Race report: 2014 Tropical Splash Open Water Swim

**Editor’s note: The editor isn’t sure how more than two weeks have passed since this race occurred. The editor promises to get her (expletive) together and get back on top of her schedule soon.**

At first, we thought the loud, sudden boom that woke us in the night was an explosion.

It roared and crackled for what felt like a long time—maybe five seconds—before giving way to a low hum. Thunder, followed by rain.

It was the night before the 2014 Tropical Splash Open Water Swim in Siesta Key, Fla. The rain had been in the forecast all week, but I had mostly brushed off any concern about it. A thunderstorm in the middle of the night in Florida in October? What were the chances?

The rain continued into the morning, as I ate my pre-race breakfast in the hotel room I was sharing with Steve and my mom, my fearless cheering section. We watched the huge green blob on the radar screen on The Weather Channel with interest and confusion. Really? This? Now?

In between Weather Channel updates, I checked the race organizers’ Twitter feed for information (kudos to the team for keeping us well-informed!). The registration was postponed, but race organizers  via the organizers’ Twitter feed that forecasts indicated the race would go on. The rain poured on. A message flashed below the radar image on the TV: Rip current warning.

“Do you think the people organizing the swim know that?” Steve said.

“I’m sure they do,” I said unconvincingly.

Then, as suddenly as the storm began, it was done. The race was, indeed, on. But the 5K, the longest distance—and the one I signed up for—was cancelled, leaving me “downgraded” to the 2.5K.

As we drove toward the beach, my inner cranky teenager had a field day. Why had I done all those long training swims if I was just going to swim a 2.5K? Why did it have to storm today, of all days?

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The voice fell into a quiet awe when we walked onto the beach. The storm clouds still hung above the turquoise water, which was churned up into a foamy froth. A rainbow danced above us. As I surveyed the course from the shore, it occurred to me that while this wasn’t exactly the race I had in mind when I signed up, it might just be a cooler experience rather than a “downgrade.”

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That idea was affirmed as soon as I started swimming. Large swells pushed us swimmers forward, then sucked us backwards. A slight diagonal current pushed us off ever-so-slightly off course. This was not a chance to PR on a glassy lake—this was a rare opportunity to test my endurance and mental toughness. I dug in and committed myself to enjoy every moment of it.

I’m not going to tell you that it was over before I knew it. At many points during the race, I found myself expressing gratitude that I only had to swim one lap of the course, not the two I would have completed for the 5K. But I will tell you that it was tremendously fun and exciting, and that after I ran across the finish line and met up with Steve and my mom, I could initially only sit down on a cooler next to the finish line and mutter breathlessly: “Wow. That was something.” I didn’t even bother looking at my time—the race wasn’t about that. ‘

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But after breakfast, and before we proceeded to the Daiquiri Deck for the requisite post-race drink, I did stop to looked up my time and place. Amazingly, my time, 48:49, was the fastest for women in my age group that day.

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If we only wanted PRs in closed environments, we’d swim only in pool races. If we want adventure, surprise and awe, open-water swimming is a great place to find it. This race was a lovely reminder of that.

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The accidental stroke clinic: keeping the joy while doing the drills

I couldn’t have been more relaxed if I’d tried.

It was mid-summer, and I was floating on my back in the middle of Lake Desolation, at one of the docks where we all wait for our group to regroup before swimming to the other side of the lake.

“Hey,” said the swimmer-friend I often keep pace with. “Can I show you something?”

No sooner had I agreed, my friend—an age-group coach known as being a skilled stroke technician for swimmers of all ages—had her hand on mine, and was mimicking a stroke.

“When your hand enters the water, you don’t want it to be sideways, like this.” She mimicked my normal, thumb-first entry into the water. “You actually want to come in straight, like this. Your thumb will be in front of your nose.”

We did that thing people do when a coach tells an athlete about a technical deficiency and an athlete tries, awkwardly, to correct it (“Oh! Like this? No? How about now? OK. Is this better?”). Then, the group took off for the other side of the lake, and I said I’d keep working on it as I swam.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t keep working on it. Normally, my perfectionist streak would demand that I immediately correct the problem. But swimming is a little different, thanks to the post-high-school burnout that caused me to leave the pool for 10 years. I have a weird, secret belief that the swim gods will allow me to continue to enjoy this sport again only if I agree to keep a low-key approach that focuses on joy rather than speed: No intervals. No drills. Certainly no stroke clinics. And so I decided to ignore the tip, no matter how well-intended and much-needed it was. I settled into my nice relaxed pace—until I felt a tug on the back of my bathing suit.

“It’s your right elbow,” said my friend, excited to have found the root cause of my weird hand-entry and overreaching. “It drops at a couple points throughout your stroke.”

A lightbulb went off for me as she explained how to correct this. I felt curious about what the correction would feel like, swim gods be damned. This time, when I started swimming again, I focused on it, working closer to where I needed to be with each stroke.

I went to the pool the next day, wanting nothing more than to do the drill in which you drag your fingertips across the water on the freestyle recovery to keep your elbows high. And as I worked to put my right elbow in the correct place, I noticed something interesting: Rather than leading me down a rabbit hole of taking the sport too seriously, pushing me to strive for some future achievement, it forced me into the moment, one stroke at a time.

It’s been more than a month since then. I think the tweak—which probably moved my arm about an inch, total—is finally starting to feel less foreign. More importantly, I still feel all the joy I did floating on my back in Lake Desolation—with a little more smoothness incorporated on my right side.

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Training for Daiquiri Deck Tropical Splash

Sometimes, if I’m feeling saucy after signing up for an open-water swim, I results-stalk previous participants to gauge my perceived changes of winning my age group, or winning overall. I decided to do so with the Daiquiri Deck Tropical Splash Open Water Swim, which I recently registered to participate in for the fourth time.

I clicked on the 2012 results first, finding that the winner completed the 5K in 1:08:28.1. Speedy. I looked to the left side of the page, and learned that the winner’s name was Brooke Bennett. As in, the three-time Olympic gold medalist (and distance-freestyle specialist) Brooke Bennett. You know—the one who plans to compete in the 2016 Olympics for open-water swimming. Heh. Gotcha.

I poked around more, finding that the age-group winners for previous years looked beatable. I lingered on 2010, and thought: “1:31:58. I could probably top that.” My eyes scanned to the left side of the page, where the swimmer’s name and age would appear.

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Folks, it was me. I had unwittingly guided my attention back to the only thing that matters: My internal goals and dreams, and how a given race feels to swim, as opposed to who I can or can’t beat on a given day. Sometimes, the universe works in mysterious ways. Other times, the universe is like a hand steering a Ouija board, spelling out the road back to our values.

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The real reason I do these swims: Views like this one, captured pre-race last year.

In other news, training for the swim is going quite well. My regular Tuesday-morning swim date and I discovered a terrific pyramid that slays 3,200 yards without you even noticing it. We call it the Super Pyramid, and you swim the following yards up—> 50, 100, 150, 200, 250, 300, 350, 400—then swim it in reverse back down. The 350s and 400 hurt in the best way possible.

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Last Moreau Lake swim of the summer

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Summer, we hardly knew ye!

The photo above is from my last swim with Saratoga Triathlon Club at Moreau Lake last Thursday night. Don’t let the wetsuits in the photo fool you—the water was at least 74 degrees, which proved the perfect complement to the rapidly cooling air.

When I got home from the swim, the first winter issue of SKI magazine was waiting for me. A few short days later, Lynsey Dyer released the new trailer for her amazing movie, Pretty Faces. I’m beyond stoked.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/105099376″>Unicorn Picnic |

But I’m not ready to give up my open-water swimming bliss just yet. In a last-ditch effort to hang onto summer, I booked a trip to Florida to see my mom and to swim in the 12th Annual Daiquiri Deck Tropical Splash on Oct. 4.

 

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Race report: 2014 Lake George Open Water Swim 5K

At the end of every open-water swim, there’s a moment when I think: Do I have to do another lap? Is the finish straight ahead, or toward that other buoy? Is anything hanging out that I should put back in before running onto the shore?

The longer the swim, the greater the chance that things get a little weird in your head by the end. I was reminded of that in vivid detail at the Lake George Open Water Swim last Saturday. When I was standing on shore at the pre-race meeting for the 5K swim, the finish-line situation made perfect sense: During the first lap, swim around the red buoy to turn. After the second lap, swim to the finish chute instead. Easy-peasy.

It all seems so clear in the diagram.

It all seems so clear in the diagram.

But after three miles of swimming, that seemed anything but clear. As I rounded the corner of the green buoy, I picked up my head to sight. Seeing no obvious direction and no other swimmers to follow, I turned to a kayaker in confusion.

“Straight ahead?” I yelled.

She said something that sounded exactly like: “No, around the red.”

I realized my mistake as soon as I turned around that red buoy. I saw what seemed like dozens of swimmers proceeding in a straight and orderly swim line to the actual finish chute as I took what felt like forever (but was probably just a minute or two) to get there the long way around.

“Stupid,” I thought to myself. “So stupid.”

I ran onto shore sheepishly, then shuddered a little when I saw that my time, 1:30 and change, was two minutes slower than my time last year.

Outwardly, I joked about it and laughed at myself and said the truest thing possible about any mistake of any sort: “Stuff happens, right?” Inwardly, though, every time I thought about the race, the same soundtrack played in my head: So stupid. And I found myself obsessively searching for other open-water swims to end the season with, feeling a desperate need to prove I could do better.

This is maybe the best part of open-water swimming: The way it can provide a uniquely clear view of what’s happening in your head. When it’s just you and the water and your thoughts, you’re forced to listen to whatever noise pops up when all else is quiet. In this case, I discovered that my particular brand of noise on that particular day was rather unkind.

The beautiful thing is, once you get a peek at what’s happening in your head, you get a chance to change it. Every time the thought popped up, I switched my focus to the rest of the race: The hour and a half I spent immersed in cool, blue peace, gliding through clear, glassy water or charging through the occasional boat wake. When people asked how the race went, I stopped telling them about my mistake, and started telling them how I enjoyed every stroke—which is totally true. In fact, aside from a minute or two at the very end, my race was kind of perfect.

It’s a small mental shift, but it highlights something big: The way swimming and running and hiking and biking and skiing offer the opportunity to become a better, happier, healthier person.

When I first got home, I opted to not look up race results. But when I received an email from the race directors linking to those results, I changed my mind. No surprises on my time, but I was surprised to learn that on this particular day, the time I’d been so disappointed with was good enough for first in my age group. Is it wrong to think of this as an affirmation that no matter what my time, no matter what absurdities crept in, and, frankly, no matter what my age-group finish, my swim was not only good enough, but a gift?

 A funny side note: The next day, I saw a swimmer-friend who volunteered as a kayaker at the race. She joked: “There was a 2.5K, a 5K and a 10K race yesterday. Amy opted for the 6K.” Ha!

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Race report: Betsy Owens Memorial Swim

Earlier this summer, as I perused my race schedule, it occurred to me that I didn’t have anything on the calendar that would, by its very nature, challenge me to my core.

Sure, there are always PRs to seek and sprints to gut out. But those are optional challenges, not goals that promise to pull your guts out and show you what you’re made of.

Until Saturday, that is.

The Betsy Owens Memorial Swim in Lake Placid is a two-mile cable course in beautiful, calm Mirror Lake. Nothing inherently difficult about it—just four laps around a cable. I traveled up to the race with the group I swim with at Lake Desolation, and I was excited for a chance to enjoy the fellowship of my swimmer-friends and go for a nice dip in a beautiful lake.

Excited, until I learned that the water temperature was 67 degrees.

I once got hypothermic during a 2.5-mile ocean swim in Florida, where the water temperature was at least 70 degrees. Ever since then, I’ve happily told anyone who asks that I don’t swim in water below 70 degrees without a wetsuit. So when word started rippling through the crowd that the water temperature was significantly below that, I started to panic a bit. I walked down to the shore to confirm the temperature with the lifeguard.

“Yep, 67,” she said. “It was even colder a couple years ago. People were getting out after the first lap.”

“I might get out after the first lap today,” I said, laughing.

The thought lodged in my head immediately: I might get out after the first lap. If I need to, I can get out after the first lap. If I want to, I can get out after the first lap.

The water: Chilly, but so beautiful!

The water: Chilly, but so beautiful!

The thought stayed with me as my friends went to warm up (certainly an oxymoron, when warming up involves jumping in a cold lake). When they returned to the beach, shivering, they insisted the water wasn’t as bad as it sounded. I raised my eyebrows.

“OK, it’s bad,” said one friend. “It takes your breath away. You just have to tell yourself: ‘I’m fine. I just need to take deep breaths and stretch out my strokes.'”

How seriously did I take my swim? As seriously as a Wonder Woman bathing suit.

How seriously did I take my swim? As seriously as a Wonder Woman bathing suit.

I nodded. And before I knew it, I was lined up at the shoreline in my Wonder Woman bathing suit, feeling about as far away from a comic-book superheroine as I could get.

Here’s the really cruel part of this story: The start involved the dozen waves of swimmers to wade out to a buoy about 10 yards from shore, then tread water by the buoy for up to two minutes while waiting for the fastest waves to go.

My first step into the water was fine—just a little bit chilly. But lowering my torso into the water literally took my breath away. I thought about how the race director swam the English Channel last year, surviving 64-degree temperatures for 10 hours. And I thought one last time about how I could get out after one lap if I wanted. I dolphin-dived into the silver-gray water, whimpering to myself as I submerged.

Something funny: The next two minutes were among the most fun I’ve ever had swimming. There’s a special kind of camaraderie that forms between those doing the same absurd thing at the same time. I can’t even tell you what me and my other 10 wave-mates yammered about as we waited for our turn to start; I just know that if I saw those swimmers on the street, I’d hug them, and thank them for helping me to not feel so alone.

The first wave was a cold, gray blur. I tried to follow my swimmer-friend’s advice: You’re fine. Breathe. Fine. Breathe. By the time I finished the first lap, I was swimming alone, without knowing whether I’d passed my wave-mates or whether they passed me. I stayed that way for the rest of the race, seeing other swimmers only when they passed me on the opposite side of the cable course.

I kept it smooth and relaxed for the second and third laps. As I rounded the buoy to start the fourth and final lap, I got ready to sprint.

That’s when the cold really hit. My limbs felt numb and clumsy. My arms slapped the water; my kick felt out of rhythm. I actually wondered whether I was moving forward, or just splashing around in place. It felt like I was swimming for hours before I spotted the finish buoy.

As I ran onto shore, my feet felt like ice blocks. Someone grabbed me and wrapped me in a space blanket. It was done.

I finished in 56 minutes and change—a little slower than I’d hoped, but a victory nonetheless. As I sat under a blanket with my swim-buddies, my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote popped into my head: You must do the thing you think you cannot do. It doesn’t matter how long the swim took me, or that I doubted myself before I started. When faced with the thing I thought I could not do, I said: “I’ll try.”

 

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One of their own: When the rapids took the life of Shannon Christy, local kayakers refused to leave her behind.

WILL SEEBER wasn’t worried at first.

The 24-year-old Bethesda kayaker had made his way down the Potomac River with fellow paddler Shannon Christy, so together they could run Great Falls, some of the most treacherous white water in the world.

As Seeber weaved through whirlpools and waves on the way to the falls in C&O Canal National Historical Park on that July afternoon last year, he could see Christy, a 23-year-old kayaker from South Carolina, paddling straight ahead. Seeber assumed she would stop to wait for him before attempting the difficult “line,” or path of descent, down the falls.

“I realized at the last second, ‘Oh, she’s not even stopping,’ ” Seeber says. “I wasn’t worried at that point. She paddled into it with purpose, and hit the line perfectly.”

Photo of Will Seeber by Skip Brown, courtesy of Bethesda Magazine.

Photo of Will Seeber by Skip Brown, courtesy of Bethesda Magazine.

Seeber paddled quickly to catch up, running the first waterfall right behind Christy, but found no sign of her. Assuming that Christy had continued down the falls, he kept paddling. He glimpsed Christy’s red boat above a section of the rapids known as the Five Fingers.

Then Seeber spotted the young woman.

She was trying to swim in full paddling gear, but the current was sweeping her downstream toward a dangerous death trap of water and rock called the Subway. As Seeber began sprinting toward her, Christy disappeared beneath the churning water.

By the end of that day, Christy’s disappearance had sparked a search involving dozens of kayakers and highly trained swift-water rescuers from Montgomery and Fairfax counties who took to the water in heavy-duty inflatable boats as news helicopters buzzed overhead, broadcasting the drama to the entire nation. For the elite local kayakers who would risk their lives to recover Christy’s body, the day would forever change the way they viewed the sport they loved.

But at first, it was just Seeber, furiously back-paddling away from the deadly channel in shock, trying to figure out how to save his friend.

To read more of this story, please visit Bethesda Magazine’s website.

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