I’m a swimmer. As far as sport goes, this is what comes naturally to me and this is what I’m relatively good at. There is a certain feeling I get when I’m in the water. It is one of those feelings that is hard to describe; part Zen, part power, part humility. All of those mixed in with a lot of respect. Sometimes respect for the water has to take precedence, and today’s event was a prime example.
Because of ongoing problems with my foot, this year I decided to return to my roots with the goal of swimming English Bay. As the crow flies, the swim from Sandy Cove in West Vancouver across to Kits Beach is about 9 km. Unfortunately I’m not a crow. More on that later. Add currents, shipping channels and cold water and you’ve got yourself quite a goal to accomplish.
The mandatory pre-race meeting Saturday night was quick and to the point. Boat drivers and crew members were reminded that their job is to monitor swimmers for hypothermia, stay out of the way of other teams and to make sure their swimmers are eating and staying hydrated. And to watch out for freighters. We found out that an out-bound freighter was scheduled to be passing under Lion’s Gate at around 8:30 am which meant that things could get interesting. Meyrick and I quickly decided that this only added to the bad-assness of the event and we would deal with it (in other words get the hell out of its way) accordingly.
Like any good endurance athlete, I had a race plan all figured out. Hold between 1:40 - 1:50 per 100m, eat every 30 minutes and to negative split and I should be crossing the finish line around 2:45. That was the plan at least. It seems though, that Neptune had plans of his own.
Race day weather was almost perfect; high overcast skies (makes sighting a bit easier and it is easier on my pale crew!), no wind and calm seas. The water temperature felt a bit colder than usual, but after a few minutes it was fine. The first third felt great. I settled in to a nice pace, I had a good line all figured out and I was getting good air (breathing, that is). I stopped for my first feed (Carbo-Pro and Ultima) at around 30 minutes then again around an hour. Just after this point things started getting a bit challenging. As I got into the shipping channel the water temperature dropped a bit and the seas picked up. Nothing too bad, but enough to give me grief. According to Chris (my very skilled skipper), the chop wasn’t coming from any direction in particular, instead it was disorganized; coming from all angles and at different frequencies. To deal with this I had to “choose my breaths” carefully and it seems this is a skill I can improve upon. I think for about 30 minutes 2 out 3 breaths had more water than air. I also found a couple of times I’d go to catch (the first part of the stroke when your hand enters the water) and instead of grabbing water, I found air (not helpful to a swimmer). But, I just kept my head down and pushed on.
Carbo-Pro on a string... mmmm!
There was a period of relative calm, but for how long I don’t know. Somewhere around 2 hours (give or take 15 minutes) Meyrick suggested that I pick up my pace. We were just over 5 km across and he was getting worried that I wouldn’t make the 4 hour cut-off time. This was not part of the plan! I listened though, and felt I was making good headway. I found out afterwards that there was a very strong surface current today. This might explain the “drift” I was experiencing. I felt like I was moving forward, but I was actually moving somewhat sideways. This would also explain the wide arc that added a few hundred meters on to my swim.
At three hours, my arms were done. I really had to focus on rolling my body to take some of the pressure off my shoulders. It turned into a bit of a mantra: “roll ... roll … roll…” At 3:44 I glanced over at the boat and Meyrick yelled “10 minutes!” If I didn’t make it to the swim buoys at Kits Beach within 4 hours, I would run the risk of being plucked out of the water by the Lifeguards. I gunned it. I am not a sprinter. I absolutely suck at 50 m intervals in the pool and 100s aren’t my forte either. Today, however, I called upon every fast-twitch muscle fiber in my body to get me across that buoy line. Despite what felt like a lot of thrashing around in the water, I made it inside the buoy line and across the finish line in just over 4 hours. I was very shocked when one of the medical personnel told me that I was one of the few who made it. So it WASN”T just me having a tough time of it out there…
Finishing kick... near the buoy line
This is a very challenging event. I expected it to hurt (my longest openwater swim up to today was 6 km in 2 hours) and I expected to be challenged by the water. I did NOT expect the mental game to be as hard as it was. Imagine running (or riding) across a landscape that affords no perspective; there are no trees, no other people and absolutely nothing changes under your feet (or wheels). Take away the connection you have with the earth (by way of your feet or wheels) and this is getting close to how it feels to swim in the open water for 9+ km. I had to start off by sighting on something that was almost 10 km away from me so I really had no idea where I was in relation to it. Even when I got closer to the beach, I was having a hard time figuring out distances. Was I 1000 m away or was I only 400 m away? I remember thinking a couple of times “Am I actually moving forward?”
In the end, I got through it (without having to deal with any freighters, by the way). It was definitely slower than anticipated, but considering the conditions, today was about finishing. The winner of today’s event is incredibly fast and strong and his swim time was well over an hour slower than his last year’s time. The only record that got broken this morning was for the longest crossing so I’m glad I didn’t break any records today.
I would like to give a HUGE “thank you” to my crew Chris and Meyrick. Without them, I would not have been allowed to enter this race. Thanks as well to Kevin for driving out to Kits and giving me a lift back to Sewell’s Marina … the though of getting in a little boat for the trip back did not go over to well with my stomach!