Tallchief Open Water Challenge

12 Sep

As many of you regulars know I’m training to compete in my first ever triathlon (in my case biathlon – swimming and biking only) event on my birthday September 24 in Oklahoma City’s Redman Triathlon.

Also evident to those same regulars is my apprehension (to put it mildly) about the 1.2 mile open water swim in the very dry Lake Hefner.

I’m a swimmer-come-lately; having just started in June when I started training for Redman aquabike. Since then I’ve done the 1.2 mile distance in the pool a few times and have had three open water practice swims; but have never swam in an actual race.


That changed yesterday with the 2011 Tallchief Open Water Challenge. I only learned of the Tallchief event last week but was immediately interested as it seemed like the perfect event for a beginner: less than 100 participants and swim only – no bike or run to complete; plus it was in a pretty setting. I may be a beginner but I do appreciate clear, natural lakes in scenic settings. Lake Tallchief was all of that.

Tallchief Lake

People in kayaks to keep swimmers safe

What I wanted most from this event was confidence. If this first competitive open water swim went well I knew I would relax about the Redman swim and if it didn’t I knew my stress level would grow. Consequently I thought the 1/2 mile swim option would be my best bet. On the other hand, even if I did the 1/2 mile swim successfully it still wouldn’t tell me if I could swim a mile – in a lake – with other swimmers – in competition.

I felt I had to roll the dice and sign up for the mile – and I did last Wednesday.

I had a practice open water swim on Thursday in Lake Arcadia which went well, a pool swim on Friday to work on technique and a short bike ride to test out my new aero-bars (another blog, another time). I was as prepared as I could be.

2011-09-08 11.12.46

Everything was ready to go when we (the photographer and I) went to bed Saturday night so when the alarm went off at 4:45am all we had to do was get dressed and go. At that hour it was best to keep it simple. This was another good practice for Redman, getting up early, eating and getting in that competition mindset. I was surprisingly calm as we headed to Tulsa.

We arrived right on schedule and quickly got me checked in, including my race number on my arms.

Susan's Swim Number

We were both impressed with the beauty of the area, Camp Tallchief is a Girl Scout camp on the John Zink ranch. The weather was perfect – sunny, cool and calm.


We hiked about 1/4 mile down to Lake Tallchief, the water was smooth.There were only 67 swimmers registered so there wouldn’t be the mass of bodies thrashing around that Redman will have.

I relaxed even more. I got my wetsuit on and took a short practice swim just to acclimate to the water and practice sighting the buoys.

P1010955More Warmup

Warming Up"I have to swim way out there!"P1010950Lot's of swimmers warming up

I had read repeatedly that one of the biggest fear producers for beginners was when they first saw how far away the turn around buoy was – 1/2 mile in this case. I knew it would look so far away that it would look undoable and it did.

1/2 mile to furthest buoy by trees... then back!

tc signInstead of focusing on how far I told myself “you’ve done the distance – you can do this” and I avoided looking at the turnaround buoy which was easy because I really couldn’t see it very well from the shore. I busied myself getting my swim cap and goggles on.

Right about then the race director gave final instructions and then called for a moment of silence in remembrance of the victims of 9/11. Next, the National Anthem, but they couldn’t get the boom box to play it. After several minutes of fiddling with the boom box and a growing restlessness of the swimmers, some brave swimmer started singing “Oh say can you see…” and others quickly joined in. I’m not a patriotic sort, but it was really cool and moving the way we were all singing – with no music. About half way through the stereo started working and so we back tracked and finished singing it with the music.

Now it was time for the 1 and 2 milers to head into the water for the start. I had just found my spot (in the back and off to the side) when the gun sounded. As planned I waited to swim until things cleared out.

P1010960And They're Off

Once they did I put my head down and started swimming. One thing I quickly noticed was people were not swimming anywhere close to the most direct route to the buoys – and indeed that route was open so I took the opening and started swimming.

P1010964Occasionally I would brush another swimmer or vice versa but for the most part I swam unscathed. Sighting was next to impossible because of the glare of the sun but I could tell I was swimming where I should be because of the location of other swimmers and the kayakers.

I focused on keeping my head low, reaching as far as I could on the stroke and rolling up to get air – not lifting my head. I stayed with my bilateral breathing every 3 strokes which I taught myself in late June. Other than the occasional thought of “how am I going to swim that far” things were working pretty well.

After what seemed like forever, but must have been about 20 minutes I came to the turn around buoy. The Race is OnI was overjoyed to see that big orange triangle in the water. I shouted my race number to the two people in the canoe – hoped I said it intelligibly so they got the right number– and then headed for home!

Just the thought of “heading home” was a big relief and immediately relaxed me. I was proceeding along swimmingly… when all of a sudden someone slammed into me. I looked up to see this guy I had noticed earlier who had been off course to my right, and was now overcorrecting and doing the backstroke to boot so he couldn’t see who was ahead of him. By his demeanor I gathered he didn’t care. After a 3 or 4 more incidences of being grabbed, bumped and generally accosted, I sat up to let him get ahead. Once it seemed safe I started swimming again. As I breathed to my right I could see he was getting off course again and heading into the path of the 2 milers. Better them then me I thought, but gradually his pace was slowing and I was catching up.

I swam easily trying to preserve my energy, but despite that easy pace my right shoulder was starting to hurt just a little. One of my biggest fears is that someone will hit me or I’ll hit them and jar my fragile right shoulder with its partially torn rotator cuff. I was determined to stay away from the floundering backstroking blockhead so I tried to swim a faster pace – which further tired my arms. Seemed like the lesser of two evils though so I continued.

Because of all this my line to the finish was not as direct as it had been to the first buoy thus I swam more distance than I should have. Again, the lesser of two evils. The latter part of the swim I focused on my stroke and as the finish became visible my excitement grew. I could see Mark (photographer aka DH) on the shore looking for me. As I got closer he spotted me, we waved and I finished and stood up to walk the last few steps to the finish.

Susan at the FinishGetting Out of Water

All Done... 1 Mile in 44:09 minutes!This picture tells the story of how I was feeling. All I was thinking and feeling was, I DID IT!!! I think I may have said it out loud to myself as I walked up the finish – I was that astounded and elated. Mark was almost as excited as I was and told me that I had finished faster than I had expected. I hadn’t even thought to look at my watch, I pushed stop and the time read: 44:14 (my official time was 44:09). I was overjoyed! I not only swam a mile but I swam it faster than I had expected. It wasn’t a great time by swim standards but it was a respectable time and a good time for a first swim race.

We stayed for burgers and the awards presentation. I finished in bottom half but not at the bottom and the truth is it didn’t matter where I finished – just that I finished. It was a well organized event, sponsored by the Tulsa Masters Swim Club and Denise Smart, Event Director. I highly recommend it and hope to do it again next year.

2 Responses to “Tallchief Open Water Challenge”

  1. Kim September 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Good for you – congratulations on the open water swim! Hope the floundering backstroker made it in.

    • Susan September 16, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

      He made it, I actually sat by him at lunch. Neither of us said a word. 🙂

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