4 October 2014: James River 5 Mile Swim


Date: 4 October 2014.
Distance and route: 5 miles on the James River, Midlothian, Virginia (just outside Richmond)
Water Temperature: 72º F, comfortable, slight chill without a wetsuit.
Air Temperature: 70-75º F.
Time: 3:07:26.
Swimmer: John Forasté.
Kayaker: Alex Forasté.
Indispensible Moral Support: Diane Forasté.


Diane and I got up at 4:45am in order to get to the swim site just outside Richmond by 7:15 and meet up with Alex who was going to kayak. Unlike the Save The Bay swims on Naragansett Bay in Rhode Island, this was not a fundraiser for an environmental cause, but a race, officially called the Peluso Open Water Swim, To the Bridge and Back . I found it by searching for open water swims around our new (now 3 year old) home in Virginia. But I entered it as a personal challenge, not a race.

It turns out that I, at 68, was the oldest (the next oldest was a mere 54). The youngest was 17. Interesting to see the range of body types as we waited to enter the water. No one was heavy, but many, both men and women, were hefty, a few thin and then a bunch looking to be in top shape. It became clear that all were good swimmers.

This challenge required proper training. My routine is to swim 5 days a week, most often in the Smith Pool in Charlottesville, and, in the summer, in Lake Inferior, our 100+ yard pond on Bundoran Farm. My longtime "coach," Rich Burrows, emails workouts that are 3000-3400 yards. A few weeks before this race, I did some longer workouts, a few as much as 6800. The last few days I tapered down to 1200 the day before. Also, the past week I had been shoveling and raking fresh gravel on our 450' driveway, as much as 3 pick up truck loads a day (each load about a ton). So, I felt pretty ready.

Back to the swim itself. It was a beautiful fall day (but why was this scheduled as late as October?). The air was delightfully cool at 70ºat start time and the water tested at 72º. With the water above 70º, wetsuits were not sanctioned. I had taken a quick dip earlier and found the water to have a slight chill, but to be ok. So, I decided on no wetsuit. Only a handful of swimmers wore them, apparently deciding to opt out of placing officially and disqualifying themselves from any chance at the prize money ($1000 for first place in the 10 mile swim!).

There were actually 2 races: a 5 miler and a 10 miler. The course was to swim up river 2.5 miles to a bridge and back again for the 5 miler - 2 loops for the 10 miler. The race was very well organized with lots of volunteer staff and clear instructions for the swimmers and kayakers. Each swimmer had to have a kayaker. My son, Alex, was mine!

We entered the water in waves of 10 and rendezvoused with our kayakers. While it started smoothly, I didn't feel at the top of my game. As I set pace, Alex set course straight up the river. And he was excellent throughout. So, I could and did soon get into a good, steady stroke on the quiet, flat water. Unlike my many Save The Bay swims with a wide range of swimmers and many people passing or being passed, I only observed one swimmer pass me going all the way up the river. Alex said, indeed, that only one passed us and that we passed only 3 on the return. So, it was just me, Alex and the river. Beautiful day. Lovely early fall trees along the river's edge. And one stroke after another, after another, after another . . .

I maintained stroke without any break all the way to the bridge and turnaround buoy at 2.5 miles. This was not by accident. While it's hard work physically and mentally to not break stroke, it's really the best way in the long run. If you don't even entertain the option of breaking, you can concentrate on swimming. Truth be told, the thought of breaking did enter my head, but I didn't let it linger. I just kept at it.

One mistake I made going up river was to spot the bridge quite early on. It took forever to reach! Alex said the same thing. As I was swimming, it reminded me of our 1986 cross country trip with the family when we first spotted the Rockies at what turned out to be 100 miles - and it those mountains proved to be so evasive.

But finally (hallelujah!), we rounded the buoy and started down river. I had already decided that this would be a good time for a nutrition break. Alex handed me an opened packet of Gu (a terrible tasting energy gel) and a mouthful of water. He said we were at 1:49 (one hour 49 minutes). This was not good news, since I was hoping to finish under 3 hours. While heading up river meant swimming against the current, I had never felt any movement of the water that would slow us down other than some surface disturbance as we approached the bridge with a slight wind developing. In the minute or less that I had stopped for the Gu, I found myself tighten up. Nothing serious, but disconcerting.

So, I quickly said to Alex, "let's head home." And off we went. I didn't feel any advantage to heading down river though I could see the light wind blowing Alex's t-shirt and continuing to disturb the water's surface a bit. I soon got back into stroke, but found it demanding. I had to really concentrate and could feel my shoulders starting to ache. Nothing serious, but it never went away. Again, I told myself to maintain stroke. After all, we were heading home.

Since the trip up river felt and took longer than expected, I was concerned about the return, and now more so with the achiness. Thankfully, the hint of a cramp in my right calf that I felt a few times never materialized into anything. I decided not to try to assess where I was - despite some buoy markers en route - but to just keep at it. Strong, long, smooth, steady. Just keep at it. Just keep at it . . .

So, this made Alex's jesture that we were close to the end all the more welcomed, even though I didn't know exactly how close we were. While maintaining stroke, I lifted my head and spotted the final buoy. It was, indeed, not too far away. The achiness was by now noticeable and I felt that my stroke had deteriorated a bit as well . . . but the end was within reach.

While only aware of my effort and the approaching finish, I was later amused to learn that, while rounding the last buoy on the far side of the river and heading to the dock, the announcer said "And here is number 19, John Foraste, our only Grand Master. Let's give him a hand." Then, Diane had to tell me after, everyone got up out of their lawn chairs (including her) and went to the river's edge and clapped as I emerged and walked the path to the finish line where the chip velcroed around my ankle recorded my time: 3:07:26 (three hours 7 minutes 26 seconds). I finished 23rd out of 28 overall in the 5 miler, 1st (and last) in my over 60 age group. And this meant that the down river return had taken 1:18, 31 minutes less than the up river leg. There had indeed been a significant current! (The first place swimmer finished in an astounding 1:55:09.)

While I was aware of some clapping, I hadn't heard the special announcement, thought it was probably the same as everyone else had received or would receive and had to concentrate on walking upright and straight. I always feel some unsteadiness after an open water swim, which I attribute to the disorientation of being so long in the open, bottomless water. But this was more than usual. I was quite wobbly - and chilly. Diane quickly wrapped me in a towel and I enjoyed the satisfaction of having completed the challenge and the warmth of the, by now, noon sun!

Diane later said the special applause had reminded her of when we were young and clapped for the old guys who competed - only now, we're the old guys!

She also said that my coach, Rich, would have been proud of my effort because, from the very beginning to the very end, my stroke looked long and smooth. Even those last few yards! She said it looked as good as when I started out. Oh my, it sure didn't feel it!


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