Snapshots of a Long Swim
The Potomac River Swim

by Tom Spence

I am getting to an age where I am getting older faster than I am getting faster - which means I am getting slower. But with age comes patience. If I canít swim faster, maybe I can swim further. The question is Ö how much further can I swim? In hopes of satisfying my curiosity, I have become my own experiment. What distance can I swim with grace and dignity? Grace and dignity are the key words here.

I swim the 1650 or 1500 whenever I get the opportunity. This past year, after swimming masters for 10 years, I made Top Ten in the 1500. Yes, I know, it was short course meters, but still my plan is working. Iím outliving the old guys. I used to swim the 2-Mile Open Water at Edgewater State Park but now I organize it so I canít swim it anymore.

Many people talk about the Chesapeake Bay Swim as though it is a rite of passage for long distance swimmers. This is a 4-mile swim across the Chesapeake Bay starting at Annapolis, MD. On a certain Saturday in January the CBSerís take entries on-line starting at 8:30am. They take the first 600 entries. In my infinite wisdom, I decided to go to Orange for a workout before going on line. I got on-line at 9:30. They had their 600 entries by then and werenít taking any more. They took 600 entries in 45 minutes! Wow! And mine was not one of them.

I searched the Internet for another swim and found the Potomac River Swim. This swim is 7 Ĺ miles from Virginia to Maryland across the Potomac River where the river joins the Chesapeake Bay. This seemed like a worthy goal so I sent in my application and estimated I would make the swim in 4 to 4 Ĺ hours. Then I set about learning what I needed to know to make this swim.

I learned that people who donít swim donít get it. I learned that swimmers who measure their swims in seconds Ė not hours Ė donít get it. And I learned if a person did not get it, there is nothing I could say to help him get it. A fellow I work with expressed the thought that bridges were built so people would not have to do this sort of thing. People expressed their concerns about the water temperature, sharks, sunburn, water quality and ending up in Delaware. I was offered advice on what to drink, what to eat, what sun block to use, what swim cap to wear and how many swim caps to wear, what goggles to wear and where to put the Vaseline Ė in the armpits and on the chest. I decided I needed to swim 15,000 to 20,000 yards per week for several months leading up to the event. I figured if it werenít enough, Iíd find out the hard way. My team of advisors had me prepared for all issues except one.

Being worried about getting lost in a fog bank, I brought a small magnetic compass for my kayaker. He thought I was from Mars. Not only did he have a large compass rigged on his kayak, but he also had GPS. He had a high-tech kayak. Iím a low-tech guy and now I know. My kayakerís name was Mark. Heís a good guy.

At 6AM on Saturday June 4th, the day after my 61st birthday, by the way, a wide beamed boat transported 21 swimmers, 24 kayaks and 24 kayakers and assorted dignitaries 7.5 miles from Point Lookout State Park, Maryland to the Virginia side of the Potomac River. We swam back. Water temperature was 65 degrees. One swimmer was unable to finish due to hypothermia. Yours truly has ample natural insulation. This is an event that rewards fat! We swam in an East-North-East direction. The river was mostly flat with only occasional chop. The sky was overcast so sunburn was not an issue. I asked Mark to stop us every 30 minutes for water and every hour for gel paks. Progress was to be measured in 30 minutes increments.

After picture taking, it was time to swim. As in any long distance event, the swimmers spread out pretty quickly. By the first water stop, Mark and I were alone. We could see other swimmers, but we werenít in groups anymore. It had been suggested I entertain myself by counting strokes or singing a song. Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall twice backwards might have worked. Mostly I was just in the moment. It was just the water, Mark and me. There was nothing to do but swim. When my right shoulder would start to hurt, I would bi-lateral breathe for a while. This would cause me to wonder away from the kayak. Mark would wave me back.

After several hours, my upper back started to hurt. Ever so gradually and until the end of the swim, my back, neck and shoulders went from discomfort to pain to serious pain. This was the thing my advisors forgot to mention. At the end, being a comedian, I wanted to say, ďIs this Delaware because if it is Iím going to be VERY unhappy.Ē Instead, what came out was, ďIíve never hurt this bad in my life.Ē Iíve been advised by one who knows to bring ibuprofen next time. Take it before, during, and after the swim. Itís legal, she says.

The finish was a 500-yard push along a break wall from the Coast Guard Station to the beach. The organizers had sort of forgotten to mention the ebb tide that flows along the break wall. Swimming these 500 yards was more than just in the moment. It was more like being locked in place and time. It could see the bottom and it wasnít moving. I could see the beach and it wasnít getting any closer. What I could not see was the humor in the moment. Grace and dignity took a back seat to frustration and back pain. I finally finished with a time of 4 hours and 30 minutes. Coming out of the water, I was met by Cheryl, the Meet Director. She yelled at me - What do you need? Water? Food? Can you stand up? Lemme take your picture. Hereís a towel! Ė To which I responded with the aforementioned Ė Iíve never hurt this bad in my life. After all that planning and organizing, this was Cherylís reward. Cheryl must have the patience of Job.

After 30 minutes, with real food in my stomach, grace and dignity returned and the back pain went away. I attribute the back pain to lactic acid buildup unrelieved by flip turns and enhanced by having to raise my head forward from time to time. Next time, Iíll remember to bring the ibuprofen Ė legal or not. The grilled chicken was the best Iíve ever tasted. I canít imagine why.

So, mission accomplished. I was the oldest swimmer and I was 15th out of the 20 swimmers who finished the distance. Cheryl allowed that my time was very respectable for a person my age. Iíll take that as a compliment. I learned that 15,000 to 20,000 yards per week for several months would prepare me to swim 7 Ĺ miles in 4 Ĺ hours. For challenge challenged swimmers, I recommend the Potomac River Swim. Itís well run. Itís a blast. Iím glad I did it. The experiment was successfully concluded. But the question still remainsÖhow far can I swim?