Huntersville, NC, site of the USMS 1-mile Open Water Championship, is a 415-mile drive from Columbus - through the rolling, verdant hills of West Virginia, western Virginia, and into the Lake Norman area north of Charlotte. We broke up the drive in both directions with restorative lunches in Charleston, WV. Tricky Fish going north (both highly recommended).
We arrived Friday evening in Cornelius, where Sully’s aunt generously offered us lodging and a delicious pre-race pasta dinner. My wife and I retired early and set the alarm for 6am. Our 15-minute drive to the race venue the next morning took us through the gorgeous forestland of the Latta Plantation Nature Preserve. The road ended at a parking lot next to a small beach in a protected section of Mountain Island Lake. We had enough time to check in, stash our things, and briefly warm up before the race began at 8am.
119 people showed up to swim, and the race director set us off in waves of 20 according to a 1650-yard entry time (a good idea). My seed time of 18:00 placed me 9th, right in the middle of the 1st wave whose entries ranged from 15:33 (!) to 19:00. The course was a triangular 1,600 meters - 400m straight out from the beach, then a right turn and 600m along the opposite shore, then another right turn and 600m back to the beach. The orange buoys marking the turns were supplemented by intermediate yellow buoys halfway along each length (another good idea).
As I expected, the 1st wave set an aggressive pace to the first buoy. Two swimmers (who were, in the end, the first two finishers) broke away quickly, and heading into the first turn I was swimming with a five-wide a few meters behind the leaders. Unfortunately, I botched the turn and almost instantly found myself falling off the draft.
I tried sprinting to catch up, but I was already a bit winded and decided to let them go and settle into my own rhythm. It was a tough call - I couldn’t benefit from anyone’s draft, but I found a sustainable pace and navigated pretty well the rest of the way. In the end, no one else passed me. I finished 8th overall (20:15, a pace of 1:16 per 100m) behind several members of the local SwimMAC elite team and recent D1 college swimmers, but most important - no women 😉 That may sound petty, but one of them was a current U.S. National Team member!
I found out a few minutes later that I placed first among men aged 30-34, which earned me this:
That’s cool, of course, but these things are inevitably a function of who shows up on a given day. No doubt, there are at least a few 30-34 year olds who could smoke me in an open-water mile. But what else can you say? They didn’t show up.
Bonus Coverage! 2-mile open swim
I had about an hour break (waiting for others to finish, plus an awards ceremony) before the next race. Oh, did I forget to mention? There was an “open” race following the Masters Mile. Actually, three races - either 800m (out to the 1st buoy and back), 1 mile (1 lap of the above-described course), or 2 miles (2 laps of the course).
There were several interesting features of the “open” race. First, they set everyone - 800m, 1-mile, and 2-mile swimmers - off at the same time. Second, you didn’t know who was doing which race. Everyone who swam the Masters Mile kept their same-colored caps, and everyone else had an orange cap. Third, the race organizers didn’t ask people which race they were swimming. You just swam however far you wanted to swim, and got a time.
So, the race had some poker-like aspects. I was doing the 2-mile, but I’d have no idea which race the guys next to me were doing (until after the first lap).
After the mass start I pretty quickly separated from the field with a group of 5-6 swimmers (all of whom wore white caps, i.e., were in the 1st wave of the first race). The pace was more leisurely than the first race - I was swimming smoothly, at a comfortable but brisk pace. I assumed, given the pace, that everyone around me would be swimming 2 miles.
After 300m I was in third, comfortably drafting to the side of one guy, and 10 yards behind the leader. Shortly thereafter, my draftee decided to fall back, and I was in second. After rounding the first buoy I noticed the leader swimming backstroke, looking back at the field. He wasn’t pulling away. At 700m, I caught and passed him.
As I rounded the second buoy (1000m), I looked back and saw a group of 3-4 swimmers about 20m behind me. At 1300m I flipped over on my back and noticed one white cap reeling me in. He caught me about 100m after that, and I caught a few meters of draft but he soon left me. (This guy was the winner of the first race, in which he beat me by 1:20).
As I came into the final buoy (just offshore from the beach, marking my halfway point) I looked up, and - what is this? No white cap. Where did he go? I glanced over at the beach and saw White Cap dude running into the finish. Apparently, he was only doing the 1-mile.
But there were still white caps not too far behind me, and I figured they must be doing the 2-mile, so I kept on truckin’ back toward buoy #1. When I got there (2000m), I flipped on my back in search of white caps… and saw none. I was all alone; not a swimmer in sight.
The photo at the right shows two guys who finished their mile shortly after I had rounded the last buoy and started my second lap. Both these guys beat me in the first race. Can you think of a caption?
The last 1200m went by quickly. I was in a zone of mindlessness and effortlessness. I looked back every once in a while - nobody ever came. I looked up every once in a while to sight the next buoy, sometimes stroking for 50m without lifting my eyes.
Around 2900m I started lapping folks who were still finishing their mile. I finished in 42:19 - a pace of 1:19 per 100m, only 3 seconds off my 1-mile pace. 1:43 later, the second 2-mile swimmer finished.
It was about as fine an untapered swim as I’ve had in my life.
In closing, I’d like to offer a special shout-out to Sully, a relative newcomer to open-water swimming who has the heart of a veteran. He pushed himself so hard in the Masters Mile that upon finishing he promptly ran into the woods to puke. Most people at this point would call it a day, right? He even broke his goal time by over a minute. But Sully got right back in and swam the 2-mile. Gotta love it.
I was also happy to meet Rob D, the man behind RobAquatics.com. I’ll be seeing him again this weekend in Livermore, CA.
Some other links of interest:
Rob Aquatics race recap
After a day off following the races in North Carolina, I’ve strung together as good a 4-day stretch of training as I’ve had in several months. My volume is up a bit (I’m on pace for ~29,000 yards this week), but especially the intensity.
Monday I pounded out 4,000 SCY (including 1,700 of kicking) right after lifting (session A). Tuesday I combined SCY & LCM for 3,740 yards, again right after lifting (session B). This workout included the following race-pace set (LCM):
Those times don’t appear all that great, but given that I lifted right before, I was pleased. Wednesday I reached 5,000 SCY despite soreness from 2 back-to-back lifting sessions. Main set:
This morning I managed 3,500 LCM in just over 50 minutes, with just one set:
Tomorrow and Saturday I’ll dial it down slightly - a necessary recovery from the past 4 days, but also to hit Sunday’s race (USMS 1.5-mile O.W. Champs in Livermore, CA) ready to swim fast. Sunday morning I’ll visit my old friends at Stanford Masters for a warm-up.
As Chris Anderson described in The Long Tail, the internet has made possible a previously unthinkable wealth of content for niche interests - e.g., Masters and open-water swimming.
Here are two great examples from the past week:
First, Rich Abrahams. The consensus “swimmer of the meet” at the recent Masters Nationals in Atlanta, Rich threw down a 49.4 100 Free and 22.1 50 Free. Fast times for anyone, but guess what? He’s 65 years old. In other words, not just fast, but almost-unbelievably fast.
Second, 2008 open-water 10K Olympian Mark Warkentin. Mark and I grew up together and swam for many years with the Santa Barbara Swim Club. He’s the toughest workout warrior I’ve ever known - and also a smart, wily open-water veteran. So, like ‘08 gold medalist Maarten van der Weijden, he routinely beats people in the open-water who are faster than him in a pool.
Two days ago Mark made an appearance on the Simon Gowen Triathlon Show (h/t Daily News of O.W.S.). The interview has some less-meaty parts (it’s a triathlon show, after all), but there are some good tidbits for more advanced swimmers. In particular:
The 2nd USMS Open-Water Championship - 1.5 miles around Lake Del Valle, south of Livermore, CA - promised to be a competitive one, given all the stacked Masters teams in the Bay Area. And that it was.
An email from the race director indicated the possibility of water temperatures in the 65F range - a tad brisk - so I decided to warm up at Stanford Masters’ Sunday AM workout rather than at the race venue. This was unnecessary in the end - the water was more like 70 - but I was glad I did it. Warm-up situations at open-water events can be unpredictable, and I’ve generally found it easier to get properly warmed up in a pool.
I got in about 2000m at Stanford - a nice, full warm-up. So, when I arrived at the venue I only needed a couple hundred meters - just to get a feel for the lake - before I was ready to go. Good thing, too - I had just enough time to check in, get marked, suit up, and hop in the lake for a few minutes before the pre-race briefing began.
The 358-strong field was segmented into three waves according to a 1650-yard seed time. The first wave (my wave) had well over 100 swimmers, but the two starting buoys were ~75 yards apart, so everyone was spread out laterally at the start. As a result, there was surprisingly little contact heading out to the first buoy. Halfway to the buoy, there were maybe 10 swimmers out front (including myself), but because of the lateral separation there was only one guy within 10m of me. I drafted dutifully at his hip all the way into the first turn. (Thanks for that, whoever you are!)
As we closed in on the first buoy, the lateral separation closed quite suddenly. Between the first and second buoys, which were only a couple hundred yards apart, some forward separation began to develop. A small number of swimmers broke out in front, and I was in a group of 7-8 behind them.
And that was pretty much the story for the rest of the race. Through the long back stretch of the course and then around toward the final right turn, I swam either beside or just behind the leader of the secondary group. I wasn’t sure at the time how many were in front of us, but it turned out there were only 3.
Tactically, it was about as strong a race as I’ve swum. The leaders were out of reach pretty quickly, so I put them out of mind. I never knew exactly how many were in my group, but at any given time only 1 or 2 were in my field of vision. As much as possible, I used one of them to navigate for me and pull me along in their draft. I was holding a comfortable pace, and I figured, as long as nobody broke out ahead of me, I may as well conserve speed for the end.
As we rounded the 90-degree turn at the end of the lake and headed back toward the finish, one guy did try to break out. I turned up my tempo a notch and stayed on his feet, along with 1 or 2 others. This had the effect of stringing out the secondary pack a bit, as some failed to keep up.
Rounding the final right turn, the pace picked up another notch or two. I began to inch up on the right hip of the guy in front of me (wrong hip, as it turned out). At the final intermediate (yellow) buoy I drew even with him. I looked up to sight the finish chute and noticed that we were aiming a bit to the right. I started pushing left, trying to correct our line. But he was stubborn, so we were constantly bumping.
With about 75m to the finish I turned on my kick and sprinted past my directionally challenged friend. But it was too late: Someone else had moved around to our left and, while we were jostling, slipped past us.
I finished 5th overall, in 31:06 (pace of 1:17). This put me 1:24 behind the winner, 43 seconds out of third, and 3 seconds behind the winner of our secondary pack. More interesting was what happened next: in the next 20 seconds, six others finished. In the next minute after that, 10 more finished. This was a fast field, and with even the slightest error I could have easily been knocked out of the top 10. The top two finishers, I should note, regularly compete on the FINA pro open-water circuit.
With the race behind me, I had the chance to notice the striking beauty of Lake Del Valle. And by the way, that’s Lake Del “VALL” - pronounced the gringo way, like “pal.”
Surrounded by hills, with a large sandy beach, plenty of shade trees, and a huge grass field for land-based sports, this was a near-perfect venue for an open water race - or just a nice day at the park.
All in all, a fun and memorable day. I had a 5-hour drive down the coast ahead of me, so I couldn’t stick around for the extended award ceremony (10-deep medals in each age group, guys? Seriously?). Thanks to Tri-Valley Masters for their superb organizing!
And once again I met up with the omnipresent Rob D. of Rob Aquatics. He was fatigued from his here. See you in Colorado next week, Rob!
Between May 29 and August 1 this summer, I have 6 races. Actually, 11 if you include events with multiple races - but the point is, I have to be ready to swim fast on 6 occasions in 9 weeks.
These races are, in many cases, quite physically grueling: a 6K this weekend (at 4800′ elevation) in Colorado, a 10K next month in Indiana, and a total of 11K over 5 races (also at elevation) in Oregon at the end of July. So, while I need to be “ready to swim fast” in all instances, I also can’t afford to moderate my training much, or I risk losing conditioning. If anything, my training volume in the past year (~15,000-25,000 yards/week) is actually insufficient to race a 10K (though it’s sufficient to finish a 10K).
In club/age-group swimming, we trained right through mid-season meets, tapering only in January (for short-course championships) and August (for long-course championships). The most we got mid-season (usually for a “travel” meet) was a couple days of below-average volume. During the high school dual meet season, we had meets almost every Friday between late February and early May. Did Coach give us Friday mornings off? Nope.
In mid-season dual meets, though, our competitors were also training hard, so “peak performance” was neither expected nor necessary. This summer, because I’m doing primarily USMS national championship races, the competition is actually pretty strong. In all cases, I will be racing against at least a few swimmers faster than me - and even more who, if I’m fatigued, won’t hesitate to smoke me.
Another difference is the actual events involved. It’s one thing to race a 100 Back (my high school specialty) at the end of a tough week of training. However terrible you feel, it’s over after a minute or so. It’s another thing entirely to race a 10K fatigued. I wouldn’t call it suicidal, but it’s probably a bad idea.
So, how do I train hard enough to race a 10K, but leave myself sufficiently rested to swim fast in the other races?
Basically, I time the intensity of my training around the races. What that means in practice is that I do my most intense workouts (including weight-lifting) near the beginning of the week, and reserve the end of the week (Friday, and possibly Thursday as well) for recovery. Then, come what may on Saturday, I’m ready to perform.
The elegant part of this strategy is that recovery days should already be part of the training plan - whether or not I have a race on the weekend. Work followed by recovery is how the body gets stronger. Training intensity that follows (approximately) a sine curve over time will be more effective than a flat line.
The only adjustment I make is that my recovery days are fixed - always at the end of the week rather than scattered at random. If I don’t have a race on the weekend, I’ll use Friday for recovery anyway - but then do something intense-ish on Saturday to keep the cycle going.
Results posted here.
The third 6K - was held in a man-made lake in Windsor, CO (near Fort Collins). It’s one of only two races on my schedule in which I’m truly “flying solo” - that is, not an excuse to take a semi-vacation with the wife (Charlotte, Noblesville, Madison), to see family (California, Oregon) or friends (Miami), or take a dip in my local lake (Big Shoulders).
So, though it was my first time visiting Colorado (excluding airports), I didn’t stick around to sightsee: I flew in Friday afternoon, raced the next morning, and flew back the Columbus the same evening in time for a late dinner and episode of ‘Mad Men.’
I awoke Saturday morning at 6 to the soothing sounds of the “strumming guitar” iPhone ringtone, and got in 1000 yards at the Longmont Recreation Center in the pleasant town of Longmont, where I’d spent the previous night. Admission: $4.50; getting properly warmed-up: almost priceless. From there it was an easy half-hour drive north to the race venue. The final approach to the lake included a stretch of dirt road that made me glad for my Ford F-150 rental - Colorado-speak, apparently, for “compact car.”
With only 80-some swimmers in the race, registration went smoothly. One nice touch: a stencil for number marking! After strapping myself into my magic B70 swimskin in the dirt-floor changing tent, I did another few hundred yards in the lake - officially recorded at 70F, but likely a couple degrees cooler.
The race started from a rope in waist-deep water: men 44-and-under, followed a minute later by men 45-and-over, followed a minute later by the women. Given my lack of experience racing at altitude, I had hoped to take it out conservatively - but alas, it wasn’t meant to be! A few speedsters took an aggressive pace out to the first buoy, so I went right along with them.
Most people exercised better self-control, apparently, because after 500m there was one guy out front (the eventual winner) followed 25m or so behind by myself and two others. Everyone else was a similar distance (or more) behind us. I tried once or twice to reel in the leader, but soon thought better of it. The race was too long and too high, and I didn’t want to risk blowing up.
The course was a 1,500m loop around what appeared to be an island green on a golf course. We were to complete 4 laps of the course (for 6K), though I have no idea if/how the officials verified how many laps each swimmer actually completed. The loop itself was a sort of odd-angled, odd-sided quadrilateral.
It looks straightforward enough from the satellite view, but at water-level it was not at all intuitive. The first buoy was a comfortable sight, so no issues there. The problem was the ~850m between buoys #1 and #3. First, buoy #2 was not visible from the start, so there was no way to scout the angles & sight lines beforehand. Second (and most annoying), the distance between buoys #1 and #2 was way too far. I have excellent vision, and buoy #2 was not even close to being visible until about halfway through the length (near the island). Nor were there any obvious geographical features to sight (race officials mentioned a nearby radio tower, but this was very difficult to see from water level). So, even by my 4th lap around the course, I was still guesstimating on the right line to the second buoy.
An intermediate buoy would have been really helpful here.
The stretch from the second to third buoys was also a bit far, but the sighting was further complicated by the sun which, especially during the first couple of laps, was shining directly in your eyes. The last leg, from buoy #3 to the finish, was a welcome relief: the course passed under a large bridge that was easily visible even from far away.
Back to the race: There’s not really much to report, actually. The leader continued his fierce pace and ended up winning by 3 minutes. I dragged two guys in my draft for about 2000m. On the second trip between buoys 1 & 2 I went a bit off course, which allowed one of my draftees to pull ahead. I gave brief chase, which was unsuccessful but also put a few bodylengths between myself and the other guy. For the rest of the race, I swam mostly alone, aside from brief encounters with people being lapped.
A steady wind buffeted the lake all morning, which created some chop and “current” in some places, but nothing too bad.
I started hurting a bit during the third lap, but I kept plugging away and held my pace and stroke rate surprisingly well. My fitness has definitely improved, even since my 10K in April. The final lap was a breeze - I could almost smell the finish, which numbed the pain.
I navigated under the bridge for the final time, through the two yellow buoys marking the finish, and walked up the beach to shake the hands of my two fellow competitors. It’s a nice feeling, to stand on a nearly empty beach at the end of a long race. I ended up third overall, and first among Men 30-34. My time was surprisingly fast given the altitude and navigational difficulties - 1:19:27, for a pace per 100m of 1:19.5.
After replenishing my fluids and for the first time successfully unzipping my B70 by myself, I changed back into my street clothes, watched people finish, and took a few pictures.
Looking out toward buoy #1:
The finish (nice suit, buddy!) :
Swimmers coming in from buoy #3:
Under the bridge (and through the woods?):
Before heading back to the airport, I checked in with here.
Thanks to Karen Reeder and the folks at Air Force Aquatic Masters for putting on such an enjoyable event!
For now, it’s time to go destroy myself in the gym. Only 26 days ‘til Noblesville!