Great Chesapeake Bay Swim: Lessons learned

A few years ago, The Onion ran an infographic titled “chat room shorthand.” It included this acronym: NTBUSWAB, which stands for Not to bring up Star Wars again, but … (it also includes 18/F/NYC = Pockmarked 46-year-old in bathrobe; and WSTS = Weeping silently to self).

So. NTBUTGCBSAB …

This partially aims to serve as a note to myself for future years (Yes, I am planning on doing that crazy business all over again next year. Every year. Like some weird, masochistic anniversary with myself.). It’s partially so others attempting the swim in the future can learn from my mistakes, so they don’t make the same ones.

If you swim three times per week, with one of those being a long swim, you will finish. I realized pretty early on that in order to finish this swim quickly, I’d have to swim a heck of a lot more meters per week than I was currently pulling. So I decided to train to finish, and I did. I only swam three times a week—sometimes two—and averaged about 12,000 meters per week, maximum. The other days, I ran, or focused on physical therapy for my ACL. I’ll likely approach the swim the same way next year.

Long swims helped me get ready to swim the length of this bridge.

Build confidence with long swims. 4.4 miles equals roughly 7,000 meters. My go-to long-swim workout: 7  X 1,000 meters, with each 1,000 as evenly paced as possible. There’s nothing like covering the exact distance of the swim to build confidence that you can, in fact, swim that distance in the open water.

But know that it’s not about the distance. Or even the chop. For me, the biggest challenge was the tide. I’d like to think that I’ll find a way to prepare for that next year, though I have no idea how. For others: Just know that if there’s a way to practice swimming against a current that strong, it would be a reeeally good idea to make that happen.

Honor thy shoulders. As soon as my shoulders recover from this swim, I’m going to start strengthening my rotator cuffs for next year. Waiting until I’d started my long swims—i.e., once my shoulders were already hurting and making alarming snap-crackle=popping noises—was a mistake, and I was lucky to get away with that. I recognize that things might be a bit easier when I can use my legs for more than the last three weeks of training (no ACL tears next year, please).

I'm glad this moment wasn't my first in the open water this year.

Test yourself in the open water. During my training, I stumbled across a terrific post-race report from the 2010 swim from Rob at RobAquatics.com. I emailed Rob to ask for any last-minute training advice, and he suggested getting out into the open water shortly before the race, if I hadn’t done so this season. I had finished a 5K swim in the Gulf of Mexico in October—surely that was enough? Nope. Getting the feel for “sighting” (looking forward to spot landmarks in the distance to ensure you’re swimming straight) and breathing in chop was invaluable. Squirming into my wetsuit and testing my stuff in a Bay tributary a couple weeks before the race was a huge confidence booster! So was a reminder from Bay veteran Al Gruber’s pre-race report:Your wetsuit always fit better last year. Ha!

Mid-race self portrait courtesy of Rob Dumouchel of RobAquatics.com.

Mental toughness is paramount; practice this during long swims, and after traumatic injuries. I know what you’re thinking: But she tore her ACL, and therefore had all this extra practice in not getting inside her own head and being all crazy in the middle of a tough physical endeavor! Lucky! In all seriousness, I’m more proud of my mental toughness during this race than anything else. I got all the crazies out during a few early long swims, during which I realized that your head game can go south pretty quickly when your head is underwater. In the training swims leading up to last Sunday, I learned to love the meditative stillness of swimming again, and to settle into a relaxed pace for long periods of time. I also learned how to come back to that relaxed pace after something throws me off. During the swim, lots of stuff threw me off—but I simply acknowledged the condition, and then kept swimming.

And finally, plan to be worthless the Monday after the race. This race is less like other open-water swims I’ve done and more like a marathon. Your body will need to rest and repair itself, so build in some time to allow that to happen.

Make sure you check out what other Bay swimmers have had to say about the race: Read Donna’s post-race musings here, and Amy’s here.

Did you do the swim? What’s your biggest takeaway? Maybe I can learn from your mistakes!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Great Chesapeake Bay Swim: Lessons learned

  1. There are two open water swims locally that I plan to use as preparation for the 2012 bay swim. One is the Jim McDonald lake swim which has added a 3-mile swim on Saturday 5/26 to the 2-mile swim on Sunday. I only recently found and have registered for a 3-mile swim in the Nanticoke River on Saturday, May 5. Water temp expected to be 62 degrees, yes. Registration through Lin-Mark.

    I have done the bay swim twice but it’s been 5 years since the last time. Was happy to get in through the lottery for this year.

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