Ironman Maryland Swim — Poetry of a Sunrise Swim
As was the case with previous big races, I woke up hours before we left for the site to eat a first breakfast. From 3:10 to 3:30 I put down four eggs, a Bonk Breaker and an Ensure. At 4:15 I was back up to pack up the hotel room, shave and prepare a second breakfast that consisted of two cups of tea, 20 ounces of Nuun, three quarters of a banana and half a bottle of Ensure. Patrick was a little stressed about his organization and packing, but we got off without incident and plenty of time to spare. He managed an oatmeal-based breakfast from the hotel. The staff came in three hours early to open their complimentary breakfast in the middle of the night for the guests. After Patrick did a masterful job parking within three blocks of the start and transition area, the nerves surfaced again. It took us ten minutes or more to gather everything from the car because of this or that little bit that had to be doublechecked. We even walked a few feet away and had to turn back because we forgot the wetsuits.
The swim start was scheduled for 6:50 a.m. just minutes ahead of sunrise. The air was crisp with overnight dew and with 1,500 athletes and their supporters as well as hundreds of volunteers and race officials there was definitely a lot of activity and energy. We went straight to our bikes. I pumped tires, set the Garmin, put on a bottle filled with Ensure for the first hour of the ride and another that was a superconcentrate of four scoops of lemon-lime Perform with a caffeinated cherry Nuun tablet for anytime on the course I wanted something other than what the aid stations were offering. I filled the Bento box and headed straight for the bag drop off so that I could get in line early for the bathroom. It was my fourth trip to the toilet in three hours but I knew from experience it would be necessary.
By 6:30 I was free of responsibility and I started stretching by myself and really trying to imagine the swim. It was still dark. At 6:45 when the physically challenged athletes started the sky was showing light but the sun had not appeared. I made my way to the front of the line looking for the 50-55 minute group only to find that there was one big group for “60 Minutes and Under.” I took a spot on the left edge, three deep into the field. I wasn’t on the front and we were going to make a right turn after only about 70-80 meters so I was also on the longest line to the buoy. I wasn’t in the mood for shoving and exchanging words, so I just took my place, started my breathing and visited with the tiny woman on my right. She told me not to worry because she is not a bad swimmer. I told her not to worry because I was too old to have an ego get in the way of drafting off of someone in a pink cap. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure she came out of the water seconds behind me. She definitely got the better of that exchange and surely drafted off of my fat wake. Good for her. It serves me right for trying to be witty so early in the day.
I had expected the first 200 meters to be extra bunched and for there to be some argy bargy. I didn’t realize that the shoving and aggression would start before the cannon fired. The last two minutes on the boat ramp were a pressure cooker as more people tried to rush the front of the line and those of us in line tried to maintain some space. You can see below that the short, straight sprint to the first turn also included a significant narrowing — probably of at least 10-15 feet — of the path due to the shape of the boat launch.
My split for the day was 58:12. Dana told me later that someone on the “Leaderboard” webpage beat me by one second. As a result, I was first in my age group and seventh overall but the sixth person out of the water. I came out of the water with a group of five people on my heels the last of whom was the first woman out of the swim. It looks like six people came through in about 11 seconds which means we either swam as a group with me on the front or I faded horribly and they nearly caught me. I think it was the former. According to Garmin and Training Peaks, my sTSS was 115.5.
After three Ironman starts, my swim splits have been consistently at the front of my age group and the field. In 2012 at Lake Placid I was 1/13/13, in 2013 at the same venue I was 3/11/14 and in Maryland I was 1/7/7 (Age Group/Gender/Overall). However, this time I tried a new strategy and it required a change even before I got wet. Instead of blasting off the line for the first 200 meters to try to clear the field and then easing into a steady pace by the end of the first quarter of the swim to balance my heartrate, I decided to build through the first quarter of the swim. For 800-1000 meters I was not going to spike my heartrate or chase anyone. In the past I started on the front line and in the third row. This year I ended up starting in the fifth row and instead of worrying — especially with the chute effect all the way to the first turn — I simply sat in, went wide of the buoy and passed about a dozen people after four or five minutes.
I think it worked better for me. I probably don’t have the all out speed to get out of the water first or win an open water race with that strategy, but it is probably better for an Ironman start. Next year at Coeur d’ Alene I’d like to swim with the lead pack. My position in the rankings may be the same or worse, but it would be a clear step up in my swimming to get into that group. Last weekend I was essentially the leader of the chase group although I didn’t know it at the time. One guy was all alone and put more than five minutes into the next competitor. Then there was a small cluster of four swimmers and a couple minutes behind them I led the second group out of the water.
On the way home, I sent the following description to Dana.
Swim was nice…but slow. I think it was a tad long. And the current tide and general roll of the water was fun, but slowing me down. It was a sunrise swim…pink and soft and welcoming. I could see it changing through the course of the swim…sun went orange. Brilliant. The start was madness so I just shrugged, waited and passed bunches after the first five minutes
In sum, it was a wonderful swim on a lovely course. I did not have one of those woo-woo experiences that I’ve written about in the past — all magical and effortless and full of unicorn sparkles. But it was electric, competitive and fun. The air was crisp and the rising sun bathed everyone with its energy. The light was low and moments later everything was brilliant and alive. The river exerted its presence, enlivened the senses especially taste, smell and imagination but didn’t overwhelm or show off. It reminded me of my place in nature — I’m but a small bit compared to the power of tides, the ancient effortless flow of water and the consistency of a beautiful sunrise.
I wish more people could have a experience like that in open water. It is how I imagine heaven — neither weightless nor heavy, without fear and full of natural wonder, surrounded by multitudes at their very best and yet alone with your own thoughts, musical, elemental and uncomplicated, in touch with your own essence and simultaneously something universal.
There is a difference between swimming fast and swimming well. The two are not mutually exclusive but don’t always overlap. I swam fairly fast but, more importantly, I swam well. It was enlivening; it is poetry of the soul.