A Good/Bad Race: Point to LaPointe 2019

A few months ago I decided to sign up for the Point to LaPointe race again. I’ve done this 2.1 open mile swim race a few times before (and here when I was pregnant and didn’t know it yet) and have always thought that the race was really well organized. The quality of the race plus any chance to get to the lovely lakeside town of Bayfield is worth taking. I was definitely interested in going to Bayfield as our summer family trip — we’re still here and I’m currently sitting in our condo, watching a thunderstorm roll over Lake Superior, and my heart is happy — but I also felt like I still had unfinished business with the race. I’ve done it three times but have never felt like I was as well trained as I could be. I’ve always hit the finish line wishing I had done a little better.

Sidenote: I’m always proud of myself for finishing and I recognize that this is a race that attracts A LOT of fast swimmers and plenty of people using this as a tune-up race before doing Ironmans in the fall. People may casually sign up for a running/walking a 5K, but nobody who isn’t a pretty confident swimmer is likely to sign up for a swim this long, in water this potentially cold. So, I’ve more than made my peace with the fact that I’m never going to win this race or win my age group. The best I’ve ever done is coming in 322nd (out of about 400).

In addition to wanting to do the work needed to feel more confident at the starting line, I also know that I’m a person who FOR SURE exercises more regularly when I have something to train for. So I started to train this spring and found myself swimming more regularly than I had in years. And it was good. I mean, it was hard and uncomfortable at first. I used to swim competitively as a kid and in high school and sometimes I am all to acutely aware of how slow I am compared to how I used to be. I’m also 40 now and seem to have the middle age combo pack of physical complaints. I’ve got carpal tunnel syndrome that I keep making worse by new phone game obsessions (hello, Wizards United). I get joint pain off and on. I wake up with numb hands and sore shoulders sometimes from sleeping funny. Yes, I’m now at the age where I can potentially injury myself in bed and not in any sort of fun, sexy way.

But I did the work. I’ve swam over 40 miles this spring and made it to the pool 2-4 times per week for most of the summer. I dealt with my frustrations about how limited the options are for plus-sized gear and got a wetsuit, even though I hate wetsuits, because the race requires them and Lake Superior can be so very cold. I only wore my wetsuit once to train in because the lake near my house got too warm. But that swim went well enough and I was hoping that I the fact that I had a sleeveless wetsuit would prevent me from feeling claustrophobic, which was an issue the first time I did the race.

Spoiler alert: this wetsuit stuff becomes important.

In the lead up to the race this year, I was the least nervous I’ve ever been. I felt good about the fact that I’d done more open water swimming practice than ever before. I did multiple swims of about 1.5 miles. I felt even more relaxed when I got to Lake Superior a few days before the race and found that the water was about as perfect a temperature as Lake Superior gets. Cold still, but not take your breath away cold. I was still a little nervous, because I always am, but I was also hopeful. Maybe I’d hit some of my more ambitious goals (finish in under one hour, 30 minutes, finish in the top 60-75% of racers, beat my best time of 1:21).

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(See that land in the distance? That’s where we swim to)

The morning of the race was basically postcard perfect. The lake was flat and there was no wind and the gentlest of currents. My friend who was also doing the race and I got there in plenty of time and watched as the beach slowly filled with racers (over 500 people were signed up but just over 400 actually started). I wrestled myself into my wetsuit and noticed that there were a handful of people not wearing wetsuits. I’d done the race once without a suit and felt a bit jealous of the non-wetsuit wearers. But I didn’t take my wetsuit off because the race rules were clear that you needed to request written permission in advance to swim without a wetsuit, a rule that makes total sense from a safety perspective. I also decided not to warm up before the race. Given that I was planning to swim for at least an hour and a half, I figured I could just take the first 10 minutes or so to warm up. In hindsight, this is one of the dumber racing ideas that I keep having.

At 7:20, the first horn sounded and the men’s heat got started. A few minutes later, the horn blew again and it was my turn. I hit the start button on my watch timer and started to swim. All around me were bubbles and legs and nice midwestern women trying not to kick each other. At first, I felt great. The water was cool, I didn’t get kicked in the face, and I was to the first buoy in about 7 minutes, which was ahead of the schedule I’d set for myself. Between the first and second buoy was about 1/4 to 1/3 of a mile of open water. I tried to get myself into a rhythm of swimming 10 strokes and then popping my head out of the water to make sure I was staying on course (the visibility this year was great and I always felt like I knew exactly where I was swimming toward). I’d picked out Tegan and Sara’s song Closer as my race song and tried to get it running through my head, but I started to think about how heavy my wetsuit felt and then I couldn’t stop thinking about how heavy my wetsuit felt. My thinking turned rather quickly into feeling panicky. I was only 10 minutes in to the race and I started freaking out. I tried to get myself just to swim 10 strokes and I’d make it five before having to stop and get my whole head out of the water to breathe. I’m pretty buoyant anyways and the wetsuit made it so I couldn’t really sink, so I wasn’t worried that I would drown, but I just felt trapped and my heart started to race in away that had nothing to do with the exercise I was doing. I started doing a side stroke and watched as what felt like dozens of women swam around and past me. I finally gave up and raised my arm into the air to signal to one of the race kayaks that I needed help. 

As I waited for someone to notice me (it felt like it took awhile, but I don’t really have a sense of how much time actually passed) I started to think about what was going to happen next. If I got pulled out of the race, I’d get sent back to the starting shore. My husband and kids would be waiting for me at the finish line and the thought of not getting to look up and see them as I finished made me so sad. I wanted to keep going but I also knew that I needed to do something because the finish line felt so far away and I felt so trapped.

A man in a white kayak finally noticed me and paddled over. He told me to grab the side of his kayak but at first I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if I’d be disqualified if I touched the boat. He asked me if I was okay and I blurted out that I was kind of panicking and that I felt like my wetsuit was filling with water and pulling me down (I did have a small hole in my wetsuit but I’m very confident that the problem was me and not the suit). As I watched more people pass me, I knew that I didn’t want to quit and that I didn’t want to keep wearing the damn wetsuit.

What happened next was not a well thought out plan.

I asked the kayaker if he could take my wetsuit. He hesitated and said he wasn’t sure if the rules allowed it. At that point, I really, really didn’t care if I got DQed at the end of the race. I knew that I wasn’t going to get to the end of the race if I didn’t get out of the wetsuit, like right now. He then pointed out the other obvious problem: how was I going to get out of the wetsuit and not lose my timing chip (which was strapped around my ankle) while floating in the lake? Sensing that he was wavering on his hesitation (which, I should note, I totally get. I’m guessing they don’t cover racers wanting to ditch their wetsuits in mid-race in the pre-race briefing), I pulled the timing chip bracelet off my ankle and held it in between my teeth. Thankfully, my wetsuit has a zipper in front and not back like most suits, so I unzipped it and started to shimmy out of it. I’ve never been more grateful for the fact that I’m a floater and not a sinker. I had to tug to get it off my ankles and then I was free. I swam it over to him, told him my name was Wendy and said I’d try to find him after the race to get the suit back. I put my goggles back on and started swimming again.

At that moment, I didn’t really have a plan for how and where I’d find my wetsuit at the end of the race. I didn’t know if I’d be DQed at the finish line. I was still trying to breathe away some of the panic. I wish I had checked my watch to see how much time I lost, but I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to do that. I just started swimming again, feeling so grateful to feel light and unencumbered. If the wetsuit hadn’t cost over $100 and been worn only twice before this, I wouldn’t have cared if I ever saw it again.

Eventually I calmed down enough to think again. I started looking for the next buoy. I caught and passed a few people. I felt fairly strong. I looked at my watch and felt like I was moving at a good pace and that maybe I was actually somehow ahead of my time expectations (I wasn’t, I was basing my calculations on the idea that all the buoys were equidistant apart and I really, really don’t think they were). I passed another person or two. I refused to let myself stop and look to see if how many people were behind me. I felt good about my pace and even a little proud of myself for getting through my freak out and figuring out what I needed to to move forward.

After I passed what I thought was the halfway point, I felt like a time of under an hour and a half was still possible. I started to even think about getting a PR. But then the second half of the race seemed to take forever. I looked down at my watch and I was at 1:24 and I knew I wouldn’t get a PR. I saw the giant rubber duck that marks the finish line and tried to pick up my pace. But then I saw 1:30 go past.. and then 1:35….

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I swam as hard as I could, passing two more people in the final 100 yards and finally made it to the finish line at the dock at 1:43: 25, which is my second slowest race time for this race. I looked up and swam my kids waving at me and I was just so glad to see and them and so glad to be done.

I got out of the water and found them waiting for me, along with my husband who was like “wait, what? You took your wetsuit off DURING THE RACE?” and stood watching as our friend finished a few minutes after me. At that point I was just tired and happy and glad to be out of the water. I eventually found the race director, who found my wetsuit, and stuck around to watch the final racers finish. Then it was a beautiful ferry ride back to the shore at Bayfield and a stop in town for a pre-nap ice cream cone.

All afternoon, I refreshed my phone to see if the race results had posted, but they hadn’t. I started thinking about the goals I had set pre-race. I had finished the race (check) but I hadn’t met any of my time goals. I was certain that I hadn’t improved on how high I had finished, but I was hoping I had maybe not finished last in my age group. The more the time passed from the relief and endorphins of the finish line, the more down I started to feel about things. Why had I panicked about swimming a race I’ve done three times before? Why hadn’t I practiced more in the wetsuit? Why hadn’t I trained more? Why was I so slow? When the race results posted, I saw that I finished behind 91% of all the racers, which made me feel so disappointed.

(It’s a funny thing, I have no feelings that anyone else should be disappointed for being in the back of the pack. I don’t think I should feel disappointed either. The whole point is just to do the thing and to do the work to get ready for the thing, but my emotions don’t really care about that part)

I felt down about the whole thing yesterday. I felt mad at my body for not being the fast in the water body I wish it was. I felt made at myself for feeling unkind toward my body. I ate too much ice cream and my stomach hurt and I wondered why I even sign up for things that I’m not good at anymore.

But I’m trying to rally and to think about how to do this differently next time — which is a sign that the post-race amnesia is starting to kick in because oh my god why do I want to do this whole mess again?

But I probably do. Because I don’t want to feel like I’m not doing it again because I’m scared or feel slow or ashamed that I’m not the sleek swimmer I once was.

I’m going to go for a swim now. My kids and husband are waiting on the beach for me and they don’t care that 91% of racers were faster than me. We’ll get ice cream later and enjoy our last day on the lake. And tomorrow I’ll start over.

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