Monday, June 09, 2008

The 4.4 Mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim Race Report

I guess I should start in telling this story be telling you where my journey began. I'm not sure what year it was, perhaps it was 1983 when I was 10, or perhaps it was several years later. I read an article in The Washington Post. It was a first person account of swimming across the Chesapeake Bay -- some kind of officially organized event.....The author described hearing this kayaker blow a lifeguard whistle repeatedly. The author/swimmer couldn't figure out what he was doing wrong, was he breaking some rule? Going off course? Later he found out that the man swimming beside him was blind and was following the sound of the whistle to get across the Bay.

I'm not exactly sure why, but I found this incredibly moving. My dad is blind and I have watched him year after year as his sight has diminished. Bit by bit, it seems my dad was swallowed whole by his vision loss. And with each year there was less and less that he could do. In contrast, here was someone who was accomplishing something great, doing something that many many sighted people wouldn't dream of attempting, and he was doing it in spite of his blindness. The blind swimmer had found a way to strip the power from his blindness. And while I watched my father take one path, I knew that when I grew up, whatever hardships I was dealt in my life, I wanted to be like the blind swimmer, not my dad. I guess to help you understand this I should mention, that I have no idea what it would be like to go blind. I can't imagine the pain that my father has endured at having his sight taken away from him bit by bit over all of those years of my childhood. But before you question me for judging him, I should also tell you that the blindness he has is heredetary. And while I am not a high risk to be blind myself, I could. Growing up, I had doctors visit after doctors visit where they were always testing me for it. And, I was always on the lookout for it come up behind me like a shadow over my shoulder. And more than one time in my life, I was convinced that I was going to lose my sight too. Mentally, I spent many years preparing myself to suffer the same fate, and many years I tried to push myself on the path of the blind swimmer, so if fate dealt me that card I would handle it better than my father, who allowed himself to be defined by his illness, growing more bitter and frustrated each day.
Simply stated, I was amazed -- that there could be someone who responded to his fate so differntly than my dad. At that time, I was not inspired to swim the bay myself, but just inspired by the will of that man. The passion, the desire for life. By the iron will that he found and the strength and courage he displayed, to try something great in the face of adversity.

Years later, in my 30's after doing triathons for a while, on some race calendar or on some blog, somehow I was reminded again of the The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. Instantly, I remembered being so moved by that article when I was so much younger. I searched for several hours trying to locate it in the Washington Post archives, but with no luck. I did learn the history of the Bay Swim though, and read a newer article about open water swimming by Caroline Kettlewell, who I actually got to meet at the swim.

Then, the thought crossed me. I could swim. Triathlons had served as a vehicle for me to realize that I could swim across the Chesapeake Bay if I put my mind to it. Last year, at this same time, I had conquered many fears and obstacles to complete my first half-iron distance race, Eagleman. That took me over 7 and a half hours and over 6 months of intense training. I could certainly swim the 4.4 miles of the bay. I'd done the 1.2 miles in the VERY choppy waters at Eagleman in 39 minutes. I guess this is what made me think I might actually complete the Bay Swim in 2 and a half hours or so.

After researching the history of the bay swim, I realized that maybe I was getting in a little over my head. Not only did I have to qualify for the swim, but also, I had to enter a lottery to be selected to participate.

Then I read this information on the Great Bay Swim website:

Is it dangerous?Among the difficulties that may be encountered during the
average 2 hour 25 minute swim are flailing arms and legs during the "Cuisinart
start," cross currents, swells, chop, hypothermia if the water is cold, nettle
stings if the water is warm, and collisions with the bridge supports or rocks
surrounding the jetties, islands and causeways.The National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has measured tidal, current and weather
conditions prior to the event and compared the results with predicted
conditions to determine the optimum starting time for the event. How does
it affect the race?As a result, 79-97 % of the starters finished the race in the
last 5 years. Prior to this, in 1991 and 1992, a strong ebb current of about 2
knots in the main channel beneath the 200-feet high spans (one and a half miles
from the start) precluded all but the strongest and most determined
swimmers from finishing the event (only 15-19 % finished the swim).

And, for some reason, I still signed up.
As I talked to other swimmers who'd done the race, I realized that the swim was a spiritual experience for many, not just me. Atheletes would travel from Japan, Canada, and from the West Coast. I envisioned a peaceful swim -- floating in the middle of the Bay, looking up at the giant spans. I imagined swimming and thinking about that blind swimmmer. And, I imagined remembering the last right of passage I'd taken almost exactly 15 years ago to the day, when I made a symbolic break from my parents and went out on my own. In a sort of a passage to adulthood, I took my first long motorcycle trip overnight and by myself and crossed this very same bridge on the way to Rehobeth Beach. I would think about my Grandma Jane, the only grandparent I ever knew, and the stories of how she was so scared to cross the Bay Bridge that she would take valium and then and drive her carfull of young children across. I would reflect on my own journey. My fear of sharks. My fear of drowning. My fear of dying. The incredible respect that I have for the open water, and mother nature. I imagined reflecting on my decision to finally sign up for an Ironman. I imagined feeling victorious when I finished the swim across.

But, The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim was not at all what I thought it would be. The places that I imagined struggling, I did not struggle. The places that I envisioned enjoying, and being in awe of were not what I imagined either. And, no matter how much you might not think it will affect you, being a little fish in a big pond certainly changed the race for me.

I started off feeling strong because I'd made it through the rough kicking of the brutal open water start. I still had my goggles. No one had swam over me. (I didn't get kicked very hard in the chest by a huge guy until much later in the swim, and thankfully, he turned around and said he was sorry). I had planned to stay with TRIgirl 40 for the first quarter mile, but lost her in the frantic start.
"I am actually doing it," is all I could keep thinking. "Take it easy, don't kick, save your legs for the end. "
I should mention here that I decided not to wear my wetsuit. Since it is a long story, and you are already getting way more detail than you expected, I'll just leave it at that. Fate had decided that no wetsuit would be worn. It was warm enough, and I wasn't going to win or anything. I figured that not wearing it would slow me down a bit, but not keep me from finishing or anything. It seemed like a fine decision.
As I was swimming along, finally under the bridge, and feeling comfortable, I let doubt creep in. My left foot was falling asleep. Hmm. Maybe my anklechip strap was on too tight? I better stop and loosen it. Bad idea. I had visions of it sinking to the bottom of the bay. But worse, I noticed that as soon as I stopped to adjust, I started floating off to the side under the bridge. OMG, I'd hit the current. Folks swam by me quickly. I adjusted it and then swam a few strokes. Hmm. No that isn't right, it's too loose, it's going to fall off. Stopped and adjusted it tighter. Really loosing ground now, I kicked it into high gear, swimming at a higher speed and actually kicking, but going nowhere. The current was incredibly strong. I'd lost my rhythm. I'd lost my mojo. I swam at an angle directly for the other span of the bridge thinking -- now or never. I looked up and noticed I was starting to go under the span. If I did go any farther, they could disqualify me and pull me from the water. What was I going to do? I hadn't even hit the first mile marker? or had I? I always knew there was a chance this could happen, but I never expected it to be so soon, I wasn't tired, I just got distracted. I didn't feel any exhertion at all, just panicky because no matter how hard I stroked, I was still not making any progress forward. The taste and smell of diesel fuel and oil from the boats was potent and I could not seem to get away from it.

I knew from other open water swims that the current would affect the slowest swimmers most. And I worried for the first time that I would fail completely. What if it was like this the entire rest of the swim? How long would I fight, not knowing if I would ever go anywhere or if it would ever get easier?

I kept at it. I lost all track of time. I focused just on pulling each hand through the water. I focused on rocking from side to side. I thought about my form and tried to remember to breath on both sides. Then, all of a sudden, people were swimming over me. Pink and green caps from the fast heat (that left 15 minutes later than us) were passing me like I was standing still. It reminded me of when you are on the highway, going the speed limit and someone comes flying past in the fast lane going 90 mph. I felt like I was stuck in place. I felt defeated. I never thought of myself as fast, but also, never had been passed like I was standing still. I tried to sight ahead. Nothing. I looked around and no one was around. No red caps from my heat. But I'd managed to make it away from the left span. I wasn't being taken upstream anymore. I was solidly in the center.

I thought about my family coming across the bridge to see me at the finish. We'd planned it that way, so they would drive across while I was swimming across. My awesome Aunt Sally and Uncle Wendell who had not only put us up at their river house, but also stood in the 110 degree heat while I swam. For hours. I looked at my watch. I'd been swimming for 1 hour and 22 minutes. I still couldn't see the 2nd mile marker buoy. I started to think about how the time cutoffs seemed so generous. Now, I wondered if I was going to make them. I tried to draft off a pink or a green cap that came now in a slower fashion. I couldn't hang on. Everyone around me was wearing wetsuits. I could feel pockets of cold come across me so quickly, it made me shiver. And then suddenly a freezing blast of water. I kid you not, I got a brain freeze from the cold water current. Then, I thought about hypothermia and wondered if I should even be out here with no wetsuit. Despite my layer of insulation, I was freezing, my body was fine. But my face, and my head hurt from the cold water. I thought of Lynne Cox swimming across Antartica, and found some comfort there. I knew, I would be OK if I could keep moving. If she could swim through ice, i could certainly swim through this! I found another red cap, and found that if I drafted off him at his feet, that he stirred up the warm surface water enought to make it not seem quite so cold on my face. I noticed he was wearing just the smallest Speedo and no goggles. I was about to ask him if he lost them and then realized that was ridiculous.

And then, like a mirage in a desert I saw it: the big red 2 mile marker and better yet -- a "feed boat" right behind. (I know it sounds like animals feeding...but that is what it felt like too). I knew from TRIgirl Allison to expect a Dixie cup of water, banana and wet Vanilla Wafers. I knew from the rules that unlike Lynne Cox's swims, I could hang onto the boat while I ate and drank. I didn't want to, but at this point it seemed ridiculous not to hang on while I did. I had two Vanilla wafers, and about 2 oz of warm, almost hot water -- remember the heat index was 110 degrees! Then i had 2 saltines. Then I had 2 more ounces of hot water. Then i had an inch of banana. Then i had a tiny part of a gel that i'd stuck down the back of my suit. I couldn't swallow it. I gave it to them to throw away. I had one more wet Vanilla wafer. Did I mention that swimming across the Bay makes you hungry? I swear these were the best Vanilla wafers i've ever had in my life. I don't even like them. My last 'nilla wafer had a wet thumbprint on top, it was very wet. I can't believe I almost thought to ask for a new one, because that sounded so disgusting to me....but I ate in anyway. The last one got all stuck in my teeth and as I pushed off the boat. I remember telling the volunteers that I was worried that they were going to hurt their backs. It seemed so hard that they were all hunched over feeding the athletes in the waitresses in the sky to the most demanding and yet grateful customers. I decided I was spending to long at the boat. Time to move on.

I'd started the race with a headache, the brainfreeze had made it worse, and now I was starting to feel just not so great. I don't know why, but started thinking I wasn't cut out for this. I started thinking I am crazy to ever think I could do an Ironman. I decided I definately was stupid for even considering it next year.

Then, between spots of incredible cold, I allowed myself to get distracted from the pain. I notice that I was moving faster than a U-haul truck on the right bridge span. Apparently traffic was almost stopped on the bridge? I noticed a woman had gotten out of her car and she was looking down at all the swimmers. I waved, happy to not feel quite so alone -- almost all of the swimmers had passed me now. And I was sure that TRIgirl 40 had to. She was wearing a wetsuit, which I was sure would make her faster than me, typically we are about the same pace. Then I quickly pulled my hand down when she did not wave back and a realized that the kayak support might think that I needed assistance. I kept my head down for a long while after that. I started noticing the numbers on the pilings. 36...37....38....And then a charlie horse hit my right calf. I stopped kicking and flexed it. Luckily it was not a full on contraction that would keep me from staying afloat, but still, I was scared to kick at all anymore, for fear that it would come back. I kept flexing my foot, with the hope that I could fight it off, then I'd find my muscle starting to tighten again. I tried to relax, keep my head down, and focus on what I could use, my arms..... then I saw another bouy, and the shore behind it. Could it be that I missed the 3 mile marker? That would be a good thing if it was number 4 in the distance. My guessed that I would have to swim to the piling that said 56 before I would be at the shore. And if that was the 4 mile marker at the end ahead, then I still had another 700 meters after that. The current picked up again this time taking us to the right. But more than the current was chop, like at Eagleman. Big swells, like waves, and more pull to the right, which thankfully was where we were going. I could see the grassy shore, and tons of people. For the first time ever, I realized I was going to finish the swim. I was going to cross the Chesapeake Bay on my own. Not only that, but I looked to my left and there was a girl with a read cap standing next to me. STANDING! I did not know it was shallow enough that I could stand, and when I did, my legs felt whole again. I expected to be so ever greatful for reaching the land, but never did I expect to happen while I was still in the water. I dolphined in to shore. Perhaps I don't need to explain it, but at that point I just had no desire to go back to freestyle. Me doing the dolphin:

My amazing Uncle Wendell, who had woken up early to drive me to the race and had dropped me off in the morning was there. My mom was there. My Aunt Sally, Mr. Preschool and of course the kids. It wasn't at all what I had imagined. My eyes hurt. My head hurt. I wasn't really happy or proud. Just happy to be done. I certainly didn't feel victorious. Just dazed. It was rather anticlimatic. I needed to find some glasses, my goggles had cut circles around my eyes. I wanted a towel, but strangely no one had one for me. I was too iffy to get one out of my bag. I was so happy to take my cap off (which we were forbidden from doing during the race). I felt wobbly. Faint. and terribly hot. I was worried about my kids standing in the heat for so long. Redfish had no shirt on. I drank a Pepsi of all things (I never drink soda) and that seemed to bring me back a bit. I ate something salty, that helped. I leaned over to get my coverup out of my bag. (Silly family kept taking pictures of me half-naked). Thought I was going to faint again. The fire trucks had showers. I decided to rinse off until I realized the water was HOT.

All of a sudden, I remembered that I still hadn't seen TRIgirl 40. Where was she? I looked up and there she was, still dripping wet, standing beside me. I was so certain that she'd come out of the water before me that I hadn't even thought to look for her to finish after me. At this point there were very few swimmers still left in the bay. But, after comparing notes, we realized that we finished just 4 minutes apart. She was right behind me the whole time, but I never saw her once, the whole swim. We'd trained together (sortof) and swam the Bay together (sortof as well). I never thought that I would say I was proud to finish in the very bottom of the pack. I was 549 of 602 swimmers. She was number 564. Both of us, solidly on the very last page of the results. To be honest, I had no idea that there was such a range of swimmers out there in the world. The winner of the race completed the entire 4.4 mile swim in an easy hour and a half, more than twice as fast as me. I am simply in awe. Here are my results: 3:11:29 43:32 per mile ave. I was 29 out of 33 in age group.

Looking back at all that training in the pool for endless hours in the cholorine. Looking at the black line, perfecting my flip turn. I would definitely say that I'm glad I did it. I'm not sure that I'll do it again. I was struggling so hard, I never got to flip on my back and just be. I never go to take the time to stop and just feel alive and appreciate the simple task at hand. I was too busy struggling to stay alive. To stay in this race. So, if I do it again, that would be my goal -- to swim fast enough to be able to stop in midstream and float and enjoy it. And I would like to finish my swim with enough energy to actually feel good when I am finished.
After sitting in a VERY hot school bus for a ride back to the car, I again almost passed out. Why am I leaving the medical area? I kept thinking! It is so hot I'm going to faint!

Unfortunately, in the swing of things, and deciding no wetsuit I forgot to put on ANY sunscreen on my back. The cresent moon shape on my forehead created by the sunburn is a dead giveaway for a capline, but looks incredibly dorky. As I mentioned before, I guess I thought that the murky Bay water would protect me from the sun. Needless to say, I believe I got some sort of sun poisoning. My burn is bad. I felt so bad on Sunday night, that after showing up at my dad's 70th birthday party a few hours after the swim, I had to leave after just an hour, because I felt so ill. Which reminds me....I think this is why I'm doubting going for an Ironman afterall. Would I be strong enough to finish the race and still enjoy the victory? Missing my dad's 70th birthday party was not in the plans. My sister, who flew in from Seattle, had planned it around me being able to come. I was planning to tell my dad that night, that I would do an Ironman in his honor to raise money for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. That was my plan anyway, and I didn't do it. Now, I need to take some time, regroup and figure out if I still have it in me.


TriGirl Kate O said...

I truly believe you have it in you to finish an Ironman. You are an incredibly stong swimmer and biker, and the rest is a walk in the park (or in Panama City)! Come volunteer, see the range of folks who give it a try. You will be inspired all over again and know that YES YOU CAN!

Congratulations on your swim!

TriGirl Thea said...

What an inspiring race report. But I have to say, that sunburn looks murderous!

Maybe it will just take a little time to regroup, recover and heal before you take the plunge into signing up for an Ironman?

Either way, you have already done something truly amazing. Well done you!

Sarah said...

Oh dear - I do believe you had sun poisoning. I've had it before and just felt awful. I hope it gets better soon (the burn).

Jonah - my heart is bursting with pride for you. You did something VERY big. And I know exactly how you feel. There have been races where I doubted myself the entire time. And wondered why I was there, especially when I knew how far back in the pack I was.

But you know? I finished. And you finished. And that was a product of your hard work and training.

I know you have it in you. And I think we're similar in that we need to fight the negatives that creep in. Attack Ironman feeling strong and proud and push out the doubts.

Jackie R said...

I'm soooo proud of you! What an inspirational story!

Ditto on the IM comments. I have a friend who did a charity WALK last weekend - 20 miles in under 7 hours, so that gives me hope too.

SusieQ said...

Just awesome. Be proud - you just did something that very few people would even consider doing.

And yes - you can do an IM. We don't celebrate finishing until the day after. You'll be feeling fine 24 hours later (as long as you say "yes" to sunscreen). :)


Kate said...

Simply amazing, I just can't imagine swimming that far. Great job Jonah.

carmen said...

GREAT report

j m holland said...

I know you can do anything you put your mind to. You are that awesome.
I love you.

tri-ing races not cases said...

What a great race report. I'm amazed by you and TG40! You both accomplished something I could never get my mind around.

And, you CAN ABSOLUTELY do an Ironman next year. And I'm looking forward to training with you.

TriGirl 40 (okay - 41) said...

Wonderful race report - I could relate to so much of it (except missing the wetsuit and finding the aid stations!). It was great to share this experience with you!

I truly believe you can and will finish and Ironman!

kathleen said...

congrats on a fantastic accomplishment. trying something hard, and succeeding as you did, makes other difficult things in your life less daunting. someday you, too, will hear the magic words, "you are an ironman."

ShyTriGirl said...

Inspiring story. Sounded very tough, but you did it. Thanks for sharing.

ShyTriGirl said...

Wow. Inspiring story, thanks for sharing. Sounded very difficult, but you pulled though and finished. Congrats.

GCBS Story said...

You are absolutely inspiring, especially to those of us who dont' have the guts to even try. I'm publishing a book on the chesapeake Bay swim to help raise money for the March of dimes. Anyone who wants to be included please send their story to I'd love to include you, Jonah. Congrats!
Best of Luck, Rose

GCBS Story said...
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