Saturday, July 23, 2011

Circumnavigating Lady Liberty

We had stood in line at Battery Park, ridden the ferry, eaten a sandwich, picked up our race caps, stretched our legs, taken team photos, and were now in line with 235 other barefooted, goggle-adorned swimmers, trooping across the liberty island to line up for our race: The NYC SWIM Liberty Island Swim.
When we reached the railing that ran along the southwest corner of the island, we stopped and were instructed to line up numerically, by the race number scrawled on our caps and arms in black permanent marker. The sky was slowly darkening, and the choppy water rocked the ferry in front of us back and forth. As I found my place in line, a few raindrops pricked my skin. Please, I thought, don't let it rain until the race is over. I personally didn't care about getting wet--I was about to jump into a river, anyway--but with no sun and a relentless breeze, goosebumps had already risen on my arms and legs. If it rained while I was in the water, the sweatshirt and sweatpants I had packed in my bag, which was now sitting exposed at the fenced-in bag check area, would be useless.

"They'd better hurry up," said a a voice behind me. I turned to find a tall, pale boy looking at me. He had that underdeveloped, bony look that most fifteen-year-old boys have, where their muscles look a slightly soft and misplaced on their bodies, and their facial features are just a bit too big, giving them a somewhat comical appearance. He shook his head.
"Why are the giving out the timing chips like this, anyway?"

I looked around until I found what he was referring to: race organizers were walking up and down the line of swimmers, calling out numbers and removing black plastic timing chips one at a time. Other volunteers were trailing behind, passing out velcro strips to attach the chips around our ankles.

"They should have just given us the chips when we signed in," I agreed. "We had to pick up our caps then, anyway."

The boy grinned in relief and extended his hand. "Hi, I'm Chris."

"I'm Allison."

We continued to stand in line for the next 30 minutes, discussing our swimming backgrounds, the differences between open water and pool swimming, and our expectations for this race.

"I just don't want it to rain," I told him.

"Oh, I hope it rains!" he replied. "That'll give me an advantage."

"Are you trying to win or something?"

He looked hopeful. "Nah, but I'd love to finish in the top ten."

Right at that moment, we both heard a woman call out his name. "Chris? Chris G___?" He raised his hand and waved, and the woman came over to him. "Chris, I'm so glad I found you. I have your medal. Is your family here?" He nodded. "Great. I'll just find them and give this to them. Congratulations again."

As she walked away, I turned back to him with raised eyebrows. "So you really are trying to win this race."

He shook his head adamantly, explaining that it was just an age-group medal and insisting that the field was too competitive. "There were swimmers from all over the world here to do this race!"

Sure, sure, I thought, but you would still like to win.

Finally, we were given the go-ahead to file over the dock and onto the ferry. One by one, we jumped off the side and into the water and treaded together in one huge jumble, bumping and kicking and splashing one another in an effort to stay between the two orange start-line buoys.

At last, the final swimmer had entered the water and we were ready to go. They gave us the countdown and . . . go! Arms and legs flailed as we pummeled and struck one another in an effort to get to the clear water ahead. My heart surged as I tried to keep from being pushed under by swimmers behind me while avoiding the feet of those in front. Every time I turned to take a breath or raise my head, waves crashed into my face. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't. . . .

I was clear. I had made it past the old woman in the flowered bathing suit who kept cutting me off and the man in the wetsuit who kept swimming up on top of my legs. The feet of the person ahead of me made a burst of bubbles I could follow, and my arms suddenly felt loose and strong. Stroke, two, three, breathe. Look ahead. Stroke, two, three, breathe.

I passed four buoys, the northern dock, and then five more buoys. I could only see a few swimmers ahead, their pink caps bobbing above the murky green-gray water. And there it was: the southern dock! There was the finish!

My arms felt even stronger, and I surged forward, increasing my tempo and pulling with all my might. There was a man ahead to my left; could I catch him? I breathed to my left, keeping him in sight as I decreased the distance between us. How far was it to the finish? Two hundred yards? Five hundred? There was no way I could keep up this pace for five hundred yards. It had to be closer than that.

My shoulders burned and my lungs ached. I accidentally breathed to my right and was rewarded with a mouthful of salty Hudson River water. But I was almost there.

With my last few strokes, I cut in front of the man I had been chasing and yanked myself up onto the ladder hanging from the dock. Panting and dripping, I shuffled forward onto the mat and into the corral. I had made it! And it wasn't even raining.

Results for this race:
Race Length Finishing TimeOverall Place Gender Place (All Women) Age Group Place (F20-30)
1.2k 20:24 31/236 15/99 4/19

Also, for anyone who's interested, my waiting-line buddy Chris finished 14th overall and 4th in his age group (M10-20) with a time of 19:34.

Next open water swim: the Little Red Lighthouse 10k on September 24, 2011. Stay tuned!

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