Round Trip Blackaller

Sunday 03/28/10

With the switch to daylight savings time, it’s again quite dark at 6a. A 20 knot wind is streaking rain from the west. At this early hour, one four-hour parking place remains open directly across from the Dolphin Club and that is good news. I’ll need an extended-term parking spot because today is the day for a three-hour Bay swim.

Once again, I’ll be swimming with Ralph Wenzel. Barry C will drive the inflatable and Ralph’s nephew, Benjamin, will assist Mr. C. We plan to swim west into a swelling flood for about two hours and then return to the club. The tide chart says that the maximum current at the Golden Gate will be 4.5 knots at 11:25a. That means we should wind up almost swimming in place by the time we turn around and shoot back to the club beach. It will seem as if we were snapped back at the end of a long rubber band.

At 7:20a, the pilot boat is loaded, launched, and waiting. Ralph and I wade into the surging water and head for the Aquatic Park Cove opening. Unusual for this early hour, the storm-driven wind has already roiled the water in the cove and it takes a few minutes for us to find our stride. When we turn the corner into the bigger Bay, the chop increases and begins to batter us from three sides.

The wind creates a surface current that flows directly against us and we creep westward past the opening to Gas House Cove where we have our first feeding. We agree to stick close to the shore to try and take advantage of any back eddy available and strike out again into the west.

At the third feeding, Mr. C insists that we both respond verbally to his simple questions. He pronounces Ralph fit for duty and says to me, “Well, you’re shivering, but you can talk. I guess you’re ok.” He’s right. I’m a little uncomfortable from the cold and the constant sloshing and pounding has scrambled my brains a bit. By the time we reach Crissy Field, both Ralph and I get driven to shore by wind and current. We wind up scraping our hands across the sandy bottom where we alter course and start crabbing more northerly.

Just before the fourth feeding, a complete rainbow breaks out over the Golden Gate. It unfurls its full spectrum of colors over the entire span of the red bridge. The arch is unbroken and both ends are clearly visible. It beckons us to keep stroking even though we’re beginning to gain ground literally by inches.

About even with the Blackaller buoy, we chug down our fourth feeding and agree to head back. Oh, what a difference! The sea is no less choppy, but swimming in the same direction with the current and wind feels more like surfing and less like getting bludgeoned. The landscape scoots past. We decide to skip the last feeding and just enjoy the ride.

We arrive back at Aquatic Park with a little time to spare, so we swim a small loop to complete a full three hours. By this time, I’ve regained equilibrium and have stopped shivering. Ralph and I step ashore, shake hands, and grin at one another. This was yet another swim that was definitely worth the effort.

Back in the shower, Ralph and I compare notes. We both found that the second hour of the swim was as cumbrous as the trip home was joyous. Ralph speculates that the English Channel swim promises to have its own share of emotional ups and downs. From everything I’ve read, I’m sure he’s right.

Stuff Happens

Thursday 03/18/10

I stood at the edge of the Koret pool, loosened my limbs, and adjusted my goggles. The 25 yards of clear, chlorinated water stretching before me promised to be my home for the next five hours. Behind me stood a yellow plastic sandwich board sporting black, bold, block letters proclaiming “LANE CLOSED.” My feet straddled an array of BPA-free water bottles enriched with 60 grams of maltodextrin powder apiece. They were accompanied by a couple of bottles of plain water. On a chair next to me rested a cotton duck bag bearing the blue Dolphin Club logo and a commemoration of the 1993 Crissy Field swim. A video camera nestled inside the bag for Coach Val to use periodically to record the evolution of my stroke mechanics throughout the five hours. It was 6:15a when I dove into the lane.

On every stroke, I chanted to myself and concentrated on form. “One—smooth recovery. One—lead hand stretching for far wall. One—lead hand passing down the body centerline.” This continued until I reached the starting point, performed an open turn to maintain an aerobic state and then thought, “Two—swimming through the tunnel. Two—toes click to ensure a streamlined body. Two—smooth entry into the water with the new lead hand.” Eventually, this became “Thirty-two—trailing hand almost catches the lead hand. Thirty-two—bubbles from lead hand streaming not too far on side of head. Thirty-two—it’s been a half hour; time to feed.”

I paused at the end of the pool, snatched a maltodextrin feed bottle and forced myself to drink half in less than 30 seconds. Half a bottle provided over 100 calories of complex carbohydrates to fuel the engine. Even so, the literature talks about a bonking effect at the five or six hour mark as the carbohydrate replenishment loses pace to the rate of energy consumption. At this point the body looks for new sources of fuel and begins to cannibalize the muscle tissue. All reports indicate that this is a very painful, discomforting, and demoralizing experience. All reports also indicate that enduring this phenomenon is a critical component to training the mind to complete an English Channel crossing. I was curious to see if five hours were enough to trigger such an episode. I was also curious to see how my body reacted to the forced feedings. Either way, it promised to be interesting.

From time to time, Coach Val showed up at poolside to give me a thumbs-up. His encouragement helped to reinforce my hope that the new stroke he had taught to me was becoming fully ingrained in my psyche. At 8:00a, I could see Coach talking to Patrick McBride and showing him how to use the video recorder. Coach works a split shift and he was leaving. He returns to the pool at 6:00p to supervise the evening Masters workouts. Mr. McBride is a Koret lifeguard and a ten-year member of the South End Rowing Club. We had met one another in the shower some weeks ago. We talked about people we knew in common at the two Bay swimming clubs and compared notes on local swimmers’ exploits. Mr. McBride had volunteered to continue the periodic recordings to document my form for later review.

At the two and a half hour mark, I forced myself to chug another half bottle of feeding liquid and set off again. By now, I’d passed 100 laps and was chanting, “Sixty-one—push the water to the back of the lane. Sixty-one—check the bubbles from the lead hand.” Then, “CLUNK!” The overhead lamps flickered. Then, “CLUNK, CLUNK!” The lamps went out. After a few more strokes, my eyes began to adjust to the ambient light that streamed in from the glassed-in catwalk at ground level far above our heads. I’d never been in the Koret pool past 8:00a, so my initial reaction was that this might be a normal occurrence. Continuing to swim, I could glance up and see swimsuit-clad figures beginning to accumulate at the darkened edges of the pool. Perhaps this was some sort of temporary power outage and the lights would come back on again in a few minutes. I kept swimming. I was determined to reach my five hour goal.

I was swimming next to the bulk-head which provided a walkway across the middle of the pool. Mr. McBride's shadowy figure appeared on the bulk-head above me and I could tell that he was saying something, but I couldn’t make it out with the earplugs blocking the sound. I kept swimming. When I returned to the starting end of the pool, an ominous, dark oblong confronted my outstretched hand and I instinctively recoiled and stopped. Patrick was holding a kickboard down in the water to get my attention. He said, “We’ve lost power. You have to get out of the pool.” I got out.

The power was completely gone. The usually thrumming pool pump was deathly silent. The cacophony of splashing echoes had disappeared and the entire tableau was hushed. The pool surface was mirror-calm and illuminated with ghostly hues from the trickle of surface sunlight. It was a colossal, man-made, underground grotto in a tranquil state that very few people ever experience. In retrospect, it was fantastic. It was a veritable aquatic cathedral. At the time, though, I was bummed.

The pool supervisor announced that power seemed to be off through half the campus. Later, I learned that PG&E had toppled a power pole, depriving several square blocks of electricity. This was not going to be fixed soon. I gently asked Mr. McBride, “What prevents us from swimming in the available light?” He replied, “The pump is out and in the dark, the lifeguards can’t see into the bottom of the pool.” He was right, of course. The deep end of the pool was farthest from the remaining light source and shrouded in dark shadows. A person could easily lie unnoticed at the bottom for a long time. I thought for a moment about asking for an exception, but realized that would be the supervisor’s call and he was slightly frantic with the emergency demands on his time. I also realized that if the roles were reversed, I’d absolutely refuse. So, I headed for the showers.

Fortunately, the water was still hot. The emergency lights provided enough illumination to shower, shave, and dress. On the way out, a troop of firefighters descended the staircase carrying various implements of destruction. Apparently, with the power gone, people were stuck in the elevator and the fire department was coming to the rescue.

Emerging into the sunlight, I was disoriented and dazed. I had had it firmly in my mind to swim until 11:15 and was suddenly cast adrift. Exiting the parking lot, I was unsure what direction to take. After heading east for a couple of blocks, I decided to go to the Dolphin Club. I had conference calls scheduled for the afternoon beginning at 1p, but that would still give me time for a one hour dip in the Cove.

When I reached the beach, Fast Eddie was coming out. He had just finished a two hour Bay swim. Although he was shivering slightly, he stopped to chat. We both agreed that 60 or 62 degrees was no problem, but 54 degrees was on the chilly side. He gathered up his swim material and headed into the South End clubhouse. I waded in from the beach and swam the two-mile “Maylander” course that Ralph Wenzel had taught me. When I came back, Eddie had tied his swimming leash to the South End dock and was stroking in place between the club piers. Apparently, he had warmed up and gone back for more.

The rest of the day, I was discombobulated. I hadn’t completed my five hour swim. On the other hand, I had swum for over three and a half hours. Lindsay and I sipped martinis on the balcony overlooking the back yard that evening. Spring had sprung and the warm evening sun was drenching us. We agreed that the training was still on track. She offered the advice, “Stuff happens. You may as well get used to it, because stuff is likely to happen in the Channel, too.”

Two Hour Bay Swim

Saturday 03/13/10

Fate played a dirty trick this week. When I left for Chicago on Tuesday, the Bay temperature was over 55 degrees Fahrenheit and seemingly headed higher. When Ralph Wenzel and I waded into the water four days later on Saturday, the temperature hadn’t climbed. Instead, it had dropped to 54 degrees. For people who don’t swim in cold water, it’s not easy to understand that 1.5 degrees can make such a big difference. To warm-water swimmers, anything under 70 can seem prohibitively cold. My experience, though, is that the “state of cold” is not linear. The difference between 60 and 62 is hardly noticeable to an acclimated cold-water swimmer. However, the difference between 54 and 55.5 is quite noticeable and hypothermia is a distinct possibility. The impending prospect of a two hour dip made Ralph and I both a little nervous.

In addition, we were swimming in the afternoon and the wind was piping. A Force 5 fresh breeze blasted across the water from the west. It collided head-on with the outgoing ebb current and churned up a steep, high chop. In other words, conditions were excellent for an English Channel training swim.

Doug J operated the Zodiac pilot craft and carried a crew of Darcy W and Lindsay C. By 3pm, we had loaded and launched the boat. Ralph and I waded into the water at the Dolphin Club beach and swam out to the Aquatic Park Cove opening. By the time we approached the Jacuzzi, our pilots had tested the current and found it was still ebbing strongly, so we headed east toward Pier 39. We stayed inside the breakwater which offered some protection from the howling wind and sloppy sea. At the east end of the breakwater, a gargantuan bull sea lion charged directly at Ralph and me and dove a few feet in front of us. At the time, I felt a brush down my left arm and thought it might be Ralph. It wasn’t until afterwards that the crew told us what had happened. They decided that information was best kept compartmentalized at the time. It wouldn’t have mattered. Ralph and I were shutting up and swimming.

As we cruised by Pier 39, I could see a throng of people lining the wooden railing. The sea lions have not returned in their previous numbers, so Ralph and I provided the most entertaining aquatic spectacle available at that moment. People took pictures and gestured and shouted. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Lindsay C said later that it was mostly a mixture of questions about the water temperature and speculation on our sanity. One woman asked the crew to try and get the swimmers to smile for the camera.

At the end of the Pier 39 breakwater, we turned around and headed back west, giving the tourists on Pier 39 another photo opportunity. The waves were irregular and choppy and the afternoon boat traffic flung forceful wakes across our path. Thanks to Coach Val, my stroke felt smooth and strong, though, and we sliced through the turbulent and turbid saltwater at a decent pace.

We once again swam inside the Hyde Street breakwater to get a little respite from the waves. We threaded our way through the gap at the Jacuzzi, out the opening, and kept going west to Gas House Cove where we turned around and headed back to the barn. Oddly, we began making very, very slow progress. The pier at Fort Mason seemed to creep by. The tide chart said that the flood was scheduled to kick in at Golden Gate 4:11p. Here it was 5:00p and the ebbing current still flowed at about a knot right into our teeth. This presented a decision to either keep slogging for another thirty minutes to finish at the beach or determine that we’d accomplished our objective and climb into the Zod. As we treaded water and discussed it, the current pushed us farther west, even against the roaring wind.

Ralph was game for continuing, but I was planning to swim 5 hours in the pool the next Thursday and opted for declaring victory and withdrawing. Ralph accepted my proposal with his usual gentlemanly grace and slid smoothly over the side into the boat.

The shower and sauna offered a delightful reward for our efforts. We were both exhilirated from our adventure and looked forward to the next Bay training milestone—a three hour swim.

What Do You Think About?

Sunday 03/07/10

I’ve asked many Channel swimmers what they think about on their long training swims. Not one has given an answer that I can succinctly summarize. Maybe that’s because they think about a lot of things.

Before starting this project, the longest time I’d swum in the water was about three and a half hours. Pat M and I swam from Sausalito to San Francisco one summer a few years ago. Had we made our intended landing point, it would have taken closer to two and a half hours, but we misjudged the tide and started late. Much like missing Cap Gris Nez on a Channel swim, swimmers who miss Aquatic Park on a flood tide must chase a receding San Francisco shoreline as the current carries them east.

Since we started in the pitch black at five a.m., the first thing I thought about was getting in the water without serious injury. The traditional launch for this swim is at the sea lion sculpture on the Sausalito waterfront. The statue sits near water level and is constantly washed with surge. This makes the pedestal, the walkway, and the surrounding rip rap as slick as snot. We cleared this hurdle with only minor mishap.

The second thing I thought about was how silky the water felt. We seemed to slip through it with less friction than the water in cove. Then, I thought about keeping a steady pace with Pat. We had practiced together many times in Aquatic Park, including a couple of two hour swims. We were pretty evenly matched, but I wanted to make sure I kept up. Then, I started thinking about how long it would be before we could see the Golden Gate Bridge. By then it was time for a feeding—a partial packet of GU; a slug of water; and back to stroking.

After the second feeding, I really don’t remember thinking of much at all other than getting across the Bay. When the current pushed us east to Alcatraz Island, Laura B announced that we’d “treat it like a Channel swim.” From then on we’d try to get to San Francisco, regardless of location of landing. At this point, I remember being determined not to climb back into the boat until we were across. Other than that, it was just a series of, “Ding! Feed time,” followed by slurp, slug, and go. In fact, that is one of the regular pieces of advice appearing on the channel_swimmers Google chat site. “Just swim from feed to feed until you finish.”

What I find now that I’ve dramatically increased my weekly swim mileage is that I mostly think about my stroke. That would have been hard to imagine before the instruction from Coach Val. For hours, I now concentrate on stroke mechanics. I think about each hand entering the water directly above my head. I think about a strong, positive “catch” of the water with my hand. I think about a bent arm pull directly past my face and down the centerline of my body. I think about a smooth, powerful glide. I think about a relaxed recovery. I think about my toes ticking each other to indicate that my legs are not flying apart. I think about swimming through a narrow tunnel. I think about pushing water as far behind my toes as possible. There’s a lot involved in the swimming stroke. Who wudda thunk it?

Occasionally, I’ll practice breathing on the left side and then my thinking gets over-thought. My brain goes into over-drive. My stroke no longer feels natural. Left-side breathing is something I’ll have to keep thinking about.

In the Aquatic Park Cove, I spend time thinking about avoiding collisions with people and things. When it's dark, buoys and flotsam demand keen attention. With the water getting warmer, swimmers who use wetsuits are coming out in greater numbers earlier than normal for the season. They often swim in rather large groups and create a swim obstacle course. With the currents shoving and pushing in different directions, sighting a course is something to regularly think about. Swimming under the “round house,” I think about staying equidistant between the concrete support columns. I think about avoiding the nasty, broken wooden pier post at the periphery. It pokes its jagged barnacle-encrusted head above the water at the lower tides and forces a swimmer to carefully navigate. At times like this, my stroke suffers.

On the longer Bay swims, though, the pilot does the thinking about course and collision avoidance. Then, I think almost exclusively about stroke and swimming from feed to feed. It’s hard to believe, but true.