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Big Shoulders 5k Race Report, and Training Stupid

September 12, 2012

Last weekend was the Big Shoulders 5k Swim (3.1 miles). For me, this event was almost as intimidating as the Ironman itself. Really, in some senses, this event was even more terrifying than the Ironman itself. Big Shoulders entailed swimming two 2.5 k laps in Lake Michigan. At least I was familiar with the water. The race was at Ohio Street Beach (in Chicago), where I do all of my open water swim training. Normally I swim a half mile stretch parallel to shore (see aerial photo to right, I swim the stretch closest to the foreground). One leg of the Big Shoulders course paralelled this course I normally swim. But normally I’m 10-20 feet from shore. For Big Shoulders we were maybe 50-80 feet off shore. At least this actually put us out of the worse of the waves.

My swimming has been improving consistently, so leading up to this race I was excited and nervous. I knew that this race would be the best test of my race pacing: am I on track to be able to swim the 2.4 miles for Ironman Arizona within the 2 hour 20 minute cutoff? I really don’t care what my swim time for Arizona, as long as it is in that cutoff. But in the week before Big Shoulders, we got some thunderstorms. The day before the race, the forecast called for all the thunderstorms to clear and for race day to be sunny and air temperatures actually a bit cold (low 60s). Good news, except that the forecast also included a 15 mph wind, and potential for 2 foot waves in the lake. The night before the race, Paul (who was also swimming it with me) asked if I thought they would call the race off. I said no, I don’t think so. And much as I would be relieved if they did, I really didn’t want them to. I needed to push myself to go through with this.

Race morning we biked down to the beach by 6:30 AM. As promised, it was sunny and cold. I was wearing a sweatshirt for the first time in months. We checked in and got our swim caps and gear. Like most other people there for the race, we stood around on the beach, delaying shedding our final layers because of the cold. The water was around 75 degrees, so the water would actually be warmer than the air! This was definitely a swimmer’s race. The non-wetsuit division was much larger than the wetsuit division. I could barely imagine doing that distance in perfectly calm water without a wetsuit. Forget even trying that distance in water like that without a wetsuit! I would guess that most of the people in the wetsuit division were triathletes like me, using this race for training.

After a very brief course talk where they gave us some helpful landmarks to use as sight guides, we were ready to race. I was in the first of 5 or 6 heats (after the elites of course). As we started, I realized one definite advantage to being one of the slowest people is it makes sighting easier. I could just look at all the swimmers ahead of me and not need to try to see the orange buoy in the distance. That first leg, headed North East (see map at left) was the most difficult for sighting. For the other two legs we were swimming towards large buildings on shore that worked well to sight. For that first leg, there was open water beyond the buoys, so no good markers. The buoy was a huge 8 foot triangle, but when that triangle is almost a half mile away and you’re in choppy water, that buoy can be difficult to see. I struggled a lot with my goggles over the first 15 minutes, as they kept filling with water. But eventually I got them readjusted right. And I felt like I was holding a decent pace for myself. I knew most people were passing me, but that was okay. The second leg was the longest: the wind was coming from the northwest, and we were swimming right into it. That leg seemed to stretch on forever. But I kept up a consistent pace, never stopping to rest, and getting ever more comfortable with my ability to sight and keep my swimming rhythm. The final leg benefited from waves and wind pushing us back towards shore. Sighting and breathing was still not easy, but at least it made for a faster swim!

Of course, by the time I was getting towards the end of the first lap, most people at that part of the course were finishing their swim. Almost everyone else had already started their second laps. As I rounded the triangle buoy to start my second lap, I was confronted by an open expanse of water. I saw occasional swimmers, but they were few and far between. I was much more on my own than I was the first lap. I wondered if I should just cut it short and do the 2.5k course. But I pushed on. I knew this was my one and only chance to prove that I could swim the Ironman distance, I needed that practice. I also had a headache starting. I’ve swam in much worse waves, these were more like very strong swells than actual waves. But they were bad enough to throw me around, and bad enough I was taking a lot of water up my nose. As I continued on that first leg of my second lap, I could feel my pace slowing a bit. My arms were tired. And I saw other swimmers less frequently. I was so relieved to turn the corner and start the second leg. But that second leg stretched on forever. It seemed to take twice as long as the first time I did it. And I also began to feel like the life guards were following me in, like I had a personal escort. I knew I had to be close to the last one in the water. Oh well, I would just keep going. Turning that last corner to start the final leg was a huge relief. Almost there. And then I was finally close enough to shore to read the banner that said “Finish.” And I kept swimming. And finally I could touch the ground. As I staggered to shore, disoriented and dizzy, I could hear the crowd cheering. I was done!

I finished in 2:45:43. I wasn’t quite last, but close to it (in a field of triathletes I would also be at the slow end of the field, but not skewed quite so bad to the end). But I did it! And if I hold that pace over the Ironman distance, I will finish in about 2 hours 10 minutes. Yes! And of course, I know my pace was slowing substantially over the last lap of my swim, so my average pace should be better for the Ironman. Probably more important, in Arizona I won’t face the same waves and chop in the water. That was what I really struggled with. My head was rolling for hours after I got home. But I just kept smiling all day. I had proved I could do the Ironman swim in the time needed. And now I’ve done the distance required in all three disciplines on their own.

On Sunday, the morning after my 5k swim, my team was doing a century bike ride (the Harmon Hundred in Wisconsin). I had to get up before 5 AM. We had to start riding by 8 am, but had an hour and a half drive there, plus registration time. I had a bit of nausea when I woke up, but I just thought it was from rolling in the rough water on Saturday. I pushed it aside in my mind. I had a ride to do. I assumed the nausea would dissipate as I went through my day. And indeed, on the drive up to Wisconsin, it wasn’t too bad. I was vaguely aware of it, but no real problem. So I didn’t say anything as we got our bikes ready in the parking lot. I told myself I had pushed through worse, I could do this.

The weather was about perfect. Sunny and low 60s. Just cool enough that I wanted my arm warmers on, but so comfortable. Over the first 15 miles I was doing pretty well. My stomach grumbled at me a little, but it seemed like it was just going to stay mild discomfort. I got split off from my group when we were all trying to cross a stop light. No big deal, we would meet back up at the first rest stop. Too bad I missed a marked turn (many riders missed this turn) and rode an extra couple miles. I was in a large group of cyclists that all kind of realized at the same time we must be off route. We all eventually figured out our way back to the route. Unfortunately, around this time the nausea was getting worse. Still not bad enough to impact my riding, but bad enough to make me more uncomfortable. I rolled into the rest stop after the rest of my team had been there for a bit. They asked what happened and laughed when I said I added extra miles.

At the rest station, I mentioned my growing nausea. I forced myself to eat half a banana and half a small bagel because I knew I needed some calories, but food was not that appetizing. My teammates reminded me to keep drinking water. My teammates asked if I should just stop. I said I thought I could push through, but I would pay attention to it. Five miles past the reststop, my coach stopped our group and again checked in with me to see how I was doing. I could still turn around and just head back to the rest stop. I told her I was uncomfortable, but wanted to push on. I was very tempted to stop, but I convinced myself that that was just the voice of convenience telling me to stop. I can be tempted to stop even if I’m fully healthy. If I could push to 75 miles, I would make it back to the car without needing sag support. I knew I probably wasn’t going to make the full 100 planned. So we pushed on. But within minutes, my stomach clamped up, the nausea got much worse. I wished I had said I was going to turn around. My teammates disappeared into the distance (we had agreed we would meet up again at rest stops). For several miles I could see them ahead of me, but eventually they were gone. My pace had slowed substantially as I struggled on. I knew we were on a 25 mile loop that would take us back to the first rest stop. As I pushed on, I started telling myself “one more mile, one more mile.”

By the time I rolled back into the rest stop, I felt miserable. I knew I had cycled much further than I should have for how I felt. I knew I wasn’t getting any benefit from this. I was just making myself miserable. I found my teammates almost immediately. My coach asked how I felt and I just mumbled “miserable.” Before she could suggest I should quit there, I said I was done and would get sag support to take me back to the car. She readily agreed that was best. I just sat for a good 30 minutes, letting my stomach settle at least a little. But eventually got a ride back the 25 miles to the car. I wasn’t looking forward to driving myself back to Chicago with how I felt, but at least I was glad I had driven myself this time: I didn’t have to wait for my teammates to finish the ride!

When I finally got home, exhausted, I found that I also had a 101.9 fever. I don’t know if I had the fever in the morning, but I’m guessing by the time I finished on the bike, I must have had the fever. That explains why I was so miserable. I spent the next two and a half days mostly on the couch, resting, recovering, and eating food I normally don’t eat or limit: ginger ale, bread, rice, clif bars (it might not be good for me, but it’s a lot easier on the stomach!). In retrospect, I really should have called in sick that morning and not started the ride at all. Trying to push through that was not doing anything for me. It was just making me miserable. At least I expect to be healthy again for my olympic distance triathlon this weekend!

67 days till Ironman Arizona!

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From → races, swimming, training

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