Diary from the U.S.A Swimming Open Water Championships

Swimmers in the lead pack move into turn one during the 10K race.<br><br>
<strong>Photo: Doug Benc/ Getty Images</strong>

Editor's note: Open water swimmer John Kenny recently shared his training regimen leading up to the 2007 U.S.A Swimming Open Water Championships in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., with Active.com. The following diary recounts Kenny's trip as he competes in the 10K and 25K races while seeking to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials and the 2008 World Championships.

Thursday, May 17: Travel Day

This morning, I packed my bags then went for a quick wake-up swim before work. I swam for about 35 to 40 minutes at a leisurely pace. After a half-day of work then a pre-race massage, I met up with my girlfriend, Kate Donald, who will be traveling with me, doing the 5K Masters race on Saturday and acting as my trainer during Monday's 25K. She has been a huge help to me thus far with travel planning and training. That evening, we caught an early evening flight from Philadelphia to the Southwest Florida International Airport.

We arrived in Fort Myers Beach around 9 p.m. Instead of booking a hotel, we took advantage of a great homestay, saving us a substantial amount of money over the course of five nights. A friend of mine, Dr. Dave Hirsch, from one of my morning swim groups in Wildwood Crest, N.J., had some friends on Estero Island. He put us in contact with Kathi and Dan Santomero, who run a home concierge service. They found us a beautiful two-bedroom cottage owned by Jim and Linda Mahoney, who happen to live within a short distance of my home in Atlantic City, N.J. We truly live in a small world. The accommodations were ideal for relaxing before my races. We owe a huge thank you to: Dave, Kathi, Dan, Jim, and Linda.

Friday, May 18

On Friday morning I slept in, then went for a 30-minute swim. It was great to finally get 12 hours of sleep in one night. I would have swum longer, but decided instead to go for another 30-minute swim after the pre-race meeting at 3 p.m.

The course for the 10K will be four loops along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The water temperature was said to be 75 to 76 degrees, although it felt a few degrees warmer. The feeding boat used in the 5K isn't available, so our trainers would have to wade onto the course in a designated area to provide feedings. Feeding sticks were declared illegal—not that it would make a difference. The entire homestretch is in four-foot deep water, so it would be easy to feed the athletes while standing. My plan is to over-hydrate prior to the race, feed during the second and third laps, then skip the feed station on the final lap.

This 10K race serves as a qualifier for multiple future competitions. The top two Americans go on to the Pan American Games in Brazil. The top four Americans qualify for funding to compete at 10K FINA World Cup races in Seville, Spain (the site of next year's World Championships), and London. In addition, the top 15 Americans qualify for the 10K U.S. Olympic Trial in October.

Consequently, this would be the most competitive national championship to date. I qualified as a result of my top-15 finish at last year's nationals. For this specific race, the qualification standard was lowered to 16 minutes, 6 seconds for a 1500-meter long-course pool swim. To put this time in perspective, Erik Vendt and Michael Phelps swam 15:31 and 15:34, respectively, to finish first and second in the 1500m at the recent Eric Namesnik Grand Prix meet.

As a result of the qualification standards, more pool specialists have entered the event. About 25 swimmers are scheduled to compete, including a few international entries. The 10K field will be small and fast, but also relatively inexperienced in open water racing. It should be an interesting race. After my afternoon swim, I shaved down, had a good pasta dinner and prepared to go to bed early.

Saturday, May 19: 10K Race Day

On Saturday, I woke up at 6 a.m., had a quick breakfast, did a final gear check and left for the start, which was scheduled for 8 a.m. Upon arrival, I had my race number applied, along with sunscreen and lubricant. I put on my suit and did an easy 20-minute warmup about a half-hour before the start. With 10 minutes to go, we did the final check-in and entered the water.

The start line was about 200 yards from the shoreline, so on the way I swam a few fast, short bursts to get my heart rate up. We lined up, the gun sounded and the race was underway. Despite the high level of competition, the pace during the first lap was a little slower than expected.

Generally, no one wants to start fast and take an early lead in a race like this. Similar to a long distance running race, the pack gets very tight when the pace is slow. As expected, the pace gradually sped up over the next few laps. When the pace gets faster, the pack tends to lengthen out, and slower swimmers fall off the back.

Most of the Americans in the field were pool specialists, so a definite level of discomfort existed for those in close proximity to each other in the pack. There was a lot of contact, especially around the buoys. In contrast, packs of swimmers in international competitions tend to work together more efficiently, with less intentional fighting and interference.

As the pace got faster, this almost became a moot point. Either you can hang with the pace or you can't. As planned, I had a PowerBar gel and Gatorade on the second lap. At that point, I was still somewhat comfortable in the pack.

At the beginning of the homestretch on the third lap, I noticed that the entire pack was following the lead kayaker, who was headed too far out to sea. To compound the matter, the pack was moving in the opposite direction from the feeding station, which would make a feeding impossible. I decided to surge ahead and go on my own. This was a risky move, but it seemed justified based on what I saw. I took my straight line, stopped for another Gatorade, and reached the far buoy just 20 or 30 yards behind the pack.

I tried to regain ground around the far turns, but the gap was too wide. One observer said that I swam 50 to 60 yards less than the pack. That was probably an accurate estimate, but it goes to show how beneficial drafting effectively can be in a race like this. Going alone was a tough call to make. In retrospect, I may have had a better shot if I followed the pack off course, but it's tough to second guess yourself.

I swam some of the fourth lap by myself until one other swimmer, Dan DeMarco, fell off the pace. We swam much of the last 1500 meters together, and I finished just behind him in 10th place overall. I was the seventh American finisher, so although I didn't have a perfect race, I accomplished my goal of making the top 15 and qualifying for the Olympic Trials in October.

As expected, the heavily favored Chip Peterson came away with a strong win, finishing in a fast 1:41, followed by many of the same faces from last year's nationals. I believe the measurement of the distance was a little short, but this is pretty common in open water swimming.

After a brief cooldown, I got a massage courtesy of the race volunteers and had something to eat. I also noticed that the back of my hand had a good bit of blood on it. [see photo, left, of me with Kate] I thought this was interesting since I hadn't come into serious contact with other swimmers since the second lap. It goes to show how open water swimming really is a contact sport.

The Masters 5K swim started right after the 10K awards ceremony. I tried to get Kate to hydrate before her race, but it felt like pulling teeth. The women started five minutes after the men. In a very impressive swim, Kate came back from a large deficit to win the overall women's race in the last quarter-mile.

That afternoon, we napped to get ready for the Dash for Cash, a one-mile professional swim held that evening. In a small but competitive field, we each placed fifth in our respective races. That was good enough to win back a small portion of our entry fees for the weekend.

Sunday, May 20: Rest Day

After a good night's sleep and a relaxing morning, I went for an easy 40-minute swim in the gulf. The idea was to get the kinks out from yesterday's race. Today would be the only rest day between the 10K and 25K races.

Most of the 25K pre-race meeting was spent discussing the course, which would be a counter-clockwise loop around Estero Island. We would start outside the pier and head south to a large buoy, through the inlet, under the bridge and make a left into the channel of the bay. The shoreline on the gulf is concave, so we would have to follow a longer line than if we swam parallel to the beach. It's too shallow to swim outside of the channel, so the channel markers doubled as course markers. The channel has a lot of turns, so navigation would be crucial. Finally, we would cross under the northern bridge and around another buoy. The course moves back into the gulf and finishes under a banner near the starting pier.

Also discussed at the meeting was the selection process for the 2008 World Championships in Seville. The top two finishers would qualify for worlds, so that would be my goal for the race. After the meeting, I met Joe Alvarado, who would be paddling in my kayak with Kate as my support craft. We discussed the race, the course, strategy and feeding. There are a lot of things to consider when preparing for a long-distance race, so planning is very important. After a solid pasta dinner, I got everything set for the race and prepared for another early night.

Monday, May 21: 25K Race Day

My alarm woke me at 6 a.m. I had a large breakfast, which I think is crucial before a five- or six-hour swim. Final preparations included filling a cooler full of Gatorade and PowerBar gel, and packing a marker board, extra suits, goggles and other stuff we didn't end up using. You always need to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances.

My plan was to drink about 12 ounces of Gatorade every 12 minutes and have a gel at the top of every hour. After arriving at the park and doing all the usual applications (sun block, race number, lubricant), I found a two-seat kayak and helped Joe and Kate load the cooler and supplies.

The start of the race was a repeat of last year—Mark Warkentin took it out hard again. I was able to stay in his draft for the first 30 to 40 minutes, but the pace was too much for me to maintain. I was still hurting from the 10K on Saturday. I would have loved another day of rest, but I didn't have that option. When Mark broke away, I tried to maintain the best course and pace possible.

About two hours into the race, we were near the south end of the island. The swimmer in third, Brooks Felton, had been closing in and was now going back and forth with me. We swam in close proximity through the inlet and well into the channel. Around the halfway point of the race, I made a long surge and broke away for good. I spent most of the back half of the race by myself. The only exception being just after the final bridge, when I saw a school of dolphins frolicking in the water.

Communicating with my kayakers, I learned that no one was going to catch me and Mark was more than 10 minutes ahead. I maintained a smooth, strong pace into the finish to place second overall. I had accomplished my goal of making the 2008 World team. Despite the fact that I could no longer lift my arms, it felt pretty good.

I owe a big thank you to Joe and Kate. Without them, I wouldn't have been able to accomplish this goal. The rest of the afternoon, I just wanted to rehydrate, sleep and, most importantly, replace all the lost calories.

Tuesday, May 22

As expected, I was very sore Tuesday morning. My legs felt great, however, so I went for a 30-minute run. I did about 10 minutes of easy swimming in the afternoon and plan to increase that amount by 10 minutes per day for the next two or three days. The rest of the day was spent relaxing on the beach. We didn't have much time before we had to pack for the trip home to get back to work tomorrow. The grind continues.

My immediate plans include a definite increase in bike and run volume over the next few weeks. I'd like to have a solid triathlon season in addition to swimming. I'm looking forward to long open water swims and some long rides, especially in the rural hills. For a change, I'll give my shoulders, lats and triceps a break—at least for the rest of the week.

John Kenny is a five-time U.S. National Champion in open-water swims ranging from 10K to 25K. He currently trains and competes in Atlantic City, N.J.

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