Saturday, August 20, 2011

Whidbey Island Adventure Swim- Race Report

This is my first ever DNF (did not finish). And a simple DNF just does not tell the story. So I'll elaborate a bit.

I only heard about this race a few weeks ago, and signed up on Thursday. They had 1.2 mile and 2.4 mile options. I chose the 1.2 mile option, figuring it would take me about an hour. The email we got in advance of the race said they had a strict 90 min course time limit. So I figured I was fine.

Friday night we went to dinner with some friends. Walked both ways, about a mile and a half each direction. Got home at 1am, and fell into bed by 1:30. The alarm was set for 6:15 but I was up by 6 and turned it off. Got geared up and headed to the ferry.

The crossing was beautiful that time of morning. There were tons of fishing boats out, the water was smooth, and the sun was just barely over the horizon. The swim staff had arranged for someone to pick me up at the ferry, and we were at the beach in short order.

I registered- got number 2 (that's alphabetical order for you)- and did body marking. Struck up conversation with another swimmer- B. Turns out she's from Vancouver, and had driven down just for the swim. She also swims in the ocean year round. I grilled her a bit about what gear she wears, and then it was time for the pre-race meeting.

The course description from the race director was confusing. Turns out it was simply a double loop-- .6 miles each-- with a hook around a particular buoy to finish. It was a large triangle, with a long hypotenuse. The race director announced that there would be 7 kayaks and 7 life guards and 2 motor boats, and that saftey was their biggest concern. They were asking that if the staff asked us to stop swimming that we please cooperate with them. Then they announced that there was a 25 min time limit on the first loop and a 45 min limit on the second one (for folks swimming the 2.4 mile swim), and folks could expect to be pulled if they didn't make the loops in those time frames. I tried to do the math in my head, but couldn't easily (a mile takes me 45- 50 min, how long does .6 take??). I was worried about the cut off but figured I should just swim.

Got the wetsuit on and got in the water for the wet start. The water was 60*, and, of course, salt! The trombone player from the local orchestra started us off, and the 26 swimmers took to the water. I started swimming. Feeling pretty good. The water was cold. But I was ok. I quickly drifted to the back of the pack. One person swam over me. I kicked another. But we spread out quickly enough. I had a hard time catching my breath, and a kayaker (who I later learned was named Emily) came over to check on me. I did some head-up breast stroke to try to regulate my breathing. It helped, but took a while. Emily was really supportive, said this happens a lot in cold water. She seemed really concerned about me, but I knew that if I could get in a groove, I would be fine. As I rounded the first buoy, I slowly started to get my rhythm. I was on the hypotenuse, and could feel a strong cross wave action. I got a little motion sick, but was using primarily breast stroke, with crawl thrown in now and again. The breast stroke helps me both sight and keep control over the motion sickness.

Emily stayed near me, and checked in on me now and again. At one point she asked me if I was feeling cold. I said no, that I felt fine. She said I was looking a little blue. This is when I started wondering what was going on physiologically for me. Was it the cold water? The lack of sleep? Tired legs from walking? The single glass of wine I'd had? It started to occur to me that she was likely going to pull me from the race. I decided that if she did, I wasn't going to be a jerk about it, I'd simply get out. I remembered all the profiles of people who had died in triathlons that I read in the Fearless Swimming book (I reviewed it a few weeks ago). One of the commonalities in those cases was that people were often chatting with lifeguards shortly before they died. Many of them said they were fine. I didn't want to be one of those folks, and have made a commitment to always err on the side of saftey when in the water.

As I rounded the second buoy I was felling great and starting to swim strong. The water was fairly shallow, and I started looking for crabs. Emily came over and said they were pulling me. I had a choice, a boat could come, or I could swim in after one lap. I said I'd swim in.

I was disappointed, but had realized this was likely to happen so didn't fight it. Just before I rounded the final buoy the first two swimmers passed me on their way to the finish. The race had "catchers" at the finish to help you stand up. A WONDERFUL idea, as it can be dizzying to get out of the water.

The medical team met me on land and asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine, and I was. I chatted with them for a few minutes, until they were assured I really was fine, and they wandered off. A reporter for the local news asked me a few questions. I made it clear that I wasn't the first woman finisher, but instead a DNF.

Everyone seemed to know my name. Which made me wonder what they were saying about me when I was out there. I took a few photos, chatted with people, and changed. B finished and said she'd had a great swim. She was heading for the ferry and so I bummed a ride. It was good to de-brief a bit with anther swimmer. I would love to swim with her this winter in Vancouver.

Hours later I went through a period of being very angry about how today played out. The second finisher finished in about 33 minutes, which means I was fairly on target with my original estimation of an hour for this course (as the "hook" back into the finish was at least 2 min of a swim so if I stayed on that pace could estimate a 64 min time). The fact that the 25 min cut off wasn't announced until the pre-race meeting made me angry. If I'd known that it existed, I wouldn't have bothered to do the event. And it doesn't really make sense in general... it assumes that the 1.2 mile swimmers should be held to the same minimum pace as the 2.4 mile swimmers. But my guess is that some of us chose the shorter swim because we are slower swimmers. A cut off of 40 min would make more sense (just under half of the whole course time). I also wonder if I hadn't had the problems catching my breath at the beginning if I would have been closer to the cut-off and if they wouldn't have bothered to pull me.

I'm disappointed. I'm frustrated. And I'm also resigned to the outcome. I did get to do my first salt water event. (Chap-stick helped!). I learned that if I want to race more in salt I should train more in salt. I learned that I can push through breathing issues and recover and swim strong. I also learned that my wetsuit chafes more in salt and that deodorant stings on chafed armpits.

I don't know if I'd do this race again. This was the inaugural year, and it was pretty well run-- with the exception of not communicating the course closure times. I clearly won't do it if they keep the same closure times. If they extend them, I would consider going back and finishing what I didn't get to finish this time.


  1. Not announcing the cut offs does sound frustrating. Love the picture of you!

  2. That does sound frustrating. Not quite the accurate story, but very frustrating. I am sorry you felt that way and we didn't get to talk before you left for the day. Good luck with future open water races.

    We will be discussing your concerns at our follow-up meeting this week. I like to use body Glide to prevent chaffing. Salt water does cause much more uncomfortable chaffing than fresh. We were working with life guards from two training facilities, several with the most open-water-swim-guarding experience you can find in the NW; they were ready to pull you before the first buoy. I really felt you should have the chance to get through that beginning, but also had to be aware of soaking up resources -- keeping focus on you (not entirely fair to the safety of other swimmers). That is how I arrived at giving you a choice. I would love to see you next year, with a few more salt water swims under your belt. And I completely understand if you choose not to come back. This was a first annual event and there are many kinks to be worked out and learning points. Thank you for being a part of it.


    The Emily referenced above
    Safety Director for the event.