Things I Wish I Knew Before Swimming From Alcatraz

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By: Kim Glaeser, Tri-California Production Intern

Kim GlaeserMy contact with the world of endurance sports began 5 years ago, as a volunteer at Wildflower, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for other volunteers. I did that for several years, then decided to get more involved with Tri-California by working Aid Stations at the Inaugural San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz. Since then I have worked as a course monitor with an attractive high visibility vest, a kayak volunteer, a bag corral volunteer, a solutions manager, and a production intern with the Tri-Cal office. I have become so involved with the company that the word “Tri-Cal” has been added to my word processor’s dictionary. But even attending almost every event that Tri-Cal produces and working in almost every imaginable area did not totally prepare me for my most recent Challenge: participating in a race.

I have been a swimmer for my entire life. My father was an international water polo official for many years, and aquatics have always been a part of my world. However, almost all of my experience have been in a nice chlorinated pool, with lane lines and clear water. Then I decided I wanted to see how I would fare in open water, swimming a race I really wanted to try: the Alcatraz Challenge.

As it was my first major open water swim, I’ve listed a few of the things I’ve learned, in order to help other pool swimmers transition into a different kind of swimming.

#1: Leave yourself some time to prepare for the race. I knew I was going to the Alcatraz Challenge Swim to work, so I put off my decision to swim, since I didn’t have all of the time-sensitive arrangements to make, like lodging and transportation. Those were already worked out, so I didn’t decide until 4 days before the event that I was going to swim. I figured that would leave me plenty of time to get my hands on clean towels, cheap shower shoes, a wetsuit, Body Glide, and other little things that are nice to have for a race. However, I didn’t account for also having to complete a large school project and work a full day. I failed to consider things like a holiday weekend and regular shipping and business hours for wetsuit rental companies and sporting goods stores. As it turned out, I had no time for laundry to get my towels clean, I took a barefoot shower (which wasn’t that bad), I barely got my hands on a wetsuit in time, and was just very lucky that my colleagues at Tri-California were better prepared than I was and had a ton of Pam cooking spray on hand for athletes to use. That segues neatly into…

#2: Grease up. Swimming in a wetsuit is very different. You know those little red marks you get from the spots that your normal swimsuit rubs? A wetsuit does that too, and on a far bigger scale. It is a completely different ballgame. It rubs you wrong in a lot of places, and a bit of grease can go a long way. The Body Glide, Chamois Glide, Vasoline, or whatever else you use is not only to help you pull the tight wetsuit over parts of your body. The same effect that allows it to move over your skin while you’re putting it on also allows the wetsuit to continue to move over your skin, without catching and chafing you all over. I sprayed myself down with cooking spray almost from head to toe, and only chafed a little bit on my neck because a clump of my hair got caught in the Velcro strap and that was rubbing against my skin. It was not nearly as bad as I had imagined, but I saw a few others peel off their suits to reveal large spots of angry red skin. Grease is good.

#3: Practice swimming in a wetsuit before you do it for the first time. Not only does the suit rub in places that are new and uncomfortable, but it changes the way you move your body. No one told me before my first time in a wetsuit that I would have to expend so much effort just to move my arms forward. I was used to more or less flinging my arms ahead of me during the recovery portion of the stroke, and only exerting myself during the pull. Not so in a wetsuit. Your body works pretty hard moving your arms in both directions, so practice in a wetsuit occasionally to work up the extra back and shoulder muscles you need to put in the extra oomph.

#4: Get your wetsuit early. If you are having a suit shipped to you, as I did, be sure to account for the likelihood that those suppliers do not have weekend hours and the shipments do not move on Saturday, Sunday, or holidays. If you order a wetsuit on Thursday evening for overnight shipping, and they actually send it on Friday morning, it will arrive after the weekend is over and your race is completed.

Alcatraz Island#5: The Bay is cold. I mean really cold. 55 degrees doesn’t sound too terrible when you are talking about weather, but the water is totally different. I’m sure that there are veteran racers out there who do events in much colder water all the time, and I raced with a handful of people who felt no need to don anything more than a Speedo and a squid lid, but I don’t feel like a pansy saying that the Bay is most certainly not warm. If you practice in a pool that’s heated to 78 degrees, at least be mentally prepared for the idea that the water is really, really cold, and your face will likely go numb in the first few minutes.

#6: Enjoy the race. For most people, endurance sports are not a just big competition against other athletes. The race is more a battle against yourself, to see if you can do it. George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, and Mallory reportedly replied, “Because it’s there.” That’s why many endurance athletes compete; there is a challenge, and they want to see if they can rise to meet it. So give yourself a moment, floating there in the middle of a waterway that very few can swim across, to look around and relish the experience. You likely wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for a certain love of the race experience, or perhaps that little touch of insanity. So be sure to take a second to really savor where you are, no matter how tired you are or how cold the water might be. It will make your experience, and your memories of it, that much more special.

2 responses to “Things I Wish I Knew Before Swimming From Alcatraz”

  1. Michael Says:
    Thank you for answering questions I hadn't thought of yet.
    This years race (2016) will be my first competitive swim since I was a kid back in the '60's. Im really looking forward to it. After learning firsthand that it's what you don't know that you don't know that poses the greatest danger to yourself and others, I decided to dig around a bit and lean on the experience of others.
    Thanks for this "arrow" of experience, I'll add it to my quiver.
  2. Graham Says:
    Can you share any thought on the currents? I think I am prepared for the cold and the distance but do not know how to prepare for currents. I have done 2 ocean swims in the Atlantic but I have heard the currents are something to be concerned about.

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