The Big Shoulders

By Eric Sommer

[View the race photos] [Results] The Big Shoulders ( open water swim classic is an annual event held in Chicago every September. This year’s race featured 603 swimmers from all over the country. The weather always seems to be an issue for one reason or another. One year they’ll have 3 foot swells and athletes get sea-sickness from the motion of the waves, and another year the water is an absurdly cold 63 degrees and swimmers are faced with the possibility of hypothermia.


This year was, however, nearly ideal. The water temperature going into the race on Saturday was an idyllic 79 degrees. Then Hurricane Gustav hammered Chicago Wednesday night through most of Thursday night and by Saturday the temperature of the water had dropped 10 degrees. 69 degrees is not threatening, but definitely not comfortable either.

The featured race is a non-wetsuit 5k. In case you missed that… I did write 5k for the distance of the swim race. I was there merely to support my wife and all of the other 12 or so swimmers from Springfield and to report back for hardybreed.

Let me tell you, standing at the starting line on Ohio Beach in Downtown Chicago looking out onto Lake Michigan at those buoys… It’s a long, long way to swim.

It reminded me of the first time I did the old Ironhorse Triathlon so many years ago. Ironhorse had a mile and a half swim. I was 19 standing at the starting line looking out onto Lake Springfield. I remember distinctly looking out at this long line of never ending orange buoys. I asked a fellow racer standing next to me, pointing to my far right, if that was the turn around and he said, “yep, then you turn left and go all the way over to that one.” My stomach just sank.

You’re standing there on the starting line in Chicago and the buoys are a long way away. The buoys make one large triangle. And just in case the triangle doesn’t seem big enough, the swimmers in the 5k race get to do it twice.


The race consists of about 8 waves of swimmers set off in 5 minute intervals. It had the look and feel of triathlon in just about every way except for the transition area (or rather, lack thereof). The course is set up so that the final stretch is along the Lake Shore Drive bike/run path. This proved to be a great way to watch the racers.

They swim about 50 meters away from the path for a little more than a half mile. Spectators could walk alongside and watch the race as it happened.

After the first lap, two guys had clearly made a gap from the chasing group and these guys were moving. They had this entire lake to swim in, and they were shoulder to shoulder and stroke for stroke. If you look closely in the photos I took, you can see one of them (the guy that won) actually look back towards the rest of the field. The two continued their lead, then one of them pulled away from the other.

The winner finished in a time of 56:38! Amazing.


The finish involves running up onto the beach and crossing the chip timing mat. Apparently, when you swim that far and you kick so much it really fatigues the legs. Most of swimmers coming out of the water had a really tough time making it up to the finish line. It was a little bit of sympathy for how tired they really were, and a little bit of comic relief. Some looked like drunken sailors.

All in all, everyone from Springfield had a great time and most had personal bests. The race was followed that night by a great dinner for 22 of the Springfield group. A much earned celebration for all.

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