2015 Alcatraz Swim

This morning, I departed from my usual swim training (laps at the local YMCA), and swam from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park Cove in San Francisco. That may not seem exotic if you live and swim regularly in San Francisco, but for guy from Connecticut, it was a lot of fun and very different from my normal open water swimming in the local lakes or Long Island Sound.

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The Alcatraz swim is a rite of passage if you swim in the Bay Area. The experience was made possible thanks to my friend Tony, who shares a passion for endurance sports. Debbie, the kids, and I have been fortunate to be hosted by Tony several times in the past few years, including during last summer’s Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run.

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Now I owe Tony again! I’ve taken him mountain biking in his native Connecticut in the past (rocky trails) and I’ll have to take him mountain biking in Vermont or hiking in New Hampshire, or something very New England oriented again. I need to do something to tire him out. We tend to get in trouble when we hook up, like in Truckee last summer, when during a long road bicycle ride, we got pulled over for running a red light.

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I was entrusting him with my life, swimming from Alcatraz! He is a member of the venerable South End Rowing Club, where there is an incredible tradition of long-distance swimming. Members, going back more than 140 years have accomplished amazing feats in the water, including English Channel Swims, 100 mile swims, and all kinds of crazy aquatic adventure.

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Tony shares my adventure spirit and has multiple Ironman’s under his belt, including the 2010 Ironman Brasil, where we met for the first time. It’s hard to believe that was five years ago this month. The swim in Brasil was twice the distance of Alcatraz and in rough ocean water. We had a blast. Tony has several notable swims on his palmares, but his Crater Lake swim is probably the coolest record he owns. Being first at something like that increases the endorphin rush by multiple factors.

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Bay swimmers have many challenging routes, including Alcatraz, which isn’t as extreme as many of the other swims they do, but still has the “cool” factor thanks to the island’s rich history. This weekend, they have a big swim to the Bay Bridge and back. I would stick around for that too, but after nearly 10 days of family fun in Marin and San Francisco, it’s nearly time to get back to work.

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Yesterday morning, I ran down to the cove and swam for 25 minutes to get used to the water temperature and make sure my goggles didn’t leak. I had my wetsuit and a neoprene cap, so it was very tolerable. Yesterday afternoon, Debbie, the kids, and I did the tourist version of the Alcatraz cruise and tour. The swim and tour is what I call “training.” My other research consisted of listening to Coach Al Lyman’s podcast with Gary Emich, one of the most experienced Alcatraz swimmers/guides of all time.

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Gary literally wrote the book on Alcatraz, which Coach Al brought for me to read when we met up at last weekend’s Miwok 100K . The book is not just about Alcatraz, but is a great overall guide for open water swimmers and triathletes. Both the book and Coach Al’s podcast are highly recommended. Gary’s co-author is Joe Oakes, who has Western States Endurance Run pedigree. A plaque hangs on the wall at the SERC with a list of 100-mile run finishers and Joe’s name is up there for the 1979 WSER. Next door (literally) to the SERC clubhouse is the Dolphin Club, friendly rivals. Their swimmers have also done crazy stuff. I had a blast walking through both clubhouses admiring all the cups, plaques, and certificates that line the walls. The old boats are gorgeous. So, you can see how this ultraswimming/ultrarunning/triathlon/rowing thing all fits. Adventurers tend to stick together.

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The plan worked perfectly and Tony’s logistics were spot on. Our pilot was SERC mate, Andy. He took us out to the island, called the swim in to the authorities (I presume Coast Guard or harbor master), snapped photos, and piloted a safety boat next to us as we made the 41 minute swim. The current wasn’t super strong, but it did pull us a bit west in the direction of the Golden Gate, which is clear when you look at the GPS data.

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I’m not much of a swimmer, but the sport of open water swimming favors participation over speed, so I fit right in. I can see how once you do a few of these iconic routes, you get the itch to do more. Of course, a true open water swimmer skips the wetsuit and sticks with the Speedo. I’m game.

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When I left to run down to the cove this morning, my daughter said, “Daddy, I hope you survive.” I didn’t have doubts, but after her trip to Alcatraz yesterday, I understand why she said it. I’m happy to say that I’m more alive than ever.

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