Thursday, June 13, 2013

2013 4.4 Mile Chesapeake Bay Swim Recap

There are a lot of things I’ve said I would never, ever do in my life. Including: a triathlon (well then), move to DC permanently (see: 2010 condo purchase), or work in the private sector (one of the best career decisions I ever made).

Entering the 4.4 Mile Chesapeake Bay Swim was pretty high on that list, too. So much for that.

When I first moved to DC 12 years ago, I met other swimmers in town who were training for this. They described it as a few hours of complete sensory deprivation, as you see nothing but green-brown water and your own hand entering the water for at least two hours. This did not sound appealing – not one bit – and I stuck to fun pool events like the 400 IM and 500 free while I chuckled at the folks who logged endless freestyle distance every spring to prep for the bay swim.

This past fall, something changed. I am unsure of what, though I believe a good deal of it was that I wanted an excuse to log some long swims in the spring in the name of “training.” Knowing that this would put several 5000+ meter swims on my training schedule, I entered the lottery and got a spot, sent in my $250(!) and got ready to go. I figured that, as with most events I enter, the training would be the most rewarding part, with race day just being a fun celebration.

I was wrong.

Not because the training wasn’t rewarding – I DO, after all, love a good 6000 meter workout before a full workday – but because the event itself was so amazing. Pictures simply can’t convey how awe-inspiring it is to swim across a large, famous body of water like this.

Although a lot of my training this spring focused on preparing for this event, I went into it with minimal expectations or concerns. My target time of 2:10 was based on times I’d seen posted by teammates who are roughly the same speed as me in the pool, but I knew conditions could impact the times greatly from year to year, and wasn’t really focused on time. In fact, I didn’t even wear a watch at all. When asked about my strategy, it was pretty simple:

1. Jump in the water at Sandy Point.
2. Swim until I hit land again.


The morning of the race, the race director pulled us together for the briefing, and conveyed some key information:

  • The water was 71F.
  • We had to stay between the two bridges, or we would be disqualified.
  • Thanks to Tropical Storm Andrea and resulting runoff, the health department had advised against swimming in the Chesapeake Bay. But that wasn’t about to stop any of us, so, we should consider ourselves warned.
  • Stay between the bridges.
  • There would be feed boats, one at Mile 1 and the other at Mile 3. We could stop and hang on as long as we wanted, and enjoy whatever food and drink they threw at us.
  • Don’t get off course. Stay between the bridges, or the Coast Guard might shoot you.
  • There was a service boat doing repair work on the bridge at Mile 2. This was not a feed boat. Stay away from it.
  • Really, for the love of God, stay between the bridges.
  • The tide would pull us north for Mile 2 and south for Mile 4.
  • The tide is no excuse for being pulled outside the bridges.

With that encouraging information, the DCRP crew gathered for a picture before we had to go line up on the shore.

(Team photo courtesy of DCRP teammate James.)

The nice thing about not wearing a wetsuit was that I was in such a minority (roughly 15% of the total field) that crossing OUR timing mat was faster, because the line was so short. And given that the water was in the 70s, it was perfectly fine for a woman-vs-water swim, and I was excited to start.

We all lined up along the beach, my friend Ed finally found me, and we looked across the massive body of water we were about to tackle. Cue the countdown, and we all ran into the water to start the journey.

Apparently, based on the way everybody started, a good portion of my wave thought we were racing a 100 meter freestyle. I, on the other hand, decided to go out slow and smooth in an effort to save my shoulder strength for any currents we might encounter. Roughly 400 meters into the race, we crossed under the first bridge and onto the course. And that’s when it hit me.

I was swimming across the Chesapeake Bay.

The body of water that can take hours to DRIVE over during a summer afternoon traffic jam. I was swimming across it.

That’s really awesome.

Since I didn’t haul ass at the beginning, there were very few people around me, and I settled into a very easy pace and saved myself and my shoulders for the legendary currents. I noticed the first feed boat at Mile 1 and passed right by it, waiting for the currents to show up.

Then I passed that service boat at Mile 2. No currents. Fascinating.

My shoulders, even the one that acted up the week before the race, felt perfectly fine. Nothing hurt. And I was swimming across the Chesapeake Bay.

Damn. This was amazing.

I stopped to tread water and look around somewhere in here – sure, it was a race, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take in the view from water level. And it was spectacular.

Not spectacular? The fact that my legs had minimal bloodflow because I don’t kick when I swim. I figured I'd fix this by kicking a little bit once I approached the finish line so that I'd be able to stand up.

I rolled onto my back for some backstroke a few times just to enjoy the view again, because, wow, I was swimming across the Chesapeake Bay.

Mile 3 and the associated feed boat eventually showed up, but I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, so I swam right past. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that I was suddenly a little closer to the eastbound span of the bridge than I had been a few strokes earlier.

Current. It happens.

I didn’t really “feel” the current, and just resolved to swim so that I kept the distance between myself and the eastbound span of the bridge constant. This seemed to work alright, and I came upon the mile 4 buoy marker much earlier than I thought I would. It felt as though I’d been in the water less than an hour, and I couldn’t believe I was about to be done.

We soon turned towards the finish line, which involves a 400 meter swim along a jetty. I started swimming as hard as I could, and noticed many people WALKING in the last quarter mile or so.

In case you missed the memo, swimming is the fastest way for a human to get through water under their own power. I have no idea what these folks were doing, but it sure was a big morale booster to pass 10-15 people at the end like that.

Eventually the finish line showed up, and I jumped out, asked if I could swim back to the other side, and was told that I could not. Something about reopening one of the major shipping channels on the east coast of the United States.

There weren’t any clocks at the finish line, but somebody who was wearing a watch let me know that I’d probably gotten out around 2:25, which seemed incredible to me given that I felt like I was in there for an hour, tops.

I found out that my final finish time was 2:27:40, which placed me 96th out of 190 women, 8th out of 17 in my age group. If you go by the (very brief) no wetsuit list, I was 20th out of 36 of us women who didn’t need neoprene to conquer the bay.

So that was a major delta from my goal time, but I’m not remotely upset, just perhaps a little bit disappointed for not pushing harder because I woke up Monday morning less sore than I am after racing a 400 IM at a meet, indicating that I clearly didn’t leave it all out there. The goal time I set was based on times I’d seen out of folks I trained with, and it turns out that they all wear wetsuits, so that benchmark wasn’t a very accurate starting point.

But even without that information about the times, it was simply awesome to swim across the Chesapeake Bay like that. Not once did I feel bored or tired of swimming. Not even for a minute. Which was, in a way, more rewarding than meeting any kind of goal time.

This still indicates I have a problem with open water swimming, namely, that my pool times predict that I would be much faster in open water than I am. Part of this is the fact that I spent years and years perfecting my turns so that I could be a solid short course swimmer, but that’s not it. I often find that, when in a lake, river, or ocean, I lose all focus on time, and instead of pushing ahead relentlessly like I would in a 500 free in the pool, I notice the surroundings, the conditions, and the sheer beauty that some open water venues offer.

Sunday was no different, and I don’t know if I would have wanted it to be. 


  1. You are actually starting to mellow out a bit and that's a very good thing! Open water swimming is definitely different than lap based swimming just like a marathon is different than running on a track. You need to notice the surroundings and appreciate the experience like you did. The exception is when you are going for a PR and conditions are favorable. The good news: fewer all out efforts means better results when you do go all out.

  2. This is amazing. The idea of doing a swim like this strikes fear into my heart, so I'm so incredibly impressed.

    Also, this whole concept of a feed boat fascinates me. I know so very little about swimming.

  3. What an awesome experience! I'm not sure I could swim that far (at least not very quickly... I could probably eventually get there) but I love the idea. I thoroughly enjoyed running across the Bay Bridge so swimming across the bay sounds appealing too.
    And I agree with Megan. Feed boats sound interesting.

  4. totally awesome, and i think you're right about just enjoying it, doesn't happen every day! was wondering if you ate at all during the swim ;) I need to get in the pool/lake...

    1. I actually didn't - I tucked two gels into my suit in case I needed them, but I had some UCAN superstarch about 30 minutes before the race started and that seemed to carry me through the 4.4 miles.

  5. I am sure you have to be overly thrilled to have finished this! I am super proud of you! I find it amazing that you seemed ready to swim back after over four miles. Impressive. I know that I would rather have swum it like you with no real goal and to just enjoy the surroundings and such. My coach in high school got DQed for going out of bounds!

    1. Maybe they should mention it more often in the race briefing.

  6. This was an awesome post and is exactly how a race report should be, celebrating the accomplishment of completing something you trained for, not b*tching about silly things that went wrong.

    I think you enjoyed this experience a lot more than I did! Great job, i loved the recap!

  7. Wow, this is a great post! Swimming 4.4 miles in open water (sans wetsuit too) is such an impressive feat. And not only did you finish feeling strong, but you also genuinely enjoyed it. Very cool.

  8. Uh, I think finishing in any time is incredible.

    I can understand wanting to enjoy the views - I do the same thing when trail running, but if I'm on a treadmill I NEED to go as quickly as possible just to get the distance over with and stop staring at the same damn wall!


  9. This looks like an amazing expierence.

  10. Awesome job! I think it might have been a good call to slow down and really revel in the experience of a good race, without all the time pressure. Nothing wrong with doing something simply to enjoy it!

    Also, I love this feed boat idea. Seems way tastier than trying to suck down Gu while running :)

  11. Loved reading this. It sounds like an amazing experience. I think I would have a really hard time "racing," too — it seems like something you'd really just want to take in. Congrats!

  12. I have to say this is one of the most interesting race recaps I've read in ages. I am at the point where you started, yes I have background in swimming and one day I will do this swim...but probably not for a while.

    I've done between 10-15 open water swims and I can honestly say I've never been able to push the pace like a race and am a solid pool swimmer (when I train) but can never fully say that about open water. I think you are right though because so much effort is put into turns and when you are swimming in the pool, you are alone..but at the same time not really. You still have people screaming for you or pushing your pace in 500...mile..ect. In the open water if you aren't with anyone, it's essentially (for me at least) a scenic adventure.

  13. Loved your race report. I can only imagine how cool it must have been. I think you executed beautifully. Congratulations on this achievement!

  14. Congrats! Sounds like you had a blast--and that's the most important thing about racing.

    btw, did you take that picture of the bridge from the water? If so--how?? Did you swim with your phone/camera?

    1. Another swimmer got that shot. A bunch of people take the leisurely approach every year and stop for photos/video. I don't have a waterproof camera, but for this event, I kind of wish I did.

  15. So, what you were saying in the beginning there is that you should stay inside of the bridges? Hahahahaha!

    Congratulations! What an awesome accomplishment!! I do believe your blog has convinced me to put this on my list. It seems absolutely phenomenal. and beautiful.

    I can't believe you don't kick when you swim - I kick like a freaking maniac. hahahaha!

    CONGRATS again and again :)

  16. Well done! I also had a blast - but could have done without the calf cramp at mile 3! At that moment I was grateful to have my wetsuit on! And thanks for being there at the finish watching me smile/grimace on my way onto land - it was nice to know my fellow swimmers were happily finished!

  17. I cannot thank you enough for this - the only sane report I've found about the race I'm looking forward to this June.