This is the post about what I learned in the whole adventure of doing a nine mile ocean swim.
To begin with the beginning, the start of the race is a pretty mild affair. You might say calm, relaxed, laid back or even languid. While an air horn did sound, the race began with a stroll into the water. There was no manic thrashing, positioning was easy and competitors were still chatting with one another as they entered the surf. It was a departure to what I’m used to but not uncomfortable in any way. I dove through the first two waves and then was off headed to a turn marker with one guy on my left and two women back about five yards and to my right.
Watch the Start of 2015 Ocean Games 9 Mile Swim in a short video.
Off we go!
Race winner John Humenik is shown in the foreground.
The kayak pilots entered 20-30 minutes ahead of us and hung out offshore about 25 meters past the first turn. They had a little flotilla and sorted themselves out matching up with swimmers as we passed.
Let’s go back a bit. I first heard of the race from Traci McNeil in March. I registered the first week of May. I began to “study up” last week. Also, I didn’t change my training and counted on the general fitness developed in the lead up to Ironman Coeur d’Alene to carry me through. I did complete the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in mid-June but I didn’t think any lessons would apply. The GCBS is less than two hours and half the distance. There is no need to take in nutrition and though the Bay can have a chop, this year it was as calm as you can reasonably expect for a body of water that large. Nine miles in the ocean would be a whole new thing.
Fortunately in addition to periodic email encouragement from Traci, I found some great resources online. Check out this site of fanatics who have done nearly everything there is to do with marathon swimming, excepting those things that they continue to seek out as new challenges. The forums are particularly full of good information and have a nice search function.
Open Water Swimming Is Not Equal To Marathon Swimming
This observation should be a surprise to no one. It didn’t shock me so much as hit me in the forehead like a brick after the race. I never equated the two before the race, but I also never really thought much about it. For those of you more land-based, think of about running. Trail running is the analog to open water swimming. There are natural elements — whether they are roots and rocks or currents, animal and plant life, and varying light — that change the experience from the track or road for running and the pool for swimming. But open water swimming isn’t marathon swimming. Ultra running, races that cover 50 and 100 miles of trail, is like marathon swimming in that it has its own special niche among athletes, its own tricks of the trade and importantly, the body reacts in whole new ways after a few hours of continuous activity.
Goggles & Equipment
I wore the new X1 goggles by Roka. (I’ve also recently acquired a pair of the F1 goggles in dark vermillion and they work fine, but I like the X1 better despite the ugly bug-eye effect. I’ve never been one to worry too much about appearance.) The X1 series has the largest field of vision and very crisp optics. The pair I have are cobalt which is ideal for ocean swims. They were new the day before Ironman Coeur d’Alene and have only been worn a handful of times. They never fogged or leaked though once during a feed I readjusted the right gasket. I also went out with plenty of spray TriSlide and Body Glide and a full slathering of sunscreen. However, I left the sunscreen off my face because I didn’t want any leaking into my eyes. I used standard bike bottles for my nutrition.
Where do I need to improve the most? Right here — nutrition. My plan was to take a feed every 30 minutes. On the bottom of the hour it would be 10 ounces of liquid. At the top of the hour a Roctane gel with 10 ounces of liquid. Bottles 1, 3 and 5 — for the corresponding hours — were filled with Roctane Endurance drink which contains 59 carbohydrates. Bottles for the second and fourth hour were filled with Gatorade Endurance which has fewer carbohydrates — about 42 per bottle. Every two hours, just like on my bike, I would take a chewable GasX tablet to help with the byproduct of all the gels. I took the feeds on schedule thanks to Paddy. However, they were not quite dialed in properly.
I started the day with a normal breakfast albeit with less fruit than normal. Too much fructose has, on rare occasion, led me to GI distress. I made sure to finish eating about 3.5 hours before the race start to allow for plenty of time to get the protein into the system and my blood sugars stabilized after fasting since dinner. I also ate a gel about 30 minutes before the race started, had tea with breakfast (regular black tea and a cup of ginger tea) and sipped on a bottle of water for the last hour before the start.
At the first feed, I more or less drank fluids but the hand offs were sloppy and clearly we were amateurs learning by doing. At the second feed I did not eat the gel so much as aspirate the gel. I may have eaten part of it, but the majority ended up coating my lungs. In the very least, it felt that way. I also drank a good deal of the Atlantic’s finest offering and some more of the Roctane Endurance. Paddy worked out a system where he would come around to my left and let me swim right up to the kayak and that worked a little better but I still couldn’t find the right position for eating or drinking. I tried floating on my back. I tried floating on my back and kicking. I tried sidestroke. I tried treading water. I tried modified breastroke. Each time the waves were lapping over my face, my legs were sinking and I’m sure it was comical in the extreme. Despite being offshore, I couldn’t even muster good swearing, like a sailor, because I was too busy drinking the ocean or choking on sticky gels.
My longest feed was at the two hour mark as we approached the six mile buoy. I took the gel and more or less failed with it. I took a GasX tablet and noshed it down with seawater. I then drank as fast as I could and tossed the bottle back at Paddy. Just as I was about to start swimming, I paused. Something was off. Then suddenly I projectile vomited. More came out in a second blast a few seconds later. I’m sure the fish were non-plussed with the eggs and dried fruit pieces that sprayed. It felt like someone had put a hose at the base of my esophagus and sprayed out the stuff the dentist uses to clean teeth. It made the back of my throat burn and my eyes tear but my stomach felt much better. While I could see the bits of food, the sheer volume of spray suggests that I let go of about 31 gallons of sea water. I took off slowly and within a minute or two was able to get back into a groove.
- Lessons — Next time I’m going to develop a nutrition plan that is 100 percent liquid. I’m not coordinated enough for the gels unless I can get them into a bottle. Even then the combination of “chewing,” swallowing, breathing and avoiding waves may be too much for my skill set.
- Next time we’ll use the rope-and-carabeener system that I set up but we didn’t use. We didn’t use it because we tried to err on the side of simplicity. Fewer moving pieces meant fewer chances to mess up.
- Next time I will practice at least the motions of the feed process if not the actual nutrition plan.
- After the race, I learned from the winner that he is able to take in 10 ounces in about 20-30 seconds. He noticed, and diplomatically asked about, my circus-like performance on the first three to four feeds. My feeds were measured in minutes, not seconds.
I came out of the ocean and ran up the beach with no trouble. As soon as I crossed the timing mat and tried to stop moving, the woozy took over. Everything around me kept moving even though I was standing still. A nice volunteer helped me over to a chair in the shade where I hung out for about 20 minutes until I was confident that my landlubber legs would not betray me.
I was tired after the race but not totally wrecked. We had the good fortune of Cinema Del Ray scheduled for that evening so as soon as I got home and showered, I walked a couple blocks to meet Dana and the tribe for a community viewing of a Penguins movie. Laying on the ground for two hours may sound like torture, but it was fine. The movie was funny too.
My lower back was pretty stiff and my neck muscles were achy. I knew they would be sore soon. In addition to my lower back and neck, which I attribute to insufficient training, my shoulders developed soreness late on Sunday night. It lasted about a day or two at the most. I found two abrasions from friction. They have both melted back into nothing already.
I’ve already found myself wondering what I should do next. Should I try one more of these in 2015 — perhaps late in the year to close out the season. Should I regroup and fold marathon swimming in to my plan for 2016? A plan, by the way, which has not taken shape at all. I don’t think this is a one and done type adventure.
This is Paddy my kayak pilot. He was game for the whole adventure. He also played Sherpa for my first Ironman at Lake Placid in 2012. I’m not sure why he keeps coming back, but I’m grateful.
My friend Frenchie snapped this photo as I prepared to do a “deck change” in the tent set up with refreshments at the finish. Fortunately for all concerned, I had not started the process yet. Of note, it was in the mid 80s and sunny. After the race I wore a fleece shirt for about a half hour while I ate a banana and drank a couple bottles of fluids.
How the Race Developed
I made it to the turn first and was joined by one other guy. He was slightly behind to my left and his kayaker was immediately to my right. After a few hundred meters Paddy joined us and we basically proceeded this way until the 30 minute mark.
After a half an hour, the other swimmer took over the lead as I struggled through the feed. He ended up about 30 meters in front of me and for the next 25 minutes I chased. As we approached the one hour mark, we were side by side and I was passing him back. I kept it going but didn’t really stretch the lead more than 10 or 15 meters before it was time for another feed. At this point, he swam past me and put more than 30 meters into me. While he went out of sight due to the waves, I could still see his kayaker and began chasing her for another half hour before she was gone too.
Stroke rate is a good proxy for how peppy I was feeling. There are three clear sections of this chart. The first hour I was above 35 spm, the second hour I dropped down a little each of the 30 minute segments. And then after the two hour mark I got back to 35 spm and managed to pick it up for the last 50 minutes to get back over 35 but not quite to the same level as where I started.
A swam alone for the next half hour. It was not lonely or isolating, but I was alone. While the chart above is not speed or pace, it clearly demonstrates where key events happened in the race. After the first downward spike is a half an hour where I chased but didn’t have the same turnover as the first hour when I swam equal to the eventual winner. It is also where he pulled away. After the next downward spike, the next feed, you can see the turnover drop down again below 35 averaging 33 spm.
At this point we came to the Great Displacement (of my stomach). The chart shows a marginal improvement for the next half hour and then from approximately 2:30 onward, it appears that I finished well. However, a race cannot be understood from the charts only. What was happening? At the 2:30 feed I was passed by two people. I repassed and the work required to get back to the front of the group lifted my pace and stroke count and really gave me something concrete to focus on. As we approached the 3:00 mark I was still in the lead of the group who would finish second through fourth and took only a very short feed that was incomplete.
Moments later, the woman who went on to finish second caught me. I put her kayak between us thinking that I could put in a good, strong five to ten minute dig and pull away without her seeing me go if I “hid” behind the kayak. I put in the dig but all it did was keep me even with her and put me in a hole. Initially slowly and then steadily, she pulled right away from me. From the surface, it must have looked like I didn’t see it happening but really I was trying to respond thinking there was an outside chance that she’d cramp or break. Meanwhile, we were passing pods of swimmers who were competing in the three mile race. With that, the line up was established and we made our way through the last few hundred meters and up the beach to the finish.
- I’m pretty sure I lost my stomach because of too much salt water, not because of what I ate or drank.
- I need to work on my mental game. When I was in the same neighborhood as other swimmers, I swam better. This is true for the first 90 minutes as well as the the last two miles of the race. However, the middle third of the race was the weakest segment and where I spent the most time alone on the water.
- I won something! I didn’t go to the race to win and didn’t think about it until I found myself swimming at the front of the race. The Ocean Games folks gave me a cool water bottle and beach towel. Winning something isn’t everything or even the primary reason to do these things, but it is fun.
- After the race, I overheard other swimmers going on and on about stroke rate. I’m totally unaware of how to use stroke rate to train or race. I’m used to pace per 100 yards or heart rate. This is something I’ll have to look into especially after looking at the chart above and how it matches so closely with the developments of the race.
- Swimming in the ocean is much more difficult than a lake or river. The waves and the swell are irregular not conducive to staying in a rhythm. Swimming this far is all about getting in a rhythm.