Jim’s Alcatraz Swim, September 2011

This was my final event of the year, The Alcatraz Invitational Swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park. It’s about 1.25 miles if you swim straight. In the past I haven’t been so lucky, either because of the currents, the fog, my crappy swim technique, or all of the above. This time conditions were ideal: beautiful day, minimal current, slightly improved swim technique. I was hoping to improve on my time of 1:01:57 from last year. I again had the company of my sister, Maria, and my niece, Nina, as well as quite a few friends at San Jose Swim & Racquet Club in my Willow Glen neighborhood. And this time I stopped to take plenty of photos, using a $20 disposable waterproof camera.

Maria, her husband Andy, and daughter Ruby were kind enough to give me a ride to S.F. the day before the swim. We stopped for dinner at Delancy St Restaurant, a training restaurant for the Delancey St. Foundation, a private program to rehabilitate former drug addicts.

We checked into nice, QUIET rooms at the Le Meridien hotel in Embarcadero Center for a good night’s sleep. I woke up @ 5:15 a.m. and started the morning with my usual pre-event breakfast of homemade granola and banana (here’s my recipe for the granola).

I met Maria and her family at 6:15 in the hotel lobby. Besides getting to visit with my sister and her family, it was nice to have them because we wouldn’t have to worry about parking at the event. We headed off to race registration, arriving at 6:30am, where we met up with Nina. In the picture below, Nina is to my immediate left, then my niece Ruby, and my brother-in-law, Andy. Behind me are Bob Tobiason and his son Ryan, plus Shanon Westlake, members of the San Jose Swim and Racquet Club.

We could tell it was going to be a nice day. Last year it was cold and drizzly. Today it was blue sky and calm water. We picked up our race packets, got numbered, and took our time getting ready. I was glad for the nice weather, because I’d forgotten my sandals and the cold ground saps my energy.

Me and Maria, ready to swim

Then it was off to the boats that would be taking us on our one-way trip to “the Rock.” There were two boats, one for swimmers using wet suits and one for those swimming without. Those who swim without wet suits are referred to as “skins.” My sister, Maria, was swimming as a “skin.” She’s tough!

My niece, Nina, has done this with me three times. She never seems nervous.

Nina and I stayed together with the wet suit group. Once we got to our boat, we had another 30 minute wait for final instructions and preparations before boarding. The trip to the starting point was quick. Our boat was unheated, but it was fine because it was crowded and we had wet suits. During the ride out, there was lots of talking and laughing. Most people seemed confident, but there was also a nervous excitement.



Once we got to the island, there was more waiting. We were told it was due to a barge dumping a load. Dumping a load? No one else seemed concerned, but I certainly was, since I’d soon be swimming in that water. Our wait was long enough that the captain decided to take us on a cruise around the island to distract us. Hey, tourists pay big bucks for that view! Too bad I couldn’t see anything from deep in the crowd.

Nina getting close to the doors

Finally we were told to prepare to jump. Our instructions were to step forward so there would be three swimmers at the door, check that the previous swimmers were out of the way, and then jump. There was a lot of yelling, as some swimmers hesitated –  the water DID look cold.




Looking back at the boat

It’s always a shock when you hit the water, and then it seems forever as you keep going down and the water gets darker. As soon as the descent slowed, I swam to the surface and away from the boat. My nervousness gave way to exhilaration. My instinct was to start swimming, but this was the fourth time I’ve done this swim and I wanted to enjoy every moment. I stopped and turned to look at the boat.

I hadn’t swum far when I felt a tap on my leg. When you’re in a large group, other swimmers often bump into you. But this tap seemed to have a purpose, so I stopped. It was Nina. Somehow she’d found me. We stopped for a quick photo shoot.

Me with Alcatraz in the background

Then we were off swimming again. In the past, it always seemed to take a long time to get a good distance from the boat and then the current suddenly sweeps you quickly toward shore. This time there seemed to be no current. After about 2/3 the distance, I decided to stop for another photo shoot. I spotted a kayaker and asked him to take a picture with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Then I asked him to take another with Alcatraz in the background. And then with the city skyline in the background. By the time he was done, the nice guy had rotated 360-degrees.

Swimming into Aquatic Park is different from the swim to Crissy Field, which I’ve swum to in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. For one thing, there’s a narrow entrance to Aquatic Park. If you miss it, and the current is strong, you’ve got a problem. However, this time the current was so weak that I missed the entrance but had no problem getting in. Another thing that’s different is that once you’re in, you still have a good distance to go before reaching shore.

Aquatic Park

I put my head down for the final push to the finish. My target was an inflated black arch in front of the bleachers. I walked out of the water onto the timing mat. I finished in 51:20, ten minutes faster than last year.

Of course, once again Maria finished ahead of me. In fact, far enough ahead that she was already in her street clothes and finishing her coffee. She’d had no problem swimming without a wet suit.

The finish line with Ghirardelli Square in the background

So that’s it for the year. I’ll have a nice long break before next season. Minimal running and biking (outside of spin class). Mostly core training 3 times/week with my trainer, Lisa, and master’s swim class twice a week with coach Tim. As of this posting, the only event I’ve registered for is Ironman Wisconsin on September 9, 2012. I’ll use the winter to get back into running, and the spring to get back into road biking. But I’ll keep at the swimming, hoping to get better and enjoying it more as I do.

The photos below are courtesy of the South End Rowing Club, host of the event.

Swimming past Golden Gate Bridge...
... and the Palace of Fine Arts
When Jim is not training for or participating in endurance events, he is the owner of Phoenix Technical Publications. Phoenix Tech Pubs has provided complete technical writing and documentation services in the Silicon Valley for over 25 years.