Annual Swim for Alligator Light – Race Report

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The itching is fading, and I can sit still long enough to write my overdue race report.

Yup–that’s the big story of my time at the Annual Swim for Alligator Light. Jellies, Jellies, and more Jellies! And yes, more jellies.

But let me back up.

Last week, we headed down to Islamorada, Florida for the 2nd Annual Swim for Alligator Light.

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It seemed a perfect fit for me. A good distance and super warm water at approximately 85 degrees. For the first time, it was conceivable that I would worry about getting TOO warm–something I have NEVER had happen.

And the course itself was, to say the least, direct. An out-and-back from the beach at The Moorings, with a stop to round the lighthouse

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It was pretty, for sure. And while Autumn hasn’t truly hit New England yet, any excuse to get to a warm beach is a welcome one for me.

There were flowers and critters and a pool and warm water for a pre-race day swim.

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Don’t worry! We were careful to heed this important warning.

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We stayed at the Cheeca Lodge, a beachfront resort with surprisingly great food and best of all, a convenient location next door to the beach where the race would begin.

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Another bonus was that every time we stood on the beach, we could see that teeny tiny lighthouse out in the distance.

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It also meant that we could spy on the race preparations.

The morning after our arrival, and the day before the race, we watched them setting buoys on the course.

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I was honestly surprised that there were so many buoys. It was certainly going to make things easier for my trusty kayaking partner.

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We also spent  more time looking at that lighthouse.

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We went for a short swim and while the water was warm, there was no hint of the jellies that everyone seemed to be warning us about.

“You’re swimming out there? I was at the lighthouse today. They are EVERYWHERE!”

“You know there’s a lot of jellyfish, right? I mean, I don’t mean to scare you but there are A LOT.”

It was a constant refrain, and I’ll admit that it was getting to me a bit.

Just how bad would they be? Would I be able to endure it? How would I react if it was a constant barrage of stings? Would they hurt as much as some of previous stings? Would I end up with a serious reaction to them?

It was research time. Soon, my fears were somewhat allayed when we learned that the jellyfish at issue were Moon Jellyfish which have a less potent sting than many other varieties. Reassured that, at the very least, I was not actually at risk of major anaphylactic reaction, I felt better.

After a day of avoiding the heat, it was time to head to the pre-race check-in and meeting, held in a typically Florida Keys looking pastel building that was kind of adorable.

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The Race Director welcomed us, introduced the event, and then, got down to business.

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From the beginning, I will admit that I had some misgivings about the approach to the race introduction.

Right away, he claimed that this was Hardest Swim In The World. He actually said Tougher Than The English Channel. (And I, ahem, have some swimming friends who might dispute that.)

Perhaps this was just pre-swim bravado but for me, one of the things I love about the open water swimming life is that folks are so darn modest. They accomplish amazing things, and applaud all those who do, and have a humbleness about them that I respect and appreciate. They don’t try to one-up each other, don’t boast about their accomplishments being better than others, and certainly would not make claims like “hardest swim in the world,” even when they might legitimately have a right to such an honorific.

The race meeting sets the tone and while you can and should be honest about the challenges, I don’t think that race organizers should try to turn it into another Tough Mudder or one of those kind of events. Tell swimmers that it would be tough. That it would be challenging. That it would be a tremendous accomplishment with moments of beauty and moments of awful and then moments of beauty again. But don’t try to make it into something it’s not. I don’t need it to be the toughest swim. I need it to be satisfying for me personally, and that’s all.

Then the director announced that, well, um, that 8-miles? That’s nautical miles so really, the swim itself was 9.2 miles.

There were audible groans and gasps from those in the crowd. But I felt myself smiling and John and I turned to each other and I giggled, knowing that made the race even more up my alley. The longer the better, and perhaps they could do something to round it up to an even 10 miles?

I was delighted, but knew that many of the other swimmers had just felt their anxiety ratchet up a level. It made sense as the event clearly attracted many who were new to longer distance open water, and many who were doing the swim as a relay team.

I also have to admit to a personal pet peeve, and I know this is silly. It’s this:

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As a swimmer, I often feel like a 2nd-class citizen in the world of triathletes.

This event was a SWIM, not a triathlon. And the swim is not just an afterthought, especially at swim of this distance.

I love triathletes. I was one and I teach them and work with them and swim with them. But let’s give open water swimmers the recognition we deserve.

I confess that with my trusty Sharpie in had, I made some modifications.

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There. Doesn’t that look better?

That night, it was a quiet dinner at the hotel and early to bed, just eagerly awaiting the yummy breakfast I was going to have the next morning.

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Doesn’t that look great to choke down at 5:30 in the morning?

But, it was calorie dense and sure to set me right for the gorgeous day ahead.

The beautiful sunrise didn’t hurt either.

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Any fears I’d had about thunderstorms instantly vanished and I looked forward to getting in the water.

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The beach was filled with kayaks for the 53 4-person teams and close to 70 solo swimmers and 2-person teams who would take part.

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Unlike other swims I’ve done, this one had a specific system for managing teams, and I have mixed feelings about it.

At 8:01, the first swimmer and race originator, Lighthouse Larry, took off from the beach. Every minute after that, another team hit the water, their power boat guiding them and kayaker beside them.

That meant a LONG time for the rest of us to wait on the beach, standing in the sun while waiting for our solo swims to start. And while I “get it”, because ideally it meant the power boats would be out of our way when we started, I spent the rest of the swim passing the vast majority of teams, and swimming in the churned fragments of jellyfish bits. (The real jellyfish stuff comes later. I promise.)

At the same time, race organizers did an incredible job of time management and actually getting each of those teams out on time, as promised. The logistics at the race were admirable, and we appreciated that greatly.

The other complication was with the placement of kayaks for solo swimmers and the race request that the kayak for each swimmer go behind them at the start, a virtual impossibility when pushing off from the beach.

It should be said that we’ve yet to see a good way of starting a race like this. It’s always a scramble and a mess at the beginning. Has any race truly figured this out?

Thankfully, John and I are enough of a well-oiled-machine-kind-of-team (HA!) that he told me to go and said that he would find me.

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The water felt good. Silty, and not too clear from all of the boats and the chop, but warm and with the added salt water floatation bonus, it felt easier than many of the swims I’ve done this summer.

There was a helicopter flying over us for the start. It was both totally and completely annoying and loud and churned the water up even more, and also great because I knew it meant there would be some cool start photos. And there were.

I kept swimming, passing teams and some solo swimmers, and wondering when, or if, the jellies would “hit.”

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The nature of the course meant that there was always someone nearby and I was never really able to get that alone in the water sensation that I adore.

Lately, I feel like I’m learning something about myself and my swimming. I actually am not sure how much I like racing anymore.

I love open water, but with the growth of the sport, races like these, especially with an out-and-back course, are getting too crowded for me. I think that my instincts are directing me toward more independent swims, or smaller and longer events.

No, I AM NOT interested in doing “The Channel.” That’s not for me.

But exploring beautiful places and creating my own swims? I think that might be.

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With all of the others, I swam. The chop was inconsistent, and I felt thrown around a bit, but it was not unmanageable and sometimes, felt quite fun. The current was pushing against us but I knew that meant an easier time on the way back.

Off in the distance, the lighthouse seemed infinitesimally bigger.

Then, less than two miles in, I started to notice the jellyfish.

“This isn’t bad,” I thought, “They’re way down there. And there’s just a few.”

They were so pretty. Bits of translucent distraction to admire as I swam. Something to enjoy and something to focus on other than stroke after stroke.

It was definitely possible to swim over them, to ignore them, to marvel at their distant beauty.

Until it wasn’t.

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Yes. Thanks to this photo from the generous Alina M. Photography, you can see what I am talking about.

Jellyfish.

A LOT of Jellyfish.

The first stings were a shock. A burning pinprick as if someone had heated the sharp end of a tack and decided that it should stab your skin, and then stay there.

Then, the stings came faster and more furiously. Ripped apart by the power boats, the bits were invisible to the naked eye, despite the fact that the “Smacks”, which is one name for pods of jellyfish, were now covering the water and could be seen in every direction.

The collections of jellies came fast and furious. Occasionally, it would seem like things were clearing, but that was an illusion. There they were again. And over there. And then that bit over there.

“Keep swimming,” I thought.

A big one on the nose.

One in the ear.

A collection under the top of my suit.

“It’s okay,” I tried to reassure myself, “Remember the Man-O-War sting? That felt much worse and you did it. You’re almost halfway. Keep going. You’ve got it.”

Under my arms.

On my feet when I kicked the underside of a large one. (And they can reach a diameter of 15 inches so that’s pretty much full foot contact.)

In my ears again.

I dodged and weaved and dove and swam with my face pointing forward so that I could see ahead of me and anticipate the next bunch.

John waved to me.

“There’s something wrong with your suit. It rolled up.”

Nope. That was because I’d pulled my suit up the let the ones covering my breasts escape, trying to brush the particles from my skin even though that was an exercise in futility.

“Expletive Starting in F!!!!” I yelled at one point, which John took as the time to ask “Are you okay? Do you want to get out?”, although he knew the answer.

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Eventually, the lighthouse got closer.

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And while the pain continued, moving from point-to-point on my body as earlier sting pain abated and new sting pain took its place, I never contemplated stopping.

Let’s face it – I knew I wasn’t going to die from the stings.

That was reassuring. It meant that the pain was a test, a challenge, and yet another variable in this open water sport I love.

And there were other things that made it worthwhile.

A battered sea turtle who had clearly lived a long and challenging life.

Some barracuda.

The prospect of not being stung after I got out of the water.

And then, the lighthouse was there. An oasis of clear water and countless fish and the knowledge that the return start was, in my husband’s words, just around the bend.

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The helicopter returned, which meant I could screen capture a shot of myself rounding the lighthouse. (John was working waaayyyy too hard to spend much time taking photos.) RoundtheLighthouse

We headed back to shore.

On the way back, the jellies seemed to have abated slightly. Still thick in patches, and still stingy when you hit them, it felt less overwhelming. Perhaps it was the combination of knowing I was past the halfway point and the helping current that made it feel that way but whatever it was, I welcomed the feeling of optimism I had on the back half of the swim.

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For the last mile, I was almost alone.

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Suddenly, the crowds had thinned, and I no longer felt the presence of power boats around me.

With the current pushing them right, most swimmers and kayaks seemed far away from me, and for once, my tendency to veer to the left actually kept me on a proper course, one even John was having trouble keeping while in the kayak.

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I knew I was on the right trajectory for me, and happy that my beloved Benadryl gel would be waiting for me on shore.

And then, it was over and I was running through the finish and John was pulling the kayak onto the shore and I was thrilled.

And cool bonus? The entire finish was filmed so each finisher can see themselves exit the water. What a treat to see myself finish–a view John can’t really capture from the kayak.

I’ve got to say–I look better than I thought I would after 5 hours of jellyfish stings!

Thankfully, the supportive area Firefighter/EMTs were at the finish with giant spray bottles of vinegar and I practically bathed in one. It felt fantastic to not be stung anymore, although the itching and spots would remain.

Here’s how I described the race to my friends on Facebook:

Take a bathtub and fill it with 85 degree water.

Get some large balloons and fill them with your own concoction of goo, and assorted heated tacks.

Put them in the bathtub.

Put the bathtub on one of those roller coasters meant for little kids, the ones that aren’t too scary but have enough dips to make it fun.

Get in the bathtub.

Start the coaster.

Stay in for 5 hours.

I know I don't actually LOOK happy in this photo, but I swear I was!

I know I don’t actually LOOK happy in this photo, but I swear I was!

After, we did what I always like to do when I’ve finished and stayed on the beach for a few hours, welcoming other swimmers and applauding, as one should for those who took to the water. It’s part of being a supportive community and I think it started for me when I first raced open water at the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim.

I remember watching my friend Alex Kostich wait at the finish after his own race, spending hours welcoming swimmers who arrived long after he had finished, and won, the 5-mile swim. It’s a lesson I have taken to heart about how to behave at a race, and one that has been reinforced by watching swimmers like David Barra, who stayed to assist at the Cape May Circumnavigation Challenge last year, even after having to exit the swim himself due to injury.

Swimmers are, in my humble opinion, seriously nice people.

Eventually, though, it was time to head back to the hotel to shower before the awards ceremony that night.

Because, um, much to my surprise, I kind of did okay.

Results

What?!?

Yeah, it was a shock to be second solo woman winner. And it made that jellyfish madness feel totally worth it.

Of course, the shower felt pretty amazing too.

The party was held at the same starting beach where, of course, the water was now calm and pristine and appeared to be jelly-free. And it was nice to feel that race organizers had dedicated time and space to a celebration and gathering of all who had participated.

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Music, food, a beautiful view, and then, receiving my 2nd place finisher award from Olympians Jeremy Linn and Jon Olsen–who were both super nice and ridiculously tall and Olympian-looking.

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I felt proud to be in such amazing company and impressed by so many of the swimmers and kayakers I saw and met there.

And once again, I felt in awe of the power of the ocean which never fails to surprise and challenge me in entirely new ways, and to engender a renewed feeling of respect each time I enter it.

As crazy as it sounds, I just can’t wait to start planning next season!

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