Part I – Triathletes Ruin Everything
Triathletes are the worst, aren’t we? I mean, ask a road cyclist about the bike handling skills of a typical triathlete and you’ll get an earful about why we’re not often invited to group rides. Pure runners are an amazing breed, split between those who race to win and can rightfully roll their eyes at the triathlete, and the in-it-to-finish who are often so impressed with just doing a triathlon of any distance that we soak in the awe, showing up to the local 5k in a race belt. (OK I did that once to not get holes in my nice tech shirt. I was THAT guy.)
It’s a very rare occasion to be able to get together with dedicated swimmers. I’ve only signed up for four open water events among the many runs and triathlons. My 5K swim in 2011 was a DNF. 5K swim in 2012 was completed, while dead last by a long margin. Great Hudson River swim 2013 was cancelled for weather. Here’s what we did in NYC that day, which was only in Times Square for three days, so serendipity smiled on us and we salvaged a trip. Because, of course, there’s nothing else to do in NYC on a Saturday.
What was I saying about triathletes?
As readers and friends know, I am not content to be slow at just one of the disciplines, I am glacially, painfully slow at all three. The one that haunts me is swimming, since there is no reason I could not become a solid swimmer. My weight is irrelevant. It’s all about form, yet for a number of reasons, I have failed to do the work to make my form any better, and honestly, I haven’t put the time in. But that doesn’t stop me from signing up for things anyway! I’m still a tourist in the world of endurance sports, and once I got over being dead last once, I can do it again.
With Darren Miller focusing on the North Sea crossing, there is no planned 5k open water challenge for this year, so I went to USMS to search for an event to push my limits this summer. I found the Maryland Swim for Life. I didn’t know a thing about it, but as it is in its 22nd year, I figured it had to be well-run. I was right. And I hope to make this event a yearly spot on my calendar.
That is, if we triathletes don’t ruin it. 😉
So here’s why I say that. The event is very straightforward. You decide to swim 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 miles. Buoys are placed every half mile up river, and you turnaround at your appointed spot. Easy enough right? Well, leave it to the triathletes for that to not be enough. Swim 2 miles? Well, that’s shy of the Ironman distance swim, and as we all know, Ironman has to be the gold standard for everything. Why not just swim 3 miles? Well then I wouldn’t know my 2.4 time!
So partnering with the DC Triathlon club, the DC Aquatics club that hosts the event, added for 2013, the 2.4 mile triathlon challenge. I am sure that a good number of the “real swimmers” saw this and rolled their eyes. And they would be right to do so. We’re a weird bunch, triathletes.
I originally signed up for the 4 mile swim. I had done 3 miles last summer, so why drive out of state if not for a longer challenge? Truth is, I mostly race in Maryland/Delaware, and it’s actually not that far. It’s not like my 3 mile time is going to improve, that’s for better trained athletes than myself.
As we got closer, I knew I didn’t have a 4 mile swim in me, so I emailed to switch to the 3 mile swim.
And then we got even closer, and I hadn’t been to the pool much at all, especially since Eagleman. The thought of going up-river seemed daunting, so I rolled my eyes at myself, cursed the whole idea of IRRROONNNMMMMAAAANNN and emailed the director to….
put me in the 2.4 mile triathlon challenge.
Sigh. Triathletes. We’re such a high maintenance group.
On the Scene
I went to this event by myself, and I didn’t know of anyone I knew in real life or cyber-life going. As much as I like having family and friends at the finish, sometimes just flying solo is nice. I feel no pressure or worry about their day that way. I’m extroverted enough to strike up conversation with anyone. And an endurance sports event is a lot better experience by yourself than a concert. The last concert I went to solo was Phish at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009 or 2010. That was just sad. Interestingly enough, the day of the swim, Phish started a two-night run at MPP where I did have friends attending, but Saturday night shows are a no-go with my schedule, and the Sunday night conflicted with a community commitment. I miss the scene a bit, but the early morning endurance tribe has a better mix of people, and less self-destructive behavior to put up with in the parking lots.
The event had over 220 pre-registered, which was their biggest event yet, and my biggest OWS event. The triathlon challenge group was the largest of the day, and the largest of their individual event waves ever.
Maybe triathletes aren’t all bad. If you make it 2.4, we will show up.
I didn’t actually need to see the light blue swim caps to identify who would be in my wave. We were easy to spot. Now this isn’t 100% of course, but if there was someone with way more gear than would be needed to swim, you’re probably looking at a triathlete. Of course, I packed my brand new Eagleman 70.3 bag that I “earned” in June, and spotted one other guy with the same bag. Other triathletes had their wetsuits in the car, even though we knew there would be no wetsuits. We just love to pack our stuff! With so little prep pre-race, the triathletes were jittery and going a bit nuts. No bike to set up? No running shoes to lay out just perfectly? No mixing powders into water bottles in precise formulas? What’s wrong with these swimmers man? Don’t they know how to maximize their enjoyment by over complicating everything???
I petted some dogs, eavesdropped on the safety volunteer briefing, and stood around a lot.
As you see pictures from this event, you’ll notice I stand out more than usual. That’s not just because of the hot pink shirt. I thought I would see more larger people here, since open water swimming is a sport where weight is nearly irrelevant, and especially in the really long distances, like channel crossing, there is a competitive edge to bodyfat for cold water. But, though there were a few big-time distance folks here, there were very very few large people like me. Among men, none that I saw. Triathlons and running races are always all-sizes, and at Eagleman I wasn’t even the biggest guy. I really expected to see more people like me. But this was more of a local event, and the Maryland/DC area is a far healthier subset of the US population. And, I don’t know how to point this out without sounding like a hillbilly from flyover country, but since the participants were largely gay men from the DC area, the average shape was amazing. I mean, some stereotypes are complimentary, right?
I remember what it was like to first get in a line at a pool for a triathlon among a crowd that was all, 100% in amazing shape. I felt really nervous and self-conscious. At the Swim for Life, I didn’t give it a second thought. Some of that has to do with my own growth and development, but a lot has to do with the atmosphere too. I’ve been around enough macho posturing to know I want none of it. I can still feel very self-conscious with my shirt off in most places, and around type A alpha-males, I’m still part insecure 7th-grader inside. I just don’t belong.
But among a crowd of super-fit, barely clothed, out and proud gay men, I was completely at ease. When you are at an event that was started to be both a fundraiser and a safe place for folks who are not always given a safe place in society, you know that safety extends beyond any one designated group.
And if I may be so bold as to dredge up one other hopefully light-hearted stereotype: oh man, the after-swim brunch was absolutely FABULOUS.
The Swim for Life Series
Swim for Life started in 1988 in Provincetown Massachusetts. A bit of the history is here. In 1991, the Maryland event began, and both have been consistent fundraisers for local AIDS charities, womens health, river restoration and other great causes. This event was so mellow, with such easy water, and nice people, I intend to make it an annual event. I will be doing the 5 miles next summer, and more actively raising money. I hope some of you will join me. Do the one mile, do any distance you’d like to try. This is a great place to get started with open water.
OK, so did I come for a swim or what?
I didn’t really do my research on what the Chester river is like. I didn’t know if the flow would be like rivers around me, or more like the Choptank. If I had thought just a minute about the geography of the Eastern shore, it would have been obvious, but I went in all worried about swimming against a hard current. In fact, we had a slight slacktide coming upriver with us. The weather was gorgeous, the water was over 80 degrees, and the river was shallow, so this was as unintimidating an open water swim as a person could ask for.
And at 9:15, we were off. I love this shot of our wave start. Again, if you didn’t know the blue caps were triathletes, what clue is there in this picture?
Somewhere between the 1 mile buoy and 2 mile buoy, another swimmer in my wave was having trouble sighting. I could see ok with my fancy polarized goggles, so she said she’s follow alongside me. I assured her this would only slow her down and that it would literally be a case of the slow and crooked leading the blind. She tried anyway until I accidentally clocked her with my left arm. I felt so bad about it, but she was fine, and did finally move over a bit. If I were worth drafting off, I’d let you know.
By that point most of the 2 mile swimmers had passed us, and some of the lead 5 milers were on their way back. Yup, I’m less than a mile into a swim, and someone starting only 15 minutes before is now at over 4 miles. Unreal.
Past the usual 2 mile buoy they put a cluster of small buoys out for the 2.4 turnaround. A kayak with a pole sat there as well, resembling a sailboat. I just worried about colliding with the 3, 4, and 5 milers coming back, but once I got turned around, it was like any other swim where the faster people come up behind me and sometimes brush a bit, sometimes swim by without notice.
I asked the turnaround kayaker the time, and I had taken nearly an hour to get to the halfway. My best 1.2 mile open water time is about 6 minutes less than that (not counting the extremely current assisted B2B) so I was going slower than I had hoped.
When I finished, my time was 2:09:44. Hardly under the two hour mark I predicted, and nowhere close to my pipe dream of a 1:40. But that is under the magical 2:20 ironman swim cutoff, so that’s something.
I remember smiling at the camera, but he had already taken this shot, which seems to always be my face coming out of the water.
After getting out, no bike or run to do, I took my time getting my land legs back, enjoyed the brunch, changed clothes and hit the road. I didn’t need to stay for awards, and I had a bit of a drive home.
As I saw the results online, I was surprised to see that I was not dead last, but 41st out of 43.
The Best Thing I Ever Heard at an Event
On my way to the car, there were two guys walking along the road talking about the triathlon distances. One had a thick, I believe French or maybe Italian, accent. They were establishing the different swim distances, and I remarked that the Olympic made most sense for a strong swimmer, since it was a more balanced ratio.
The guy with the accent said without pause “so if you’re a bad swimmer, you have to do Ironman.”
I’d love to take offense, but you know, he’s probably right.