Big Swell Open Water Swim Race Report

This was a different kind of race for me: an open water swim not followed by a bike or run, as well as a swimming competition where I swam a single race that involved a wetsuit and a lake.

This was the first year for the Big Swell Swim, held in beautiful Devil’s Lake State Park. It was brought up during the end of my Masters Swim season in May, and everyone in the group was enthusiastic about getting together for a swim race/reunion in summer.

There were four divisions you could enter:
-1.2 mile non-wetsuit
-1.2 mile wetsuit
-2.4 mile non-wetsuit
-2.4 mile wetsuit

I was competing in the 1.2 mile wetsuit category. The pre-race announcer said that the largest category by far was 2.4 mile wetsuit, and you have to imagine this was mostly folks training for IM WI. Well, I guess you don’t have to imagine anything, but that’s what I imagined.

I’ve never swum 1.2 miles without stopping. Although our Masters practices always included at least 2 miles (usually more) in the pool, that was done in intervals and sets, and the idea of just going for 1.2 miles with no hang out time at the wall was intimidating to me. Also, although I’m getting much better in the open water, I still have some open water panic from time to time. Things can sometimes feel really out of control or just so bottomless in the middle of a lake. Nothing to grab onto anywhere close, and other swimmers bumping into you or swimming over you.

All that being said, I went into this “race” with a goal to just swim a steady pace and finish it. I wasn’t interested in competing with other racers.

I’ve been really struggling with lake allergies this summer. I’ve been allergic to lake algae since I was a teenager, but since this is the first summer that I’ve taken an open water class, this is also the first summer that I’ve purposefully stuck my face in a pile of allergens at least once a week. I asked my doctor if I could double my dose of allergy medicine on days I swim, and she vetoed that idea real quick (apparently I’m already on the maximum dose). The swimming leads to days, sometimes almost a full week of terrible congestion, sneezing, stuffy nose, sinus headaches, and so on. I’ve taken to sleeping sitting upright the night after a swim so that I can breathe.

Obviously, this is stupid. So, I’ve been experimenting with wearing earplugs and a nose clip during practices, and the difference has been phenomenal. I think the nose clip helps more than the earplugs, but I’m sticking with both, because being able to swim in the morning and then not literally go through two boxes of Kleenex that day (yep – two a day) is worth 75 minutes of mild discomfort in the water.

That tangent completed, back to the day of the race. There was a warm up swim, which I participated in. Making sure that I always do the warm up swim has been one of my goals all season. In this particular warm up swim, I waded into the coldish water, tried to acclimate for a moment. I stood chest deep, put in my earplugs, pulled my swim cap over them, and opened my nose clip with a feeling of satisfaction that I wouldn’t be sleeping sitting up that night. And my nose clip broke.

I use the Speedo Liquid Comfort nose clip (because that name is hilarious) and as you can see in the link, it has two loops that go over the bridge of the nose. Only one of those loops was broken, so I thought I’d try to use it anyway, figuring some protection was better than none. As soon as I put my face in the water, though, I felt all the allergens going right into my sinuses. After swimming for about 50 meters, an earplug fell out and is now living somewhere in the lake. Sorry, nature.

Oh well, I still had a race to do, right? They started the 2.4 mile non-wetsuit swimmers first, followed by the 2.4 mile wetsuit swimmers about 10 minutes later. All of us 1.2 milers (wetsuit and non-) started together, about 15 minutes later. As I said above, I wasn’t intending to race this race, and I just didn’t feel like I wanted to start the longest continuous swim I’ve done bashing into other people, so when the horn went off, I hung back and let the others go off without me. After waiting about 20 seconds, I joined in.

There was still a lot of contact during the first 150 meters or so, and something about the people, the cold water, and the waves (which were created by the people around me kicking and swimming, not by the lake/wind) formed that old familiar feeling in my chest of tightness and water panic, and since my half-broken nose clip didn’t seem to be doing anything anyway, I pulled it off mid-stroke and clipped it onto my thumb. It wasn’t there by the end of the race, so another apology to nature is in order.

The feeling of taking a full breath and using my nose was helpful, and I was able to calm myself down while I was swimming and keep going. On my way to the first buoy, I passed quite a few people, but for the entire first two lengths of the rectangle, I kept feeling like I was way on the outside of the course. Part of this was due to weird currents, as I definitely felt myself getting pushed around a little bit. But honestly, I don’t even know if I was off-course or not. Usually when I see large groups of people taking what looks like a tighter line, I would assume I am, but every single time I sighted, I was right in line with the buoy. So… I don’t know. I don’t know where they were going, and I don’t know if I was giving myself a wide, swooping line.

I saw a few opportunities to draft early on, but I made a decision to just try to swim this one. Since there was no bike or run afterwards, it felt weird and more cheaty than usual to draft in the swim. Plus, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could swim 1.2 miles non-stop in a lake without outside assistance.

By the first buoy, I was definitely into a rhythm, sighting every 10 strokes, and watching the green water for anything interesting. A fish? Nada. A piece of seaweed? Occasionally. When I breathed to the right, I saw beautiful rocky cliffs, trees, and nature. I sang a song in my head, I sighted, I swam, and I kept passing people in green and pink caps (2.4 milers), but didn’t seem to be passing anyone in orange caps (1.2).

After the turn around the final buoy, I sort of ran into a guy wearing a green cap and no wetsuit, and no matter where I went or how I tried to get out of his way, every single stroke we were side by side, and he bashed me and I bashed him. A giant lake, and we have to be swimming in exactly the same place. It was a rather annoying way to finish the race.

The finish was a run out the very rocky bottom of the lake and across a timing mat. I felt a little out of it, but not too bad, and I have to say that the first thought I had was, “I could do that again.” As in, right then, I could have swum another lap. If you put aside the whole 112 mile bike and marathon run, that suddenly means that the Ironman doesn’t sound too out of reach.

My total time: 38:54, good for 12th place overall in the 1.2 mile wetsuit category, and 4th in my age group.

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