Memorial Swim Club in Massachusetts, to former four-year Stanford All-American, Lisa Hazen at 43. Eva swam exceedingly well in placing sixth in 2 hours 3 minutes and 56 seconds, while Lisa Hazen finished 17th.
But, right from the start, the race belonged to Micha, Kirsten, Chloe and 2004 Olympian Kalyn Keller. The foursome quickly distanced themselves from the rest of the field and steadily opened up an ever-increasing gap throughout the race.
50 meters from the start, Chloe took control of the race with Kirsten, Micha and Kalyn falling right in line behind her, utilizing her draft to their advantage. “I knew they (Chloe, Kirsten and Kalyn) were the ones to watch for and I knew they would take the lead,” said Micha after the race. “I just took one lap at a time and wanted to be able to counter their moves.” The former Huntington Beach lifeguard obviously knew what she was doing for she was never more than a foot off of either Chloe or Kirsten, drafting and bidding her time.
The foursome completed the first 2.K loop in 29:44 where it was clearly became a four-person race. Due to the exceedingly warm water and weather conditions, hydration became an important factor in the race. A series of three floating pontoons were set right off the race course where the swimmers’ teammates and coaches were well-positioned to hand them water, Gatorade and gel packs. Stroke for stroke, kilometer after kilometer, the four competitors continued swimming at a punishing, but steady pace.
“I only had a whistle at the girls once,” said Sid Cassidy, the head referee. “It was on the first loop and Kirsten and Micha were just bumping a little too much. I didn’t give them a (yellow-card) warning, but only wanted them to separate a little bit. After that, the race was fair’”
Despite the jockeying for positioning and the boat traffic kicking up exhaust, the swimmers were relatively consistent in their stroke cycles. But, nothing was as consistent as the ability for Micha to draft off of either Chloe or Kirsten. Chloe was estimated to lead the pack for nearly 70% of the first 4 loops with Kirsten pulling the train for 20%. The remaining 10% of the time, either Chloe or Kirsten were making a move towards first, or were falling back to take advantage of the slight stream. But, whether it was loop #1, #2, #3 or #4, Micha was always right there, no further back than a few inches, or at most one foot, off of her competitors who were creating advantageous wakes and fast water for her. “You can save as much as 20% energy by drafting in the position that Micha is doing,” observed Dave Thomas.
The swimmers finished loop #2 in 30:06 as they continued to battle each other. Around the second loop, though, Chloe missed a feed and had to adjust. Kalyn, on the other hand, had some excellent feeds from her coach, John Urbanchek from Club Wolverine. Kirsten and Micha continued with their plans. “I knew Chloe, Kirsten and Kalyn were going to go out strong. I just wanted to have a little extra at the end.”
Loop #3 continued in much of the same manner as the first 5K: Chloe in first, Kirsten in second, Micha in third and Kalyn in fourth, with an occasional change in the lead position between Chloe and Kirsten. With so much at stake, no one was about to give an inch. Numerous times the competitors hit hands or bumped, but only one time during the first loop did head referee Sid Cassidy whistle and warn the competitors to separate.
Rick Walker, a long-time USA National Open Water Team Coach, and Dave Thomas, continued a race commentary from the lead boat throughout the race. This enabled the parents, coaches, teammates and fans who lined the edge of the lake to have a better understanding of the relative positioning of the top swimmers. As the athletes rounded the start area and feeding pontoons after every loop, they were greeted by cheer from their teammates, coaches, parents and fans. Other than that, the only sounds were the steady, smooth arm strokes of the athletes pushing themselves around the 10K course.
By the third loop, the rain had stopped and beautiful rainbows could be seen over the course. Obviously, something special was about to unfold in the final loop. The four girls had swum 7.5K, all at each other’s heels or within 1 stroke of each other. Knowledgeable fans assumed that the race would come down to a sprint between Chloe, one of the world’s hottest open water swimmers over the past summer, Kirsten Groome, another national open water champion and recent winner of a FINA World Cup 10K race, and Kalyn, the well-known silver medalist at the 2007 World Championships. All three are accomplished pool swimmers with the requisite speed and endurance to compete – and beat – the world’s best open water swimmers from Europe, Australia and South America.
But, it was to be unassuming and unheralded Micha’s day.
Coming into the final loop, with a little more than 2 kilometers to go, the race could not be more tactical. Who was going to make a move and when? Chloe was on a roll, but she had led the group for much of the race. Kirsten has the speed, but she had also pulled along her competitors for much of the race. Kalyn, always a dangerous threat, was looming just behind everyone and well-poised to make her move. The spectators waited and wondered: who would bring it home the best?
With less than 2K to go, Micha pulled around Kirsten and started swimming stroke-for-stroke with Chloe in first as she picked up her kick. Kirsten, who trains in Shreveport, Louisiana, stayed right on their heels. Drafting, an acquired skill in open water swimming, was nothing new to these competitors who are all well-schooled in the art. The pace picked up and the threesome surprisingly started to extend their lead over Kalyn. With 1.5K to go, it was Mission Viejo 1-2, but it was still really anyone’s race, including Kalyn who had dropped off about 5 meters from Chloe and Micha.
With a 1K to go, Chloe, Micha and Kirsten rounded the final 3 turn buoys as close as physically possible, but Chloe on the inside track. They were so close that they would occasionally – and inadvertently – hit one other. Both Chloe and Micha went around the first buoy cleanly with Kirsten right at their heels. All three cleared the second turn buoy well, but then Chloe and Micha both took a sharper turn than necessary. Once they realized their error after a few strokes, they slammed into one another, arms interlocked. Both came to a sudden standstill, nearly vertical in the water.
“I was really mad,” recalled Micha. “But, I couldn’t get angry and had to stay calm.” Meanwhile, Kirsten immediately took the lead, but Chloe recovered quickly and they exited the final turn buoy swimming together.
Micha later recalled, “I needed to keep my strokes long and stay on their feet. I wanted to be on the inside (going into the final sprint straightaway). Over the last two weeks. I wrote out my strategy and read it over every day. This is what I was expecting and I couldn’t let this bother me.”
With 600 meters to go, Micha recovered and moved into a three-way tie for first with Chloe and Kirsten. Kalyn had dropped off the pace and it was clear that the top 2 spots would go to these 3 competitors.
With 500 meters to go, Micha continued her powerful kick and put on a spurt that could not be matched by either Chloe or Kirsten. “She looks strong – look at her kick,” observed Rick Walker. Sid Cassidy said, “She has this great kick that was so powerful underwater.”
Micha remembered, “After I settled down, I decided to make a move.” And, her move was indeed spectacular. With 400 meters to go, she had built a lead of at least 5 meters…and it was growing with every stroke. “She really picked up her kick and looked strong out there,” said Paul Asmuth who was on the head referee boat and was instrumental in helping organize a great event along with Jay Thomas, Gregg Cross and a hospitable group of dedicated volunteers.
With 200 meters to go, Micha’s kick and sprint were clearly going to propel her to victory. But, as much as her aerobic conditioning was part of her victory, her level-headed race strategy and drafting enabled her to out-sprint her competition. Throughout the first 8K, she was always swimming totally within someone’s draft and conserving energy. When she decided to make her move, she did – and it was her competition that was unable to react.
As Micha pulled to victory, the race for the second spot on the US team was up for grabs. Chloe and Kirsten were sprinting and kicking as best they could for that coveted Olympic selection spot the final 600 meters. They were essentially even, stroke-for-stroke, as the crowd waited in anticipation. Kirsten put her head down and beat Chloe by a body length.
“I didn’t expect the lead to change so much throughout the race,” said Kirsten. “I made a move at the end and it feels great to qualify. I expect the Americans will do well in Seville.”
As she looked back on her victory, Micha said with a radiant smile, “I took one lap at a time. I wanted to be able to make a move, and to be able to counter any move the other competitors made. Sure we ran into one another, but you have to be prepared for that (in open water swimming). Then, I made a run for it…”
Micha’s run basically started less than 2 years ago when she was swimming occasionally for a masters program in Huntington Beach and studying to be a nurse after graduation from Cal-Berkeley. Encouraged to take up open water swimming seriously, Micha decided to train under Bill Rose at Mission Viejo. Slowly, but steadily, Micha got into shape and traveled the world, from San Francisco to Dubai, in search of the best open water competition she could find. And her journey is not over. Together with Kirsten and her male colleagues who will be selected tomorrow on the same course, the road to Beijing goes through Seville.
The final results of the race are:
Micha Burden (26), Mission Viejo Nadadores, 2:00:47.48
Kirsten Groome (17), First Colony Swim Team, 2:01:05.43
Chloe Sutton (15), Mission Viejo Nadadores, 2:01:09.02
Kalyn Keller (22), Club Wolverine, 2:01:42.15
Christine Jennings (20), Minnesota Aquatics, 2:03:54.94
Eva Fabian (14), Greenwood Memorial Swim Club, 2:03:56.10
Whitney Sprague (20), North Carolina Aquatic Club, 2:04:23.91
Katelyn Martin (17), Magnus Aquatic Club, 2:05:26.76
Erica Rose (25), unattached, 2:06:30.74
Jessica Witt (20), Nova of Virginia Aquatics, 2:06:46.47
Alicia Mathieu (15), SoNoCo Swim Club, 2:06:47.15
Caitlin Warner (20), Rice Aquatics, 2:07:34.16
Elizabeth Stowe (21), unattached, 2:10:12.60
Kelly Baird (15), Winston-Salem YMCA, 2:12:47.86
Nicole Vernon (14), Delaware Swim Team, 2:13:04.45
Leah Gingrich (17), WSY Swimming, 2:14:24.78
Lisa Hazen (43), unattached, 2:18:17.72
Courtney Weigand (17), North Coast Aquatics, 2:19:11.20
Lauren Bailey (22), Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics, DNF
Brittany Massengale (22), Rice Aquatics, DNF
Tuesday, June 7. 2005
The last time I wrote, I was planning on watching the 5K competition on Friday afternoon. That only partially happened. It rained ALL DAY LONG on Friday. The race did start ? there was no lightening, just rain. The race did not, however, finish. About 2K into the 5K race, the officials had to call the swim off. It was raining and blowing so hard by that point that nobody could see the buoys and the swimmers were having a terrible time trying to stay on course. The lead pack of boys was WAY off and the girls were all over the map. As they came around the first loop of the two-loop course, spectators waded in the water and yelled to swimmers to stop swimming and come to shore. Extra boats were sent out to pull swimmers in and make sure that everyone returned to the registration tent safely to check in. What a mess!!
Due to the weather, I was only able to loosen up for about 15 minutes Friday afternoon. It was better than doing nothing, but I would have preferred to have had enough time to shake out and completely loosen after the 25K on Thursday. Instead, I swam just a little bit and then played Frisbee on the beach. I did lots of reading, watched a movie and sat inside and watched the rain pour down on the beach.
Saturday was a little bit better. The 5K was rescheduled for 1pm and this time, the swimmers were actually able to complete the course. Sara McLarty and the two Canadian girls swam the whole race way ahead of the rest of the field. Sara touched them out and earned a spot on the World Championship team. The boys race was close as well. Ricardo Monasterio (Venezuala) and Chip Peterson duked it out until the finish. The others were not far behind. All in all, it was a great race with tough competition on both sides.
Later that night, most of the swimmers returned for the "Dash for Cash" race. We started in the sand, ran out into the water, swam about a mile in the gulf, and then ran back out onto shore for the finish. I was not at all happy with this race. I started off really well. I sprinted out into the water and was in second place (of the girls) right away. I kept a tough pace going and ended up catching and swimming with the last guy in the pro division. The two Canadian girls were behind me, but at a safe enough distance that I should have been fine all the way through to the finish. Well, it didn't turn out that way. In order to finish, we had to swim under a pontoon and banner and then sprint up onto the beach. As we approached the pontoon, I caught the last male. When we got to the pontoon, he was struggling to beat me into the finish and ended up shoving me under water!! He pushed me right into the pontoon and elbowed me so that I was completely submerged. The two Canadian swimmers ran right over me and by the time I figured out what had happened, I was trailing behind them on the run up to the beach. I finished fourth. A great effort, but not the finish I had hoped for in the sprint. I was not at all happy with a guy beating me up, a guy that I was not even racing!! Girls and guys were scored separately and he still attacked me!! No fun at all.
Moving on we come to Sunday, the final day of competition. For the first time all week, the rain eased up a bit. Sunday morning turned into a perfect day for a 10K open water race. We started on time, the conditions were great, and the race was my favorite of all three of my swims during the week.
The course was four loops and there was a water station at the end of each loop. Right away, I started off in the lead pack. I was swimming with Sara McLarty, Karley (from Canada), Beth Byrum, Claire Hawley, and Lindsay Barwegen. We held a pretty easy and controlled pace for the first two loops. Then, at the 5K mark, we picked up the pace. Sara, Karley and I stayed together but the others dropped back a bit. From that point on, the three of us took turns leading and drafting. At the end of the last loop, Sara pulled away and took the lead. She finished about 10 seconds ahead of me, and then Karley was third. Sara and I will be together in Montreal, representing the US in the 10K.
All in all, it was a good week in Ft. Meyers. I am excited to be heading to Montreal in July to represent the USA in the 10K and 25K events. Until then, I will be in Cleveland training and preparing.
Good luck to all of you who have races coming up this summer. Keep up the hard training and enjoy the competitions!!
Friday, June 3. 2005
Yesterday was the 25K. What a day. The race was supposed to begin at 8am... but that did not happen. The race was also supposed to be a 25K loop around the Island here at Ft. Myers beach... but that did not happen, either.
The weather here in Florida has been unusually rainy and stormy for this time of year. It rained Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We were sure that by Thursday we would get a break. We didn't. We woke up Thursday morning to a downpour complete with lightening and thunder. We went to the starting point and waited to hear the new plan. We were told to return at 10am. When we returned at 10am we found out that instead of doing the pre-planned loop around the island, we were going to be swimming two loops down and up the coast instead. We were to start the race at 11am.
The organizers here in Ft. Myers did an excellent job of rearranging everything and mapping out the course. We started the race pretty close to 11am and it went well. The swimmers, coaches, boat drivers, officials, and safety patrol were all very flexible and eager to make it a great race despite the weather.
I started out with the lead pack of boys but lost them fairly quickly. John Kenny led the boys' group from the beginning and was followed by a few Canadians. The Canadian team, by the way, is here and is using our Nationals as their qualifying meet for World Championships. It adds to our competition and gives the races a bit more depth so we enjoy having them here. Despite their presence, however, the race only had a total of 11 swimmers - 7 men and 4 women. Quite a small field. On the female side, one of the women was Canadian. Since this is a selection meet, the top two make Worlds. This meant that the three Americans were competing for two spots on the team.
The race went well. I felt strong and smooth the whole time - and only had two minor jelly fish scares. It startles me when I feel them rolling over my arms and legs! Just rolls this time though - no stings. That's a good thing! I saw a few dolphins and was able to look around and enjoy the coastline the entire time. My boat driver knew the course very well and kept me going straight - he was amazing. My boyfriend came with me to be on my boat as my trainer this year. It was his first time seeing me compete and (obviously) being on my boat. He was awesome and made the 6 hour race fun for me.
I finished the race in first place for the females - winning with a time of 6 hours and 4 minutes. Erica Watts placed second and was followed by Kathryn from Canada and Rendy from the USA. In the boys' race, John Kenny was first and Sean Seaver also earned a spot on the US team (on his birthday!) Two Canadians took the other two positions in the top four.
All in all, it was a good race. It did not go quite as expected (in terms of weather and the course), but everyone adapted well and raced hard. Being flexible and easy going is part of what this sport is all about. We don't race in the pool - we race in the elements and yesterday we were faced with that aspect of our sport.
I'm a little sore today, but I'm actually not feeling too bad. I made sure to drink quite a bit of water last night (after getting chocolate peanut butter ice cream to celebrate making the World team!) I will loosen up a bit in the ocean today and I will get some extra rest. I'm hoping to be as near to 100% as possible by Saturday evening and Sunday.
I will compete in the "Dash for Cash" on Saturday night and then in the 10K race on Sunday. Today is my rest day and I will be a spectator instead of a competitor at the 5K race this afternoon. I will update after the 10K race (it's tough to get affordable internet down here!)
Until then... think sunshine and fast thoughts for all of the US open water swimmers down here in Ft. Myers, Florida!!