Friday, June 13, 2014

Escaping from Alcatraz

The friends you meet on a boat to Alcatraz island:

1.) A very nervous girl who had her full wet suit on even before we pulled away form Pier 3 (we had 1.5 hours until the start of the race)
2.) A surf-y dude from So Cal who had done the race the year prior. Like, totally.
3.) A guy from Milwaukee who has also done the race at least two other years.
4.) A guy in a Superman kit from Sacramento who had also done the race in 2011.

This was a good group to be around in the hour leading up to my most difficult swim yet. I'd like to thank these guys for putting my mind at ease, and the girl for proving that I'm not really that nervous. In fact, we spent the entire hour talking and I barely looked out the window to see what conditions might be like for the Escape from Alcatraz swim. No matter what the morning currents were like, I was already boarded on that boat, and there was no escaping the inevitable "Escape".

As we lined up to jump from the boat, I zipped up my wet suit and my So Cal friend said, "Woah, sleeveless! You are brave, lady." That's right man, I am so fucking brave.

While adjusting my cap and goggles, the goggle strap broke. This was ten minutes before the start of the race. I looked up and saw some, "I'm glad it's not me" facial expressions. Superman looked worried for me. Somehow I managed to calm my shaking hands and get the little piece of plastic through the hole in order to tie it back together and tie it in a knot. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

I was near the end of the line out the door, but not really by choice. I picked a seat near the middle of the boat, and didn't know which doors we would be jumping from. Jumping from the boat is the biggest fear I hear from most people about this swim. But, honestly, by the time you get out the door, and see the ten foot drop, there isn't much time to think about it. The only thing I thought before making that leap was, "Wait until the person in front of you swims away so you don't jump on top of them." Then, it was just a matter of - GO!

I jumped with my legs apart and arms at my side as they suggested; no pencil dives into the Bay, and they only want the pros to dive. Fair enough. As my body fell into the deep, cold Bay water I thought, "Holy shit! I'm in the middle of the San Francisco Bay! This is so awesome!" As I came up, my goal was to find the Fontana Towers and swim towards them. They were relatively easy to spot, until the currents picked up.

About five minutes into the swim, I had a bit of a panic. The currents seemed to be coming from both sides, and I was swallowing water. If the currents would have stayed like this for the duration of the race, I would have had a hard time, but they seemed to only kick up three or four times during the swim. Each time I was able to deal with them better. I convinced myself that, if I didn't get a breath this time, that I would get one the next. Bilateral breathing is so important.

Luckily during the difficult portions, I remembered that there were safety boats who were watching me above the waves. I saw kayaks and paddle boards out there, as well as one water craft who decided to make a wake right in front of me - he better have been rescuing someone (!). Glad that someone was not me.

There is a lot of room to spread out in the Bay, so I often didn't see any other swimmers for a minute or so, but would look up and see a sea of colorful caps ahead of me, or another sea of black arms coming from behind. I didn't feel the mass-start panic that usually happens at the beginning of a race - no kicking or elbowing - which was much easier to deal with. My biggest panic situation has happened in a pack of people; it had nothing to do with water temperature, or sharks. It's people. Swimming is the one time when I'm an introvert!

I thought about sharks one time, but read that they stay on the bottom of the Bay, so I wasn't worried about sea life at all. The other thing I tend to think about sometimes when swimming is dead bodies.Yeah, I said it.

As Fontana Towers drifted out of view, my focus was on Fort Mason, which juts out slightly into the Bay and is easy to spot. My goal was to sight EXACTLY where the race directors told us to sight. Often when you think you might be headed, isn't where you are going. This is a good website with all of the things you might sight on when swimming from Alcatraz. For this swim, 1.) Fontana Towers, 2.) Trees at Fort Mason, 3.) Fort Mason, 4.) Palace of Fine Arts, 5.) Beach/Finish Shoot.

When I finally spotted the Palace of Fine Arts, the only thing left to do was sight the finishing shoot, but I would need to get closer to the shore. The currents, and my leading right arm made it difficult to go left. But, I didn't want to swim too far, and be pushed out to Crissy Field! This is where the currents seemed to give me a push because the Palace of Fine Arts seemed to come so close within a few minutes that I didn't realize it looming right in front of me, as was the finishing shoot.

I did end up swimming beyond the finishing shoot, and had to fight some current to get back to the right place. Good news was, I didn't drift into an entirely different area, and was still within the parameters of the beach.

For the first time in history, I am smiling in all of my finisher photos out of the water. They are still too hideous to post here.

Like many things in triathlon, this swim completely changed my perspective on a lot of things:

1.) If I can start swimming at 31 years old, anyone can. God, I hope I don't sound like an infomercial. But, I'm not amazing. I'm certainly not an amazing swimmer (you can say that again).
2.) You really have to want to do it, and then take the steps necessary to make the literal jump so it becomes a reality. If you don't have the desire to get up at 5:00 AM and swim in the cold Bay, it's no big deal.
3.) Not only did I want to swim from Alcatraz this year, I needed to - perhaps on a more spiritual level. I no longer have an excuse not to push the limits and try something difficult. After this, every swim should seem easier, right?
4.) I wouldn't be who I am without supportive friends. I have a group of people who believe in me, and it motivates me a lot. I'm not very good at swimming, but it has come to my attention that I am extremely good at surrounding myself with supportive people. (Maybe some trial and error has been involved.) Thank you, friends. Old, and very new. Even the nervous girl. You are my rock.

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