Tag Archives: Swimming

Anatomy of a Cold Water Swim

The alarm clock goes off at 5 AM.  “Crap, what am I doing?” I question myself.  The bed is warm.  Just pulling the covers off a bit I can feel the colder air hit my skin and I pull them, and the warmth, back over my head and hit the snooze one more time.

The temperature in the Bay has dropped to 53 degrees, down from 57 just a few weeks ago.  It is cold!  I have no desire to feel that cold and I have no idea at this time why I’m planning to swim in it.  This is the tipping point.  I could easily just go back to sleep and stay warm.  However I have friends that I promised to meet.  They could vary well be laying in bed at this vary moment with the same struggle, but I don’t know that.  I just know I told them that I’d meet them … and I do enjoy seeing them.  Besides I know I need to keep an exercise routine going, especially this time of year with the holidays.  For some insane reason that is escaping me at the moment, I made open water swimming my exercise of choice.

I give into it and get out of bed to start my routine, packing my swim bag, making a smoothie for breakfast, getting dressed in the warmest clothes I can find and heading out the door for the 15 minute drive to the club.

I arrive at the club.  It is like a death march as I move forward towards something that I have no enthusiasm for, plunging my body into the cold water.  I hear the mumblings from the other swimmers in the locker room as they get ready for their swims, “Why am I doing this again” or “Someone needs to lock me up,” or something like that.  We are all in this together as we move forward changing into our swim gear, leaving the warmth of our bundles of clothing behind.  Somehow I doubt any of us would be doing this if we weren’t all there.

The anticipation is the hardest part … I think.  It can be akin to many things that I do not like to do, but am fine with once I get started.  Public speaking comes to mind.  Heading up to the podium is like a death march, the first few sentences I can hear my voice tremble, but once I’m started is usually goes smooth and I enjoy interacting with the audience.

Jumping into the bay off a boat or dock is much easier than walking in from a beach.  Like pulling a band-aid off in on quick pull, jumping gets it over with compared to letting the cold creep up my body inches at a time when I walk in from the beach.  Once submerged and swimming my first strokes the cold water bites at every inch of my skin.  My head aches like I’ve eaten ice cream too fast and my whole body tries to pull away from the cold that surrounds it.  There is no place for it to go, but forward as I swim and let my body go through its changes with the new environment.

Then after a couple minutes, something happens.  My blood pulls away from my skin into the core to keep it warm.  My skin goes numb and a kind of euphoria sets in.  Now I remember why I do it.  To those of you reading this that have never done it before, these are just words.  Words cannot explain the feeling of joy and refreshment of being in the cold water after getting past that first few minutes.  That is what keeps me coming back.  I want to stay in the water forever and live in it.  My body, however, has other plans.  Eventually I will start to feel too cold.  I do not want to stay in very long past that point, as hypothermia WILL set in.  I look for clues in my body like the inability to keep my fingers together.  That is usually the first sign.  Then I can start to feel the cold digging in a little deeper.  I last about an hour before it is time to get out.

Back on dry land mobility is a bit limited.  I shiver a little and it is difficult to speak.  Putting on clothing can be a challenge as fingers do not move well and limbs tremble with the cold.  After about five or ten minutes the shivering will increase as my body tries to warm up.  This shivering is very unpleasant and will last about twenty minutes unless I have access to a warm shower and/or sauna.  This is usually the case swimming at the club, but not if I’m on a boat.

The warm water of the shower heats up the skin and keeps the shivering to a minimum as it starts to thaw out.  My skin is pink an itches a little as the heat comes back into it.  As my mobility increases I can wash my hair and shave.  After I start to feel warmer I transfer to the sauna where I hear the laughter from the other swimmers.  Everyone is happy.  All those apprehensive faces before the swim are now smiling ear-to-ear refreshed and awake ready to start the day.

I stay in the sauna until I start to sweat.  I put on my clothes in the warm sauna to avoid the cold air hitting my skin when I exit.  Now I’m ready for a cup of hot tea.  I say goodbye to my friends and make promises to see them again … the very same promises I will be cursing myself for the next time the alarm clock goes off and I have to pull myself from my warm bed.

Mile Rock to Aquatic Park

MR2AP1The swim was from Point Bonita to Aquatic Park.  This would be my first time swimming outside the Golden Gate Bridge … intentionally.  There was that one time crossing under the span of the bridge that the current swept me west rather rapidly.  I was picked up by the pilot boat as I was drifting out to sea.  This time being west of the bridge would be a part of the plan.

The preparation for the event was half the challenge.  Our club swim commissioner was doing a wonderful job coordinating and making sure the event would be as safe as it could be.  This included putting off the swim for the slower swimmers until June to keep the spread of speeds tight.  As a slower swimmer, I figured I would have to wait until June to take on this new challenge.

Each swimmer was required to have their own pilot either in a kayak or a row boat.  I wrote to the commissioner to offer my services as a pilot for my friend, Les.  I was pleasantly surprised when she wrote back that there was one more slot left and that I could have it if I thought I was the same speed as my friends, Tina & Les.  Normally I’m slower than them, but I knew I could keep up if I wore fins.  I had a choice to make, do the swim now with my friends and fins or wait until June to do it without fins.  You know how the saying goes, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?”  Especially if this meant I could swim with my Tina & Les.

MR2AP2Tina, however was not yet approved for the swim.  She had to demonstrate that she could swim for 2 hours.  She and I set out to do a two hours swim 6 days before the event, me with my fins to also demonstrate that I could keep up with her.  We started with the Water World Swim group on their regular Sunday workout and kept going after the workout ended in 50 minutes.  We swam twice around the break water wall and 3 ½ times around the parameter.

So we were both qualified.  The next challenge was finding a pilot.  While the swim commissioner was busy trying to find one for each of us ultimately it was our responsibility.  So the emails started flying!  I emailed everyone I knew that might be available and experienced enough.  Slowly they were returned … busy with something else or already piloting for someone else.  I knew it would all work out, but I had exhausted all of my resources.  Then I received an email from the commissioner that she had me covered.  Tina & Les were still not so we kept searching.  To make a long story short we went from not having enough pilots to having too many.  The pilot that was assigned to me changed twice in a game we started to call “musical pilots.”  Finally it all settled down and along came the day of the event.

My nerves started to build Friday night, but I was able to sleep well.  I woke up feeling refreshed before the alarm clock.  A text message came in from Tina to let me know she was awake and on her way.  I always worry a little.  It’s just funner when she is around.

I drove to the club and got the last parking spot in the front.  Tina’s car was already there.  We were amongst the first to arrive.  I marked with number 2, Tina with number 3.  As more people arrived and things started happening, boats prepared and people getting ready, the thing that struck me the most was all the smiles.  There were about 50 of us gathered together on this morning about to create some magic swimming 16 people six or so miles from Point Bonita back to our “home” at Aquatic Park.

MR2AP3After everyone was ready and we had our briefing we marched down to the boat that would take us out to Point Bonita.  Already some miscommunications and mishaps occurred.  One of the pilots got lost paddling her kayak to the boat.  She never made it until ½ way through the swim.  I guess she paddled her way against the current to meet us.

The boat ride out to a swim always seems so long.  Thoughts go through my mind, “And I’m going to swim all this way back?”  We made it out to Point Bonita where the 4 zodiacs awaited us.  We unloaded all the kayaks and the pilots into the water.  I did not see my pilot.  He was in a row boat and was rowing out to the start.  I did not see him on the way out and I did not see him there.  I would not see him throughout entire event until I was back on dry land!

MR2AP4After the kayaks and pilots were in the water we started getting ready.  I was very nervous and had all the doubt that I should be doing this.  That’s typical before a new challenge.  I knew that I had the ability to complete this, but that doubt does tend to creep in.  Just as we were about to go, we got the word from the Coast Guard that they wanted us to move the start of our swim to Mile Rock, two miles across the mouth of the bay on the other side.  I was a little relieved that I could procrastinate getting in the water a little longer, yet I was also a little worried.   We were already jumping a little late to catch the flood current and this would delay that a little longer.

It was easy for us to get across the opening in the boat, but the kayakers had their work cut out for them crossing 2 miles in the choppy water fighting the current.  A few got behind and were picked up in the zodiacs.  One tipped over and another almost sunk as it took on water.

We decided to jumped before they all arrived.  They would be able to catch up and the zodiacs would cover us until then.  I did not have a pilot.  I was planning to swim with Tina & Les so just agreed to share their pilots.  2 pilots for the 3 of us … it could work?

MR2AP5Finally the inevitable time came to get in the water and the cold shock.  I always hate it, but once I’m in and swimming it is the greatest feeling.  Tina so graciously motioned for me to jump first.  I guess “lady’s first” does not always apply.  I jumped.  Immediately I felt something was wrong.  There was an imbalance with my feet.  One of my fins was gone.  I saw Tina and Les swim on by.  I had to go back to look for my fin.  I started to have visions of swimming with only one.  Perhaps I would swim in one big circle?  The answer to that question would be left for another time as I saw the blue fin bobbing in the water.  I grabbed it and struggled to put it on as the choppy water kept engulfing me.  The task was complete.  Adrenaline was rushing through my body as I spotted Tina & Les starting to get away.  They were waiting, but the current was carrying them.  I swam as fast as I could to catch them.  It wasn’t just that I wanted to swim with them, but that if I didn’t I would not have pilot coverage.

Once I caught them we started our way through the choppy water.  I was not having fun.  I was still on adrenaline and the rough water was difficult.  The three of us were in the center and the 2 kayaks on either side.

MR2AP6We had to navigate our way out into the channel to make it mid span of the Golden Gate Bridge.  The bridge was approaching fast with the current was carrying us towards it.  With each breath to the right I could spy the south bridge tower and could tell from the angle once we finally got past it.  We were instructed by the pilots at that point to swim towards it rather than try to go under the bridge mid span.  This was to get out of the shipping lane as huge tankers were scheduled to come in.  The Coast Guard was keeping in communication with our chief pilot helping to guide us.  It takes a lot of people to pull off a swim like this!

That was when I lost them.  I do not know what happened.  At one point I could see the gray kayak that was covering Tina and the next thing I knew it was gone.  There were lots of swimmers and kayaks converging on that point and in the confusion I started following another one.  The current was still carrying me towards the center of the bridge.  I took a little time to roll over on my back as I went under it to see the view of this towering structure of steel spanning way above my head.  It is quite a sight!  Then the water was sweet on the other side.  Smooth as glass the chop was gone.  I was just cruising, finally relaxed!

I have done the swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to Aquatic Park many times.  I know the drill: swim out in the middle for about 15 minutes and then start to cut in towards the shore.  If I cut in too soon I can get caught in the back eddies near Fort Point and Crissy Field.  Today was different, however, because of the tankers scheduled to come in shortly.

Still the current seemed to want to keep me out there.  At this point I had lost the other kayak that I was with and I was all alone.  I could see the zodiacs zipping around and there was the police boat out as well keeping an eye on things.  I did not feel unsafe.  I was getting a little thirsty, however and thought of my water bottle and energy drink in a row boat, who knows where, somewhere in the bay.  I could see off in the distance, closer to the shore Tina’s gray kayak.  I decided to try to make it over.  About that time one of the zodiac stopped near me and instructed me to get in closer to the shore.  That was exactly what I wanted to do.  They gave me some water and assure me they were keeping an eye on me.  I started heading in perpendicular to the shore.

Even as I was swimming perpendicular to the shore and parallel to the bridge I could see the bridge growing distant with each breath as the current carried me away from it.  I was visited by two more of the four zodiacs asking where my pilot was.  The last zodiac had the swim commissioner in it, “Where is your pilot?” She said.  “I don’t have one.” I replied, “Get in the boat,” she commanded.  We have this rule that as a swimmer you do whatever you are told by the pilots.  No arguing.  So I started to climb in the boat.  As I hung there half way in the boat she could see that I was doing OK.  I pointed out Tina and Les and explained that I was going to hook up with them.  At this point I was in line with them, but about 500 yards ahead of them.  Because I was out in the center of the bay longer, I had a stronger current that had carried me that far ahead of them.  She said I could get back in the water, but not to wait for them.  I would get too cold.  “Swim to them,” she said.  So there I was swimming against the current back towards the bridge and my friends.

It did not take long for them to catch up.  Tina looked at me but then kept swimming.  I just followed.  Eventually I lost sight of her, but kept behind the gray kayak.  She was either on the other side or in front of it, but try as I might I could not see her.  As we closed in on Fort Mason, close to Aquatic Park I finally asked, “Where’s Tina.”  “Oh she is ahead with some other boat,” her pilot said.  Even with my fins she was swimming faster than I.  He elected to stay back with me “the slower swimmer,” he said.  I swam on a little disappointed she got ahead of me, even with my fins.

MR2AP7And so I made my way into the park, slowly past all the landmarks as I was starting to feel fatigued.  I do not know how long I had been swimming at that point.  I know it was over two hours, and could have been closer to three.  I swam past Fort Mason Center … the first building, then the second and that third.  Then past the wall of Muni Pier and into the opening and slowly past the center buoy and the end of the Jacuzzi.  Past the red hull of the Balclutha and past the green tug, inching closer and closer to the beach.  I lined myself up between the two piers. As I passed the end of the dock I could see people pulling the zodiacs out of the water.  The swim was nearly over.  The people on the beach were getting closer and closer.  I could hear cheers as I could feel the sand hit my fingertips.  I always remember what my triathlon coach said, “touch the sand 3 times before you stand up.”  While I this is not a triathlon and I no longer do them, I always remember this, one, two three and then up.MR2AP8  People cheered.  I looked at my defunct GPS unit, which would not pick up the satellite signal to mark my path through the water. It was now reduced to a mere stop watch.  2 hours and 23 minutes.  I headed up to the showers and sauna getting a little emotional along the way.

After I was warmed up I went down stairs to share in story telling.  I found out what happened to my pilot.  He rowed out to Point Bonita.  We were not there.  I don’t know if he got there before us or we had already moved on to Mile Rock.  He did not see us at all.  He had issues fighting the wind and the current and had to call for help.  Eventually he made it back to the club in time for the end of the swim.  My water bottles were sitting there on the bench.  I was finally able to drink and feast on the food that all the swimmers brought for potluck breakfast.

While I did not get a GPS trail this is about what the swim turned out to be.


So what is next?  This is the 5th time I’ve swam for 2 ½ hours.  I want to swim for 3 hours or more.  I think I’m strong enough.  There is a Bay to Breakers swim in a few months.  This is the same start and finish as the foot race, just the water route.  It would be essentially what we did in reverse, but starting about 3 miles west from where we finished today, going on past Mile Rock and wrapping around Seal Rock to Ocean Beach, about 9 miles.  Even with a fast current it would probably take me past my 3 hour goal.  Tina is into it and with her to swim with me the training will be that much more fun.  Onto the next adventure.

(Thank you Cathy Bump and Mary Leigh Burk for the photos)

Epic Battle

Pedro was calling role before the swim to the 20 or so swimmers standing on Hyde Street Pier ready for the Alcatraz crossing.  As Pedro always does when he calls a swimmers name he asks “How many crossings have you done?”  There were a lot of first timers, but when he got to me, “38” was my answer.  I don’t even know if it was my 38th.  Somewhere around there.  And, I was not enthusiastic about it.  I’m enthusiastic when I sign up, but usually the day before, I question why I’m doing this and what fun is it?  After well over 30 times, isn’t there something else I can do?

The weather was cold and overcast, which made the anticipation worse.  I knew at least that water would be warm.  The boat pulled in close to Alcatraz and the captain yelled, “Get ready as soon as we are in place jump!”  Then he started motoring the boat away from the island, and quite far from the island.  “What is he doing?” I wondered to myself.  There was a group of fishing boats and he wanted to position us on the other side of them.  We started actually quite far from the island, about 1/3 of the way to shore already.  I had mixed feelings about this, a little relief that it would be a short swim stirred in with a sense of being shorted the full swim.  We jumped.

I looked at the current charts before the swim.  We were jumping at the tail end of an ebb and just before the start of a flood, however we got a late start.  For sure it was a flood by now.  I sighted off of Fort Mason.

As predicted I got across rather fast.  I could see the opening to Aquatic Park very clear to my right.  I knew I was almost there, maybe 5 more minutes.  I looked at my watch, 25 minutes.  That was hardly a workout.  I start to think that once inside the cove I could swim the perimeter for a little more distance.  Or perhaps I could swim to the end of the break water wall and come in inside.  Be careful what you ask for!

I didn’t really know what the currents were doing, but it did not seem like much.  I guessed, rather incorrectly that we were at slack tide.  So I turned and pointed towards the opening.  After a few minutes I looked up.  “Shit” the opening was now to my left.  The flood had kick in.  I increased my angle to compensate, but every time I looked up the opening was getting farther and farther away.  Soon I was passed the Balclultha and I could see the buildings in the background passing by.

The boat that we jumped from pulled in close to me.  I didn’t want to be repositioned when I was so close … although getting farther.  I could always reach the end of the break water wall and swim in on the inside.  I got closer and closer to the wall and could see the end of it to my left.  The boat left me.  I was on my own.  Pedro knew I was experienced and could make it in from there.  There were many 1st timers out there that needed his attention more.

I reached the wall.  I estimated I was 2/3s of the way down a ¼ mile wall.  This would be the big test if I would make it or not.  I turned parallel to the wall and started swimming as hard as I could, relaxed, against the flood along side of the wall looking up at it with each breath to see if I was making progress against the current.  I was, about a foot with each stroke.  I felt strong and not the least bit fatigued and as long as I was making progress I knew I would make it … eventually.  15 minutes it took me to cover that 2/3rd of ¼ mile, but eventually I turned the corner into Aquatic Park to greet the kayaker at the buoy.  “Epic Battle!” I yelled to him.  I felt so happy.  I gave him my number and swam easily on into the club for a shower and sauna.

Current chart

GPS trail

The First Time I Swam

Did I ever tell you about the first time I swam?  I had to swim because it was a part of a triathlon, SWIM, bike, run.  And, I had to do a triathlon so I had something to motivate me to keep in shape.  So I had to swim, right?  I didn’t know where to go to swim or what to do to train so I kept putting off the swim training.  I focused on running and biking until one day I was standing at the edge of a lake in my brand new triathlon shorts just moments before the start gun went of for my very first triathlon.  There I stood with zero swim experience, not even as much as sticking the toenail of my big toe in the shallow end of a swimming pool to train for this.  “It’s OK,” I thought.  “It is only a 400 yard swim.  I can fake it.”  I could see the course, two big orange buoys parallel to the edge of the lake creating a 400 yard square course.  “It’s not too far.”

The starting gun went off.  I waited for everyone else to get ahead of me before I dove in the water.  “Oh, yeah, this is easy,” I thought.  Then I reached the 25 yard mark (or so I was estimating).  My arms started burning.  I can’t believe how fast those arms were becoming fatigued.  I wasn’t even close to the first buoy as I was still to the shore.  I experimented with swimming on my back for a while to break up the pace.  I only succeeded in turning myself around swimming in the wrong direction.  So back on my belly I went, using my arms in any manner they would be willing to cooperate to pull myself in a forward direction.

I reached the first buoy and said to myself, “I’m never doing this again.”  I was serious.  “Triathlon is not for me.”  That was a little disappointing because I was enjoying the triathlon club and the run and bike workouts with the club.  “I can still run and bike with them,” I thought.  Though, it may be a little embarrassing to just run and bike with the club and not actually do anymore triathlons … if I even survive this one.

Survive it I did.  I eventually managed to pull myself through 400 yards of water back to the safety of my bike and I finished that triathlon.  It was not too long afterwards that I developed a case of amnesia, forgot about my resolution to never swim again, and signed up for another triathlon.  The club offered a master’s swim course which I did not hesitate to sign up for.  I remember the first day of the swim course.  For the first exercise, the coach said, “Swim 100 yards.”  I looked across the pool and had to ask, “How far is 100 yards?”

So I began training, 25 yards at a time, Until the 25 yards turned to 50 and 50 yards turned to 100.  Soon I was completing the 90 minute workouts with relative ease.  I liked the way the swim training made me feel.  I slowly began to enjoy it and even look forward to it.  However, it was not until I started training in open water that I fell in love with swimming.  There is something very meditative and soothing about putting my head down in the water and swimming for long distances uninterrupted by the edges of a pool, slowly watching the scenery pass as I turn my head to breath.  I now spend an uneven amount of my training hours swimming and neglect the other two disciplines, biking and running.

Swim Around the Rock, 2008

We started about 8:10.  I had on my wetsuit even though it was old and full of holes.  I was a little worried it would bog me down, but would rather have it.  This was a long distance I wanted the extra warmth and buoyancy that it provides.  I did not have the same anxiety leaving the safety of the cove as I had with the touch-and-go attempt last year.  I was a little more confident this year in spite being a longer swim.  The water did start to get choppy though and remained choppy the entire way across.

It usually takes me 50 minutes to an hour to cross Alcatraz to Aquatic Park, however, I’m told the currents tend to push out towards the island so I was thinking it would take less time to get out to the island.  This was my first time swimming to the island.  This did turn out to be the case.   In 40 minutes I was even with Alcatraz, however I was a little wide of it.  The flood waters had pushed me too far east and now I had to turn into those flood waters to get to the island.  That was about a 15 minute battle, so by the time I started around the back side of the island I was 55 minutes into the swim.  I stopped at a kayak, got some water and used the restroom (the wide open bay).

Swimming around the back was a delight!  I kept my breathing to the left so I could watch the island pass.  It needs paint.  I thought of my friend that is a painter.  It would keep him busy for a while to paint all those crumbling buildings on Alcatraz.

It was another 15 minutes around the back of the island.  Slowly I could see more of the Golden Gate Bridge as I rounded the North West.  Then I cut across the front of the island as per the instructions from the test swim the day before.  The way I read the tide charts it looked like there was a flood until about 11:00, but in the test swim the day before the ebb kicked in early.  They were expecting the same today and instructed us to sight towards the east and actually swim with the flood.  I was nervous about this, but followed the instructions.

It took a total of 35 minutes to circle the island before I started heading towards the city.  The water was choppy, but I felt strong.  In fact I was swimming hard.  I could not see the island over either of my shoulders which I took as a good sign.  It was behind me where it should be, hopefully getting further away.

Now I don’t know how much my mind affects me physically, but after 20 minutes of so I started to think, “I’m not going to be able to keep up this pace the entire way.”  It was shortly there after that I started to feel the fatigue.  I stopped to look.  I was about half way.  I seemed to be on course, a little to the East which was where I should be assuming the ebb would kick in.  I continued.

Once the fatigue set in it hit me fast and hard.  In another 15 minutes I felt my arm strength was almost gone.  I could tell that the ebb had kicked in and I was getting carried closer back to the opening at Aquatic Park.  If I got carried too far there was no way, with my lack of strength, that I was going to be able to fight the ebb to get back to the opening.  My swim would be over.

Sure enough the ebb did carry me a little passed the opening, but not by very much and I was able to make it.  That was it!  The official distance to get credit for a crossing is the opening of Aquatic Park.  I had made the two crossings, number 23 and 24.  I could have quit right then and got the credit.  The finish line, however, was another quarter of a mile away at the beach.  I put my head back in the water and kept swimming.

I do not know how I was swimming.  I was convinced my arms were of no use at that point.  I was still pulling hard from my hips, through my torso, but when the pull got to my arms there was nothing.  Still I was moving forward, past the break wall, passed the Balclutha ship, passed the tug boat and up to the buoy line.  It was the toughest ¼ mile swim of my life.  There was a kayaker that was with me for the passed ½ hour.  I could hear him shouting to the swimmers that were swimming the buoy line to let me though.  I was grateful for this.  I had little left to pay attention, stop and start again to let them go.  Then it was on towards the beach.  I could hear the cheering and cowbells from the spectators on shore.  I kept my head down and plowed forward.  Soon I could see the sand at the bottom coming up closer to my face.  Then I had contact with my hand, one, two, three times I touched the sand. Up!  The cheers went up too.

I was not feeling good.  In spite the incredible swim, I felt a sense of defeat, everyone was on shore already.  If I was not the last, I was close to it.  I also felt a sense of defeat because I had reached my limit physically.  There was no way for people to know if so when one of the kayakers and a friend, said to me, “What happened did you stop for breakfast,” referring to my slow time (of 2 hours 30 minutes), I understood his humor even though it stung quite a bit.  I don’t like that I’m such a slow swimmer, even though the distance that I did, 4 miles, was quite an achievement.  I’m sure the sense of defeat will pass in a few hours.

Below is my GPS trail of the swim.  You can see the path and the points that I mention in the story above.


Bridge to Bridge, 2008

The furthest and longest I have ever swum before is 2.4 miles in one hour twenty-five minutes back in July of 2005. This was during the Catfish Open Water Swim in Steven’s Creek Reservoir. In the warm fresh water I swam without my wetsuit.

I had no idea what to expect for the Bridge to Bridge, a six mile swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge. The distance is deceptive as the swim is with a current traveling twice as fast as I. I would defiantly bring my wetsuit for the cold waters of the Bay. While I have been doing many bay swims without it, because I did not know what to expect, I figured I’d better wear it.

There are two advantages of a wetsuit. First the obvious, they keep us warmer. Second they create buoyancy that saves energy and actually makes us faster. Warmer and faster for an unknown swim I’m in.

I started getting a little nervous about 5:00 PM the night before. I realized I had no idea where in the vast bay I should be aiming. I listened to the coaches and swim organizers, “stay away from here, try to swim here,” but that just made it worse. I was actually going to have to think and have a strategy.

I went for a run that evening and ran up onto the Golden Gate Bridge to get a bridge-eye view of the bay. Vast it is compared to a tiny swimmer. I could see the turn along the San Francisco water line where I would have to turn towards the Bay Bridge. “I think I’ll be fine,” I said to myself.

I only got about four hours of sleep that night. That’s right, I had to go out dancing and was not in until midnight, in bed by 12:30 for a 4:30 wakeup.

I met with the other 37 swimmers at the boat dock. We received our last minute instruction and boarded the boat to take us to the first landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. The dock was ½ way in-between the two bridges where we boarded the boat. The journey on the boat to the Golden Gate Bridge seemed to take quite a long time, and we were going to swim twice that distance!

At the bridge we all jumped in the water. When the last swimmer was in, the starting horn was sounded and off we went, 38 swimmers with the support of 20 kayakers and four power boats, including the two that we just all jumped off.

As I began to swim, I kept the visual of the Golden Gate Bridge over my shoulder with each breath I took. It was growing in distance fast as the current carried me faster than would just my swim stroke. “This may be quicker than I thought.”

The water was a little rough by the bridge but quickly flattened out. Now I become a sightseer as I pass by all the landmarks. The first is the Palace of Fine Arts. I knew I was supposed to stay out in the middle of the bay until I reached the Palace of Fine Arts and then cut in towards the shore. The Palace was slow to come. I could see it up there, but it seemed forever before I reached it, and then forever before I passed it.

The next landmark is Fort Mason. I turned in towards Fort Mason aiming directly at it. My plan was to get closer to the shore as recommended by the race directors.

As I drew closer to Fort Mason I could see Alcatraz over to my left. I seemed too close to Alcatraz, but I had to remember from my many Alcatraz crossings that distance can be deceptive. I looked ahead and could see the turn by pier 39. I started to aim towards the turn instead of Fort Mason. I was supposed to hit that turn close and then head on to the Bay Bridge close to the waterline. Our destination was the Alpha Tower of the bridge, the tower closest to the city.

I could see the Alpha Tower peeking up over the city as I drew near the turn. I thought if I just aimed towards the tower the current would carry me past the turn and then I’d be home free.

I looked at my watch as I passed Aquatic Park, the ½ way mark. One hour, I had been swimming for one hour. I stopped and pulled the energy gel out of the sleeve of my wetsuit and ate it. I needed water. The kayakers were supposed to have water for us, but I could not see one anywhere. In fact I did not see any other swimmers either. Aside from one of the power boats I could see in the distance towards Alcatraz, most likely with some other swimmers, I seemed all alone out there. I swam on. The energy gel without water would have to do.

Now I’m not too sure what happened next. I kept my line towards the Alpha Tower. Like the Palace of Fine Arts and Fort Mason, it seemed to take forever to get to that turn at Pier 39. It was comforting when I could no longer see Alcatraz to my left. However when I cleared that turn and could see the entire span of the Bay Bridge I could see clearly that I was in line with the Beta Tower. I was too far out in the bay. The warnings of current carrying me to Treasure Island haunted my mind. I kept my aim to the Alpha Tower.

I slowly made my way passed Coit Tower and could see the Transamerica Building. I was still too far out. I decided I should turn more perpendicular to the shore, almost 45 degrees, and let the current carry me the distance to the bridge while my efforts would do to bringing me in closer to the shore. I kept swimming. My arms were getting tired and I was longing to reach that tower where the boats would be waiting for me. I noticed I was only breathing to my left side like I used to when I first started swimming. I had practiced an got used to breathing from side to side for so long that it seemed natural, but here I was digressing to my old swimming habits. I must be very fatigued. I looked at my watch. Two hours! This was taking me a little longer than I thought after I made that turn.

I could see I was making progress getting closer to the city as I could see more of the face of the Beta Towers and more of the profile of the Alpha tower. Plus I could see the cable span and could see that I was now passed ½ way between the two towers where the cables started to climb back to the top of the Alpha Tower. The current was doing its job in carrying me closer to the bridge.

A kayaker pulled up next to me. “Too late,” I thought, “I’m close enough I do not want to stop for water.” I knew I was probably very dehydrated and the salt water in my mouth for the passed two hours was drying up my tongue. He shouted something to me and pointed. I had ear plugs in and could not hear what he was saying. I thought he said something like a boat would come pick me up. I didn’t want to be pulled out of the water. I knew I could make it to the tower. “I can’t hear you,” I shouted. “Just keep swimming,” he said and pointed again. I looked up and could see the boats. “Oh is that them?” I questioned. “Yes, good job, you are almost there.

I turned almost completely perpendicular to the city and passed the Alpha Tower. The boats were tucked in underneath the bridge a little bit passed it. I felt good and I had a good rhythm in spite being fatigued and breathing only to one side. I was still pulling strong but fatigued. I began pulling even stronger knowing the boats were just there.

I could hear the cheering and I turned in towards the boats. Lots of cheering meant I was one of the last ones. The other swimmers were all there waiting. I eyed the large orange buoy that was the finish line. I pointed myself towards it allowing the distance between it and me shrink with each pull until I was able to touch it. Cheers went up and I yelled my number up to the official boat so they could mark my time. I looked at my watch, two hours twenty minutes. While it was longer than I’d hope I felt some pride that I was able to swim almost an hour longer than my previous long swim.

I climbed onto the boat with all the awaiting swimmers. “Sorry to keep everyone waiting,” I joked. “No, there are still a couple more behind you,” someone said. It’s true I was one of the last ones. My heart sank a little.

What a swim! Never mind the deceptive distance with the strong currents. I swam for two hours twenty minutes! Never mind that I was one of the last on the boat. I was one of the last of an already elite group. We were all first place finishers just for participating. Even the one that got pulled out early for being too cold was a winner if he chose to look at it that way. I sure was.

The following day I emailed one of the coaches and sent my GPS trail for tips on what I could have done better. She said I did it perfect and then confessed that only 6 of the swimmers actually touched the buoy. Most of the swimmers were so far off course that the race director had to make the decision mid-race to change the finish line to anywhere under the bridge instead of the orange buoy. That was what the kayaker was trying to tell me, “Just get to under the bridge and a boat will come to get you.” I’m glad I didn’t hear. I was one of the few that actually navigated well enough to actually finish the swim the way it was meant to be.

The coach passed on this message from Pedro, the race director and my coach over the passed four years, “Pedro is so proud of you, he said you should be thinking about the EC [English Channel], that you have a future in long (LONG) distance swimming.”

What’s next? Well, not the English Channel. I admit it has been on the back of my mind as a potential long term goal, but that would be a long ways off if I ever. No, the next swim is the Swim Around the Rock, starting on the shores of San Francisco at Aquatic Park, swimming out to Alcatraz, around it and back. It’s ½ the distance that I just swam, but without the helpful currents. In fact the currents become a challenge as they are cross currents that can push me off course. I have been afraid of the Swim Around the Rock, but now that I know that I can swim for two hours and twenty minutes, I feel a little more confident. Sign me up!


The white line is the path I took.  The yellow line it the line I think I should have took.  I think the mistake I made was when I turned towards the Pier 39 corner.  I think I should have just kept my line into Fort Mason or the Aquatic Park opening until I was within 50 yards from the shore.



I Hate Swimming … Not!

This is a follow up article to my “I Hate Swimming” article last year.  To recap, I got involved in swimming as a necessary evil.  It was a part of the triathlon that I committed to do in order to get and stay in shape.  I put off swimming until the first triathlon event.  I got about 2 yards into the swim and began suffering so much.  My arms were not used to pulling my body through the water and did not want me to go any further.  I swore after that that I would not do it again … I did.

So I took a class last year to learn how to swim more efficiently,  I did an open water mile swim in the Delta, and I completed the .93 mile swim in the Bay as a part of the Treasure Island Triathlon last year.  But I still experienced swimming as a necessary evil and I struggled with it.

Well, that all changed this year.  I did a 10 week triathlon training program this year.  The coach took us out in the Bay several times (with a wetsuit) and I began to enjoy it.  I found my ability to swim without stopping increase.  Soon I was swimming ½ hour straight.  In addition to the Bay swimming I was in the pool at the YMCA 3 times a week … just swimming laps.  The training program concluded with another .93 mile swim as a part of a triathlon.  I finished that swim without stopping, 6 ½ minutes faster than I thought I would.  I was very happy.

After the training program I continued to swim.  I was loving it.  In addition to swimming in the Bay once a week on my own, I found a Bay swim workout group one night a week.  I also continued my 3 days at the YMCA.  My weight started dropping fast.  In my training last year I lost about 8 lbs.  This year, so far, I’ve lost close to 20.  I think it’s the swimming.  On top of that my upper body is bulking up from the working out.  It feels good.

IHS2So this year I set the goal to swim from Alcatraz.  The leader of the Thursday night swim group holds the world’s record in Alcatraz crossings with 245 at the time of this article.  He & I are becoming good friends and it inspired me.  I signed up for the Alcatraz Challenge which I completed last Sunday.  It took me about an hour to swim from the South East corner of Alcatraz, one and a half miles to Crissy Field.  An hour is a lot of swimming without stopping or resting … without an edge of a pool to hold on to every once in a while … just straight swimming.  I finished feeling like I had a lot more left in me.  Mostly swimming that long just gets boring.  I think I could go much further.

Sadly I’ve now been neglecting the biking and running portions of the triathlon.  I’m beginning to believe that I may no longer be a triathlete.  I may just be a swimmer instead.  I still have triathlon goals this year and next.  I’m sure this swimming obsession will pass and I will balance out with the other two sports.  In the mean time I’m going to go for longer and more challenging distance swims.  Stay tuned.  In a few weeks I’ll be in Hawaii.  I look forward to hooking up with some open water swim groups there in the warm clear waters.  I’ll leave my wetsuit at home.

Shark Attack

It was about three in the morning.  I knew I would not be able to sleep.  I had all my stuff ready for the morning and went to bed around ten, a couple of hours before I usually do.  Here it was five hours later and I was still awake.  I would describe my state as excited.  Not the kind of excited that one feels before Christmas as a child, no this was the excitement of going into something new and not knowing what to expect … whether one would succeed or fail.  This excitement can take the form of anxiety or enthusiasm depending on the state of mind, and my mind was fluctuating between the two.  In about three hours my alarm clock would go off and I would be off to my first Olympic distance triathlon.  I’ve done a few smaller ones throughout the year, but I was not certain I had what would take to finish one at this distance.

You know what the mind can do, I guess to entertain one when the excitement is keeping one awake?  Mine makes up stories.  This following story was one such story my mind made up that night.  No, this did not really happen, only in the imagination of an excited mind:

It was my first time swimming in the Bay in a wet suit.  I had every intention to get out and practice a little before today, but as fate would have it, I did not.  I just picked up the rented wetsuit the day before, took it out to the bay and jumped in for a little practice.  I only stayed long enough to know that I would be able to move in it, but I did not swim, for I had left my swim goggles at home.

Here it was now on race day.  It was ten minutes before my wave and we were allowed to get into the water.  There I was bobbing up and down with 100 other swimmers in my age group waiting for the starting gun.  Wetsuits do make one more buoyant and I did not have to tread water to stay afloat.  Perhaps the next time I’ll wait other five minutes before I get in the water to avoid all this bobbing.

Finally, the gun went off and we were off.  I keep towards the back because I know I’m not fast.  There were six legs to this 1 mile swim.  As usual, the first few hundred yards were tough as I get used to my new environment.  I like to joke with myself that for the first few hundred yards that I feel like a fish out of water.  Anyway, I made the first two legs and was well into the third when it happened …

I was just kicking into gear when I felt a disturbance in the water forcing me to the left shortly before an intense pain of several knives in my abdomen.  I was completely out of control with pain and this force that has pushed me far out of my path.

I remember from a Biology class that I took one year in college about the phenomena of flocking.  When animals flock it increases their individual chances of surviving a predator’s attack.  I don’t remember the exact figures, but it goes something like this: if an animal is alone and a predator attacks there is a 75% chance it will be caught.  If the animal is in a flock the chances go down to about 1 or 2%, I guess depending on the size of the flock.  The remarkable other side to this statistic is that flocking also increases the chances that the predator will catch something.  Their 75% will go up to about 95%.  What an incredible phenomena then, flocking is to the world of nature.  It increases the chance of survival on both ends.

So, I figured, out there in the bay that day, in a flock of triathletes, the probability of that shark catching one was rather high … especially considering there are not any man eating sharks in the bay and until just now there has never been a shark attack on a human in the bay.  So what was the probability it would be me?  Perhaps I should have played the lottery today instead.  So the shark quickly let me go once it realized that I was not the tasty morsel of a seal that it thought I was, but that did not change the fact that I was not going to be able to finish the race.  The life guard was quickly by my side pulling me up on their handy surf board, and paddled me back to shore and off to the hospital I went.

And that was how I DNFed on my first ever Olympic distance triathlon.

I Hate Swimming

I waded out into the water at Shadows Regional Park in Pleasanton.  This would be my first triathlon.  I’d been biking and running regularly for the past 6 months, however I’ve been procrastinating any swim practice.  There I was, in a lake with a goofy looking swim cap and swim goggles.  I could see the 400 yard course, out around one red buoy, across to another, and then straight back to the beach to where my bicycle was awaiting me.  There were several life guards out in the water on surf boards.  The starting gun went off.  I paused for a few seconds and let some of the crowd go by and then headed out into the depth of the lake.  When I was deep enough I lifted my legs and began the swim.

It wasn’t as much as 20 yards; I was swallowing water and gasping for air.  “What did I get myself into,” I thought and was tempted to raise my arm in the air, the sign for one of the life guards to come rescue me and bring me back to shore.  They would not have far to bring me back.  I continued on.  The first red buoy seemed too far away, but I eventually reached it.  I think I was doing a back stroke at the time.  Imagine, laying back on you back relaxing, except I was pulling myself forward with my arms in a position of surrender.  There were other swimmers all around me, bumping into me, making it difficult to swim straight.  I continued on.  A few more yards, with each huff and puff, swallowing water, I thought to myself, “Well, I’m never doing this again.”  All my dreams of using the triathlon to get in and maintain a good physical shape was drowning in that lake if it were not me that would drown.  I imagined that I could still stay in the triathlon club and join their running and riding work outs, but somehow that seemed to be missing something.  I was disappointed with myself about my failure, however I continued on.  I could see the second red buoy and put my head down in the water to focus on reaching it.  I reached it surprisingly fast which was encouraging and turned the corner for the home stretch into the beach.  The realization that I would soon be at the shore kept me moving forward.

After all was said and done … or more likely after all was swum, rode and ran, my painful memories of the swim faded (perhaps that is why they have the swim first).  I was psyched to sign up for my next triathlon.  I have plenty of support and resources from the triathlon club available to me.  I just have to use them.  There is a swim clinic with a coach every Monday night and an open water swim practice every Thursday night.  My next triathlon is August 16th.  I love the riding.  The running is fun, but tough after the swim and the ride.  I have a lot of work to do to improve my relationship with swimming.