Story by Mark Silver, M.D.
The Alcatraz Invitational Swim is a 1.5 mile open water crossing from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco mainland, with cold bay waters and swift currents.
The South End Rowing Club of San Francisco sponsors this annual race. I knew it wasn't going to answer the question, "Did anyone ever escape from that maximum security prison known as The Rock' "? but it almost sounded like fun. Certainly the swim would be considered a personal challenge at age 51.
The idea started as an incentive to begin an exercise program. For the last few years, I have been saying to myself that I needed to "get into shape." However, I couldn't quite find the right personal goal to bring it to fruition.
As a local family physician, I talk to my patients daily about the benefits of exercise these include cardiovascular fitness, weight control and weight loss, increased energy and improved self image all of which lead to a better quality of life.
A patient had mentioned the Alcatraz swim a few years ago and I tossed the idea around in my head. Other physical activities such as running were no longer possible because of my aging knees and torn cartilage. So, last November, while surfing the Internet, I happened to come across the Alcatraz Invitational Swim taking place on Sept. 20, it was time to take the leap!
Qualifications were: accomplished swimmers only and you must be able to swim one mile comfortably in under 40 minutes. Well, that certainly wasn't me, but I thought I could do it with training. So, I signed up and started telling everybody I was going to do it. That made me less likely to back out and would reinforce my commitment.
I initially planned to start swimming in the Crescent City pool during the winter and spring months, only to find it unexpectedly closed for nine months for major renovations. I decided to wait until the Brookings city pool opened in June 2008. It is an outdoor pool that is only open for the three months of summer and I hoped those three short months would be enough. ...
On June 2, the city pool opened, and I swam one lap 50 yards total and was exhausted. I managed to struggle through 5 laps total that day. Each day I increased my workout by one lap until I reached 1 mile or 36 laps. By then it was early July. Along the way I had a few medical issues that threatened to derail my goal but fortunately they abated.
Being an avid scuba diver, I have always enjoyed and been comfortable in the water, but I was never an efficient swimmer. I certainly never swam for exercise.
I was fortunate to find a group of dedicated competitive swimmers at the Brookings pool. They were more than helpful in pointing out my flaws and ways to improve my technique. Especially helpful were Bill and Sandy Coons, Sue Calnek and Jo Ann Vanderschaaf.
After work, during evening lap swim, my speed and endurance slowly improved. Eventually I was able to swim the mile without stopping and do it in 40 minutes, but I still had more work to do.
I knew I would have to get out and swim in the cold ocean conditions. I found a wet suit and hood that kept me comfortable except my feet and hands "froze" in the 58-degree water. I contacted Ron Griswold, a local triathlete who previously swam the Alcatraz race four times.
We swam together in the ocean at Harris Beach State Park, back and forth to Bird Island. He encouraged me to keep moving and not stop, as the currents in the San Francisco Bay could be quite treacherous. He also advised me to increase my swim time and distance to be able to swim 1.5 miles in under one hour.
My first ocean swim was discouraging, just as was my first pool swim. I started to pick up the pace as failure was not an option.
By mid-August I could swim 1.5 miles in less than an hour. A previously planned trip to Hawaii for 10 days afforded me the opportunity to swim in the warm water there.
To ward off boredom, I purchased an MP3 swim player. My daughter, Zoey, downloaded songs off the Internet, and I was suddenly enjoying the swimming while listening to rock and roll music. On weekends, off to the ocean I went, accompanied by Bill Iffert, a friend who kayaked alongside me.
The big day approached!
The city pool closed Sept. 6, and I still had two more weeks to train. I decided to swim at the mouth of the Chetco River nightly. I swam up past the bridge and back.
Short of some unexpected event in the race, I felt I should be able to finish. I wasn't fast; in fact I was the slowest swimmer in the pool, but I had turned into a more efficient swimmer.
The plan was just to complete the race. However, at times, self-doubt and nerves crept in. "Could I really make it?" I had only trained for three short months. Others had trained for longer than a year for this race.
Was I in good enough shape? After my last ocean swim several days before the race, Ron Griswold felt I was ready.
On Sept. 19, my family drove to San Francisco. That night I slept fitfully. The morning of Sept. 20 dawned calm but overcast. At 6:45 a.m., I walked the few short blocks from my hotel to register for the race. My breakfast consisted of two bananas and one quart of Gatorade. I was suited up wearing my wet suit, MP3 player, and the mandatory fluorescent yellow swim cap.
A lone bagpiper led the procession of 600 swimmers over to the Red and White Ferry from the Aquatic Park. Most looked like serious competitive swimmers. Pre-race instructions were given: "Aim for the white Fort Mason building if you are a slower swimmer."
The water temperature was unseasonably warm at 63 degrees, with calm seas. The race is set for a slack tide and then an incoming flood tide.
There was going to be a boat start instead of the usual water start. A timing chip attached to my ankle would record the time when I leaped off the boat and then crossed the finish line at the Aquatic Park 1.5 miles away.
I calmed myself as the ferry motored out to Alcatraz Island; unfortunately there was a 20-minute delay while a tugboat crossed our path, then the horn blast to announce the start of the race.
We jumped, three at a time, into the cold water and off we went. I tried to avoid the kicking feet of competitors.
Although the waves weren't high, there was a slight chop coming from different directions due to swirling currents. I accidentally took one big gulp of sea water and then fought my way toward the shore. Due to the current, I drifted off to the west, slightly off course, but I was warm and knew that I was going to make it.
Mid-race, I looked around for a second back to Alcatraz, west to the Golden Gate, east to Oakland, and straight on to the San Francisco skyline. It is a view few have ever experienced.
As I neared the shore, I had to swim slightly east to get lined up to reach the narrow entrance to the Aquatic Park.
For most of the swim I had been alone and thought I was well behind everybody else, but as I neared the pier, I met up with many other swimmers, their yellow swim caps visible above the waves. To the sandy beach we swam, up to the finish line I ran. I felt exhilaration. I did it in 54 minutes. It was fun!
Back to Brookings and back to work. It all seemed surreal. I reflected on my commitment to myself make a goal and go after it.
You are never too old to do things to improve your physical health. Along the way, it might help your mental health as well. Don't give up!
I can check the swim off my Bucket List, but I am going to be ready for next year. I have already signed up.
I convinced my son, Zyan, to accompany me and maybe I can get a few others to take the plunge, too, to "Escape from Alcatraz."
Move over Michael Phelps!