To the Lighthouse: Nubble Light Challenge
by, July 26th, 2013 at 09:20 AM (1007 Views)
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