“Over the hills and through the woods” has been a common theme in my summer open-water tour. My latest stop was no exception - though the hills were a bit higher, the woods somewhat thicker. Elk Lake is a 405-acre glacial lake in deep wilderness, yet only a 40-minute drive from Bend. And what a spectacular drive it is - through seemingly endless alpine forests and past numerous snow-capped peaks.
Central Oregon Masters Aquatics (COMA) has organized annual open-water swims at this venue for a number of years - at least 15, from what I heard - and in recent years it has expanded to a series of five swims over three days. They call it a “festival,” and it is truly that: a grand, All-American celebration of of nature and sport.
The 30-mile drive from Bend, along the South Sister (10,363′). The forest breaks occasionally to reveal vast meadows and emerald-green lakes.
Elk Lake itself provides postcard-worthy views of South Sister, as seen here from the beach:
Brrrr! As it turns out, that mountain air can get chilly once the sun goes down! It had been in the 80s in Bend that day, and I hadn’t thought to pack anything more than shorts and a t-shirt. But at 4,900 feet elevation, with a persistent mountain breeze and the sun lower in the sky, it was uncomfortably cold. Many of those standing near me in the registration line had parkas and beanies. Thankfully the water was warmer than the air - the official measurement was 68F.
Race #1, 6pm: 3K
Race #2, Saturday 9:30am: 500m
Race #3, 11:45am: 1.5K
|The final sprint of the 1.5K.||My hand finishing.|
Race #4, Sunday 8:45am: 5K
2K: Sandwiched between B70 guy and wetsuit guy.
Finally, at 4,400m, I had my opening. Approaching the final turn buoy before heading back to the beach, I pulled up alongside B70 guy and found an inside line to the buoy. Once I rounded the buoy I had opened up a half-bodylength lead. Wetsuit guy started to make a surge and came up on my right; B70 guy was behind and on my left. I wasn’t really paying attention to navigation at this point - I had the middle position, so I could see right away if anyone changed course.
Eventually I lifted my head and noticed we were way off course, heading toward the west shoreline rather than making the diagonal back to the beach. I made a quick move to the left, which had the effect of putting a quick bodylength between me and wetsuit guy (who had been on my right). Now both guys were out of my field of vision, and it was a drop-dead sprint to the finish. At the end of a 5K, that’s a special kind of pain.
B70 guy managed to stay on my heels, though, and when my hands started to brush the sandy bottom (about 15m from the finish chute) I raised my body up and realized I wouldn’t be walking into the finish. With my bionic (i.e., titanium & plastic) hip, I have very little in the way of land-based speed, so B70 guy gained on me quickly. Once I hit dry land, though, I did a quick hippity-hop and crossed first by a couple of steps, in a time of 1:06:14. One second ahead of B70 guy and 8 seconds ahead of wetsuit guy. Pace per 100m was 1:19.5 - faster than both my 3K and 1.5K - despite the wide path we took on the final lap.
Race #5, Sunday 11:45am: 1K
After the dramatic 5K, the final race of the weekend felt almost like an afterthought - a coda. For this race, they set us off in heats of 10, fastest to slowest according to the 500y seed time. From an in-water start, we would make our way along the west shoreline between irregularly placed buoys, before making a sharp right turn back toward the intermediate 300m sighting buoy from the previous races. From that point, it was a straight shot back to the beach. Once again, three of us separated from the field: myself, “B70 guy” from the 5K, and a 25-year old former D-1 college swimmer whose best times included a 4:25 500 free and 15:27 mile.
The young guy had a little too much speed in the end, and beat me by 7 seconds. Once again B70 guy and I found ourselves in a footrace, and once again I took him by a few steps. Final time of 13:53 - slowest pace of the weekend at 1:23.
A few final thoughts:
The COMA Cascade Lakes Swims were truly a highlight of my 2010 open water season. It’s tough to say what next summer will look like, but it would make a great annual tradition.
One last thing: A special thanks to my parents, who joined me from SoCal for the weekend. If there were awards for swimmers’ “support crew,” they would have certainly taken first prize.
Could I ever get tired of this view?
What pace can you hold… well, maybe not “forever,” but let’s say… indefinitely. What would your pace be if you intended to swim all day - not racing, just swimming (and given that you’re fully warmed up) ?
Imagine you’re David Barra swimming across the Catalina Channel. He’s a swimmer fully capable of a sub-10 hour crossing, but because of adverse currents it turns into over 15 hours. What’s that pace?
As I think more and more about true “marathon” swimming - I’m doing my first race over 10K in October - this seems an increasingly fundamental question. Yet it’s a question that, despite my many years in the sport, I had never thought to ask.
Now that I have more regular access to long course water, I’ve had better opportunities to answer this question. And for me, right now, that pace is about 1:24 (+/- 1 second) per 100 meters.
Obviously, since I’ve never done a swim longer than 2.5 hours, it’s difficult to say what 15 hours in the water would do (nothing good, I’d imagine). However, I’ve tested myself under a few different “adverse” circumstances - e.g., the day after a hard night of “socializing”, the day after a long weightlifting session - and it always seems to boil down to about 1:24/100m (22:30 per mile).
What’s the difference between Masters open-water races and elite FINA or USA-S open-water races? I would argue, it’s not so much the absolute swimming speeds (1:10 per 100m for 10K, compared to 1:20 to win almost any Masters 10K), but the variability of swimming speeds.
Masters races have a much wider spread of abilities. In this year’s USMS 10K at Morse Reservoir, the top 10 finishers were separated by 9 seconds per 100m, and the winner was a full 29 seconds per 100m faster than the median finisher. What this means is, most people are swimming most of the race by themselves.
In FINA races, the spread in abilities from top to bottom is (I would guess) less than 5 seconds per 100m. What that means is: lots of pack swimming. In order to successfully break away from an open-water peloton, a swimmer will not only have to swim faster than the others in the pack, but fast enough to break out of the peloton’s draft.
As a result, elite races are characterized by 8-9K of conservative, highly tactical swimming followed by 1-2K of balls-out sprinting. In contrast, Masters races - especially those over an hour (for the winner) - more closely resemble “time trials.”
As an exhibit, here are the 2K splits (with 100m paces) from the June 2010 USA-S 10K National Championship, provided by Powerhouse Timing:
**A Gemmell (M-3)
**J Kinderwater (M-6)
**C Sutton (F-1)
**C Jennings (F-2)
These were the only four swimmers for whom all 5 splits were recorded. For the men, Gemmell and Kinderwater finished 3-6 (negligibly behind the winner), and for the women, Sutton and Jennings finished 1-2. Interestingly, the splits were almost identical through 8K, for both men and women. In the last 2K, the men seemed to find a new gear - almost 4 seconds/100m faster - while the women maintained their previous pace.
In contrast to most of my summer race schedule, the Madison Open-Water Swim is a nice, big urban race - a worthy younger sibling to Chicago’s Big Shoulders. An Ironman-length swim with actual iron in the vicinity!
Downtown Madison is built on the isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. One of the city’s most recognizable landmarks is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center on the shore of the latter lake (see the foreground building in the picture at right, beneath the state capitol dome). Friday afternoon, my wife and I had a snack on this building’s rooftop terrace, which directly overlooks the race course. The lake was frothy from the afternoon wind, but I figured it would calm down by morning.
And indeed, we found a nice, glassy lake the next morning. Despite the 350-odd swimmers crowded into Law Park, registration was smooth and quick. Like most Midwest bodies of water this summer, Lake Monona has been warm - the official temperature came in at 77F. As usual, this didn’t deter the triathletes - who traditionally come out in big numbers for this race - from donning their wetsuits.
From the start at Law Park, the course followed a 1.2-mile rectangle with sides of approximately 730m and 220m (see diagram below). The course was well marked with large, bright orange buoys at the corners and numerous intermediate buoys - though the lines formed by these markers were, shall we say, imperfectly straight.
The race organizers decided on three waves, set off 5 minutes apart:
An interesting decision, given that the faster swimmers tend to be in the non-wetsuit division. Evidence: average 2.4-mile finishing time of 1:25 for wetsuiters, 1:14 for non-wetsuiters. Top 6 finishers: all without wetsuits.
Thanks to a false start, my wave (the 2nd) was actually set off 6 minutes after the folks in wetsuits. Can you guess what happened next? Within 500m, we had begun passing people from the first wave. But the real fun started on the second 730m straightaway, when the leaders passed the bulk of the 200+ wetsuit-wearers from the first wave. Talk about running the gauntlet! I think I avoided most of the traffic by hugging the inside part of the course, so it really wasn’t too bad. In retrospect, I realized that I had passed about 150 people in less than 750m. That’s more than one neoprene-covered noodler every 5 meters!
Thankfully, by the beginning of the second 1.2-mile lap, I had clear water. Unfortunately, the three people ahead of me were out of sight, so lap #2 had the feel of an individual time trial. I flipped over for a quick glance behind me every few minutes, but no one from my wave ever came within 50m.
I felt good - kept a steady stroke rate with little deterioration in my technique - through the full 2.4 miles. So it surprised me when I finished in 54:11, which works out to 1:24 per 100m. I can only assume the course must have been long. But hey, that’s OWS for you.
4th overall (including wetsuiters), 3rd among men, 1st of 25 in my age group. And the woman who beat me is a recent open-water national team member. No shame in that, I suppose 🙂
UPDATE: Just noticed some rumblings on a triathlon forum confirming my sense that the course was long. My best guess is that I was swimming about 1:19’s, and the only way that computes to a 54:11 is if the course was actually 126 meters longer than 1.2 miles. How does this happen in an age of handheld GPS?
Less than 3 weeks ‘til Big Shoulders! This race has a special place in my heart: It was at Big Shoulders ‘09 where I caught the open-water bug. Without which, this summer wouldn’t have been nearly as awesome. Little did I realize that Big Shoulders would soon be my hometown race.
In its 20th year, it reached the maximum registration of 800 swimmers for the first time. That’s an eightfold increase since 1998, the first year for which results are available on the web.
To facilitate analysis across years, I aggregated these 12 years of results (1998-2009) into a single CSV file. This is what you might call a picture of success:
Historically, more men than women have taken the plunge, but the gap has narrowed in recent years. In 2009, women were 43% of the total participants.
Masters swimming is traditionally dominated by people in their 40’s and 50’s - is the same true here?
It seems the modal age is actually a bit younger in Big Shoulders - lots of people in their 30’s. But the “50’s” have been mounting a furious comeback (see the blue line) - perhaps a baby boomer effect.
Here’s the proportion of Big Shoulders participants hailing from Illinois, Indiana, and “other” - i.e., anyplace besides IL and IN.
Clearly, Illinois locals still predominate, but recent years have seen a greater influx of out-of-state swimmers. In 2009, almost 30% came from outside of Illinois and Indiana - an all-time high.
People say times don’t matter in open water - or at least that you don’t always know what they mean. And perhaps that’s part of its attraction. While in the pool “the clock never lies,” in open water it’s not much more than a ranking device.
Even so, I’ve been surprised by how closely most of my open-water pace times have approximated my pool speed at various distances - from 1:15 at 1 mile (Huntersville), to 1:17 at 1.5 miles (Livermore), to 1:19 at 2 miles (H’ville again) up to 6K (Windsor), and 1:22 at 10K (Noblesville).
When an event has been staged for many years, though - at the same location, on the same course layout - comparing times makes a little more sense. Big Shoulders is one such event.
In that spirit, here are the finish times in Big Shoulders across the 12 years of available data, starting with the 5K race:
That chart is a little busy, so let’s unpack it:
Make sense? Now, here are the 2.5K swims over the years:
What does it all mean? While the slowest and fastest swims each year will depend on “who shows up,” I think we can interpret the median swim as a broad measurement of “conditions.” In Lake Michigan, that generally means water temperature and/or surface chop (but usually not current).
For a swim in the same location, with the same course layout, which draws a reasonably large sample from the same population (people who live within a few hours’ drive of Chicago), we wouldn’t expect the median finish time to vary much over time. To the extent that it does vary, we can probably attribute it to “conditions.”
One probable exception is 2003, in which both the median and fastest times were substantially faster than usual. Not surprisingly, on an anecdotal level, it was widely assumed among those who participated in 2003 that the course was shorter than 2.5K.
Splits tell the story of a race. It’s perhaps even truer in open-water swimming than in the pool, because the races are more “spread out” over space and time. Splits are rarely kept for O.W. races, though, due to obvious logistical obstacles.
Powerhouse Timing has been working to change this - at least at the elite level. At this past weekend’s Pan Pacific 10K Championship, they captured splits at each 2K for the entire field, both men and women. And what an interesting story they tell. Here are the 2K splits, which I converted to pace-per-100m:
Final time: 1:05:26 (pace of 1:18.5).
Here’s how I did it:
Note: To get a clearer picture of my actual pace through the swim, these splits are adjusted for the 3 Gatorade breaks I took at 1500m, 3000m, and 4000m. I calculated this by taking the 100m split before the break, the 2nd 100m split after the break, and averaging the two to estimate the 100m split directly after the break (which in the raw split sheet includes the break time).
In total, I “adjusted out” 21.9 seconds of break time: 8.0 seconds at 1500m, 8.4 seconds at 3000m, and 5.5 seconds at 4000m.
Obviously, this is for illustrative purposes only, and I will be submitting the raw splits (including break time) to USMS.
Here’s a chart of my 100m splits (again, with breaks adjusted out):
It was a remarkably consistent swim. After a smooth 1:14 to start, I held 1:17’s (with one exception) through my first Gatorade break at 1500m. After that, I basically held 1:18’s for the rest of the swim - with 3 splits slightly above 1:19 and a 1:17 on the final 100m. Excluding the first 100, my fastest split was 1:16.9 and my slowest split was 1:19.3 - a range of only 2.4 seconds over 4900m.
I focused on maintaining a consistent “race” tempo (even though I was alone in the pool), and I think I did this successfully. Over time I’ve learned that when I fatigue, my technique declines before my tempo does. So, I also focused on maintaining a strong catch up front and following through past my hip. What tends to happen is, as I struggle to keep up my tempo, my catch starts to “slide” and I start my recovery before my follow-through is complete.
To put it mildly, I was pleased with this swim. In last year’s 5K Postal, there were 5 faster times overall (out of 266) - and that was before tech suits were banned. We’ll see how it plays out.