Well this is a first for our blog: a “race review” that has nothing to do with running, but still is tagged under the “Running” umbrella. Have I mentioned one of my many professional functions is that of an information architect? You never woulda thunkit, huh? Sheesh…
Anyway, let’s move on from that frankly frivolous admission and talk about the 2015 Swim Miami event, held on the sunny morning of April 19, 2015, on Watson Island between Miami and Miami Beach. This was my first Open Water swim competition ever, and boy oh boy was I excited for it, and by “excited” I mean “nervous as hell, ‘Holy crap what was I thinking??’ levels of anxiety”. If you’ve been following Hokeyblog regularly — and if you haven’t, well hi there my new friend! — you’ll remember how I hadn’t ever done any ‘real’ swimming until February 2, 2015. Before that date, my swimming knowledge consisted entirely of Knowing How Not To Drown. I was never on any swim team, I never took lessons, I hadn’t practiced and trained or done continuous laps or anything of the sort. I was barely a step removed from the water wings crowd.
But then some friends and I decided to register for the 2015 Egg Hunt Triathlon, which meant lots of training in the pool. That first day was barely a hair above disastrous, but quickly I grew to enjoy the art of swimming a great deal and found I took to it pretty quickly. It makes for a great workout, and for any runner, it’s fantastic cross-training. Soon enough I was doing laps three times a week and enjoying it immensely.
After completing the triathlon, I found out about Swim Miami from some friends who were participating in the 5K swim. After perusing the website, I found that the event offered four different races: 800m, 1-mile, 5K, and 10K. Not wanting to bite off any more than I could chew, I went with the 800 meter option. Look I might be a little cocky but I sure as heck ain’t a total chowderhead. Crawl before you run, folks.
Hmm. Now I want conch chowder…
So let’s get to the event proper. I had spent the previous morning on Saturday running 12 miles at the Hollywood Beach boardwalk with the run club. A beautiful morning with a stunning sunrise turned into an absolute scorcher of a day, and the 4 miles of planned sand-running didn’t quite pan out as expected; we made it a mile before my ankle started giving me issues. I didn’t want to risk an injury the day before the swim, so we ran the rest on pavement. Nonetheless, it was a pretty fun run. I had never been down to that area of Hollywood Beach before, so it was all new to me: the pier, the trails, the scenery, the epic amount of stray kitties watching us with a mix of pity, bemusement, and/or contempt, and so on. All I can say is God Bless the Marriott Hotel there, because the public restrooms don’t open until 7AM, which is something of an anathema to us IBD types. Hrmph.
After grabbing breakfast and heading home for a quick shower and change, Boots and I made the schlep down to Miami to attend registration at the Miami Yacht Club, the location for the event the next day. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived there, but I found the registration tent very quickly and with absolutely no wait whatsoever. It was a stunning afternoon by the water. After I received my swim cap, race shirt, and other promotional goodies (mostly protein shake powder and ear plugs), I walked onto the beach to eavesdrop to the seminar going on there. We didn’t stay long but it sounded pretty informative to me. I’m still new to all of this, so every little bit helped.
Afterward we hit up Moe’s for a quick dinner and retired to our home in Sunrise for an early evening. I was a little nervous about the next day. I knew I was more than ready to go the distance, but this was open water, and salt water at that. I could do it. I knew I could. But it was still an unknown entity, and the X factor of it all was getting to me. Quashing those nerves as best as I could, I was finally asleep before 10 PM for my 5 AM wake-up.
I woke up promptly at 5 in the morning, loaded for bear as it were. Not an ounce of sleep or fatigue left in my system, I shot out of bed ready to take on the challenge of the day. After a quick breakfast of a Clif Bar (I tend not to eat much before a workout or event anymore; my conditions being what they are, I’d rather not have a nervous stomach issue), I changed into my compression shorts and threw on a long-sleeve tech shirt. Then I gathered up everything I needed for my travel bag: towel, change of clothes, race swim cap, flip-flops, Endurolytes, Gu, wallet, phone, race instructions… pretty much everything I felt I needed.
Everything… except for one, pretty much vital piece of equipment:
My race was scheduled to begin at 8:00 AM. Since this was all new to me, I wanted to be at the site no later than 7:00. Worried about race day traffic and lane closures because of the South Beach Triathlon occurring on the same morning, we left the house at 5:50 AM. I didn’t realize I had left my goggles at home until we were a good 20 minutes away from the house, speeding down the highway. Just passing Joe Robbie Stadium on the Turnpike (I still call it Joe Robbie Stadium, because reasons…), like a bucket of ice water splashed directly into my soul, the realization struck. The goggles were still at home, in my other gym bag. I had no idea if they’d be selling any at the event (like they were the previous day at registration) so I had no choice. Getting off on 27th Avenue and making a U-Turn, we beelined it back home as fast as we could. I rushed in, grabbed my goggles, and rushed back out, cursing up such a storm that it would make a crusty Marine drill sergeant ask me to use my inside voice. It was now around 6:35 AM, and I was still in Sunrise, trying to make it to Watson Island by no later than 7:30 AM, with the real threat of race-day traffic and lane closures… it’s safe to say the Anxiety Clock was resting comfortably at 11:57 PM.
Boots could tell I was stressed beyond capacity, so she took over the wheel and drove us there. The girl can drive, I’ll tell you what. Her lead-foot, steel-knuckled guidance got us there and parked at the Parrot Jungle Island garage by 7:13 AM. I was absolutely relieved. I still had time to pick up my timing chip, get my markings, and putz around on the beach until it was time for the 800m Men’s Heat to take off at 8:00 AM.
Then I caught a gander of this:
Next to the registration tent was a loud, angry, confused, crowded mob of people standing around aimlessly. There were a handful of “lines” but nobody could really tell what those lines were for. Some people said they were in the line to pick up their timing chips. Other people claimed they were in line to register and check-in. Often the same people were in the same lines. There was absolutely no direction whatsoever until a bored-looking woman munching on a bagel and cream cheese casually announced that the registration was on the left and timing chips were on the right. She announced this in a voice barely more audible than a hoarse whisper. Two separate lines then began feeding into the timing chip line, with people in each line claiming that those waiting in the other had to get behind them. Nothing doing. It was an ugly, crowded, confused, messy scene.
I had no idea what I was doing. So I just made this face:
… and hoped for the best. In the meantime I struck up a conversation with the woman in front of me, who had just achieved her Master’s Certification in swimming (whatever that is, I’m sure it’s impressive) and was quick to gauge me as a tourist. I told her I was a runner who just recently participated in a triathlon and that this was my first time to this particular rodeo. In a mockingly good-natured way, with a wry smile she said, “Oh you’re a runner. We can always pick you guys out at triathlon training classes; you all sink like a stone…” I took it in stride. It’s not like newbie runners aren’t the same on their first race, what with walking five abreast and wearing a Camelbak to a 5K or running a Half while wearing the race “I did it!” shirt, etc.
Still, go suck eggs, lady. Hrmph!
By 7:45 I finally had my timing chip. Getting it was a mad free-for-all at the chip distribution table, but somehow I managed. I was finally outside and made it to the beach… only to discover that the limited area there was already taken up by hundreds of swimmers, along with their friends, family, and supporters. People had laid out blankets and lined up chairs and there wasn’t really a single place to sit or stand anywhere!
Boots found a spot on a nearby dock to sit, and I stayed with her a bit, trying to assuage my pre-race jitters. Gunning down a vanilla Muscle Milk with my Endurolyte capsule, it was time to make my way down onto the beach. My heat was supposed to start at 8:00, and I wanted to be ready before go-time. We started in the water, so the Men’s 800m participants soon found themselves waist-deep, several yards from the shoreline. There we waited… and waited… and waited. First it was “two minutes until start time”… then “five minutes”… then “two minutes” again… I didn’t have my watch on me so I couldn’t tell you exactly when we started, but it seems we were about 20 minutes late when the race finally began.
Boots managed to capture these snapshots of us sitting around waiting:
After the National Anthem, the announcer led the crowd in a 10 second countdown and with that we were off! I went from standing waist-deep in water into full swimming form, where I spent the first two minutes or so dodging feet and arms and bodies and playing all sorts of defense until my 6-foot-2 frame had enough space to really get my freestyle going on. I knew a few things had to happen here: I had to follow race directions regarding what buoys to turn at, know which side of the buoy I needed to be on at each turn, maintain my sighting so I wouldn’t start veering off in the wrong direction, and somehow try to maintain form, focus, breathing, and energy.
The first turn was at the White buoy, which was the only buoy I had to pass on the right. By the time I passed it, there was a lot more space for me to focus on form. I also came to realize that open water swimming, especially with a bit of chop, is a lot trickier than doing laps in the pool. You’re not only trying to maintain thrust and buoyancy as best you can, you’re also bouncing up and down a lot more often than you’re familiar with. Also: swallowing salt water really sucks eggs.
Still, I kept going. I was really feeling the swim; it felt like a lot more of a struggle than I was used to. Not that it was hard or difficult, but that it required more effort than usual. I decided just to focus on my form and breathing and finish the race strong and consistent, rather than try for speed. I’m no speed demon anyhow, so who cares, right? It’s always about form!
Right before the Red buoy, which marked the turnaround point of the race, I was passed by the first female swimmer. The women’s heat took off a few minutes after ours, so the elites in that group were already zipping past us slower dudes. Good for them. I just kept my head down and swam on. Well, not TOTALLY down. I did have to breathe once or twice. After the turnaround it was just concentration and movement, and realizing that I needed to work much harder on my sighting. My goggles were starting to fog up, and the chop in the water made it difficult to see exactly where I was heading sometimes. Thankfully, I didn’t drift into oncoming swim traffic, but I had to be VERY cognizant of which direction I was heading at all times. It was easy to get confused for a first-timer.
Then there was This One Guy… he kept trying to cut me off. As I went to pass him on the left, he immediately moved to shut the door on me by drifting quickly to his port side. When I couldn’t move any further left I dropped back and tried to go by on his right. Same thing, only this time to the starboard. What a nozzle. I finally said to hell with this and made a sharp 45 degree angle to the right and drifted out of the tangent line. He immediately moved to counter, but realized I was angling to far out for him to do the same and maintain his lead, so he kept going in his direction.
I was NOT going to let this guy beat me. I had no idea what I was doing, but like HELL he was going to come in ahead of me. I angled back the other direction and hit the water as hard and as fast as I could. After making the final turnaround at the last Red buoy, I zipped right ahead of him. In fact, I zipped a little too far ahead as I veered too far to the left. One of the guides on a paddle board saw this and starting yelling out, “To the right, to the right, to the right!!” several times to me. I gave her the thumbs up and angled myself towards the Finish banners. I was only slightly off course, but I wanted to make sure I finished ahead of That Guy.
Boots took these pics of booth of us, swimming towards the shore and standing up to jog to the Finish once we were in wading distance:
Does that guy in the distance have a TON of sunscreen on, or was he one of the Engineers from the movie “Prometheus”? Ahh I forget…
Anyway I pushed past the Finish mat, a little tired but happy and grateful to be done. I also finished 2 seconds ahead of That Guy, so take that! Anyway, I really liked and appreciated the swim, garnering a new respect for open water swimming as something that takes more discipline than a whole lot of 50m pool lap excursions. But in all honesty, I felt a little disappointed right then and there. I thought I should have done better, even for a first-timer. I felt I shouldn’t have been as worn out as I was. I wasn’t sad or dejected, just really determined to do better next time. After grabbing my medal and returning my timing chip, I found Boots by the dock. I think we were both ready to leave. My race was done, it was hot, loud, and extremely crowded, and I was ready for some breakfast, coffee, and sanity.
We did manage to take one final shot:
… after which I dried off, changed, and we returned to our car for a quick getaway. I don’t own a swim watch, so I had no idea what my time was (and it was so congested in the event area, I couldn’t even tell if there was a location where you could find out your results). I felt I had gone slower than normal, but that was OK for a first time. By the time we got to the Long Island Cafe in Sunrise, I was already over worrying about results. After a brief wait, we were seated and soon I had that awesome cup of hot java I so desperately needed. I was feeling relaxed, comfortable, completely zen when the results finally posted… and my jaw hit the floor:
My 800m time was 17:38. I think that’s my fastest pace ever… certainly in any kind of swimming competition, but even in training too. I swam 400m at the Egg Hunt Tri in 09:40, which was a 38:40 minute/mile pace. This time around, I swam double that distance at a 35:28 minute/mile pace. In other words, opposite of how I thought I performed, I was actually swimming faster than ever. No wonder I had felt so tired at the end!
And then of course the statistics. Because numbers. Overall, I was 65th out of 137, which put me in the top 48%. For men, I was 36th out of 82, which puts me in the top 44%. And in my Division (Men 40-44), I was 3rd out of…
Wait wait wait… hold the phone… what?
I came in third?
Third place?? I mean, they only awarded the Overall men and women per category, so it’s not like this was anything that special or recognized… but I’ve never placed in the Top 3 in my category in any race/event before. So holy crap… I think I’m onto something here. Maybe I might know what I’m doing?
Needless to say, that ended up being the best post-race breakfast ever
In conclusion, I was happy with my performance that morning, given my limited swimming experience and my initial impression that somehow I had underperformed. My takeaway from the 2015 Swim Miami, on the other hand, was a little disappointing. I found the event to be highly crowded, very disorganized, a bit ramshackle and definitely lacking in the communication department. The swim itself was great; it just seemed everything around it was a total mishegas. I do understand that things this year were a lot different; the South Beach Triathlon occurring on the same day forced a lot of last-minute timeline changes, requiring all participants to arrive together before lane closures began on the MacArthur Causeway at 7:30, resulting in a mad rush at the registration lines and too much crowding on the beach. So perhaps this year was an anomaly, forcing the organization into making a bunch of late-4th-quarter changes to the playbook. Understandable, but still quite disappointing to this first-timer. Would I participate in this event again? Maybe, but not for the 800m. Next time I’m gunning for the 5K. I’ve got a year to train for it. Plus, you know… I came in third for my division! That calls for the video: