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Race Result

Racer: Melissa Hancock
Race: Alcatraz Challenge
Date: Sunday, August 24, 2008
Location: San Francisco, CA
Race Type: Other - Other
Age Group: Female 35 - 39
Time: 0:58:29
Overall Place: 147 / 240
Age Group Place: 12 / 28
Comment: Cold, Currents, and Critters, Oh My!

Race Report:

For the Alcatraz Challenge, you can do either the 1 Ĺ mile swim only, or you can do an aquathlon of the swim and a 7 mile run. There are only 2 age groups for each gender: Under 40 and Over 40. Although the run course sounded like fun (over the Golden Gate Bridge and back), I decided that the swim would be enough of a ďChallengeĒ for me.

My husband Rob and I arrived in San Francisco the day before the race, and we took a tour of Alcatraz island. Rob wanted to see the prison, and I wanted to see the swim course. Both were pretty scary. The winds really kick up in the evening, and the water was whipping around like a tempest and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.

Race morning came with much calmer breezes, and we caught a cab to Crissy beach, where the race would finish. Check in was well organized, and there were no lines. I got my shirt and goodie bag, and got my hand numbered. I met up with my friend Kevin from Reston Masters, who also came out for the race, and his wife Corinne. Kevin was one of the really crazy ones who did the swim without a wetsuit. I would be swimming in my half wetsuit. The water temp was a balmy 61 degrees, and the air was in the fifties.

I was really nervous. I can usually eat a really big breakfast on race day, but not this time. I ate a couple bites of bagel and immediately felt nauseous, so I just sipped as much Gatorade as I could tolerate.

After getting some pictures with Rob and Kevin, I boarded a trolley car with other wetsuit-clad swimmers. The trolleys ran every 15 minutes to take racers out to the ferry dock. I waited until nearly the last one, because you could not bring jackets or anything with you. The trolley dropped us off at the dock, where the race directors were holding briefings about the course, currents, etc. Even in my half wetsuit, I was pretty cold waiting out there, so Iím glad I didnít have to wait too long. By the time I boarded the ferry, I was already starting to shiver. Luckily the inside of the ferry was warm.

I met a ton of cool people in the ferry. People came from all over the country to do the swim. One guy sitting across from me had done it about 7 times was there with his 11 year old daughter, who was doing it for the first time. It took about 10 minutes for the ferry to get out to Alcatraz. We could not swim directly from the island because of the protected birds that lived there, so the ferry stopped a few yards away and we had to jump 10-15 feet down into the water.

We were lined up in groups of 3 and had to jump every couple of seconds out of each of the 2 ferry doors. By the time the guy pointed at us shouting 1,2,3! And I was ď3Ē, I had no choice but to jump with my group. I was on such nervous auto-pilot, I probably would have jumped off the Golden Gate bridge if the guy had told me to.

The initial jump into the cold water was a little shocking, but not as bad as I thought it would be. When I came up, I was all business. I found my initial sighting points and started swimming. I always hyperventilate the first few minutes of open water swims, and this was no exception. I had a hard time catching my breath, and worked really hard to calm down, but had to swim hard to warm up. I caught up with the Dad/daughter team I met on the ferry, and drafted off of them for a little while, and listened to all the advice the Dad was giving her until I calmed down. Once I did, I was able to pick up my pace and swim my own race. Unfortunately, I donít think the little girl finished. I didnít see any girls under 15 in the results.
The water was much saltier than the Chesapeake Bay, and I managed to get huge mouthfuls of it every time I tried to sight forward, which would make me gag uncontrollably. So, I tried to do most of my sighting off the other swimmers and from the position of the kayaks and rescue boats. The currents and the chop were significant, but no worse than the Chesapeake bay or the Nanticoke river (which were PERFECT training for this swim). The cold was the only new obstacle to me, so I just had to keep telling myself to swim FASTER if I wanted to warm up. This was the shortest swim I had done all year, so I should have been able to sprint the whole way.

There were huge jellyfish all over the place, but the other swimmers on the ferry had told me that they donít sting, so I had to just hope that was true. I donít think I swam into any of them, so I donít know for sure. The water was very murky, but a greenish murk, and you could see past your extended fingertips, and maybe just a little beyond that. I kept imagining that I saw sharks every other minute, and I was really jumpy. One swimmer screamed a couple of yards away from me, and I about had a heart attack, but I looked at the kayakers and they were unconcerned, and I didnít see any fountains of blood, so I kept going.

In the race briefing, we were told that the current would be coming strongly from the left the whole way, but I didnít feel much of a current the first half of the race. The second half, it seemed like I was swimming directly into the current. Oh, well. Open water is like a box of chocolates. Thatís why I love it.

The second half of the swim I felt great and really started extending my stroke and was passing a lot of people, but I was also getting colder by the minute. I have no idea how Catalina Island swimmers and English Channel swimmers can swim in water colder than this without wetsuits for hours and hours. Although I was swimming well, hypothermia was definitely starting to creep in, and I was glad it was a relatively short swim.
Near the end of the swim, I turned my head to breathe, and saw some fat guy blast past me out of the corner of my eye. Not that I am ALL that, but I could not believe that guy was so much faster than me at the end of the swim, so I had to pick my head up and look and it looked like a freaking sea lion! I thought, no way, thatís just like Iíve been imagining sharks the whole way, and now in my hypothermic fog I am seeing sea lions, so I kept going. (Rob later told me that there were sea lions all over the place at the finish and were having a great time swimming in between the swimmers).

When I finally reached the beach and my feet touched the sand, I was so glad. I did it! Me, ordinary old me, escaped from Alcatraz!!! I stood in my glory, and then crash - I fell to my knees. Feet, how do those things work? I got up again and everyone told me to run up the beach to the finish. Run? Are they crazy? I was exhausted, and just glad to have finished. So I staggered to the finish and received my finisherís medal.
I rinsed off in the outdoor showers and got out of my wet suit and into warm clothes as quickly as I could, but I was still shaking uncontrollably. I found Kevin, who also finished, but WITHOUT a wetsuit, crazy man! I had some awesome clam chowder and watched the Aqulathlon runners coming in. I didnít want to leave, but I was still shaking pretty bad, so Kevin drove us back to our hotel, where I sat in a really hot bath for about 30 minutes until I was finally warmed up.

So, I completed the Alcatraz swim. What a great accomplishment for me. I learned a lot from the swim, and I was happy about how much knowledge I was able to apply from swims I have already completed. If it was closer to home, I would definitely do it again. It was a great, challenging course, but was still fun.

Thanks, Kevin, for talking me into it! Thanks, Coach Frank for encouraging me and for preparing me for it! Thanks DAD, for the airline miles! Thanks, Rob, for warming up my jacket for me ; )