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Chlorine Chronicle (Archive)

NMSC Sep/96 Newsletter

Open Water Swimming

(by Don Clinton)

The combination of fresh water, fresh air and even the occasional sunshine is a pleasant change from the warm (25 C) chlorinated pool we swim in all winter. This past summer I had the opportunity to train in a number of lakes and rivers including:

One of the most enjoyable aspects of open water training is swimming with a buddy. This adds a social dimension to training which for me helps sustain my fitness activity and during most of the summer I was joined by others who were either swimming or kayaking.

Open water training can also be fascinating and profitable if you watch the bottom as you swim. Rick Taylor found $95 on the bottom of Meech Lake this summer during one of his swims and I saw quite a variety of fish, clams, golf balls and weeds during mine. Yes, weeds, there are almost always weeds floating in open water and getting used to them after swimming in filtered water can be a challenge. A few encounters with them and you quickly realize that they are harmless and if you react gently to them they simply slide off your skin.

The only training incident I had this summer was at Charleston Lake. As I swam along the shore in deep water I was struck behind the knee on a nerve, it scared the daylights out of me. It turns out it I was hit by a swimmer from the public beach who was playing a practical joke. When I stopped dead in the water and raised my head the swimmer laughed and asked if I thought I had been bitten by a fish. His question didn't deserve an answer and I continued on my swim.

During the summer I swam in three open water races. Open water races provide a training goal and give you an opportunity to show off the fitness you've gained from the training. The races are also raw interpersonal competitions - personal best times mean very little because water temperature and conditions change from year to year as does the exact positioning of race course markers. The person next to you is the only one to beat.

Norway Bay - July 28th (air temp - cold 14 C, water temp - cold 14 C, sunny with a moderate wind blowing against the swim)

My first race was at Norway Bay, Quebec where I am usually joined by Rick Taylor - another NMSC swimmer. This is not an open masters event, the race is part of a two weekend regatta organized by the cottage community and is open to members of the community association. This was my 10th year participating in the race and this also being an Olympic year there were more participants than previous years, somewhere between 35 and 40 (Olympic years seem to bring out more participants).

Race starts at Norway Bay are always interesting, each swimmer must be accompanied by a row boat and from water level at the start all you can see is a solid wall of boats side by side, you can't see the finish markers. As with all mass starts there is some jostling for position but after the first minute or two the group spreads out and the boats move to the side so the destination can be seen. I swam this race quite comfortably and as I looked forward and backward between breaths I couldn't see any one close to me. However, touching just seconds behind me was a 15 year old girl - Allison Imery from the Peterborough swim club. I was told later that she had swam on my left side, about even with me, the entire race and it was only when I started my sprint to the finish that I pulled away from her (the word sprint may not accurately describe my speed at this point in the race). This experience may or may not provide an argument for bilateral breathing. If I had been bilateral breathing I would have seen her and may have gone faster or maybe I would have lost my stroke and lost the race.

Brockville - August 18th (air temp - warm 26 C, water temp - warm low 20 C, sunny and very little wind)

My second day of racing was at the Brockville Rowing Club where I participated in the 1/2 mile and 1 mile races hosted by the 1000 Islands Masters. This is an Ontario Masters Championship event that I would encourage everyone to try at least once. Brockville uses a triangular course for their race - once around for the 1/2 mile race and twice around for the 1 mile race. The course is marked with large inflated florescent orange balls. The 1/2 mile race is swum first with a 30 minute break upon its completion before the 1 mile race is started.

I swim both races, I use the 1/2 mile as a warm-up for the 1 mile race. The race start consists of diving from a floating dock in heats of 5 people, each heat leaves on a 5 second interval.

This year my one mile entry time allowed me to leave with the first heat with most of my main rivals in second heat. By the time I reached the first turn, Dave Hodge from Canton NY, swimming in the second heat, had caught me and there was a fair bit of jostling as we rounded the first turn (this is open water swimming and you can get away with some elbowing and kicking, fisticuffs are possible but rare and drafting is not permitted. The swims in triathlons are even more barbaric, they allow swimmers to swim over top of one another and allow drafting). After the first turn Dave went wide to the outside while I tried to keep a straight line to the marker #2. At marker #2, and all subsequent ones, we intersected with the level of violence escalating at each turn. As we started the second loop I could see two very large lake freighters passing each other in opposite directions about 1/2 mile from the race course. These ships look enormous from water level even at 1/2 mile. As I rounded the second to last turn (marker #1), the 3 to 4 foot swells from the ships had started to reach the race course. Swimming in the swells is not hard but the swells make it very difficult to see the course markers. About half way between marker #1 and marker #2 I spotted Dave and he was about 30 meters on the outside. I did some quick trigonometry and figured that I would have him by a few meters at the last turn and chuckled to myself. However, just as I finished my calculation I got a glimpse of the marker at the last turn (marker #2). That first glimpse and a second one confirmed that I was at least 20 meters inside. My confidence quickly turned to fear and I pushed myself a little harder. I did arrive first at the final turn and Dave in his frustration picked up my feet and threw them around the marker - his frustration only worked to my advantage by speeding up my turn. I finished the race 3 sec ahead of Dave but because he left in the second heat he had a faster time. I was thankful that he is not in my age group.

Following the race we shook hands and later at the BBQ (the real reason I keep going to Brockville) we exchanged some of the years stories and observed how much our children had grown.

St Marys quarry - Sept 8th (air temp cool 20 C, water temp warm 23 C, cloudy and rainy, results here)

My final open water swim this year was a 5 KM swim at St Marys quarry hosted by the University of Western Ontario Masters. This event is also an Ontario Masters championship event that I would encourage everyone try. St Marys also uses a triangular course with two rafts and a metal barrel as markers. Swimmers must complete 11 laps of the course to finish the race. A mass start in the water is used with a 10 second warning whistle followed by a starters pistol. This year about half the competitors false started on the whistle. The starters gun was fired twice to declare a false start but no one stopped and the race was allowed to continue. After 15 seconds of waiting for swimmers to return to the start I decided that I better get into the race.

It took me about 1 1/2 laps to catch my closest rival who had gone on the whistle. As I caught him I read the number on his cap and realized he was in my age group. At 2 laps I passed him and for about 2 more laps he drafted behind me touching my toes occasionally (drafting can allow you to maintain a speed up to 10% faster than swimming in still water). After his second lap of drafting I raised my head out of the water and pointed him out to the race officials, he saw me do this and quickly moved to the outside to avoid a disqualification. Once he left my draft he fell behind quickly and was about 1 minute 30 seconds behind me at the finish.

One of the nice features of the St Marys swim (aside from the Bikini's that debuted this year) is that as the field of swimmers spreads out you are constantly encountering other swimmers in the water. Just seeing others in the water is somewhat comforting and reassuring. By the end of the race my left hand was a little sore - I must have hit at least one metal barrel at each turn.

Following the race Anders Sandberg (the drafter) and I had a quick conversation complementing each other on just completing the 1 hour 17 minute swim. We parted and vowed to renew the competition next year.

As the cooler weather settles in I am somewhat disappointed to see the open water season end. However, I know that this winters pool season will have its own challenges and excitement and next summer is not all that far off. In a future newsletter I will describe some open water training methods and some race strategies.

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