“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air, “ Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Just keep swimming.” Dora, in “Finding Nemo”
8:00 a.m. in Chicago standing shivering on Lake Michigan shore — at start line for Big Shoulders 5K swim.
Yep, THAT swim! The one that was cancelled last year as we all stood on the beach — due to 7 ft. breakers, rip tides, and man who died when he was swept off shore. The race I promised to return to.
What I didn’t know when I made that promise? that I would get into BTU For Rangers race! (230 km self-supported race in Kenya) taking place just 10 days later. Training for both meant doubling up distance swim + distance run (hellooo daily 5-7-hour workouts!), back-to-back Hell Weeks, simultaneous packing for Chicago and Kenya (SO many lists!).
And happiness. Turns out that swim/run balance – even at the extremes – makes me ridiculously happy.
Big Shoulders 5K is a 2-loop course (the 2.5K swimmers do just the first loop) at Ohio Street Beach just off Navy Pier. Beautiful setting! and first time I’ve used skyscrapers as sighting for open water swim (very cool!) Race start is done in “waves” with 4 minutes between each group – crowded, but not as wild as Ironman 1200-athlete, free-for-all mass starts.
My plan was to arrive early in Chicago the day before race day — pick up race packet, get in a short practice swim, settle my pre-race nerves. My greeting when landing at O’Hare? Notice of red flag warnings at the beach, updates from RD about water conditions, forecast for race day that looked iffy (at best). Arrggh! They wouldn’t cancel two years in a row, right? Right?!
Red flag warning = no practice swim — which meant (holy hell) race day would be my first open water swim in –yikes! — 6 years. (In my defense, Texas lakes have snakes – water moccasins! + the occasional gator. Just no.)
And cold! Did I mention the cold? It was 100 degrees when I left Texas, Chicago highs were in the 70’s. So while native Chicagoans were in shorts & flip flops, I was bundled in fleece and wishing I’d brought mittens (not even kidding). Shivered my way through packet pickup, waded into the water as far as felt safe – to at least get a feel and taste of the water. And FROZE just in those couple minutes (ruh roh).
Race day dawned with lovely calm water, light breeze, sunshine breaking through low clouds. Lake temps were 58-60 degrees — more than 10 degrees below normal — but definitely swimmable. Whew!
No time to be nervous! Lined up with my “wave”, counted down — and we were off!
There’s something primal about big dark water swims. It’s powerful and scary and … amazing. It took me a half mile or so to get over my nervousness, get away from the “pack” a bit, and remember how much I loved it.
Felt pretty good for the first loop – not warm! but full wetsuit did its best to keep my core temp up. Hands, feet, and face were frozen– but rest of me mostly ok.
Until I wasn’t. Halfway through second loop, I could feel the cold creeping in and knew I was losing more body heat then I was generating. Decided I needed to swim harder! to generate more heat.
Rounding the last buoy – about 1/3 mile to go, all along the shoreline — shivering so hard I could barely swim. Looking up at the skyscrapers & people gathered on the walkway. Yep, I was stupid-cold, but all I could think is “how lucky am I?!” to be in this place, to do what I do. I was definitely ready to finish and get warm, but a weird part of me wanted to stretch out the moment, take it in.
Finished! Stumbled on shore (feet were frozen!) and collected my medal. Got out of wet stuff & into warm clothes. Sat with friends a bit (huddled in puffy coat!), swapping stories about the race (did you feel that freakin’ cold spot after 2nd buoy?!), watching other swimmers come in. Happy, warm, letting the experience sink in – too soon it would be time to head home and shift focus to the next week’s Kenya race.
What Worked Well
- Training – lots of mileage! including Hell week @ 30,000 yards (5 x 6000)
- Consistent weight training
- Travel logistics – Chicago is easy to get in & out, host hotel was great
- Confidence – felt ok even in a crowded swim
- Full sleeved Roka wetsuit – amazingly flexible, did the job (not sure anything would have kept me warm!)
Not so Well
- Cold! Don’t know how I could have trained for it (maybe cold showers?)
- Sighting – lack of open water practice showed up here! Multiple course corrections meant extra distance + more than a little frustration
- Race org — holds packet pickup 4 miles from race site (& hotels where everyone stays) – it’s a pain in the butt. Next time (next time?!) I’ll do race day pickup option at the beach.