Bay Swim 2013
By Anna Bradford
I just have to say, race reporting seems like such a self-indulgent sport. They're really a dime a dozen, these reports – we sign up for a challenging event, we take the day off to conquer it, we feel satisfied in our victory, and then we share the details of our splits to friends who never, themselves, thought it compelling enough to consider registering. But we all do it, this "Wait! Now let me tell you how I felt at mile three!" story telling. We can't help ourselves – we'll tell anyone who will wait around long enough to listen, barely noticing their one hand on the door knob and the other hand motioning frantically to a friend to come save them.
Maybe it has something to do with the role these events play in our lives and who we feel we are because of them. Because, for sure, these events are our playtime, but they are also the medium we use to become closer to friends as we train and travel together. And how we learn about ourselves, again and again. It could be that we're slow learners, or we don't really know how to relate to others unless we're distracted by the effort of our miles run and laps swum – either way, we keep at it, we keep producing our reports, and we keep our friends close to our hearts.
The Bay Swim is an event where you swim across the Chesapeake, traveling right between the East and Westbound bridge spans. This is the one day of the year they close the shipping channel for four hours to allow us to cross the 4.4 mile distance in relative safety. In the early years, they had over 1000 swimmers entering the race, but when they consistently found that 70% of them had to be scooped out of the water by kayaks as they were being swept away in the tide, they made two changes: they limited the field to 600, and they scheduled the start to account for the tidal rhythms. They now time the race to overlap with slack tide– that brief moment between flood and ebb when there is no pull in either direction – and now only one or two percent of the swimmers tend to be swept off-course.
Even though it's a lot easier to finish now than in those pioneering take-your-life-in-your-hands days of the event, it still requires some training. As a child I was a devoted Marco Polo fan, and fearless cannonball competitor. But I was a late-comer to the kind of swimming where your face is in the water the whole time, and your feet never actually touch the bottom of the pool. I became a regular swimmer the first winter I was banned from running with an IT band injury, and then discovered the Bay Swim as way to motivate myself to go beyond my comfortable one-mile distance. I am a strong swimmer, for sure, but in the world of college swim team Captain America athletes, I am the caboose. A methodical and determined "also ran." Ellen and I pride ourselves in being the competitors that make others feel pretty darned good about themselves.
I have crossed this bay three times before, each time with a story to tell. Each story tells of swimmers in the prime of their fitness squeezing into their wetsuit sausage casing, generously lubing before sliding into the water. Of the chaos just off the beach as hundreds of these flailing muscle bound beasts vie for position (described as "being thrown into a washing machine with baseball bats"), aiming for a distant, barely visible buoy. Of the journey that follows, as seen from the back of the pack, and the lessons learned.
This year was not so different. I enjoyed the familiar ride to the Bay with Ellen, Kevin and Marcy, my runner-friends-turned-swimmer, the chatter among anxiety-filled competitors, the prerace briefing informing swimmers of tide timing and current strength. That time on the beach – just before launch – is a precious one. Every swimmer is suddenly a friend, and you feel compelled to share every fleeting thought with them. New best friends check wetsuit zippers, share training tales and deep anxieties... and suddenly 3-2-1 BANG! Your friends are rushing headlong into the water, transforming into the baseball bats to avoid in this vast washing machine of a bay.
I have learned to stand back a bit to allow the others their space so I can enjoy my own. Slipping into the fray to begin my journey, I noticed a new feeling. Today I felt greater confidence about my ability to go the distance, and about the strength of my training. I had been here before, and I have long been able to rely on fierce determination to power me should my training fail me. The water was smooth, the crowd was respecting my personal space, and my goggles were holding tight. I stayed effortlessly dead center between the bridge spans and relaxed into the rhythm of the day.
In this I-can-do-anything space, the first two hours flew by uneventfully. I reveled in the beauty of it all: the perfect water temperature, the tranquil seas, my inner calm. Mile 3 came quickly (shall I tell you my splits?!?) and I paddled over to the aid station boat. At this rate, I should be done with this thing in time for brunch! I chatted with the volunteer as he handed me Gatorade and banana bites. We talked tide (we were just past slack and heading into ebb), and chop, and water temp. I asked about the drop-out rate (none yet) and how his day was going. When I couldn't figure out what else to talk about I started in on Star Trek – I'd seen the movie yesterday – and realized, at that moment, that I was just dawdling. This was a race, by golly, and I should be taking it seriously.
So I got back into action and began my rhythmic strokes. 1-2-3-4-5-breathe. 1-2-3-4-5-breathe. 1-2-3-4-breathe. 1-2-3-breathe. I began to notice the extra effort I needed to move forward, and that the south bridge span was rapidly approaching. "Stay clear of the bridge span" is the swimmer's mantra, and until then it had been so simple. I'd barely noticed any current.
Suddenly I was in Phase II of this race. With barely any warning I found myself battling to stay away from the bridge. I felt strong – I was up for the challenge – but I could no longer let my mind wander. It was Focus Time.
As the minutes passed, the tide strengthened, and the struggle intensified. To stay away from the disqualification line, you had to swim at a 45-degree angle to the bridge – straight into the current. One moment of distraction and you were suddenly in the shadow of that bridge. And – man! - those bridge pylons passed slowly. In fact some of them seemed not to move all, and then I was back in Maine on a family vacation. That morning on our trek up the Penobscot River when we discovered we could not battle our way out of the cove – Lobster Lake – we'd camped in overnight. Our small fleet of canoes were no match for the stiff morning currents, and I can still picture that rock on my left, never moving as we paddled frantically for 20 minutes before a rescue canoe swung by. Then, as now, I was in awe of the insignificance of my efforts against the tide. A matchstick in the rapids.
And so it went, for the next hour. "Hand to hand combat" was the phrase that persisted in my mind, along with, "How could you have forgotten this part!?" Because, as I finally remembered at that moment: this is what happens every year. Like a mother forgetting childbirth – erased by the joy of the babe – I had carefully expunged this phase from my selective memory.
That final mile, I discovered later, took a full 70 minutes to complete – nearly twice that of previous miles. A report sent the day after the race noted "extremely strong currents" accounting for the 7% drop out rate –7 times that of the last few years. As I had been fighting my battle with the tide, seemingly alone (you barely encounter a soul out there), there had been over 100 of us in a parallel struggle during that hour of current abuse. By the time I reached the far shore – triumphant in my victory over the tide – only 15 people would finish behind me.
Climbing out from the water and seeing old dear friends, all with great relief on their faces for my survival, I felt a kinship with Dorothy when she had finally, finally found herself safe in her own bed, delivered from Oz. "There's no place like home" is exactly what you're thinking when you have finally emerged from your dream to the dry safe world on the shore. Emerge to see your own Aunty Em, scarecrow, lion, and tin man, now showered and clothed and ready to take you home.
And as Kevin drove us all home, satisfied with our performances, our chatter moved from the debriefing of this event to our plans for the rest of the year. Our marathon travel weekends, the summer speed work training program, and who we might entice to join us at the Bay next year. Our bodies forget, of course, the agony of mile 23 in a marathon or the currents that mean to flush us out to sea. In our endorphin-infused post race state, we remember only the pretty parts of Oz – the poppy fields, the happy munchkins, the new friends – only mildly concerned that the winged monkeys will finally, some day, carry us off. We will take this journey again, my friends and I, and we will overcome our little demons along the way. And with luck, we will continue to find ourselves home together on the far shore, proud, relieved, joyful and ready for the where ever this spinning house may drops us. Together.