Big Shoulders

Seeing as though I have been busier than a rabid honey badger at a rabid honey badger convention, I have not had the opportunity to blog about Big Shoulders. On this rainy Saturday afternoon, however, as I wait for my breakfast to digest before I hit the pool, I find myself with a few spare moments to talk about the most incredible and challenging race of my life to date.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the race, Big Shoulders is a 5K and 2.5K IMG_5780open water swim hosted by the Chicago Masters swim club. It’s held annually at the beautiful Ohio Street Beach in Downtown Chicago. Lake Michigan is typically a little choppier and cooler than Lake Erie (where I practice all of my OWS), and this particular race is listed on‘s list of “7 Swims to Do Before You Die.” In a nutshell, it’s pretty damn challenging. Under normal circumstances, I would not have signed up for this race, but after discussing it at a wine bar this past winter with Carolyn and Karen – who are both such accomplished swimmers they are practically fish – let’s just say that it was much easier to convince me to sign up. Fast forward to September and I’m standing on the beach in my wetsuit thinking “What in the HELL did I get myself into?” As it turns out, a whole lot of amazingness.


Representing the CLE!

The water was cold, but thankfully it was very calm. The race director announced at the start of the race that it was the best water conditions they have had in over 4 years. The sun was shining, and Karen and Carolyn made me feel calm and confident. As Carolyn and I lined up for our wave (the third to go out), I took one last sweeping glance. Almost everyone was clad in black neoprene, orange swim caps on, goggles firmly in place. Some people were stretching their arms, their legs. Some people were breathing heavily in and out. Some people were praying. Some people stood perfectly still, eyes locked on the water. I took it all in, and when the signal was given to enter the water, I let it all out. It was an in-water start, so Carolyn and I waded out to the first buoy together. My plan was to stick to the back and off to the outside a bit so when the last two waves eventually caught up to me (and they would), I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. I had faced the fact that this was not going to be a race where I placed. I am a strong swimmer in that I can swim for a long time in the right conditions, but I am S-L-O-W.


We three from CLE: “The Triple Threat”

At the start of any race, my heart is usually pounding, but it wasn’t this time around. During a triathlon, I usually hit the swim hard the first 50, cranking up my heart rate and my breathing rate, but not here. The horn sounded, Carolyn and I wished each other the best, and then…I smoothly slipped into the water and went for a swim. By no means was this about “the race”; it was about achieving something.

The course is set up as a fairly equilateral triangle in the cove of the beach. During the first third, I could see the Chicago skyline just over my left shoulder. The sun rays penetrated the water, and I could see the sandy and rocky bottom of the lake. When I hit the first buoy, there was a little crowding. I had crossed back over to the middle more than I had liked, and I hugged the buoy as I rounded to the second third of the race. This portion ran parallel to a break wall, and though the water was slightly colder, I was already warmed up by that point. This stretch seemed the longest. The skyline was now directly in front me, and I sighted off of a black and white building per the advice of Karen’s friend who has done this race several times in the past. The buoy looked so incredibly far away. I had to consciously remind myself not to sight and to keep my head down, but my stroke felt good and I had hit a comfortable stride pretty much right from the start.

Rounding the next turn for the home stretch of the first 2.5K was insane. All of the people swimming the 2.5K became a little more aggressive as they sprinted for the finish line. One woman went so far as to grab me by my hips, pick me up, and throw me out of her way. I was both pissed and impressed. This portion runs along the street/pier, and I absolutely abhor swimming close to structures (old OWS swimming fears die hard), so I once again found myself in the middle rather than to the outside. I was getting more and more excited as we approached the turn-around buoy to begin the second lap of the triangle. I couldn’t wait for the 2.5K folk to be out of the water, but more importantly, I was thrilled with the feeling that I had absolutely no desire to jump out and walk down the DNF shoot (a.k. a. “the shoot of shame”). When I rounded the buoy to begin again, I stopped and treaded water for a minute. I looked around, took in the scenery, and watched the arms and legs of the 2.5K-ers speed past me. I turned back and caught the tiny orange turn-buoy in my sights. “Well, here we go,” I said out loud, arched back into the water, and picked up my rhythm once more.

Just as I got to the break wall turn, the skies darkened a bit and the wind picked up. The waves began to chop a bit and were slapping the back of my head. Luckily, I was breathing to the opposite side, and only a few went over my face. The wind held for that entire length, but just as quickly as it appeared, it went away. I rounded the last buoy for the home stretch, and as I did the clouds parted and the wind died. I stopped once more to take in the skyline. I was underneath the pier/street at this point looking directly up at the gigantic glass and metal skyscrapers. I looked over my shoulder at the row-boat filled with 3 volunteers. “This is AWESOME!” I shouted to the crew. An older gentleman yelled back, “You’re awesome!” And with that, I charged ahead to the finish.

IMG_5827As I trotted up the beach to the finish line, a crowd of people waited and cheered. Karen and Carolyn came sprinting over to the sideline, and before I crossed the timing mat, I threw my arms out, tears in my eyes, and gave them a giant, wet hug. I was overcome with joy and a feeling of great accomplishment. I didn’t feel tired or relieved. I was soaring!

2:13:53 – that’s how long it took me to swim 3.1 miles. Slow, yes, but never have I cared less about a race time. I did it. I had never swam more than 1.2 miles in the open water up to that point, and yet I had just completed more than twice that in unfamiliar, cold waters. As the three of us walked back to our hotel with our wet tangled hair and giant TYR and Speedo back packs bulging from our wetsuits, towels and other gear, people passed us on the streets and asked us from where we had just come. “We just swam Big Shoulders!” “We swam a 5K in Lake Michigan!”

“Wow!” “Congratulations!” “Great job!” The compliments from these perfect strangers washed over Karen, Carolyn, and me. 2:13:53…but I  still felt like a winner.

IMG_5805The rest of the day was spent touring Chicago. Carolyn and her friend who lives outside of the city took me on a tour of all of the major sites. Karen brought champagne for us to celebrate in our hotel room, and we ended the evening with a lovely dinner downtown. It was truly the perfect weekend, the perfect race. I can’t wait for next year.

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