Sunday, October 01, 2006

Chesapeakeman Aqua Velo: The Swim

This is going to be a long report, so I'm breaking it up into pieces.

The day started out perfectly! Well, aside from that 3:45AM alarm, and broken sleep the night before, but that's typical for race day. My friend Ellie and I had racked our bikes and turned over our bike gear bag already the previous night, so all we had to do in the morning was caffeinate intensely, drive 45 minutes to the bike-run transition area at Cambridge-Dorchester High School, pick up a shuttle bus over to the swim start at the Hyatt resort, drop off a bike special needs bag, put everything else with us into a post-race warmups bag, get body marked, squeeze into our wetsuits, and go!

It was my first attempt at swimming the 2.4-mile distance in any setting - pool or open water. It was also my first attempt at riding 112 miles on the bike continuously. The day was planned as one of learning and discovery. Having worked up to it over the last year or two, I was fairly certain I could do one or the other distance on a good day. Putting them both together on one day would be a huge challenge.

SWIM.

The swim was a point-to-point, 2.4 miles down the tidal Choptank River, which is filled with stinging sea nettles (jellyfish) this time of year. I was concerned about the distance, I was concerned about my endurance, but especially I was concerned about the sea nettles. I had planned to slather on Vaseline on any exposed skin.

Fortunately Ellie found a couple of women who offered to share their "Safe-Sea Sting Lotion". It has the consistency of Elmer's Glue. We slathered it on our faces, hands, and feet. It turned our faces white as mimes for a few minutes, then seemed to sink in to the skin and disappear.

Winds were blessedly nearly calm, and water temperature was favorable - 69*F, which is very comfortable in a wetsuit. At 7AM sharp the gun went off and we set off into the Choptank.

The first leg was a couple hundred yards to get out of the beach area enclosure formed by a couple of jetties. Just that segment seemed to take a long time, and I knew this would be a long swim. Only 200 swimmers or so - I had a couple leg and arm bumps with other swimmers on the way out, but everyone was civilized about it and just spread out and kept swimming. It's a very wide river. There was plenty of room for all of us.

Okay, try to settle into a rhythm, 6 or 7 strokes and sight, repeat about a thousand times. The mid-point of the swim was going under the center of the 1.6-mile-long Choptank River Bridge. It was far off in the distance when we began, but after we emerged from the harbor area and rounded the first orange buoy I started to be able to sight the yellow buoy nearer the bridge, still far off in the distance.

Swim, swim, swim, for about an eternity. Concentrate on your form. Keep your rhythm. Sing songs to yourself. I started on "American Pie" just because it's a long song, but when I came to the part, "This will be the day that I die" - uhhhh, no, that won't do at all. I decided to try to think of something else, but never really did.

Finally I look up and the bridge seems to be about 3 pool lengths away. Okay, do 25 strokes 3 times and you're there.

Stroke, stroke, stroke. Count them out in my head. I get those done and look up again. It's the SAME distance away. Damn! I haven't gotten any closer at all. Do it again, 75 strokes. Same distance. It kept receding into the distance. I repeated that about ten times before I finally actually got anywhere near the bridge.

Finally I'm there. First I go past the open end of the old bridge, now used for fishing, and see a few people watching us way down in the water beneath them. We must look like seals out here. Keep swimming under the main bridge. Somehow I seem to be stuck underneath it. It should only take 20 or 30 strokes to cover that distance, but I seem to be swimming underneath the bridge span for nearly forever. Oh, great, I'm caught in the current. No solution but to swim harder. I'm already swimming pretty darned hard. This is starting to be not so much fun. The bridge is the halfway point where I was hoping to crank it up a notch, but there are no notches left to crank.

Finally I make it under the bridge span under clear skies again. My "reward" is to sneak a peek at my watch. 53 minutes. Ugh! Nearly an hour already. 5 to 10 minutes longer than I had been hoping. I kept swimming and started doing the math in my head. If that's halfway, the best I can do right now is double that which is 106 minutes which is . . . it took me a while longer to work out the advanced math in my befuddled mind, but I finally figure out it's at least 1:46. Oh well, there goes my dream goal for the swim, it's not happening today.

Ouch! That's a sting beside my right goggle! Not too bad. Then I realize that I haven't had any stings anywhere else. That lotion must really be working! Every so often my hand hits a sea nettle and goes through the tentacles like strands of soggy spaghetti suspended in the water. It's a little unnerving, but I never get any other stings. I go through a few thicker patches of sea nettles, where I see their ghostly white round bodies flow past my face underwater. Creepy evil ectoplasm things. With some mental effort I ignore them, except now and then when I feel my fingers combing through slimy ribbons of tentacles.

Around this time I stop seeing other swimmers around me, except a few caps in the water in the far distance ahead. I start thinking that I'm probably last in the water. The buoys are very far apart and difficult to sight, also. There are lifeguards in escort boats and jetskis, but they're all at quite a long ways away, too. The nearest shore is at least 8/10ths of a mile away. My mind starts to go to wondering if I had trouble, would anyone even see me? Shudder. I can't think things like that.

Let's think about something else. Be positive. OK, I'm over halfway done. If I were doing the Chesapeake Bay crossing swim, I'd be less than one-third done. It could be worse, right? The waves are increasing a bit. Oh, please stay calm. Think positive. It's much, much less rough than the Eagleman swim that went along this same stretch. Hmm, I remember that swim seemed to go on forever too, but you finished it, eventually.

My biggest problem in this stretch was lapsing into negative thinking. I struggled to pull myself out of it. I'm starting to feel tired and not having fun. I'm not liking this, not at all. I try to divert myself - what could be nicer than a leisurely long swim in a nice open river on a beautiful day? The sun is shining, the temperatures are perfect, a gorgeous skein of Canada geese flies overhead in an immense V against the sky . . . ack! I'm being pulled off course again! Am I sighting that badly? I've been pushed through the buoy line again by the current. Correct my direction, swim to the right again.

This is never going to end. I've been immersed in some kind of jellyfish purgatory. I'll be swimming here forever. No, there's a buoy ahead. Just swim to the buoy. You can make it just that far. Go to the buoy.

Hooray! I have a little personal celebration each time I go past a buoy. There's a lovely neon yellow milestone. Take a good long look at it, because it's going to be a long time before you see another one. The next buoy is a faint yellow dot on the watery horizon. And there's several more dim yellow specks of them in a line after that. An eternity to go.

I'm bored. I'm tired. I'm not liking this much. I'm thinking that I'm WAY last, no one else is still in the water, everyone else is already ten miles down the bike course, the volunteers have pulled up the timing mats and forgotten about me way out here. Get a grip. Shut it out and keep swimming. I'm trying to find diversions for myself, to occupy my mind, but there aren't many out in the middle of a huge river with nobody around. That's why they call it endurance. Just keep swimming. Get it over with.

Eventually after several interminable eons I finally get to the orange buoy which marks the final turn toward the landing. Nirvana! I swim in toward the beckoning markers and finally stumble up the concrete ramp. There's a fireman spraying emerging swimmers with a hose so I do a little twirl then to get rinsed off. I catch a glimpse of the clock: 1:52.

I go over the timing mats and past some applauding spectators. I do a little happy dance. "Longest swim ev-ah! Longest swim ev-ah!" I'm amazed that I'm finally here. It felt like I'd never see dry land again.

21 comments:

Ellie said...

Yup, I hear ya on every word! I was having the exact same problems, doubts, confusions, disorientation, etc. It helps to know I probably did the extra half mile that you figured out!

But I didn't sing songs containing "The levee was dry" and "This will be the day that I die..."

CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR LONGEST SWIM EV-AH!!

21st Century Mom said...

OMG! I would have DIED in those jellyfish - died, I tell you! You are amazing and you made it!

the Dread Pirate Rackham said...

holy cow - what an ordeal! congrats!

untamed mind said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Spokane Al said...

Wow, I don't think I would be very enthused about swimming 2.4 miles through a bunch of jelly fish. Good job!

21st Century Mom said...

They have a huge, full-length-and-height-of-a-long-wall tank full of these things in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They are quite beautiful to watch but they will never look the same to me again - never. I will forever see Nancy Toby fighting her way through them.

Flo said...

I can't believe they let you swim through those!!!! When we have a jellyfish invasion (7-10 days after every full moon) they shut the beaches down. The stings aren't deadly unless you're allergic, which you probably won't know until you're stung.....

Major congratulations on that swim. You're a better man than I am......

Julia said...

I would FREAK with the jellyfish, just no way I could do a swim like that. Congrats on the swim!

Stillwater Heron said...

Way to hang tough!
It's a testament to your strength and endurance!!

jbmmommy said...

I hate jellyfish, not that anyone likes them. I'd probably startle every time I touched one, swallow a bunch of water, and drown in the river. Nice job completing your longest swim ever.

Mr Steve said...

Congrats on finishing! Great posting on your swim. Can you do a separate posting on how you think your fueling plan went or didn't? I can't wait to read the next chapter! :)

nancytoby said...

Thanks for all the kind comments, everyone!

Flo, I don't think these jellies are nearly as toxic as the ones you get. The stings are annoying and itch like crazy for a long time, but aren't really dangerous to too many people, I don't think. I've never heard of any deaths from them, at least!

And yes, jbmmommy, I did feel my hand in the thick of them a couple of times and drew it back in mid-stroke!! Yuck!

TriFeist said...

Ew. Jellyfish. Like swimming in boogers. GROSS!!!!

Way to slog through the low points. Your mental toughness is definitely ready for a full IM.

WADDLER26.2 said...

Amazing job!!!Gives me goosebumps especially with the jellyfish part.

Flatman said...

GO NANCY!!!!

Holly said...

WAHHOOO!! Longest Swim EV-AH!! Way to do it Nancy!! Sea Nettles, Current and all....

Comm's said...

I have those negative thoughts during my swims. All that you mentioned, the ones you did not as well. I take comfort in the fact that I do 90% of my swims in a long lake and have complete confidence in the wetsuit. Trust the wetsuit and all else is trival. you will not drown in a wetsuit.

I have also bemoaned the fact that my pool swim is faster than my open swims. Maybe the wall, the stripe or something else.

YOU MADE ALL YOUR IRONMAN CUT OFFS. THAT HAS TO BE A HUGE RELIEF.

IM Able said...

Jellyfish....Blagh!!!

You've got some serious gumption, darling, because I would have had some issues with sharing my swim with all that stingy limp spaghetti....ersiou issues.

Can't wait to hear about the bike leg and how you felt at the end!

GatorJamie said...

Great job, O Conqueror of Creepy Evil Ectoplasmata!

jeanne said...

yikes!!!! i'm hanging on your every word. what mental fortitude you must have! good work!

The Jet said...

Great post. I am planning on doing this race next year and was wondering about the swim. Yikes. I am getting nervous already. But it also gives me strength that you were able to do it. Great job and keep up the blogging...