(Editor’s note: I know this is long, but I wanted to offer as comprehensive a report as possible for people prepping for the race next year, since others’ post-race reports were such a help to me this year. If you don’t plan to do the swim yourself, feel free to skim.)
Crossing the finish line of any race is a jubilant experience. No matter how hard the race itself was, the idea that it’s done, and the visual representation of what you just accomplished, is usually enough to inspire one last rally to finish strong. That’s especially true of open-water swims, with their added drama of rising from the water and running onto land again. That makes for one awesome finish-line photo (throw in a wetsuit and you look and feel like a superhero).
The finish line of the 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim—and the swim itself—was different from any other event I’ve participated in. In the final yards of the race, I kept waiting for the surge of adrenalin that would power my exhausted body across the finish line. It never came. Instead, I stumbled onto shore, with my only goal being not falling flat on my face. “Take your time,” a volunteer said cheerfully as I tried to steady my wobbly legs. My timing chip was removed. My wetsuit was unzipped. My bib, tucked beneath my cap, was taken. When I finally looked around, I noticed that I was in good company, with several other wetsuit-clad zombies shuffling away from the shoreline—this is not a race that leaves you with the energy to run.
My preparation started the day before, when I spent the morning kneading and baking homemade pita bread and pizza dough, and the afternoon and evening hosting a movie-marathon/pizza party (a ploy to get a bunch of friends to come over and help keep me sane).
The next morning, Steve and I arrived at Sandy Point State Park at about 9:30 a.m., leaving me plenty of time to apply Bullfrog sunblock, BodyGlide and PAM cooking spray to prevent sunburn and chafing.
Two dear friends from my running group came to the race to support me, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. In return, I entertained them with the PAM application and strange dance that comes with putting on a wetsuit.
At the pre-race meeting, race director Chuck Nabit told us the rules: No straying beyond the two spans of the bridge. No removing your cap. Feel free to grab the side of one of the “snack boats,” or boats equipped with water and munchies like Nilla Wafers. If you feel like you want to quit, just ring the bell three times. Oh, wait—wrong movie. If you want to quit, let a support boat know, and the boat will take you to the DNF pier. No joke—there’s a DNF pier. During this meeting, Nabit described the ebb tide we’d feel at the beginning of the race as “gentle.”
After the first wave—slower swimmers and rookies donning yellow caps, to include me—was called to the starting corral, we waited what seemed like forever on the hot sand in our hot wetsuits, stewing in the hot air and complaining about being—well, hot. Seeing the guy who was born without arms and legs start the race moments before we did made us quit our complaining. And then it began.
The “Cuisinart start” (known as such because it feels like you’re getting chopped up by a mass of churning arms and legs) wasn’t too intense. But as I noted on Monday, it lasted the entire first mile, as the lead pack in my (slower) wave stayed in a tight clump until we crossed beneath the northern span of the bridge. I’m still amazed at how talented and well-trained this group of swimmers were, and totally understand why U.S.A. Swimming named the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim among the world’s most competitive open-water swims. A few impressions from throughout the course:
Mile marker 1: I feel fantastic, and am relishing the familiar rhythm of the open-water swim, taking long, smooth strokes through the brackish water. I’m exactly the right temperature in my wetsuit. Nothing is chafing. Nothing is sore. I flip on my back and glance at my watch when I spot the first mile marker: 23 minutes. I am going to SMOKE this thing. Screw finishing below two and a half hours—I can crank this baby out in an hour and a half! Happily, I don’t feel a bit of the gentle ebb tide Nabit mentioned.
Shortly after mile marker 1: Here’s the thing about that tide: You don’t feel a pull so much as you suddenly find yourself just a few meters away from the concrete base of the southern span. Which is a really, really unpleasant realization.
About 1.5 miles: I veer to the left to get back on track, and keep my body angled slightly to my left to counteract the southward pull of the tide—no luck. I’d have to swim at a 45-degree angle to swim straight—that can’t be right. I crane my neck to spot a landmark to “sight,” and notice two other women swimming with short, choppy strokes, like they’ve been caught in a rip tide. Crap. I adjust a little farther to the left, and console myself by noting that this is hard for everyone, not just me. I ponder adjusting even farther to the left, but convince myself that I’m imagining how extreme the tide is. I don’t readjust until the first of the faster, second-wave swimmers, who are wearing red caps, pass me, and I notice that their bodies are perpendicular to the spans of the bridge, swimming at a 45-degree angle to travel straight. I follow suit, keeping my eye on short-term markers to prove that I am, in fact, moving forward, and not just swimming in place. I instantly regret wasting so much time not trusting my instinct.
Mile marker 2: The coveted snack boat is directly in front of me. I didn’t train with any mid-swim nutrition, so I don’t take any of the food, just a Dixie cup of water. My main reason for stopping is not to eat, but to confirm that I’m not making up the insanity of this tide. I sputter some probably-unintelligible words to the other swimmers clinging to the boat for dear life. They concur. I keep swimming, maniacally singing “Three Little Birds” to myself to calm my panicked mind.
Shortly after mile marker 2: The tide calms as quickly as it started. I wonder again if I’ve made up its intensity. I feel euphoric as I settle in to the smooth, even strokes I’ve been practicing during long swims for the past several months. I pass at least three or four other swimmers, and congratulate myself on plowing through the chop—swells that looked to be about two or three feet. I repeat the mantra that got me through those long swims—stronger every stroke.
Somewhere between mile 2 and 3: Things are getting kinda weird out here. Awe fills my heart when I realize I’m in one of the main shipping channels for the Bay. I am in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay! Amazing! All my other open-water swims (loop courses, or courses along the shore) suddenly feel silly and pointless, the way running on a treadmill feels in comparison to trail-running. At the same time, my arms are completely wiped from that horrid second mile. There’s something weird going on between the end of my cap and the beginning of my wetsuit on the back of my neck. My back and neck ache from all the sighting during that second mile, and I wonder if it’s possible to break your back swimming. I recoil when my hand touches something squishy—a jellyfish? No. A dead fish. Ew. Ew. Ew. My body shudders involuntarily as I think about all the different reasons fish die in the Bay.
Still somewhere in the abyss between mile 2 and 3: I see the turkey buzzards Al Gruber, an experienced Bay swimmer who issues an annual pre-race report, said to look for in the lattice work near the second shipping channel. The second shipping channel! I’m in the second shipping channel!
Around the second span: I passed mile 3, right? Right? I’m not panicked anymore, just kind of curious, like the race is happening to someone else. “Stronger every stroke” doesn’t work when you feel like your back is broken, and my mantras take a turn for the random and nonsensical. I recently worked on a story about disordered eating among women runners for which I interviewed two experts in women’s sports medicine and dietetics, Dr. Carol Otis and Dr. Suzanne Girard Eberle, respectively. I found myself repeating mantras they use to encourage healthy eating habits for women athletes: Otis’ “too fit to quit” sounds great to the tune of “2 Legit 2 Quit.” (I’m too fit! I’m too fit to quit! He-ey-hey!) Eberle’s “strong body, strong mind” carried me most of the rest of the race, though I can find no reference to her saying that exact phrase now. I highly recommend it as a mantra, though, wherever it came from.
Mile 3: Everyone warned me not to get too excited about passing the second shipping channel, as there’s still more than a mile before the final stretch to the finish line. And that final stretch is still 700 yards, which is not nothing. Still, it’s hard not to get excited, and I try to pick up the pace a few times. I cue the mental Nicki Minaj soundtrack, and sing: “You play the back, (expletive)—I’m in the front” to myself as I try to pass a red-capped swimmer. He pulls away from me easily. OK, fine—I’ll take the back.
In the middle of mile 3: I wish desperately I’d forced myself to eat the banana I brought for pre-race fuel. At the same time, I feel a little nauseous, and taste the oatmeal and blueberries that have served me well throughout training. Something really bad is happening on the back of my neck.
Getting close to mile 4: I feel little pangs of pain throughout my body. As I shake out my legs to work out the cramps shooting through my calves, I feel a stinging sensation in my bad knee, and I convince myself I have screwed up my still-new ACL graft. My manta becomes the voice of my doctor sighing, rolling his eyes at me and and saying: “Yes, I *promise* you won’t hurt yourself kicking freestyle.”
The last 700 yards: The shore is ahead of me. I have traveled from one side of the Bay to the other. I am going to do this. I am going to get to that finish line. Could I have swam smarter and gone faster at mile 2? Yes. No. Doesn’t matter. Dig deep here. If there’s anything left, use it up here. I grunt audibly as I sprint for 10 or 20 strokes in a row, after which I audibly whimper in exhaustion, then repeat. The race isn’t finished, but I keep saying to myself: This was harder than I thought it would be. This would normally be what my friend Sarah calls the “guts and glory” portion of the race, during which I try to pass everyone in sight. I couldn’t care less about passing anyone, but am terrified of finishing with something left in the tank, of having come here and attempted this incredible race without giving it everything I had.
Last 50 yards: I am swimming alongside a woman who looks to be my age, and I decide I do care about passing. I pour my everything into the last 50 yards and stumble to the finish line ahead of her.
Post-race snack table: I can’t pull myself away from the orange wedges. To the amusement of the snack-table volunteers, I’ve repeatedly apologized for the number of orange wedges I’ve eaten (20? 30?), and yet I still can’t stop. I need to sit down. Would it be weird to sit on the table next to the oranges? I see my friends, and tell them to hold on, then stuff a few more orange wedges in my mouth. The sight and/or thought of all other food makes me want to vomit. I feel the back of my neck, and realize my cap and wetsuit have been playing tug-of-war with a tiny section of hair, leaving me with the most painful and most random chafing I’ve ever experienced.
I tear myself away from the oranges. I hug my friends. I kiss my Steve. I sit down on the grass. I realize sitting on the grass will not get me closer to food, or home, and I say something angry about needing food (that nausea passed reeeally quickly). My friends go ahead to Hemingway’s and order chicken flatbread so food is waiting for me. I order the best crab soup I have ever tasted, and crab nachos. I’m aware that I’m not talking quite right.
Once I’ve stuffed my face and start acting like a human again, my friends present me with the traveling trophy pictured below, named the Golden Pig of Awesomeness. A swimmer at a nearby table asks why he didn’t get one at the finish line. I tell him he’ll have to get friends like mine to snag one.
One friend asks if I’d do it again. The short answer: Yes.
My time: 2:22:05, good for 13th out of 26 in my age group, 74th among the 180 women, 237 out of 542 overall.
620 swimmers entered the water at Sandy Point State Park.
78 swimmers did not finish
Of the 78 swimmers who did not finish:
16 were pulled prior to event interruption
62 were pulled thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard’s decision to halt the event based on the threat of an impending storm.