I was flailing in the frigid currents of the San Francisco Bay, fighting, kicking, slapping at the water to stay afloat. I had become an unwieldy blob and had to get across to the small stretch of shore that was nothing more than a blurry mirage in the impossible distance. My hands and feet, unprotected from the elements, thick and clumsy, my useless goggles fogging up. I could slip under and never be seen again, a simple blurb in the hometown newspaper, beside an ad for used cars or cheap liquor, announcing, indifferently: “Local man drowns on vacation.” But there was a voice, faint and weak yet annoyingly persistent, telling me You can do this! It just wasn’t going to be easy.
It was my first open water swim, in my first triathlon, the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon – a mile-and-a-half swim from Alcatraz Island, an eighteen mile bike trek through Golden Gate Park and up to the Presidio, and an eight mile run, half of it on the beach and including some four hundred sand steps. When I signed up for this, which, as I strained to keep my head above the undulating waves, seemed like a lifetime before even though it was only several months ago, I figured why not start with the most extreme triathlon I could find, then every other triathlon I did after that, really, anything I did after that, would seem like nothing. I always was an overachiever. I remembered the race director cautioning us at the pre-race meeting that if we didn’t swim fast enough the current could sweep us out to Hawaii. I laughed. Funny how that was now not a completely unrealistic possibility.
I was an okay swimmer. I had taken lessons at the YMCA when I was a kid, advanced all the way up from “minnow” to “shark.” But I hadn’t stuck with it, and at thirty-something the extent of my involvement with aquatics was lounging on an inner tube in the lazy river or wakeboarding at the lake. To train for Alcatraz, I, along with my buddies who were doing the triathlon with me, enrolled in an adult swim course at the city pool. It was six weeks of working on our strokes, building up our endurance, and even practicing how to swim in a crowd in one drill where our instructors, members of the high school swim team who appeared to be taking more glee in this than perhaps they should, bumped and slammed and struck us with foam noodles and splashed around to cause a disturbance to mimic the frenzied swim start of a triathlon. Alas, I would learn that no amount of practice and drills in a heated indoor pool with lines painted on the bottom and ropes to mark the lanes could fully prepare me for an open water swim in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
When we first arrived in San Francisco, I took a walk to stretch my legs after the long flight, and wandered over to Pier 39 to watch the sea lions sunning themselves. From there I could stare out to Alcatraz. I noticed firsthand – and a lot different than the stock photos posted on the race website – how massive and powerful this sweeping rush of water was, and how far away that island seemed to be, much further than the laps I comfortably swam in the pool. It was at that moment when I seriously questioned what I had gotten myself into. Up until then, this was only something in the abstract, a goal to achieve sometime in the future. I had nothing but high hopes and great expectations – we all did. Some of my friends’ moms even held a send-off party for us where we were treated as heroes and each given a frame engraved with “Escape From Alcatraz” to display the pictures of us crossing the finish line triumphant and victorious. But seeing what awaited me across the Bay, I doubted if I had it in me to make that swim.
On race day, during the long silent walk to the dock to board the Hornblower ferry that would shuttle us to the start, early in the eerily quiet morning, still dark with most of the city asleep, a blanket of mist gently rising, anticipation and excitement replaced apprehension and anxiety. There was laughter and joking during the twenty minute boat ride to Alcatraz as we went about our last minute rituals – spraying ourselves with Pam before zipping up wetsuits to make it easier to slip them off after the swim, pulling on swim caps, taking a final bathroom break although I was holding it in after reading that peeing into the wetsuit could warm the body in cold temperatures. I doused my goggles with anti-fog solution, more out of habit and to pass the time but I suspected that once I hit the freezing water my goggles were certain to fog up anyway.
With a few hundred hyperactive triathletes eager to get this show on the road, the inside of the ferry became humid and stuffy, and not particularly pleasant smelling. Through the steamy windows I spotted Alcatraz approaching – an imposing fortress chiseled into a gigantic rock rising from the sea like a mythical castle. The race director made a couple last minute announcements over the crackling loud speaker then instructed everyone to go upstairs. My buddies and I wished each other good luck, and said to have fun because “After all, we signed up for this,” and promised to meet up on dry land. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I had had enough swim practices. Beads of sweat gathered on my forehead.
The Hornblower cut its engines, and shifted into position, as we gathered outside on the top deck. It was breezy, with an arctic chill in the air, the sun had disappeared behind a curtain of gray clouds. At the signal, we were to jump off, one after the other. The race director emphasized that as soon as we hit the water, we needed to swiftly move from the boat to avoid any collisions since there would be participants continually jumping in. I stood there impatiently waiting, swinging my arms back and forth and bouncing at the knees to generate some heat and to burn off any jitters. It occurred to me that for all of the swim drills and lessons over the winter, not once had I entered the water from this height, which was roughly equivalent, from my estimation, to one hell of a high dive. But it was too late to fret about that.
The wait on the deck seemed to last forever, and no one knew what the holdup was, when the air horn abruptly bellowed to life, rudely shattering the uneasy calm that had settled in. The first group of triathletes jumped, with much fanfare and enthusiasm, and all of the grace of lemmings disappearing over a cliff. What had been a tedious lull had, in an instant, devolved into bedlam, with people frantically hustling about, saying their farewells, tumbling in seemingly haphazardly and without really paying much attention, the white caps stirred up like a washing machine on full cycle.
I lingered for my turn to take the plunge, my stomach overrun with butterflies, my mouth bone dry, my pulse pounding in my temples. I wore a full length wetsuit and a neoprene insulted swim cap with the thin plastic yellow swim cap marked with my race number stretched over top – bright fluorescent yellow, we kidded, so they could easily find me when I went under. We weren’t allowed to wear gloves or socks, and I was already beginning to feel my hands tighten from the cold, so I wiggled my fingers to keep them limber. I pinched on the plastic nose clip to block the salt water from filling my sinuses, and pulled my goggles onto place and they promptly fogged up.
The row of swimmers in front of me took the leap, and then slowly, cautiously, I shuffled forward, stiff-legged and wary, for my turn. At the edge, I peered down to confirm that the person who had gone before had surfaced and drifted out of the way then, without hesitation, I stepped off. I desended in slow motion with a wide, swooping trajectory, more like flying or being suspended in the ether than plummeting three storeys. From all the chaos, everything became tranquil and serene, at least for those fleeting few seconds when I was airborne, between the ferry and the foaming water beneath me. Then, without warning, the peace was breached as I came crashing into the Bay with a thud and a splash. I imagined grainy black-and-white footage of Cold War era space capsules returning to Earth. I shot straight under.
The initial sensation was one of being dunked into a tub of ice. It was a shock to the system that jolted my heart. I feared I might hyperventilate, as I continued on deeper and deeper. I screamed inside to myself – do not panic!– as I pushed my hands out solely on instinct and scissor-kicked my legs to keep from dropping any further. Then I hastily reached above to pull myself up, to find the surface since it was pitch black and I was disoriented. Luckily I was able to come to my senses enough to realize that the buoyancy of my wetsuit was leading me upwards. An overwhelming sense of relief set in once I caught the first few flickering cracks of daylight poking through the thickness of the water. I was not going to drown after all.
But just as I thought that, and just as I was about to emerge and take a much-needed breath, there was a heavy hit to my neck and shoulders. I was violently driven back under, rolling and toppling as I drastically descended. What the hell, I thought, what was happening? And I immediately, and dishearteningly, got it: the person after me on the ferry – that idiot! – had jumped too soon, probably unaware of my presence as I was too far under, and landed on top of me right as I was coming up. It was the one thing the race director was so adamant to warn us about – repeating it to each row of triathletes – to avoid any collisions like the one that had just happened to me!
I fought to free myself from this anonymous, shadowy figure who had not only clobbered me but who was now tangled up with me, legs in arms and arms in legs, and tugging me down. There was no time to waste. I needed to reach the top – and fast! I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. My chest tightened, and my lungs flattened, and my throat convulsed. I was choking inside. The impact had detached my nose clip and brought my goggles dangling by the strap. I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was. I just kicked my legs and waved my arms but to no avail. I was trapped. I was going to drown after all.
I kept at it nonetheless, against this nothingness that had consumed me, desperately trying to find my way out. Alarm bells were sounding inside of me. Panic careered over every nerve and synapse. The situation was dire. It was bleak. All seemed lost, as I futilely sought to regain control. I was done for. And then … that same voice came to me, faint and weak yet annoyingly persistent – if you relax, you will float to the surface. Relax? How could I possibly relax when I was drowning? There was no way. No way! But I heard it again – if you relax, you will float to the surface. Relax? I still didn’t believe it. How could I believe it? How was I supposed to relax when I was battling for my life? But what else was there to do? There was nothing else to do. Nothing else was working. So without any other options, I had no choice. I stopped thrashing about, and I relaxed.
Sure enough it happened: the buoyancy of my wetsuit again led me upwards. And not a moment too soon. I was faint and dizzy from a combination of the lack of oxygen and the outburst of energy. I barely made it, but never had I been happier about anything in my life as I was when I detected faint patches of light streaking through the dark. With everything I had left, I forced myself from the water, and in a spontaneous reaction, inhaled a huge chunk of air mixed in with a big gulp of water. I coughed and retched, but I was breathing. I was breathing!
Yet I couldn’t relax. I remained in harm’s way, still too close to that damned boat. I had to compose myself and get away from there, as triathletes continued landing all around me, human missiles slamming into the waves. Concentrate! Focus! I grabbed my goggles and pulled them back on, and did whatever I could to drag my body toward the direction of the shore, which was such an absurd distance away that I would have laughed if I were able. Within this pandemonium, I maneuvered behind a group of swimmers to slide into their wake and make it a little easier for me to move and not get beaten up any more than I already had. In that initial rush, I forgot everything I was taught in that adult swim course, and I swam like a maniac, like someone who had never swam before, with no discernible stroke, no pattern or tempo, my head up, my body twisted, spitting and gasping. There I was, in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, fighting, kicking, slapping at the water to stay afloat.
I kept on with this crazed pseudo-swimming until my heart rate returned closer to normal, given the circumstances, and I got my bearings, and I calmed down, somewhat. I found my rhythm, and my breathing was not as erratic, and my muscles were not as stiff. Even my goggles became less foggy, and I saw that it had transformed into a brilliant sunny spring morning. Then I remembered something else the race director had told us at the pre-race meeting. He said that once we were out in the Bay, clear from the commotion, we should turn over on our backs, and take in the view, and appreciate what we were doing because when would we ever have the opportunity to do this again? For me, the answer was simple, it was a resounding never, for I would never do this again. And that was what I did.
I swam to the side, flipped over, and floated, legs out, arms outstretched, and looked around. It was some sight alright. There were swimmers everywhere, going at it stroke after stroke and kick after kick, everyone determined, everyone in their own moments, the Bay littered with black wetsuits and brightly colored swim caps. The Hornblower was at last a comfortable distance away with Alcatraz still looming menacingly in the background. The sky was a placid pale blue, its clouds fluttering aimlessly above this mayhem. As I gazed out upon all of that, I became filled with gratitude, and I felt like the luckiest person in the world.
That break was exactly what I needed to get my second wind. I rolled back over, and resumed swimming, this time like I knew how to swim – my high school instructors would have been proud. I was almost through the strongest part of the current, and after that I would be moving parallel to the shore, downstream to my destination, the yacht club. I cut behind another group of swimmers who were closer to my pace, nestled into their slipstream, and followed them in. The shore was no longer some vague, far-off notion, as it grew more and more prominent in the forefront. Right beyond where I was swimming, a shiny head poked up, a sea lion curious as to what all the fuss was about, and then dove back under to return to its business, obviously unimpressed.
I continued in my cadence, with my mantra being “reach the beach,” “reach the beach,” until I did reach the beach. I kicked the ground, and hit it with my down stroke. I had made it! Exhilaration shook my body. I stood up, or tried to stand up, and just flopped over. I had been in the water for fifty minutes, give or take, and my equilibrium was way off kilter, plus I was freezing and needed the blood to return to my extremities. I tried to stand again, and managed to stagger to my feet. It seemed like I weighed a hundred extra pounds, as my wetsuit, while buoyant in the water, was bulky and cumbersome out of the water. A volunteer gave me a hand, which I used to steady myself and take those first steps. That exact moment was captured in a picture I kept in that engraved frame – my face bloated and red from the cold salt water, my eyes swollen from the goggles, my arms and legs at awkward angles as I stumbled forward, but inside I was euphoric. Even though I was nowhere near to being finished, would be out on the course for three more hours, with a mile in bare feet just to get to the transition area before the bike then finishing with the run, the worst was over for me, and I knew that I could do this.
Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Hypertext Magazine, Fiction Southeast and Juked among others. He has also had plays produced across the country. More at www.peterjstavros.com and follow on Twitter @PeterJStavros.