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2017 Great Chesapeake Bay Swim – Race Report, by Kate Kaufer

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2017 Great Chesapeake Bay Swim – Race Report
“4.4 Miles to Dry Land, or ‘Why the hell can’t you people adopt the metric system?'”

Hello, I’m Kate, and I can’t do a pull-up … I started doing CF about 8, 9 months ago, mainly ‘cuz I’m not getting any younger and it’s time to think about doing things different so I can keep playing for another couple of decades. You see, mainly, I swim, bike and run. Lots. I’m not fast, I’m just stubborn. I start, and I go until I collapse. When they built the Energizer Bunny, they were thinking of me, right down to the sunglasses and flip-flops … What can I say, with German, Italian and Irish heritage, I can be a bit, ahem, headstrong…

… which is all just a really long-winded introduction to explain why I found myself at Sandy Point Park last weekend, lathered in body-glide and zipped in my wetsuit, ready to jump into the Chesapeake Bay, attempting for the first time to swim 4.4 miles across to other side literally beneath the Bay Bridge (Btw, fun fact: you can’t see all the way to the other side when you start…). The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (GCBS) is an annual charity race, benefiting the March of Dimes and other charities; in its current form, it’s been going on 26 years, and so popular that you can’t just register. First, you have to literally win a lottery; second, you have to submit past performance of a swim proving you have the stuff to cover the distance. Then, you’re one of the lucky 650 swimmers good to go with the able support of 750 volunteers, 100 boats, 50 kayaks, 20 jet skis, 2 helicopters, plus a dive team.

I’m sure when you think ‘swimmer’, you think Michael Phelps: tall, long torso, big feet. Me, I’m shortish, short torso, long limbs (bad for buoyancy) and small feet. I try to compensate w/ my head and the Energizer Bunny.

The GCBS is literally straight-forward: You jump in the water at Sandy Point about 500 yards north of the west-heading bridge span, swim diagonally south and hook a left in-between the bridge spans. There, the field miraculously disperses, and you enter your own private swimming pool: you stay between the two bridge spans, probably approx 80 yards apart, and go straight for 4 miles. Every breath you take, you stare up the bridge pillars and see the cars driving over the bridge (in case you’re wondering, traffic was moving just fine that morning). The X-factors that can make the Bay swim difficult/unpredictable/unique are the strength of the current (Friday was a full moon and the tidal %ile was 91, which apparently means it was stronger than people thought); winds; the fact that the Bridge actually curves left for what seems like an eternity in the beginning, which in turns means you’re swimming against the current coming from the south to stay inbetween the bridge pylons; heightened wind and swirl in the shipping channels where there is no land mass to protect you; and stronger currents, winds and chop as you approach the eastern shore. To some extent, covering 4.4 miles is the easiest part of the day, it’s everything else that makes this swim a challenge.

I train in a 25-yard-pool, not ideal, but I got plenty of long swims in, plus the occasional open water swim at National Harbor. Unlike triathlon training where I usually (somewhat) follow structured training plans, I was flying blind here, relying on advice of fellow swimmers, making it up as I went along. That, plus some life and work stress in the past few months led to this being the first time ever I toed the start line of a race without being entirely sure I’d make it: I knew I had the endurance, but could I beat the x-factors? Also, as I stood on the beach waiting for the gun to go off, I realized that I had focused my training almost exclusively on being able to cover the distance, not so much on the mental aspects of the swim. Not a good time for that realization to hit …

Now why am I reading about this on CF, you ask? Well, in addition to swimming a lot, I knew I’d need more core and upper body strength to make it through the swim without back pain. For the past few years, I’d wake up w/ a sore or stiff back the morning after a long workout, or feel a little nag just getting up off the couch. Since I’ve been doing CF, that’s pretty much gone away, and I can honestly say, I experienced zilch, zero, none, nix, nada, null back issues. Is it the dead lifts? Box jumps? Who knows, all I know is that I’m a believer. Once I get my pull-up, I’ll think I’m Superwoman.

I could not have asked for a more perfect race day: no winds, few currents (or so I thought…), water temps in the low 70s. I took off slowly, let the fast kids go ahead, built my rhythm and quickly found a groove. At one point, I literally said ‘this is awesome!’ and merrily moved along. That being said, 4.4 miles, aka 7,744 yards, aka 7,081 meters makes for a long day. Somewhere near 3.5 miles in, looking straight ahead, counting pillars, the current getting stronger, the waves starting to push you around … it starts to wear on you. And that’s when the head games began … I was getting tired and felt conflicted between wanting to be done and still enjoying the experience, full well knowing that I needed to pace myself, because right after mile 4, you take a right out from underneath the bridge pylons, and then hook left for another 800 yards or so to the finish. My plan was to leave enough in the tank to finish strong, but I was feeling slightly seasick from all the bobbing around while realizing I was also under-fueled, having opted to only take in water at the refueling boats at miles 1 and 3 (bad decision, I know that I always burn higher in races than during training). My mind started going to that dark place that you go to during these type of events. While I normally come out of it w/ the roaring Energizer Bunny propelling me to the finish, I didn’t have it this time. I kept it steady, but had no extra ‘oomph’ to close. That was admittedly a bit of a let-down, and I finished somewhat disappointed, thinking ‘never again’ … and then I drove back home over the bridge (traffic was worse by now…), looked over the bridge span on the other side, and reminded myself just how epically awesome those 4.4 miles were. Having spoken to a few race veterans I can already envision how to prepare and execute better mentally, so I guess never say never … just not next year!

So there you have it, my first GCBS! I benefited a lot from advice of previous swimmers, so if anyone wants to know more, hit me up directly. For now, it’s back to the gym for me, working on my pull-up. Energizer Bunny is watching.

Thanks for reading.