Saturday, June 24, 2017

Alcatraz Crossing Swim

 Ever since I first heard of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, I have wanted to do just the swim portion.  You swim from the famous Alcatraz Island/former prison, to the shore.  The bike and run held no appeal for me, I just wanted to do the swim.  I heard that they have a swim race of just the swim portion called Sharkfest, but I didn't know much beyond that.  In Ken and I's long standing tradition of working our way down the family line with who picks the vacation every year, Ken picked San Francisco for this year.  I immediately started wondering about doing the swim.  I had heard that there was a local swim club that does monthly organized swims, so I Googled it.  Sure enough, Water World Swim Sports does just that.  I looked at their calendar and they were doing one the week AFTER we were scheduled do be there.  So, I did what any normal person would do and changed the dates of our vacation so that I could be there for their June swim.  Luckily Ken didn't mind me high jacking his vacation :)  I immediately signed up 6 months in advance.

Fast forward to last week.  I had told several people I was doing this swim.  It is on my bucket list of items I want to do in the crazy world of endurance sports. The response I got from most of them was "you know there are sharks in that water, right?" Or, "why would you do that?"  Or "Now we know you've lost it."  I found this funny because I think Ironman and some of the other stuff I've done is way crazier than this.  Yes, I know there are sharks in the water.  I want to do it because I am terrified of oceans swims and I want to overcome that fear.  And yes, I probably have lost it, but this is nothing new :)

As we arrived in San Francisco, I was starting to actually think I was crazy for doing the swim.  I saw Alcatraz from the Bay Bridge and noticed how far it really was from shore.  Then I noticed the chop in the Bay every day we were there.  Then Wednesday we went whale watching on a boat in the same area as the swim.  We saw about a dozen different humpback whales in the same area or not far from where I would be doing the swim.  Cool, but.....

Friday we went to the beach.  The water was FREEZING.  Even though I have done plenty of cold swims, this was way cold.  Oh great, lets just add that to the list of fears and obstacles on Saturday!  I will admit, I was starting to freak out a bit.  But, as this is my 8th season in endurance sports, I have noticed a cycle with me when I freak out or get nervous.  Once I am there, and get going, I do fine.  I kept telling myself that once I attended the briefing and spoke with others doing the swim, heard from the coaches directing and running the swim, I would be fine.

Saturday morning Ken and I got up at 4:45.  We ate a quick breakfast and I gathered my things I would need for the swim.  We left the kids at the hotel because they were more interested in sleeping in.  We grabbed an Uber to take us to Fisherman's Wharf and we were the first ones there.  I met Mike, one of the coaches, and he gave me my waiver.  I love signing stuff that says, "You realize by participating in this swim, injuries could occur including death/drowning."

We had 24 swimmers signed up to swim and about 3/4 of us were doing it for the first time.  They gave us the run down of what to site (the battleship, Fort Mason, the Gold Dome of the Palace of the Performing Arts, then the red brick roof of the Yacht Club), and stressed that this was NOT a race, it was an organized swim.  They would have kayak support and SUPs out on the water with us, as well as 4 swim coaches in the water with hot pink buoys if we needed them.  They stressed not to follow other swimmers, because if they got off course, they didn't want us to follow.  We got on the boat, rode it out to the middle of the bay just a stone's throw from Alcatraz (fun fact, we actually couldn't swim off the beach at Alcatraz because it is a protected wild life refuge, so we jumped from the boat) they then started playing the Rocky Theme song, lowered the back gate of the boat, and said, "See you on the beach!"  It was at this moment I let just about everyone else go in front of me.  I was in my wetsuit, had double capped for the cold, but wasn't quite ready to jump.  Ha!  No time to wallow in it!  The captain pointed at me and said, "You next!"  I didn't even have a chance to think about it and I jumped.  Everyone was staying right there in the water and I took a moment to look around me. It was surreal.  First off, the water wasn't near as cold as I was prepared for.  I have definitely been in worse.  But the view is what truly took my breath away.  I could see both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the whole city skyline with the fog just over it.  I looked down the shore and spotted what I would need to be sighting.  One coach was near me and said, "Not a bad way to spend your morning, huh?"  She was right!  By then the last person had jumped in the water and everyone started the swim towards the battleship.  Immediately the salt hit me.  No big deal, but not what I am used to.  Then the chop started to get to me.  It was crazy!  I swim in land locked reservoirs and lakes, nothing like this.  I have swam in boat chop and canyon wind kind of chop, but nothing quite like this.  Every time I went to sight, or breath, or just get my bearings, I got smacked in the head with another swell.  I felt like I wasn't moving though I was swimming as hard as I could. A few times I stopped and just went with it trying to see where I was.  With the chop I couldn't really see the other swimmers.  I could see the people standing on the SUPs, but that was it.  I asked them where everyone was, and they just pointed.  I couldn't make out most of what they said, so I gave up trying to.  This kept going and I was getting pretty frustrated, but then I would look over and see I was past what I was sighting, so I knew I was at least moving even though it didn't feel like it.  A giant tanker came through and really stirred it up more.  I remember saying to myself, "You have officially reached the end of your skill set."  Then I remembered to focus on what I could control.  I could control my stroke.  Then I remembered Ben telling me prior to StG that if the water got choppy, shorten my stroke to be more efficient in the water.  Well, that definitely applied here!  That was very helpful information to recall at that time because it gave me something to focus on.  I continued on but it was frustrating that I never at any point felt like I could find a good rhythm like I normally do. On the other hand, the challenge was kind of fun.  I had several flashbacks to playing in the swells along the beach as a kid in Galveston.  The difference was I was close to the shore and could always touch the bottom back then.  I never got scared, but I was frustrated many times because it was unlike anything I've ever done.  I had to just Dory it and "just keep swimming."  Finally I saw the final object they told us to sight, the red roof of the Yacht Club.  I remember them saying we would end at the small beach on the side of that building.  I got around the building and headed into the beach.  The first person I could recognize was Ken, standing there waiting for me. I swam harder because I was just ready to be done!!  I got out and put my head down to catch my breath.  Ken's first response? "Man, you look beat up!"  No kidding!  I felt it!

Then I turned around and saw all the swimmers coming into the beach.  I saw Alcatraz off in the distance and thought, "Yep, I just did that.  Check that box off the list!"  I was probably the 6th or 7th person out of the water out of the 24 who did it.  I finished the approx 2 mile swim in 39 minutes.  I am not completely sure my watch was accurate on the distance, and there is a current in our favor, but I am almost certain I didn't swim the 1:07 pace my watch said I did.  We then swam back to the boat just off the shore and they took us back to the starting point.  Many people who are veterans of this swim said this was the roughest day they had out there in a long time.  One girl mentioned that she was glad they didn't see sharks this time.  Wait, what?  She mentioned that they were getting ready to do a swim once and a great white had attacked a seal about in the spot they normally have people jump in the water, so they cancelled that day.  I am glad I found this out AFTER the fact.  However, it is pretty rare to see sharks in there with it being a major shipping channel.

I can now check that off my list. It was the single most challenging swim I have ever done, but also pretty amazing.  I would do it again, they were talking about how they do another event called the "Bridge to Bridge" swim and it goes from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate.  Its about a 10k, so I would have to work up to that, but no hurry for sure!

 I texted Ben about it at the end and his response cracked me up. "You're half nuts, but awesome too :)"

I can't say enough good things about Water World Swim.  They did an excellent job with this, from organization to making it a safe event for us.  They were incredibly encouraging and helpful.  Loved them!  If I was in the Bay Area, I would probably try to get more involved in their activities.

So what's next for me?  I have the Deseret News 10k in just over a month, then the Brineman 70.3 in September.  Training since StG has been pretty chill and nice at the same time as I have had a ton of family stuff going on, and more in the next few weeks.  Onward and upward!

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