Sunday, July 26, 2015

Race Report: Swim Across the Sound 2015

St. Vincent's Hospital held their annual Swim Across the Sound yesterday, and I participated for the first time.  My friends George, Ben, and I swim together frequently at the Woodruff Family YMCA in Orange, CT, and George has been trying to get me into marathon swimming for a while now.  He's a veteran; he's crossed the English Channel, done the Sound solo, and has many other impressive marathon swim finishes.  I agreed, but not until the last minute, unfortunately, because our family's schedule has been pretty damned busy of late.  Our girls are in triathlon camp (they have their first race next weekend), Sally's their coach, she's also woring to get a little PLYOGA practice off the ground, and there's always my work in Manhattan.  Anyway, George named our team "Y Me?" because we're all YMCA swimmers, and in fact, the Woodruff Family YMCA sent two full teams to compete in this year's race.  That is pretty awesome.
Obligatory self, taken on the ferry over to Long Island.
Shot as we were pulling out of Bridgeport Harbor.  I wish I could have seen
Bridgeport back in its heyday as an industrial port city.
The Swim Across the Sound has some impressive fundraising goals.  For a team like ours, you're supposed to raise at least $7500, which George managed easily.  As a last minute addition, I personally raised almost $1000, a feat that amazes and humbles me.  A substantial number of my friends and colleagues donated to our team's campaign, a campaign that supports St. Vincent's Cancer Fund.  To those who donated, I can only say, "Thank you!"  Your generosity really inspired me--perhaps a little too much, as we'll get to in a minute.

I packed my bag Friday night, but then I didn't sleep very well because I kept imagining myself forgetting my water bottles or my lunch or something.  This may sound like a petty concern, but I knew we were gonna be out on the boat for something like ten hours, and that I would have to swim periodically over the course of the day.  Forgetting water or food would have been an absolute disaster.  I set my alarm for 4:40 am on Saturday but actually woke up at 4:09 on my own and decided to just get up, make some coffee, and make double-sure that I had everything.  All things considered, this was probably a good idea as I didn't actually leave the house until 4:50, and I was far from the first person to arrive at Captain's Cove in Bridgeport ten minutes later.  I wasn't even the first member of our relay to get there, nor was I second.  In any event, the buses left Captain's Cove at 5:20, and we got to the Long Island Ferry quickly.  I think the ferry actually left around 6:00, with a ride that was maybe an hour.  

The ferry ride was one of my favorite parts of the day.  My buddy Ben and I sat there talking for the whole ride, and I took a bunch of pictures.  My poor Facebook friends got bombarded by pics, and if you follow me on Instagram, it was even worse.  What can I say?  I enjoyed the ride.

I shot this as we were pulling into Port Jefferson.
The ferry dropped us off in Port Jefferson, NY, just after 7:00.  We grabbed our bags and headed to the wharf, where Team Y Me? boarded the sailboat Pineapple for the journey back to Connecticut.  As team captain, George led off, and I volunteered to go second becuase by this time I was literally itching to get into the water.  The YMCA's aquatics director Matt followed me, then Ben, and then George's friend Greg.  And then it was back to George and the top of the order.
Being a swimming race, they of course had a bagpiper.
The Pineapple & her captain.
Matt and our team medic Evelyn.
Me and Ben on our way out to the start of the race.
Port Jefferson.
This is a giant boat.  The picture doesn't do it justice at all.
Long Island beach cottages.
It took awhile for our little flotilla to get organized.  There are several categories of swimmers in this event--solo swimmers, two-person relays, no-wetsuit relays, buddy relays, and traditional (wetsuit if you want) relays.  The solos and non-wetsuit crowd went first, leading off at 8:30.  Then Pineapple made the turn for shore, dropped George off maybe fifty yards from the beach, and he met up with his son--also the captain of a relay--for the start of the "traditional" swim.  They hit the water at 9:00, and we were off.

George is an amazing swimmer.  As he told me yesterday, he swims two miles per hour regardless of all other factors.  He just hits his groove and goes, all thoughts and considerations be damned.  Greg and Matt are similar.  Matt has this amazingly long stroke that is both relaxed and beautiful, and Greg is the kind of guy who gets stronger as he swims.  The first half of each of his legs was okay, but by the second half, he was really moving.  It was amazing.  Even Ben, though he is as much of a headcase about competition as I am, is an Ironman who is capable of very long, slow, even efforts that chew up the miles in relentless stride.

This is not what I do.  What I learned yesterday is that if I'm going to do this marathon swimming thing, I'm going to have to start taking a different approach.

I was a mid-distance swimmer at the Academy.  I specialized in the 100 and 200 butterfly, but I'm not a bad freestyler, though I don't think I could have swum intercollegiately if I'd had to compete based solely on my ability to do, say, the 200, 500, or 1000.  Regardless, when I work out these days, I most commonly do sets of 200s with some kind of pace target; it's exactly like doing half-mile intervals on the track, but I do it in the water.  As a runner, I'm in the zone for 5K and 10K races, and I can stretch to the half-marathon, but that's it.  Similarly, I swim half-miles and miles as a triathlete and open-water swimmer, and I train to go full blast for twenty minutes.  I can push that to a half-hour easily enough, but it requires a completely different mindset to swim across Long Island Sound.
Ben gets ready to swim.
There were a couple of teams in front of us by the time I hit the water, and I very quickly got it into my mind to catch both of them.  Bad idea.  I hit the water at full gas, quickly lost sight of the boat and the field in general, and started meandering off course.  Plus my goggles kept slipping off my face because of all the sunscreen around my eyes.  Fifteen minutes into the swim, I realized I was completely out of breath, maybe seventy-five yards away from the boat, and caught in a choppy, unpredictable swell that had me feeling panicky.  I thought about what George said, about his whole approach to open-water swimming, and realized that I was tackling this thing with entirely the wrong mindset.  It didn't take me that long to get back to the boat--thank God--and then we were on course, at least.  From there I lengthened my stroke and settled into it, and life was better.  After a rough start, I felt good when my turn finally ended.  In fact, at that steadier pace, I was more than ready to keep swimming.

For what it's worth, we did--supposedly--pass a couple of teams while I was in the water, and we definitely dropped the other team from the YMCA in the first ninety minutes or so.  My first leg was perhaps my stupidest leg, but with a (very) strong following current, I managed to put in fully 1.9 miles in thirty minutes according to my watch.  That's an Olympian average pace of :53/100 yards.  Sounds impossible, but with following currents... who knows?  Regardless, at the end of our first rotation, Team Y Me? had gone well over five miles!  We clearly caught the tide just right.

My second swim was better.  Inspired by Greg, I hit the water with long, easy strokes and built into a rhythm.  By the time I hit the ten minute mark, I was pushing--but at a sustainable pace.  I was ready for the swells this time, I felt more confident sighting on the boat, and I just felt altogether better in the water.  In fact, this was the universal sentiment on the boat; we all felt better that second time around.  Speaking personally, my second split was 1.15-miles for an average pace of 25:53/mile or around 1:28/100 yards.  That is entirely respectable.  I'd put in an open water mile down at Short Beach in Stratford earlier in the week in 26:30, so this second leg was about the pace I wanted for the day.

George: You were pushing it out there, weren't you?

Me: Well, you said it was a race.

I finally got myself together starting with my second leg.
Greg took this awesome action shot.
By the time I hit my third leg, we were over half way, and I didn't think I was going to swim again.  Now fully warmed up and ready for the swells, I actually did what I'd tried to do the first time.  I put my head down and went full gas.  My goggles stayed on my head for once, I tracked the boat easily, and my cap didn't try to jump off.  I averaged 23:03/mile or 1:18.6/100 yards.  That is excellent.  Unfortunately, however, I did wind up swimming again, and I don't mind telling you that my fourth leg was a serious challenge after that very hard third leg.  My shoulders hurt, and I am now very sore.  I still managed a pace of 26:36 or 1:31/100--right on my goal pace, for what that's worth--but it cost me something.  

L'ouch, as they say in France.

Open water butterfly at the start of my third leg in the water.
You had to really reach to get your arms over those swells.
Ben took over as we approached Captain's Cove, and Greg swam the last leg in to the wharf.  We all jumped off and finished the last hundred or so as a team to the cheering of a whole host of folks.  It was pretty amazing.  Made me feel like a real athlete for the first time in a while.  For those keeping score, Team Y Me? finished third in our division out of ten teams.  That's not bad for a bunch of old guys.

Sally took this shot of me right after we got out of the water.
I wish I had a shot of our whole team, but I've not been able to find one.
So.  Marathon swimming.  George says he wants to get together in the next few weeks and swim around Charles Island.  It's about three miles.  We'll see how that goes, and take it from there.  

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