The last two years I have been kicking myself for missing the Music City Triathlon, now part of me is kicking myself for doing it. It’s a really cool set up in downtown Nashville, but don’t let the serenity fool you, this race was tough; mainly because of the swim.
The looming swim always intrigues me, and Music City was no different. I pass over the Cumberland River daily and peer into its murkiness while daydreaming about a quick dip. Yesterday, I got my chance . . . and it nearly overwhelmed me. It certainly overpowered others and forced organizers to cancel the Sprint Distance Swim (during the race) because few, if any, people even finished.
A few days before the race I posted a preview of the course and it turned out to be completely wrong. For some reason they reversed the direction. Instead of starting upstream along the bank for about a third of the rectangle, we were now starting down-current for about 500 yards before swimming upstream the next 800 or so, then angling back to the swim exit.
On Saturday the current looked strong, but I heard they were going to slow it by shutting the dam, which they allegedly did the morning of the race. I stood in line and watched as swimmers went out before me and laughed at the absurd turns people were making around the first buoy. Instead of angling toward the next one, they were getting whisked down river 50-100 yards. It was ridiculous and very few of the swimmers seemed to be handling the corner. I should have stopped laughing because I was about to be another case study.
They “said” it was 500 yards to the first turn buoy, but felt like it took me two minutes. As I neared the orange triangle, I swung out a bit to the left so I could get a good angle before cranking my effort to 10 and digging 45-degrees up and over to hit the next buoy near the other side of the river. This is when shit got interesting.
After 10 very hard strokes around that corner I looked up and saw that I was literally 20 yards downstream from the buoy I just cornered. Talk about freaked out! I was swimming as hard as I could and going backwards!
I guess human instinct is powerful because somehow I found my bearings and decided to get to the other side of the river while sacrificing forward progress. That was a devastating decision, but I had no choice. Here are some things that ran through my mind at that point (sorry for the overuse of exclamation points, but this was intense self-talk):
1. Holy shit, you’re going backwards.
2. Swim harder!
3. Yeah, who’s laughing now, Mike!
4. Fuck it, I’m quitting.
5. No! Embrace the challenge and you’ll be better for overcoming it!
6. Just get to the shore.
7. Damn, my goggles are fogging.
8. Where am I??
9. I bet my dog is sleeping right now.
10. Don’t stop swimming!
That last thought may have been the most important. Though I was barely moving, the slightest 3 second break would send you flailing toward Kentucky (which I understand is where the Cumberland River goes).
Once I got near shore, I turned upstream. I had no concept of time, but it felt like it took me two minutes to get to the first turn buoy, then about 10 minutes just to get across the river (maybe I should have walked along the river bank like one guy I talked with after the race). Now I was plowing head-on into a “weaker” current near the opposite shoreline, but it was still tough. I swam very hard and it must have taken me at least 10 more minutes to get back to even with the starting line.
Now I had another 400 or so to go before turning back to finish.
I breath to my right and all I could see was the Nashville skyline, but nothing really gave me an indication of just how slow I was moving. That was, until I closed in on the last turn buoy. I had it in my sights, maybe 25 yards away, and was catching and pulling harder than ever. I put my head in the water and sighted every 5 strokes. I was working HARD and 5 strokes barely moved me. 30 strokes later I could nearly touch the buoy. I was maybe 10 yards away. It was RIGHT THERE. I dug even deeper, sighting every stroke, and let me tell you, I wasn’t moving! It felt like I was in a Snow Glob with orange triangle buoys popping up all around me.
I finally did reach the buoy where a whole new challenge emerged. You had to get about 5 yards past it before you turned or you might get hung up in the plastic triangle or its ropes (which I heard at least two people tell me they did).
Once I successfully navigated the corner, there was another 45 degree angle across the river at a target around 400 yards away. This was infinitely easier than crossing the other way and I swam easily and let the current take me to the swim exit.
As I cruised toward the ladder my only thought was, “Holy fuck, how are people going to finish this?” I am not a great swimmer, but effort-wise that may have been the best swim of my life and still took me 30 minutes for 1,500 meters. Thirty people took over an hour and 23 others swam in the 50-60 minute range . . . for an Olympic.
To put that in perspective, my first Olympic swim was an absolute disaster and took me 42 minutes. I was hanging on kayaks, floaty noodles and treading water the whole time. Yesterday, nearly a quarter of the field at Music City Triathlon swim field clocked in at over 50 minutes.
To add another perspective, the median swim time for most age groups at Ironman Chattanooga in 2014 (over twice the distance) was under an hour.
Music City was a difficult swim, and as I sit here thinking about it one day later, I am happy it worked out that way. It was a major challenge and reminded me of the brutally cold and rainy Olympic I did in Knoxville a couple years ago. It really sucked at the time, but I am 100% sure I it has made me a better triathlete.