Posts from Jul 2010

Race Report: USMS 2-mile Cable Championship (Charlottesville, VA)

Jul 11 2010

RESULTS posted here (PDF).

The 2-mile Cable Champs at Chris Greene Lake was another “surgical strike.” Fly in one evening, swim the next morning, fly out the same evening. It’s not my favorite way to do things - I would have loved to check out UVA and Monticello, for instance - but my budget (time, financial, and marital!) dictated that I get back to Chicago in time for dinner.

I stayed in Richmond VA Friday night, and made the 70-mile drive to the lake (in the woods just north of Charlottesville) the next morning through pouring rain. Magically, the clouds parted almost as soon as I exited the highway. I arrived just in time to see Chris LaBianco drop a 39:59.99 in the first heat (the fastest time of the day, and a new USMS national record). Quite literally: I walked onto the beach, and the first thing I saw was him finishing. Pretty cool. The second thing I saw: Rob‘s goatee.

So, what’s a cable swim? It’s an open-water swim with a course marked by two wood pylons, 440 yards apart in this case, with a cable strung between them. You then swim around and around, until you’ve completed the required distance - in this case, 2 miles (8 lengths). It’s an open-water swim with the navigational element partially removed. “Partially” because you still have to navigate around and between other swimmers - the ones you’re swimming with, and the ones you’re lapping. And also, because the cable isn’t precisely straight.

Although the cable makes navigation easier, and the calm lake setting removes other “elements” (current, chop, etc.), there are other tactical and strategic factors, unique to this event, that made it plenty interesting.

First, the heat selection. The first heat began at 8:30 and ran counter-clockwise; the second began at 10:30 and ran clockwise. You select “Heat 1” or “Heat 2” with your entry, depending on whether you want to swim with the cable on your left (H1) or right (H2). I’m a right-side breather, so I chose Heat 2. What newbies like me don’t realize, though, is that there are other factors in the decision.

For one, the lake tends to warm up through the morning, so the second heat may well be warmer than the first. And with the multiple 100F days Virginia experienced this past week, this is a real concern. In the end, the water was 85F, though I doubt there was a significant difference between the two heats.

Second, and likely because of the above, the first heat tends to be more “top-heavy” than the second. Indeed, 4 of the top 5 times of the day were swum in the first heat. Why does this matter? For most folks it probably doesn’t, but if you’re among the fastest 10-15 swimmers, you’re more likely to find ideal drafting targets - people slightly faster than you - and thus more likely to put down a fast time.

There’s a third tactical factor that, like the above two, arises before the race even begins. And that is: your seed time (for 1650y or 1500m). Each heat is set off in waves of ten, 30 seconds apart, fastest to slowest. If your seed time is accurate, you’ll swim with people of approximately similar speed. If it’s not accurate, you’ll swim with people either faster or slower than you.

I think, generally speaking, it’s best to seed yourself accurately. I can’t think of a circumstance when seeding yourself too fast would help - probably, you won’t be able to keep up anyway, and you’ll get demoralized from being passed so frequently. However, there may be circumstances when a slow seed time might have a tactical advantage. Specifically, if you’re one of the faster swimmers, and the lead pack is, for whatever reason, swimming slower than they’re capable of, there might be an advantage to being seeded a couple waves back.

Say the top swimmers in your heat (including yourself) are capable of swimming a pace of 1:19 per 100m. Then, let’s say the leaders start conservatively, at a 1:22 pace. If you’re seeded in the 2nd wave, 30 seconds after the first, and you start off at a 1:19 pace, you’ll catch up to the lead pack within 1000m. And they’ll have no idea. Then, all you have to do is hang on (drafting, etc.) and, at the end of the race, you’ll have an extra 30 seconds subtracted from your time.

I’ve thought this through because I’m fairly sure that’s exactly what happened in my heat. My (accurate) seed time put me in the first wave, and I swam in a pack of 4-5 for 3 laps - at a conservative pace because nobody wanted to lead - before I pushed the pace on the 4th lap to break away. I found out later that some dude in the 5th wave had beaten us by almost a minute (though we never saw him, as he started 2 minutes behind us).

You might think this advantage would be nullified by having to navigate through additional swimmers, but I doubt it. Think about it: If you’re in the 2nd wave and pull out ahead right away, there’s nothing but clear water between you and the 1st wave. Moreover, navigating around other swimmers was really much less annoying than I’d imagined. You could usually see them coming and maneuver ahead of time, so minimal time was lost. More perilous, to my mind, was the rope hanging off the far pylon, in which I managed to snag my neck (twice!).

Anyway… Like I said, nobody in my wave wanted to lead. Through the first 3 laps, I was either in 2nd or tied for 1st. If I ever pulled more than a couple feet ahead, I slowed down and waited for someone to pull even. We were doing about 1:22’s - slower than we were capable of, but not slow enough that I thought I could break away with a short burst (especially in that hot water). So I stayed with the pack until the 4th lap, when I pushed the pace and strung out the pack a bit. I never really broke away - the 2nd guy out of the water was 3 seconds back.

43:37.05 (pace of 1:21.8). 6th overall, 1st among Men 30-34. 78 seconds slower than my 2-miler in North Carolina. Ah, well. It was good enough.

I stuck around to collect my hardware, but at that point I had 2 1/2 hours to cover 145 miles back to BWI airport, so I booked it out of there. I drove like a maniac and got very lucky with cops, DC traffic, airport security, etc., and still only made my flight by 20 minutes.

And then I had to get on a plane, still covered in lake funk, with residual sand still crunching under my feet. That’s right, no showers at Chris Greene Lake!

I love my race schedule this summer, but I doubt I’ll repeat it anytime soon. Next year: fewer races, bigger races (MIMS… maybe?), no one-night stands. And never, ever get on a plane without showering.

For now, big thanks to Dave Holland and Virginia Masters for a well run and enjoyable day at the lake.

Here’s Rob Aquatics’ race wrap-up.

Next stop, Noblesville!

(Photos by Katharyn Tupitza, Right Exposure)

Race Report: USMS 10K Championship (Noblesville, IN)

Jul 18 2010

RESULTS posted here.

The final USMS Open-Water Championship of the year - a 10K at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Indiana - was impeccably organized, highly competitive, and set in a gorgeous location. In short, everything a successful open-water event should be.

But Dick Sidner and NASTI went above and beyond. From the boat tours of the course, the loaded goody bags, the detailed pre-race briefing, the generous sponsor gifts, to the efficient hydration/feeding procedures, the friendly and encouraging volunteers, the large shade tent, the delicious post-race lunch - all the details were just right. One expects a certain amount of fly-by-the-seat-of-pants organizing at open-water events, but this one was smooth from start to finish - a gold standard for all future hosts of the 10K Championship.

It was both the most enjoyable and most painful open-water event I’ve ever participated in.

A 10K swim, like the marathon run, is not designed to be a pleasant experience - even for the best in the world. This particular marathon swim featured an unusually complicated course and close-to-unsafe water temperature of 84-85F. But that’s the beauty and challenge of open-water swimming: Conditions are unpredictable, and one’s adaptation to them can be as important as speed and conditioning.

The race began, in a way, the night before, when several local volunteer boaters offered tours of the course (see photo at left; click to enlarge). From the start just off the beach at the South Harbor clubhouse, the course ran parallel to the beach for a couple hundred meters before making a sharp right turn toward the opposite shore. The course then followed that shore, from point to point in a northwesterly direction, until it reached the top of the lake. At a large turnaround buoy (~2.5K) it reversed direction and followed the opposite shore, point to point until it returned to the South Harbor beach. For the 10K, swimmers continued for a second lap.

On the one hand, you couldn’t get too far off course - essentially, you were asked to follow one shoreline, then turn around and follow another shoreline. On the other hand, these were not straight shorelines, but rather a series of points and coves. If you literally hugged the shoreline the entire way, instead of navigating the straightest course from point to point, you could potentially add several hundred meters to your 10K.

So, instead of making 90-degree turns at each buoy (like the Olympic 10K course), you had to negotiate many slight changes of direction and a couple large ~180-degree U-turns. Even trickier, the buoys (large “can” buoys at each end with small “pumpkin” buoys in between) didn’t always indicate the straightest line! The buoys only represented points you were required to keep on your left shoulder. So, while you were always swimming between the shoreline and a buoy, sometimes the straightest line passed closer to shore, and other times it passed closer to the buoy.

Another twist: The small pumpkin buoys, already difficult to spot at water level, were often located quite far apart. So, instead of sighting buoys, it was often easier to sight landmarks (points, docks, houses, etc.). In sum, trying to race this course cold turkey would have been borderline unfair. Hence the pre-race boat tours. These tours, as I soon realized, were very important - assuming, of course, that you wanted to swim 10K rather than 11K. I even took a second tour, and was glad I did. (Several athletes in the field train regularly at this location - an advantage I was determined to neutralize.)

A pre-race briefing followed - a well-executed affair during which I caught up with friends-of-the-blog Sharks teammates. Then, off to bed; an early morning awaited.

At 5am, I pushed myself out of bed, plugged in my headphones (in a 2-hour+ swim, you don’t leave the music in your head to chance), and started eating. Nothing was open that early Saturday morning in Noblesville, so we hit up the grocery store the previous evening. Clif bar, granola bar, apple, banana, apple juice, and coffee - a combination of quick-release and slower-release energy, but most important, as much as my stomach could handle at that hour.

I was determined not to run out of energy. Once you bonk, it’s hard to go back. I had never eaten so much before an early-morning race, and it led to an interesting lesson. On the one hand, I never did run out of energy. I took some electrolyte drink at 5K and a GU gel at 7.5K - but even after the finish I wasn’t particularly hungry. On the other hand, I felt utterly craptastic during my warm-up and the first 10-15 minutes of the race (a critical time). I simply hadn’t had enough time to digest my breakfast.

[Photo: Warming up with the sun.] Cut to 6am: I arrive at the South Harbor beach as the first hints of morning are beginning to peek over the horizon. I run into Stephanie and Teri on the way in, and they mention seeing a guy with a shaved head, looking suspiciously like Sully, eating a pop tart. Suffice to say, we hadn’t expected Sully to be there. Read the full back-story at his blog.

“Hmm,” I said. “Well, he does like pop tarts.” And… there he was! On a day that had many wonderful moments, this might have been the highlight.

We set up camp on the grass and I downed, I’d say, at least 2 liters of water and gatorade. Given the warm waters, hydration was yet another challenge of the day. And also, another pitfall successfully averted. I never got dehydrated, and could even afford to skip the water boat at 2.5K when they parked it too far away from the turnaround buoy.

Cut to 6:25: I wade into the water to loosen up. I realize my body is currently focused on digesting my breakfast, and not particularly interested in swimming at the moment. Cut to 6:55: Still digesting. Uh oh. The first heat (top half of the field by seed time) lines itself up at the start buoy. I position myself at the edge closest to shore, to minimize incidental contact.

7am: We’re off! (See photo at right.) Several guys take an aggressive pace out to the first buoy, but I’m in no condition to follow. I let them go and just focus on a steady rhythm,  accurate sighting, and the song in my head. I’ll admit to some dark thoughts in these first few minutes of the race. This wasn’t how I had planned it.

A bit past halfway through the first 2.5K length, I was swimming with a group of 3-4 and started to feel a little better. My body had gradually begun to divert some of that digestive energy towards swimming. At the first turnaround buoy there were now three, one of whom swam over to the pontoon boat for water. I felt fine, skipped the water boat and started the 2nd length with the other guy (hey, Adam B!).

The back half of the course seemed a bit longer (was there a current?), presented more challenging navigation, but heading into the 5K I was still feeling good. I caught my split (1:06:52, pace of 1:20.2 per 100m) and aimed for the pontoon boat, where some friendly volunteers handed me my water bottle (Hammer electrolyte mix). Adam B. was a few seconds behind, though I think he passed me during the feeding. M. Mead arrived as I was leaving. Based on our respective split times, it appears I took about 16 seconds for the feed.

[Photo: Adam B. & myself @ 5K.] For the 2nd half of the race I swam almost entirely by myself. Which was just as well, as the water visibility was, oh, about 6 inches - making drafting more trouble than it was worth. It was also easier to navigate, without people kick-splashing in your face.

I still felt reasonably good heading into the 7.5K turnaround, though some fatigue had begun to sneak in at the edges of my awareness. This time, thankfully, the pontoon boat was parked right near the buoy so I stopped for some water and grabbed a gel pack out of my suit. “This is it,” I thought. One more length. I changed tracks on my mental playlist and aimed for the west shore.

About 10 minutes later (8-8.5K) the wheels came off. It happened rather suddenly and was, I think, exacerbated by the experience of an 18-year old girl blowing past me like I was standing still. (She negative split the race.) This wasn’t bonking, nor was it dehydration. It was, quite simply, muscle fatigue. I had reached the limit of my conditioning.

The usual symptom of in-race fatigue is a slower stroke rate. Either that or less efficient technique. I went with the latter (more painful) option. I resisted the slower cycle, so instead I just thrashed. It was the longest mile of my life.

A dark time, indeed, but I could smell the finish; mercifully, no one else passed me. And frankly, I didn’t see anyone else finish who didn’t look like they hurt just as badly. My comrades in pain!

I limped my way through the finish, hollered out my number to the timers, and made my way over to the beach. On the way, I caught up for a moment with Adam B. (see photo) and traded a few war stories.

Both of us ended up 2nd in our respective age groups, and 7th/8th overall. My time of 2:17:52 (pace of 1:22.7) was more than 16 minutes (10 seconds per 100m) better than my Miami 10K in April. Given what I know about the abilities of several competitors, I estimate 6-7% (8-10 minutes) of that time can be attributed to warm water. That would put me under 2:10 in milder water - which I can certainly live with.

For the five 2010 USMS open-water championships, I ended up 1/3/1/1/2 in my age group, and 8/5/3/6/8 overall - for the 1-mile, 1.5-mile, 6K, 2-mile cable, and 10K, respectively. I can also live with this.

I spent the next 3 hours watching people finish, replenishing fluids, eating lunch, and enjoying the company of friends and my beautiful, supportive wife Kim. It was an incredible day, and a perfect way to cap the USMS open-water championship season. There’s lots of racing yet to come this year, but this was the big one. I’ll cherish every moment of it, including the most painful ones.

Late to the party? Check out my reports from the other four USMS open-water championships:

Other coverage: