Experiencing a battle with the ocean’s current for almost 45 minutes was excellent practice for my Alcatraz swim, which took place two weeks later. The swim took much longer than I expected, and so could Alcatraz if conditions aren’t favorable. I’d expected to finish in just over 30 minutes if I was going with the current; I came in at 43:12.
It is an overcast, grim morning. I get to the beach. There are no body markings. Weird. I am handed a bright yellow cap. I forget my goggles in my car. I’m not too early, but I have time for a quick warm-up, which I take advantage of. More and more, I’m learning that the warm-up minimizes the initial shock of the water. I’d assume the temperature was in the low- to mid-70’s. It wasn’t very cold but definitely cooler than the pool and James. I enjoy it.
After a pre-race meeting, the swimmers line up in the water. We battle the current while trying to stay parallel with the starting buoy for what seems like 10 minutes before we’re finally signaled to go. I start off quickly, but not sprinting, trying to get my pace straight. Wow, I think to myself. This current is strong. I feel like I’m making progress. I must have been swimming already for 15 minutes. I glance at my watch. 7:45. Ha. Okay, keep going.
I swim some more and glance again. 19:something. Only about 10 more minutes until I might be finished! Double ha. I know for a fact I didn’t sight enough — I learned that ocean swimming takes a lot more sighting than a lake or even a river swim. At one point I realize there aren’t too many other swimmers around me and I can see a lot of the bottom of the ocean. I was hitting sand, and wasn’t near the sandbar. Ugh! I look at the shore. I’m not that far away! What the! I swim diagonally out to sea. More effort. Zig-zag. I am going to assume I spent a lot of the race zig-zagging and thus wasting time.
I continue to get in my groove. I look at my watch. I think it’s 31: something that time. Obviously no sub-30 performance. I keep glancing up to try and spot the finish. I must be getting closer.
Where is that buoy? It’s large and orange, how can I not see it?
Fast high school kids pass me. I pass someone near the end. I finally spot the buoy, but it’s probably 10 minutes before I catch it. I complete my special backstroke turn around the buoy.
After I round the buoy, I sprint to the shore. I look behind me and the buoy is to my right — it should be to my left! The current had pushed me away from my target. Great. I’ve wasted effort. I look up. I swim diagonally to the right. You’re almost done, Allison. Kick. Hard.
I sprint up the beach. I’m handed a card with a big 58 on it, and hear “43:12.” Not too shabby for the fight I put up, and for a first ocean race! 97 swimmers started and 88 (I think) finished. In looking at the finish times of others though, I wasn’t all that off. If my strategy were better, I think I could have cut off about 5 minutes, but that’s it.
After the race, I talked to this guy who appeared to be an experienced ocean swimmer (or at least more experienced than I). He asked where I’d started, and we discussed our frustrations with treading water and fighting the current for what seemed eternity. But the whole time, we wasted energy that could have been put to use in the race. He said what I needed to do was look at where the experienced swimmers — the guys in the long, fancy suits — started. They were atop the sandbar, probably standing on it. Follow their lead. Of course they would (probably) be too fast for me to draft off, but I could at least sight them for awhile and avoid the more-currenty patches of water.
Stroking: what worked. Short choppy strokes versus long pretty ones? I FELT like I was getting farther with the long strokes, but it was easier for the current to manipulate my stroke with the long strokes. I kind of swam diagonally into the current, and that’s when I felt best.
Drafting: it didn’t work. During the race, I drafted for a couple of moments, maybe, but that was it. Every time I got close to someone, the current pushed me away.
Would I recommend this race? You bet. I am willing to guess that it’s a different race every year, so you never know how the current might treat you. Which, quite honestly, is part of the fun and beauty of open water swimming.