Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2011

Sunday morning I woke up excited and ready to conquer the Bay, I was awake for an hour or two before my alarm went off so I decided to shower so that I could braid my hair while it was wet and get it into a tight bun, but mostly I showered to kill time. Our hotel room rocked and I found a toaster in one of the kitchen cabinets so Dave and I were able to have toasted bagels (brought from NYC, of course) with PB which are infinitely better than untoasted bagels. Everything was going according to plan, I liked that.

The morning went smoothly and we got to Sandy Point State Park with nearly 3 hours to go before the start of my race. I'll say it here and I'll probably say it again, my husband is a trooper. He sat with me, calmed my nerves and killed 3 hours in the increasingly hot sun...all before the race even started. I did have a chance to meet and hang out with Donna, a virtual training friend who lives across the pond in London. Chatting with her for a while was a great way to relax and pass the seemingly endless time before the race. Sadly, I missed out on meeting the other Amy who I could see through the trees. Before I knew it she was in her black wetsuit and I couldn't pick her out from the rest of the crowd! Oops! I loved her race report though, you can check it out here (after you finish reading mine, of course). Donna's GCBS recap is here too. Now, back to the starting area...

I took a few dips in the water before the race to try and cool off, but the water was so warm (79 degrees!!) that it didn't help that much. Wow, that water was so warm and any doubts I had about wearing my regular swimsuit were quickly washed away, there was no chance that I'd get chilly during this race. During the pre-race briefing the race director Chuck Nabit announced that the tides were going to be "gentle" and in our favor today. This was met with applause and excitement from the nearly 600 swimmers on the beach. There would be a gentle ebb tide pushing north to south early on in the race, then we'd hit slack tide somewhere in the middle and possibly have to fight the flood tide at the end if we were still in the water at that time. I listened with some skepticism and munched on some more food. I snacked during the 3 hour wait on a banana, a powerbar and a packet of gel just before the start. I carried two more packets of gel in my suit and I never had any trouble with fueling during the swim, it was probably the only thing that went perfectly.

At 11:30 Wave 1 took off in their yellow swim caps, churning up the bay in a flurry of arms and legs. I watched to see where the best spot might be for me to stand on the wide shoreline and after kissing Dave goodbye I took off for the far shore. I tried to stand away from patches of really big dudes that could easily swim over me and attempted to position myself near some other non-wetsuit swimmers. I was definitely in the minority standing there in this:

As you can see, most people ignored the race director's warnings about the water being too warm for wetsuits...

Entering the water definitely lived up to the hype of a "Cuisinart Start" with arms and legs churning as if we'd all been tossed into a giant blender, but I wasn't seriously banged up until the first turn. We took off towards the bridges and made a right hand turn between two large buoys to enter the span between the bridges and then made a quick left to head East again, this time with two looming structures on either side. WOW, I wanted to take a second to look around but it was very crowded and I quickly got knocked in the face and my goggles were jostled and filled with water. I emptied them and settled right into a rhythm of long, easy strokes. I never saw the mile 1 buoy, but I could tell I was moving at a great pace. Sometime shortly after entering the bridges I noticed a man to my right swimming at the same speed and we latched onto each other, swimming side by side for more than half of the race. It was great having someone by my side, especially because when I couldn't see his face I could just pretend it was my friend Sally.

He made for great company, even as we hit the not-so gentle ebb tide in mile 2 and quickly realized we were in danger of being swept under the southern spans, a move that would get us plucked from the water and driven by boat to the DNF pier. It happened very quickly and I noticed it right away, quickly adjusting myself so that I was no longer aiming ahead, but to the far left. My buddy followed suit and we continued on for a very tough mile swimming at a 45 degree angle with some increasing swells. I never once got nervous or panicked about the strong current, I'm more comfortable swimming in a current than I am on land running into a strong wind. Luckily we had the continuous bridge supports floating by to help mark our progress because I couldn't see too much ahead. Suddenly a boat appeared in front of me with lots of yellow and red dots bobbing around the sides. I nearly giggled at the sight of it, it was like a floating pub in the bay. I held on to the side for a second, sucked down a GU and listened to the other swimmers discussing the crazy current. It was also at the boat that my buddy introduced himself as Frank (thanks Frank!) and he commented that we were keeping a nice pace together. I was happy, Frank and I were a team and we were almost halfway done!! This was going to be amazing.

We swam around the boat, passed the mile 2 buoy in exactly 1:00 and could instantly feel that the tide had gone slack. WHEW. We settled right back into our rhythm and stayed side by side. It felt so good to be swimming straight again, that 45 degree angle had been really tough. It wasn't until we were about halfway between mile 2 and 3 that I would find out just how much that mile at an angle had affected me. It started out with a little pain in my back along the right side of my spine. I thought "oh, that hurts a bit" but I've never had pain while swimming so I figured it would go away, wrong. My first attempt to make it go away was to do a quick couple of breast stroke kicks, but maintain my freestyle arms to make it look normal to my companion. Wow, I don't recommend that move after you've been swimming for 2.5 miles. It didn't help ease the pain, but shortly after the pain spread rather quickly straight up my back into my shoulder and neck. WOAH, something was definitely wrong. I tried to simply ignore it and push forward, but after a few strokes I was in excruciating pain. Still confident that I could do a quick fix and stretch it out, I stopped and curled up to lengthen my back. My very kind friend Frank stopped with me, a gesture for which I'll be eternally grateful. I mumbled something about my back and he said "ok, a breather sounds good." I pretended like it helped and we carried on, though at a slightly slower pace and with radiating pain in my back with each stroke. I tried all of the tricks too, kicking harder to give my arms a rest, pulling harder with the left and letting the right arm rest, but to no avail. This fucking spasm was here to stay and I was going to have to deal with it. I could see the mile 3 buoy ahead but I was beginning to slow significantly so when Frank turned to check on me, I waved him on with regret. We weren't a team anymore and I was going to have to do this on my own.

Mile 2 to 3 had been rough but when I FINALLY passed the buoy marking mile 3, I was so close to it that I could smell the plasticky material. I was in a lot of pain, but I put my head down and dug deep. Really deep. The water was hot but since I was in the shipping channel, there were pockets of cool water here and there, I occasionally stopped and caught my breath when I hit a cool spot. It was really hard to take a deep breath because my back and ribs were so tight, so I had to take really shallow breaths to avoid the stabbing pain. I moved along at what felt like a glacial pace, but I was finally able to gauge my progress when I emerged from the second shipping channel and the bridge supports were close together again. I was so happy to see them that at some point I decided to dedicate each span to someone else in my life. I was definitely losing my mind at this point, but thinking about other people helped to push me along. I can't remember everyone that got a stretch but I know I dedicated ones to my amazing mom and my grandmother who passed away in February and would have been so proud of me because she never knew how to swim, but always wanted her grandchildren to know how. I dedicated a big span to my truly wonderful husband. I dedicated a span to my brothers who are always there for me and to some of the kids that I work with who may never learn to sit up, no less swim. I dedicated a stretch to my cousin Karen and her husband Ted who passed away after a long battle with Cancer and to my friend Jodi's mom who also lost her battle with Cancer earlier this year. I certainly dedicated a stretch to my good friends Nancy and Elyssa and my swim buddy and very close friend Sally. I even remember dedicating a stretch to Sally's late husband Paul. Yeah, I was pulling all sorts of people out of my head to help take my mind off of the pain in my shoulder and make me forget how HOT the water was. I even took a few dives down into cooler water, hoping I wouldn't alert the kayakers. One already had his eye on me after I stopped to eat my second GU somewhere shortly after the mile 3 buoy and I didn't want to alert him. Despite the pain that came with breathing and taking each stroke, STOPPING WAS NOT AN OPTION. I never considered not finishing the race, I could SEE the 4th buoy and I was really almost there. I took a few backstroke/sidestroke/made-up stroke breaks along the way to try to ease the pain, but nothing was working so would just roll over and keep swimming. This paragraph is long, but no words can express how slow that mile felt. It was endless. When I saw the exit buoys that would take me out of the bridges and back into the bay, I was elated, but it took ages to reach them too.

Everyone who has done this swim warns you that you still have 700 yds to go once you exit the bridges and not to get excited too soon. I exited the bridges and thought "why the hell am I swimming in place?" The tide had turned and I was barely moving for a few minutes, that was disheartening after I'd made it through the mile from hell. I pushed on though and turned towards the shore, I could SEE the finish but I knew it was still several minutes away. Before the start I had promised Dave that I wouldn't bring shame to our family and walk in the shallow part that runs along the side of the road, but all bets were off. I began to worry about him though, knowing that he would be worried because I was well past my goal time of "as close to 2 hours as possible" though I hadn't looked at my watch since 2:15 when I was nearing the 4 mile buoy, I knew I was running a little behind. I put my feet down as soon as I realized the other folks near me were standing. I was surrounded by yellow caps, folks that had started 15 minutes before me, but I couldn't decide if this was a good sign for me or not. It didn't make sense either way. I stretched and told myself that if I could swim 100 strokes, I'd let myself stand up again. I made it 22 strokes before the pain made me stand up again. I wanted to cry a little bit, but I dove back in and pushed forward until I had to stop again. I repeated this cycle over and over. Normally at this stage in the game I'd be stalking the folks ahead of me and passing as many as possible, but I didn't have it in me. There was one guy who stood up next to me in his wetsuit and yellow cap and lifted his goggles up to his forehead. I told myself that he was a meathead (sorry bud) and I was going to beat him. I grunted and dove back into the sweltering water and swam the rest of the way in. I wanted to at least be proud of that and I am.

As I approached the beach and the finish line I wasn't elated as I'd hoped to be. I was in excruciating pain and wanted to lie down or do anything to stop my back from hurting. I took my medal, someone took off my timing band from my ankle and my bib number from my cap (which had nearly fallen off at one point, thank you to the girl who stopped me to tell me to fix it). I spotted a worried Dave ahead and tried to smile and wave. It came out looking like this:

The caption for that photo should be "Fuuuuuuucccccccckkkkkk." Pardon my French.

It turns out that my poor hubby was not only worried because he assumed I'd been injured, but also because the Coast Guard had announced that it was pulling all remaining swimmers from the water because of an approaching storm! In the end 62 people were pulled due to the storm, how devastating that must have been for them. I am glad that I managed to get in under the wire and finish before the thunder and lightning started, I was by no means happy with my time, but I would have been crushed.

In the end I crossed the line at 2:41, so far from my goal time that it almost didn't matter to me that I'd finished at all. The hot water, the currents and the pain had gotten to me and I was a zombie as I grabbed a few orange slices and shoved a giant chunk of ice into the back of my suit (see it below) and guzzled cold water. I was SO thirsty that at one point I saw a kayaker ahead and thought "I bet he has a water bottle in there...." but I managed to carry on without attacking him for his water. I stumbled through the crowds, rinsed off in a hose of more warm, nasty water and just followed Dave in the direction of the car. I did make him stop for a minute while I lay down on the grass, attempting to get my back to release its death grip on my ribs and maybe let me take some deep breaths. No luck. At one point I just couldn't walk any more and I sat down in the grass while he went to get the car. I remember realizing that it was pouring rain on me and I gathered my wits and walked in the direction that he had gone. Once in the car I sat in my swimsuit and flip flops until we hit a rest stop in Delaware where I changed into dry clothes. The inner layer of my swimsuit that had been white that morning was now a disgusting brownish color. Eww.

Makeshift Ice pack shoved in my suit.

I was happy on the ride home, calling family and friends to let them know that I'd survived (that really was the right word) and that I was fine. I was definitely in a lot of pain and couldn't get comfortable for much of the 5 hour ride, but I was happy that I'd finished. My friends, both online and in real life (most fall into both categories) have been so incredibly supportive and happy for me. I am touched, so thank you to everyone who tweeted, facebooked, texted, called or otherwise reached out to congratulate me!

While I will always be glad that I finished before the storm and was able to finish at all, I'm still fluctuating between happy and cranky about my performance. I really hesitate to use the word "disappointed" because I know it was out of my control, but I feel like I put a ton of training into this and didn't do nearly as well as I'd hoped. It sucks. It sucks. It sucks. I want to rewind and do it over so that I can enjoy it and prove to myself that I had a much faster race in me. Unfortunately there is no rewind button, no do over, no way to go back because this is real life. I need some time to process it all, let my back, shoulder and ribs heal so that I can carry on because honestly, this is just the very beginning of my season. There is always next year for this race, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was gorgeous, it was really well organized and very safe. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a real challenge in the water at a totally do-able distance.

Let's face it: 4.4 miles is NOT THAT FAR. Liz Fry swam a double Ederle swim today. That's 35 miles from NY harbour to Sandy Hook, NJ and back!!! THAT is a swim.

Oh, and I got this:


  1. You are a total stud muffin! Had no doubt you'd finish in any conditions. My one question, do the boats have water or other drink for you to take in w/your gel or just for hydration?

  2. Great job Amy,,,We are very proud of you!! Awesome task very well done!!! Love ya....DAD

  3. I am just totally so proud of you Aimster. No other words right now except I hope your feeling better!!!

    Amazing accomplishment. xoxoxoxox

  4. Before the swim, an experienced Bay swimmer told me her times have ranged from 1:30 to 2:30—and her performance has been pretty constant. This just isn't a swim in which you can judge performance by time. I'm thrilled for you for finishing in tough conditions, and sad we'll have to wait til the next one to meet in person! One other thought: What was UP with that BACK pain!?!? I've never felt that before while swimming! Too weird ... what an adventure!

  5. Congrats on the swim Ames! I was thinking of you as I started my Tri and my meager .4 mile swim and was like "Whoa, Amy is doing 4+ Miles today!" Looks like it was one hell of a Battle and you made it out on top! Way to inspire!

  6. So proud of you and the amazing accomplishment. I think most of all it has been so much fun watching the passion come out of you the past few months training for this swim. That's what it's all about in the end...finding what makes us happy. I know it didn't go exactly as planned but I have a feeling there are a lot more swims in your future:) Glad you didn't do much "representing" on Sunday! #channelthatinnerfish

  7. Barb @grapevinerunnerJune 16, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    Loved your post! Wow, what a terrific accomplishment, especially despite the issues with your back. You are one tough woman!

    P.S. Your report reminded me of my first fishing expedition on the Chesapeake when I was 7… I was horrified to pull out a writhing 4-foot eel rather than the expected pretty sunfish. But I’m sure there weren’t any eels where you were :)

  8. Amy,
    I wonder if you have a few more pictures like this one (http://im1.shutterfly.com/media/47a1d835b3127ccefd088d5f1a8600000030O00AZNWjZq4YtGQPbz4A/cC/f%3D0/ps%3D50/r%3D0/rx%3D550/ry%3D400/)? I think you may have me in the frame there...

  9. Hi Twosox, we have a bunch more! Shoot me an email and I'll pass pass them on. Amycooperdpt at gmail dot com

  10. Well even though that they didn't take them under consideration to wear it. It is about to enjoy the race