A funny thing happened at the Fourth Annual Summer Super Splash Open Water Swim last Saturday.
As I started the 1-mile race in Thirteenth Lake, in North River, N.Y., I found myself in the lead. Not in the lead pack, but in the lead. I looked around for feet to draft behind, and found none. I laughed to myself as I thought about the half-joking advice that Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky’s mom used to give her: “Just go out and take the lead and try to keep it.”
Would you believe that I did just that?
First, a word about the location: Thirteenth Lake is stunningly beautiful, with crystal-clear water surrounded by green mountain peaks. Every breath made me feel grateful for my ability to experience the world from such an amazing front-row seat.
And a word about the race itself: I was supposed to be backpacking last weekend, so I prepared for the race as I would for a casual hiking trip: By undertaking a (not easy) lifting and rowing workout the afternoon before the race and by drinking two (not weak) margaritas post-workout. I drove up to the race, located about an hour north of Saratoga Springs, with a swimmer-friend from Saratoga. When we arrived, we both wondered aloud whether the dozen or so hard-core-looking swimmers gathered on the beach were as fast as they looked.
Now. Where was I? Oh, yes—in the lead!
I decided almost immediately to not freak about about the fact that I was out in front. I did wonder, in some secret corner of the back of my head, when (not if, but when) one of the wetsuit swimmers was going to pass me. Every time that thought popped into my head, I swam a little faster. Every time I swam a little faster, I reminded myself to hold back a bit until the second loop of the two-loop course.
In what felt like an instant later, I was done with the first loop. I tried to peek behind me as I breathed to gauge how much of a lead I had. The fact that I couldn’t see anyone didn’t help me lose the feeling that a pack of wetsuit-clad swimmers was on my heels, in some sort of weird lake-borne blind spot. So I swam faster. I wondered: Is it possible that someone passed me without my noticing?
Here’s the cool thing, though: I mostly just swam, not thinking anything at all. The thoughts popped into my head and flowed right back out, trailing behind my as if with my wake. If I could manage this level of Zen out of the water, I would be the happiest, most peaceful woman alive.
As I rounded the corner of the last buoy of the rectangular-shaped course, I thought to myself: “Here’s where you sprint.” And I did, in one of those cathartic, all-out efforts that feels like it is about more than just swimming, as if I could outpace every insecurity and heartache I’d ever felt by kicking a little harder.
I noticed a kayaker keeping pace with me, like the motorcycle leading a road race. I felt like a celebrity. Then, I heard the kayaker whistle loudly. I stopped short. She motioned that I was about to turn left too soon.
“Do I go over there?” I panted, treading water and nodding toward another set of buoys. The kayaker nodded, smiling.
“Thanks!” I shouted, pausing to look around before making a beeline for those buoys.
I ran across the finish line with glee, but also with the disorientation that accompanies every open-water swim.
“I’m first-first?” I said to the guys standing at the timing mat. “Like first of EVERYONE?”
They nodded. “By a lot,” said one of them, smiling.
I sat on a rock to catch my breath and turned toward the water. He was right—the next swimmer was a minute and a half behind me.
I remember rejoicing about breaking 30 minutes in the 1-mile GCBS Bay Challenge in 2009. On Saturday, I clocked in at 26:55. Although it’s hard to compare any one open-water swim to any other, this still feels like a bit of a milestone. As I told Steve later to explain my win: “I think it wasn’t because other people were slow; I think it was because I was kind fast!”
There are a lot of reasons we swim (and run, and bike, and ski, and otherwise play outside): For fun, for adventure, for mental clarity and peace. Last weekend was a reminder that we also swim as a reminder that we always have the capacity to surprise ourselves.