Thursday, May 30, 2013

St.John Beach to Beach Power Swim

We did it!  A 3 1/2 mile relay swim with two great teammates (Tad and Rebecca) and two great cheerleaders (Jason and Marissa).

This is going to be very long, just to warn you.  But it will have pictures and bonus guest bloggers!

Jason and I got to St. John on Friday, and on Saturday we went to the beach.  I was going to swim the second leg of the swim, from Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay, around Windswept Point at Peter Bay.  I wanted to get in a test swim anyway, but even more so after looking at my particular route and realizing that we would have to swim out pretty far to get around a shallow reef.  I put on my goggles and SwiMP3, and started swimming, only to realize that missing the reef was going to be tough.  I didn't really want to swim out too far all on my own since I wasn't exactly sure where the course would go, so I just swam around for awhile to get the feel for the open water.  Swimming in the clear, warm ocean with the sun on my back is so infinitely better than swimming in the dank pool at the Y.  I can't even tell you how pleasant it is.  I miss swimming outdoors so much.

Later in the afternoon, while I registered us, got our goodie bags and sat through an orientation meeting, Jason picked Tad, Rebecca and Marissa up from the ferry from St. Thomas.  He brought them back to Cinnamon Bay and we all decided to go swimming.  Tad, Rebecca and I did a little test swim, and I think all three of us felt a little more confident about the open-water part of all of this.  It's tough when it's been almost a whole year since you've actually been in open water!

Sunday morning dawned a little cloudy, but that cleared up, and despite the dire weather forecasts for the preceding few days (thunder!  lightning!  wind!), the day was absolutely gorgeous!  There was a bit of a swell, especially out around the points, probably from some storm activity in Puerto Rico or elsewhere, so the waves were a little bigger than the day before.  Still, gorgeous!
We went to Maho to get our color-coded caps (silver for relay!).   There were 6 waves of swimmers:  long swim (3 1/2 miles, green caps, hardcore people), long swim assisted (3 1/2 miles with fins and/or snorkel, light blue caps), intermediate swim (2 1/4 miles, pink caps), intermediate swim assisted (tan caps), short swim (1 mile, yellow caps), and short swim assisted (we can't remember their cap color...).

Rebecca started us out with her mile swim from Maho Bay to Cinnamon Bay.  I took the hand off at Cinnamon and swim 1 1/4 miles to Trunk, and then Tad swam 1 1/4 miles from Trunk to Hawksnest.
Here's our mighty team, waiting for the race to start:

Rebecca did a little warm up swim along the beach, then we all stood around, adrenaline pumping, for a final briefing from the race organizer.  After that the long-course and unassisted relay swimmers lined up at the starting banner, a guy blew on a conch shell, and they were off!

We watched the next couple of waves of swimmers leave and then the organizers told the relay swimmers it was time to hustle over to Cinnamon.  We hopped in the car and Jason drove us to the next beach.  I got in the water briefly, defogged my goggles, and waited at the Relay banner for Rebecca to swim ashore.

Here's an account of each leg of the swim from me and guest bloggers Rebecca and Tad.

Rebecca's Swim
Compared to my teammates, I had the easiest route by far: wait for the sound of the conch, race into the water, swim across Maho Bay, around the point, and toward Cinnamon Bay, where Kelly would be waiting.  My route was the shortest and the least choppy.  Still, this was my first open water swim, and while I was fairly hopeful that I wouldn't need to be rescued (!), there were a few unanticipated surprises.  First, I hadn't considered what it would be like to begin an open-water race.  I've only ever competed in pools, where lane lines separate swimmers from one another, keeping competitors neatly in their places.  This time, when the conch sounded, I found myself in a tangle of arms and legs, unable to move freely or breathe regularly.  We swam like that for several minutes before the faster swimmers broke ahead.  I was with the slower, and that was (mostly) fine with me.  My consciousness in the ocean, where I had to remain aware of an unfamiliar course, marked only by the occasional buoy, was very different from my consciousness in the pool, where it is almost impossible to go off course. I lifted my head out of the water every 30 seconds or so in an attempt to remain aware of the course--and as a result, I didn't see very much beneath the water.  I hadn't anticipated the sun in my eyes or the taste of salt in my mouth.  I likewise didn't anticipate the burst of energy I felt at the end of my race.  As I rounded the point and turned toward the finish line at Cinnamon Bay, I noticed a competitor in a silver cap.  My killer instinct would not be quashed!  In a burst of power, I passed her and headed toward the finish line.  Unfortunately, my power finish came to an abrupt and premature end: once standing on solid sand, my wobbly legs refused to run.  I walked across the finish line and give Kelly a tired but triumphant high five.

Kelly's Swim
I ran into the water at the same time as another relay swimmer and my competitive side took over as I tried to keep up with him.  Then I made myself slow down and pace myself because I would never make it 1 1/4 miles at that pace.

I'm on the right; the guy is on the left:

Reluctantly, I slowed down and let him pull ahead of me. I concentrated on pacing myself and breathing.  I felt on my own for most of the swim, probably, as I would discover, because I was way too close to the shore.  The day before at orientation, they had given us a landmark to site to on the way out from Cinnamon, but as I discovered, it would have worked better for me to site just to the right of that landmark.

When I finally saw the first buoy that I needed to take on my left, it was well to my right and I needed to correct by swimming almost perpendicular to the point of land on my left.  I grew to hate that buoy because it never seemed to get closer.  For a very long time.

Out  along Windswept Point, I'm not going to lie, I struggled a bit as the waves were a little bigger than I had expected.  To the point where I would occasionally feel myself lifted up on the crest of the wave, then dropped down with a little swoop in my stomach.  Course correction was even tougher as I ran head-on into some of those waves.  I felt a little justified later when I heard some long-course swimmers talking about how the surf was kind of tough around Windswept.

At one point, my energy was flagging and I thought, as I swam over the reef, it would be really neat to see a turtle out here while I'm swimming (they're my favorite).  Then about 30 seconds later, not even kidding, I saw a turtle swimming under me.  He swam right by, but he made me smile, and gave me a little push of optimism.

I kept swimming and eventually got around that first buoy, then the next one and the next.

When I finally (FINALLY) got around the point, and turned to swim toward shore I did get a boost because suddenly I was swimming with the current.  Every time I took a stroke with a wave, I felt a little push.  Lovely!  Plus, I could finally see the finish line banner in the distance!  And as an extra bonus, below me was an awesome sting ray, big enough to have its own remora.

Then some other swimmers started swimming alongside me and my competitive side took over again.  I finished my leg, huffing and puffing, ran up the beach, high-fived Tad, and he took off.

Tad's Swim
Before Kelly rounded the point and came into view, Rebecca, Jason, Marissa, and I arrived at Trunk Bay; and I started to scout my trajectory.  I knew that the first leg of my swim would cross Trunk Bay far from the shore, and I wanted to be sure that I knew where I was going.  I clarified with race officials where the first buoy was.  Feeling relatively confident, I warmed up a little and waited for Kelly's approach.

The adrenaline started pumping when I saw Kelly headed for the beach, and after our high-five I sprinted to the water and once knee-deep dived in.  I raced through the gate (ten yards out) and pointed myself in the right direction.  After thirty or forty seconds, I realized that I needed to calm down and slow and lengthen my strokes.  It was about half way to the first buoy that I realized it was harder than I thought it would be to stay on course.  And as I moved further out into the bay it got more difficult.

When I passed the first buoy, I couldn't see the next one in the swells that had grown to several feet.  Knowing that the course eventually ran close to the shore as it rounded into Oppenheimer and Hawksnest Bay, I sited the visible point.  Several minutes later an official in a kayak caught up to me to tell me that I was way off course and that the next buoy was two or three hundred yards straight out to sea.  That meant that I had to swim across the current (running right to left/east to west) with the waves running in the same direction.  In all it felt like I probably lost five or more minutes and a lot of energy before rounding the buoy and heading back with the current.

Even then my directional woes were far from over.  The next buoy had been "lost" (whatever that meant), and we were to site on a kayaker.  While it seemed to me that the kayak kept moving, I'm sure it was just my inability to swim straight.  When I got all the way around the point and into the protection of the next bay the swimming got a lot easier.  Near Oppenheimer Beach a final gate marked the turn along the shore toward Hawksnest Beach.  I was feeling good--though kicking myself for all the time I'd lost.  Shortly after making the turn, in about twenty feet of water, I swam over a nurse shark sunning itself on the bottom and cursed my luck at not having a camera with me.  With the finish in sight, it was time to see what sort of finishing speed I could muster . . . as I swam past the finish gate and had to cut back to stumble across the finish line.

(Kelly again...)
After the race was over, everyone headed to Oppenheimer Beach for a BBQ and awards ceremony.  I won an adorable glass turtle suncatcher for being the 2nd highest fundraiser (thanks so much to all of you who donated!), and everyone who finished got a medal.
Sadly, we didn't get any team awards because in the end, we took 4th place.  We finished the race in one hour and fifty-two minutes.  We were pleased with that time.  If Tad and I hadn't both gone off course a bit, we might have been able to shave several minutes off of that, but it still wouldn't have been enough to place.  We came into the race hoping to take 2nd, because last year, while the 1st-place team was super fast, the 2nd-place team had a time we knew we could beat.  Alas, this year there were 3 amazing relay teams whose times we couldn't touch and we know that.

However, if we do it again next year and we decide to do the relay, we've talked about doing it assisted.  The first place time for the assisted relay wasn't too far away from our time and we are all powerhouses with fins!

I have to say, we caused quite a splash in our shirts.  Early on, I rallied for us to come up with a team name, both for solidarity AND because I planned to make us shirts.  We wanted something ocean-related and tied to Rhode Island, so we settled on The Rhode Island Quahogs.  I checked out a couple of online shirt design places, and came up with the bright blue shirts we wore.

All day long, people were calling out, "Hey, Rhode Island!" or striking up conversations.  We met a guy from Bristol, Rhode Island.  I even heard a couple of comments about Family Guy inspired by our shirts.

The best was when a freelance journalist/photographer took our pictures and interviewed us for a human interest article he's going to pitch around the area.  Not a lot of people from Rhode Island doing the swim, especially not with bright blue T-shirts showing off their Rhode Island pride.  He took my phone number and email, and will let me know if anyone runs the story.

All in all it was a great experience!  I loved that we could do the race as a relay team, and I've had such a fun time training for the swim with Rebecca over the last couple of months.  We're already talking about what we need to work on for next year (bilateral breathing and siting).  Not that we'll definitely be back, but wouldn't that be fun if we were?

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