The Atlantic Ocean is an amazing place to swim, but very intimidating. Yesterday, with a couple hundred other swimmers, I participated in the inaugural Ocean City Swim for Brain Research. My good friend and training partner, Claudia, swam the race as well. All in all it was a very well run event. The event staff treated us great and we were well protected both during the swim and after the finish.
The swim course was marked by a buoy line set 300 meters from shore. Swimming that far offshore was a new experience for me. Although the swells were gentle, the bobbing they caused was disorienting. When on top of a swell, you could see for miles. But, if you happened to take a breath while in the trough all you saw was water. These conditions made swimming a straight course difficult. You had to time the sighting to correspond with the swells and catch a quick glimpse of the buoy before sinking into the trough. Although we swam in following seas, the current seemed to push us to the Northeast, away from the shore. We must have zigzagged our way up the coast because we passed within a few feet of some of the buoys, but fifty meters from others.
The air was blisteringly hot in Ocean City yesterday, with no shade at any of the start points. When the nine mile swimmers started at 9:30 a.m., there were a few joggers and bikers on the boardwalk. Two hours later at the start of the three mile swim, it was too hot to even walk on the sand. With no shade anywhere, we tried to keep as much skin covered for as long as possible, and kept spraying and respraying the exposed parts with sunscreen.
The water was cold, about 65 degrees. This caused a number of nine mile swimmers to abandon the swim within minutes of starting. After learning of this, most of the three-milers decided to pull on wetsuits. This wasn’t an option for Claudia and me because we hadn’t brought any. We didn’t bother with much of a warm up before the start. I jumped a few waves and then immediately body surfed the next one to the shore, having decided that nothing would be gained by getting cold before the start. Our original goal had been to improve on the time we swam at last year’s three mile Swim Across America. As we walked back to our towels, that goal changed simply to finishing the swim.
The start of the race involved the new experience of getting beyond the breakers. We took a conservative approach and, because the current was flowing to the North, jogged to the South a little before entering the water to insure that we had the current at our backs when we reached the turn buoy.
I rely on the buddy system when swimming in open water. Even if I don’t have a teammate with me, I always stay close to other swimmers. From a psychological standpoint, I think I need to able to see someone else at all times in order to remain calm and relaxed. Yesterday, swimming far from shore, it proved especially important to have a teammate swimming next to me.
It was too cold to just put your head down and start freestyle so the first hundred yards were swum with heads up breaststroke. After getting our breathing under control, we started swimming for the finish and things slowly got warmer. Although we started close to last, we ultimately caught and passed about a third of the swimmers in front of us, (most of whom were wearing wetsuits) and the paddle boarders who were guarding them. Even with the slow start and sighting breaks, our pace was about 2 minutes per hundred meters.
The bottoms of my feet never got warm. My hands were fine until the end when I started losing feeling in my right hand. The numbness slowly climbed to my wrist and forearm and had reached my bicep by the time I made it to the finish. I had a similar feeling in my left leg as my calf muscle slowly cramped from the ankle to my knee. It was frustrating because I couldn’t find a way to generate the heat necessary to keep my arm and leg warm. Kicking harder didn’t work, nor did clenching and flexing my fingers during the recovery portion of the arm stroke.
At the race briefing we were told that the buoys would be 1,000 meters apart and that the last buoy would be orange and closer to shore. Pretty straight forward, I thought. Pass four yellows, head towards the shore to find the orange, turn left and head for the beach. Each time we neared a buoy, Claudia and I would stop briefly, exchange a few words of encouragement to make sure neither of us had become disoriented, and then ride the swell until we could sight the next buoy. After the third buoy, I repeated a line we often use during a workout, “half-way home.” Then it was head down, elbows high and on to the next buoy.
I had a good sight on the fourth buoy and felt strong as it got closer with each stroke. We reached it, took our break, and I started looking towards the shore for the orange buoy. It wasn’t there. Looking North, all I saw was more buoys. A nearby paddle boarder told us we only had eleven blocks to go. This made me laugh inside because, while that information would have helped if we were walking up the Coastal Highway, it was useless to us as we bobbed up and down 300 meters from shore.
Counting the buoys didn’t matter any more. We’d swim to one, exchange a few words of encouragement and swim to the next. I’m not sure if we passed two or three more buoys, but before we knew it we had reached the orange buoy. A quick left turn and another fifty strokes or so and we were being thrown onto the shore by the breaking waves. Not the most graceful exit from a body of water, but it worked.
A nice sized crowd of vacationers cheered enthusiastically and I felt surprisingly good as we climbed the beach to the finish. We were escorted to chairs and given water and Gatorade. This was followed by chicken and peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, cookies and brownies. I was dizzy for a while, but ultimately recovered okay.
As we sat on the finish beach waiting for the bus to come and take us back downtown, we watched other swimmers finish and, in some instances, suffer. Ultimately three ambulances were called. Two for hypothermic swimmers and a third for a swimmer experiencing breathing difficulties. This brought home to me the harsh reality that open water swimming, despite all of its joys, is not a sport without inherent risks, especially when the conditions are not optimal.
Which is why I am grateful to have had a friend swimming to my right yesterday. Thanks again, Claudia.