Date: 1 October 2016.
Distance and route: 2.4 & 5.0 miles on the James River, Midlothian, Virginia (just outside Richmond)
Event: The Peluso Open Water Swim (To the Bridge and Back)
Water Temperature: about 72º F, comfortable, brisk without wetsuits.
Air Temperature: about 70º F.
Swimmers: Jett Shue, Alex Forasté, John Forasté
Kayakers: Kiersten Shue (for Jett), Brian Dutoi (for Alex), Dave Hall (for John)
Times: See below.
Indispensible Moral Support: Diane, Noni, Audrey & Emma Forasté and Eli Shue.
by John (aka G1)
And this big swim was after a week of nearly constant and, at times, heavy rain. So the river was high and the current swift.
The History. The Peluso Open Water Swim is actually 3 swims: A 10 miler starting at 9 am, a 5 miler at 10 am and a 2.4 miler at 11 am. The start is 2.5 miles downriver from the Rt 288 bridge. The 10 milers swim to the bridge and back (twice), the 5 milers do this once, and the 2.4 milers swim 1/2 way and then back (don't ask why it isn't 2.5 miles, because I don't know). It's a beautiful stretch of the James River just outside Richmond.
I (John) swam the 5 miler 2 years ago (with my son Alex kayaking). Last year, I became intrigued with the idea of a 3 generational swim. Jett (my daughter's son, my grandson) had reached the minimum age of 13 and developed into a good swimmer, competing in the wonderful Jefferson Swim League in Charlottesville. Alex had competed in a number of Olympic (1/2) Marathons and, in the process, developed his swimming skills to complement his biking and running. I had been swimming for years to keep my back problems at bay and just stay in shape. The 3 of us swimming an open water swim together (especially before I lost the ability to do it) just sounded great. Jett and Alex were game.
So, last year we signed up for the 2.4 swim. But then Hurricane Joaquin made the James dangerous and the event was cancelled (don't ask why Peluso doesn't have a rain date, because I don't know). Nonetheless, having trained, gotten excited about the swim and designed our custom made TEAM G3 tshirts (see front and back of this year's version below at bottom), we chose to swim it anyway by doing the distance in the Smith Pool in Charlottesville.
We decided to try again for the real deal this year. And I really liked the idea of taking this on at the age of 70. My memory says it was Alex who suggested the 5 miler. Jett decided to do the 2.4 since he was already committed to baseball, in addition to the his academics, limiting the time he could train for this. Alex's days are busy too with his responsibilities to family, work and house, but he somehow manages to get in workouts at the gym and pool. I have no excuses and swim quite faithfully weekdays in either the pool or our pond on the farm.
So, as the big swim day approached, we monitored the weather: It rained and rained and rained the week before for a total of 4.6''. The river rose and the current increased. The swim was again in jeopardy but, while creating a significant challenge, it never became dangerous. And the water temperature, while brisk, was fine. The early fall air temperature averaged 70 degrees. We had rented wetsuits just in case, but didn't need them.
And last but not least, our kayakers were lined up. Kiersten (Jett's mother, my daughter) kayaked for him. And 2 friends of Alex generously volunteered their time: Brian Dutoi for Alex and Dave Hall for me.
The Swim. The water looked pretty innocent. You couldn't really see the current out in the middle, but, based on the monitoring of the river, we knew it was there (just like we know climate change is real too). The water felt quite chilly when entering, but soon became comfortable (without wetsuits). I can't say I felt the current heading up river. A pleasant surprise. And, unlike the sometimes rough water for the Save The Bay swims in Rhode Island, the James River is always flat. I told myself not to go out fast and to quickly get into a rhythm. My game plan, with 5 miles of water ahead, was not to go slow (to conserve) or fast (to set some unattainable record), but to maintain a good, strong and long stroke. As always, I wanted to hold steady and take few breaks. And, with the current on everybody's mind, we were reminded in the pre-swim briefing that it would be the strongest in the middle and the weakest closest to the shore. So, Dave set a course not too far from shore, avoiding downed trees, shallow water, and other swimmers and kayakers. I quickly became confident in his abilities and concentrated on swimming.
Aside from the current, I figured the 5 miles would take 3-3.5 hours (in 2014 I was 1:49 at the midway turn and 3:07:26 at the finish). But, it seemed to be taking a long, long time to get to the bridge. I didn't want to break my stroke to ask Dave the elapsed time, but was working hard and growing concerned. There's a turn in the river early on and then a long stretch to the bridge (a large and easily sighted structure). While turning left each stroke to breathe and sight Dave in his blue kayak, I would lift my head now and then to grab a look straight ahead at the bridge upriver. It was far off, but approachable - or was it? It never seemed to get closer! I told myself I would not let this frustration take hold again as it did in the 5 miler in 2014. But this was worse and very, very discouraging. So, it became not just physically, but mentally difficult to just keep going, to keep steady, to just keep swimming . . .
Finally, at the bridge, at 2.5 miles, we rounded the 1/2 way buoy! Dave and I took our 1st break. While treading water to not touch the kayak, I took in some Propel, 1/2 a banana and a packet of GU. He told me we were 2:05 out. I thought #%#&%. That meant I was on a pace of over 4 hours. In the 2' or so break, we drifted a bit down stream. That was a good sign. We then put the bridge to our backs and headed home (feeling a bit tight from the break).
While I felt a slight difference now heading downriver, a bit lighter perhaps, the sensation was not dramatic. I quickly got back into stroke. The weather was excellent. The week's rains had stopped, the air was still and the bright overcast skies soft, making the tree lined river delightful. Unlike 2 years before, I could not see the bottom. The water had been stirred up so much that I could only just see the tips of my hands (like swimming in the pond on the farm). But the water felt clean and wonderful.
As planned, Dave headed straight down the center of the river to take full advantage of the current. There were few swimmers/kayakers around us by now. Funny, rather early on, there was a woman (pink cap #23) and her kayaker with whom we kept pace for what seemed like half an hour. But I never found her after the swim as I had hoped, though I just identified her from the official results as 60 years old and finishing in 3:22:43.
After about 1/2 hour, I took a 2nd brief break for some more Propel (electrolytes to ward off the hints of cramping I detected a few times in my right calf). Dave told me we were now on a 3 mph pace in contrast to the 1.2 mph upriver pace and on pace to finish in just over 3 hours! Wow was that good news! It gave me confidence and a jolt of energy. Off we went. I got into a really good stroke (for me). At 2:55 I took a 3rd and final brief break for more Propel. Dave said we were in the final stretch. Excellent news. Off again, despite achy shoulders (especially under my left arm), I got into the strongest stroke yet, not overdoing it, but certainly pushing it a little. It was memorable. (With an online calculator, I just confirmed that my upriver pace was 1.2 mph, but that downriver was 2.21 mph. That said, it was helpful to think at the time that I was on a 3 mph pace.)
The finish is always a bit disconcerting. Without a line on the bottom of the pool, open water swimming is disorientating. I always exit the water a bit shaky and unsteady. And the mucky river bottom at the edge didn't help. I grasped onto the edge of the dock and managed to get out and cross the finish line to record the cool chip velcroed to my left ankle. My official time was 3:12:51. (I finished 1st in my age group, 20 of 28 in the 5 miler, the 1st place finisher was a 64 year old woman with an astounding time of 2:04:31.) Despite very different conditions, I finished pretty close to my 2014 time of 3:07:26. The downstream current had indeed been significant! I was pleased, happy to have done it and happy it was over. Diane, Kiersten, Jett and Eli (Jett's younger brother) were there to celebrate. Noni, Audrey and Emma (Alex's family) had seen us off at the start, but had to return home for the girls' naps.
Now I had to find out how Jett had done and where Alex was.
Jett had a good swim. As he does, Kiersten said he swam fast, popped his head up to look around, returned to swimming, stopped to look around again, chatted . . . His distance swimming style is distinctly different from Alex's and mine. He finished in 1:33:24 (first in his age group, 20 of 28 in the 2.4 miler, the 1st place finisher was a 40 year old man with an impressive time of 54:01.) It's worth noting that Jett, at 14, was the youngest of all the swimmers, and I the oldest.
We saw Alex approaching the finish. He looked good with a smooth and steady stroke. And he looked far better than I exiting the water. He finished in 3:33:21 (25 of 28 in the 5 miler).
3 GENERATIONS ! ! ! TEAM G3 ! ! !
WE DID IT ! ! !
(iPhone images by Diane.)
Looking Ahead. Audrey (3.5 years) and Emma (1.5 years) are sprightly and may too become good swimmers, but I doubt I'll be able to do this with them when they reach the minimum 13 years of age. I asked Eli (8 years old and an excellent swimmer) if he was ever going to swim this. He didn't say yes. He didn't say no. I asked him to ask me to kayak for him when he does. That would be special - as was this swim!
(This is the same swim as told in haiku form by Brian, Alex's kayaker)
Cool autumn morning:
clouds; river; friends. Last minute
rush and we're off!
Find Alex ... then find
Alex's pace. There it is.
Now, just paddle straight.
This is easy, this ..
is calmness its very self!
Trees; clouds; babbling stream.
Oops, where is Alex?!
There he is. Must stay focused!
And check the time.
Snack time. Old pal eating
a sandwich in a river.
Never thought I'd see that.
Bridge seems so near, but
it stays so far. Time stretches.
Glad I'm not swimming.
Then the turn downstream;
Alex, going like a horse,
racing past mile posts.
More racing, clouds, trees,
stream. Suddenly: finish.
lunch and high fives all around.
G3 has done it!
The Big Swim
by Alex (aka G2)
(This is the same swim as told by Alex)
Months before & preparation
For me, the story begins several months before 'the big swim', as preparation and anticipation is a large part of the overall experience. It involves steady training with a ramp up period and tapering just before the event. It involves testing out different nutrition, or 'fuel', while exercising over long periods to replenish calories and prevent energy sapping blood sugar crashes. And it involves an evolution of thinking that begins with something like: "What have I signed up for? I haven't swum anything close to a 5 mile swim, what am I thinking?" to something more like this 2 weeks before: "Well, I've swum 75% of the total distance . . . even if I did take a break in the middle of my practice swim to eat half a sandwich and it was in a pool with no current. But . . . there's a chance that I can complete it."
The Week before
The week before the event is a window that sheds light onto the actual day that wasn't previously visible. Finally, the 10 day weather forecast that covers the day of the event and the week leading up to it is finally available. Will there be rain in Lynchburg!? While rain in Richmond can affect water flows in the river, big rain storms in the watershed upriver can have a larger effect. It generally takes 2 to 3 days for a slug of rainfall runoff from Lynchburg to work its way down through the James River to our swim point that begins at the American Legion. NOAA maintains a site that logs current and past streamflows, in addition to forecasting predicted streamflows over the upcoming four days; I check the weather and refresh the NOAA site constantly in the days leading up to the swim. Lynchburg and Richmond were getting a lot of rain Wed, Thurs and Fri before the Sat swim. Two years ago when I kayaked for my father when he did the same 5 miler, the flows were at about 1,500 cfs and 3 feet deep; there was no rain the two weeks preceding and the skies were sunny. Last year, there was a tropical storm that washed over and flows reached above 22,000 cfs and over 9 feet high cancelling the event.
Forecasted Water Levels, swim begins Sat (10/1) at 11am (NOAA).
On Wednesday, forecasted stage river elevations for Saturday morning were 7 feet, it seemed that the event would be cancelled again. I had an extra cup of coffee on Thursday (after cutting my caffeine intake way back to 1 mild cup/day to increase hydration). With the likely cancellation, I thought I'd enjoy an extra Cup o' Joe. Nonetheless, I followed the rest of the original plan of taking Friday off to rest, sleeping an amazing 11 hours Thurs night to rejuvenate while my mother watched the kids in the morning. When I woke up Friday morning and refreshed the website's forecast, the peak had moved to Sunday morning . . . on Saturday, the river water levels would only reach 4.5 feet! (They generally cancel somewhere around 5.5 to 6 feet.) It's going to happen, IT'S ON! My nerves kicked in as the reality sank in . . . and I headed straight for the bathroom.
The Swim (upriver)
The night before, I caught up with Brian (my kayaker) over the phone to discuss logistics and generally how we might work together as a team the next morning. The next morning, it was nice to see everyone, but we were all business as the clock was ticking down towards the start and we had to prepare. My parents were there first thing and my mother helped us with getting ready. She seemed a little anxious. It was early morning dawn light. Nerves were kicking in awakening the senses and trying to counter the lack of caffeine that normally does the job. I prepared and made one last stop to the bathroom (if you haven't been to the bathroom before one of these events, you really should try to avoid it); I dry-heaved multiple times reacting to the rancid smell in between the gasps for air I took in. In an odd way, this confirmed to me that this was a serious event (professional swimmers and cash awards).
Just before the start, as I headed down the boat ramp to the water I spotted Noni and the two kids! It was a nice sign of support, and boost to the spirit . . . Emma was being held and Audrey was acting shy, probably because of my new appearance (swim cap, goggles, no shirt, etc), but smiling as she knew something different and exciting was happening. I was literally the last to enter the water as we slid from the dock. But for me, having my ear plugs, goggles, and cap secure was of utmost importance, along with staying calm. I was borrowing a lesson from a past swim event to go at my own comfort and pace to avoid prematurely elevating my heart rate (fear). I made my way across the river and looked up from time to time to see if I was on track and if my kayak support (thanks Brian!) was nearby yet. Eventually after making it across (with the river wanting to push swimmers downstream) and turning left around the buoy on the north side, I saw Brian. We became familiar with each other's movements to find a rhythm (pace and separation distance from each other).
Lifting my head to breathe to the right, not too much time passed before I suddenly saw a sign that said 250 [meters]; that gave me a significant boost; while this was less than 1/30th of the total distance, the biggest obstacle to finishing in my mind was the river's current. In other words, I feared that I would not actually advance upriver due to the current, or not advance fast enough to overcome and make it. Knowing I had actually made it upstream in a reasonable amount of time was a very good sign. I swam with the intent of conserving energy, avoiding physical problems that would preclude me from finishing (severe cramps, insufficient energy from early over-exertion, etc.), and with the overall goal of simply making the distance.
At about 40 minutes, most of my nerves had subsided and I was comfortable, just swimming. I had also only just past the ½ mile buoy (very slow). It was not long after that a nearby swimmer began to have problems. Brian became interested; I saw the other kayaker raising his paddle straight into the air, the sign of distress and a signal for help; Brian told me he'd be back and was going to help. I later found out that the swimmer had turned 'smurf blue', and two other swimmers had also succumb to hypothermia. The thought didn't cross my mind that it was Jett (started at different time) or Pa (because I assumed Brian would have told me). The swimmer got help from a motor boat, Brian returned, and I kept swimming.
At 1 hr and 20 minutes, Brian informed me that it was snack time. Yeah! He opened the zip lock bag marked with the time "1hr 20 min" and I ate ½ a ham and cheese sandwich, ½ protein bar, 1 GU, and one 8 oz water bottle. Only later did I find out how much eating a sandwich while swimming in the river amused my fellow kayaker. Afterwards, I got back to it and kept on swimming steadily. At about 600 to 800 meters before the turnaround buoy just in front of the bridge, the current had increased noticeably, as the river's width became narrower and the same amount of water flowed through a constricted funnel, meaning higher velocity. As I lifted my head and looked to the shore, I saw the water passing at a quite a clip. I decided to postpone the second scheduled snack time until I reached the turnaround buoy, and dug in stepping up the pace to make sure I would overcome the river current; I began to use the reservoir of energy I had been saving; after all, if I didn't make it to the turnaround, I wasn't going to make it, so while my pace relative to the water increased, my pace relative to the shoreline decreased from an hour earlier. I didn't focus too much on how much ground I was gaining or losing, I just swam at an elevated pace. The pace was sustainable, but I was pushing it. Moving upstream, I stayed as close as possible to the shoreline (where current is less); this was worth the stab to the chest I took from the underwater branch that stopped my advancement to a dead stop.
Turning at the buoy & the Swim (downriver)
At 2 hrs and 20 minutes, we reached the buoy and I immediately took a rest to fuel up. I treaded water while Brian opened the second ziplock that said "2hrs 10 min" on it. Ate a ½ sandwich, ½ protein bar, 1 GU, and downed two 8 oz. waters. I had more water to try to avoid the need to use the third ziplock bag labeled "take if cramps". By the time I was done (maybe 4 minutes?), I was already a couple to several hundred meters downriver (without swimming a stroke!).
After turning at the buoy, I did feel that I would cruise down the stream almost as if on a water slide. I monitored my pace, but also tried to pick it up as I could now more easily accommodate potential problems (since I could float!) on the way back. Although I tried, and thought that I was cruising at a fast pace, turns out I didn't maintain the pace I thought. It ended up taking me ½ the time to get downstream that it did to get upstream, however by comparison my father was swimming at about 20 minutes/mile versus my 28 min/mile (which is only a bit faster than my normal pace in a pool).
11am visit day before swim to see current. Finger pointing downriver.
At some point on the way back, I wondered if I made an incorrect assumption about the smurf blue swimmer that was in distress. Maybe Brian wouldn't have told me if it was Pa or Jett because he didn't want me to worry and anyway he would be led to the doctors, with nothing for me to do. So, I asked if he had seen them recently, and he replied he had seen my father turn at the buoy maybe 20 minutes in front on me. Its funny how little morsels of information can be chewed on for quite a while when swimming, because after all there is not much else to think about; many times when swimming (or running) I entertain myself with numbers, counting the number of laps, checking times at distance intervals, and calculating current and projected pace times that correspond to different distances, followed by hypothetical scenarios (if could swam/run a faster time, what is the necessary pace to achieve it). I thought about what his time might be at the turnaround, what it might be on the way back, and how his final time might compare to 2 years earlier of 3 hrs and 7 minutes, the same time that it took me to do an Olympic distance triathlon a year earlier, coincidentally.
At the End
I couldn't end without playing a small prank on my friend Brian. With about 1 mile left, I put my hands up and confessed that I couldn't do it, it was all too much with a look of exhaustion. While I couldn't hold back my smile for more than a couple seconds, it was enough to see the look on his face that he believed me (ha ha!). I went back to swimming, and he told me that he was going to eat the rest of my snacks. When I turned right around the final buoy near the finish to swim back to the shore where we started, I gave it an additional final effort for three reasons 1.) I didn't want the current to wash me downstream as the crossing was perpendicular to flow, 2.) there was no more need to reserve anything, and 3.) I didn't want to look exhausted to everyone that was watching me come in. Apparently this last point worked, because there was a comment about how good my stroke looked when coming towards shore. As I neared, I plunged my feet down into the mud, sinking in until progressing to the concrete boat ramp. With wobbly legs, I stood up on a hard surface and tried to regain balance to cross the finish line.
I first saw Jett, he looked great! I asked if he swam because he looked like he hadn't, completely unfazed, dry, and alert. He said he did. Then, Pa, who had also completed before me, this also additional confirmation that he wasn't the smurf blue swimmer. My father was the oldest swimmer (at 70 yrs old) and my nephew the youngest (at 14 yrs old) among all of the participants. What surprised me most was that overall, our GrandPaPa, relatively speaking, swam the fastest! And amazingly, he was only off his pace from 2 years ago (in far better conditions) by 5 minutes . . . wow!
Afterwards, we went back to the house to celebrate and have a good time with Dave (Pa's kayaker) and Ashley, Brian (my kayaker) and Sarah, Kier (Jett's kayaker), and the rest of the family eating and drinking. It was a nice time.
So, where did we get this crazy idea? My father has been swimming long open water swims in New England for decades, notably the annual 1.7 mile Save the (Narragansett) Bay swim with his fellow swimming buddies in the past. As he and Ma moved to Virginia, this event was identified as having potential, and he gave it a go a couple years ago. He suggested that Jett and I join him last year. This kind of event had been in the back of my mind for a while, and the timing felt right with Jett old enough to join us, making it a 3 generation swim. (As a side note, another thing in the back of my mind prior to the swim was the idea of coming into contact with this terrifying Sea Lamprey [click here for image], which thank god I did not encounter!) While I had managed to do other (much smaller) swims before, it always felt more like a 'survive the swim' approach. Following this swim, I felt like a 'swimmer' for the first time. And, it was neat to do it with Pa and Jett. It was really nice that all three of us were able to swim it this year, 3 generations (Team G3), and that we all did it!