W e stood on a weedy bank of the James River just outside Richmond, 80 swimmers Lycra-clad and goose-bumped at 9 on a cool June morning, eyeing the mud-yellow water swirling past in a constantly shifting pattern of ripples, bubbles and eddies. It was my first open-water competitive swim, a one-miler, part of the James River Adventure Games.
As sporting events go, the parameters were simple. In a few minutes, we would jump in, swim upstream a half-mile, round a bright yellow, inflated rubber buoy anchored there, and swim back.
Simple, that is, until you're churning upriver in water the color and opacity of miso soup, trying to draw a bead on a floating rubber blob several thousand feet away -- my eyesight's not that good even on land -- while holding a straight line against a sweeping current. By the way, go fast; this is a race.
In ideal conditions, the best open-water swimmers in the United States can swim a mile in less than 20 minutes; the day's overall winner nabbed first place in a comfortable 21:15.3 or, I would guess, just about the time I finally managed to paddle an awkward turn around the midpoint buoy and head for home. Swimming with the current, however, I picked up speed and washed past the finish line with a time that put me solidly in the middle of the pack (33:32.4), happy to have finished and already calculating how I might do better next time.
Fortunately, the mid-Atlantic region offers plenty of opportunities to find out. Thanks to our proximity to rivers, lakes, the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean, along with a climate favorable to a long outdoor season, you can find open-water events from spring through fall all within one or two hours' travel. Local, first-timer-friendly events include the one- and two-mile Lake Montclair swims Saturday in Dumfries, the one- and two-mile Jim McDonnell swims at Lake Audubon in Reston in May and the Chris Greene Lake two-mile swim near Charlottesville in July. Many of the increasing number of triathlons in the region hold the swim stage in open water. (If you're in it only for the swimming, recruit a biker and runner and enter as a relay.) Then there's the considerably more challenging Great Chesapeake Bay Swim on the second Sunday in June, 4.4 miles across the bay under the Bay Bridge in Maryland. It's limited to 600 participants and requires proof of a qualifying swim, but the event has grown so popular that entry is by lottery.
The Call of the Open
What draws hundreds of people to throw themselves into the bay and fight their way to the other shore through up to several hours of rolling swells and the pull of the tide, the nauseating swill of saltwater in the mouth and the flailing arms and legs of all the other swimmers? There are unknown things swimming below you and possibly worse floating on the surface, and waves slosh you in the face every time you try to grab a breath. And you could get seasick, hypothermic, kicked in the face or stung by jellyfish.
But so what? "The opportunity to face these obstacles, known and unknown, lures swimmers to the challenge," writes Penny Lee Dean, who holds multiple open-water world records, in her book "Open Water Swimming: A Complete Guide for Distance Swimmers and Triathletes" (Human Kinetics Publishers, 1998).
You put your face in the water and swim into uncertainty for 30 minutes or an hour, or two or 10 or more, and for open-water swimmers, that's the joy of it. You're freed from the confines of the pool and the predictable, monotonous familiarity of that black stripe below you, the four walls around you and the turning and turning on every lap.
"Open-water swimming is more liberating and exhilarating," said Lucy Bartamian, who swims with the Fairfax County Masters swim team and has completed the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim.
"You get into your own zone and let the water dictate how you're going to swim," said Mark Edmunds, a distance swimmer from Bethesda who has completed multiple bay swims and will begin a solo Catalina channel swim in California on Sunday.
Go Jump in a Lake
Obviously, a channel or bay crossing is for experienced swimmers, but a good way for beginners to get their feet wet in open water is with a lake swim. In July, 78 swimmers turned out at Chris Greene Lake outside Charlottesville for the annual Eastern States 2-Mile Cable Swim, a low-key event that attracted newcomers and the impressively credentialed (including veterans of the 21-mile English Channel swim and the 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan). As I took stock of the gathered swimmers, it was evident that when it comes to age and body type, open-water swimming is an egalitarian sport. Some people looked like fiercely trained athletes, others looked like they were always happy to say thank you to a second helping and more than half were older than 40. The day's best time, 41:39.47, was swum by 42-year-old Chris Stevenson of Richmond, and 85-year-old Richard Selden of Charlottesville set a new national record (1:18:26.80) for his age bracket.