Considering the fact that I almost quit shortly into the swim (will expand on that in a moment), I did very well. It is considered an “event” and not a “race” since we were raising money for the first responders of Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. There were no “podiums” or any age-group awards, and there were a little over 100 swimmers that participated. Most made it completely across, but a few were pulled out due to pace and other issues, however they were able to complete the last leg. Again, not a race by any means, but certainly a tough challenge!
The event started the day before, where the race directors and some volunteers did the swim on their own with some support. It was a beautiful day with calm waters, and we were able to watch them finish as well as do some course recon (and help my nervous mom figure out where I will start and finish).
The participants were able to give us some tips on what to expect and one mentioned the waters are likely to look just as good, even better on Saturday. Why I listened to this guy, who knows? But Mother Nature had her own plans…
Driving to the race site a bit groggy on Saturday morning, I didn’t get a good look at the Straits until I got to the starting area. Um, why are there waves and whitecaps already?? And a race director laughing about how we are “really going to earn this today”? Come to find out, the predicted winds changed to North/Northeast and that meant waves and currents all morning. Great…for someone who did not get a lot of chop/wave training before this event, I was about to get more than my fair share now! The only minor advantage was that we were not likely to be pulled out too far from the bridge from the current, but had to be careful not to run into the bridge itself!
As I was questioning my life choices, I got into the water with my assigned group, B. The swimmers were split into waves C, B and A. The C’s were the slowest group based on reported pace, and the A’s were the fastest, so I was in the middle. I waded out and began my swim, only to get slapped in the face a few times. I started to take my buoy out in front of me and kick a bit, and realized this wasn’t going to be a sustainable plan.
I ended up swimming to a kayak to rest a bit. At that point I was contemplating whether to continue, as swimmers kept passing me and thinking about how many miles this will be. The kayaker (bless her heart) told me she was in the same position as me a few weeks ago at another swim, and felt like she needed to give the swim a chance and get out of this “stinkin thinkin”. I sat there for a bit, made myself a deal to do whatever it took to get at least to the South Tower which was a mile ahead, and started heading back towards the bridge and towards the pack. By that time, I was behind but started to try working with the waves, taking breaths only when they subsided and looking down when they were over me. I started feeling a little more confident that I can do this!
(And as much as I had discussed my plan about when this panic moment might happen (on my back for 5 seconds and try again), all was thrown out the window when the waves started slapping! But I was somewhat close to sticking with what I planned to do so I’ll give myself a little credit…)
I made my deal to get to the South Tower, touched it just to say I did, and looked up and realized how massive this bridge really is. But the admiration did not last long as the waves were really picking up, and since I was at the point where freighter boats were most likely to come through, I started hauling big time to get to the North Tower, which was about .75 of a mile stretch. We did have a couple of freighters come through earlier but none were at a point where we needed to be concerned. They stop for NO ONE! We had a flag system to be aware of and I kept looking for a red flag to indicate evacuation to a boat. I did not see any flags so by the time I reached the North Tower I was in the clear, and relaxed a little.
The waves were still coming furiously but I knew I did not have to worry about evacuation or being pulled out of the water. At that point I was a little hungry but unfortunately there was no good place to take a gel, as you were constantly working with opposite currents. I decided to just keep going and thanked myself for at least having a decent breakfast to hold me over.
The water temps were ok for the most part (about 70-ish degrees), but in the last part of the event, the water temp dropped by a lot! It was a bit of a shock to the system and it was like hitting an ice wall; a couple of us stood up quickly exclaiming how cold it was! At that point I just wanted to be done and started swimming faster, ironically passing some swimmers with fins. At that point we reached a causeway. We were warned of a very strong current through the causeway and that we can walk through if needed. I started swimming through it and while it was very dark (and trying not to collide into anyone), there was hardly any current, at least not compared to the currents we fought for a couple of hours! By the time we got out of the causeway, the water turned into bathwater temp and we started to hear the cheering from our friends.
I think that was my second-fastest stretch, to get to the finish line. When I reached the finish, I stood up but it took me a moment to get my land legs back. The volunteers were top-notch and held my hands until I was able to walk and not fall over. I saw my mom first thing, and she was such a welcome sight!!
My time was 2:41, which averaged about a 1:51/100-yard pace, and the swim was almost 5 miles for me. There was a lot of back and forth with the waves and currents. Everyone’s watches showed different yardages so I am not surprised.
Would I do this swim again? Probably not in the near future, however not ruled out completely. The event itself was around $400 (which is completely understandable considering the cost of insurance and support, not to mention any permits to swim the Straits). I do have other events that I want to do, and being the sole income-earner, I have to balance that out. I don’t regret doing it however, and being among a select number of swimmers to successfully swim the Straits of Mackinac is a club I am now a member of!
One thing I did take away from this was the importance of chop training for an event like this. However, that is not always available for everyone. We had some swimmers talk about how they do chop training all the time, which is great if you have the support. It’s important to have a spotter when engaging in such training, and that is what I lacked so I couldn’t do much in the big lakes. After all, safety first!!
However, the strength training and speedwork in my plan seemed to make up for the lack of chop training a bit, and that is my advice for anyone attempting this swim. If I didn’t work with a coach, I would have likely slogged through long swims with no real purpose.
And another takeaway is that Mother Nature can be unpredictable and she is going to do her own thing, so you need to be prepared for anything!
To close, I have the Mackinac Island Swim coming up soon, which is even longer and could be just as choppy. I felt like I dealt with the chop better this time compared to last year when I did the Island Swim relay (after getting over my stinkin’ thinkin’), so I feel more prepared for that challenge!