The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim: the view from the water

Okay, y’all. You’re in for a GREAT story not just about the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Swim, but about the evolution of a swimmer. I give you: my amazing friend J!

It’s funny how the first time I swam across the Chesapeake Bay it was a quick, almost thoughtless decision, spurred on by coaxing buddies during a night of pizza and beer after a Friday night practice with the local Masters’ swim group. Hey let’s enter that race, guys! Oh yeah, sure, sure! I was in pretty good swim form already but in no way large-famous-body-of-water crossing form by any means. However, I was also 19 years old and those things together turned out to be sufficient to carry the day back in 1986. My mom, dad, 14-year-old brother Billy, and best friend Lisa came to see me attempt this curious trick, cheer me on, and then wipe the diesel and oil slick remains from my face and arms when I dragged myself out on the opposite shore. I am pretty sure they knew that it was very unlike me at the time to do anything so ambitious, loud, and out there. It was really touching to me to see them cheering me on to the finish that day. It was and still remains a great reinforcement to me of what love and friendship really are all about.

Looking back now, 29 years later, I can still say that it was one of the hardest, most foolish and also most rewarding things I’d ever attempted and succeeded in doing. The water was very rough. There were many times I was sure I’d fail, when the waves were so big I could see no land, boats, or people around me. All I could see were walls of green water coated with a rainbow glaze of fuel, and I could not seem to find my way to the top of the big rollers to glimpse the shore. There were times I knew I was being swept out from between the Bay Bridge spans – a quick way to be “DQ’d” or disqualified. I swam nearly the whole way on a diagonal, even perpendicular at times, not sure that I was even progressing forward, and flipping over to backstroke to try and gauge my position as I swam towards the farther span instead of straight to the unseen shore of Kent Island.

The thing I remember most about finishing, aside from the pure shock of it, and seeing my people cheering for me, was the amazing fried shrimp dinner I had right after… with extra fries please! Then I went home and I am pretty sure I slept through a broken 24 hours. And also more than pretty sure I wasn’t fully functional physically or otherwise for at least another 24 to 48 hours after that.

Never again. That’s what I said to the (very large industrial sized 80’s-style) video camera my father brought to document this insanity. I said no way. I laughed and joked about swimming back to get home knowing that 1) I didn’t have to, and 2) I was done and that, though I was proud and excited to have done it, I could forever place this whole momentary mental lapse in my past. It’s all on the video tape. Yes tape!

Fast forward a few decades-plus, later. I finally took the plunge and began to swim for fitness again, thanks to the tear in my Achilles sidelining me from running. I happily still had less than zero inclination of going back on that solemn promise made so publicly on the sandy shore of Kent Island long ago. But my baby brother Billy had different ideas. Let’s do a triathlon together, he said. I’m swimming now too. It’ll be fun, he said. Boy did it not take long for that to evolve into Hey let’s sign up for the Chesapeake Bay Swim Lottery and swim it together! Oh man, I am WAY too easy to drag into these things! Long story short, Billy got in to the race and I did not, so I was excited and proud to cheer him on as he made his remarkable crossing last year. Spectacular and … inspiring. That race was in my head now. I could not let it go. I got myself qualified and with the help of some special friends’ charitable donations *ahem my favorite running blogger among them* I got a guaranteed spot for the 2015 Great Chesapeake Bay Race.

For the next 12 months I threw myself into training. I also had surgery to fix my poor tendon, thankful to have swimming to stay in good endurance shape both before and after. By January, I had developed and mapped out a training plan that had me doing two Masters’ swim practices a week: one open water-focused and 90 minutes long, and one sprint-focused at 60 minutes long. In addition, I swam three miles (approximately 5300 yards) every Tuesday or thereabouts, and then used Saturday for my “long sustained swim” that  grew to five miles at its peak in May, culminating with the Bay Swim on June 14. For those curious, my weekly yardage peak was 21,000 yards.

In spite of my stubborn willingness to grind at this goal with Type A precision, something I wish to god I could apply to more useful things like picking winning lottery numbers or achieving world peace, I actually found myself having a lot of fun and meeting a lot of really great people along the way. Many of my pool people now have nicknames they don’t, and hopefully won’t, know about. “Fast Santa,” “Hot Chick,” “Tube” (often swam with a snorkel), “The Hurricane” (with such unfortunate form that his flailing arms and wildly-kicking legs made it a little too open-water realistic), and of course “Happy,” the friendliest, nicest, most strangely energetic lifeguard ever to grace the pool at 5:30 in the morning. There were many others. All of them, so good for a kind greeting and even a few laughs at that ungodly hour of the day.

Swimming 3-5 miles, often without stopping, as frequently as I did in a 25 yard pool may not have been ideal training for an endurance race in a large almost ocean-like body of water, but it is what I had available to me. And man did it prepare me so well for one aspect of swimming that far – the head game. That is a long ass time to be alone with oneself. And that was the question I was asked more than any other – what on earth do you *think* about all that time?! Quite a lot. And sometimes, not much at all. I’d get home on Saturdays after the long, sustained swim and pretty much collapse on the couch for the balance of the day. Something I am fortunate to say my family tolerated with good-natured aplomb.

Indeed, the comfort of that pool bottom’s black line, the friendly faces, and hot shower waiting for me when I was done were handicaps, I knew. The Bay Swim is a solitary affair from the beginning  and beyond uncomfortable in most respects. Many people wear wetsuits and it is very much encouraged due to the safety issues involved. I have never swum in one though, and back in the olden days when I did this the first time, maybe a handful of people out of the 200 or so of us wore one. They didn’t make swimming wetsuits back then. That was a hot day with warm waters and out of all the things I remember that were hard and bad at the time, the water temperature and my comfort in staying afloat were not among them. The few people who had them wore the old style, thick heavy water ski suits with the big clips to hold them on. No thanks! But I definitely respect anyone who wears one now – it’s a safety issue foremost and that is the primary concern of anyone racing in this sort of event.

The race this year started off much later than in years past, at well into the lunch hour thanks to the timing of slack tide. I was super lucky and excited that I had my best friend M and her boy B, and my boy L, to help see me off this past Sunday. They took care of getting me where I needed to be, but more importantly they took care of my head, which was a horrible mess. I had spent the past two weeks having a near coronary and losing all ability to sleep because of one main issue: I was worried about a lightning storm canceling the race before I finished. At this point I knew there was no training for  this again! So the four of us got through the morning, we talked a lot, laughed about our similar strategies for playing Scrabble online (damn C and V with no two-letter word options!), the boys went swimming, and I cruised through the wait to the start in pleasant, relaxed company. The weather was fine though quite hot, and the forecast predicted, successfully it turned out, that storms would hold off until later in the day. Whew!

Sandy Point State Park, MD

Sandy Point State Park, MD

The race meeting promised good conditions for me and my 650 or so racing companions. We would be sent off in two waves – the first one with the slower swimmers like me and the second with the faster swimmers. This would ensure we’d all stay closer together to hit the slack tide just right and be easier to track. Tracking the swimmers is serious business – the Bay Race has an approximate one to one volunteer to swimmer ratio and safety is the chief concern of all involved. It showed – a fleet of boats and kayaks were out there to keep us in view.

Finally it was time. This was the moment I’d spent so many months obsessing about. I stood there on the beach in the scorching sand under the blazing sun and waited for the starting horn. This was definitely a moment where I was grateful not to be stuffed into black rubber! The horn blared and we were off. I hung back to let the “Cuisinart Start” get off ahead of me, and I set out in an easy breast stroke to get a feel for the water and my sense of direction. It was pretty calm, and a nice temperature for swimming. We had to swim from the beach in between two buoys about a half-mile out to get under and between the Bay Bridge spans. The critical swim rule remained the same as my first crossing – stay between the spans or you will be pulled. Sounds simple right? Yeah. Ha. No.

Fortunately that wasn’t a big issue until later. I made it past the marker and that is when I began moving underneath the beautiful bridge towers. I do have to say I recall that same moment many years ago and how overwhelming it was to look up and see those structures so high and so tall above me, and it was no less thrilling the second time. Just unbelievable! Very humbling and awe-inspiring. It was good for a jolt of adrenaline, even though I was also seeing the pink caps of the second-wave swimmers passing me.

Once I got between the spans the crowd thinned out and I found space to begin a nice freestyle along my way. It was surprisingly good and I began to tick off bridge pylons slowly but surely. Plenty of people passed me. I anticipated finishing no quicker than three hours so I had to shrug them off and try to enjoy myself. After a little bit I raised my head and saw the one-mile marker ahead – and it was farther out than I would have liked at that point. I put my head down and plowed onward, intent on being far beyond it once I looked up again. I also made a decision at that point not to look at my watch. The watch I’d specifically bought and wore so that I would know about how far I was from shore. It is funny how, even for a planner like me, at least some race strategy is often formulated about a quarter of the way or more into the thing!

I soon spotted the two-mile buoy and the balloons of the food/water boat and that felt great! I did not stop. As before, I set a goal of swimming straight past them. It was also near that time, though, that I realized that I was not where I thought I was. I had been dragged closer to the right side span and was caught in a sideways right-going current and a rising chop. I began to swim at that familiar angle, targeting the left span. The problem with this isn’t that it’s not doable, because it is. The problem is that it really messes with your head. The sensation one has of progressing forward is all but lost and a small sense of anxiety creeps in and settles for a stay. This is where those Thursday night sprint nights became all the more important. Careful to keep an even kick going I shortened my reach and increased my cadence – it began working but I was also where the pylons are further apart so finding progress was tricky. I finally made my way back more or less in the middle so I evened out a bit but kept an left angle going to avoid moving out to the right again.

To add even more color to the experience the water temperatures at this point seemed almost random and the swings were quite dramatic. I hit several good stretches of darker water, likely within the 250+ ft deep shipping channels, which were so cold they were numbing and like swimming in ice water. Weirdly, I would swim through one of these patches in mere moments, only to find myself in water so warm I had to fear the cause! Pollution? Human-sourced? Yuck. And then back to the ice water again. So it went. In fact the dividing line between some of these patches was so distinct, that several times I took a pull of the new, colder patch with my hand/arm and felt it spread the cold down me as I pushed it the length of my body, almost as if it was a different element all together. Super weird!

I was also taking on too much of this loveliness into my innards with the chop. At one point I lifted for a breath and got a big mouthful of what must have been pure fuel. It burned on the way down and I coughed it back out – blech. My throat ached after that and the taste of it stayed with me for another full day. It happened a few more times—so gross! I should say though that the Bay on the whole was noticeably cleaner than the last time I did this. It didn’t smell as bad, that is for sure.

Through all this, to my pleasant surprise, I was indeed actually making progress. I saw a few other swimmers. A couple of times I would be digging away and through the murky green I’d see feet! Creepy! And so I’d move aside and pass or let the other swimmer move on ahead. I saw plenty of kayaks within the spans and just beyond them as well. Finally I saw the three-mile buoy, but as I sighted it I noticed that I’d begun to swim through increasing swells. I had to wait to the top of the waves to be able to spot the jetty on the other side of the bay. Fortunately they were big enough that I could simply keep swimming as they rolled on, and do a mental back-pat for remembering to wear Sea-Bands and take half a Dramamine before embarking earlier. That all paid off and my stomach was never a factor, at least not from motion sickness. Again I hunkered down and swam through the third mile marker, feeling more tired at this point. My form began to wane considerably.

I think I’d always known that there’d come the time when I was really over it. Here, I reached that point. My back hurt, my arms hurt. But I’d been at this point in training quite a few times and that is when I knew I had to reach down and get beyond that feeling. I kept the left bridge in my same point of vision, dug each stroke deeper and pulled my arms back out higher, and conjured as many thoughts of my children as I could. Of my second son winning a handstand contest at one of his gymnastics meets, of hugging my daughter first thing in the morning and her warm soft cheek as I kissed it, of my older son’s pre-teen sly smile and attempts to play it cool when I tell him something good or fun, and of my third son’s exuberance over every little thing – including the prospect of dinner later that night at Hemingway’s at Kent Island. I thought of the sight of my friends and family waiting for me, and I began to envision walking out of this mess. Finishing. Dones-ville. It is coming, I told myself.

I finally popped my head up and, at the top of a swell, caught the four-mile marker. Yay! But, boo! I was now drifting the *other* way outside. And fast. At this point, I specifically recall I was working entirely out of my head. My body was spent. I was swimming so hard and clearly going nowhere. I saw the exit buoys – the spot at which you are to emerge from the spans and complete the last .4 mile along the exit jetty. I COULD NOT GET THERE. Holy shit. I think I actually said that out loud several times. No, I definitely did. It just wasn’t getting any closer. A kayaker floated next to me saying, helpfully (ugh), “Stay to the right.” Uh, yeah, trying! Time stood completely still and I must have churned more than a whole other mile of stroking my brains out to go maybe 30 feet? Oh man it was demoralizing. When I finally got past the right span I still had to round the front of the jetty and I was close to being thrown onto it by the waves. The gentle hills of rollers and swells had now become nothing short of a freaking washing machine. I felt like a solitary spaghetti noodle in a pot on high boil. It came at me from all sides and even beneath me! I tried breast-stroking at that point but it gave me too much information on my lack of forward progress so I put my face back in and forced my arms to keep digging harder. Hemingway’s was in sight. But not seeming to get any closer.

It was though. And during that complete chaos, I somehow managed to move forward. And just as quickly as the pockets of ice water popped up earlier in the day, my head swam into a space I’d barely allowed myself to dream about for the past year and a half … I was actually *almost done.* I came upon another swimmer who found terra firma and began walking. I wasn’t quite ready for that so I breast-stroked a while longer, taking in the view of the finish balloons and the people ahead of me climbing out onto the sand. I finally stood and began walking too – it was clear I could make faster progress that way, and frankly the thought at that point of putting my face back in the Bay was a non-starter. Thus, I continued. And finally I could see the faces of my people – my brother, hard to miss at well over six feet tall, and the others around him. I waved my arms hoping they’d see me and they did and began waving back.

I did it. I took off my green cap and my goggles, and I let the swell of joy and pride surge and fill up my insides alongside and in a happy marriage with the tired and the pain. The sense of it all rushed over me so quickly, and tears welled big as I climbed out onto the sand, over the timing mat.


Finisher! (photo from CBMT Creative–and yes, she bought the pics!)

I became a little disoriented, and weirdly not quite sure what to do first – to rush out of the chute or to go to the fence to find my family and my friends. It was like I needed someone to tell me what to do. It was so strange. But then I saw them hurrying over in a small cheering and smiling pack to the fence and I could not get over there into their arms fast enough. Profoundly grateful.

And I may, or may not, have eaten a ham sub on my way to the firetruck shower. Only Billy knows for sure 😉


3 thoughts on “The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim: the view from the water

  1. You are an amazing woman and I could not more proud of you! You have accomplished so many great things in your life, some of them twice (!) and you are a constant source of inspiration to me and certainly to many others as well. I love you!!!


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