On June 12, 2016, I completed my 7th Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. My time was 2 hours and 36 minutes which is my best to date. I finished in 520th place among the 642 finishers. This does mean that a lot of swimmers finished ahead of me, but it also means I came in ahead of 122 others, all younger than myself. I finished first in my age group (75-79) although, full disclosure, there were only two of us in that age group. My Garmin Forerunner sport watch counted the 4,136 swimming strokes it took me to swim the 4.4 miles, and it estimated I burned 1,619 calories. My family made up this calorie deficit afterward with a barbecue dinner at the Red, Hot, & Blue place. The race was won by a 20-year-old man with a time of 1:24, which was a near record. The swimmers who swim across the bay that fast seem beyond mere mortals to me.
The weather was a good news/bad news affair. There were winds blowing 33 miles per hour, but the wind was blowing in the direction we were swimming. However, the wind was kicking up waves said officially to be 2-3 feet but felt to be more like 4-5 feet by those of us in the water. It was hard to get reliable breaths without taking in mouthfuls of water. I kept thinking of the expression "tossed around like a cork." But the water was a pleasant temperature and the tidal currents were less than usual. Other than the terrific wind and waves, it was a great day for a swim.
I'm addressing 5 questions I've been asked about swimming out in open water.
Why do you do this?
Sometime around the year 2003, I was sitting at a company event next to a man named John Jellen. I'd recently given up running and taken up lap swimming. Jellen had recently completed the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, I asked him many questions about the swim, and I began thinking I'd love to do this myself. Sometime after that, I was innocently driving across the Bay Bridge on a second Sunday in June, and had the astonishing view of all those swimmers far down below in the water. I wondered if I could ever do a thing like that. Then later I decided to try. I began doing shorter open water swims, eventually qualified to enter the Bay Swim, and completed my first one in 2005.
The effort and discipline of getting ready for this swim gives me great incentive to stay healthy and keep in shape throughout the year. I know that at my age I can't get out of shape during the year and hope to do the swim on short notice. So I swim all year round, but with increasing effort starting in January.
I've always been drawn to adventure, and open water swimming is certainly in that category. At my age and now with an artificial right hip, I can't run or play tennis or climb mountains as I used to. But I can swim, and swim a lot. I think swimming is the ideal form of exercise for my situation. The next Bay Swim motivates my regular swimming and fitness all year long.
What do you think about?
This was an interesting question. The person who asked may have thought you get bored swimming for two and a half hours. That can be true of swimming long distance in a lap pool. For that I have a waterproof MP3 player and a variety of music.
But out in open water there is much to do and much to occupy the mind. You must sight ahead and navigate your course. In many cases that's a full-time job. But along with that you have to avoid collisions with other swimmers, and the traps and other dangers you encounter. In rough water, every stroke and breath is different, and you're constantly trying to better adjust. You try to get in sync with the waves, to be in harmony with the elements instead of struggling against them. But that struggle is a struggle.
In a long swim, you have to keep assessing your level of effort, and balancing the desire to swim fast with the need to stay within your ability. There's a debate inside your head. One voice says go all out, and the other says slow down and play it safe. You have to moderate that debate and then deal with the consequences.
There's also the matter of motivation. There is almost always some adversity to be overcome. And the adversity requires a mental as well as a physical effort.
In the first half mile of this year's swim, I went through a period of tough breathing. It seemed I was getting a mouth full of water with every breath, and unable to get any breath at all between some strokes. There was some sense of panic in my thinking then, and I had to fight that, make myself slow down, and stay calm and work through this.
I mainly have the Chesapeake Bay Bridge memorized now, and as I swim I decide on new objectives one after another. This breaks up the course into manageable chunks. This, also, occupies the mind.
How does swimming like this compare to pool swimming?
Pool and open water swimming both involve making your way through water, but there are many differences after that.
Lap swimming in a pool is very safe, set, and structured. You swim down a marked lane and back, in nice clear water, with a life guard watching over you. The water is calm and temperature controlled, and its purity is closely monitored. At the end of the lane you get a big push off the wall before starting back. Any time you want you can stop and rest. You have your water bottle right there if you decide on a drink. You can hang off the side of the pool and chat with friends.
Out in a lake or river or bay or ocean, almost none of those things exists. Unlike the pool, you never know what you may experience, and you have to adjust to unexpected and often variable circumstances. Pool swimming is like walking the dog around an accustomed neighborhood route. Open water swimming is like exploring strange new territory or climbing a hill where no trail exists. You must improvise and adapt to whatever you encounter. You are more on your own, and the miles come harder. But the reward will most likely be greater.
I don't mean to disparage pool swimming, or imply it's only good for conditioning. After many years of swimming laps, I still keep learning and finding new challenges. If I could only swim in a pool, I would keep swimming in the pool for sure.
I own and ride two bicycles: a road bike and a mountain bike. Both are bicycles. Both have 2 tires and a chain and seat and handlebars and gears and sprockets. But one bike is built for speed on a smooth surface. The other is heavier and slower with full suspension and lower gearing and built to handle rough terrain. The same conditioning is good for both types of riding, but the challenges and skill sets are different. Road riding is more even and predictable. Off-road biking is more variable, presenting a great variety of situations and requiring more improvisation. That, for me, is an appropriate analogy for swimming in the lap lanes as contrasted with swimming in open water.
How do you prepare to swim across the Chesapeake Bay?
This is more about hard work and common sense than anything else. I try to eat healthy and keep in shape all year round. I put in many miles of laps in swimming pools all year round, but increasing in intensity as the event approaches. I average swimming 14-15 miles most weeks, including a lot of 3 mile swims and some 4's as well. I time every swim and keep track of my times and distances.
I do other things that benefit other parts of the body: hiking, bicycle riding, daily stretching and core-building exercises. If possible, I do shorter swims in open water in preparation. This year I did the Nanticoke River Swim (3 miles) about a month ahead of the Bay Swim. Since I swim in a wetsuit, I also do wetsuit training swims in the pool ahead of the swim. Wearing a wetsuit changes your balance in the water and affects your stroke, and it is good to adjust to this in practice ahead of time.
Two weeks before the swim I taper off. I cut back on mileage. The week before the swim this year I did a one mile swim on Monday, followed by half mile swims on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. But those half miles consisted of 100 yard sprints at the fastest pace I could do. And I rested a lot otherwise. I prepared mentally by going over the swim course and my lessons learned from previous years. And another thing, very important, is hydration. I drink water, water, water the day before and the morning of the swim. I once passed out from dehydration after a 3 mile swim, and learned a hard lesson.
What is so special about the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim?
The Bay Swim is a premier event among U.S. open water swims. I would't claim it to be the greatest, but it is up there with the Manhattan Island and Alcatraz Island swims for its unique and scenic location. I have done swims in Lake Bled, Slovenia, and along the southern Turkish coast where the swimmer views are stunning. The Bay Swim is still inspiring to me, even after several crossings.
We start from the beach of Sandy Point State Park on the Maryland western shore, swim out and into the 100-yard-wide space between the spans of the towering Chesapeake Bay Bridge, swim across the bay between those spans, exit at the eastern shore, and finish at the Hemingway's Marina beach.
There are 650 of us swimming. We're supported by over 700 volunteers. They're in boats, kayaks, busses, firetrucks, ambulances, food trucks, overhead in 2 helicopters. Volunteers are handling all sorts of support and logistical duties. The U.S. Coast guard has 18 ships lined across the bay on both sides, closing off all boat traffic. It's the only time in the year this major shipping lane to Baltimore Harbor is closed. If you take time to look while swimminbg, you can see the crowded bridge traffic high above you, or a gathering of cormorants around the base of a bridge support. You see assorted great blue herons and ospreys, and should you be lucky a nesting peregrine falcon. When you finally emerge from under the bridge after 4 miles of swimming, you see the finish another half mile straight ahead down the jetty. The protected water there is smoother, more like a pool. And a cheering crowd is there, and you get to race down this homestretch with whatever swimmers are finishing there around you.
That is all good to great. And this event has been going on annually for 25 years now, and has a great history of supporting worthy, charitable causes, with over $2M donated thus far.
The first time I did this swim, I wasn't as prepared as I was last Sunday. I came out of the water exhausted and hurting. I remember saying to my wife: "I'm glad I did this once, but I don't think I'll ever try it again."
Long before the January registration deadline, I was eager to try it again.
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