Race Report: Madison Open-Water Swim

by Evan Morrison. 22 August 2010.

In contrast to most of my summer race schedule, the Madison Open-Water Swim is a nice, big urban race - a worthy younger sibling to Chicago’s Big Shoulders. An Ironman-length swim with actual iron in the vicinity!

Downtown Madison is built on the isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. One of the city’s most recognizable landmarks is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center on the shore of the latter lake (see the foreground building in the picture at right, beneath the state capitol dome). Friday afternoon, my wife and I had a snack on this building’s rooftop terrace, which directly overlooks the race course. The lake was frothy from the afternoon wind, but I figured it would calm down by morning.

And indeed, we found a nice, glassy lake the next morning. Despite the 350-odd swimmers crowded into Law Park, registration was smooth and quick. Like most Midwest bodies of water this summer, Lake Monona has been warm - the official temperature came in at 77F. As usual, this didn’t deter the triathletes - who traditionally come out in big numbers for this race - from donning their wetsuits.

From the start at Law Park, the course followed a 1.2-mile rectangle with sides of approximately 730m and 220m (see diagram below). The course was well marked with large, bright orange buoys at the corners and numerous intermediate buoys - though the lines formed by these markers were, shall we say, imperfectly straight.

The race organizers decided on three waves, set off 5 minutes apart:

An interesting decision, given that the faster swimmers tend to be in the non-wetsuit division. Evidence: average 2.4-mile finishing time of 1:25 for wetsuiters, 1:14 for non-wetsuiters. Top 6 finishers: all without wetsuits.

Thanks to a false start, my wave (the 2nd) was actually set off 6 minutes after the folks in wetsuits. Can you guess what happened next? Within 500m, we had begun passing people from the first wave. But the real fun started on the second 730m straightaway, when the leaders passed the bulk of the 200+ wetsuit-wearers from the first wave. Talk about running the gauntlet! I think I avoided most of the traffic by hugging the inside part of the course, so it really wasn’t too bad. In retrospect, I realized that I had passed about 150 people in less than 750m. That’s more than one neoprene-covered noodler every 5 meters!

Thankfully, by the beginning of the second 1.2-mile lap, I had clear water. Unfortunately, the three people ahead of me were out of sight, so lap #2 had the feel of an individual time trial. I flipped over for a quick glance behind me every few minutes, but no one from my wave ever came within 50m.

I felt good - kept a steady stroke rate with little deterioration in my technique - through the full 2.4 miles. So it surprised me when I finished in 54:11, which works out to 1:24 per 100m. I can only assume the course must have been long. But hey, that’s OWS  for you.

4th overall (including wetsuiters), 3rd among men, 1st of 25 in my age group. And the woman who beat me is a recent open-water national team member. No shame in that, I suppose 🙂

UPDATE: Just noticed some rumblings on a triathlon forum confirming my sense that the course was long. My best guess is that I was swimming about 1:19’s, and the only way that computes to a 54:11 is if the course was actually 126 meters longer than 1.2 miles. How does this happen in an age of handheld GPS?

Results here.

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On 2010-08-23 14:23:48, Jamie Barden said:
Sounds like a great race and a nice result for sure. Sounds like you made a nice trip of it as well. Tri Swim Noodler

On 2010-08-23 17:02:54, Evan said:
Jamie, good to hear from you! We swim specialists enjoy needling our Tri friends about their neoprene fixation, but it's probably just to compensate for our typical uselessness at land based sports. Anyway, Madison would be a great tri venue if you're so inclined someday. I heard someone describing the bike course and it sounded fantastic.