2012 Bay Swim Report
Background The Bay Swim is a 4.4 mile race that starts on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay at Sandy Point State Park and finishes on the east side at Kent Island/Hemingway Marina. 650 swimmers start in 2 waves, 15 minutes apart from each other. The yellow caps (first wave) are the slower swimmers; red caps (second wave) are the speedier ones. During the swim you must stay in between the two Bay Bridge spans – crossing the (imaginary) line below either bridge constitutes a disqualification (DQ) and a kayaker picks you up to take you to the Boat of Shame. Miles are marked by large red (I think they're red – everything is mildly blue through my goggles) balloons. The aid station/water boats are (allegedly) stationed at miles 2 & 3.
Prerace Fun We (royal and otherwise) never go to races alone. My friends Dave, Ellen, Kevin, Jess and Hugh were all registered this year for either the Full (4.4) or "Baby" (1m) Bay. The 4.4 milers (Kevin, Anna, Jess, Hugh) headed to Sandy Point for the 11AM start, and the one-milers (Ellen, Dave) went to the Marina to swim, then rest and wait for us to finish. This was Kevin's first time at the Bay; Hugh had started once but not finished due to nausea; Jess finished her first last year, and this was my third.
At Sandy Point, the masses found shade in the few trees or tents/shade they had brought. We all hung out after picking up race packets and getting body marked (presumably so they can identify bodies found downstream). The atmosphere is exactly as it is in the Athletes Village at the Boston Marathon: swimmers are aggressively friendly and all want to talk about exactly the same thing: the race conditions. It was a hot (93 degrees) and sunny day; the water was about 75 degrees. There was no wind, and only a low-critter count in the water. They were starting us when the tide was still coming in, shoving us left. At noon (one hour into the event) it was slack tide, then would begin to flow out to the right. This pull would get stronger the farther it goes from slack tide: the longer you are in the water, the more pull you feel.
Everyone seems to downplay their own training and capacity ("I only had a month to train after competing in a 5 miler this spring") or struts around in their Captain America/Wonder Woman bodies, causing the rest of us to stay huddled on our towels in the shade, eating, lubing with sunscreen and whatnot, and enjoying the scenery. The swim briefing offered little more information than we had already gleaned from the website. New-to-us that day, however, was information on the two large barges at miles 1 and 2 under the north span (for bridge sand blasting). We were warned to swim to the right to avoid crashing into the barges and the guy wires securing them. Seemed a silly warning – who could miss a barge the size of a house?
Immediately following the briefing, we were marched, lemming-like, to the beach. Swimmers dunked themselves, fussed with their goggles and caps, zipped and re-zipped their wet suits, and surreptitiously peed in their private-potty-suits while standing in the water. I peed twice in that time; Kevin held it in.
The Swim The start is predictably choppy with legs and arms whacking at you from all directions. I was flanked by swimmers for the first 20 minutes or so, and managed to keep my goggles on through the tumult, swallowing a small amount of bay water only once. I was comfortable, if not fully in control, until about Mile 1 when the Red Caps began showing up like a stampede of cattle wholly unaware of all living things in front of them. And here's one way a swim race is different from a running race: runners (and even cyclists) would never simply take both hands and shove a slower runner, stomping on them if they happened to be knocked down by the force that, for instance, came from out of no where. I am confident that the Red Caps would have been happy to offer a gentle "passing on the left" warming if it had been possible, and a simple "Oops! Sorry!" when they dunked or side-kicked you. But during this event, no warning or apology or idle chatter is possible. And, of course, no offense is taken. They're all just innocent blows and dunks.
The red-cap maelstrom continued for about 30 minutes, during which time I found myself to the far left of the course – exactly where they had specifically warned us not to swim. The barges are on the left. The mass of swimmers is on the left. The tide is forcefully trying to push you left, under the bridge span. While striving to maintain my form and composure amidst the stampede, I failed to notice how I had been moved so dangerously close to the DQ line. Several times I had to "sprint" directly right – straight into the oncoming waves – to stay on course. It turns out my little arms are a poor match for the tide.
In the midst of this chaos- the buffalo, the moon, the tiny flailing arms of Anna - that dreaded sand-blasting barge appeared in front of us. You couldn't miss it – it stuck out about 1/3 of the way into the course. This meant we had to fight our way to the right, straight into the current, to get around. Just imagine you are in the left lane of the beltway trying to merge around a construction zone while you have 18 wheelers and motorcycles and all manner of wildlife (just imagine) on your right moving at top speed – and your line of sight is precisely at the level of the road. I'm thinking that's what made me bang first into the kayak attempting to guide us around the barge, and then the guy-wires holding the barge in place. I am exactly the swimmer they were attempting to save from themselves.
Thankfully, after the second mile marker, the tide calmed down and the red caps were gone. In fact, for the next mile, I saw almost no other swimmers. While I no longer had to fight to stay away from the left span, I hovered to the left in hopes of finding that first aid station boat. And man I was thirsty (all that brackish water swishing in and out of your mouth for two hours has that effect). From the surface of the water you can see very little, so I probably stopped to check more often than I needed for the boat I had clearly missed while struggling extricate myself from the barge debacle. Mile 3 came and went, and finally I spotted a boat with several yellow caps bobbing up and down in front of it.
The aid station is somewhat comical. Swimmers cling to the edge of the boat as their legs are swept precipitously away and they attempt to take Dixie cups of water like dolphins picking off slices of banana from the pool's edge. Each cup had about an ounce of water in it, and required considerable energy to grab, drink, and return while clinging and fighting the current. After 5 of these repetitions, I decided I was "hydrated" enough and took off. I figured I could last another hour for a real aid station on land where I didn't have to perform 2 minutes of calisthenics to earn 5 ounces of water.
Mile 4 was a blessed sight. The tide had begun to be a real factor again, and I had been battling the force field under the right bridge span for a while. I was delighted to be able to track my progress by the numbers on the pylons. Until this point, those numbers were seemingly random and non-sequential. But I had read they eventually stay in order, and progress to #55 when you swim under the bridge toward the finish. By then, each pylon was about a minute apart, so I was able to fairly accurately track my progress from marker 36 to 55 and enjoy truly knowing where I was in the course and how many strokes I would have to take to get to the finish.
To get under the right bridge span you simply had to stop swimming. In about 2 seconds you were flushed like a stick to the other side. Then you had to paddle for your life not to get swept out to sea. The final 500 yards are shallow enough to touch the bottom, but I discovered that walking this section was like playing out one of those dreams where you are trying so hard to run, but it feels like you're under water and the finish line just doesn't get any closer (wow - in this way, the Bay is like a dream come true!). I decided to swim, with the occasional rest to take in the scene.
I finished 595 out of 640 in 3:05, and was greeted by the tanned, rested, and patient friends who had finished earlier. Kevin's 2:36 blew us all away, and Jess's 2:53 was a happy PR over her last swim. Hugh battled nausea once again and began puking at mile 4. But in the spirit of "I am never f*ing doing this thing again!", he persevered and finished in 3:25. While my 42-minute mile pace is decidedly poky in the world of "real" swimmers, I was delighted to be able to complete the swim without significant discomfort. I'm thinking it would be nice to add the Bay to my list of "usual activities" to balance out my training regime. Since I will apparently never fully devote myself to any one activity (too much fun to be had at a marathon, triathlon, JFK 50, or dance weekend), I will remain a mid-to-back-of-the-packer in the world of endurance athletics. But it seems to be this diversity that helps me maintain a bit of balance in the rest of my life. And that's a winning combination.