— // Editor Update // —
I wanted to update this post thanks to Brian Earley’s comment below. Brian started the Chesapeake Bay Swim back in 1982 when he swam across the bay in memory of his father. Participation has grown from his single performance to a lottery system now that caps the swimmers at 650. It is one of the most sought after open water races in the United States.
The Chesapeake Bay Swim is a fundraiser event for the March of Dimes, Chesapeake Bay Trust and also has the Cynthia Earley Scholarship award for students who raise the most funds for the GCBS charities.
— // End Update // —
The race took place on Sunday, June 12, 2011. The Friday prior I started my race diet. I had worked my way down to 195 lbs, but over the course of Friday and Saturday I gained two pounds from all the carbs and pasta I was devouring. I had been doing plenty of stretching, fluids and now I had a “reserve” of energy for the race. I was feeling pretty good, but quite nervous about the race. I had been told horror stories about the start of the race (or any open water/tri race for that matter). Doug Saar (20 year veteran of the Bay Swim), brother to my morning pal Bill, had essentially told me to sprint to clear the crowd of elbows and feet that had left him bloodied in the past. Ever take the metro during rush hour? Now imagine the same amount of tight conditions with hundreds flailing their arms and legs around you while you’re gasping for air in the water. Fun right?
Chuck Nabit, race director, conducted the pre-race meeting. We were told that the water was quite warm and he recommended that we not use wet suits because of the risk of dehydration from the heat. I had spent a decent amount of money on the suit and felt like I needed every advantage possible, so my decision was made regardless (as most others too). The current was predicted as being mild. Start of with ebb (going south), slack and then flood (going north) at the end.
If someone on a boat approaches you, and tells you to get out, cooperate so the bigger boat with the guys with assault rifles don’t have to GET you out!”
Strongly emphasized was the fact that if you were under the bridges, you were out (you’re supposed to swim between the two spans). Another strong suggestion was that if someone on a boat said you were done, you cooperate immediately so they wouldn’t have to send over the boat that had the guys with the assault rifles and guns! Coño! They take safety really seriously at this event, designated by U.S.A. Swimming as one of the world’s most competitive open-water swims. I believe there was one US Coast Guard utility boat, 8 cutter interceptor boats, 30+ kayaks and close to 20 JetSkis, not counting the Coast Guard chopper and Anne Arundel County police chopper. Quite a scene, especially later in the race when the incoming storm forced 73 swimmers to be pulled out of the water.
Other things to note, no removing your cap or you are out of the race. Unlike FINA sanctioned races, you ARE allowed to grab onto the side of the snack boats, which are equipped with water and energy bars. If you feel like quitting or you need to be pulled out, let a support boat know, and you’ll get a ride to the DNF pier (yes, there really is a DNF pier) – the “Pier of Shame”. Some nervous laughs.
11:20am and we headed down to the beach. I was super hot now that I had the wet suit on. I had applied sun screen and a layer of BodyGlide around the arm pits and lats to protect from rashes. So I waited in the water, while staying somewhat cool and getting loose in the water.
Because of the number of swimmers taking part in the swim (650 total for the 4.4 mile swim), they send you out in two waves, 15 minutes apart. The first wave are for those swimmers who would complete the swim in over two hours, and the second wave is for those who would complete the swim in under two hours. That way, both waves (groups) of swimmers have a better chance of finishing in a pack. Wave 1 was set to start at 11:30am.
However, they gave Craig Dietz a head start. Craig was born without limbs and swam this race on his back, outfitted with a flipper on his lower torso. What an inspiration. Sadly, he managed to swim past the 4 mile marker but was cut short of the finish by the storm that moved in. More on that later.
I’m in the water watching Craig get his start and see everyone around clapping and cheering him on. Promptly at 11:30 wave 1 takes off. I get a couple of last minutes strokes in and head up to the beach to join the ranks of wave 2.
Wave 2 – My Race Begins!
The start is fast approaching (11:45am) and I am nervous, but standing next to Doug and his pals we’re joking around and passing time. I have no idea how I’ll do – but a calm starts to settle in. My game face is on. My mental focus kicks in and I am one with the race and the surroundings. I take note of the people around me and how that will affect the start of the race and the initial sprint into the water. This is a shit load of bodies about to go all out into the water for a 4.4 mile race!
I don’t even hear the horn go off, but I see people taking off so I do the same. In a split second I’m running into the water and diving into my stroke. Within 4 strokes I have pulled ahead of those around me and I am trying to get my bearings. Most of the crowd is to my left. I started the race pretty far down the right side of the beach, closest to the bridge. Doug had told me the fast racers are down the right side. I breathe to the left normally, but I switch to right breathing so I can gauge what’s going on. The crowd on the right is definitely faster with a bunch of bodies pulling ahead. I decide to take pursuit of these guys and see what happens.
Probably within 45-60 seconds I am caught up with these fast swimmers and notice that those behind pose no immediate threat, so in my mind I’m thinking pace yourself, the initial sprint is over with and the most dangerous part is done with, right?
I am so used to lane swimming and staying within the lane lines and having clear water. This is different. Can barely see my fingers as I’m pulling my way through the water and I have no bearings. I am constantly raising my head looking ahead for the buoys that mark the entry into the spans. I’m thinking to myself I am going to strain my neck if I continue the race this way.
Because we start on the northern side of the bridge, we have to swim under the northern span (westbound lanes of traffic) to make our way onto the middle of the two bridges. Once here, you are officially swimming between the world’s largest lane lines. This is an amazing view and hard to describe. Once you make it under the northern span, you take a hard left to swim in the direction headed east. The spans rise on either side of you to what appears to be an endless distance. Thankfully, with the two spans on either side of me, I can use them as reference and can put a momentary end to the constant head raising.
At the beginning, the spans are curved and it seems to take forever to get to the point where the two spans straighten out. Once you get to this point, you better have a grip on things because looking down the long way ahead will either completely discourage you or get you revved up. I was the latter, fortunately.
I had started the race very conservatively, with a very long stroke cycle, but now was getting into a comfort zone and was picking up my pace. My breathing is good, technique is solid and confidence is high. I start passing swimmers from wave one. They were wearing the yellow swim caps, we from wave two had the orange swim caps. I just go into cruise control and rely more on my psychological strength than on my physical strength (at 5 hours of swimming a week I was not/am not that great in shape).
The Tide is NOT so Mild Anymore
While the current had started off mildly at first, it is starting to get choppy. Good thing I don’t get sea sick, ’cause I’m sure my wife would be laying her guts out on the water, along with a bunch of other souls. The further into the channel I made it, the choppier it got. I had been in cruise control for a while when suddenly I realized I was almost crashing into swimmers I was passing.
A quick glance to either side and up and I realized these swimmers from wave 1 were swimming diagonally. I am but yards away from being under the southern span of the bridge (eastbound lanes). The current has become so strong it is forcing us all southbound. I switch gears and start swimming diagonally myself. I realize it is taking a lot of energy to simply make any progress forward. I have a massive concrete column to my left that I am using for reference and I am moving ever so slowly forward.
The breathing is quite labored now, my asthma kicking in and taking a grip on my lungs and throat. Stay focused. Don’t let the panic kick in.”
I struggle for quite some time not sure how long I can mentally and physically continue this. I just barely cleared the 2 mile buoy marker. I have half a race left and going nowhere.
I realize we’re all in the same scenario. I compose myself and embrace the pain. I embrace the struggle to breathe, the constant water in my face, the low visibility, the feet and elbows from those I am passing from wave 1 and just keep at it. I think back at the hours of training, setting aside any notion of the conditions, the waves, the 5,000 extreme temperature changes (ice cold to warm water in split seconds) and just stay focused.
I keep at it for what seems like an eternity. I’m past the marker for mile 3, and keep going. The breathing is quite labored now, my asthma kicking in and taking a grip on my lungs and throat. Stay focused. Don’t let the panic kick in. I have a jet ski 20 yards away from me should anything happen. There’s still people ahead of me, no idea if they have yellow or orange caps, but I stay focused on trying to close the gap. I think of my kids and wife, sing along to some G N’ R and Metallica, continue to make headway.
The spans are now coming closer to the water surface, signaling the approach to the western shore. I’m thrilled to think that the race is close to an end, but still struggle a tad. I am so disoriented. Where are the lane lines! Why is the water so dark. I can’t see the bottom!
The Beach is NOT That Close
Finally, I am nearing the buoys that signal the columns of the southern span I have to swim under to make my final approach to the finish. Having turned a sharp right to swim under the span and between the two columns, I take a sharp left to make my way to the beach. I see the finish area, a distant speck in the distance and I find myself cursing Doug for these last several hundred yards seem longer than he had described.
Doug, bless him, had described a short sprint to the end once you cleared the bridge. That was not the case. It’s a good 600+ yards or so I’d say (difficult to gauge when you’ve been swimming for an hour and a half and are a tad disoriented). But I dig in, take comfort in pretending to race the JetSki that is to my right side and the cars to my left, imagining that they are cheering wildly for me to finish (so not the case).
It seems to take forever, but slowly and surely I am getting closer to the finish. I see the orange netting at the finish line. I head left, but see a volunteer signal for me to go right. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to switch gears on the fly like that, but finally feel the sand on the tips of my hands and stand on my feet. I should have kept swimming a couple of yards further, ’cause the water is still too deep to walk comfortably.
But at last I emerge from the water onto the beach and I am ecstatic at having finished the race. What an experience. I am tired but I am so hooked on this race I am already planning for the 2012 race (I am confirmed to take part in the 2012 race on June 10).
The staff are awesome, helping me out of the wetsuit (it is so damn hot!!) and I make my way up the HILL (!!) to the snack area. I down two bottles of water immediately and grab some food and more water.
I find the wife and kids who can’t believe I completely ignored them as I walked right past them when I made my way to the snack area. “Honey, I think I am a little out of it” I said. She could tell from the blank gaze in my eyes.
What a great race and what fun, despite the pain and effort. But now I know what to expect in the 2012 race, although conditions will be unknown. That’s the difference. In the pool you always swim in a controlled environment. Open water you never have the same conditions. Temperature, surge, current, other swimmers, always varies. It’s quite a different challenge.
There were several sad events that took place though. I am sad to say that Grahame Rice, 43, died from an apparent heart attack. He was a father of two and had been cleared by his doctor to take part in the race just two weeks earlier. May you rest in peace.
Also, a disappointing storm made it’s way over the bay (hence the sudden change in current as we all swam), forcing some 73 swimmers to be pulled out, including Craig Dietz. The US Coast Guard do a phenomenal job of maintaining safety and a great many thanks go out to them and to the race organizers, especially Chuck Nabit and Linda Toretsky.
The event entry for 2012 is closed, but you might still try your luck registering for the 1 mile swim.Register for the Chesapeake Bay Swim
Thank you for the experience of a lifetime. See you all in 2012 for more fun!
I tried to narrate this experience from the perspective of a first time open water swimmer, but also from a first time Bay Swimmer. I encourage anyone who will swim this race for the first time to contact me so I can share the events of the morning in more detail. Check in process, where to hang out, rest rooms, etc. It’s always easier to have as much intel as possible before any event.
Best of luck!