Potomac River Sharkfest – Dahlgren, VA

In one sense, this is a swim I would like to forget. I began and swim and did not complete it. But in another sense, this is a swim where hopefuly some lessons were learned that I can take away. We sometimes learn from our failures even more than our successes. 

The Potomac River Sharkfest (nearly 2 miles alongside the Harry Nice Bridge) was held on Saturday, June 2nd. This was a more commercial event than most of my swims. Other "Sharkfests" are held in Boston, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Austin, and other places. Nearly 200 swimmers paid $75 to participate. There were no marker buoys and not as much support as usual. Also there was no information about what to expect in the river when the pre-race swim meeting was held. The word passed around was that there was a strong current running downstream. The wind was also beginning to kick up and appeared to be moving in the same direction.

I did get in the water prior to the start. The temperature was fine but the wind and waves were strong. There was one mass start. I got in the far upstream end of the pack, expecting the tidal current to move me downstream, to my left, and toward the bridge. This is exactly what happened. But my biggest problem was the wind-driven waves. They came from my right and hit me in the face almost every time I tried to breathe. I struggled. I have no idea how much river water I swallowed, but it felt like a lot. A couple of times I quit swimming and just breast stroked to try to get my breath back. But the damn water kept on hitting me in the face even then.

I was frustrated, having no fun, and feeling somewhat panicked. Then I found that I was rapidly approaching the bridge. I struggled to correct and get upstream away from the bridge. I noticed other swimmers in similar predicaments. One was actually hanging onto a bridge support with his arms around it while the water rushed past.

We had been told that if we needed to quit the swim they would pick us up and just wave for a boat. Others around me were waving and I waved too. Soon there were about a dozen of us in the boat. I had never quit a race before, and it was not a good feeling. I accused myself of being a wimp and a coward. I second-guessed my decision over and over, and even now I regret it. But I have also tried to reflect and take away something of value.

I have had several open water swims where I struggled starting out and then things got better. And it wasn't that conditions changed, it was me. There is a natural  anxiety at the start, a tendency to try too hard, a worry about getting kicked or run over, and an effort to get used to the environment. Breathing is harder. From now on I will try to anticipate this and expect some adversity.

The boat that picked us up offered to drop us off and let us swim to the finish, which I did.  This gave me about 30 minutes of swimming time, and things went better. I developed a breathing technique where instead of rolling and breathing to my right side, I rolled farther as if turning onto my back. This made the chances of getting a breath much greater. I will remember this in the future when the water is rough and the wind on my breathing side.

I need to bite the bullet and seriously work on bi-lateral breathing. I see other swimmers who do this naturally and beautifully.  With enough practice and determination, I can surely do the same. Had I been able to breath on the left side, the downwind side, I could have done much better.

Finally, when dealing with currents that may be strong, I must pay more attention to navigation. I did not need to get moved downstream to the bridge. I needed to sight more and aim more upstream. It was not that I was too weak a swimmer to stay upstream, but that I was so occupied with other issues that I simply neglected to swim smart in terms of the current.

The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is next week – four and a half miles.

1 thought on “Potomac River Sharkfest – Dahlgren, VA”

  1. Thanks for the cool blog posts. Im not even a swimmer, but I read about the "Ridges 5k swim" somewhere else online, and found your blog. It really looks like there is a BUNCH of other posts that I would enjoy reading. If you visit my blog, please excuse me for the moment, I lost all my files, and have to re-upload everything from my WP backup file, which seems to be quite large. I look forward to reading more of your experiences.

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