Last weekend I drove up to Maine for the 2.4 mile Nubble Light Challenge. I first read about this race in Chicken of the Sea’s blog, and was further tempted by a fellow CIBBOWS swimmer’s fb pictures of the swim course last year. But what really got me thinking about doing the event this year was talking to slknight at the 2 Bridges swim earlier this year, and realizing that York Beach, where NLC is held, is not a gazillion miles away but just over the Maine border, just an easy day’s drive from the city (about 5-6 hours, with traffic, as it turned out). Thanks Susan!
I drove up on Thursday, enjoyed playing tourist for a day and a half in southern Maine, then on Saturday morning showed up at York High School to be bused to the swim start. I was early, so got to get in a couple of warmup swims and visit with fellow swimmers while waiting around for the 9am start. The weather in Maine was uncharacteristically hot—highs had been in the 90s for several days—but the water was in the low 60s and very refreshing. I enjoyed swimming and playing in the water with CIBBOWS friend Patty. We discovered a layer of deliciously cold water down near the sandy bottom just offshore.
Soon enough we were getting ready for the start. This event is mostly a wetsuit swim—out of 142 finishers there were only 17 of us “naked” swimmers—and I did not at all envy those who had to pull on their rubber suits on this hot morning, then stand around in them in the sun waiting for the race to get underway. Luckily some cloud cover appeared just before start time. We started in 5 waves, with each wave having a different color swim cap. Waves were spaced 2 minutes apart, with the fastest swimmers going first. I was in the fourth wave (pink caps), so got to watch the other waves and confirm that there were no significant currents tending to pull swimmers off course as they headed out towards the first buoy.
Soon my wave was up, there was a countdown, and we were off. The start beach was sandy, and very shallow for a long way out. Even though we started in knee-deep water, I had to run for about 30 meters through some gentle breakers before getting to water deep enough to swim in. I started all the way over to the right of my wave, which was small enough that there was minimal crowding at the start. We swam between two stationary boats on our way to the first of 5 buoys that marked the way out to the lighthouse for which the race is named.
In every race it seems like there is one thing that makes me unexpectedly happy during the swim. In this event there were lots of happy-making elements that I expected to be delightful, and that were—the cold water, the wonderfully scenic course, and the sense of adventure and exhilaration that swimming in a new locale on a gorgeous day brings. But the quirky thing that made me smile throughout the race was this: I was wearing blue-tinted goggles that made all the pink caps in my wave appear an eye-popping shade of brilliant purple. I didn’t realize this would happen until the start—I wear a new pair of goggles for each race, and had warmed up in a pair of orange ones. I put on the blue ones just as my wave was lining up to start, and was startled and entranced to see that the once-pink caps all turn vivid purple through my new lenses. (No other colors seemed very affected, just the neon pink caps). It made me even happier to realize that if I could see my own cap it would be that color as well. All through the race, this effect never got old—whenever I saw one of those purple caps, I felt a gleam of joy.
Once underway, the buoys were pretty easy to spot, plus the lighthouse that marked the middle of the course was clearly visible, so the sighting on the way out was easy. In addition, swimmers were allowed to have their own kayak escort for the race, and maybe a quarter to or so of the swimmers did so. I was initially worried that it would be hard to navigate around these personal kayak escorts during the swim, but it was not at all. In fact, they were helpful—if I couldn’t see the next buoy with a quick peek ahead, I just followed the line of kayakers around me. During the entire swim there were always a few swimmers and kayaks near me, but at no time did it feel crowded out there.
The race took us around a rocky headland, at the end of which there was a small island upon which the lighthouse sits. As we neared the lighthouse I could feel some choppy currents below the surface of the water. There were gentle swells on the surface, but below them the water seemed like it was moving around in interesting ways. I was looking forward to swimming through the “Gut,” which is what the narrow passageway between the lighthouse’s island and the mainland is called. I knew it would probably be the coldest part of the course—other participants, and the race director, had mentioned that water temps often fell 10 degrees at this point in the course. It was also very shallow. I had been out to look at this part of the course a couple of days before, and at low tide the water there was just inches deep—you could easily have waded out to the lighthouse. But tides in Maine are dramatic. I could see the high-tide line on the boulders ten to twelve feet above, and realized that the race must be timed with tide in order for there to be a swimmable passageway inside the lighthouse.
The Gut was fairly narrow—I’d guess about 20 meters across—and as we neared it field of swimmers around me grew closer, and I began to see boulders and rocks on the bottom. There was a lot of kelp floating on the water in this section, and as we got close to the mainland I could see and hear a crowd of people watching the race and cheering us on from the small park across from the lighthouse. I turned over and did a couple of strokes backstroke, to wave to them and to take in the view of the lighthouse, but I didn’t want to stay on my back too long in case I needed to navigate around some of the boulders in the shallow water. I really enjoyed this section of the course—I don’t think I’ve done an open-water swim before where you could see and hear spectators mid-race. I had just begun to wonder why the water had not grown colder here as promised when the temperature around me suddenly plunged. Ahh—there is was! Now things were perfect. (After the race I heard that the water at the Gut was 56, which is relatively mild for that part of the course—other years it has been in the 40s.)
All too soon I was through the Gut and swimming the back half of the course, skirting the northern side of the headland on my way to the finishing beach at Short Sands. Happily, the water temp didn’t rise back up much, and I stroked happily along, feeling that the water was cold around me but not feeling cold myself. I passed a steady stream of swimmers and kayakers—I had caught up to some swimmers in the previous waves—and the pink-turned-purple caps became rarer, but were still a happy-making sight. The sun had come out, the buoys were easy to see, and this part of the course seemed to just fly by as I swam contentedly along.
The finishing beach came into sight, and the water grew warmer and brighter as the bottom came into view. There was someone from my wave who had been nearby the entire race right behind me, so as soon as I spotted the finishing chute I began swimming hard towards it, even kicking a bit to pick up the pace. A couple of body lengths ahead of me was someone from a previous wave. When he veered off course a bit I thought I might have a chance of passing him on the finishing stretch, but he found his line and kicked things into a higher gear, so I never really had a shot of catching up with him even though I kept trying. I had swum at the finishing beach the previous day and knew that it was a little rocky/pebbly, so I made sure to swim in as far as I possibly could before standing and running the last little bit up through the finishing chute. Done! I was happy with my swim, and felt like I had put in a good solid effort the entire course.
After the swim there were massages, yummy pulled pork sandwiches, and other treats. I got to visit with Mainers Susan, John, and Kirsten and lots of other friendly swimmers. This race drew such a friendly and happy crowd—all day long I met swimmers who were so enthusiastic and grateful for this chance to swim in the ocean, and who seemed delighted that I had somehow found my way to a race that they took such pride and joy in doing. Many had done the inaugural race and had been back every year since. Kudos to Bob and Josh Reed for putting on an event that inspires such loyalty—after having done the race, I understand why people love it so much!
My finishing time of 1:12:30 netted me 2nd place among the non-wetsuited women (after super Susan), and 61st place out of 142 swimmers overall. I was sad to leave after a day of such fun swimming and socializing, but very happy to know about this great event. I want it to be next year already so I can go back and do it again! In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category, part of me wants to do it under more epic conditions—with truly cold water, or with challenging sea conditions. But I feel very lucky to have found such perfect conditions for my first experience of sea swimming in Maine.
jbs's write-up of the race
Updated July 26th, 2013 at 09:39 AM by swimsuit addict
I enjoyed a very pleasant week of swimming, almost all of it outdoors. NYC’s public outdoor pools began their lap swim season last Tuesday, so there’s a bounty of outdoor swimming opportunities between now and the end of August. Here’s what last week looked like:
Monday—Riverbank, indoor (50m) + outdoor (25y) pools
Wednesday—Lasker Pool (Central Park, 50+ meters) evening lap swim
Thursday—Brighton Beach play day + swim
Friday—John Jay Park pool (77th near the East River, 48 1/3 yards) morning lap swim
Saturday—Brighton Beach, 4-mile adventure swim to Seagate and back
I’m grateful to pool tourist to introducing me to the city’s wonderful outdoor pools—looking forward to collecting cards from a record number of them this season!
My pool swims this week were mostly just easy freestyle laps. I’ve lost a couple of weeks of real training—both swimming and diving—to an injured left calf, but thankfully that seems on the mend. The good news is that it’s just a muscle injury, not tendonitis or anything worse. I’m seeing a PT who is working on it, and was able to swim and even push off pool walls with moderate force on Friday without pain. I get to check out how it feels diving again tonight. I was worried early this week that this injury would keep me from competing in IGLA in mid-August—swimming with any force was quite painful, and diving was out of the question--but now I’m feeling more hopeful about my prospects. I’ll just need to adjust my expectations, and maybe compete in just the 1m springboard event rather than both (I still need to learn some more dives for the 3m, and I’m not sure yet how much the calf will limit my board time between now and then). Not being able to train properly 4-6 weeks out from a swim meet is annoying, but luckily I’ve had the distraction of these new outdoor swimming venues to keep me focused on the pleasure of swimming itself rather fretting about not being able to do everything I want to in the pool.
The OW swims this week have really been fun. On Thursday the beach was a cool and breezy refuge from the hot city, and yesterday’s swim was especially wonderful, as I explored a new route at Brighton. The Coney Island pier is usually the turn-around point for swims there, but I’ve been intrigued by reports of other swimmers going beyond it. So yesterday I recruited a swim buddy, and Caitlin and I swam under the pier and down towards Seagate before turning around for the return journey, about 4 miles roundtrip. It was a very foggy morning when we set out—we were just able to make out the jetties as we swam from one to the next—and everything looked ghostly in the white mist, cormorants and ships and jetties all. We had a strong current with us, and were swept swiftly westwards whenever we stopped to look around and appreciate the spooky morning. Finally we the pier loomed ahead of us. I let Caitlin swim through first—she’s braver, and had been there before—then I followed. I was a little afraid of running into jellyfish, or rubbing up against the barnacled pilings, so I swam swiftly through and didn’t linger. Once on the other side, I waved up at the construction workers on the pier who were watching us, and they waved back and asked us how the water was. (The pier is still closed to the public as it’s being rebuilt after Sandy, so we didn’t have to worry about navigating around any fishing lines).
The beach beyond the pier looked very similar to “our” beach, but the shapes of the jetties and buildings were unfamiliar, and the juxtaposition was uncanny. We weren’t sure how far the beach went in this direction, so swam in short segments, to the next jetty or lifeguard stand that we could make out in the fog. We saw a lot of boat traffic, and there must have been more out in the channel, judging by the symphony of foghorns. It was such a cool experience being out there, with everything except the water itself seeming slightly eerie. Finally we spotted the last lifeguard umbrella that marked the end of the beach, with a very long jetty beyond it. We swam to that lifeguard chair then turned around.
On the return trip we started seeing sunlight reflecting on the water, patches of blue started appearing in the sky, and the fog eventually burned off, leaving a pleasant sunny day. The current was against us, but with a clearer notion of where we were going we swam strong against it without as many stops. Finally we were back at the pier. This time I stopped on the way under to admire the different shades of green water as we passed from shadow to light, to appreciate the endless-pool effect of the current as I did breaststroke by the pilings, and finally to do some backstroke and watch the underside of the pier get closer and recede as the waves carried me up and down. What a fun place to play—I already want to go back!
On the way back we found a pod of Team New York swimmers and synchro circled with them, then met up with various CIBBOWS friends at various stages in their workout. The water turned deep green in the sun, and there were small rolling swells that rocked me gently as I swam. It had turned into a gorgeous sunny day—the perfect way to end a fun week of swimming. Hurray for summer in the city!
I enjoyed the long weekend, and managed to get in good swims every day. On the Fourth I ventured out with a few pool tourism buddies to the Red Hook pool, where we did a fun workout before hitting the food trucks for a late lunch. Among the city’s summer outdoor pools Red Hook is special because it has lap swimming (40m lengths) during all open hours. It was lovely swimming almost-LCM outdoors on the sunny holiday, and the pool was a peaceful and oh-so-blue oasis on a hot summer day.
On Friday I went out to Brighton Beach and swam what was maybe the easiest 5k loop I’ve ever done. The water was flat, the current was negligible the entire time I was out, and it seemed like the distance just flew by. The surface of the water was so smooth and reflective—I enjoyed watching the small undulations reflecting the light on every breath. It was another hot sunny day—we’ve been having what I think of as good, honest summer weather this week, by Alabama standards—but the beach wasn’t too crowded, and everyone seemed very mellow. I got there early and left early, before the sand became painful to walk on.
On Saturday I stayed here in the city to coach and do a pool workout. My team had three consecutive workouts at the John Jay College pool. I coached the middle one, which was aimed at newish masters swimmers (I got to explain pace clocks and intervals, which I always get a kick out off—it’s easy to forget how foreign so many conventions of swim workouts seem those outside our community). I was then glad to jump into the water for the third session. That was a rare uncrowded TNYA workout—I had my own lane, which never ever happens. Unfortunately, I’m not enjoying my pool swims as much as usual these days because I have a calf issue that keeps me from pushing off walls with any force—it’s frustrating when I’m trying to go fast but essentially have to come to a near standstill after each turn. Still, it was nice to swim with some longtime teammates, and again, the water was a cool respite on a toasty day. It’s good to be a swimmer in the summer!
Finally, today I went out to Brighton again for another loop. I arrived early, and bought a day pass at the Shorefront Y so that I could stash my stuff in a locker there and have a place to shower afterwards. That worked out well. I swam a loop—a difficult one this time, with some strong current against in both directions. On the way to the pier, I stopped at the cormorants’ jetty to say good morning to the birds, and watched as the current carried me swiftly backwards as soon as I stopped stroking. At the pier, I stopped to chat with Pauline and Melinda, and we were carried almost back to the next jetty (luckily in the direction we were about swim) during our chat. During the second half of the swim, I struggled for a while to make my way past the long jetty and then out to the white building, but then I just flew on the way back. There were some occasional swells when the wind kicked up, and I enjoyed swimming with them and then through them.
Through it all, I actually kind of relished the way the ocean thwarted my sense of expected progress. It made the experience kind of dreamy and surreal, since I felt like there wasn’t much relation between my swimming motions and how fast I was moving. I certainly had the sense (and it was mostly just a suspicion, since I don’t wear a watch when I’m swimming) that this loop was taking longer than usual, but that didn’t bother me—I didn’t have a deadline I had to finish by, I was confident I would get there eventually, and the water was a joy to be swimming in, so bonus swim time was in some ways a plus. It was freeing to realize that I wasn’t very much in control of when I finished this swim, and that it was just a matter of stroking along until I was done.
Afterwards, I floated in a cold patch until I got chill bumps, then lay on the warm sand until I was hot (that took about 10 minutes), then got in and cooled off again before heading out. The water here is getting warmer—the occasional cooler patches were a treat. Time to head up to Maine to find some colder ocean, which is exactly what I plan to do in a couple of weeks. I’ve signed up for the 2.4 mile Nubble Light Challenge on July 20, and have even secured an official wetsuit exemption for the event. It looks like a beautiful swim, and I’m excited to be going to an area of the country I’ve never visited before. It will be a quick trip this year, but if the area as pleasant as expected it might turn out to be a place for future vacations.
My other events this year are IGLA in Seattle (pool swimming, diving, and 2-mile OW swim) in August and the CIBBOWS Aquarium Swim in September. There are a few other OW 10k-ish swims in the area during September that I might choose to enter as well, but for the most part this is an off year for me on the OW front. I’m beginning to feel the glimmerings of the desire to do longer swims again, though, so I might start looking for a big swim to do in 2014.
As far as diving progress—well, things were going well, and I had even discovered a way to dive as many days of the week as I wanted, by supplementing TNYA workouts practices with the kids team practices at Columbia. The latest trick I’ve learned is a somersault with a full twist off the 1m, which I can do consistently legally but not very well. But my desire to dive more often seems to have gotten ahead of my body’s ability to do so. My left calf is injured, and swells up painfully behind the knee when I do much with it. After a week and a half’s rest it’s somewhat better, but still not healed enough to dive again, I’m getting it checked out this week, and will know more about when I can return to the boards after I see my doc and pt. (Breaststroke, hard kicking, and pushoffs are also painful, so I hope I can get this resolved soon). Until then, I’m glad I’m enjoying the OW swimming again. I guess it’s good in any case to have multiple things you enjoy doing, all the more so with an aging and injury-prone body.