Race Report: Harborfest Half Iron Swim

Image: WaveOne Swimming

Image: WaveOne Swimming

The Quick & Dirty:

HarborFest 2016 Half Iron Swim

WaveOne Swimming, National Harbor, MD, Maryland

Sunny, Water Temp 82* F

Total Time = 48m 44s (2:19/100 yd)

Overall Rank = F 26/55

Age Group = F 35-39

Age Group Rank = 3/12

HarborFest 2016 Half Iron Swim (that’s 2112 for my fellow yardage peeps) is over, and I’m calling it a success.  Obviously, any time you get to the start and finish lines happy and healthy is a good day, but delving further in is what I’m all about, so here we go.

Pre-Race & Warm Up

I split my time on Saturday evening checking over the course map, packing up my bag, and watching Olympic coverage.  Casa de Youldon is #TeamUSA and #TeamGB, so we had lots of cheering to do.

I slept fitfully and got out of bed for good around 5am. I drank a cup of tea and about 2/3 of a bottle of nuun, and decided to take a quick shower to try to help wake myself up. I also wanted to braid my hair when it was wet, with that it would stay put better.  Usually I wear a bun under my cap, but since this was supposed to be triathlon practice, that means rocking the helmet-friendly french braid.  I’ve never been one to skip a meal, but this particular race morning I was having some nerves.  This swim was going to be less than an hour, so technically I could have done it fully fasted, but again, I wanted to test out nutrition.  I went with a chocolate Rip Van Wafel and about 3/4 of a banana.  Tasty, and, as I would discover, it sat fine during the race.  My other pre-race intake consisted of Bonine and GinGin chewy ginger candy.  Note to self: this stuff is phenomenal.  I'd never been to National Harbor before, so J and I headed out around 6:30 so we would have time to fill up the car, do the drive, and find the place.  It was an uneventful ride in.

They had both done some mega bike mileage the day before, and were running after this.  Hardcore much?

They had both done some mega bike mileage the day before, and were running after this.  Hardcore much?

There was no warm up for this race, so once we arrived I stood in line, got body marked, met internet friends Megan and Liz, sunscreened up, and waited around until they called the 1.2 milers down to the dock.  I shudder to think what my headspace would have been if I hadn’t had the chance to meet these ladies.  I noticed as we stood on the dock that the Potomac didn’t smell super fresh, but didn’t really dwell on it.  More on that later.  About half an hour before go time I had half a pack of Honey Stinger chews.  This wasn’t needed for the swim, but again was more about testing nutrition for Reston.

My race plan, which I had come up with while I stared at the ceiling the night before, was to take the first quarter super easy, second quarter easy, third quarter medium, and last quarter hard.  I don’t think I ever really managed to swim “hard” but I did build in pace through the entire swim, so I’m pleased with how everything went.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I had a moment of anxiety when it was time to jump off the dock, as it seemed so much higher than I was expecting. Someone behind me said, "you're okay," and I suddenly realized I was holding up the swimmers behind me. I jumped in, and suddenly I was fine.  I was in the water, and this was my happy place.  It did seem to be a bit low, as you could see a fair amount of beach (shore?) off to the right.  The current felt strong, as I was being swept up to the front of the start line. Megan and I were both trying to kick back, since we did not want to be right in the front line.  Suddenly Kayak-Man was counting down "3, 2, 1" and we were off!

Look how pretty!  such a gorgeous day for a swim

Look how pretty!  such a gorgeous day for a swim


  • 1.2 miles, 48:44 (2:19/100 yd)

I started out with Tarzan stroke for the first little bit, not wanting to get kicked in the face.  Just a couple strokes in, I decided it was better to just swim, and stuck my face down.  After my swim in Lake Anna, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see beneath me, so it wasn’t a surprise that I was basically blind.  No worries, and onward we go!  I did sight often that first leg, probably every 3 strokes or so, to make sure I was keeping an eye on those around me, and heading in the right direction.  While there was a bit of contact, I probably only caught a couple light arms and feet...no punches or hard kicks. As I got to the first buoy I was feeling more comfortable with the number of people around, and was getting the hang of how to peak for the buoy as I swam along. Understandably, the buoys were the most congested part of the whole race. There were a couple where I swam right on top of them and got pushed into them even more by a swimmer cutting across. No big deal though...just breathe to the other side and keep going!

The last straight away finishing the first loop was quite weedy, which was gross. It would go into my mouth, wrap around my neck, and slide over my arms in a super creepy way. So gross! As I headed down the last straight away, I could see people cheering on the dock, and even saw J in his red shirt.  I could tell he had no idea where I was, as he was looking the other way.

Suddenly I was halfway done and on the second loop.  I considered taking a look at my watch, but figured I should just keep on keeping on. The swim to the first buoy on the second lap seemed to take forever. Maybe the current changed? It was at this point that I realized I wasn't having any contact with people anymore. Maybe the occasional person, but nothing like lap one. I moved it up a gear, into my "medium" swimming tempo. It was at this point that I actually started to wonder if I was swimming super slow or something.  Where was everyone?  J told me after the fact that we all spread out a fair amount, with people taking different lines.  Onward I went, and then I was in the last quarter, and fighting a bit more current. I felt like I was going nowhere for a bit there. Sighting was a bit tough too, as sometimes I lost sight of the orange buoy. The glare off the water was a bit much for me.  At last I was on the final stretch, searching for the green buoys marking the finish line. It was weedy again, with slimy bits clinging to my arms and going down my top.  Gross!  Get out of there!  There was also this one dude that was really intent on swimming quite splashily right near me, so I put on a bit of speed and moved away from him. Then there were the finish buoys, and just like that I was finished.  I called out my number and hauled myself up the ladder onto the dock. All done!

They had set up a shower on the dock, so I rinsed off the super gross and stinky Potomac as best as I could.  The white parts of my kit were brown.  I grabbed a water and hung out on the dock for a little bit.  I chatted with Megan and Liz for a few minutes, then J and I packed it in, leaving them to their running.

Overall Event Comments:

This event was well run, and I would do more by them again. I'm especially interested to try out some of their Wednesday evening or Sunday morning swims, where you pay a fee to come swim with others on a marked course.

Goals & Race Post Mortem:

My goals for this race were to Enjoy, Sight, and I had some goal times knocking around in my head.  I absolutely enjoyed myself and stayed positive, I sighted well, and came in at 48:44.

So….those goal times.  I have to admit that for no apparent reason I was really thinking I’d come in closer to 45.  I saw 48:44 on my watch as I climbed out of the river, and was immediately a bit disappointed.  But hey, I was faster than 50:00, so I passed my O.W.L. in Harborfest.

My limiters this race were my swim technique and minimal OWS experience.  I think another round of lessons to refresh my technique would be a good idea, and finding a good Masters group would probably be beneficial as well.  I would have loved some tinted goggled, as the sun was just awful. I also think I was riding with my head a little high, so I would have wanted to focus on body position more. From a pace perspective, I could have pushed harder for sure, but I wanted to pace more like for a triathlon rather than a standalone swim race. Not bad at all for a first time OWS race.  Now that I have a baseline, I’m looking forward to improving my swim times.  Success, baby!

Much Love and Props to J for the unending support.  Also top notch skills in photography, as this is in fact me.

Much Love and Props to J for the unending support.  Also top notch skills in photography, as this is in fact me.

Race Expectations: HarborFest Half Iron Swim

August snuck up on me, and just like that, it’s a race weekend!  This Sunday is HarborFest, and the event offers 750m, 1.2 mile, 2.4 mile, and 5k options.  It is billed as being perfect for triathletes looking to experience an open water environment without having cycling or running after.  After my swim at Lake Anna, this is a natural next step, no?  My race come September in Reston has a 1500m swim, so I picked the Half Iron 1.2 mile option, figuring in this case that more was better.  Perhaps it’s because I’m hoping this race will just give me experience, but I don’t feel too nervous yet.  We’ll see what happens race morning, though. 

Seems fitting with the Rio Opening ceremonies tonight to look back and remember the time J and I spectated the Women's 1oK swim at the London games.  Photo by J

Seems fitting with the Rio Opening ceremonies tonight to look back and remember the time J and I spectated the Women's 1oK swim at the London games.  Photo by J

Setting goals this season in general has been tough.  I don’t want too much pressure, and I don’t know my abilities or the events well enough to even have reasonable expectations.  That being said, I don't want to go into this with nothing.  I mean, I’m not Haley Anderson or anything, but swimming is currently my strongest of the three disciplines.  According to WaveOne Swimming, HarborFest is an opportunity to “challenge yourself, invigorate your dedications to swimming, and unlock your undiscovered potential.”  Those all sounds like good things, right?  So... goals…I has them:

  • Enjoy! 
    • Swimming in open water is hard to do around here, so I want to make sure I appreciate every single second I’m out there in the water.  That means keeping a positive attitude.  This also means controlling my imagination, and not letting panicky thoughts ruin my day.
  • Sight!
    • By the end of the race I want to have a feeling of what it is like to sight for buoys.
  • Goal Times – so I guess I have to admit that I have some times in my head, even though they are based on my pool swims.  I have no idea if they are realistic, but better to write down a goal and miss making it than pretend I don’t have these numbers jockeying around in my head.
    • Outstanding –  < 40:00
    • Exceeds Expectations – 42:00
    • Acceptable – 47:00
  • Why yes, my goal system is based on the Hogwarts O.W.L. grading system.  So nice of you to notice!  With that in mind, I also have a few markers that can be considered Failing Grades.  Don’t forget, though…if you get a Poor O.W.L. you can repeat. #ravenclawsome
    • Poor -  > 50:00
    • Dreadful – DNF for nonmedical reasons
    • Troll – vomiting on a fellow swimmer

I guess it’s pretty obvious by now that I’m trying to take an easygoing approach to this race.  I'm not tapering at all.  Although, to be quite honest, I haven't been as consistent with my training of late, so my volume has been lower than usual.  Even still, I head into this race with purpose.  I want to experience a pack of swimmers.  I expect to have a full contact swim, a gear malfunction, and a mouth full of water.  I want to swim, not just survive.  I want to get out of the river knowing that 5 weeks from now I’ll be able to do the same thing followed by a bike and run.  Best part about this?  First time at a new race distance means an automatic PR!

Who else is racing this weekend?  Do you ever do standalone open water events?

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. &nbsp;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. &nbsp;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!

The Pooliversary

I’m coming up on my pooliversary, the one year anniversary of me getting back into the pool after a long hiatus.  The last 12 months have been about systematically improving my swim.  I started with a 5 month Learn-to-Swim program I found online, followed it up with group lessons, and am now steadily increasing my workouts.  How cool is to have a plan and follow through?

My home away from home for the last year

My home away from home for the last year

I swim at least once but usually thrice weekly.  Since May I have soaked myself in chlorine for 106 hours, 11 minutes, and 37 seconds.  I have traveled 224,865 yards, all while following a black line to nowhere.  Knowing all that, I thought it would be fun to look back and see what a year can do.

First, let’s talk distance.  I returned to the pool on May 2, 2015.  I swam for half an hour and lost count of my laps almost immediately.  The second time I got in the pool was three days later, and I was prepared with a real workout.  I can’t say enough good things about swim workouts from Sara McLarty.  They are tough, they are free, and they produce results!  I swam 600 yards that day.  Over the next five months my workouts slowly increased to 1800 yards, and once January rolled around I was sitting pretty at 2000 yards.  Proof positive that little changes add up over time, and the body and mind adapt.  Yesterday I swam 2300, and by the end of the year I hope to have 3000 yard workouts.

Obviously the next thing to talk about is time.  Or, more accurately, pace.  When tracking my swim training, I generally turn the watch on, swim, then turn the watch off.  This means that my pace includes my rest times at the wall.  Since I’ve always done that, it’s nice and consistent.  It isn’t perfect, because obviously when I’m resting at the wall I’m not swimming.  You’ve been warned.  When I first started, my paces were hovering around 2:52-3:15/100 yards.  I noticed a nice increase in speed over the fall when I was taking swim class.  I didn’t get a lot of corrections on my freestyle, but learning the other strokes helped my feel for the water.  These days, my paces are coming in around 2:16-2:24/100 yards.

Let’s also take a moment to discuss those other strokes I learned during class.  While I do know butterfly now, the strokes that I practice the most besides free are breaststroke and backstroke.  On my first day of swim class, I was mortified to discover that when I tried to swim breaststroke, I moved backwards.  Backwards!  For the next several weeks, I became a breaststroke machine.  Being so focused didn’t hurt my freestyle at all.  In fact, I truly believe that learning all the strokes is incredibly beneficial for triathlete swimmers.  Learning to feel the water in different ways makes it more obvious when you’re getting something right, which in turn helps you practice with good technique.  Definitely a win!

The other gains aren’t as easy to quantify, but the big one is confidence.  I chuckle now to think of how anxious I was of going to the pool last year.  I thought people would stare, or make fun of me for being a bad swimmer.  My experience was nothing but positive, and now I have lots of confidence on the pool deck.  Tiny bathing suit?  Whatever.  Weird drill sets?  Sure, why not.  I identify strongly as a member of the swimming gang at my local REC center, and swimming is where it’s at.

Now comes the time to look ahead.  Yes, I’ve had a great year, but I want to continue to improve.  I have big goals, and none of them can be won in a swimming pool come race day.  The next big step on my swim journey is taking on OWS = open water swimming.  I have some logistical challenges I’ll need to figure out, since Fairfax County is apparently very anti-OWS.  I’m really looking forward to venturing out of my comfortable little pool and swimming in the real world!

What's in the Swim Bag?

What's in the Swim Bag?

It’s a well-known fact that triathlon is a gear-heavy sport.  Even if you’re trying to keep it minimal, the amount of gear it takes to train and participate in triathlon is mind-boggling.  In this series, I plan on giving regular updates on what gear I’m using for each discipline.  Not a review, just a quick rundown so I can pinpoint in time what I’ve been using, what’s working, and what needs adjusting.  So with winter 2016 behind us, here’s what’s been in the swim bag.

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