Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Drinking It All In: My First Open Water Swim Competition

“Um, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one here without a wet suit,” I squeaked nervously.

“Nah, look at them, they don’t have wet suits on, you’ll be fine!” My friend Tatania said as she pulled on her wet suit. There were a few who weren’t wearing wet suits but the majority of the rather large group of people standing on a dock by the Potomac River on this particularly cool Saturday morning were clad in neoprene. I stood there cold and sleepy, feeling out of place wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. 

The day before, Tatania had posted a request for people to join her on a long run on Sunday. She was training for the Louisville Iron Man and planned to do a long bike ride on Sunday followed by a long run. I told her I was in. I mean, if she had already ridden her bike for hours, and I was fresh, I thought I had a chance to be able to keep up on the run. At least for a little while. 

But then Tatania had another idea. “Listen, instead, there’s a swim competition on Saturday that we could do.” I told her I had not been swimming in nearly a year and besides, I really needed to do a long run. “How far?” she asked. “11 miles.”

“OK, great. I know you're a swimmer. We’ll go do the swim and then run. Bring your stuff. We’ll change and go. It'll be fun.”

She made it sound so…possible. We would change and go. And it would be fun. But I was not prepared. I hadn’t been swimming in forever. “There are lots of distances. You can choose the 500 meter race if you want. Whatever – we’ll just go and have fun!”

So, with less than 24 hours notice, I was convinced to join an open water swim competition and then “just go run” 11 miles. And we would have fun. Day drinking is my idea of fun. But I said OK.

“Oh, and don’t sign up ahead of time. We’ll sign up tomorrow after they test the river. A lot of times these races get cancelled because the river is so polluted.” What? Day drinking was sounding more fun by the moment.

But instead I found myself standing on a dock at sunrise looking at the Potomac River, wondering if I would get giardia or just drown, wishing desperately for a wet suit.  

This is me thinking, I'm going to drown but I'll just smile anyway. 

The race director declared the river to be clean enough and before I knew it, the race went off in manual waves: 10k, 5k (which Tatania was swimming), 3k and 500 meter splash. I had chosen the 3k. Listen, I wanted to swim the 500 meters but they called it a “splash” and while I’d like to think I didn’t care, it took me one second to decide I wasn't getting up early to do a “splash” and that the respectable thing to swim would be the 3k. Which made no sense. 

As the 10k and 5k swimmers were jumping (a long way down) off the dock into the river, I was wishing I had signed up for the 500 meter Splash. Why did I think I needed to prove that I could swim the 3k? There was really no more time to worry though because the whistle went off and it was time for me to swim.

5k swimmers headed for the first buoy

So, the first open water swim competition that you ever do that happens to begin by jumping from a dock high above the water with a ton of other people who then start to kick you very hard in the head and body, is really disturbing. I was so freaked out that before I knew it, my entire race field was way out in front of me and I was still treading by the dock trying to figure out if I had all my teeth.

Here's Tatania in her warm wet suit intelligently waiting a bit before jumping in so she would not get kicked in the head. I could learn a thing or two from this girl. In fact, I have. 

Fucking hell I thought, now I’m in last place and have to get going! Three times around a 1,000 meter loop. Get going! I headed toward the first buoy. My thought process was something like this: Do not drown. Where is the buoy? I cannot see anything. How the fuck do people do this? Do not drown. Where is the buoy? At least there are no sharks in this water. Do not drown. At least there are no sea lions in this water. What about germs? The river is so polluted. Do not take in water. Do not drown. Where is the buoy? 

Everyone was shooting for the buoys in order to keep from swimming out (or in) too far, and each time we would come around a corner at one of them, there would be a jam of swimmers kicking the shit out of each other. I was both kicker and kickee. I apologize to whomever I gave broken cheek bones to or jammed fingers or black eyes from my kicks. And I forgive all of the kickers who got me in the face, jaw, hands, feet, legs. 

It’s as if being in a sport where you have to hold your breath and you can drown isn’t nearly tough enough so in open water swims, there’s an added element of brutality. If synchronized swimming is the ballet of the sport, then open water swimming is MMA.

As I came around the 3rd turn on the first loop (of 3-but-felt-like-30 loops) the chop went right in my face. I drank the river. I mean, it was a big gulp. A super big gulp. It was a beer bong of river water.  I wondered for a moment if I was going to die and then…continued on. That’s the thing about open water swimming. You can’t really DNF unless you’re near a boat or shoreline. Cause you’ll die. And I had an 11 mile run to do, and we were supposed to have fun, so dying wasn’t really an option. 

I hit the second and third loops with a bit more clarity. I calmed down. I tried to think less about germs and more about my form. I would work my heart and soul out and pass people and then others who seemed to be floating by in slow motion with no effort at all would pass by me. And so on.

Each 3rd turn was met by The Chop. The wind was blowing toward my left, which I favor for breathing, especially when I’m tired. Hey, I’m really tired, and I’m trying to keep my body afloat and holding my breath and avoiding being kicked in the face by these other people swimming near me and when I turn to the left to suck in what I think will be air instead, it’s a large wave of river water, yay! This happened more than once. I think I was too tired to remember to breathe just to my right on that portion of the course.

It occurred to me at some point that I would not likely survive a shipwreck. And I think I felt fine about that. But I did survive the race. In the end, I won my age group (and so did Tatania), I received a fancy medal, a gorgeous long sleeved t-shirt and a face full of river gunk. And ears filled with river gunk. And creases of skin filled with river gunk. So. much. gunk.

 Behold! A face full of river gunk. I was so happy to be alive that I didn't even know I had so much gross dirt on my face. 

3k and 5k AG Winners! 

Before we could change our minds, we toweled off and began to cross the river again, this time on foot, on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, for 11 miles on the Mount Vernon Trail. We talked about Tatania’s upcoming Iron Man (to be her 3rd) and her previous athletic achievements like running the Blue Ridge Marathon 2x. In one day.  

I don’t know who’s idea it was but at the end of our 11 mile run we came upon an outdoor boot camp that had various tires for flipping, monkey bars to cross, and...hula hoops, so we laughed and flipped tires and hula hooped and then ran the rest of the way to a bar with outdoor seating (perfect for river swimming runners) and cold beer and celebrated our feats with some day drinking.


  1. "That’s the thing about open water swimming. You can’t really DNF unless you’re near a boat or shoreline. Cause you’ll die."
    --for the record, that line there is where I actually LOL'd and also became terrified of ever doing an OWS again.

    Fantastic entry -- you're a hilarious writer!

    1. Thank you Tai Fung! From what I can tell, in the case of swimming, the feeling of being terrified might actually be a plus!