Lay off the salt: My first open water swim

Last Saturday I finally took the plunge. I apologize for the cheesy euphemism, but I couldn’t resist. The plunge was in the Great Salt Lake for the first annual Great Salt Lake Open Water Marathon Swim, and boy, was it an eye-opening experience. But first, a little background information leading up to the event.

I recently took up swimming as my dominant form of exercise and was ready to try something new. I’ve never been into the whole 5k, marathon or triathlon scene, but ever since my days on the swim team in high school I’ve always enjoyed swimming a lap or two. About two months ago, after a long break from living a healthy lifestyle, I started small, swimming about 1,000 yards in the local pool by my house. It was very difficult at the time, and I never imagined I’d be participating in a one-mile swim (1,750 yards) across one of the foulest lakes in North America less than eight weeks later.

That's me right next to the kayak with my fat arm in the air early in the race.

With the help of my close friend, Kelly, who also is getting back into the swimming scene, I’ve increased my swims to about 2,000-3,000 yards, depending on the day. I had heard about open water swims and never really considered partaking in one until one of the organizers of the Salt Lake swim commented on my last blog about swimming. He urged me to give it a try, so I caved and dragged Kelly along with me.

Initially, my anxiety about the swim was focused around the water temperature. I was under the assumption it would be unbearably cold (around 60 degrees), but that wasn’t the case. It ended up being about 65 degrees and after the initial shock of getting into the water at the Great Salt Lake marina in Magna, I got used to it pretty quick. I didn’t think about it for the rest of the day.

However, what caught me off guard was the salt content. I knew it would be salty, but I didn’t know the salinity of the lake is many times higher than most oceans. After the horn blew and the race started, I was taken back by how much it stung in my mouth. After a few hundred yards, I thought, “Well, this sucks, but I can gut out a mile.”

Another challenge, one I DID expect, was the choppy water and the current. The water seemed to be pushing pretty hard against all the competitors, but it wasn’t terrible. Sighting the finish line (a big black rock on the horizon) also proved to be difficult, as I often found myself zig-zagging instead of swimming a straight line. I think I even irritated a few veterans to open water swims with my erratic swimming, as one woman grabbed my leg and yanked me out of her way in frustration.

After about a half mile, I felt pretty good and Kelly was nowhere in sight. I was pretty sure I created a huge gap between me and him at the start and that boosted my confidence. That changed quickly though, after seeemingly out of nowhere, he was right next to me on my left side. He eventually passed me, but I kept pace about a body length behind him. My initial goal heading into the swim was not to finish last. My secondary goal, although I never told him this, was to beat him. He’s always been more active and fit than I have, and deep down, I was hoping to make a statement with this swim.

My "mad dash" to the finish. Kelly was just off to my right.

I had no idea if we were in the very back, so I assumed the worst and gave it my all to stick with him on his flank, hoping to pass him at the end so I wouldn’t finish last. I could tell he was having just as hard a time sighting as I was, so he never really burned away from me. Once we got within a hundred yards or so of the beach, I sprinted with the little energy I had left. It was very shallow already and I could have easily stood up and walked the rest. I managed to catch up with Kelly and we both got up at the same time. I thought for sure him and I were going to make a mad dash to the line, but I was the only one who did. He trotted up to the beach about 10 seconds after I did.

I think I stood up from a horizontal position too fast, because immediately after a kind-looking woman handed me a medal at the finish, I felt dizzy and sick. My wife, Jen, was there and grabbed me some water. Within a minute or so I felt better and asked her if we were the last ones. To my surprise, we weren’t. I looked out at the lake and saw a handful of neon swim caps still in the water.

I ended up finishing 13th out of 23 total swimmers (8th out of 15 non-wetsuit swimmers) and had a time of 33 minutes, 39 seconds. Not nearly as fast as my one-mile time in a pool, but I was happy with it. To be honest, it felt like I swam it 10 minutes slower.

Right about here is where I almost lost my breakfast, shortly before Jen straightened me out.

Overall, it was a lot of fun. The event was very well organized and everyone from the event planners to the competitors were super friendly. I’m glad Kelly did it with me and we plan on doing another one in August, this time a three-mile swim. Jen was also very patient with me, because I’m sure I acted like a big baby after. Competing in a marathon swim in the Great Salt Lake was definitely worth it, except for my swollen, salt-stricken tongue the next day. It still friggin hurts.

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2 Responses to Lay off the salt: My first open water swim

  1. Bob Becker says:

    Let me see if I have this right: you decided minutes into the swim that “this sucks.” At the end, you were woozy, almost tossed your cookies, and a day later you were still in pain.

    And you did this for fun? And will again?

    You must be a reporter.

    • Matt Gerrish says:

      I’m still undecided if I will be swimming in the Great Salt Lake again. The 3-mile race is in Deer Creek Reservoir. I’m sure the fresh water will be much more enjoyable.

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