Triathlete or Swimmer…WHAT?!?

From the cover of this month’s Swimmer magazine from US Master Swimming

This past weekend I tried a new event…a US Masters Swimming (USMS) Open Water Swim competition. My great friend, Alan, asked me a few months ago if I wanted to go see him swim at the 2012 USMS Open Water National Championships at Foster Lake just outside of Sweet Home, Oregon, and of course I said yes! Alan is an elite masters swimmer, competing and placing at the national level in both pool and open water, including marathon open water swimming. (Click here for a recent article on Alan’s accomplishments at the Bay Challenge, an annual 10K marathon swim across English Bay in Vancouver, BC.) I’ve known Alan for several years but had never seen him swim.

Looking at my training calendar, though, I realized that this weekend would be very important for my Vineman Half Ironman training schedule, and I really couldn’t afford to take time off from training so close to my event. I started wondering if I could run or cycle while we were there, and then thought, “Duh, I should swim!” So, I signed up for the 1 mile swim event! So, I am now a card-carrying member of the US Master Swimming organization!

I had NO idea what to expect. This swim was a “Cable Swim” and I really didn’t even know what that meant. For this swim, they float a quarter-mile long cable across the lake with small buoys every 5 yards. The cable itself is anchored on both ends and marked with large cylindrical buoys. There are floating course marker buoys every 110 yards alongside the course to help you keep track of your distance.

Course map at the lake’s edge

There is a rope strung between two posts in the water that marks the starting line and a touch board between two posts in the water that is the finish line. You start in the water after swimming out from the shore, so no mass shore start.

The course starts on the right at the Starting Rope and goes toward the left along the Floating Cable

The National Championship event is 2 miles, which is four complete laps of the course, and wetsuits are NOT allowed. The 1 mile event, two complete laps, was not a championship event and swimmers could compete as Category I (non-wetsuit) or Category II (wet-suit). Alan signed up for both events as non-wetsuit, and I signed up for the 1 Mile Category II event.

I’m not 117 years old!

We were seeded by 1,500 meter swim time, which we had to provide at registration. I was thrilled that I was even fast enough to make the cut-off time to compete, which was 50 minutes. At the time of registration, I hadn’t done a 1,500 meter open water swim, the last open water swim being 750 meters at the Stumptown Sprint Triathlon last September. I’d been swimming 2500 meters in an hour in the pool several times a week, so I knew I could do the swim, but I didn’t know how to translate my time to open water. So when I registered, I doubled last year’s tri swim time and added a couple minutes as a safety margin, and came up with 42 minutes. The week before the event we got an email with our seeds, wave start times, and starting position…Alan was seeded 9th in the 2 mile swim and 2nd in the 1 mile event; I was 117th out of 120! Gulp! Talk about humble pie…they body mark you with your seed place (I’m used to having my age as my body marking, not my starting position!). I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into, but by the time of the swim, I’d had several 1+ mile open water swims, including a great 0.9 mile swim at the Blue Lake Olympic Triathlon with a time of 35:57, so I knew I could do it, I just figured I was just going to be very, very slow in an event of swimmers.

2 mile Championship Race

It was great to watch the 2 mile Championship swim before my event. These are some incredible athletes! There is something fantastic about being a spectator, and I think it’s important for competitors to spend some time spectating events.

Swimmers lined up according to seed position

Swimmers lined up in their waves according to seed position. There were 12 swimmers per wave. A coin toss determined the direction of the swim, which was clockwise. The fastest person in the wave was given the “pole position” at the cable side and the wave lined up away from them.

The waves then entered the water and swam out to the start rope, lining back up in line by seed number.

Entering the water

Wave 1 lined up, awaiting countdown and air horn to start.

And They’re Off!

A brutal mass of pounding arms and kicking feet, as brutal as a mass start of a triathlon.

Battling it out for position.

Alan swam 2 miles in 45:39.02 and came in 12th overall, 9th male, and 2nd in his age group—that’s IN THE NATION!

Alan making it back to shore after a great swim!

1 Mile Race

The unfortunate thing for the event was that the water temp had cooled to 66 degrees the last several days and the ambient weather was really cool that morning. About seven swimmers were treated for hypothermia after the event, and several were transported to the hospital for treatment. I was concerned that they might cancel the 1 mile event, and actually expected it, but the sun came out and warmed everyone up. I’d donned my wetsuit early to keep warm and was starting to feel too warm by the time my race started.

There were two people seeded after me for the 1 mile swim…both in their late 60s! We had a lot of fun in our line up! We were there to complete!

It looks like they drew a little tombstone on my swim cap!

I went sleeveless in my swim and I was very comfortable. The water was just 2 degrees colder than Blue Lake for my recent tri. We swam out and lined up. I was 6 away from the cable, which was to my left as this race was going to be in the opposite, counter-clockwise, position from the first event. The horn sounded and we were off, starting from zero momentum. I started swimming an angle toward the cable and quickly came out ahead of my whole wave…whoa! I worried that maybe I was swimming too fast at the start, checked my pace, and determined I was going ok. Cool!

Alan and I talked about race strategy before my event and my plan was to stay one-person-width off of the cable so faster swimmers could stay on the cable and not swim over top of me if they needed to pass. Everyone was talking about how brutal the swim had been, that they’d been hit and kicked and swam over, and while I am used to that in triathlon swimming, it is better to avoid as much of that if you can! So I hit the cable and then moved over to leave a gap. However, I soon came upon the previous wave’s swimmers and had to pass on the left against the cable! Everyone was wearing caps with their seed numbers on them so I could see I was swimming in amongst the mid 90s! I moved through much of this wave.

The swim itself was pretty uneventful. After the second turn I settled in with a swimmer from two waves ahead of me and drafted off to the side of her. At one point there were three of us swimming side-by-side and the outside swimmer pushed me into the inside swimmer several times, causing me to strike the inside swimmer pretty hard accidentally with my stroke…she yelled and I apologized and tried to stay away from her as much as possible after that! Yikes!

The last 110 yards I swam hard, working to pass the swimmer two waves up that I’d swam with for most of the race. I knew I was already 40 seconds ahead of her since they started waves 20 seconds apart, but it was great motivation to finish hard. I even remembered to hit the touch board at the finish to stop my timer (something I’ve never had to do in a swim before—your time doesn’t stop until you hit the touch board, even if you swim past it!!). They handed me a popscicle stick with the number 56 on it, indicating that I was the 56th swimmer to finish..56?!? Wow, I’ve had a great swim!

And a great swim, indeed! I finished with 34:39.62, 54th overall, 6th female, and 2nd in my age group in the Wetsuit Category!

Can you believe that?

I feel so ready for Vineman 70.3!

What’s even better, I totally could’ve done two more laps…that’s nearly the swim for a full Ironman!

Triathletes are Swimmers Too

My first issue of Swimmer, the magazine for US Master Swimming members, arrived two days before the cable swim, and I was intrigued to see Triathletes are Swimmers Too on the cover. One of the main articles of this issue was about how swimmers and triathletes see swimming differently, how they train differently, and some of the controversies that have arisen in some masters swimming teams. It made me a little nervous about showing up for this swim, quite frankly, but gave me some valuable insight about etiquette for a non-triathlon, swimming event. Alan was helpful in calming my nerves about this as well. The important thing was recognizing, which I already do, that my swimming is to completion, generally the first part of an overall competition, whereas most of the people I was swimming with this day are primarily swimmers and have been swimming most of their lives and are there to compete.

I have Adult-Onset Athleticism, a phrase I learned from my running friend, Cindi…this is all new for me, I go to complete, and it’s important to not get in the way of those who are there to compete. I’m a guest! I will say, though, that my reception and introduction to US Masters Swimming was so much better than the magazine article gave me an impression that it would be. I felt welcome, I felt invited, no one made me feel unwanted. So, thank you, USMS!

I did love two things from the article, the table showing the differences between swimmers and triathletes:

So it’s 12 days and counting to Vineman 70.3. Still have lots of exciting things happening, including hosting a professional triathlete from Australia in my home while she’s in Portland to compete in the Rev3 Triathlon this weekend! Look for a post next week all about it and my Q&A with her.

Until next time,
Train Safe and Remember the Joy!

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