10K for the USA

On Saturday September 6, 2003, I swam in the second annual 10K for the USA in Atlantic City, NJ. The field for this 6.2-mile swim was relatively small (55), but included swimmers from all over the globe. The race was swum in a bay, which meant the water would be warmer (it was 74 degrees F) than ocean water, but hurricane Fabian provided an extra challenge by increasing the flow of current in the bay. When we swam WITH the current, it was like being on a moving sidewalk at the airport. But when we swam AGAINST the current we would have to hug the shoreline, making the course longer.

Wetsuits were not permitted in this swim. If you wore one, you were not eligible for any awards. Because I grew up swimming in the ocean, and because I am a swimmer trapped in a linebacker’s body, the cold doesn’t affect me as it does thinner swimmers. I just go for it. But if you are looking for extra insulation in a non-wetsuit race, you could try covering your body in Vaseline. This helps maintain body heat over a longer period of time and helps prevent chafing. Body Glide, which you apply like a stick deodorant, provides good protection from chafing.

The race began at the Atlantic City High School crew boathouse, and headed north around Fenton Island, against the current. After the turnaround, we headed south and swam in the back bay to a mile below the Dorset Avenue Bridge in Ventnor, and then returned to the boathouse.

Don Walsh gliding down the pool.
I started off easy, knowing that we were swimming into the current, and just tried to stay relaxed and efficient. To conserve energy, I made certain that my stroke was as smooth as possible, with no splash and no resistance. I focused on rotating my body the same on each side to ensure that I was streamlining on both sides. I usually have a very long glide on each stroke. This is great for distance swimming, but causes me to lose momentum when swimming against the current. So, as I swam into the current, I increased my stroke cadence by turning my arms over faster. This allowed me to get to the next stroke before I lost any speed.

As we made the turn at Fenton Island (about 1 mile into the race), the field spread out and settled into packs. We also began to feel the push of the incoming tide. Swimming relaxed and into my normal (long) stroke now, I started to pick up the pace and felt like I was riding the current and gliding along on each stroke.

At Jackson Avenue I moved to the right side of the course to avoid the switch in the tide and held my pace to the Dorset Avenue Bridge, two miles into the swim. At this point I stopped to take a cup of Gatorade and a packet of GU. I use GU on my long swims and like it for two reasons. One, it gives me a boost of energy and, second, (maybe more important), it rids my mouth of the salty taste with a fresh burst of flavor. After chatting with some of the locals sitting on their decks, I continued on my way. I tried something new after each of my feedings in this race: backstroke. I usually start swimming freestyle after feeding, but today I stayed on my back for several strokes and found this to be a smoother transition back into racing. Backstroke had other benefits, too. It gave me a chance to use different muscle groups, and allowed me to break up the mental monotony of swimming 6.2 miles of freestyle. It allowed me to view the course with more than one eye, and gave me a chance to chat with and get encouragement from the locals. This can be very uplifting when you are in the water for more than three hours!

After clearing the Dorset Avenue Bridge, I had to make a couple of jogs to the right before swimming the Ventnor mile out to the mouth of the bay. I took the shorter course and swam to the apex on each turn, but in doing so I crossed the incoming tide. Although I was taking the shorter route, I questioned my decision at the time because I was crossing the channel against the incoming tide. Even though my progress slowed I still believe in taking the shortest course to the finish-line. The bay is narrow at this point and you are swimming right next to the decks of the homeowners. When passing families on their decks, I would switch to backstroke and ask, "What’s for dinner?" knowing that I would be returning on the same route. They seemed to enjoy the chance to talk as much as I did.

As I headed out to the turn at the end of the Ventnor mile, I began to pass other swimmers. This is VERY uplifting in a 10K race. I stopped after rounding the mark for my second feeding  —  another cup of Gatorade, another packet of GU, and a little bit of water this time. I find that too much straight Gatorade can give me heartburn. I’ve learned this through trial and error during training swims, and am a firm believer in testing foods to see how they are going to sit in your stomach BEFORE trying them in a race. You don’t want to have to stop in the middle of a race because of an upset stomach. On long swim, such as the 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan, I find that eating bananas before and during the swim is good for preventing cramps. Other swimmers find that half an energy bar is the best fuel for a long-distance swim. Just make sure you test this BEFORE you try it in a race.

Feeling energized after feeding, I took advantage of the incoming tide and turned it up a notch. I wanted to clear the Dorset Avenue Bridge on the return before 6:00 pm. I knew that I would have approximately 20 minutes of slack tide before the tide started going out. The goal was to reach Jackson Ave, the midway point between the inlets, without having to fight the tide again. I cleared the Dorset Avenue Bridge at 5:57 pm and knew that I wouldnt have to fight the tide coming home. A big smile on my face just got bigger. I had been thoroughly enjoying this swim, but now that I knew the worst was behind me, I looked forward to the last two miles coming home.

After my third feeding  —  another cup of Gatorade and another packet of GU — I called out to my kayaker, Delia, "Wanna race?!’ We both laughed and headed for the boathouse. I felt so strong on the last two miles that I turned up the pace again and found myself passing other swimmers. I felt so good crossing the line that my first thought was  — next year I’m going to do that course two times and make it a 20K. I completed the course in 3 hours and 10 minutes flat and was very pleased to be part of such an elite field.

The overall winner was Dan DeMarco from Great Neck, NY, with a time of 2:01:45. Jan Sibberson of Meeder, Germany, was second overall. Casey Wagner, 16, of Pittsburgh, PA, was third over-all finisher and the first female to cross the line. Casey battled with 2000 Olympian Maddie Krippen for the women’s lead for more than half the race before finally pulling away at the 6K mark. Joanna Thomas of Linwood, NJ, was the youngest swimmer at age 13 with a time of 2:10:45. Josh Wakeley of Egg Harbor Township, NJ, was the youngest male swimmer at age 14 with a time of 2:39:07.

After the race the swimmers enjoyed an excellent catered meal at the boathouse while Sid Cassidy, race director, presented the awards. First place received $1,000.00; second place received $500.00, and third placed received $250.00.

I’d like to thank Sid Cassidy and his wife, Kara, for putting on such a great event. I’d also like to thank Delia Perez for kayaking for me. The kayakers were not allowed to set the course for their swimmers, nor were the swimmers allowed to draft off the kayakers. Delia gave me food, kept me up to date on how far I’d swum, and was my personal cheerleader. Without her support and encouragement the day just wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Don Walsh has been competing in open-water racing for 20 years, at distances from one mile to 28.5 miles. That’s no typo. Don is a veteran of two Manhattan Island Marathon Swims, in which swimmers race 28.5 miles (without wetsuits!) around the island of Manhattan. Don is one of the most efficient (and quiet) swimmers you’ll ever meet. He can cover 25 yards (or two city blocks) in about 8 splashless strokes. Don lives and trains in Spring Lake, NJ.