Bell Buoy ChallengePosted on 4.7.12
Today was the 8K Bell Buoy Challenge in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Jason Malick and I walked down from our City Lodge hotel to the race start, noticing how calm and flat the water was from an overcast sky. The surf was small and the tide was low, which would make the sand start very easy. We grabbed our race packs and put our numbers on, which were temporary tattoos - great idea for race numbers. Just before the race briefing it began to drizzle, but most people seemed excited about this. The locals informed us that rain keeps the winds away and makes for a nice, flat ocean. Michael of Zports briefed us on the course and rules, mentioning that this is by far the best weather the race has had over it’s 3 year span. I got in a bit of a warm up in the nice 70 degree water and then we lined up, one at a time, introduced by name. I was impressed that over 50 people showed up to race 8K.
The start of the race went smoothly. As one of the last registrants, I was on the south side of the starting line, so had clear water to my left. I breathed right most of the way to the first buoy, breathless from a fast start and trying to find someone to draft off of. After the turn somehow I wound up in a less-than-ideal drafting position, just 5 yards behind anyone I wanted to swim with. I pushed to try to make up the distance to no avail. Luckily there was watercraft everywhere, and between boats, kayakers, and paddlers I could easily stay on course. The course took us 1.6K north up the coast, where another turn buoy was placed. I was still racing to try to catch one of the several people ahead of me, not willing to slow down in exchange for a draft. Finally I caught up with one man in a wetsuit, but realized he was dying and probably took it out too fast, so passed him and kept looking. I could see two women that looked like they were in sync, but couldn’t reach them. I knew they weren’t the female elites because those two had red caps while the bulk of the field had orange. We made a left shoulder turn around the buoy and headed 2.4K straight out to sea, towards the Bell Buoy. There were large bright yellow buoys every 400 meters along the course which was extremely helpful.
After 3 yellow buoys I began to feel something slimy on my hands. I hit a couple more slimy balls and then realized I was encountering a type of jellyfish that wasn’t stinging. And thankfully, because before I knew it I was in a swarm of them. There were hundreds of them, so I shut my mouth and sprinted to get out of the jellyfish pack. I settled down, realizing I was okay and they did not sting. The girls ahead of me seemed to be more rattled, because I finally passed them treading water talking with their kayaker. Now’s my chance, I thought, and stuck to them when they started swimming again at the sight of me. (After the race, I learned they were feeding, not freaking out from the jellies). We encountered many more swarms of non-stinging jellyfish, and then after the final yellow buoy began to hit stinging ones. They hurt, but not intensely, and they stung me everywhere - both arms, one leg, my face, and one seemed intent on hitching a ride in my suit.
When we rounded the Bell Buoy I was able to sneak inside and pass the girls. I knew it was not an opportune time to pass them, what with half the race left, but I figured I’d give it a shot. Turns out it was not the best move, because one of the two girls was with me 1K later, but far outside the course line. The other girl caught up but drafted off my feet. At some point she dropped off and I lost track of her, but could see the other girl until we converged again at the second buoy back near shore. At this point I was exhausted so decided to try to draft off her a bit. Her pace had slowed as well, but we still managed to pass one more swimmer on the shore part of the course. I did not know her, but I know I’m no sprinter, so if I wanted to beat her I knew I had to break away early. Since she had a kayaker that was keeping her on course, I waited to make my move until I could see the final buoy, then took off. It was a stretch, thinking I could keep my pace up for what turned out to be at least 1K, but finally I reached the buoy and could see her kayaker about 3 body lengths behind. Still not enough lead for my comfort, so I picked it up again as I turned into shore. The strategy paid off, and it was a good thing because I barely had enough gas left in the tank to put in a respectable ‘run’ through the finish, let alone fend off a competitor.
I was pleased with the finish, 1:54, third woman, and I think seventh (?) overall. However, what I’m most proud of is when it hurt the most, when I began to draft off the fourth place woman again, I thought to myself “fourth’s good enough.” It reminded me of my mindset at MIMS in 2010, and the post-race consequences of allowing yourself to succumb to discomfort and give yourself an excuse to not do your best. It’s been 2 years and that race still gnaws at me. Instantly I was able to catch that, and while it hurt no less to stay with her, I at least allowed myself the chance to perform my best race, rather than giving her third so easily and never knowing what could have happened.
This afternoon our hosts are taking us to a cheetah park, which I’m looking forward to. Tomorrow is the 1K Izani Siqubhe race at the same location. We have been told not to expect weather anywhere near as nice as today’s, and past participants told us it’s not uncommon to swim over twice that distance if the winds and currents are very strong!