Last weekend I had the pleasure of competing in the first ever Swim Around Charleston. A 12-mile swim from Remley’s Point down the Cooper River and up the Ashley River ending at the 526 Bridge. It was an interesting swim in a great location, and I’m looking forward to going back again someday!
My week started out a bit stressful, with a phone call at 8:00am from the Burbank Airport , just as I was sitting next to the door waiting for my airport ride to pick me up. They informed me that my flight was delayed two hours and that I would miss my connecting flights (there were two). The United representative told me he was booking me on a flight out of LAX for 10:30. I still can’t believe that someone who LIVES in LA would suggest that I could make it from Hollywood to LAX during rush hour and make it through LAX security in 2.5 hours, but I figured I didn’t really have a choice. I called my ride, who wasn’t able to drive me to LAX and told her to turn around, then I jumped in my car to head toward LAX without much of a plan but hoping that I could work it out on the way.
As it turns out, I had plenty of time to work it out as I sat in rush hour traffic, and I ended up picking up another friend on the way who drove my car back to his house afterward and stored it in his garage for me while I was away. By the time I had arrived at LAX, I had already figured I had missed the flight so I called United again, who again booked me on a later flight on another airline that arrived in Charleston an hour earlier than my first flight. Luckily after all that everything went smoothly and my friend, fellow WKU alumn, and host for the week, Tate Nation, was waiting for me at the gate.
The next day we met up with one of his friends who had agreed to take us on a boat tour of the course. One of my pet peeves is the fact that I really never get to take in all the scenery when I’m racing, partially because it’s hard to see from the water and partially because I’m very focused on racing, not spectating. This was my chance to take in the view of the bridges, the historical areas such as “The Battery,” and the various marinas with the incredible boats docked there. The last third of the course is in a very rural area, with the main site to see being the marshes. The area of the course had very few major landmarks, something that ended up being a really good thing.
On Friday, Tate and I got up (at a ridiculous hour for someone still on Pacific Time, I might add) and headed to the Folbot headquarters to meet the team, take some pictures, and pick up some paddling equipment they were lending me for the race. We had a nice chat and then shot over to the finish to check it out, which happened to be only 5 minutes or so from Folbot. After that the main event for the day was paddler’s training for Tate. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a “Support Paddling for Open Water Swimmers” clinic this year with David Clark, who is by far one of the most knowledgeable people in the sport, especially in the area of support paddling. While I have no intention of ever taking up support paddling, the clinic was instrumental in teaching me how to train in my paddlers and learning the most efficient feeding procedures. As I travel all over the world for races I won’t always have the luxury of taking experienced paddlers with me, so this was an invaluable skill that I am deeply indebted to him for. Paddling practice was a bit rough the first day, so we decided that we would come back the next day for some more practice.
On Saturday, we went back to paddling practice and worked until we were satisfied that Tate had the all the procedures and hand signals down pat. As an added bonus we ended up playing a bit of hide-and-seek with a couple dolphins. A dolphin would surface nearby, I would take off swimming after it, and it would swim away and surface in another direction. They never really swam away from me so I can only imagine that they were enjoying the game as much as I was. I love listening to their happy dolphin chatter under water. Then after a quick shower we we had to book it over to the pre-race meeting in Mount Pleasant. At the pre-race meeting I had the chance to meet a few of the other swimmers (including Kathleen, the race director, whom I had never actually met in person, and Hopper, the owner of Swim Vacation) as well Gary and Melinda, the race photographers, who did a fabulous job. Both Tate and I received a lot of advice and instruction from the local paddlers and race organizers that was invaluable for me creating my race strategy.
Here’s what we knew going into the race:
The race directors had timed the race so that the average swimmer would swim with a current down the Cooper River, experience a tide change somewhere in the middle, and swim with the current again up the Ashley River. It was an in-water start and an in-water finish, with the finish being a bridge. The swimmers were to hug the peninsula shoreline as much as possible. Possible hazards included scrap metal, currents that could sweep a swimmer off course, commercial and recreational boat traffic, and alligators (ok, so everyone in Charleston denies this to be true, but they show up in people’s pools for heavens sake! Just in case Tate and I had decided on a hand signal to alert me of the presence of alligators.) The water was brackish, which means it was salt water mixed with fresh water and it was a very comfortable 70ish degrees.
Based on this information, I decided to swim at a reasonably comfortable speed down the Cooper river, in an effort to save energy and wait out the tide change. I knew that I would be ahead of the tide change and spend at least a portion of the race fighting the current up the Ashley. I decided upon a 30 minute feed schedule, with coconut juice at the half hour and gel/water on the hour.
The morning of, Tate dropped me and all the equipment off at Remley’s point, then drove to the finish to drop off his van and ride the race bus back to the start while I assembled the Folbot, prepared my feeds, greased up, and mingled with the other swimmers. Shortly after Tate returned we had to load the kayak, launch it, and before we knew it the race had started.
From Remley’s we had to book it across the shipping channels while the current was sweeping me South. The start was easy, no jostling, and within a few minutes I had taken the lead. I felt good and was focusing on keeping my stroke rate high (80 strokes per minute) while going a little light on the distance per stroke. We were blazing down the river and as we passed under the first bridge Tate reported that a dolphin surfaced right next to me, which I of course didn’t see. I was very pleased that the race seemed to be well covered safety-wise, and that the Coast Guard was very involved in supporting the swim. I swam with the letters “FC” marked on my shoulder blades in memory of Fran Crippen ( the swim occurred on the one-year anniversary of his death) as a way to raise awareness for the need for stronger safety measures in open water swimming, and this race did not disappoint.
Tate did a great job as my paddler, and even followed my instructions to keep smiling at me to keep my morale high. At one point I became irritated with him when he veered way off course, but I told myself to trust him. Turns out we were swimming around some scrap metal. Thanks for that, Tate!
The scenic portion of the swim went by very quickly, and I found myself in the rural portion of the course, fighting a very strong current. I was thankful that there were not a lot of large landmarks for me to look at, as that can be very depressing when you are swimming against a strong current and not moving as fast as you would like to. My stroke rate stayed high (78-80) but I began to pull harder. As I swam, I began to notice some familiar aches and pains and some new ones too. My left shoulder started to feel a little funky and my lower back was killing me which was normal enough, but I also made note that my hip flexors and my ankles were taking a beating. Eventually, all of these aches and pains phased out except my lower back. I was having a hard time keeping my race cap on, so Tate asked Kathleen, who was in the lead boat (I was accompanied by an entire flotilla of boats, Tate in the kayak, the lead boat, the sheriffs boat, and a boat from the coast guard.) if I could change out into the extra cap I had thrown in the kayak. She agreed and I changed out, which solved my cap issues.
As I made my way up the Ashley, I could tell the salinity was dropping and I could feel myself sinking lower in the water. There was a moderate chop and my stroke rate dropped to the lowest it had been the whole race, 76. It was the toughest part of the entire swim, and all in all I think I swam against the current for an hour and a half. As the tide bottomed out, I had to move closer to the center of the river because I began to touch Pluff Mud with my fingertips, the thick and fluffy stuff that lines the bottom of the rivers.
Soon though, I felt the current slackening, much to my relief. I had two bridges left, and right before I crossed under the first one Tate said “the lead boat says you are a mile away at this bridge.” I was shocked, as I had been tracking my swim time by feeds and I had been told to expect a 4.5 hour swim. “How long have I been swimming?” I asked.
“3:02” he said, “you’re gonna be under 4 hours.” Even though I was suspicious of the fact I couldn’t actually see this bridge that was only a mile away, I decided to trust them and put my head down and picked up the pace, assuming I had at most another 25 minutes, and if the currents were neutral to favorable, 20 or less. Another 30 minutes later I stopped and muttered a few choice words to Tate, who was really very understanding of my mental state (I forgot to warn him about that). I took my goggles off and finally I could see the bridge, which was hidden behind a point but still significantly farther than a mile away from the bridge before. I saw my finish, so I put my head down and cranked up the stroke rate. Tate began to push me on, looking nervously at his watch and hoping that I would break the four hour mark. As I swam under the finish bridge a dolphin surfaced next to me again,which of course I did not see. I did look to my right fast enough to see a floating Chik-Fil-A cup which made me think to myself that some food would be nice in another hour or two.
As I passed under the bridge there was another boat waiting to pick me up and take me to the dock where there were drinks, food, and my stuff waiting for me. For a moment I considered swimming back but then I just decided to go with the flow. It was quite possibly my least graceful entry to a boat of all time, and really I’m just glad I didn’t capsize it.
After the finish I found that the volunteers were not only helpful, but also very excited for me. After the boat dropped me off I spoke briefly to the father or one of the other competitors who was waiting at the finish. He was telling me it was his daughter’s first marathon swim and that “it is nice to see a woman out front.”
“Marathon swimming’s secret,” I said, “we women can hold our own.”
After a few minutes I started to feel a bit cold, and since Tate’s house wasn’t far away we decided to wait to see the next two competitors to finish and then run back to the house to get in a quick shower, since their were no facilities. When we got back we mingled some more, there was a quick awards ceremony, and I was presented with a very large granite plaque. Ultimately, I left it for Tate as a thank you and because I didn’t want to pay a fee for overweight baggage.
I can honestly say that I may have been more prepared for this swim than any other that I have ever done. I tend to cut things very close with little room for error, but I was pretty thorough and had plenty of time to devoted to race preparations. Support paddler training was a success and I can happily report that Tate and I did not experience any major snafus associated with our partnerships. I’ve heard of people running into their kayak, even breaking their arm in the process! The feeds were smooth and mostly under 5 seconds and we communicated non-verbally extremely well. Tate did a good job of setting the course but allowing me to set the pace. I was prepared physically, and I went into the race with a solid strategy.
The next day, Tate and I did some touristing and we finished up my stay in Charleston with a trip to the Griffon Pub on the recommendation from a friend. The pub was lined with dollar bills with things written on them, some of them obviously pretty old as they were yellow and crispy. I took a dollar bill and wrote “Tate and Mallory, celebrating a WIN in the Swim Around Charleston, 10/23/11 3:58” Then I stapled the bill to a decorative life preserver and we celebrated. As the very first winner of the SAC, I insist that this tradition be carried on by EVERY winner from now on.
After a long and uneventful trip from Charleston to LA on Tuesday, I showed up for an ocean circuit workout on Wednesday morning at Tower 26 in Santa Monica. Two days does constitute as “time off,” right?
My next order of business is to work out my race calendar and training program for 2012, which I promise will be much busier than 2011. I’ve got a lot of exciting new things planned, and I can’t wait to tell you about them!
*Note: More photos from the Swim Around Charleston coming soon!