Big Shoulders 2021

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I’ve been trying to swim the Big Shoulders for years.

The Big Shoulders is an open-water swimming race held in Lake Michigan at Ohio Street Beach in downtown Chicago, which is where I first started training for open water swimming. So some September morning years ago we just ran into this event happening at our little training spot. Since I had trained up to 2.4 miles swimming for my Ironman, longer distances felt achievable, and Erica and I had a lot of fun swimming the 2.2 miles of the Point to La Pointe. The Big Shoulders had one lap at 2.5K (~1.5 miles) and two laps at 5K (3.1 miles) I was intrigued and put the race on my race to-do list.

I knew the race was in September, so in 2016 sometime around August I tried to sign up, but the race was sold out. The next year, I thought of it earlier in the summer, maybe June, and also found that the race was sold out. So that year I found out when the race sign-ups started (the next year, in March) and put that date in my calendar. So I was finally registered for Big Shoulders 2018.

Big Shoulders 2018 was canceled on race day due to dangerous lake conditions.

Boo. OK, I signed up for 2019 at the 5K distance. I would train real hard all year and knock this thing out.

I did not train real hard in 2019.

A couple weeks before the race I took advantage of the race organizers’ general offer for distance switching and dropped down to the 2.5K. The day of the race the water was cold and choppy. There was some concern the race might be called again, but it was not. When I got in the water with my wave and started swimming, I just didn’t feel right. Since I started swimming seriously as an adult and trained up for these longer distances, one of the great things about swimming is just how right it all feels when you get in the water and start executing a good stroke. This was the opposite. The water was cold, even in my wetsuit, and I was not confident in my swimming. As I mentally looked ahead to the length of the swim, I was having trouble envisioning success. Even in a wetsuit, even with all the safety personnel around, it didn’t seem smart to continue. So I tapped out even before the first 1.4 mile buoy by swimming straight over to one of the rescue boats. I still think it was the right choice but it does still sting. I’ve written about so many races on this blog and I didn’t write this up back in 2019. But I came out of the water determined to come back and finish this race.

Big Shoulders 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.

So spoilers, Big Shoulders 2021 happened yesterday and I completed the 2.5K distance.

I’ve been swimming just a little in the gym and fair amount out in open water, including doing the 1.2 mile distance of an A Long Swim event up in Winnetka in August. That one was just choppy enough and I had a little trouble keeping on course, so my watch says I swam 1.5 miles, so I knew I was ready for the distance and for a little rough water.

The conditions yesterday were nearly perfect. The water was 70° and flat and calm, under a beautiful blue sky. I was a little nervous all morning, just because of my failure two years ago, but as soon as I got in the water it was all felt right. I was very focussed on getting that first 1/4 mile buoy and then once I was past that, it felt like I had already won. The second leg of the triangle route was great—I was warmed up and had a confident stroke and I started to wonder if I should have signed up for the 5K. Coming back down the last leg along Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive I started to get tired and was glad I had not.

Fuzzy and Andrea at Big Shoulders 2021
Me and Andrea Strening, Big Shoulders 2021

Official Results
Time: 1:30:07
Place: 305 / 311
Place in Male: 161 / 163
Place in Wetsuit: 132 / 136
Place in Male Wetsuit: 74 / 76