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Race Result

Racer: Jen Tallman
Race: Great Chesapeake Bay Swim
Date: Sunday, June 8, 2008
Location: Chesapeake, MD
Race Type: Swim - Swim Meet
Age Group: Female 30 - 34
Time: (DNF)
Comment: I guess they can't all be victories...

Race Report:

It was a Murphy's Law kind of weekend. I think the only thing that could have gone wrong, but didn't was that I could have drown. So, focusing on the bright side, I am alive to write this report!

Everything I did on Saturday took twice as long as it should have. I ended up getting on the road to Spotsylvania to pick up the RV at 6pm, which put me getting to Kent Island, MD around 9-9:30. I still needed to eat dinner, something high carb, according to Ryan, my coach. It was looking like a long night.

I noticed something odd when I opened the door to the RV. The steps that normally jump out to greet me were very slowly pulsing their way forward. I figured that I just needed to get the thing running, charge the batteries up and all would be well. As I was loading things from the Jeep to the bus, I accidently spilled water on the couch. While getting reaching into the cabinet for paper towels, I managed to catch my thumb nail on the edge of the cabinet and bend it back from about half way down. I cleaned up the water while trying not to bleed on anything fabric. I also noticed that the fridge was refusing to come on. Same with the stereo, TVs, A/C, water pump, and anything else that ran off of electricity. So, basically, I was driving a glorified gas-guzzling tent to MD for the night, but to change gears and prepare to take an actual tent would have taken precious hours, that I had lost earlier in the day.

The drive up to MD, was hot and sticky, and rather boring without tunes. I was tense, as the all of the dash lights had begun to intermittantly light up while the gagues all spun out of control and then retunred to normal, as if nothing had happened. Lightning lit up the sky with nearly ceaseless flashes. Thunder rolled. I hoped that the rain would hold off until I was parked, so that I would not have to pull over and close the windows, encasing myself in an airless sauna for the rest of the drive. I hoped that I would not find myself broken down in a 32' long tent on the side of Rt 50 in a thunderstorm.

When I finally rolled into the commuter lot designated for swim parking, I relaxed, perhaps a bit too soon. I located a row of empty spaces that would accomodate my vehicle, swung the bus into them, and heard a sickening scraping noise that was accompanied by a vibration from the passenger side. I positioned the bus in the space and parked it. I stuck a note on the windshield of the run down Pathfinder that found itself in the path of a run down triathlete and her giant tent on wheels, which was now adorned with a scratch that runs along the rear half of its passenger side.

I shook it off. My friend, Chuck arrived to be my cheering section and race sherpa. We lit some candles, since the RV lights were not quite as bright as the candle flames, and got set up for the night. He also brought an inverter that I could plug into his car's cigarette lighter to run my blender in the morning. At least there would be breakfast. Right now, we had to try to find high carb vegan food at 9:30.

We ventured over to Hemingway's to see if anyone was serving anything other than alcohol. I managed to get them to modify a pasta dish by substituting a marinara sauce from another dish for the cream sauce that was listed on the menu. It took forever for the food to come out, and when it did, it was sprinkled with cheese! I decided to eat it anyway, doing my best to avoid the melting white strands. The night before a race is not the time to subject the body to things to which it is unaccustomed.

While I was eating, my eyes were drawn to the view of the bridges spanning the bay. They were intimidating, formidable structures towering over the water, holding between them, the lane in which I'd be swimming the next day. The reflection of the bridge lights danced on the water, and it would have been beautiful, but that their dance seemed to be mocking me. I averted my eyes from the veiw, finished my dinner, chatted with the waitress for a bit, and returned to the RV.

It was a long sticky night. I slept fitfully, waking with dreams of swimming, or when the elusive breeze declined to direct itself through my open window. I hugged my pillow to me under my chin and stared out the window at the puddles in the grass that surronded the back edge of the parking lot. Looking at the water, I imagined bridges rising up out of it, a miniature of the swim course, and I drifted back to sleep.

I was happy when the alarm went off, signaling the start of race day. I rose, woke Chuck, and set about making a smoothie, only to find that the little inverter was unable to muster enough power, even when hooked directly to Chuck's car battery to fuel the mighty Vita-Mix. Realizing that we had spent far too much time on the smoothie project, I rushed to get my gear ready. We went by a gas station in an effort to find something for me to eat. They were sold out of bananas, and everything else I looked at contained objectionable ingredients. Chuck bought coffee for himself, while I stared longingly at the pictures of bananas on the empty Chiquita display.

We crossed the bridge and got in line at the park entrance. While we inched our way forward, I was overcome with panic! In my effort to pack minimally, I had forgotten to grab my ID from my purse. A vivid image of the bold print on the race information flashed in my mind, "NO ID. NO SWIM. NO EXCEPTIONS." It was now 8:05 and check-in closed at 8:30. It was costing us $12 to get into the park. We had exactly enough cash. I started digging through the sticky change that was collected in Chuck's cupholder, trying to scrape together $2.50 for him to cross back over the bridge to get my ID. It was then that the gate keeper informed us that if Chuck left and came back, he'd be charged another $6 to get back into the park. There was cash in the RV, so I told him where to find it and we raced for the beach, so I could buy some time with the check-in people.

Apparantly, they decided to relax the NO EXCEPTIONS, part of the ID rule and let me check in without it. It may have been the look about me that said, "If one more thing goes wrong, I might just lay here in the grass in front of check-in until someone takes me home." I was #290. I got body marked, and headed off in search of food that was promised at the front gate. Then I remembered that all we had was some sticky change from the cupholder in Chuck's car. The two gels I'd brought for use on the swim were starting to look like breakfast. We decided to look through the back of the car to see if there might be some calories hiding there. The back of the car looked like a transition area had thrown up in it. We found a mass of melted Clif Shot Blocks adorned with "bottom of the backpack debris." I wasn't THAT hungry. Then we hit pay dirt! Two pristine PowerBar Gels! I grabbed them, and we set off to find a place to wait.

I lay in the grass, keeping my eyes peeled for my friend, Brian, who was also racing. I ate my 4 gels for breakfast and hoped that they would be enough. Words from Ryan's last email echoed in my head, "Everyone, even those skinny Kenyans has enough body fat to fuel them for 14 days, so if you go slow and finish within 14 days, you should be ok." I smiled as I thought how that contrasted what he'd told me at Triple-T, which was pretty much, "EAT!"

We talked to two women next to us who were also triathletes. One had an oval sticker that had a swimmer on it and said 4.4. I asked where she got it, and she pointed to the guy selling them. I said, I hoped he'd still be aound on the other side, when I had money. One woman came back and handed Chuck a sticker for me. She said, "A gift, from one athlete to another. " I thanked her then frantically scolded Chuck for trying to put it in the envelope with my chip, swim cap and race number. What was he trying to do, jinx me??? You can't have the sticker till you FINISH!

I was struggling with my wetsuit, as it was already hot and sticky. I had also realized that I had forgotten Body Glide. It was in my transition box in my basement at home. I had never had chafing issues from my wetsuit, but I'd never worn it without Body Glide. I'd also never swam 4.4 miles in abrasive salt water... or in any water for that matter. Unfortunately, Body Glide is not something that you loan or borrow unless you know the person on the other end of the transaction really well.

I got the wetsuit on, and gave Chuck a quick lesson in the "Coach Ryan Wetsuit adjustment." It was not a happy morning to wrap yourself in neeoprene and stand in the sun, but that is what we did as we listened to the pre-race meeting. They pointed out the buoys that would serve as our gateway under the westbound bridge and into the swim lane, the approximately 100 yards between the two spans. They explained that the current would be pushing us from right to left for the first 2 miles; then we'd have slack water until the last mile; where we'd get pushed from left to right. I had hoped that they would break down the time cutoffs for us, as those were my only worry, but they said nothing. They extolled the conditions as perfect and reminded us that we were all strong swimmers who qualified to do this. They did invite us to ask questions of the race director after the meeting, but he was quickly swallowed in a sea of wetsuit clad bodies, and my wave was nearly immediately ushered down to the beach to wait for the start.

I got in the water, and it felt good. I took a moment to send some good thoughts to my RATS out at Eagleman. I was thankful that I was here and not there. I couldn't imagine trying to do a half-ironman in this heat!

We first wavers (slow people) were herded out of the water and onto the beach for the 3 minute warning. I looked out over the water and spotted the buoys next to the bridge. I quickly asked a nearby man if he knew the time cutoffs. He said that they were long, like an hour per mile. I felt the tension in my body melt away. I could swim way faster than a mile an hour! I was good to go!

The airhorn sounded, and I ran into the water. I dove in and began swimming, sighting often, so I didn't miss the gateway to the swim lane. I found it easliy and passed under the westbound bridge in to the lane. The journey was underway. What had been so intimidating from the restaurant window just 12 hours ago was now comforting. I was concentrating on my stroke, and could verify with each breath that I was in the swim lane. I felt guarded by those two formidable bridge spans on either side of me. I felt the cool water that smelled of fish, and salt and sometimes exhaust fumes. It was like it was cradling me, rocking me with gentle swells. I felt no panic, no fear, not even when I inadvertantly timed a breath with a small wave, and got a mouth full of salt water instead of lungs full of air. I simply spit and breathed on the next stroke.

I could feel the current pushing me from the right, so I swam diagonally, taking long strong strokes. I knew I was moving forward, because each time I breathed, I saw my progress marked by the passing of the pylons. I imagined them to be very tall spectators, cheering me on, urging me to the far shore! It felt so natural to be here. I visualized the rest of the race as I swam. I saw the mile marker buoys pass one by one. I saw the beach ride up under me. I felt the sand at Hemingway's under my feet as I walked out of the water, victorious!

I saw soon overtaken by second wavers (fast people). Then I was alone again. I liked it. It was almost the kind of solitude that I find on a solo backpacking trip. Of course, this was slightly different, with the Coast Guard standing ready, kayakers nearby, and traffic rushing along the bridges way overhead. It was solitary in the way that triathlons are always solitary. It is just you and your body taking you from point A to point B. Start to finish, you are what powers and propels.

I noticed a kayaker in my periphery, and I heard her say something. I swam with my head up and heard her say that there was food boat just ahead, just past the 2 mile mark. I had thought I had passed the food boat without noticing it and was headed for the 3 mile mark, but I guess I was wrong. I decided to stop for a minute to drink some fresh water and eat a piece of a banana. It was nice to taste something other than the bay water! I inquired about the time, and they said it was 11:50! I was doing it! I had time to spare and I was making the cutoff! I thanked the food boat volunteers, and got back to swimming.

The current had let up, and I could tell that my speed was picking up. I was passing my "spectators" much more quickly now. I soon, passed the three mile mark, and, in doing so, surpassed my longest swim ever! I checked in with my stroke. I still had great form. Elbows high, kicking from the hips, and good rotation. I felt really good.

Another kayaker was lurking in my periphery though. He warned me of another food boat at mile 3.5. I thought about skipping it in exchange for progress, but I could feel some hunger pangs, so I decided to stop. I grabbed the boat, requested water, a banana, and a time check. They said it was 12:45, and that they were out of bananas. I opted out of interviewing them about the ingredients in their other food choices, and I drank and took off.

With my head down, I was thrilled to have plenty of time and less than 1 mile to go. I could do this! I was really going to complete a bay crossing! To me, right now, it was just as good as the English Channel. I imagined myself fast in the water like, Lynne Cox. I tightened up my stroke and started pulling harder as I felt the currnet begin pulling me right. I swam for all I was worth. It felt like a lot of time was passing. I told myself that was all in my head. I was just excited to be so close to the finish.

The kayaker reappeared in my periphery. He was on the right, then the left. I wished he'd stay out of my sight. He was starting to bother me. I wanted to be alone with the water. That was all I needed to finish this. The kayaker said something, so I lifted my head. He said, "You're looking good!" I asked him where we were. He replied, "The middle of the Chesapeake." I wasn't in the mood for humor! I had a swim to finish. I started to put my head back down, and he said, "Just shy of 4 miles." I glanced ahead at the buoy. It looked like it was 10 miles away.

I put my head back down and kept swimming. My triceps were starting to burn, and every time I sighted, the buoy looked further away. I swam harder. The kayaker kept lurking. I was really annoyed with him, but I tried to push him out of my head. I heard him speak again, and I lifted my head.

I heard an engine and turned to see a man on a jet ski. I looked up as the jet ski man spoke, "You're done. We gave you an extra five minutes." I almost didn't understand what was happening. He instructed me to grab onto the kayak, so I could be pulled. PULLED???? As if I was spent? As if I couldn't swim another stroke? Disappointment swelled in my chest, and my throat tightened. I wanted to argue, to beg, to fight! I remembered them telling us to go peacefully and cooperatively if we were pulled from the water. I heard my distant voice, say "ok." It was like I was watching from another place.

I wrapped my arms around the stern of the kayak, as he paddled over to a raft. The jet ski sped away, leaving my broken dreams scattered in his wake. A man and a woman on the raft inquired about the state of my health. I told them I was fine, I was being pulled for time. They each took one of my hands, dunked me three times and pulled me into the raft. We pulled up alongside a yacht, and I was transferred to the yacht. I heard them talking on radios, "Swimmer 290 has been removed.... roger, swimmer 290 has been removed."

The woman on the yacht handed me a towel. I asked if it was ok for me to take my cap off, since we had been instructed to not remove it for any reason. She said it was ok, and helped me get out of my wetsuit. She offered me cold slices of orange and a bottle of water. Her husband looked at me and said, "You aren't disappointed are you?" I confirmed that I was. He told a story about a woman who quit in the first 1000meters one year. I didn't see the point. I didn't quit. I could have finished. I wasn't tired. I wasn't done. My mind never allowed my body to think it was done until my feet touched sand, and when someone else made the decision, that had short circuited the whole plan.

I heard more radio chatter, my number was mentioned again as different officials on different boats confirmed over and over again that I, swimmer 290, was no longer in the water, but on a boat. I can't tell you what it was like to pass the 4 mile buoy, what it was like to see the beach, or to feel the sand as I crossed the finish. I can't describe the rush of victory, of another challenge met. I can tell you that no matter how hard I bit my lip, there was no dam big enough to stop my tears as I saw the finish from my cushy seat embroidered with the words Sea Ray. I wiped my face with a napkin, thanked the yacht owners for thier hospitality, and left as quickly as I could once we had docked. I grabbed a water bottle, as various people tried to console me with their admiration of my effort. I walked away from the finish line celebration as fast as I could.

Back at the RV, I sat in the doorway, with my feet on the half extended steps, staring at the pavement, but I couldn't tell you what it looked like. All I could hear was the chatter of my own mind. DNF... Not good enough.... too slow... what were you thinking.... How will you ever do Ironman?

From behind the door, my friend, Brian, appeared. He had raced too. He offered his condolances. He said that he had nearly missed the finish cutoff, and that conditions were not nearly as perfect as they made them out to be. I felt a little better knowing that it wasn't just me who had a fight with that current.

I packed up the RV and drove it back to Spotsy. The waiter at dinner commented on my goggle sunburn lines. I told him about my swim attempt, and he was impressed with the distance I had covered. I don't know why all I could focus on was the probably .6 miles that I didn't cover.

I had an email from coach Ryan when I got home telling me to take a day off or swim easy or walk for 20 mins toady. I don't want to swim easy or walk! I want to grab my paddles and swim for hours! I want to redeem myself for yesterday! I want to jump off the bridge right where they pulled me out and swim the distance I didn't cover.

I guess they can't all be victories. This sport isn't always about crossing the finish line. It's about having the courage and the heart to step up to the starting line, to give it your all. It is about taking lessons from defeat to turn them into victories. It is about growing from a little girl who tenaciously clung in fear to the side of the YMCA pool while the other children learned to swim into a fearless woman who tenaciously strives for higher and higher measures of her strength and capabilities. It is about leaving disappiontment in the water somewhere around mile 3.8, where I can pass it on my way to a beach that will still be there to greet me when I put my feet down at the finish next year.