The Big Day: The Swim
The day began at 4:45 am. I woke up after a not-so-bad night of sleep, and I commenced getting nervous. For breakfast, I had a bowl of Grape-Nuts in soy milk with lots of blueberries.
I checked the weather online. The forecast was pretty bleak: rain all day, high of 60, east winds at 8-10 mph. I clicked on the hour-by-hour forecast, hoping that the morning hours’ prediction was for calmer winds at least. I had gone out for a quick swim on Saturday amongst northeast winds blowing at 15 mph and it blew (ha!). When I was swimming into the headwind, I kept getting pounded by the waves, frequently right when I was trying to breathe.
After checking the forecast, I got a little more nervous. As long as I could survive the swim, I knew I’d be alright. But I was beginning to doubt whether or not the swim would be survivable.
Eileen and Amber drove me down to the Monona terrace. We somehow managed to get a free parking spot pretty easily. I walked over to the capital square to drop off my bike special needs bag. It was 5:30 am — still dark out, obviously — but the square was full of people: volunteers shouting out directions, nervous athletes being led about by nervous spectators. We proceeded to the bodymarking area at the east end of the terrace parking lot, where I got 568 written on both arms and on my left leg.
Next, I checked my bike, pumped the tires, and put my water bottles in the cages. I knew I’d be too nervous to think clearly, so I had actually typed up a morning to-do list. After prepping the bike, I went inside and tied orange string to my transition bags so they’d be easier to see when I needed to find them.
Then I waited. It was a zoo inside the Terrace; it gave me the chance to get a little more nervous. Eileen, Amber, and I sat down and watched people. Everyone seemed pretty energized as they chatted with each other, walked from room to room, or began struggling into their wetsuits. I, on the other hand, I had slipped into my usual pre-race mode — lying down, yawning a lot.
Inevitably, the time came for me to fight with my own wetsuit, which just solidified the fact that I was actually going to get into a 73-degree, choppy lake at 6:50 in the morning with 2400 other people and attempt to propel myself forward.
Around 6:35 or 6:40, I said goodbye to Eileen and Amber, and started walking toward the east end of the Terrace. On the way, I saw the guys I had biked with for most of the summer and joined them on the descent down the “helix.” I tried to stay next to Steve, who I knew would be the fastest swimmer among us, but when we got down to the ground level, I lost track of him. Everyone looked the same in their wetsuits and swimcaps.
My secret plan was to enter the water and simply wade over towards the course a little. I was thinking I could avoid treading water the whole time. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same plan, which meant that the entrance into the water was getting clogged up with waders. The line moved slowly towards the water. When the pros took off at 6:50, I was still probably five minutes away from even getting in the lake.
When I did finally get in, I swam out to the ski jump, where there were fewer people gathered. I figured I could at least spread out and not expend so much energy treading water, and actually I was right.
I don’t really remember how the race started — whether there was a countdown or a gun fired or what. But when everyone else began swimming, I did too. The first 30 seconds were alright. Not too crowded, a clear view of the course. But then everyone started converging on the course and chaos ensued for the next hour and 17 minutes.
The outward-bound swim wasn’t as bad, what with the wind at our backs. But as I progressed further, the congestion got worse. Frequently, two swimmers would converge in front of me, forcing me to stop swimming so that I wouldn’t run right into their kicking legs. A few times, I felt a hand grab my lower back and pull me backwards. And every few minutes, someone swam onto my legs, causing them to sink down, sapping my momentum.
Around the turns, it was worse. Everone was cutting in close to the large orange bouys, slowing down, and then scrambling to speed up. It was slow-going. In retrospect, it definitely would have been faster to go wide around the corners.
On the in-bound swim, the water was worse, and the bouys were harder to see. I actually swam inside of them for the entire length, and I ended up cutting inside the turn. A guy in a kayak was yelling and I stopped to listen. “You guys are way off!” he was saying. I looked over and saw that the corner buoy was about half a pool length away. I momentarily considered swimming out to it, but the stream of people going around it dissuaded me.
So I just joined the guys I had been following the whole time, and continued toward the next big corner buoy. I was worried I’d be penalized; I’m sure the kayaker saw my number on my swim cap. But I’m also sure that a hundred other people had cut the turn.
The second lap seemed to go by a little faster, though I got kicked in the nose once. When I rounded the last turn I was so happy to be swimming toward the shore. When I got in, I jogged up toward the wetsuit pullers. I was a little dazed and off-balance, and everyone was walking, which threw me. I thought we were supposed to be hurrying. When I sat down on the ground to let the pullers take my wetsuit off, their urgency sped me up a little. I grabbed my suit and started running up the helix.