Always looking to test myself with endurance events, my latest adventure was the Swim to the Moon 5K on Sunday, August 21. I first participated in the race in 2019 and it was my first 5K swim. After COVID forced a break in 2020, I returned for my second time in 2021. Since this was my third time I figured I should know what to expect and how to prepare, yet somehow it ended up being my slowest race of the three.
The first time I did the race I typically swam up to 2,000 meters a few times a week and peaked with a couple of 3,200 m swims. I learned a couple of valuable lessons that first time. I needed to eat more beforehand to fend off hunger late in the race. A painful calf cramp in the final stretch taught me that I should stop at the aid stations along the course to avoid dehydration. I finished the swim in 1:50:00 and knew I wanted to train harder and come back to see if I could do better. The pandemic dramatically reduced my time in the pool so I lowered my expectations for the 2021 race. I finished almost eight minutes slower than my first time but at least I felt good the whole time. I told myself once again that I would train harder and work toward a better race in 2022.
Although I wasn’t always as consistent as I wanted to be, I swam 1-3 times each week and bumped my routine swim up to 3,000 m within a couple months of the race. I also did four longer swims in a lake this summer, ranging from 1:10:00 up to a peak of 1:43:00. I really thought I’d worked hard to prepare for the race.
As the weekend approached, the weather forecast was a cause for concern. We had a 50/50 chance of thunderstorms. A couple weeks earlier I went to a race that was canceled due to bad weather so I was worried it could happen again. I would be much more disappointed this time because I’ve really been working toward this specific goal. I feel for the race director who not only had to plan for every situation, but also had to try to reassure a number of concerned athletes. I received an email the day before the race telling us that multiple plans were in place. We may have to start early or late, the course may be altered, the distances may be shortened, and in the worst case scenario the race could be canceled. It gave me some reassurance that hopefully we would be able to do SOMETHING. I would head out there and see what happened.
The race was based at Halfmoon Lake at the Pinckney Recreation Area in Gregory, MI which is about half an hour northwest of Ann Arbor. It was storming when I woke up but an early email from Epic Races said that the radar looked good from 6:40 through noon so it was a go! I drove an hour and a half through the rain and arrived just after 6:00 when the rain basically stopped. We really lucked out. The 10K swimmers began their race around 6:40. In the past there has been fog over the lake at the beginning but the visibility seemed much better this time.
The race raises money to support North Star Reach, a camp for kids with life threatening, serious, and chronic medical conditions. 5K swimmers take a bus out to the camp and swim through a chain of lakes to get back to Halfmoon Lake. I lined up by 6:45 knowing that the last buses were supposed to leave by 7:00. We probably waited until 7:00 before a bus arrived and the line of people behind me was pretty massive. Really, there wasn’t a big rush because we would have to wait until the fastest 10K swimmers reached the turnaround point by us before the 5K would start, and that usually doesn’t happen until 7:45 or later. Once the bus drops us off all we can do is use the porta potties, pack our extra clothes and items in our gear check bags, and wait.
I used the bus ride to eat my third Picky Bar of the morning and drank an electrolyte drink as well. After a last-minute bathroom stop I went into the water briefly to get the shock out of the way and to get my goggles situated. The water felt just right and was probably around 75-78 degrees.
Although wetsuits are common in triathlons they are not used very much in open water distance swim races. The wetsuit provides a clear advantage in performance and the idea is to compete without that advantage. There are actually very specific rules about what kind of swimsuits are allowed for this kind of race. There was a separate wetsuit division for each distance (which also includes 1.2-mile and half-mile options) and 49 people finished in those divisions, versus 493 finishers without wetsuits. It looks like a total of 274 people completed the 5K swim.
People seed themselves based on how fast they plan to swim and different colored swim caps indicate certain time ranges. I hung back with the people who aimed to finish just under two hours. With people entering the water one at a time every few seconds, I started about seven minutes after the first swimmers. Things worked well because I didn’t have any slower swimmers to go around and also didn’t have any faster people swatting at my feet. I made a point of trying to find some space so I wouldn’t be too close to others. I had a smooth start as I followed the crowd toward the first couple of buoys that marked the course. One strange thing that happened was that the tip of my left middle finger went numb. I have no idea why because the water felt warm enough and the rest of me was fine. It was something that annoyed me for at least 15-20 minutes before it finally faded.
For some reason I’ve always been thrown off by which buoys to follow once I get past the first couple at this race. I may have added a little extra distance to my swim until a guy heading the same way as me told me we should actually swim toward an orange buoy instead of the green one. When he kindly said, “You’re doing great!” it helped me feel a little less annoyed that I keep doing that. I stayed on track the rest of the race although I had my moments of trying to spot the next buoy off in the distance.
It’s always fun to swim through a short tunnel during this race. There is a bit of a current that typically seems to be in favor of the 5K swimmers heading that direction. It may not be as nice for the 10K swimmers on their way out though! At some point I spotted Greg Sadler, one of the race photographers. I know him and love that he gets a ton of great shots at so many Epic Races that I have done. I did breaststroke for a minute so I could say hi to him and let him know it was me. I was happy to see him and he captured that perfectly, as he always does!
My first 5K swim experience taught me to stop for drinks at the aid stations so I don’t get dehydrated, so I made sure to swim over to the first one that was a mile into the race. The next aid station was a mile away and it turned into a grind for a while as I swam along, wondering how long it would take for the next stop to pop up. It was really overcast which was good because I didn’t have to worry about getting too much sun, but sunnier days in the past have made the waterfront homes and other scenery stand out more to me.
When I finally got to the next aid station it was hard to switch from being horizontal to a standing position! I stumbled a little on my way over to get a couple cups of Gatorade. I figured I should get some electrolytes and it had worked for me the prior year. I usually have drinks that are a little more watered down and the sweetness of the Gatorade seemed to be a bit much. During the last mile of the race I began to feel like I could get sick and I suspect the drink was the cause.
The last mile was rough in general. When I did longer training swims in a lake this summer I learned that as I grow tired I also tend to get cold. I reached a point when I was not only cold, but my arms were tired, my goggles were killing my face, and I felt like I could possibly get sick. That’s when I started to think that doing this kind of thing was awfully stupid! When I run I can usually keep a positive mindset but I was so over this swim and ready to be done. I tried to reassure myself knowing at the very least I’d finish and that would be an accomplishment. I wasn’t very confident that I’d improve upon my last two races and the finish line couldn’t come soon enough. Then I encountered a bunch of people with pink swim caps and realized they must be 1.2-mile swimmers who started an hour and a half after I did. They had reached their turnaround point and suddenly I was in the mix with a bunch of people who still had plenty of energy while I did not. I was already grumpy and didn’t want to worry about people getting too close to me. It also meant that I probably still had at least half a mile to go which would be at least 20 minutes at the pace I was going. I switched to breaststroke for brief moments when I didn’t want to do freestyle anymore and needed to give my arms a break. It was a struggle but I knew I had to keep going in order to end it!
When the water got shallow enough for me to walk into the finish line, Greg and his partner spotted me. I felt like hell so I give them credit for actually getting me to smile.
My official time was 2:04:19. Last year I swam 1:57:43 so it was a little disappointing that I was slower even though I thought I had trained harder. Doing a 5K swim is pretty ambitious for me no matter what so getting through it without having a kayak pull me in is a good thing.
I have learned that running is definitely my strength. Depending on who shows up, sometimes my times are competitive – at least in my age group. That is not the case with swimming. I do okay during the swim segments of triathlons but cannot compete when it comes to swim-only events. There’s a reason I quit the swim team after middle school! Still, I enjoy swimming and how it makes me feel strong even if I’m fairly slow compared to the stronger swimmers.
I was cold enough that I bypassed the food and went straight to the gear check to get some clothes. Epic Races always comes through when it comes to the post-race treats. I got pancakes, an egg and cheese wrap, some cookies, and an ice cream sandwich. I stuck around for a bit to take in the atmosphere and to take some pictures before heading home.
I can look at the race from a couple perspectives – it was hard and I hated it at times, yet I also felt proud and accomplished. During the difficult moments I kept asking myself why I do stupid stuff like this. I’m sure I’ll return though. I know I can do better and now I want to redeem myself with a stronger race. I still don’t know why I struggled this time despite doing more long swims during training than I had in the past. As I trained in the lake this summer I came to the realization that my pool times do not translate in the lake. It makes a BIG difference being able to push off the wall every 25 meters. There’s no additional momentum like that in the lake. While a mile typically takes me 31-32 minutes in the pool, I might be closer to 40 minutes in the lake! That’s frustrating but I guess I just have to keep working on it.
I will continue to swim year-round but I’m kind of relieved that the pressure is off for now. I am likely done with multi-sport events for the summer and can focus exclusively on running for the rest of the year. The Toronto Waterfront Marathon is my big goal in mid-October but I have a number of races prior to that. Up next – the Crim 10-mile race this coming Saturday!