Huntersville, NC, site of the USMS 1-mile Open Water Championship, is a 415-mile drive from Columbus – through the rolling, verdant hills of West Virginia, western Virginia, and into the Lake Norman area north of Charlotte. We broke up the drive in both directions with restorative lunches in Charleston, WV. Bluegrass Kitchen going south, and Tricky Fish going north (both highly recommended).
We arrived Friday evening in Cornelius, where Sully’s aunt generously offered us lodging and a delicious pre-race pasta dinner. My wife and I retired early and set the alarm for 6am. Our 15-minute drive to the race venue the next morning took us through the gorgeous forestland of the Latta Plantation Nature Preserve. The road ended at a parking lot next to a small beach in a protected section of Mountain Island Lake. We had enough time to check in, stash our things, and briefly warm up before the race began at 8am.
119 people showed up to swim, and the race director set us off in waves of 20 according to a 1650-yard entry time (a good idea). My seed time of 18:00 placed me 9th, right in the middle of the 1st wave whose entries ranged from 15:33 (!) to 19:00. The course was a triangular 1,600 meters – 400m straight out from the beach, then a right turn and 600m along the opposite shore, then another right turn and 600m back to the beach. The orange buoys marking the turns were supplemented by intermediate yellow buoys halfway along each length (another good idea).
As I expected, the 1st wave set an aggressive pace to the first buoy. Two swimmers (who were, in the end, the first two finishers) broke away quickly, and heading into the first turn I was swimming with a five-wide a few meters behind the leaders. Unfortunately, I botched the turn and almost instantly found myself falling off the draft.
I tried sprinting to catch up, but I was already a bit winded and decided to let them go and settle into my own rhythm. It was a tough call – I couldn’t benefit from anyone’s draft, but I found a sustainable pace and navigated pretty well the rest of the way. In the end, no one else passed me. I finished 8th overall (20:15, a pace of 1:16 per 100m) behind several members of the local SwimMAC elite team and recent D1 college swimmers, but most important — no women ;-) That may sound petty, but one of them was a current U.S. National Team member!
I found out a few minutes later that I placed first among men aged 30-34, which earned me this:
That’s cool, of course, but these things are inevitably a function of who shows up on a given day. No doubt, there are at least a few 30-34 year olds who could smoke me in an open-water mile. But what else can you say? They didn’t show up.
Bonus Coverage! 2-mile open swim
I had about an hour break (waiting for others to finish, plus an awards ceremony) before the next race. Oh, did I forget to mention? There was an “open” race following the Masters Mile. Actually, three races – either 800m (out to the 1st buoy and back), 1 mile (1 lap of the above-described course), or 2 miles (2 laps of the course).
There were several interesting features of the “open” race. First, they set everyone – 800m, 1-mile, and 2-mile swimmers – off at the same time. Second, you didn’t know who was doing which race. Everyone who swam the Masters Mile kept their same-colored caps, and everyone else had an orange cap. Third, the race organizers didn’t ask people which race they were swimming. You just swam however far you wanted to swim, and got a time.
So, the race had some poker-like aspects. I was doing the 2-mile, but I’d have no idea which race the guys next to me were doing (until after the first lap).
After the mass start I pretty quickly separated from the field with a group of 5-6 swimmers (all of whom wore white caps, i.e., were in the 1st wave of the first race). The pace was more leisurely than the first race – I was swimming smoothly, at a comfortable but brisk pace. I assumed, given the pace, that everyone around me would be swimming 2 miles.
After 300m I was in third, comfortably drafting to the side of one guy, and 10 yards behind the leader. Shortly thereafter, my draftee decided to fall back, and I was in second. After rounding the first buoy I noticed the leader swimming backstroke, looking back at the field. He wasn’t pulling away. At 700m, I caught and passed him.
As I rounded the second buoy (1000m), I looked back and saw a group of 3-4 swimmers about 20m behind me. At 1300m I flipped over on my back and noticed one white cap reeling me in. He caught me about 100m after that, and I caught a few meters of draft but he soon left me. (This guy was the winner of the first race, in which he beat me by 1:20).
As I came into the final buoy (just offshore from the beach, marking my halfway point) I looked up, and — what is this? No white cap. Where did he go? I glanced over at the beach and saw White Cap dude running into the finish. Apparently, he was only doing the 1-mile.
But there were still white caps not too far behind me, and I figured they must be doing the 2-mile, so I kept on truckin’ back toward buoy #1. When I got there (2000m), I flipped on my back in search of white caps… and saw none. I was all alone; not a swimmer in sight.
The photo at the right shows two guys who finished their mile shortly after I had rounded the last buoy and started my second lap. Both these guys beat me in the first race. Can you think of a caption?
The last 1200m went by quickly. I was in a zone of mindlessness and effortlessness. I looked back every once in a while – nobody ever came. I looked up every once in a while to sight the next buoy, sometimes stroking for 50m without lifting my eyes.
Around 2900m I started lapping folks who were still finishing their mile. I finished in 42:19 – a pace of 1:19 per 100m, only 3 seconds off my 1-mile pace. 1:43 later, the second 2-mile swimmer finished.
It was about as fine an untapered swim as I’ve had in my life.
In closing, I’d like to offer a special shout-out to Sully, a relative newcomer to open-water swimming who has the heart of a veteran. He pushed himself so hard in the Masters Mile that upon finishing he promptly ran into the woods to puke. Most people at this point would call it a day, right? He even broke his goal time by over a minute. But Sully got right back in and swam the 2-mile. Gotta love it.
I was also happy to meet Rob D, the man behind RobAquatics.com. I’ll be seeing him again this weekend in Livermore, CA.
Some other links of interest:
* Photo credit: The Custom Coach