That was interesting…
I felt nervous walking from the hotel to the starting area. Real butterflies. This was a new event for me. In triathlons and trail races, I know what to expect from myself and my body. The Touch Alcatraz ‘n Go Swim was going to be about raw effort and faith in my abilities and strength.
We arrived at the swim start and most of the swimmers had already checked in, most donning their wetsuits and looking ready. I noticed a hint of community here – long distance swimmers greeting what was ahead with enthusiasm. I left a little out of place, though still confident I would have a good day. That no one knew me or my abilities gave my solace that with a good swim I could compete with the specialists.
The water was warm by San Francisco Bay standards – 65 degrees at shore and 63-65 degrees out by Alcatraz. I talked about the water temperatures with a race organizer and suggested that I might even skip my thermal cap. “Oh yeah. It’s warm out there. I haven’t seen a thermal cap out here in weeks.” So that decision was made. I was going completely skin and felt a pang of contentment that I had a good reason to go without. I wanted to see how I’d hold up in cold water and to be able to say after the event that I did the swim without any aids.
The course was pretty simple – swim from the shores of Aquatic Park, out of the opening to a boat anchored on the west side of Alcatraz, touch the boat, then head back to shore. The pre-race briefer recommended we swim directly for the boat, then head back aiming to the left of the Aquatic Park opening, creating a slight loop. With plenty of large buildings and objects at shore, sighting would be easy.
Race Strategy & Time Goals
I planned to approach the swim much like I would a longer distance triathlon:
- Start slow. Focus on form. Find a flow.
- Be fresh at the turnaround.
- Hammer home and finish strong.
Considering the swim distance (2.5 miles) and my best Ironman swim time ( 1:05), I figured that I should definitely finish by 1:45, with 1:30 as a reasonable goal. I thought I might have a shot at a 1:15 time with the perfect swim. I tend to start slow, picking up steam as I go, and I expected today to be the same.
I was purposely last in the water at race start, trailing the rest of the swimmers – keep everyone in view so I wouldn’t feel pressure to keep up with anyone else’s pace or react to getting passed. Plus I assumed I would pass a few early swimmers which would help me trust my form and strategy.
I found a nice rhythm in the alcove heading out to the Bat. The water felt warm and I imagined a strong swim. The water had a greenish tint with visibility limited to a few feet down.
Once out of the alcove, the water noticeably changed. Small consistent swells of slightly colder water told me – “Hey man, just in case you forgot, you’re now swimming in San Francisco Bay.”
I adjusted my thinking and felt my brain move more into a protective, thoughtful mindset – one that tensed me up a bit, putting me on notice that I was embarking on a challenge. A paddle boarder hovered right next to me. It felt like a personal escort for a while. I maintained my rhythm, passed a couple of swimmers, and the paddle boarder migrated away from me. I now felt more alone in the wide open space ahead, with the exception of a lone wetsuit swimmer about 10 yards ahead. I thought I might pass, tried, didn’t, and realized that it was no matter.
Eventually I pulled up into a crawl to stretch out my chest and to check in with myself. All was well. The single wetsuit pulled far ahead and I discovered a kayaker to my left. I asked if we were swimming to the white boat out there, which he confirmed. I sighted and went back to swimming.
Middle of the Bay
A rather large dark object swam across me, which I thought was a sea lion at first. I pulled up and looked, and it was a just sea gull swimming by. He sort of gave me a look as if to say – “Hmm… Interesting. Cheerio.” and we both went our separate ways.
Occasionally I thought about sharks and accepted there was no way they’d be in the water today. My mind turned to the water’s depth. I guessed that the water must be 80-100 feet below me. (Turns out this estimate is pretty close. The bay averages only 43 feet and is 15-20 feet in most places but the shipping channels are dredged to 100 feet.) That got inside my head a little – no bottom to touch. If anything went fearsomely wrong, I might sink to the bottom and never be found. Yes, these scraped along in my mind.
I thought about the experience of swimming the English Channel. I know this guy who’s done the Channel swim, with water temperatures another 5-10 degrees colder over a course that is ten times the length. I gained an even greater appreciation for that feat as I felt he cold water on my arms and shoulders.
From time to time, I looked back at the Bay Bridge and San Francisco to my right, and once I turned to the left because I wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge, completely forgetting that I’d get a heavy dose on the return segment. Occasionally I glanced at Alcatraz ahead, and it still looked far away.
More swimming. More swimming. I eventually crept closer to the turnaround boat, and it felt like I was creeping. Maybe it was the current or that I was feeling tired, but as I pushed closer, it seemed to take longer than I expected once I had it clearly in sight. A couple of swimmers on their way back to shore passed me and I took a moment to look at Alcatraz again. It finally looked large and close, looming there like a postcard against the gray sky. I began to feel cold and tired. Having worked for a solid 25-30 minutes so far, it seemed illogical that I would feel cold – cold in my upper arms, cold in my central body.
Back to shore
Finally reaching the boat, the crew instructed me to aim for Fort Mason on the return. This was puzzling given the pre-race briefing to aim to the left of the alcove and just to the right of the gray battleship because the expected slack in current. I ignored the instructions instead finding a high rise just above the alcove opening and two tall residential buildings as my targets.
The current softened, and I began a push for shore at a faster, stronger pace. While I had 1.25 miles to go, I equated that to a 2000 yard workout in my mind which I could do at pace and unlike a triathlon, I had no reason to save anything for the bike and run. Looking back, I think this was partly my reptilian brain telling me to get back to shore as quickly as possible.
After a few minutes of a driving stroke, I pulled up to confirm with a kayaker that I was headed in the right direction. “Yep, you’re doing great!” he said. Hearing that gave me a burst of confidence, and yet I still felt like a problem was growing. After another swimming burst, I pulled up again and despite the increased work load, I felt cold. And while the shore looked closer, I still had a lot of work to do.
In returning back to my stroke, I couldn’t find a rhythm. My arms splashed. My pace slowed. My form disintegrated. I started taking in seawater. I would stroke for another 100-200 yards, then pull up to sight again. Another 100 yards, then sight again. My visual field narrowed and the buildings on shore bounced erratically. I considered that I might need to grab a kayaker or they might pull me from the water. I was in a gray zone.
Grinding through, I saw that the alcove piers were just ahead. Several swimmers passed me, hitting the opening and appearing to swim much stronger than me. More kayaks hovered around. which now I suspect could have either been for my safety or simply because a group of us where hitting shore at the same time.
Once inside the alcove, I sighted for the yellow flags. I tried to think like I would in a triathlon – Just keep stroking. Avoid looking at the flags. Maintain form. My knuckles finally dragged on the sand, I stood up and wobbled to shore.
I heard Lena’s voice and saw the semblance of her face next to me. All I could muster was “cold” and “blanket.” Once back to the seating area, the team of Lena, Kim, and Benjamin dressed me and wrapped me in blankets. I shivered uncontrollably from my core A medic came over with three warm packs. “I want you to put these two under your arms. Now take this one and put it down your pants.” After a minute of two, he said – “Okay, get up and walk around.” A fellow swimmer shared her hot tea from her Thermos, and after fifteen minutes of this I returned to a more normal state. Done and done.
- Time: 1:31:17
- 21/25 Overall
- 8/8 Non-wetsuit
What I learned:
- Cold water swimming is no joke. I knew this already and have verified.
- I have a long way to go before I can do distance swimming without help from a wet suit. Over the last two months, I did several lake and ocean swims without a wetsuit, and found myself shivering even in those shorter swims in warmer water. I’m note sure why I thought I could make it the full 2.5 miles of the course in cold water without a wet suit without ill effects
- My swim stroke is atrocious. My right arm dominates. Lena noticed this as I reached shore and a video from Kim confirms. I’ve known this to be the case, and now the next month will be dedicated to left side breathing only to balance and develop a tri-stroke breathing pattern.
- I know what it’s like to feel distressed, and Lena now knows how I look and act when I’m in distress. This is a good thing as we do more events, especially self-supported ones like next summer’s California Challenge.
- I’m glad I had the thought that I may need to reach for assistance during the swim. It’s reassuring that I have the ability to maintain some semblance of good judgement in hairy situations.
Training & Preparation:
- Last month’s Donner Lake Half-Ironman gave me a solid baseline, and in training for that race, I trained past the distance – hitting 2500-3500 yard workouts regularly.
- Less than two weeks ago, I did a two mile continuous pool swim and felt great. This past week, I did three one mile ocean swims, then a 3×1000 workout on Thursday. Thursday’s workout felt forced, and mentally, I felt underprepared going into the race because this workout. At the time, I chalked it up to tiredness and overtraining.
- I didn’t do enough long distance open water swimming, nor enough speed work. The speed work forces me to swim in a recovery mode after a hard burst. With current, water temperature, and tidal swells, there were times in the swim that I need to push a little and times I could have slowed. The speed workouts could have prepared me more.
- More strength training. I let this completely fall off this past month, and 1-2 CrossFit workouts per week would have helped my balance and strength in the final 1/2 mile of the swim.
- The $295 entry fee is pretty steep. With only 30 participants, I’m sure there’s not much profit margin there given the number of support personal – kayakers and medical – and whatever permissions and permits were required to block off the shipping lanes for the event. Nevertheless, I can do three local triathlons for less than $295.
- The on-course support was great. I definitely felt like there was help if I needed it and that I received personal attention. The medical help I received post-race was huge.
- Everyone received a t-shirt and a medal. Both feel pretty cheap. The t-shirt is white cotton and the medal was low quality. These should be better for that price.
- The organizers had a small spread of coffee, bagels, peanut butter, and energy bars pre-race. I didn’t have any. It was nice to see there.
- Having warming blankets and hot water would have been nice. The organizers did ask everyone to bring their own, and I mostly had what I needed. Guess I’m just considering what you get for the fee.
- I’m glad I did the event and I don’t think I need to do it again. I know where I am with cold-water distance swimming. I definitely have work to do.
- Separately, I’ve registered for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile trail run in December. Swimming will be a big part of the cross-training for that.
- I’m planning to work up to a 10×1000 workout by the end of September, and then continue to push the distances up each month with workouts like 5×2500, then 10×3000 by early next year. My English Channel friend worked up a 10×4000 workout preparing for his swim. While I’m not doing the English Channel, I do have a 24 mile swim planned in Lake Tahoe next summer as part of the California Challenge.
- Back to the pool to fix my stroke and increase my distances. I’m considering a weekend at Donner Lake in September for a top to bottom swim (~3 smiles), or even a top to bottom and back (~6 miles). Stay tuned…