Race Report: Big Shoulders 5K (Chicago, IL)

Official write-up here.
Rob Aquatics write-up here.

What the gods giveth, they can – and do – taketh away. This is Chicago, people!

Big Shoulders ’09 was a picture-perfect beach day, with calm 73-degree water. This year, the remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine blew through, giving us clouds, rain, wind, and choppy, cold water (62-63 degress F).

It’s all in the game, though, right? Open-water swimming isn’t supposed to be predictable – that’s what pools are for! Maybe you get a beach day, or maybe you get a storm. Maybe the water is calm and comfortable, or maybe it’s churning and cold. The more you can suck it up and say, “I don’t care. It’s the same water for everyone” – the more successful you’ll be.

Dare I say it? Open-water swimming is supposed to be challenging! It might be uncomfortable; it might be frustrating; it might even be vaguely dangerous. You may have to endure – god forbid! – a few negative thoughts. In open water, there are no “best times” – the clock is merely a ranking device. Instead, rewards derive from tackling challenges – distance and/or unique conditions – and overcoming them.

Which is why Big Shoulders 2010 was an instant classic.

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Big Shoulders: Notes on a psych sheet

Tomorrow’s Big Shoulders 5K will have a legitimate claim as the most competitive Masters open-water race in the U.S. outside of the Waikiki Roughwater, and maybe some years of the La Jolla Roughwater. For the first time, there will be an “elite” wave of the top 50 swimmers, according to seed time. Here they are:

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Embracing the cold

As the 2010 open-water season draws to a close, my thoughts occasionally drift to the future – the blank slate that is 2011. And as I contemplate new goals and challenges, a recurring theme has been… cold water tolerance.

Aside from occasional childhood forays into the ocean off Santa Barbara – where it never rises much beyond the mid-60’s (F) – my cold water experience is pretty limited. Of my races this summer, the coldest was the 6K in Colorado, and that was only 67. When I moved to Chicago at the end of June, the lake was already in the mid-60’s.

So, when a cold front blew in late last week and dropped the lake down to the high-50’s, I figured it was time to take a page from Rob Aquatics‘ book and put up or shut up. The only thing missing was my adventure beard.

Into the lake I went early Sunday morning – certainly kicking, not quite screaming – with a hardy group of Point warriors. My trusty infrared thermometer took a reading of 58F, which was confirmed by two others. My only (ever so slight) concession to the cold: a neoprene cap.

I had no particular plan this morning. But as soon as the initial head rush passed, I actually felt OK – so off to the pier I went. 1 mile and a little under 25 minutes later, I returned to the Point and climbed up the ladder. Somewhat miraculously, I was fine – no shivering, and I could even feel my fingers.

I came back the next morning and did it again. The lake was marginally warmer – about 59F – but unlike the previous morning there was wind and chop. I was still fine when I finished my 1-mile round trip, if somewhat more drained from the chop. I briefly considered a second go-round, but hey – it’s Labor Day.

A small step, but a confidence booster nonetheless.

Big Shoulders Stats: Finishing times

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:

5K times

That chart is a little busy, so let’s unpack it:

  • Each black dot represents one swim. The dots are “jiggered” slightly to the left or right of their corresponding year (so more of them are visible). If a dot is closest to the vertical line indicating 2005, that means the swim took place in 2005.
  • The blue line connects the slowest swim in each year.
  • The green line connects the fastest swim in each year.
  • The red line connects the median swim in each year.

Make sense? Now, here are the 2.5K swims over the years:

2.5K times

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.

“Race” Report: USMS 10K Postal Championship

Another Friday, another long-ass postal swim at the UIC Natatorium. This time, for 10K: 200 laps of a 50-meter pool.

The 10K Postal Swim is as much a psychological challenge as physical. Even 5K is a pretty brutal distance to do as a straight pool swim. For the 10K, you do the 5K… and you’re only halfway done. So it may very well be the single toughest USMS-sanctioned event – except perhaps for the biennial open-water 25K.

I was joined by fellow distance freak Amanda Hunt, which made for less lonely laps. Heidi K. from the Smelts and my favorite U-Chicago professor were also on deck, as lap counters – which I’m told on good authority is a similarly mind-numbing experience.

My goal? 2:17:52 – my open-water 10K time from Noblesville in July.

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2010: the two-thirds review

In the first 8 months of 2010 I swam 452.4 miles (796,224 yards). Here’s the mileage by month, with days out of the water: 52.1 (7 days off), 52.8 (2 days off), 63.7 (3 days off), 60.0 (4 days off), 45.7 (8 days off), 64.1 (5 days off), 52.9 (6 days off), and 61.2 (6 days off).

I’m pretty happy with that consistency. The only somewhat anomalous month was May (45 miles), during which I got sick and missed 6 days in a row right before Atlanta Nationals.

This coming month will be an important one in preparing for the 10-mile swim on October 16. Assuming I stay healthy (fingers crossed), I have a soft goal of 75 miles (132,000 yards) for September.

Big Shoulders Stats: A local race?

More Big Shoulders stats, from my custom-made aggregate file. 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.