race recap #4: two-point-four miles of epic open water speediness (aka, killin’ the swim)

This year’s Ironman CdA had a new swim start – called their Swim Smart initiative. You’ve probably seen photos of Ironman’s mass swim starts where there is a mssive wave of people running into the water simultaneously where they then proceed to duke it out, arms, legs, elbows, feet, and fists for a rowdy, aggressive and potentially dangerous 2.4 miles. Some people think this start is most epic. From a spectator’s point of view, I would definitely agree.

But let me tell you, I could not have been more relieved to learn about the revised start. And I say this as one 2318 athletes who started the race and as someone who is NOT afraid of long swims in open, chilly water (most days). And I say this as a strong swimmer who has mixed it up with the boys in numerous race day swim starts and swim drills and mass start practices. But I also say this as one of just 636 females who signed up to compete in IMCDA this year. Just look at these pictures and look at how many pinks caps you see…

green, green, green, green, green, green, pink!

green, green, green, green, green, green, pink!

before the start...

the beach beginning to fill up before the start…

swim start  5

And what do we know about boys? (Besides that they are bigger than me?) Boys are mean and aggressive. To each other, yes, certainly. No guy I know likes to be beat.

Now, put a pink cap on and go swim with the boys. They’re fine with it, really. They’ll play nice – they want to pat you on the head and console you that the swim is not going to be that scary and the water isn’t that dark and you’ll be just fine. Cute little girl. That is until you start swimming past them.

What do guys hate more than being beat? Being beat by a girl.

My swim time of 1 hour 10 minutes is not good enough to beat the pros, not even close. But it does put me in front of 75% of all the competitors.

And that means I beat A LOT of guys, some of whom got downright nasty when they realized it was a girl passing them. Grabbing, pulling and generally trying to swim over me. Some of it was probably an accident – absolutely, it comes with the territory of open water swims. But I have a hunch there were more than a few non-accidents. A handful of times, I did have to be more aggressive and take wider strokes to literally push people off of me.

The worst of it was in the first half of the first loop.

Anyway, I should back up. The new swim start went smoothly – no one knew quite what to expect, only that athletes were to “self-seed” like in a marathon. So each person would have 17 hours from the time they crossed into the water to finish the race. Volunteers held signs – 60 minutes, 1:00-1:15, 1:15-1:30, 1:31-1:45, etc.

self seeding

self seeding

Hubby and I had agreed to start the swim together and thought we’d seed ourselves at the front of the 1:15-1:30 mark. We had both swam the Coeur d’Alene Crossing last August, a 2.4 mile swim across the lake so we had a good idea of what our times might be. We figured I might be just a smidge faster than 1:15 and he might be around 1:20 so this seemed like a good plan.

Not knowing what to expect from the swim conditions and crowds, I had honestly told myself that as long as I was on the bike by 9 a.m. I would be “fine” (i.e. I would still probably make the cut offs throughout the rest of the day). For those of you who don’t know, the swim cut off for the 2.4 miles is 2 hours and 20 minutes. We were both confident that, excluding any extenuating circumstances (like getting hard-core kicked in the face and needing stitches or drowning), we’d be comfortably under that mark.

Mike Reilly

Mike Reilly gives some last minute instructions and words of encouragement. (Or possibly he’s just telling this guy next to him how to get to the restrooms…)

I found hubby on the beach near the warm up area and he had some pretty bad news (already). Someone had stepped on his watch and he hadn’t realized it until he got to the beach. The screen was cracked and neither of us thought it would make it through the swim, let alone the rest of the day. He didn’t feel like he had enough time to swim upstream to drop it off at his bike (at this point transition was closed anyways), so he was just going to have to keep his fingers crossed it would survive the swim and keep functioning throughout the day. (This was on top of the fact that he was competing with a broken wrist – an injury he had picked up just 16 days before race day when he took a tumble off his bike during a taper ride.) The watch issue would prove to be a really major complication and hurdle for him throughout the day (but more on that later).

We each took our turns “warming up”. The worst part of open water swims for me is often that initial shock of getting into the cold water and I find myself spending the first 500-600 yards slowing down my breathing and adjusting to the cold, especially as it hits the back of my neck. So my warm ups, including for IMCDA really only consist of putting my face and neck in the water and floating face down in the water for a minute, focusing on keeping my breath outwards slow and steady and calm. After I got out, we had a few minutes to hold hands and stand, in silence, surrounded by hundreds of others dressed in black neoprene wetsuits, inching up towards the start line as the people in front of us crossed the starting line and entered the water.

I was surprised at how calm I was – again, I think it had a lot to do with the revised start. I mean, just look how peaceful it looks.

the calm before the storm

the calm (wayyy) before the storm

crowds at swim start 2

When we got close, we kissed each other and wished each other good luck. And for some reason, my eyes welled up with tears. I’m really not even sure why. It was just one of many somewhat overwhelming moments where I realized how much we’d been through and sacrificed and put ourselves through to get to that point and perhaps realized that **it was about to get real and maybe also had a feeling about how much we both might endure throughout the next 13 or 14 or 15 or 16 or (hopefully not) 17 hours. I looked at hubby and he seemed a little overwhelmed too. I wiped the stray tears from my eyes (so as not to fog my goggles!), gave him another kiss and we were off!

swim start - under the arch and over the timing mat

swim start – under the arch and over the timing mat

I fought the crowds for the first half of the first loop and had some close encounters with fists, elbows and people trying to swim over me or pull me down. Right before we started, I heard Mike Reilly, the announcer, say that the left and right sides seemed crowded but the middle looked pretty open, so I decided to stay somewhere in the middle. I tried to stay wide on the turns as those get sloppy in any race.

ows2

After the 2nd turn, heading back into the beach, I noticed the sun was out and traffic seemed to clear up a bit so it was cruising time. I’ve already spilled the beans about my time – I was out of the water and running across the halfway timing mat on the beach just under 35 minutes with a dozen or so people. I heard my name as I passed over the mat and dove back into the fray for round 2.

The first part of the second lap was clear, but then all of a sudden we hit of all of the 1:45ers and 2:00+ers who had gotten in the water behind us. A few times, there was just a wall of people and no clear path through. I took more than one little detour  just to get around the slower crowds of people.

swimmers as far as the eye can see...

swimmers stretched out as far as the eye can see…

At the start of my 2nd lap, I also realized that my neck was burning, chafing on my right side. I cursed the stupid pocket sized bodyglide and tried to breathe mostly on the left (I’m an ambi-breather, haha, is that a term?!) to try to keep it from getting worse, but I had a good sized wetsuit burn-owwee by the time I was done with the swim.

Other than that, my second loop was just a tiny bit slower, just over 36 minutes for a total of just shy of 1 hour 11 minutes.I ran up onto the beach, through the arch and over the timing chip.

tick tock tick tock...

tick tock tick tock…

Wetsuit strippers are awesome. You take your top half off and lay down and they do the rest and pull you up and hand you your wetsuit and send you on your way in a matter of seconds.

The rest of the transition was pretty smooth, thanks in part to the dry run we had done when we dropped off bags and in part thanks to the volunteers.  I found the change tent and ventured in. It was still fairly quiet, not too crowded yet and people seemed in good spirits. No crazy negative war stories. So I found a chair easily and a volunteer came right over to help me with whatever I needed. I was pretty low maintenance though. I opted to leave my jacket and sleeves behind, so all I needed was some chamois cream, my socks and bike shoes, my race bib, and my helmet and sunglasses and I was on my way in what felt like a jiffy (but was really more like 9 minutes…)!

As I ran towards my bike, I could hear the people along the transition fence cheering but it is so hard to distinguish whether it’s people you know or not until a familiar voice yells your name!

With that, I jumped on  (ok, gingerly and cautiously mounted) my bike (I have been known to be a little too over-eager with this part only to get tangled up and nearly eat it right in front of all of those fans – trust me, it’s way more embarrassing to do that than to take an extra 30 seconds to gracefully avoid any unnecessary close calls with the pavement) and had only a mild sense of trepidation for the next 112 miles…

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