I have previously written about the annual open water swimming event in Maryland’s Nanticoke River. The 2012 swim is here and lthe 2013 swim is here. I won’t repeat descriptions of the area and the event, but simply report on my experience there just yesterday – May 1, 2016.To say that it was a cold and rainy day is putting it mildly. Rain was coming down almost constantly and alternating between light, medium, and heavy. The water temperature which is normally expected to be in the mid to upper 60’s was 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 12.8 Celsius. Last summer I swam in my coldest water to date, which was 17 Celsius in an alpine river in Italy. I worried before the Nanticoke race that the water temperature would keep me from getting enough breath. It actually did not. The cold was painful at first, but as I got into the swim I was able to swim and breathe normally.
I have dear swimming friends who literally love cold water and thrive on swimming in colder and colder environments. I will not be joining those ranks. This day after the swim, I am glad I was able to swim in such water, but I will not look forward to doing so again.
Also many of my cold water loving friends swim bare-skinned in bathing suits. I do not. At the Nanticoke I wore my Orca full length wetsuit, wetsuit insulated socks, and a Blue Seventy insulated cap under the race cap. If there was anything else I could have worn to help with the cold, I would have worn it.
Other than rain and cold water, conditions for the 2016 Nanticoke swim were quite favorable. The wind and waves were minimal, and the tidal currents were much less than in my previous swims there. The race was also less crowded, due perhaps to the expected cold temperatures. The 3-mile portion of the event, my group, had only 50 participants.
I swam well and felt I had done about as good as I am capable of. My time was an hour and forty three minutes, an average of 34 minutes per mile. I placed 37th out of the 50 finishers.
I had hoped for a time of an hour and a half. I can swim 3 miles in that time doing laps in the pool. But there is a considerable difference between swimming in open water and swimming laps in the pool. I have been thinking about the differences that would make my time in the river slower than my expected time in the pool. I have several thoughts about the question.
(1) In the pool you get a big breath and strong push off the wall every 25 yards or meters. You can never do sustained swimming as fast as you come off the wall at the ends of the lane. There is no pushing off out in a lake or river or ocean. (2) In the pool you are swimming an exact distance following a marked lane. In open water, despite your best effort to sight ahead and stay on course, you wander and add distance. (3) In the pool your time ends when you finish the last lap, but in most open water swim events (like Nanticoke), you have to haul yourself out of the water onto a beach, get your footing, and walk/run to a finish line and timing mat, adding additional time. (4) Then, of course, the water temperature in a pool is controlled and kept at an optimal temperature. I can only assume there is some physical handicap to swimming in 55 degree water as opposed to 78 or so degrees.
Somewhere there must be scientific studies with data on this question, but I have yet to see them. For now, these points comprise my excuses for swimming at a 34 minute pace instead of a 30 minute pace. I would be interested in other thoughts, experiences, observations, or research on the matter.
I am now looking forward to participating in my seventh Great Chesapeake Bay Swim event on Sunday, June 12th. The water should be warmer.
[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “Open Water Swim Events” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]