Epic Races‘ Swim to the Moon 5K was a new crazy adventure for me. I’ve toyed with the idea of signing up for this race for years. The thought of trying a 5K open water swim was a challenge that I was pretty sure I could take on, yet I had reservations. My biggest excuse was that my goggles usually get too painful after a mile or so. How could I attempt three miles if I’d want to rip the goggles off my face? My hunt for the perfect pair of goggles has mostly been fueled by the goal of wanting to try this race. I’ve gone through so many different kinds and most of them either leak or hurt my face after a while. An old pair of Speedo’s Vanquisher goggles has been my best bet. I bought a new pair a couple months ago and found that they haven’t hurt me as much as my old pair. Making it through 2,000 m straight without tearing my goggles off finally reassured me that maybe this would be the year.
You would think I would have been more concerned about properly training for the distance. I’ve been working hard this year with this race always in the back of my mind but peaked at 3,200 m once in June and once in July. I aim to swim 2,000 m a few days a week and try to get a longer swim in during the weekend when I can, but I’ve been slacking on the long weekend swims lately. It can be hard to find time for long swims, bike rides, and runs during triathlon season without running myself into the ground. It’s also challenging when I end up racing nearly every weekend and still want to concentrate on building mileage for marathon training. I knew I’d be going into this race with a decent enough base but I would also be undertrained. I wasn’t going to let that deter me though. I knew I would be fine for at least a couple miles. If I needed to, I’d just swim some breaststroke to help me get through the rest. No more excuses!
After signing up I questioned why I am I driven to do these crazy things. I think a big part of it is knowing that I’m capable, so why not get out there and actually prove it? Hundreds of people participate in this event and pictures from past years have shown a whole variety of ages and body types. Some people are speedy, some are slower, but the bottom line is that they got out there and did it. Why not me? I didn’t expect to be competitive and figured I might place somewhere in the middle of the pack. My goal was simply to finish and experience that feeling of accomplishment.
On the Thursday evening before the race I watched a video conference with the race director (Eva Solomon) where she gave an overview of the event and answered questions. Hearing someone talk through an event always helps me feel more prepared and eases some of my worries. She went over questions such as how the rolling start would work, how people would seed themselves, what the water temperature was, etc. I also learned that there would be pancakes after the race. I am easily motivated by food and knowing there would be good post-race treats would help push me through the swim.
The race took place on Sunday, August 18th at the Pinckney Recreation Area in Gregory, MI. I arrived at Halfmoon Lake around 6:20 knowing that I needed to go to packet pickup and be on a shuttle bus by 7:00. We received a bag to use for gear check plus temporary tattoo race numbers to apply to our arms. They also had bins of different colored swim caps based on estimated finish times. That would help sort people into groups of similar paces.
Aside from the 5K, people could also choose to swim a 10K, 1.2 miles, or half a mile. There was also an option to “double dip” and do one of the shorter distances after one of the longer swims. The 10K was due to start at 6:40 with swimmers taking off from the beach at Halfmoon Lake, but they started about 15 minutes late.
I got in line for the bus and rode to the 5K start at the Patterson Lake beach by North Star Reach – a camp for children with serious health issues. Then it was just a matter of killing time. I ate a few Clif Bloks and used a drinking fountain several times to try to make sure I was hydrated. I had a feeling that could be one concern during this race. After using the bathroom, applying sunscreen, and scoping everything out, I packed my extra clothes and sandals in the gear check bag and waited for the start.
I waded into the water to see how it felt and realized the bottom was a little rocky in spots. The temperature was reported to be 78° which was perfect. There was a division that specifically allowed people to wear wetsuits but they wouldn’t be eligible for awards. The temperature was warm enough that I knew I didn’t want to wear a wetsuit. During the announcements we learned that more than $60,000 has been raised for North Star Reach to date – pretty awesome. One of the campers was there along with his parents and it was pretty moving to hear how thankful they were.
We were due to start about an hour after the 10K swimmers started. The whole idea was to wait for the fastest 10K people to arrive then start mixing the fastest 5K people with them. It was a good way to keep similar paces together. We cheered as the first 10K people arrived, gave them a minute or two, then the group of 5K swimmers who were considered “contenders” started. Thanks to Greg Sadler Photography for the official race photos.
Based on my pool times, an hour and a half would be the fastest I could possibly go. That’s only if I could maintain my one mile pace for three, which is already being optimistic. I thought 1:35-1:40 might be a good range. I found other people with the same color swim cap and stood near the back of that group. I watched as swimmers were sent in the water every three seconds to help avoid congestion. Eventually I worked my way up to the front, ran through the shallow part of the water, then started my swim. My swim photos sure aren’t glamorous!
The 5K was a point-to-point race through a chain of lakes. It was all good as I made it to the first buoy, but at one point a volunteer in a kayak had to tell me that I was headed the wrong direction. I thought I needed to go on the opposite side of the incoming 10K swimmers, but I should have veered off toward another buoy. Great way to start my race! I’m not sure how much extra time and distance I may have added on, but I was thankful for the volunteer and also glad that I didn’t have any real expectations in terms of my finishing time.
When I made it to the next buoy a few swimmers had stopped and questioned where we should go next. Another person in a kayak helped direct us. After the first couple buoys I didn’t struggle too much figuring out where to aim for the rest of the race. Sometimes I just needed to do some breaststroke to scope things out and see where the other swimmers were headed. I knew that we had a tunnel to swim through, and it was basically just a spot under a bridge. We were told to swim single file there so the 10K swimmers could swim on one side while we were on the other. The tunnel wasn’t as long as I had imagined, not claustrophobic, and since we took it slowly, some people had fun with it and shouted out to hear their voices echo.
I got thirsty after a bit and was thankful when I noticed an aid station off to the side. I may have been swimming almost an hour at that point. It was kind of like a walk-up bar where I asked for a cup of water then a cup of Gatorade before heading off again.
It was a beautiful, sunny day and I spent a lot of time appreciating the opportunity to enjoy the lakes. Aside from races I typically don’t get the chance to swim in lakes. If I don’t have a lifeguard available I’m not going to go out on my own. There were a few stretches with seaweed but most of the swim was really nice. Since my face was down in the water most of the time it was hard to completely take in the scenery, but I noticed some nice houses along the water. I figured it didn’t matter how long it took me to finish and I would just enjoy being out there.
There were a few times when people got a little too close for comfort. I expected it in the more narrow, congested spots and know that people swatting your feet or bumping into you is just part of open water races. When we were in big, open parts of the lake I got annoyed when people came right up next to me. Sometimes I stopped to do breaststroke for a minute, let them go by, then I swam over to a spot where I had more space. I did breaststroke occasionally when I was on the lookout for buoys and just to change things up for a minute. Later in the race I could tell that my arms were feeling it a little bit so breaststroke gave me a little reprieve.
Eventually I got hungry. I knew that fueling could be one tricky part about this race. I had a Picky Bar before I left home, another when I got to the parking lot, and a few chews right before I started. It’s kind of hard to do much during the swim though. I guess instead of my casual, leisurely pace I needed to swim faster so I would finish sooner!
Aside from getting hungry and thirsty, I felt pretty good for most of the swim. I took it so easy that I really didn’t get very sore or tired. My biggest issue was pain from my right big toe. For some reason it kept bothering me and I figured I might have a cut. I tried to check it out a couple times but it was kind of hard in the water and I didn’t notice anything. I was aware of it for most of the swim and sometimes it hurt enough to really bother me. I switched to breaststroke when that happened and it helped a little. When I switched back to freestyle sometimes the first kick or two was bothersome, but then I managed to settle back into things.
One tricky thing about swimming versus running is that it’s not very easy to glance at my watch to see the distance. I didn’t know how long I’d been swimming or how much further I still might have to go. At one point I spotted a big blue arch off in the distance and knew that was the finish. I got excited because I had something to aim for.
I picked up my pace a little bit and finally made more of an effort. Things were going well until a charley horse struck my left calf. The pain was agonizing. I’m glad it’s happened in the water a couple times before so I didn’t completely freak out. Still, it hurt SO bad. It wasn’t shallow enough to stand and I couldn’t use that leg for breaststroke kick, so I basically had to tread water. I hoped I wouldn’t have to call a kayak over. Somehow it faded within a minute and I was able to get back to swimming normally. I had a feeling dehydration had finally caught up to me because that’s typically the suspected cause whenever I get a charley horse.
I kept working my way toward the wonderful blue arch until the water was shallow enough to stand. I wouldn’t say I ran because I still wasn’t really in any hurry, but I splashed my way through until I got to the timing mat on the beach. Surprisingly I wasn’t wobbly or anything. I received my medal and walked up to the grass.
I saw the tent with post-race food and went there before doing anything else. I didn’t even bother to take my swim cap off yet. Pancakes weren’t available at that moment but I got a grilled cheese sandwich and some chips. I kept going back to fill my cup with Gatorade since I knew I better re-hydrate. I also found a cooler with ice cream treats like mini Drumsticks and ice cream sandwiches. I stopped there a couple times.
I collected my stuff at gear check and finally took a look at my toe. Between wrinkled skin from being in the water so long and sand on the bottom of my feet, I still couldn’t see what was wrong. I wondered if maybe it had just been rubbed raw somehow.
I went back to the food tent when pancakes were available and eventually I found my results posted on a van. I suspected I would finish somewhere in the middle of the pack and I was right – I was 8th out of 16 in my age group.
With 246 finishers (plus 26 in the wetsuit division), the 5K had the most participants. 161 (plus 7 people in wetsuits) did the 10K, 150 swam 1.2 miles, and 49 swam half a mile. Over 600 people did the race.
When I got home it was nice to get cleaned up. I was a little surprised by how much lake gunk was clinging to the inside of my swimsuit and to my skin. I finally got my feet cleaned up enough to see that I had a cut on the bottom of my right toe. It was almost like a papercut – just a little slice. I’m not sure when it happened, but maybe while I was walking around barefoot before the race or maybe on a rock when I ran into the water? I went straight to dark thoughts of hoping the water didn’t have any kind of bacteria to infect the wound and cause my toe to get amputated. I’ve obviously read too many scary news stories. Nothing has happened a couple days after the race so hopefully I’m in the clear!
A couple days after the race my left calf still hurts. It’s amazing that a charley horse can cause so much suffering after the fact. I felt very slight soreness in my arms, shoulders, and obliques, but that calf was my biggest casualty. It’s agonizing trying to work it out with the foam roller. I will probably just have to wait a few days for it to fade.
I had estimated that my time might be at least 10 minutes faster than it was but it really didn’t bother me. After so many years of thinking about this race I was pretty proud of myself for finally doing it. I may have taken a leisurely approach but I was able to enjoy the experience. Now that I have confirmed that I am capable of covering the distance, the next step is to train more and improve my time. If I drink some Gatorade prior to the race, more during the race, aim for the right buoys, and don’t cut my toe, surely I can shave some time off. I knew it would be a learning experience and fortunately I enjoyed myself enough to want to return and put those learnings to use in the future.