Swimmers, to Your Marks

Once the kayakers were in position on the sandbar at Farmer’s Shoals the swimmers got in the water. A line of co-ed lifeguards formed a human starting line. The water was chili, but not too cold. The wetsuit did its job and my body soon warmed the water trapped in the neoprene. Between the wetsuit, the goggles, my MP3 player, and tons of rash guard lube, I felt kind of like Iron Man in his suit. I remember being surprised at how strong the pull of the current was as I eased out to the starting line. The poor lifeguards looked to be freezing as they stood there waiting on direction, the current knocking them around. The waves sure looked a lot bigger in the water than they did from the shore!

Some people calmed their nerves by chatting with family. I adjusted my headphones and started my music. Waiting for the starting gun, I focused on my opening swim strategy.

Opening Strategy – Part One

Since my plan wasn’t to win the race, just to complete it, I would let the sprinters get ahead and busy myself with regulating my breathing and calming my adrenaline. Even though I wasn’t competing for the race, my personality isn’t built in a way that lets me sit back and relax. When there is a starting gun I want to race out in front and dominate. Once, in
high school, I managed to make all county for track on the 1600m (~1 mile). I had made it around the track for one lap at the near front of the pack only to realize that I had just reached a personal best time – not for the mile, but for the quarter mile. My time then dropped sharply as my body ran out of adrenaline to propel me over the remaining 3/4s of a mile.

I wasn’t going to let that happen this time. If I did sprint swim the first half mile, there would be no chance of me completing mile 5. Easy strokes with regular breathing was my plan for the entire race. If you have never tried
to swim long distance before allow me to assure you that calm, regular breathing is the key. Let everyone else be a rabbit that sprinted to the kayaks. I was going to be the tortoise that finished this race.

Opening Strategy – Part Two

The second part of our two-part opening race strategy concerned meeting up together at the sandbar. Finding a kayak (or them finding me) was not going to be easy with over one hundred competitors. We mitigated this by planning
for the kayak to be on the western most part of the sandbar. This would help my aim as they would be considered a fixed point. Even if I couldn’t see them per se I would know where they were. Also helping was the expected current coming in from the Atlantic through the Fire Island Inlet would be pressing all swimmers eastward. I was going to have to bear West for the eastern tip of Sexton Island in order to stay on course even past this first sandbar. If I fell out of range, I would end up having to swim against the current to the first mile marker. Swimming against the current is a losing battle. By leaving the sandbar as far west as possible, the incoming tide would have less of a chance to push me out of range and I
would have a greater chance of actually finishing this thing.

The Reality of the Start

So much is made about starting a new venture. Everyone from your mom admonishing you to have a healthy breakfast to Kawasaki’s Art of the Start will tell you that a good, quality start to anything is important. I wanted my start to be perfect. It wasn’t to be.

Once the gun went off, I dove into the water. Cold, salt water whipped into a frenzy from the storms that had ended just a few hours ago pushed me around. Fighting both current and my own adrenaline, I leveled off and started my stroke. The water was pitch black and the morning sun sat low in the east. Each time I tried to breath on my right side I was blinded by those rays. Breathing on either side ended up being a losing proposition due to the chop. I must have swallowed gallons of water that first half mile.

The First Half Mile – Solo

Slowly, I gained ground. Swimmers from all directions crashed into each other. This is where my opening strategy failed. On the starting line I was positioned on the East (right hand side) of the swimmers. My targeting point was the West most boat (left hand side) on the kayak line. Most of the other swimmers were headed straight for the center of the kayak line. That meant that while I was swimming straight north, 70% of the other swimmers were  headed North East cutting into me at acute angles.

Swimmers, current, and waves from all angles pounded me until I eventually reached the starting line. Other kayaks seaching for their swimmers crossed over me. I reached my kayakers almost by accident. There was so much chop that I never accurately saw them until I heard Kevin yell out at me. I was very relieved at finding them.

There was no time to stand on the sandbar and rest. It felt like I was the last to arrive at this beginning checkpoint. It took me significantly longer than the 15 minute 1/2 mile time I had been running. Topping it all off, my tinted goggles also failed in the mix. The right eye was seeping through. Now that the adrenaline of starting a race was wearing off, my body was exhausted from the effort of the first 11th of the race.

The Second Half Mile – Paired

Now that I had found my kayakers, it was time to start the race. I was already more tired now that I was when I completed a solo 2 mile race at Mountain Island Lake in North Carolina several weeks earlier. It was disheartening to realize that I still had 4.75 miles left to go on an angry ocean!

Kevin and my Dad aimed the kayak toward the first mile marker check in. We were to pass through gates set up by manned powerboats and yell out our numbers as we passed through. Since I was fighting for breath with each stroke, I hoped that my kayakers planned on doing the talking for me.

If anything, the chop got rougher after the sandbar. I could feel the full force of the angry Atlantic ocean pushing through Fire Island Inlet. Waves from all directions hammered me. I could not swim straight on plane and drive with my torso for an efficient stroke. When I would breath on my glide, I would get a face and mouth full of water. Sometimes the force of the waves would toss me over on to my back or stand me straight upright like I was trying to swim to the sky.

You are trained to not try and force a breath when you are swimming. If a wave hits you and you get a mouthful of water when you try to breathe, you just continue your stroke, spit the water out, and try to breathe next stroke. That’s the good thing about swimming long distance; you get many, many opportunities to make the next stroke better than your last and to keep making progress. Unfortunately, in really rough seas, you are forced to stop your momentum and lift your head straight out of the water to catch your breath. Not really the most efficient way of doing things.

When we finally did reach the first mile marker, Kevin yelled out my number and told me my time. It had been an hour since I had left shore. It felt like a millennium. That was twice my expected time. At this pace I would never possibly finish. one mile per hour would put me in at five and a half hours and I didn’t think that I could last that long. I was beaten and sore from the waves. I was nauseous from being spun around, bobbing up and down, and swallowing so much salt water. I was not sure that I was going to be able to keep going.

Luckily, I didn’t have to decide whether to keep going. All I had to do was keep going for as long as I could. I remember thinking that I had already trained 18 months for this day and that while my training must not have been good, hard, or strict enough, I was going to have to finish anyway. 1 mile was not enough to make me quit. Maybe 2 miles would. I didn’t know. I set my sites on the 2nd mile marker and kept swimming.

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