“Epic” is a word that I think is often misused. For instance, my kids get a high score on a video game and call it epic. I suppose it’s all in your perspective, but for me, the Alcatraz Invitational Swim was, indeed, epic. I’d like to take a break from the kettlebells for a moment and tell you about a fantastic experience I had “escaping the Rock” swimming in the San Francisco Bay chop.
Yes, the Alcatraz swim was finally here! Sunday, September 14th, 2014. I’ve written about race days before, but this race day was like none other. Sure, we had the usual adrenaline rush, but I get one of those before I walk on stage to make a speech. The difference is, I don’t ever think I’m gonna die on stage. Yes, this day was something else.
From a pre-dawn check in, we had several hours of pacing around until it was time (9am) to start the long, slow walk (barefoot) to the marina. Nearly 800 swimmers followed a bagpiper from the South End Rowing Club to the dock where two ferries were waiting to take us out to Alcatraz. Though there were no handcuffs, there was something about walking down the street in our bare feet and being corralled onto ferries that seemed a bit doomful. Ominous. We passed many people getting their morning coffees and newspapers who no doubt had never seen a sight like this! We were off to the island and there was no turning back now.
Once on the boat, there was a mix of anxiety and pure excitement everywhere, you could feel it. We were biting our nails and drinking our last bit of water, and then at one point I remember a bunch of us doing the celebratory “End-Zone dance”, even before the race had begun! Yes, this was a pre-race high like no other race.
As the ferries got into position and turned off their engines, 800 swimmers had to jump into the San Francisco Bay in the space of 5 minutes before the currents pushed the boats astray. I didn’t think it was possible, but everyone jumped in 3 at a time. Holding my goggles to my face, I took a deep breath and jumped in. As if in a world of slow motion, it seemed like forever until I surfaced. How deep was I? Then my next sensation was how beautiful the water was beneath the surface. It was a light crystal green color, just like a gemstone. It was also super salty, and it reminded me of eating oysters on the half shell. Then, sort of shockingly, my undersea fantasy world suddenly ended and I surfaced into a mass of swimmers. More swimmers were jumping in, so I had to quickly start swimming away from the boat. I found my friends, we all gave each other a nod, and we took off!
This race could have gone either way. We all figured it would either be really hard, or it was going to be OK and our months of training would pay off. Having never done the Alcatraz swim before, none of us knew quite what to expect, but that morning the weather turned out to be on our side. It was a gorgeous day in San Francisco, and the 16 mile-an-hour winds that were predicted never seemed to materialize.
I can say now, without a doubt, that this race has reinforced my love of swimming! Here’s why:
One of the suggestions given to the group during the pre-race instructions was to stop at the half-way point and do a 360. “Take a minute to look around you”, they said. “Take it all in!” (They reminded us that chances were pretty good we weren’t going to “win” the race… only one person out of 800 wins… so most of us should not worry about our time.) “You’ll never get a view like this again!” So I took their suggestion, I stopped and treaded water, and spun myself around. It was Epic! (and I mean really epic!) When I began swimming again, I got myself into good swimming rhythm. I would breathe every third stroke, and sight every third breath. During my sighting I would see many people stopping and taking in the views as I had done. I just can’t tell you how incredible it felt to be somewhere so beautiful, while accomplishing something so challenging, and everyone around you was appreciating the moment right there with you!
At one point while I was sighting ahead, I saw a woman smiling at me. A bit unexpected, she was just hanging out treading water right there in the middle of the San Francisco bay! I couldn’t resist her huge smile and so I called out to her… “Well hello there!” We talked for a bit, I can’t really remember what we said, but she was simply amazed by the beauty all around her and wanted to share it with someone. I just happened to be there. Yes, it was striking. The sun was shining on the Golden Gate bridge, just like a post card. We had left Alcatraz in the dust (dust?) and the San Francisco skyline was waiting brilliantly ahead of us. Oh, and the SFFD had stopped all boat traffic, so one of the most amazing sights was looking up at what was probably hundreds of sailing boats all lined up, waiting, as if showcasing their beauty for all of us to see. I am so glad I got to share that moment with a fellow swimmer.
I never saw her again, but the few moments we shared together in the bay reminded me why I swim. I swim because of the community of swimmers. They are all superb human beings, glorious athletes, and most excellent comrades post-race! (Oh yes, now that is another story altogether: The Post-Race Celebration in SF!)
In the meantime, I’ll share with you my post-race photo of “Team Puget Sound”. (Just three of us this time, but after all our stories, I think we may have a bigger contingent next year. Come join us!)