As many of you may have already read in my previous blogs, my friend Sincy has some major discomfort when it comes to open water swimming. So a few of his triathlon buddies Val and Judy encourage him to get some additional open water experience by signing up for the Hammerhead Ocean Marathon 2.5 mile swim. It was billed as one step along the path to Ironman Chattanooga. I tagged along as an additional support person.
Our day started at 3:30 am as we had to eat, make coffee and rendezvous to drive up together. We met Judy first and hopped in her car to pick up Val along the way. Driving to the event with a group of triathletes was a lot of fun. The conversation was lively filled with stories of training mishaps and race challenges suffered by all.
Before I knew it, we had arrived at the beach in Jacksonville where the place was already packed with swimmers looking for challenge and adventure. Now one thing I’ve learned about myself and ocean water swimming, is that it makes me have to go to the men’s room a lot. Also at these type of races, I’m not alone in that phenomenon and there are usually long lines to the potty. There was a fancy Sheraton hotel right on the beach and I said to Sincy “let’s skip all this madness and go to the hotel”. Sincy said “they’re not going to let us use their facilities if we are not guests at the hotel”. I said “let’s just walk in like we own the place” and that’s exactly what we did. I said “the restrooms are usually a hard right when you first walk in the door and sure enough after a sharp right turn, the restrooms were right down the hall.
I was patting myself on the back for such a brilliant idea, when the hotel had outsmarted me. You needed your room key to use the restroom. However, fortunately for us there was a nice cleaning lady who swiped her key and let us in. I decided to just camp in there for at least a half hour as I knew one time would not be enough.
After the restroom drama, I was able to take in all the atmosphere of excited swimmers, ocean smells and beautiful beach scenery. To my surprise I spotted many people I knew from various triathlon clubs and Lucky’s Lake. Now I am a social butterfly, so I was in heaven talking to all the people and sharing what our next adventures and races were going to be. My friend Sincy takes a more solace, quiet, tackling your greatest fear approach. I’ve learned to not try to engage him too much and just leave him to his thoughts.
The hour we had to burn before the race seemed to fly by and before we knew it, it was time to load the buses for the 2.5 mile drive down the beachline to the swim start. The bus was filled with light conversation and laughter from the participants. We happen to be on the bus with all the Lucky’s Lake crew, and a triathlete that grew up the same Neighborhood as where Sincy lives. It was then while doing an inventory check on myself that I asked Sincy where his ear plugs were? Sincy said he couldn’t find them in his bag. For those of you who don’t know Sincy, he doesn’t misplace anything. He puts his keys in the same place everytime etc. Raceday stupid strikes again.
Earplugs are very important for Sincy as they help him with his vertigo issues. I offered my ear plugs to Sincy as I knew I might suffer afterwards with swimmers ear, but that Sincy not having ear plugs would only magnify his vertigo issues. Sincy thanked me and we mentioned it no more.
The beauty about this race is the straight line down the shoreline to the end of the swim. No technical navigational turns and triangles to worry about. The bad news is that there were huge ocean swells that would be very difficult for all but the most advanced swimmers.
I could see the look of hesitation in my friend Sincy’s eyes, but he is a warrior and was not going to back out of this challenge. I had time to take some pictures of the ocean swells and warm-up pretty good. Then all of a sudden the race director was shouting the countdown 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…….GO! Off went the masses in a flurry of running and hurried swimming. I looked down to press start on my Garmin watch and it was powered off! Oh no, not again as the same thing happened to me at my last Olympic triathlon race in Miami. I have since discovered that the watch has a “curious” auto off feature to save battery if it is on and the start button is not press for an extended amount of time. Learning from my last race, I was not waiting for my watch to find a GPS signal and I started swimming.
Unlike the masses, I was not trying to break any speed records and just wanted to have a nice steady pace swim. After all, this was a marathon swim, not a 400 meter sprint race. I also didn’t want my heart rate racing so high that it would cause me to panic in the water.
When I looked around for my triathlon crew I rode up with, they were all gone. With the swells and activity in the water, it was impossible to locate Sincy or the other girls I rode up with. I imagined them way ahead of me anyways as they are all fast swimmers.
I did need my Garmin watch to work as I was counting on it to pace my swimming. I had programmed my watch to alert me at every half mile, so I could keep track of how much swimming I had left. The course was laid out pretty good and there were plenty of kayakers to assist you if needed. The only complaint I had was that it was hard to sight with the giant swells and waves. When I would raise my head to sight, often times all I would see is a wave! I wished they would have place more buoys along the shoreline as this would have been helpful to keep track of where I was in the vast blue ocean.
Instead I decided to use the beach shoreline as my guide to keep straight. It is very easy to get disoriented in the ocean without some major landmark to sight off of. At least using the shoreline on my right side I had a general idea I was heading in the right direction. There were not many people around and this would add to my slight anxiety. I would do a 360 degree turn and find the shoreline and my anxiety would subside. Unlike some others, I had no one to swim with and it got quite lonely a few times as I longed to see other swimmers to at least know I wasn’t alone in the ocean.
I began to wonder if my watch was working at all as it felt like I had been swimming forever and the first half mile alert hadn’t gone off yet. Out in this vastness of the ocean, your mind can begin to play tricks on you. I began to wonder how far exactly I had swum? What if I was swimming in a circle and didn’t realize it? But all worry subsided when my watch alerted me that I had in fact swam my first half mile.
There seemed to be a choice to make during this marathon swim. Choice #1 swim far out enough to not be pushed around quite so much by the waves. The only problem with this first option for me was that to get past the waves seemed to put me a little further out from shore than I wanted to be. Being this far out in the ocean also made it harder for me to sight off the shoreline. Swimming was much easier beyond the swells, when I wasn’t thinking about sharks and other ocean predators. LOL
Option #2 was to swim closer to the shoreline where sighting is much easier, but the waves are constantly pushing you to shore. I think I vacillated between the two options the entire race. I would swim some beyond the waves and then get uncomfortable and start swimming closer to shore. Then get tired of fighting the waves and swim further out past the waves. I just couldn’t keep my mind made up.
Somewhere along the way, I suffered a sever stinging sensation on my right shoulder. Was it a jellyfish? I couldn’t tell what had happened? Just all of a sudden my right shoulder was on fire! I rubbed my shoulder, and kept monitoring it to see if it would swell up or something worst. The stinging eventually subsided and there was no whelps or swelling, but something had definitely struck me. Of course after that I was having visions of swimming through a school of jellyfish and being stung into submission.
Did I mention the waves were really rough? The waves would sometimes give me the feeling of being picked up and then dropped back into the water. This up and down feeling didn’t really bother me at all. I still love roller coasters and didn’t mind being spun, dropped, tilted, and temporarily disoriented. But I began to worry about my friend Sincy, who is the complete opposite of me. Sincy can’t read while moving in the car without getting sick. I knew Sincy would be having a rough go at it, and I hoped he was ok. I also knew he had Valerie. Valerie, signed up for this race specifically to help Sincy with his open water swimming discomfort. I just hoped she was able to stay with him, as I mentioned it was almost impossible to swim and keep track of someone else too.
I eventually found my rhythm with the waves. I imagined dancing with the ocean and found my happy place. At this point, I really started enjoying the swim and taking in all the wonders of the beach. Before I knew it, I was coming across another buoy and my half mile alerts were coming more quickly (or so it seemed). I finally spotted the Pier, but I couldn’t remember what the race director had said about it? Was it the end of the race? The halfway point? Was I to do a loopty loop? I just couldn’t remember what the significance of the Pier was. Race day stupid strikes again!
From where I was in the ocean, the Pier looked somewhat close. But after swimming another half mile, the Pier looked about the same distance away. I then realized things were much further away than they appeared. One of the things that I tell myself when swimming long distances is that no matter how far something seems away, is that the next time I look at it, it will be a little closer to me. Therefore, I just kept swimming and believing that I was getting closer and closer to the elusive Pier.
Before long I was upon the pier and one of the Kayakers told me to watch out for the fisherman on the Pier who were casting their lines in the water in front of us. What the hey? I could only imagine what being snagged with one of their hooks and then them yanking on it will all their might would feel like. I imagined my eye being yanked out or the hook catching me in the groin. Ouch!! I then began to mentally threathen these fisherman who could not fish anywhere else today but right in our paths?
The next 100 yards seemed like it took 15 minutes as I became confused with the Pier and the shoreline which somehow looked the same to me causing me to swim in circles. Finally after watching me go around and around, a nice kayaker told me to just follow him for awhile until I get out of this directional vortex. It was much easier spotting off of the kayaker than the Pier and shoreline. The kayaker then said that I must swim between the two piers with flags on them.
The water choppiness seemed to increase the closer I got to the pier. I wondered if I would crash into on of the cement pillars ahead. As I navigated between the two columns, I was surprisingly close to crashing into one of them. Luckily I avoided such a calamity so very near the end of my marathon swim. Once through the pier, me and two other swimmers had no idea where to go. Fortunately there was another helpful kayaker telling us that we had to swim past the next white buoy and then make a right turn into shore.
The last quarter mile or so seem to take forever as I expended too much energy swimming in circles before the Pier. Eventually I made it to the white buoy, turned right and began to swim to shore. It was surprisingly challenging for me to swim to shore. It seemed like the shore was right in front of me after making that right hand turn, but I was somehow continuing to swim parallel to the shoreline.
After reorienting myself again to swim straight towards the shore, I was able to allow the waves to assist in pushing me to shore. I swam as long as I could because walking in the ocean was difficult with the waves trying to knock you down. Once I was able to stand on my two feet I gleefully posed for the camera man and ran to the finish flags.
I was relieved to see Sincy and Judy waiting for me at the finish line. They had fruit, bagels, whipped cream, peanut butter, water and Gatorade waiting for us at the finish line. I gobbled on watermelon that tasted so refreshing against my now salt swollen tongue. As a mater of fact, I think this was the best darn watermelon ever.
There was a nice award ceremony afterwards for all the first place finishers of which I was not. I did try to convince this fine young lady to give me an award for first black man out of the ocean. She didn’t bite and said “maybe next year with and infectious laugh.
I would later learn that Sincy had to withdraw from the race as he became very sick due to the jarring movement of the waves. Sincy was able to make it almost a mile, and feels this was a good experience to prep him for Ironman Chattanooga which is in a river and shouldn’t have such unkind waves. I’m so proud of you Sincy, as this was not an easy swim for even the expert swimmers!
Women 50 – 54
1010 4 1 Sheryl Watkins, 50 1:12:32 Palm Coast Masters
1018 10 2 Sue Stidham, 54 1:25:22
1070 20 3 Judy Hill, 51 1:36:42
Women 45 – 49
980 16 1 Terrie Hoops, 46 1:33:35 Ami
972 17 2 Samantha Zaino, 46 1:34:23
1049 19 3 Pam Sheppard, 47 1:36:17
1025 25 4 Laura Rodier, 45 1:37:44 Find The Edge
1039 36 5 Susan Haag, 49 1:52:41
984 38 6 Sharon Dannel, 46 1:53:59 Seminole County Triat
958 41 7 Victoria Cusack, 47 1:55:28
1071 45 8 Valerie Barbosa, 45 2:07:09
1060 46 9 Jeannie Cooper, 49 2:08:20
1006 49 10 kelli dillon, 45 2:13:34 Csws
Men 50 – 54
1063 5 1 Walter Steele, 51 1:06:43
1014 19 2 shane kelly, 54 1:15:24 planet swim
982 27 3 Glenn Baker, 53 1:22:25
995 34 4 Jim Thomasson, 53 1:26:04
1045 35 5 Korky Klinedunst, 50 1:27:35
963 41 6 georges boyazis, 53 1:31:54
1037 57 7 Simba Durio, 50 1:55:05 Aquaboogie
After I had gotten my sea legs back I wanted to go for my 5K run, but Val had to get back to her family who was in town from France. I did run into a very hard core triathlon group called Find The Edge that was assembling in the parking lot to run a half marathon after their swim!
So after the two hour car ride, I headed out the front door and had a surprisingly good run. Completing this run puts me at 43 consecutive 5K runs.