Open water. A swimmer’s nightmare. My own personal Fear Factor.

Alcatraz Panorama

The task: Swim 1.5 miles from Alcatraz across San Francisco Bay to Aquatic Park.

The risks: Frigid water, strong currents, low water visibility (how am I supposed to swim away if I can’t see the monsters coming?!)

The person: Average out of shape swimmer who used to swim competitively in college. A member of the Jaws generation.

The reason: Er… um…

The real reason: To force myself into shape and conquer my “not being able to see the bottom” phobia. Or at least put a minor dent in it. And also for the sheer adventure of the task.


My Background
Leading up to Sharkfest – practice diary
Race day

My Background

I’m the type of person who keeps her toes out of the water when I fall off my tube up north in Michigan (on an inland lake, no less). Sure, no sane walleye is going to start munching on my toes, but what about all those other things down there? Those fish and beasts that no one has ever heard of or seen? Never heard of until it claims me as its first victim, that is… And hey, what about those pike that take bites out of people’s shiny waders?

And there is a Great White breeding ground just north of SF Bay. I’m not even sure there has been a recorded spotting of a Great White in the Bay, but hey, there were none at Sea World either, and look what happened in Jaws 3D.

I have snorkeled in the Caribbean twice now and had zero fear problems (edit: er, make that multiple times now, and strike the zero from the equation – see the April 18th entry). I will put this entirely down to being able to see the bottom. You have to remember that we swimmers are used to seeing the bottom of the pool… even if that drain monster stares at us from time to time.

(Back to Top)

Leading up to Sharkfest

January 16, 2004: Registration. My friend Debra and I sign up to swim Sharkfest in July. We swam together in college, but are not quite in top swimming form anymore. I’ll give Debra the easy edge in the fitness category since she has been doing marathons and triathlons since we left school and I’ve been, uh, I’ve been running to the fridge? Does that count?

January was a little messy with the pool schedules at Stanford, but I managed to swim a few times. I am forced to use a kickboard through almost half of my workout since my body has forgotten what a tricep is, and my stroke falls apart after a hundred yards…

February, 2004: Training. Doing better this month! Averaging twice a week at Stanford. Trying for three times, but lots of things keep getting in the way of pool hours. Stanford’s complex is fantastic and I love the way they set up lanes, especially when they go short course. They leave half of the 10 lane, fifty meter pool as lanes (width-wise for 25′s – about 10 lanes) and the other half as open water. I wisely choose to swim in the open water to get used to waves going up my nose. I sputter a few times on my first go and am set thereafter.

Feb 12: Getting into shape. I can do a 300 without losing the ability to move my arms. Sad? Yes. Progress? Yes. Kicking is down to warm up only and a 50 here and there to stretch my triceps after sets. Er, I should say “set.” Hey, I’m working my way up. Have been mulling the idea of joining a masters team (there are lots of them in the Bay Area), but am cautious about time management. Just finished the copyedits on my first book and am digging into personal revisions on book two.

March 19: Somehow injured the muscles under my lower ribs or something in my ribs themselves. Haven’t been able to sleep on my front or side for about a week. I think the “hard core” sit-ups I busted out the other day really did me in. Maybe this is a sign that exercising is bad for me. Or maybe I’m just not the healer that I used to be… In any case, I only swam twice this week (and twice the other weeks too – what happened to three times a week, Anne?). Will have to drag myself to the pool either tomorrow or Sunday, but I have an intense weekend ahead of page proofs on book one and synopsis revising on book two. Perhaps swimming doesn’t sound so bad after all…

March 22: Swam Saturday and today (Monday). That makes three days swimming out of the past four. Definitely a new record for me post college ;) . Forgot my kickboard today and made it through the whole workout without my security blanket. My arms are even starting to feel solid. Heck, serve me up another dessert, Andre! And since I whipped out a 13-page synopsis on Sunday, I think I could use second helpings!

April 18th: Post-vacation. I just returned from a fun family vacation in St. Maarten. We went snorkeling a few times around our hotel and then on our trip back from St. Bart’s. On the trip from St. Bart’s I saw a Hawksbill sea turtle. I called out to the group and my Mom paddled over and we followed him down the rocky coast of the bay we were swimming in. It was a lot of fun, but we ended up pretty far from everyone else. We finally decided to let the turtle go it alone and turn back. My Mom was treading and emptying her mask when I spotted the giant barracuda hanging out below. Half of me wanted to just float on the surface and watch it, the other half was screaming “FLEE, you moron!” I said to my Mom, “you aren’t wearing any jewelry, right?” She flashed her left ring finger, I was temporarily blinded by the sparkle and we high tailed it out of there. And let me just say, I swam away half underwater, on my back, keeping that long puppy in my sights for as long as I could.

April 26th: The return of the swimmer. I swam a couple of times in St. Maarten (which gave me a nice feel for waves and open water), but nothing that could be called a workout. Last week I had the misfortune to be suffering from a slight case of vertigo. All of those boats, snorkeling trips and, er, alcoholic beverages (darn those cousins!). I didn’t swim last week. Not once. So, I’m not thinking that tonight’s workout is going to feel particularly good…

I was expecting to give a one word answer of “nope,” but after the first 500 practice felt fine! There were some irritating people who decided to have a 15-minute conversation while splayed across the end of the lane, but that type of stuff keeps things interesting. And if they aren’t going to move out of the way for the other swimmers to do a flip turn… well, there is only so much wall space in which to plant one’s feet…

April 27th: Synchro nationals are being held at Stanford. No swimming until next week. Good thing I got that day in yesterday. I am reallllly going to be hurting next week.

May 5th: Yup. I was right.

July 10th: Well, I haven’t been keeping track, because I got down to a semi-routine. Swimming three times a week, at least a mile each practice (yardage over a mile dependent on practice time and attitude – usually pretty easy to keep going if I have time). Took Matt’s wetsuit to Stanford today. Nothing like waiting until the last minute to try something. Smacked my feet on the first flip turn and did the most discombobulated flip turn since I was ten on the second. When people say that full body wetsuits make you float, they aren’t kidding. My little half wetsuit for tubing/skiing in the colder Michigan summer months did not prepare me for the intense floatability. I sat at the end of the pool and just floated in the treading water position. Fun! But swimming in the wetsuit was tiring. Or maybe it is just my lack of real training. Insert nervous worrying here. I took the wetsuit off at the end of my practice and swam a 200 without it. My arms felt as light as wafers.

The wetsuit floatability ratio has made me scratch “drowning” from my list of ways I may perish tomorrow. Well, unless I get kicked upside the head. Still on the list: hypothermia and shark bite ;) .

(Back to Top)

Race Day

July 11th (Sunday): It’s here! I wake at 5:25 on my own – my alarm is set for 5:30. Make the trek up to San Francisco on the 101 in a very positive mental state. Find Deb at the Maritime Museum and head into the registration area – I hand over my waiver (I promise not to hold anyone responsible for toes falling off, heart failure, etc), take my timing chip (band for the ankle) and yum-yum yellow Sharkfest cap (thanks to Karl for that yum-yum yellow attracting sharks thought).

We goof around until 7:45 when we are herded into the stands and given last minute race instructions and info.

Water temperature: a balmy 62 degrees (yay!)
Currents: not bad, we can aim just a bit east of Aquatic Park
Fog: Golden Gate is half covered, the city is clear from Alcatraz (whew)
Info: The wetsuit category is labeled “WS” for wuss. The jovial man doing the announcements, Dave Horning, has done the Alcatraz swim some 70+ times and likes to rib the wetsuiters. Only about 10% (or less) of the 800+ swimmers are without wetsuits, so this pretty well lessens the sting.

The march to Pier 39 begins! Deb and I say goodbye to our friends (aka our packhorses) and join the throng. Barefoot. Now, I love going barefoot. But across the San Fran marina streets? Not really. After a few choice words about our packhorses not accompanying us so that we can wear shoes (we only have ourselves, our caps and goggles), we buck up and try not to analyze the textures and consistency of the ground beneath our feet. The walk adds to the race excitement, and soon we are on the docks, the two Blue & Gold ferries floating in front of us. A quick conference with Deb settles us on the ferry on the right. We are hoping this will be the easternmost ferry – which will keep us on the left side of the swimming throng. We hop up to the top deck to enjoy the view, and wonder why everyone isn’t vying for these seats. Nerves seem to be running high with the people cramped inside the lower decks, but strangely enough I don’t seem to have any.

The other ferry moves first and we follow five minutes later. It’s a beautiful trip out to Alcatraz – the sun is rising in the east along the Bay Bridge, the legs of the Golden Gate stand strong as puffy fog swallows the top, the city winks as we pull away, and Alcatraz beckons. We pull around the island and the view is gorgeous. Deb had gone on the tour Friday and was pointing out things she remembered. The boat pulls up on the eastern side of Alcatraz (and the port side of the other boat – yay!) and disembarkation begins. Excitement lashes through me as I watch people jump. A nice lady on her fifth Alcatraz swim points out a marker to us and encourages us to jump from the port side of the boat (already our plan, but nice to have a vet confirm it). We soon have another reason to jump from port after staring in dumb amazement as the two ferries nearly run into each other on our starboard side. I spare a quick thought for the swimmers who might have just been run over in between the boats.

We make our way down to the lowest deck and queue up to wait our turn. This is it. A quick exchange of high fives and a teasing comment from Deb and I am up. I wait for the man in front of me to clear away, hold my goggles and leap! My first thought is, “Ouch! Next time I’m not jumping with my eye-gouging goggles on.” Immediately following this is, “Holy #%(@*#^%! It’s COLD!” When people say that the jump takes your breath away, boy are they not lying. I turn around to see Deb surface looking a little shocked. I calmly explain my view of the water temperature (calmly as in, a shade more subdued than in a raving maniac sort of way), to which she agrees, somewhat glassy-eyed.

I put my goggles in place and take a few strokes. ARGH! I can’t see anything. The water is a muddy green with gold rays of light shooting toward me. And there is nothing beneath the green and gold. I raise my head quickly, panicking, and take a few strokes with my head above the water. I put my head back down. Murkiness still present! Take a few more strokes with my head up. Decide to switch to backstroke. Ah, relief. I watch Deb take a few strokes to get her bearings. We start to say something and the horn sounds.

The horn! I turn back towards the city. We aren’t even close to the starting line. Guess that whole “wait until the last group of people to get off the boat” wasn’t the greatest plan. I turn back to Deb and she takes a stroke forward. It’s go time. Honestly, those words ran across my mind. I think my friend Matt S has officially corrupted me. I put my head in the water and start swimming. For the first time I taste the salt water. Stroke, stroke, stroke. I pass by a couple people, lifting my head to pinpoint my sights on the SF skyline. Stroke, stroke, stroke.

With the “go time” thought I let loose my fears and rediscover my competitive instinct. The green and gold blur is just “there,” like the bottom of the pool – you see it, but it doesn’t register most of the time. Whack. I get kicked in the head. Okay, I can check that off my list. I pass that person. Something silver shimmers beneath the greenish gold blur. Er… I tell myself it is the light coming through the water. Yeah, that’s it. Stroke, stroke, stroke. I do a sight check. Alcatraz: behind me, but not too far. SF: Waaaay ahead. Stroke, stroke, stroke. Someone kicks me in the chest. Ok, wasn’t expecting that one.

My toes have gone numb. Now this is not unexpected, as long practices in very cold pools have turned me into a motley combination of blue, purple and white, but the rest of my body is doing rather well, so I concentrate on trying to get some circulation going in that area. Clench toes, release toes. Kick harder. Clench, release. This doesn’t seem to be doing much good. I can almost hear the crackle of the ice that has formed inside my digits each time I curl them. Will they break off if I try this too often? I wonder if I should worry. I put aside my toecicle worries for the moment and do another sight check. It shows I’m still going straight. I notice there is only a smattering of yellow dots 20 or 30 seconds ahead of me. That’s strange. I know my stroke is feeling ok, but I was only shooting for the top half of the finishers.

I take a 180-degree gander and see a large spread of people to my right, ahead or even with me. Our plan was to stay to the left. After all, my main goal is to finish this race without help. I don’t want to get off course, or swept past Aquatic Park and have to be rescued by a kayak. I decide that even though I am swimming farther by keeping my course, I’m going to stick with it. I will be extremely disappointed if I don’t make the Aquatic Park entrance. So, left it is. I hit a patch of cold water, brrrr… Stroke, stroke, stroke. Someone claws my feet. Ouch. At least they sink their talons into the bridge of my foot. I would hate to exit with one less digit, no matter if all my toes remain useless for the rest of my days. I think the foot clawer passes me, but we are entering the choppy swells, and I don’t pay too much attention.

The waves are a bit higher, but not too bad. At least they are coming head on. I ride them up and down and try not to swallow too much of the Bay. Stroke, stroke, stroke. I enter the point where I feel like I’ve been swimming for a while. 15-20 minutes? I have no idea. As a sprinter, I’m not all that good at gauging these types of things. I take a sight check. Swim a bit, take a sight check, repeat. Damn. After three or four of these I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of the Bay. Now, I know I’m moving, because I’ve passed a couple people, so either they are going backwards, or I am making forward progress, but honestly, the middle seems a bit endless at this point. I hit another patch of cold water, give my toes a little wiggle and get back to my task. I just need to make it closer to the seawall before the ebb tide kicks in. I redouble my efforts and get a move on.

I enter the “practice” zone. Stroke, stroke, stroke, my mind is blank – only focused on swimming, stroke, stroke, stroke. I decide to take a 360-degree gander, having read and been told that this is an exceptional sight. I do. It is. But my competitiveness kicks in as someone passes me and I get moving again. I concentrate on the span of the Golden Gate as I’m breathing entirely to my right side. As this seems to be my dominant side these days, I’m lucky – the sun is blaring on the left, highlighting the Bay Bridge. I angle to the right towards Aquatic Park and can see Alcatraz in the bottom corner of my sight every time I breathe. A thrill runs through me and I consciously think, “This is very, very cool.”

A gray frigate type boat with orange buoys pops into view and I can see the seawall stretching along the waterfront. Yes! I get a move on and next thing I know I’m going around the port side of the frigate and turning into Aquatic Park. YES! YES! After the long middle section of the Bay, I am shocked at the speed of the ebb tide as it catches me in its grasp and prods me forward. I enter Aquatic Park. I can see the people in the stands and on the beach. Still far away, but the train has already gone by and there is a light shining at the end of the tunnel. I’m almost there!

I speak too soon. The swim from the entrance to Aquatic Park to the beach is somewhat interminable. Whether this is from the “I’m almost there” excitement or because it is a pretty good distance, I’m not quite sure :) . Other swimmers are splashing around me, and after swimming most of the race in pretty much my own space, I am once again dodging limbs as I did at the start.

I keep sighting the beach, so that I don’t do anything crazy like head to the wrong place. The people start to look bigger and less blurry. I see the shore. I see swimmers exiting the water. I put my feet down. Sand! Whoo-hoo! I stumble up onto the sand on my little toecicles. People are standing all around the finish. Someone yells, “Keep going, the race is still on.” I dazedly think, “So what? I’m on land! I made it!” But I tromp up the steps and through the sensors that record my time. Some nice volunteer helps me remove my ankle strap and I dazedly walk along the corridor of people cheering and snapping pictures. Matt snaps one of me. I wander around for a few minutes eyeing the hot chocolate that volunteers are pouring and wondering what the heck I’m supposed to do. I head for the t-shirts and miraculously find Deb on the way. I clutch my t-shirt that says I swam Alcatraz Sharkfest and smile as I watch the rest of the swimmers making their way into the Aquatic Park waters and out onto the beach.

A hot shower later, my toes have recovered and I’m ready to do it again… well, maybe not again today. I look at a handout given to me after the race. The Tiburon mile. Sounds interesting…

(Back to Top)


Deb and Anne Pre-Race
Deb & Anne pre-race
Sharkfest Race Instructions
Anne & Deb listen intently as race instructions are announced
San Francisco Aquatic Park
The swim to the finish inside of Aquatic Park
Anne Finishing Sharkfest
Anne finishes!

(Back to Top)