Great Chesapeake Bay Swim

Since moving to Bethesda over a year ago, I'd been told that Annapolis is the place to go if you have a boat.
Well, I don't have a boat.
Last summer, there was concern when I made the mistake of admitting that I don't have a friend with a boat (isn't all of DC run on social connections with people who are members at elite country clubs or have boats or work for Senator D?), and I subjected myself to lectures on the merits of sailing when I proclaimed that I’d rather be in the water than floating on top if it with a margarita in hand. My friends scoffed at my rejection of sailing as a “If I can’t have it, I don’t want it” - a passive dismissal of the high life.

So about 6 months ago, when a swimming teammate told me about the Chesapeake Bay Swim, I was intrigued. Maybe this was my only chance to ride the currents that border Annapolis. I balked at the $250 registration fee, but punched in my credit card digits once I learned that 100% of it goes to preserving the Chesapeake Bay. There’s my philanthropic move for the year.

The day before the swim, I was anxiously eying the sky; the radio had been reporting imminent weekend thundershowers, and the heaviness from humidity that characterizes DC summers was definitely at its prime. Luckily, on the morning of the swim, I woke up at 5:15 to clear skies and fluffy clouds. Perfect swimming conditions!

As I drove across the Bay Bridge to the race parking, my excitement rose. As most of you know, a simple cupcake or playing Rick Davis or Journey will get me excited, but this was different. It was a giddy anticipation to wiggle into my wetsuit, strap on my new goggles, and freestyle through 4.4 miles, nearly twice the length of my longest swim workouts.
Driving over the Chesapeake Bay made me realize that it is awesome. It’s massive; spanning 4,479 square miles, the Bay rightly deserves its title as North America’s largest estuary. Named after its abundance of shellfish, the Chesapeake Bay was formed over 10,000 years ago when melting glacial ice caused sea levels to rise in the Atlantic Ocean, which flooded the Susquehanna River Valley and created a new bay that is now home to thousands of species of plants and animals – and host to the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim!

On the shuttle bus from the parking lot to Sandy Point State Park, the starting area for the Bay Swim, I chatted with a shaved-head, shaved-eyebrows, and evenly-tanned man. He described the course to me as a straight swim between the Bay Bridges that connect Annapolis to Stevensville, MD. Seemed simple enough. “Just stay within the span of the bridges, and you’re good.” The bridges are wide enough that I didn’t worry about being pulled over by a kayaker for veering off course, but then he warned, “Are you nervous? Last year, the currents caused several people to get seasick. And the water’s disgusting.” I’ve never been seasick, but I convinced myself that my stomach and my threshold for waves and currents were strong enough for the Bay. If I could eat my way through the streets of India and survive off of tap water in Jordan for two years, the Chesapeake waters would be like Evian.

The race announcement 30 minutes prior to the first wave informed us about the current action of the race course. They’d timed the wave starts so that the bulk of swimmers would reach the 2-mile mark by the time the waves shifted. For the initial 2 miles, swimmers would be facing currents coming from the south – to counter this, the race announcer advised swimmers to steer to their right to stay within the span of the bridges. At about 9:30 am, the tide would shift and the water from the bay would flow south to meet the Atlantic. Swimmers were advised to shift their positioning to the left to counter the currents that would now push them to the right.
My original strategy had been “Pace yourself.” I soon realized that I would have to actually have a plan of action that accounted for the inevitable currents of the Bay. Revised strategy? “Pace yourself, swim left. At mile 2, shift to the right-hand bridge.” I like simplicity.

I wore my Xterra Vendetta, perfected by its dimpled skin. Pre-race, I floated on my back near the beach start and reveled at how great the water felt at 71* - that perfect temperature that makes non-wetsuit, sleeveless wetsuit, and full-length wetsuit swimmers happy.
About 300 swimmers were in my second wave (the other 300 were in the first wave), and fluorescent pink caps spanned a 100-meter stretch on Sandy Point Beach.

The start was by far the most aggressive open-water swim start I’ve been in. I was exposed to flailing elbows and thrashing feet fighting for a position, and several times I felt like those pop-up gophers in the arcade games when I was bopped on the head by violent fists coming down for a stroke. I wasn’t competing with triathletes who, at least from my experience, seem content to drift back a little to catch hold of someone else’s bubbles. This aggressive start had me run over, running over others, and kicking white water in an attempt to propel myself past 299 others who had the same frame of mind: “Get outta my way!” I tried to match the other swimmers in terms of aggressiveness, but at a mere 5-feet and with biceps that can barely muster curling 10-pound weights, I was no match for those guys whose shoulder girth spanned my entire height.
About 200 meters from the beach start, 2 buoys marked a slight left-hand turn to start the 4-mile stretch between the Bay Bridges. My adrenaline was still flowing fast; I focused on the mantra “Reach. Extend.” with each stroke, not wanting to complicate my simple mind with technical details. The pack thinned out quickly, and soon there were no bubbles around me. “Either they got rid of me, or I got rid of them,” I thought, although I knew it was a combination of the two. I was surrounded by pink caps everywhere, but the currents and our own paces furthered the horizontal and vertical distances between each swimmer.

For the first mile, I felt really strong. I saw the helicopters circling overhead, and I wondered what their view was like: 300 pink and 300 green swim caps dotted throughout the extension between the Bay Bridges. I passed the slowest pack from the first wave at about ¾ mile, almost getting punched in the goggles by a breaststroke kick.

At the head of mile 2, I reached the currents. The water was significantly choppier, and I struggled to keep a high cadence with my stroke. I wasn’t tired; to be honest, I think I might have been a bit bored. The waves prevented me from keeping a steady rhythm, and I slogged through. I wondered whether the kayaking volunteers ever felt like teasing the swimmers with their oars, just for their own entertainment. Where was the first place dude now – already at mile 3? Where did all the seagulls go? I hadn’t seen one in about 5 minutes.

Let’s fast forward to mile 3.

At the halfway point, I passed a ship handing out bananas and water. Green caps (wave 1) clung to the base of the ship, taking a break from the incessant waves that chopped each stroke in half. At this point, I shifted my course so that I was closer to the left-hand bridge, and found myself passing more and more slowing green caps. The pink caps had found their groove, and there didn’t seem to be much position shifting. Again, my mind shut off as I faced the same currents, swallowed the same water, and slogged through a third mile. Seagulls overhead. Hm, I wonder if they’re pooping now. Helicopters still circulated over us, and I wondered if the kayakers were having as much of a party on the surface of the water as those of us in wetsuits tackling the currents with our hands, not paddles.

Mile 4! The end was nowhere in sight, but as I passed the enormous buoy marker that indicated the start of the last 1.4 miles, I felt a little bit of a happy kick and an adrenaline rush that made me shift my focus from nothing to high stroke turnover. I started to read the numbers on the columns of the bridge as I passed them. I passed some pink caps who were flagging, and latched onto several pairs of feet, which were impossible to hold onto for more than 10 meters because of the currents.
Towards the end of the main stretch between the Bay Bridges, there were 2 very obvious, very well-marked buoys that signified the turn to emerge on the other side of the bridges and continue down the home stretch of about 400 meters. I missed those two buoys. I wondered where all my pink-capped brethren had gone, and quickly realized that about 5 meters back, there was a glaring buoy, screaming “Round me!” I turned a sharp right, swam under the bridge, and emerged on the home stretch. I still felt strong, so I focused on 5 pink caps that seemed to be within a realistic catching distance. I caught 4 of them before I felt sand beneath my stroke. I stood up, a bit woozy from being horizontal for more than 2 hours, and ran onto shore to waddle across the finish line. Spectators cheered, G2 was waiting, and a nice fireman sprayed me with his power hose. I downed a couple of slices of navel oranges – the perfect post-swim snack - and wandered around aimlessly before heading over to the results booth.

Official time: 2:07:01.
Pace per mile: 28:52.

I finished 11th in my age group, which I was pretty disappointed about, despite having set no expectations for time or place finish. 11th just doesn’t sound impressive. It has 2 digits. Oh well. I justified it by telling myself that I was probably swimming against people who did two-a-days and had swum in university.

Would I do it again? Probably not, but that’s what I said about the Peace Corps. It doesn’t take away from the Bay Swim being an awesome experience – driving over the Bay Bridge on my way back to Arlington, I thought to myself, “Damn! I swam this!” The currents this year were, from reports of swimmers who have done the Bay Swim in previous years, relatively calmer than most years. Lucky me! I did swallow a fair share of the Chesapeake Bay, but I figure that it’s a great souvenir. My shoulders weren’t sore, but my neck was burned.

Chesapeake Bay 4.4 mile swim? Check!
Next to-conquer on my list? Philly Tri in 2 weeks!

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