The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim: a spectator’s view

I hope in a few days, after she’s had the chance for it all to sink in, that J will write a race recap for me to post here. But I also want to share the experience from the point of view of Support Crew.

My job: Sherpa

The race organizers set the start time based on tides and current and weather, and using that data, their computers spit out a start time of 12:30 P.M. Since registration started at 9:30 (and she’s kind of a planner like me) and the Bay Bridge is an hour from her house with no traffic, we wanted to head out by 8:30. We actually got out the door closer to 8, which turned out to be a good call when we got to Sandy Point State Park ($7 PER PERSON, thanks very much) and there was already a line of cars waiting to enter.

We staked out a space under a tree (it was sunny and hot–no storms in sight) while she picked up her materials and got her number marked on her arm and hands. We still had about three hours before the projected start so the boys went swimming for a while and we chatted with some racers sitting nearby. We stalked the hour-by-hour weather forecast on at least three different iPhone apps, one of which suggested a 54% chance of thunderstorms in the 4:00 hour. She expected to be done before then, but it was a little close for peace of mind. Imagine reaching mile three or four and getting pulled out of the water because of lightning. Race over, DNF.

At 11:30 we walked over to the swimmers’ meeting. They were told to be swim-ready, so I went along to carry back her shoes and whatever else she wanted to jettison on her way down to the starting area.

After thanking of volunteers and a somber recognition of the swimmer who died last year, the organizers discussed rules and procedures. The bridge is actually two separate spans about 100 yards apart, and swimmers must stay within those spans to remain eligible. Another warning? If you decide mid-race you can’t continue (or if you miss the time cutoff) you will be loaded into a boat and shuttled to a separate DNF dock on the other side. I could not imagine the disappointment and heartbreak of the DNF dock.

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Sandy Point State Park, Maryland

Right after the meeting, 30 minutes before the start, first-wave swimmers were called to the beach. Each swimmer had to file through a security checkpoint to have his or her electronic ankle tag scanned, and from there they gathered at the water’s edge. The boys and I waited along the barricades, cheering and thinking we were gonna get hot standing there for another 20 minutes, but then after a quick countdown, they sent the swimmers off early.

The boys and I loaded up the car to make our way across the bridge. We didn’t really get our $28 worth at the park, but it was time to cross the bay.

Many Maryland and Delaware summer beach rentals run from Sunday to Sunday, meaning a bunch of folks at that moment were heading east across the bridge on their way out while a roughly equal number of people drove west to return home. In other words, the bridge was slow going in both directions. I managed to shepherd us out of the park, through the toll plaza, and onto the bridge. I don’t think we moved faster than about 30 MPH the whole way, but that gave us a chance to peer into the water trying to spot the swimmers and their kayak escorts. At that distance they appeared merely as specks in the water!

On the other side, we parked her car and found a shady spot near the finish area. When we’d been there 45 minutes or so, the first finishers appeared at the end of the jetty–the home stretch. One had a clear lead while two others trailed slightly. But as we watched, one of them kicked it into another gear and passed the leader to take the victory. These guys looked like Olympic swimmers–I think they finished in about 90 minutes. Impressive.

I alternated between sitting in the shade with the boys and watching finishers come in. One by one they emerged from the water, turned in their timing bands, got a once-over from the medics, and walked toward the crowd. Some searched for family members; others heard loved ones call their names. Tearful embraces at the barricades were common. A rainbow of emotions: relief, exhaustion, pride. One guy whipped his phone out of his wetsuit and took a selfie. A finisher received treatment in the medical tent, and at one point two volunteers approached the crowd and asked for the family of [her name]. Considering last year’s tragedy, I’m guessing it’s terrifying to hear your loved one’s name called that way. Eventually she was loaded into an ambulance, but I got the feeling it was not an emergency situation. I hope she’s okay now.

Two different swimmers completed the race, then reattached a prosthetic leg to continue.

I knew J’s goal time but was terrified I’d miss her, so I staked out a spot about 45 minutes ahead of that time. As spectators, we were some distance from the water and had a difficult time identifying “our” swimmers. They wore either pink or green caps, and about 3/4 of them wore wetsuits. From a distance, all we saw were pink and green caps–identifying a specifc swimmer was like trying to find a particular penguin. “Is that her? No, wetsuit. Is that her? No, that’s a guy.” And so on. Fortunately J skipped the wetsuit (the water was around 78*) and wore a distinctive swimsuit patterned like the Maryland flag. Unfortunately, the back was mostly black so for the most part she looked like everyone else. Finally, when one particular penguin swimmer stood up and waved, I could tell it was her.

The start, the finish, the new car sticker

Standing alongside the barricade: her husband, her brother (who swam it last year), and me. She walked over and repeated the scene I’d seen so many times that afternoon. Hugs, tears, relief, pride. Her brother walked her through the finishers’ area while I ran to the car and got her shoes and dry clothes. A fire truck stood ready to help swimmers wash the bay off their skin.

After the fire truck shower, clean clothes, a couple of bottles of water, and some rest, she felt prepared to make the trek across the parking lot to eat at Hemingway’s. We were a bit early for our reservation (she expected to need more recovery time) but they managed to accommodate our group of 12.

We enjoyed crab cakes, oysters, crab dip, wine, cocktails, all of that good stuff. And as we sat there, we watched the storm slowly roll in across the bay. The clouds grew darker, headlights on the bridge appeared brighter in the increasing gloom.

The storm got worse as we drove home–traffic on the bridge inched along, lightning crackled in the distance, and big fat raindrops peppered the windshield. And it mattered not at all.

2x finisher

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