Swimming in two races, on two consecutive days, in two different S.E. Alaska towns was definitely challenging, but also incredibly rewarding…
On Saturday the 3rd I competed in the Sitka ‘Change Your Latitude’ 5k swim, the following day I was in Ketchikan, AK preparing to jump in the ocean again, this time for an 8.2-miler around a growingly familiar island called Pennock. This was the 3rd time I have competed in this race – 2006 I was a part of a 4 person relay team, in 2012 I was a solo wetsuit swimmer, and this year I also competed in the solo wetsuit division. My time from last year was 3:05 – I had hoped to finished in under 3 hours, but as luck would have it, the currents were not in our favor this time… I finished first overall in 3:26.
Let me back track for a moment – the previous day (Saturday) after watching my mom finish her 5k, we had about an hour to make it to the airport and hop on a jet to take the 30 minute flight over to Ketchikan. Luckily the race start/finish line was about a two minute truck ride from the airport… we made our flight with at least two minutes to spare – not too close! Once in Ketchikan we were able to check into the hotel and relax all afternoon, we were all very tired after the morning events!
Willie (the race director) had a simple safety briefing at 5:30, and to smooth out any last minute details swimmers and kayakers needed to know. I met Trent and Dylan, from Colorado, who were to be my escort kayakers. Dylan was about 13 and was kayaking with his dad – they both did a great job, although Trent was extremely nervous about taking me the wrong route … I kept telling him, “Well, you know it’s around an island right… if it’s not on our left side anymore, maybe you should stop and ask someone for directions” I couldn’t tell if he thought it was funny or not.
The morning of the race went well – I was able to sleep in until about 8, walk down to the breakfast diner, grab coffee and oatmeal, and eat breakfast in our hotel room while I was prepping my swim gear. At 9 I walked down to the harbor where I was meeting up with a boat captain, along with 10 other swimmers (some solo, some relay). Most swimmers were not wearing wetsuits, which seemed odd to me, maybe it’s the warm summer we’ve had? Anyways, I certainly was wearing one! At about 10 I started to squeeze into it.
All the swimmers were ready to jump in at 10:15, but of course the start time was 10:30, and not all the kayakers had made it out to the starting “kelp” yet… so we waited until about 10:25, jumped in, swam around long enough for everyone to pee and then someone (anyone?) yelled “GO”. So then we started swimming.
I worked on controlling my pace, as I normally do during the beginning of a race, but felt myself begin to take a strong lead on the group. I tried to slow myself down but gave up on that idea pretty quickly; I was far out in front, and tried to visualize the map I had studied the night before, “did Willie say to hug the shore inside the bottleneck… or stay in the middle of the channel…?” before I had a chance to really meditate on the topic, I realized I had slunk-ed back into 4th place. I looked around at the other swimmers, and realized they were all practically swimming on the shoreline, so I called to Trent and told him I was going to “follow those guys!”. I put my head down and swim straight to shore, I was instantly swept into a slightly less aggressive current. Trent had either misunderstood my instructions or forgot them because he was kayaking almost on top of me, and ended up crowding the other swimmers and escorts before he literally hit me with the kayak. I stopped for a moment, asked him to please allow more room between me and them, then kept swimming.
Swimming so close to shore was helpful in avoiding kelp beds, but more than once I found myself almost grounded on a shallow rock ledge that I had failed to see ahead. My kayak had to back paddle when this happened. I never actually acquired “beached whale” status, but it was close.
The time it took for me to reach the end of the island was a bit longer than I had anticipated – 1:37 minutes. I rounded the corner of the island and began the ~mile long section to reach the other side of the island. I hugged the shoreline again to avoid the heavy kelp, but felt a strong current pushing against me, I knew I had made the decision to stay close to shore with the knowledge that the current could possibly be stronger here, nothing could be changed at this point so I trudged on!
At about the 1:51 mark I reached the other side of the island and tried to pick up my pace a bit. I spotted my mom and Trevor in a double kayak they borrowed from a friend. I now had five people following along with me, all in kayaks! It’s like they were my posse.
Anyways, I continued on, kept with my feeding/drinking schedule of 30 minutes and began to count my strokes. A technique I use to keep my pace going strong and to keep focused when I am basically swimming a straight line, with no need to spot. My pattern was to count every other hand-hit, breath rhythmically to my left side, with an occasional spot to my right to see the other kayak, count to 100, then lift and spot forward to see how much distance I had gained. I repeated this pattern very steadily for the next hour or so, until 3:00 hours had elapsed. I could see the end marker at this point, I allowed Trent to keep guiding me for the next 15 minutes or so, but then I told him I could spot the rest of the race, he fell back a little bit and let me guide myself.
At 3:26 I touched the final marker, I had three motorboats around and at least three kayaks as well, the crowd was pretty great considering I was in the middle of the ocean! Trent gave me a ride with a rope hanging from the kayak, the boat captain helped me aboard, and like clockwork, the sun burnt through the clouds! It was around 2 pm when I finished, it was warm, sunny, friendly and to top it all off – they gave me hot chocolate and cookies as I watched for other competitors to finish their swims. The first four place solo swimmers were all women, something I am very impressed by! I can’t tell if we’re just plain crazier, or if we like to see how tough we really are? Either way, I think Alaska brings it out of us, but always in a good way, of course.
My recovery from these two swims only lasted ONE DAY. I don’t have another swim planned as of today, but as always “just keep swimming just keep swimming swimming swimming”
GO TEAM FARA!
Thanks for reading,