Sunburn, Sand & Smiles: My 1st Open Water Swim

I’ve talked before about how hard it is to find open water swimming in my area.  Seems like you either have to drive quite a ways, pay a decent chunk of change, or both.  Just to get a feel for open water?  Really?  I knew I didn’t want my first time to be race day at Reston in September, so I signed up for HarborFest.  Even still, I really wanted the opportunity to swim in calm open water by myself before I had to do it with loads of others around me.  I talked with my parents about it a bit, and we hatched a plan.

As a side note, we paid for both our parking and our beach fees at the entrance gate. I believe it was $4 to park and $3 per person for the beach. We could have paid our beach fees at the snack shack on the beach. However, no one ever asked to see our payment bracelets, and no one else on the beach seemed to be wearing them. I’m thinking you could totally get away without actually paying the beach fee. I want to be really clear that I’m not actually advocating that, as State Parks need the revenue generated by these fees to run.

On Thursday Mom & I both took the day off work.  (Dad the new retiree didn’t need to make such plans!)  We headed down to Lake Anna State Park, and for a nominal set of parking and beach fees, we had ourselves some lifeguarded water, a strip of sand, and a pretty fun day.  Lake Anna is great for families, and there were plenty of kiddos with all kinds of floaties and toys in the water.  I was the only one sporting a tri kit and swim cap, that’s for sure!  The lifeguarded area includes two buoy lines.  The first indicates where no floats are allowed past, and the second indicates where the guarded section ends.  The area between the two lines was virtually empty, so after verifying the rules with the guards, I knew my plan was going to be to swim along the second buoy line.  The water there started about chest deep, but dropped off to over my head rather quickly.  We unpacked the car, set up our umbrella and chairs, and I left my parents behind to face the water.  As my dad later commented, it was a classic day at the beach, because the kids always spend more time in the water than the parents.  Nice to know that holds true 30+ years after my first beach trip.

On the subject of beaches, I have played in open water before, just not tried to really swim anywhere.  I have been in the Santa Rosa Sound and Gulf of Mexico in Florida, along with the Atlantic Ocean at various points along the East Coast.  I had also been reading a lot about open water swimming, and understood that lakes in particular are often dark and hard to see in. Standing on the sand, the water looked light and clear.  Nothing prepared me for being underwater at Lake Anna.  Once you get in, the water is sort of light brown.  You can see your arm in front of you, and then some swirling beneath you, but that’s about it.  Quite the change from my usual black line on the bottom of the pool!

So much bigger than I imagined it would be.  Open water sure is....open.

So much bigger than I imagined it would be.  Open water sure is....open.

The swimming itself was pretty fun!  The first few minutes were all kinds of awful, of course.  The hem of my tri top started to float up, and as I swam it sort of swished around me, like I was a washing machine agitator.  I don’t think I could size down in this top without extreme and uncomfortable compression, so I decided to just ignore it.  I believe the designers at Coeur were assuming I would either be wearing a wetsuit or swimskin.  Not this season!  Besides my wardrobe, I was initially freaking myself out with my own imagination.  Every swirling bit of shadow was the tentacle of some creature that was going to drag me down to the bottom!  Pro tip: don’t reread Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire before open water swimming.  Grindylows will occasionally eat humans! Fortunately, those crazy thoughts subsided after my first pass on the buoy line.  It took me about three minutes to swim the whole line.

I spent a lot of time just going back and forth along the buoy line, getting used to being somewhere besides my usual swimming safe zone.  At times jet skis or boats would go past further out in the lake, and the wakes they created would come through and bounce me around a bit.  I’m sure a real current is much more of a challenge to deal with!  The bobbing made me feel pretty nauseated, despite the fact that I had taken Dramamine and was wearing ear plugs.  Even just trying to swim faster, with a stronger body rotation, made the nausea come on stronger.  Of course, I am the girl who got motion sick learning flip turns, so none of this is a surprise.  I think the jet skis and boats were also responsible for another phenomenon I discovered: a faint petrol taste that I would occasionally get.  Blech!

After about 30 minutes, I swam in and spent some time with my family on the beach.  Can I say again how lucky I am to have such a supportive family?  It really can’t be said enough.  After lunch and some relaxing, I headed out for another swim.  This time I was joined by my dad, and we bobbed around for a bit, enjoying the water.  We also played around with goggles.  Despite having experienced leaking with my R1s, I brought them anyway, just to see how they fared.  Oh, man!  I am SO disappointed that they don’t fit my face.  My other goggles are my Vanquishers, and it was like night and day comparing them to the clarity of the R1s.  Sighting with the Vanquishers was an exercise in futility.  I had to pick my head up pretty far to get a glance, and everything seemed slightly blurry.  It was like looking through smudged glasses.  The R1s, on the other hand, were amazing!  My dad made a comment about RainX, because the water just came right off the lenses like you would not believe.  If you’re on the fence about trying out ROKA goggles, give them a go.  If they fit your face, you will be a very happy camper.

Such a great day.  I can't wait to do it again!

Such a great day.  I can't wait to do it again!

My second thirty-minute swim went by quickly, and I was feeling more confident in the water.  That being said, I think it is really important to mention that at no point was I worrying about my stroke.  I may not be a fast swimmer, but I am confident.  Like everyone, my stroke could use some work, but I have no concerns about actually making forward progress or running out of endurance.  This, I believe, is vital for having a positive first open water experience.  There is so much new stuff going on when you’re in open water for the first time.  Irrational anxiety and fear, visibility, sighting, equipment, and environment are all things your brain is occupied with.  Actual swimming shouldn’t be something you need to think about.  Rather, your stroke should be on full muscular auto pilot!

I am so grateful that I had a good first open water swimming experience.  The only blemish on the day was the rather spectacular sunburn I picked up on my back.  Despite multiple liberal applications of a supposedly waterproof spf 50, my shoulder blades and back of my arms are quite red.  Clearly I need a better sunscreen.  Even still, that was just another lesson to learn before race day.  Speaking of race day, I’m really looking forward to HarborFest.  I know I can swim, and now I know I can swim in open water.  Yes, HarborFest is going to have a current, not to mention crowds of other swimmers.  Good things happen when you leave your comfort zone. I say, bring it on!