The 2nd USMS Open-Water Championship - 1.5 miles around Lake Del Valle, south of Livermore, CA - promised to be a competitive one, given all the stacked Masters teams in the Bay Area. And that it was.
An email from the race director indicated the possibility of water temperatures in the 65F range - a tad brisk - so I decided to warm up at Stanford Masters’ Sunday AM workout rather than at the race venue. This was unnecessary in the end - the water was more like 70 - but I was glad I did it. Warm-up situations at open-water events can be unpredictable, and I’ve generally found it easier to get properly warmed up in a pool.
I got in about 2000m at Stanford - a nice, full warm-up. So, when I arrived at the venue I only needed a couple hundred meters - just to get a feel for the lake - before I was ready to go. Good thing, too - I had just enough time to check in, get marked, suit up, and hop in the lake for a few minutes before the pre-race briefing began.
The 358-strong field was segmented into three waves according to a 1650-yard seed time. The first wave (my wave) had well over 100 swimmers, but the two starting buoys were ~75 yards apart, so everyone was spread out laterally at the start. As a result, there was surprisingly little contact heading out to the first buoy. Halfway to the buoy, there were maybe 10 swimmers out front (including myself), but because of the lateral separation there was only one guy within 10m of me. I drafted dutifully at his hip all the way into the first turn. (Thanks for that, whoever you are!)
As we closed in on the first buoy, the lateral separation closed quite suddenly. Between the first and second buoys, which were only a couple hundred yards apart, some forward separation began to develop. A small number of swimmers broke out in front, and I was in a group of 7-8 behind them.
And that was pretty much the story for the rest of the race. Through the long back stretch of the course and then around toward the final right turn, I swam either beside or just behind the leader of the secondary group. I wasn’t sure at the time how many were in front of us, but it turned out there were only 3.
Tactically, it was about as strong a race as I’ve swum. The leaders were out of reach pretty quickly, so I put them out of mind. I never knew exactly how many were in my group, but at any given time only 1 or 2 were in my field of vision. As much as possible, I used one of them to navigate for me and pull me along in their draft. I was holding a comfortable pace, and I figured, as long as nobody broke out ahead of me, I may as well conserve speed for the end.
As we rounded the 90-degree turn at the end of the lake and headed back toward the finish, one guy did try to break out. I turned up my tempo a notch and stayed on his feet, along with 1 or 2 others. This had the effect of stringing out the secondary pack a bit, as some failed to keep up.
Rounding the final right turn, the pace picked up another notch or two. I began to inch up on the right hip of the guy in front of me (wrong hip, as it turned out). At the final intermediate (yellow) buoy I drew even with him. I looked up to sight the finish chute and noticed that we were aiming a bit to the right. I started pushing left, trying to correct our line. But he was stubborn, so we were constantly bumping.
With about 75m to the finish I turned on my kick and sprinted past my directionally challenged friend. But it was too late: Someone else had moved around to our left and, while we were jostling, slipped past us.
I finished 5th overall, in 31:06 (pace of 1:17). This put me 1:24 behind the winner, 43 seconds out of third, and 3 seconds behind the winner of our secondary pack. More interesting was what happened next: in the next 20 seconds, six others finished. In the next minute after that, 10 more finished. This was a fast field, and with even the slightest error I could have easily been knocked out of the top 10. The top two finishers, I should note, regularly compete on the FINA pro open-water circuit.
With the race behind me, I had the chance to notice the striking beauty of Lake Del Valle. And by the way, that’s Lake Del “VALL” - pronounced the gringo way, like “pal.”
Surrounded by hills, with a large sandy beach, plenty of shade trees, and a huge grass field for land-based sports, this was a near-perfect venue for an open water race - or just a nice day at the park.
All in all, a fun and memorable day. I had a 5-hour drive down the coast ahead of me, so I couldn’t stick around for the extended award ceremony (10-deep medals in each age group, guys? Seriously?). Thanks to Tri-Valley Masters for their superb organizing!
And once again I met up with the omnipresent Rob D. of Rob Aquatics. He was fatigued from his here. See you in Colorado next week, Rob!