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Getting in the Groove - Photo by Sian Proctor

Getting in the Groove – Photo by Sian Proctor

 

I have been an open water swimmer for about 5 years and have completed open water swims of varying lengths from 800 meters to over 6 miles.  I am not a professional by any means but I have had enough time and experience to become comfortable with the open water environment and offer some advice to others.  My experience has been primarily in lake waters since that is what I have access to so my advice will not include considerations unique to ocean swimming (of which there are plenty!). If you are a triathlete getting ready for your first race and it involves an OWS, or if you doing your first OWS as a stand-alone event, I recommend you consider the following things:

1. Wetsuit

  • Use one if allowed.
  • Get one that fits.
  • Rent or buy a used one to save money.
  • Practice in the open water with your wetsuit prior to your event.
  • Lube up around your neck, shoulders (if sleeveless suit), and wrists (Body glide or other).
  • Let it hang inside out to dry and store on a hanger when dry.

2. Goggles

  • Get ones that fit and don’t fog up.
  • Consider smoke color for sun protection.
  • Have several pairs the day of the race.
  • Practice adjusting them while treading in water over your head.
  • NEVER touch the lenses with your fingers.
  • Wipe them out with your tongue, then wet in water to clean.
  • To fit them at the store, stick them to your face without the strap. If they don’t fall off for about 10 seconds, they fit.

3. Sea Sickness

  • Earplugs help with motion sickness
  • Training a lot in open water helps you get over mild sea sickness

4. Breathing

  • Bilateral (both sides) will help you maintain a straight course
  • Waves and other swimmers being close may force you to breathe on one side
  • If water is wavy, time your breaths to avoid sucking in water

5. Sighting

  • Get a feel for the course (overview map) prior to the swim including any obstacles or danger areas.
  • Pick something large that is father away but in line with the buoy to site from
  • Develop a rhythm that seems to work…5 strokes, sight or 10 strokes, sight
  • Practice sighting in the pool by doing “head-up freestyle” drill for 50 – 100 m
  • Learn to sight quickly as part of your stroke and avoid stopping and going vertical
  • You can follow someone else if they are on a good line (and you can even draft)

6. Training

  • Train with longer pool sets prior to your race (1000 m or 1500 m depending on your race distance).
  • Train in open water if possible at least 3 – 4 times (or more) prior to your event. Never swim alone unless you are in an area with lifeguards present.

7. Swim Time

  • Swimming in open water always takes longer than the same distance in a pool.

8. Incidental Contact/Race Etiquette

  • Contact will occur with many people in the water. It is unavoidable.
  • It is the passing swimmers responsibility to go around the swimmer in front. If someone bumps you from behind, stay your course. They need to figure out how to go around you.
  • If you stop, don’t stop right at a buoy or you will get run over. Stop and look around you quickly to be sure you are not directly in someone’s way.

10. Swim Your Race

  • When race day comes, don’t worry about anyone else.
  • Do your warm-up and be ready when the starting horn sounds.
  • Be sure you know where to start, where to swim, and where to finish.
  • The first few minutes are a adrenaline rush so give yourself a chance to calm down and relax.
  • Find your space to swim where you can be comfortable but be aware of those around you and of the route you are swimming.
  • If you panic, just stop, relax and breathe.
  • If you need to rest, you can do so on a kayak as long as you do not make forward progress.
  • Enjoy the event and all the training and hard work you have put into swimming!
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Aug 2, 2011, 6:40 am

The water feels surprisingly warm on my toes and ankles as I step from Jim Thompson’s pebble beach at Kilroy Bay into the waters of Lake Pend Oreille. My sleeveless wetsuit protects my core and legs as I make my way into the lake for my pre-swim ritual; get in, let the water fill my wetsuit at the neck, walk out slowly as the moisture works it way down through my suit and out the bottom, reposition the wetsuit, then repeat the entire process. Standing in the lake looking toward Garfield Bay, I can just make out the trees far, far in the distance. Actually, I can’t see individual trees but more like a sold wall of dark green with one white house at the top. The numbers keep churning around in my head…5.3 miles…8500 meters…340 laps in the long course gym pool back in Phoenix…a solid four hours in the water and farther than I have ever swum previously. I take one last look at Garfield Bay from solid ground, position my goggles, and head out into the water.

Swim Start at Kilroy - Photo by Sian Proctor

May, 2008

I have been a regular resident at our Garfield Bay home every summer since 2001. Every year, the first Saturday in August, we drove across the Long Bridge and headed home to Phoenix. Every year, we would see hundreds of people gathered on the bridge waving and cheering to the swimmers below. I learned that this event was called the Long Bridge Swim and that it took place the first Saturday of August each year. From 2001 to 2006, as we made our way home and the swimmers made their way across Lake Pend Oreille I thought, “there is no way I could make that crossing”.  In 2007 as we stopped to let the buses cross in front of us I suddenly decided that I would try the swim the next year.

Life and work took over and it wasn’t until May of 2008 that I actually entered a pool to prepare. I joined SWAC (Sandpoint West Athletic Club) when I arrived in Idaho late May of 2008. The club has a masters swim group, but I was too scared to join. So, with the help of a couple of books and some YouTube videos on proper freestyle form, I ventured into the pool several times each week and made my way across the pool and back.

I learned very quickly (I mean I know, of course, but I REALLY learned) that humans cannot breathe water! Unfortunately, I had to learn this lesson over and over as I could barely swim 25 meters without gasping for breath or swallowing half the pool. Due to my lack of lung power and general lack of knowledge about efficient movement in the water (YouTube videos notwithstanding), I developed a sort of lurching motion that moved me more side-to-side than it did down the lane.

Eventually, I amassed enough yardage and after a few forays into the lake for practice, I felt I could manage the distance of the Long Bridge Swim. I finished the swim that year, using what my husband called “pollywog style” in just under 2 hours.

Aug 2, 2011, 6:45 am

“Wow, it’s really wavy out here, “I thought to myself as I took my first few strokes away from Kilroy Bay. Wind blew steadily out of Hope and the waves hit the right corner of my head making breathing a challenge and navigation almost impossible. Mike Ehredt was on his paddleboard next to me and would be there for the entire swim. I knew the waves were pretty bad when I could not see his feet or ankles on the board when breathing his direction. There’s something about being in the water, though, that makes the chop and waves not feel as bad. I knew I was being tossed and turned around a bit, but I just put my head down and kept turning my arms over. At some point, I saw Kate out of the corner of my eye stroking past me. She had started a few minutes after me and looked like she was settling into the waves as well.

Getting in the Groove - Photo by Sian Proctor

May, 2009

Time to think about getting ready for the Long Bridge Swim (LBS) again. I swam just a little bit during the spring of 2009 and had a few coaching lessons so felt I was making some progress. I was still too scared to swim with a masters group once I got to Idaho so I joined SWAC and embarked once again on my own training program. After doing my own thing for a few weeks, I got up the nerve to ask the masters coach if he thought I would do ok in his class. “Absolutely”, he said and , “we would love to have you”. The rest of that summer until the LBS, I trained with the pool group and hit the lake a few times. By this time, I had started working on bilateral breathing (both sides) and did not look as much like a pollywog, but my form was still very inefficient. I learned a lot from the coach but still had a VERY LONG way to go.  I swam the LBS and improved my time from the year before. However, I had such a bad day at that swim with nausea and feeling very slow in the water, that I decided I hated swimming and would never do it again.

Aug 2, 2011, 7:10 am

Time for the first feeding stop of the day. Mike crouched down on the paddleboard and handed me an open bottle.  We were planning on about 4 hours in the water and stopping every 30- 45 minutes for either water of fuel. My fuel was in the form of a Hammer Gel product called Perpetuem. Mixed with water, the powder provides fuel during exertion and, being in liquid form, allows me to digest it while swimming. Eating and swimming, or should I say digesting and swimming, are tricky things to do at the same time. I learned through training that I a) had to eat solid food at least 2+ hours before getting in the water b) could only ingest liquids during the swim (except for the occasional chocolate covered coffee bean) and c) had to eat no later than the first hour into swimming. Heartburn is a common malady of swimmers and you learn very quickly what you can and can’t eat and how long before you swim that you need to stop eating.

Feedting Time - Photo by Sian Proctor

May, 2010

Time to start thinking about the LBS again, BUT, I wasn’t swimming. The 2009 LBS was the last time I had been in the water and I had set my mind totally against ever swimming again. In fact, I seemed to have lost interest in working out at all and just dabbled in a few activities here and there. Being a competitive athlete in three to four sports my whole life, I was trained to gear up for “events”. Games, tournaments, and competitions kept me going in athletics for years. As an adult, playing on teams and competing in leagues or signing up for events always provided a way to stay active. With no events on the horizon and no LBS on my schedule, I floundered in a limbo of non-activity.  But, just because I wasn’t swimming didn’t stop my friends from swimming. Kate and Jodee, two of my good friends, were heading into Sandpoint at the end of July and both were planning to do the swim. When the day arrived, I shuttled them into town and took pictures from the bridge. Once the horn sounded and the mass of swimmers moved forward, I regretted my decision not to do the swim again. Right then, I planned on 2011 and I think I was the 12th person to register for the next year’s event.

Aug 8, 2010

Sometime shortly after the LBS swim on Aug 7 and before I packed up and headed back to Phoenix, Kate and I were sitting on the dock at our place. From the structure, we look out at the Green Monarchs and can see the houses of Kilroy Bay far in the distance.  Off and on over the years, we had talked about swimming from Kilroy back to Garfield. Usually, the conversation ended with, “yeah, you go ahead and don’t look but I will be right behind you”.  This time, however, the discussion was different. Some plans were made and logistics settled and we made the decision. 2011 would be our year to attempt the swim.

Aug 2, 2011, 9:00 am

The wind had finally diminished and I continued to take one stroke at a time across the lake.  On my right side, all I could see was lake and the mountains around Scotchman’s Peak. On my left, I could make out the houses and cliffs of Talache and knew I was making progress. I could no longer see Kate in from of me, but I could see the paddles of her support kayak coming out of the water on occasion and knew she was somewhere ahead and to my right. Turns out that her initial heading would have taken her to Green Bay off to the right and getting back on track took some time. 

 

Kate Waving - Photo Sian Proctor

One of the most challenging aspects of long distance swimming is boredom. Many swimmers quit during an event just because they get tired of being in the water and don’t seem to be making any headway. Once the initial flurry of activity related to getting in and settling in the water is over, the actual, “stroke, stroke, stroke” can get a little monotonous.  Every long distance swimmer adopts their own mental games and gymnastics to help them get through a long event. For me, counting strokes really helps. I get a sense of how far I have gone and the numbers hold a place in my mind that requires some concentration and prevents negative thoughts and self-talk from taking hold. The mind is such a powerful thing and really comes into play for long-distance swimming. Each number that I count is a stroke set (right-left-right or left-right-left) so if I count to 100 I have really traveled 300 strokes. I know about how many strokes for how many meters so I generally count to 300 and then go as far after that as possible before taking a break.

September 1, 2010

I returned to Phoenix with a sense of athletic purpose and determination related to swimming. This was the year I would really take on the sport and see what I could do. I started swimming regularly at my local gym then, in October, I finally joined a masters’ group near my home. Kate belonged to the same group and having a partner to get up three times a week at 5 am and swim from 5:15 – 6:30 helped a tremendous amount. There were many days that if Kate were not there, I would not have gone and vice versa. I swam with the masters’ group, swam some on my own, entered local events, had underwater filming done to analyze my swimming, and took private lessons from our master’s coach. I increased my mileage during the year and eventually swam a 4000 meter (2.5) mile race in May. Once I arrived in Idaho, I trained with Mike Ehredt. He had me focus on swimming 4 – 6 times per week with increasingly longer training swims each week then work on core and balance exercises on land. By the time the day of the swim arrived, I felt anxious but ready.

Aug 2, 2011, 10:15 – 10:42 am

As I came into Garfield Bay and begin to spot familiar landmarks, I started to pick up speed. Neighbors and family were out on their docks waving and providing support. The Sheriff Marine unit came by and provided a final escort into the beach with lights and siren blaring. As I approached the beach I churned my arms faster and moved as quickly as I could. Suddenly, the bottom of the lake appeared and touched my hands to the sand. Friends and family greeted me and helped me exit the water. Final time for me was 4:02 and for Kate was 3:50. We felt really good and solid with our effort and extremely thankful for all the support. There was no time during the swim that I thought I would not make it even though there were plenty of times I thought about how far I still had to go. My training and preparation had made me ready for the day and the support crews allowed me (and Kate) to focus on just swimming.

 

Sheriff Escort - Photo Sian Proctor

Swimmers and Crew - Photo Sian Proctor

Aug 7, 2011

Yesterday, I swam the LBS for the third time. The event was as fun as ever and, though mentally very challenging to enter the water again so soon after the Kilroy swim, I eventually settled in and had a good time. During the LBS, I thought a lot about this sport of swimming. It is not one that I came to naturally or easily. Though I grew up playing sports, I did not grow up swimming (other than learning not to drown) and there are some movements particular to efficient swimming that are challenging to learn as an adult if they are not ingrained when young. Someone close to me asked if I had “gotten swimming out of my system” and would now let it go. The question really bothered me at first but the more I thought the more I realized it had merit. So, as I stroked my way, one arm at a time, through the LBS this year I tried to answer the question realistically for myself. I thought and thought and swam and swam and as I raised my arms in and out of the cool waters of Lake Pend Oreille, I had my answer. “No!” And again, “NO, I have NOT gotten swimming out of my system. I think what I have done is gotten swimming INTO my system and my plan is for it to never get out!” As Eric Ridgway (LBS organizer) says, “Swimming is for Life” and now I believe that and plan to act on it as well.

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One week from today I will probably be losing sleep thinking about one week from tomorrow. Heck, I am already losing sleep!

One week from tomorrow, I will swim from Kilroy Bay to Garfield Bay in Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, a distance of about 5.3 miles. That distance is short enough to accomplish but long enough to have plenty of time to ask myself, over and over, “Now, why am I doing this again?”

My friend Kate will be swimming with me on this adventure although, in open water, you don’t really swim together. You just happen to both be attempting the swim at the same time.

The Green Monarchs of Idaho and Kilroy Bay

SWIM DETAILS

  • First “go date” is Tuesday Aug 2.
  • Planned time of departure from Kilroy is sometime between 2 pm and 3 pm depending on the weather. Afternoons have been smoother and warmer on the lake here this summer unless we have a storm coming in.
  • We will be supported by two kayaks (one each) and at least one support boat.
  • We will be wearing wetsuits.
  • Anticipated completion time is somewhere around 7 pm.
  • For locals in the bay, we would love to hear you cheering us on. You can either hang on your deck or join us in the water by boat (from a safe distance…nothing worse than tasting boat fuel or experiencing boat chop while swimming) or on the shore at the public beach. We are going to aim for coming right down the middle of Garfield Bay.
  • For those in Idaho, check the Daily Bee on July 31 for a story (thanks, Dave Gunter!). Here is a follow-up with summary of the swim.
  • For those in Phoenix, check the Arizona Republic in Aug 18 for a story.

TRAINING

Both Kate and I have been training hard for this event and we have each done 4+ mile training swims in the last few weeks. Barring extremely weird weather or illness, we should both be prepared for the distance.

FUND RAISING DETAILS

I want to take this space for a huge, huge, THANK YOU to those who have donated money, time, or supplies to the efforts of the Aogaah Foundation. Raising money for this charity is the primary focus of this swim. Your contributions will directly impact the lives of over 200 impoverished Cambodian schoolchildren.

Children of Aogaah - Photo by Sian Proctor, 2011

If you want to donate, there is still time to do so. We have currently raised $3200 of the $5000 needed for next school year so we still have $1800 left to go. Even small amounts go a long way and $60 will fund one child for an entire school year. Visit the Aogaah site for donation information and remember that all your funds are a) tax deductible and b) go directly to support the education of the Aogaah children.

Video about the swim event/Aogaah

Aogaah School, May, 2011 - Photo by Sian Proctor

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Swimming 5+ miles, when one has not had a lifetime of training as a swimmer, is a major undertaking. Swimming 5+ miles in a lake the size and temperament of Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho is another type of undertaking entirely. Yet, on Aug 2, 2011 making that trek across the lake with my friend Kate is what I propose to do. Kilroy Bay to Garfield Bay…right across the lake…one long, straight shot.

The swim is not part of a large, organized event. Rather, it is two swimmers with a plan. The plan emerged from years of Garfield Bay happy hours spent dreamily gazing across the lake at the faraway town of Kilroy. Conversations that started as “We should swim from here to Kilroy Bay” eventually evolved to “When should we swim from here to Kilroy Bay?” and then made the final transformation to, “THIS year we swim to Kilroy Bay.”

Although early planning focused on swimming FROM Garfield Bay TO Kilroy Bay, further discussion and thought resulted in altering the plan to swim from KILROY to GARFIELD. Given normal, daily wind and water conditions that vary from calm and placid to rough and swelling, the adjustment seemed like a good idea.  Normal winds blow into Garfield Bay and could help push us in at the end.

In addition to being a fitness challenge and certainly the most difficult thing I have ever taken on (even more difficult than 43 miles in one day in the Grand Canyon), the event is being used to spearhead fund raising for a foundation that supports schoolchildren in Cambodia.

Links for more information include:

Stay tuned to this blog for more information and updates as the event approaches.

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I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I HATE swimming. I just always feel better AFTER I do it than WHILE I am doing it. Well, most of the time the former statement is true. There are those moments, seconds really, when the breathing feels right, my suit, goggles, and cap feel right, and the water feels like my friend and not my foe. In those microseconds when all seems to be working as it should, then I feel like I can fly. As I take each stroke and turn my head to breath, I feel the wake of water indicating forward movement and I see the shapes on the shore move by.

You see…as a child I did not learn to swim. All I really learned was how not to drown…and I have been not drowning, every time I get in the water, for years.

My first real memorable experience with the water had to do with an ill-placed bet I made with my father at the tender age of about seven. I happened to be early for swim lessons the day before and, to my bewilderment, could stand in the pool and touch bottom right next to the sign that said 5’.  Now, I knew that I was not 5’ tall…not even close… but the overwhelming evidence to the contrary was right before my eyes! I could not put together the logic as to why I could stand at this depth and keep my head above the water nor could I deny that it was true.  Maybe some kind of miracle was involved? Maybe I had grown overnight? Whatever the reason I wasn’t too worried about it but I knew I had to tell someone. So, at dinner that night, I told my father.

“Dad”, I said almost breathless with excitement. “I stood up in 5’ of water today!”

I can remember the sequence of moments that followed as if they happened just yesterday.  My father, quiet and contemplative sitting on the other side of the table just letting the words sink in and, I am certain, running through the list of 1,000 possible replies. Then, with his response selected, leaning over the table with a gleam in his eyes and saying, “I bet you can’t stand up in 5 feet of water”.  Pausing, he then added, “in fact, if you can stand up in 5 feet of water, I will give you anything you want”.

If there was ever a moment in my life that I can define as the first, dumbest moment of my life, this would be it.  The overwhelming generosity of his offer coupled with the absolute certainty that I had the data to PROVE I could do it overrode the logic circuits of my brain and I blurted out, “A pony! I want a pony!” (Doesn’t every seven-year old want a pony?).

My mind went into pony overdrive! Where would we keep it? What would I name it? My friends were going to be so jealous. I just KNEW I had this one in the bag! Swimming lessons took place again the following day and my father agreed to take me. If I could stand with my head above water next to the 5’ sign, then that pony was mine. So confident was I that I all but asked if we could stop and buy a horse trailer on the way to the pool.

Next day dawned after an excited and sleepless night. We loaded into the car and headed down to the local pool. As we entered through the front gate and made our way to the kids’ area, I began to feel a gnawing sense of doubt. “Why did the water look higher than yesterday?” I said to myself.  But, armed with the vision of the single data point I had collected the day before, I headed into the pool next to the 5’ sign. As I tread water, I tried in vain to reach the tips of my toes to the bottom of the pool while keeping my mouth above the water line.  I reached and I stretched and I reached. I tried standing on my head upside down even though that was not part of the bet. Over and over again I tried to reconcile the new data I was collecting today with the information I knew was true from the day before.

Chagrined and slightly humiliated, I knew the pony was done. In fact, I should have known that the day before but had fallen victim to a really strong case of denial. I am not certain that the pony-pool incident kept me from getting into swimming more as a kid, but I sure do remember it like it was yesterday. I wonder if my father remembers it the same way that I do?

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