Race Reports, Swimming

Escaping Alcatraz

The summer of 2014 saw me doing a lot of swimming. Near the end of the season I found myself surfing the internet looking for a cool race to do next year (this was before I was convinced to sign up for Ironman).


That definitely fits into the *cool* category.

I researched some events, but then I didn’t think about it for a couple of weeks until a post on my Facebook feed caught my attention:

“We are doing this Alcatraz swim, anyone want to come?”

Hang on, I looked at that event. I had been on the fence about entering, but if my friends were going… I signed up immediately.

No Wetsuit division. Go big or go home, right?

Alcatraz has a storied history. On an island off the San Francisco coast, as a Federal Prison it was considered inescapable and housed some of the most notorious criminals in history. Today, it stands empty, preserved as a National Park and museum.

Of course, there were some escape attempts. Most notably that of June 11 1962, immortalised in the movie, Escape From Alcatraz. Under the cover of darkness, three men, who had spent months digging through the walls of their cells, attempted escape on a raft fashioned out of old raincoats. The jury is still out on whether they actually made it; the official line of course being that they drowned.

Since then there have been many attempts to prove that escape could have been possible, and of course, the swim has been completed many, many times. Tides and currents have been studied to allow optimal conditions and plenty of boat support would be provided to ensure that even if a swimmer got off course and missed the entrance to the swim bay, they would not be swept under the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the Pacific.

Even so, I was nervous.

The swim, isn’t actually that long. Only about 2.5km. However currents mean that sighting is very important.

The route you need to take to combat the currents

The route you need to take to combat the currents

Also, I would be swimming in the ocean, instead of my comfortable lake. The expected temperature was 12-16 degrees Celsius, and there would be waves, and salt, and…animals?

I started swimming in the lake early in the season, to accustom my body to the cold water. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I had lost some weight whilst simultaneously training for Ironman (Hooray!), but that meant less insulation in the cold water (not-so-hooray). Temperatures I had swum in easily last year left me shivering.

I also discovered that the Bay is in fact an estuary, meaning it is fairly shallow (relatively speaking) and has a lower salt content than the surrounding ocean (could have fooled me!). As such scary man (or woman) eating sharks don’t like to go there, so I had only to be concerned of ‘littler’ bottom feeding sharks and the odd sealion.

So that’s fine then, nothing to worry about.

And so, two weeks after Ironman, I found myself catching an eye-wateringly early flight to San Francisco, with my friend Leora. Ashley and Meagan arrived shortly after us, and James and Phred travelled separately with their families. We called ourselves Team JailBait, and we had had shirts made up and had found some awesome prison themed bathing suits online.

Alcatraz San Fran AR (11)

Leora, Me, Phred, James, Meagan, Ashley – Team JailBait

We spent much of Thursday and Friday playing tourist. I marvelled at the hills, which changed from block to block. Who in their right mind would decide to build a city on such terrain? We visited the Crookedest Street, a one block hill, with 8 switchbacks on its steep gradient. Then, as we walked towards Fisherman’s Wharf, we got our first glimpse of Alcatraz Island.

It doesn’t look too far…

Alcatraz San Fran AR (6)

Alcatraz San Fran AR (5)

Maybe move it a little closer…

A walk through Ghirardelli Square and a ride on the famous San Francisco Cable Cars rounded out Thursday.

On Friday, I met Phred at the Dolphin Club, and old Swim club right on the beach. We took a swim in the swim bay, a sheltered area, setup for swimmers. The temperature seemed OK. It was 18 degrees Celsius – unusually warm. I had brought my wetsuit with me, just in case my last minute test swims indicated that going ‘naked’ might be too dangerous. A second swim later in the day, this time with the others, sealed it. I would likely be cold, but I probably wouldn’t die. I then switched back to tourist mode, with a city Duck tour, and a trip to Alcatraz Island (the others had tickets for a different boat). The tour of Alcatraz was fascinating, and I totally recommend it to anyone visiting the area. I stood  and looked back at San Francisco. I would be swimming that in less than 24 hours.

It doesn’t look too far…does it?

Saturday dawned, and I dragged myself out of bed to my 4:30am alarm. We took a taxi down to Fisherman’s Wharf in the half light, where we picked up our packages and had our numbers written on our hands (probably for identification should we drown). The sun came up as we waited nervously. Finally it was time to walk to the boats.

The boat ride was quite quick and soon enough, we were being told to jump off the sides of the boat and make our way to the start line (a row of kayaks).

Suddenly I was terrified.

What was I doing?

But there was no turning back now, not with Team JailBait all standing there!

With some last minute encouragement from Ashley (Thanks!) I jumped. It wasn’t too far, maybe six feet to the water’s surface, where I immediately began swimming, both to keep warm and to avoid being jumped upon.

I paddled around near the start, trying to keep warm. Happily, I bumped into the rest of my teammates and began to feel much better. The sighting information had been a little unclear at the briefing, so we chatted about where to aim for, before the boat horn sounded the start.

I started off fairly well, nice and steady. Aiming a little to the left to combat the current. I didn’t dare look back. The city didn’t seem to be getting any closer and I was fearful that I might not have pulled away from the island at all. Every so often I would get hit by a sudden swell (which I was later told might have been caused by the massive container ships plying the area). When this happened it would throw off my stroke, I would get a mouthful of water and be left coughing and spluttering, trying to stay afloat whilst I regained my equilibrium.

It felt like forever and there were a couple of times when I genuinely thought that I couldn’t make it. I was cold and tired, and I was really struggling to swim through the waves. Eventually, the seawall seemed to inch a little closer; I realised I had aimed a bit too far to the left, so I adjusted my course accordingly.

Reaching the wall, I was relieved – nearly done.

Or not.

I still had to make my way into the bay and get to the beach. But at least now I was pretty sure I could make it. I pointed myself towards the tiny finish line and slogged on. As I reached the beach I looked up at the clock – over an hour!

It was with a mix of relief and disappointment that I made my way up the beach. My friends were waiting to cheer, and they soon banished my frustrations.

I just swam from Alcatraz!

Alcatraz ML

We headed off to warm up and get breakfast and I rounded out my San Fransisco experience with a Segway tour (so much fun) and a bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alcatraz San Fran AR (19)

Musings, Race Reports

Testing the Waters

I joined the Okanagan Masters Swim Club two years ago, after my first triathlon, and with a view to swimming across Okanagan lake.

I had watched the masters sessions from the public lanes for a few weeks before I was convinced to give it a go (thanks Jeanette). I was sure I wasn’t good enough, I mean, these guys were Masters afterall.

That first session ended with a set of sprints:

“Just dive off the blocks and sprint 50m down the pool”

10 times.

“Can I run away?”

Oh these people are so fit, they would probably catch me anyway.

I was so scared!

Blocks, dive sprint….

I had never successfully dived (and some might say that’s still true), much less of starting blocks. And sprint? 50m was such a long way.

What on earth was I thinking, I’ll just slip off back to my safe public lane……

Well, you probably guessed that I did it…

Very badly!

My fastest sprint was around 66 seconds and my best dive could possibly, if one were very charitable, be better defined as a flop.

But I didn’t die…and the only way was up.

That summer I did swim across the lake, and it turned out I rather enjoyed open water swimming.

Fast forward to today and I’m still there, still slow, but we are a ‘seriously social’ swim club and it’s (nearly) always fun.

“So, when are you going to enter a swim meet?”

Oh probably…Never.

I’m too slow

I can’t dive (still)

I can’t turn

Did I mention how slow I am?

Theres so many technical rules

Its too exposed, in a lane on my own…it’s just TOO SCARY

I’ll just volunteer, we need volunteers right?

Recently the club President had asked me what needed to happen to encourage me to enter a meet.

Oh, so many things: Dives, turns….etc etc… I’d probably enter the next one…

He probably didn’t realise that in that moment I made a scary promise, that I would now be honour-bound (if only in my own head) to keep.

All too fast, a couple of months later, chatting in the hot tub after practise (I only swim so that I can sit in the hot tub afterwards), my friend tells me that there is a meet in a couple of weeks…I should enter.

Emergency, emergency! Sirens started going off in my brain.

They had an encouraging answer to all of my reservations – Masters is very inclusive.

And I signed up for my first swim meet.

I’d spent some time working on my dives and turns over Christmas, so whilst still a long way from technically perfect, they were slightly less of a gamble.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all

O woke up on the day to find it had snowed overnight, thus followed a nerve-wracking hour of driving along the highway to Vernon. A spin around half way really got my heart-rate up and did nothing to improve my stress level.

I bumped into my team mates just outside the pool, further ensuring that I couldn’t run away. We changed and headed poolside. As we checked the heat sheets, I felt totally out of my depth, a fish out of water – this is probably how these idioms originated!

image (1)

Everyone jumped into the water to warm up, I hung back, maybe they won’t realise I’m an imposter.

I tested a couple of dives and turns, which seemed to go quite well, I felt slightly better.

The first event was 400m freestyle.

As I stood shaking on the starting blockone of my teammates shouted my name – I hoped I wouldn’t let them down or do a spectacularly bad dive in front of everyone. I decided to just aim to complete this first race.

The whistle went, deep breath, dive.

That was OK…now, swim.

Here comes the wall, deep breath, turn.

Still OK…keep swimming…I’m going too fast, that’s bad, but I can slow down, not a crisis.

Wall again, deep breath, turn…

…and crisis!

The turn didn’t go well, I came off the wall at the wrong angle, and I took breath that consisted largely of water…keep swimming, slow down.

Can’t breathe

I tried swimming slower, breathing deeper, I swam with my head up for a bit, but I couldn’t get it back. I couldn’t stop (actually I was later informed that I could have stopped to catch my breath and then continued).

The realisation hit me – this isn’t going to work.

And so, in the first event of my first ever swim meet, I recorded the first DNF of my life.

My teammates were very supportive, but it felt like I’d proved that I shouldn’t be there. I consoled myself with the fact that the next event was unlikely to go worse than that, the only way was up!

There was a short break before my next event, 50m breaststroke. This was the event had been most worried about; I was worried that getting my stroke wrong could get me disqualified.

In the event it was fine, I concentrated hard on getting my stroke right. I could hear my teammates cheering, which made me smile. As I came to the wall I saw Brent there, encouraging me.

Don’t screw this up now

Two hands together…and go.

It felt really good. My time of 56:25, whist not groundbreaking in the slightest, was the fastest I have ever recorded. Not so long ago, a 50m breaststroke sprint was nearly impossible for me, so definitely an improvement.

100m freestyle came next. I was still jittery about those turns. I made the first one, but then my nerves go the better of me, I decided to err on the side of caution and finished the race with touch turns. I was definitely getting tired by the second 50m but I kept pushing on.

1:42:85, I’ll take that.

50m freestyle, I’ve already proved I can do this, just need to do it again.

47:88, cool, that’s quite a bit under a minute.

So all in all, the day turned around pretty well. Thanks to my OMSC teammates for their support… and for refraining from laughing (at least whilst I was in the room).

It’s clear I won’t be breaking any records in the foreseeable future, but that’s OK, we are a seriously social swim club after all.

Race Reports

An Unexpected Swim Focus

Due to the whole stress fracture thing, running, biking and generally using my legs was out for much of the summer.

Cue a focus on swimming.

I actually had something of a light bulb moment on my swim stroke.

I always find it amazing that I can be told something so many times and not be able to put it into practice, then, along comes someone new (and totally unrelated to swimming in this case), explains things slightly differently and BAM, suddenly it works! In this case it was a boot-camp instructor who, whilst patiently trying to get me to isolate a muscle, casually commented that I probably use it to swim.

“Hmm, nope.”

But next time I was at the pool, I gave it a try.

“OK, this is interesting, feels weird, but does seem to work….”

The next time the coach attempted to correct my stroke all of those things they had been telling me for months started to make sense – success!

OK, let’s not pretend I suddenly became an awesome swimmer, or even a very good one, but I did improve.

Across The Lake Swim

So, I set about training for the Across the Lake Swim, a 2.1km swim across Okanagan Lake. This seemed to be going well. Although I didn’t feel much faster I could definitely feel that my stroke was more efficient, and I was more comfortable in the water than I’d ever been. I has hopeful of beating last years time of 53 minutes.

The day before the event was really windy with a wildfire was burning across the lake, but on the morning of the swim, the water looked like a sheet of glass. The temperature had dropped though – particularly notable for a no wetsuit freak such as myself.

Everything started off well. The water was cold, so it took a few minutes to get into a rhythm, but after that I felt I was making good progress; my sighting was good and I felt relaxed.

Around the midpoint the water got a bit more choppy.

Interesting, but not a problem.

But then it all seemed to go wrong…

My sighting was off and I didn’t seem to be making progress anymore.

“How am I going to explain to all my swimming friends? I’m obviously the only one that’s screwed this up so badly”

I was convinced I was the only one struggling this much. As the beach stubbornly refused to get any closer, I made the mistake of looking at my watch – Bad Move.

Almost an hour and a half! I must have been too cocky, gone out too fast at the start and now I’m paying for it.

Finally a support boat paddled past me checking swimmers were OK. She commented on how bad the current was.

“CURRENT!? Wow, OK, that makes sense…..I thought, and What’s a current like that doing in the lake?

Well then, all I needed to do was beat this current and I’d be home free. I swam hard, and slowly (oh so slowly!) the finish line started to get bigger. It was painfully slow, like swimming in an endless pool. Eventually I saw weeds appearing on the bottom – I have never been so happy to see the dreaded weeds!

I got into the beach feeling great, I even had a burst of energy to sprint to the line.

2:02:49 more than double my goal time of 45 minutes. The mood at the finish line was subdued, people were tired and cold, over 100 had to be pulled out by rescue craft.

On the contrary, I was pleased. I had no idea I could swim like that for two hours and without a wetsuit. Though I would definitely have eaten more breakfast if I had known I was going to be going that long!

“If I can do that, what else can I do….?”

Apparently the high winds in the days before the event caused an unexpected current – a seiche wave, Google it, it’s a real thing!

Rattlesnake Island Swim

My next challenge was the Rattlesnake Island swim, 3.1km from the island to Peachland swim beach. My goal was under an hour and a half.

I went into this event fairly confident, after all, at Across the Lake I had swum I-don’t-know how far on a treadmill for two hours. I had also been out with a couple of friends two weeks before and made the swim, so I knew I could do it. It had taken 1:45 though, so I’d need to move quicker than that to meet my goal time.

The swim started with a boat ride out to the start. WE all jumped off the boat and I focused on keeping moving to stay warm (as, again I was doing this with no wetsuit) and beginning to get into a rhythm so that my start would be smooth. The horn went, and we were off.

It felt like I was swimming all alone forever, but finally the buildings on the hillside began to take shape and get bigger. I recalled, slightly deflated, that during the practice swim, this had happened around the half-way point. Nevertheless, the swim was going well and was uneventful compared to Across the Lake, even a bit boring maybe.

Coming into the finish was almost an anticlimax, strangely underwhelming.

“OK, Good, just wanted to prove I could do that…”

I walked out of the water and looked for my friends. I had actually beaten a couple of them, which was a first for me – maybe I am getting faster – and at 1:27 I even made my goal, guess I need a faster goal.

New Goal: I kind of signed up for a little swim from Alcatraz next summer….no wetsuit, obviously….. Like I needed a bigger challenge.

Note to self: Stop being so impulsive.

By the way……….Can I run Yet?……….How about now?