Sunday, October 20, 2013

My process on how to compete safely in an open water race

I am not an Olympian nor am I a pro and even though I have done 7-Alcatraz crossings, about a dozen 2-mile pier-to-pier swims, an Ironman in Hawaii, and have been surfing most of my life, I still consider myself a mere average student of the sport and by no means a master, an expert or a coach in any way.

With that in mind, I do have experience in this area and I want to share my process so that ambitious swimmers may possibly learn from it. I encourage other swim bloggers to peer review this post and/or publish their own process since no other governing body seems to be doing so.

Here goes:  Your first race should be a simple one. A race that does not exceed a mile and is conducted in comfortable a setting.  A race that features glassy water and a location where the sharks and sea monsters are probably far away on business. I have never heard of an open water swimmer being attacked during a race in Los Angeles and we have several here ranging from hundreds-of-yards to miles-upon-miles. Pick a simple one.

This is the process I use for a safe open water race that is over a mile long; it's called the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim. Every time I do an Alcatraz swim I am somewhat fearful, or more accurately, I am scared but I use those negative emotions as an inspiration to make sure I do it right. I will use the Sharkfest race as an example event.

1) Be prepared physically. Do not enter an open water race if you never have practiced in an open water setting. However, if you are one of those unfortunate citizens that does not have an ocean or a lake nearby or that you live in environment that is too harsh to practice in an open water setting then you must be able to swim a mile in a pool in under 35-40-minutes. (Swimming under 30-minutes is exponentially better.)

2) I come to the Alcatraz Sharkfest race at least a day early and sometimes two-days early and I do practice swims in Aquatic Park. This allows me to emotionally adjust to the water temps

3) The night before the race I do not overeat for there is nothing worse than swimming with indigestion in the morning. For breakfast I eat fruit and drink water only; you milage may vary but after the race it's eggs Benedict and Champagne for now it's time to celebrate

4)  Pre-race, I do a warm-up swim for about 500/600-yards to prepare my body for what I call the "water-temp shock" - Knowing how cold it is beforehand is in my opinion a lifesaver. When it's time to jump off the boat there will be no surprises as to how much it will hurt.

When I jump off the boat into the cold water of the San Francisco Bay it's thrilling beyond belief but for my Mediterranean-style body it is summarily painful and shocking. Once submerged my face, hands and feet feel like like they have been submerged into a vat of melted ice salted with acupuncture needles. (Yeah, it's that bad for me. My Anglo-Latin DNA (English/Italian) favors water over 68-degrees.)

Once I break surface I usually do a very slow butterfly so that I can get my face and hands out of the water for some brief respite rather than keeping it dunked while doing freestyle. It takes no less than 5-minutes for the shock to go away and that five minutes feels like a1/2-hour.

In cold water you will hyperventilate and your heart will start racing before you even take your first stroke, so swim slowly (as in slow motion) till you are breathing naturally and your heart has calmed down. I make sure I am one of the first people to jump off the boat so I can swim to the start and thus spend 10-minutes or so acclimatizing to the cold water. It works for me and as a result I can swim fast when the horn blows.

5) I always line up in the front and at the edge of the pack. I feel entitled to line up at the front because I come to the Sharkfest race in shape and prepared. In the Alcatraz Sharkfest races that I have competed in I have consistently placed in the upper 30% of the competitors . (I even got a third place trophy in my age group once) But even if you are slow aligning yourself at the edges of the pack provides cleaner water and less drama. If you feel that you will place in the bottom 30-percentile-or-lower then go towards the back so you are at least 10-feet away from the nearest swimmer. It's safer to pass people than to be swam over (I have been swam over so I know) so start slow and finish fast.

One year at an Alcatraz Sharkfest race the Cal Poly water polo team swam over me during a Plan-B swim due to the original course being cancelled due to intense fog. Since it was a time trial I should have started with the slower people and enjoyed the clean water. I am just over six-feet and I weigh about 195-pounds but these guys made me feel like I was a bloated cork in a toilet. Don't get in the way of faster swimmers; it's humiliating and dangerous for both of you.

6) When the horn sounds I swim hard because I am warmed-up, acclimatized and subsequently this allows me to swim at 70%-of-all-out-sprint. After two-hundred-yards I am free from the masses and can relax and pace.

7.) Be aware of your body: Internally be able to take inventory of your heart and lungs. Do they hurt, are they faltering, do you need to rest, do you feel anxiety? If so, take that rest and evaluate if you should resign or continue. A GREAT athlete knows when to quit and uses that failure to inspire and educate themselves for a better race next time. I know this because I once nearly drown in an Alcatraz swim. Failing is a good thing! See the post.

8) If you are swimming without a wetsuit in cold water, after the race you must get warm fluids into you as  soon as possible. If you can't get warm fluids immediately, go for a run to heat up your core and then get some clothes on. But quite frankly, drinking warm fluids is easier than running so get that hot coffee or whatever.

Finally, I repeat that I am not an expert, just a swimmer who has an opinion and a process. I hope it helps.

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