Race Report: Big Shoulders 5K (Chicago, IL)

What the lake gods giveth, they can - and do - taketh away. This is Chicago, people!

Big Shoulders ‘09 was a picture-perfect beach day, with calm 73-degree water. This year, the remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine blew through, giving us clouds, rain, wind, and choppy, cold water (62-63 degress F).

It’s all in the game, though, right? Open-water swimming isn’t supposed to be predictable - that’s what pools are for! Maybe you get a beach day, or maybe you get a storm. Maybe the water is calm and comfortable, or maybe it’s churning and cold.

Open-water swimming is supposed to be challenging! It might be uncomfortable; it might be frustrating; it might even be vaguely dangerous. You may have to endure - god forbid! - a few negative thoughts. In open water, there are no “best times” - the clock is merely a ranking device. Instead, rewards derive from tackling challenges - distance and/or unique conditions - and overcoming them.

Which is why Big Shoulders 2010 was an instant classic.

We knew it would be cold. At temperatures much below 65, in-water warm-ups can be counterproductive, but I took my chances and hopped in for a quick 600-700m. In the end, it was probably a wash. I didn’t really get warmed up, but I didn’t get chilled, either.

What most people probably didn’t anticipate, though, was the heavy chop. The course layout is a 2.5K triangle inscribed in the “playpen - the area enclosed by Ohio Street Beach, the lakefront trail, and two large breakwaters. From the beach, it appeared that the breakwater protected the course pretty well from the stormy lake outside it. But this was deceptive: As you neared the first turn buoy, located near one of the openings in the breakwater, the chop was merciless. It kept pounding you most of the way along the 2nd leg of the triangle, and then got worse as you neared the 2nd turn buoy (near another opening in the breakwater). The final leg along the seawall offered some relief and possibly even a helpful current.

Here’s a glimpse of what it was like out at the first turn buoy (via Rob Aquatics)

The officials allowed race-day switches into the wetsuit division if the water was below 65, and I think quite a few people took advantage of this. But the unexpectedly powerful chop pushed what was (for some) an already marginal situation into a no-go. Many 5K entrants bailed after the first lap; others didn’t even make it that far and chose to climb the ladders along the seawall and walk it back.

In the end, 568 (of 800 registered) finished either the 5K or the 2.5K - so almost 30% either didn’t show or didn’t finish.

My race, in brief: The elite wave just sort of started itself, I think. I certainly didn’t hear the airhorn. And we took it out hard, as the 50 fastest swimmers all tried to find clear water at the same time. I stuck with the leaders out to the first buoy. Going around the first buoy I got a little disoriented in my navigation and fell off the lead pack. I also was starting to fatigue - as I said, we took it out hard, and I simply wasn’t warmed up enough to maintain that pace.

I swam with two others through the end of the first lap, at which point one of them fell behind me, and the other pulled ahead. So the second lap was a lonely one - until I started lapping folks from later waves. Navigation was a bit of a chore: The chop made it tough to see the 8-ft tall buoys until you were almost on top of them. It was worst on the first leg, as there was nothing else to sight from. On the 2nd leg the downtown skyline provided some assistance; and on the final leg there’s a tall, conveniently located condo building.

I was 10th out of the water among the elite wave - 34 seconds behind 9th and 59 seconds ahead of 11th. I found out later that two dudes in the 4th wave had gone faster, though one was wearing a wetsuit so he doesn’t count 🙂 Final time of 1:11:07 - 9:40 slower than last year. The winner finished in 1:06:17, also about 10 minutes slower than last year.

Some self-evaluation: I took it out way too hard, though after the first buoy I was passed only once. I felt terrible for the entire second lap, and my stroke was a thrashing mess. Some of that was probably lack of warm-up, some of it was probably my ill-advised pacing… but the conditions were also a major factor. Chop and cold both sap energy. For most of the second lap, I was consumed by negative thoughts. This is probably my biggest disappointment. I got so pissed off at the rogue barge that I almost made a special sidetrip, just to yell at them. Negativity saps energy, too.

In the end, I did fine. I moved up 6 places from last year - 17th to 11th - and frankly, the folks who beat me are legitimately faster swimmers. I could have swum a better race, but I’m tougher for having endured it. It was a memorable challenge. And if next year’s Big Shoulders is warm and sunny, we’ll appreciate it that much more.

  • RESULTS here.
  • Official write-up here.
  • Rob Aquatics write-up here.

Bonus Coverage: Don’t miss Rob’s account of our Friday morning “preview swim.”