How NOT to do an Open Water Swim:
Saturday (7/26) started out with the 20th annual "Sickies of the Sea" Cove-Pier-Cove swim, a 3-mile ocean swim from La Jolla Cove to Scripps Pier and back. About 200 of us lined up at the Cove at 7:30 am. I had been informed the water was a balmy 72 degrees, and therefore, wouldn't need a wetsuit. Mistake #1. (Maybe I need to start upping the cheeseburger and milkshakes). I dove in and started swimming, trying my best to ignore that the water felt damn cold. I trusted that I would warm up once I got going. Isn't the water in the Cove always colder right there anyway? Wow, my judgement was already getting clouded.
Our group coasted along easily. Peacefully. I settled into a relaxed rhythm right away, sighting the end of the pier every so often. We were all completely oblivious to the strong northbound current pulling us along. I just thought I was a supersonic, awesome swimmer! Shirelle's Mama Says played over and over in my head (NO idea where that came from!): Mama said there'll be days like this; there'll be days like this, Mama said. Random, slightly annoying but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless. I just wish the internal DJ manning the radio in my head knew how to play a better variety. I should write a letter to the Dept. of Internal Affairs. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
We reached the pier and regrouped. One guy had GU and water. How the heck did he manage that? I had nothing. Mistake #2. I looked at my watch--50 minutes. Ten minutes ahead of schedule. I was in good spirits and very proud of myself. The fact that we were getting pushed, no, make that swept, northward rapidly did not concern me.
As soon as we turned back, it became apparent we were fighting a strong, rip-like current. I remember discovering a southbound current west of the pier on my last Pier-Cove-Pier swim and decided to leave my group to head a little west to rediscover my long lost friend. Mistakes #3, 4, 5, and beyond. My long lost friend was nowhere to be found. In addition, with no landmarks to guide me, it was difficult to discern a "little" west from A LOT west. Remember, folks. Swimming west here in the Pacific means going out to open sea.
I saw my swim group to the east of me but they were far away. I was having trouble fighting the current and wanted to conserve energy. Plus, I had discovered another swimmer, who I nonverbally decided to adopt as my new swimming buddy, assuming he must know this because he must have telepathy like me. I put my head down and swam. And swam, and swam, and swam. I struggled to make progress. I felt like I was swimming uphill. There was significant chop and swells. Every other time I turned my head to breathe, I missed my opportunity for air as an impromptu wave of water smashed over me.
My arms ached and I started to feel tired but I could handle that. I had been in the water for about 80 minutes now and was beginning to feel cold. Very cold. And the cold feeling was getting worse. Not good, not good at all, and I knew it. I breast-stroked for a few seconds to look around but I was alone. There were no other swimmers. No paddlers. No kayakers. Not even a boat. Just ocean. I could see La Jolla Shores but it was very far away. The Cove was definitely closer but the amount of ocean I needed to cross to reach land was vast and unfathomable. For the first time, I felt a sneaking feeling of fear and panic begin to rise.
I tried to swim faster to warm up (also a mistake). It didn't work. The coldness continued to consume me. In addition, swimming faster used up precious energy needed to get back (and for heat). I felt completely exposed to the cold, icy water; there was no escape. My arms and legs felt numb. I was beyond shivering or goosebumps. My skin felt like a weak, outer shell, thinly protecting my organs from the penetrating water. I felt like the coldness was creeping inside the very essence of my being. In addition, I was weary, sluggish and lethargic. I just wanted to get out. If I had seen a kayaker, a lifeguard, a log, anything, I would have begged them for a ride back.
After breast-stroking for a brief period and realizing I was still alone, and still far away, I realized I had two choices: die or swim. It wasn't that death was so bad. It was the suffering involved in getting to that point. And the cold was already causing me to suffer. I really didn't want to be subjected to more. Plus, there were a lot of people on shore waiting for me--my family, friends, boyfriend, Babs & Taz--I would really be letting them all down if I didn't make it back. I decided to fight for shore for a bit longer. But I have to admit, I did consider surrendering and waving the white flag for a few minutes out there. I opted for the 2nd choice, put my head down and swam.
I was still fighting the current. I had been staring at the same landmark on La Jolla Shores for what seemed an eternity, and it hadn't moved. I felt like I was swimming and swimming and swimming and going nowhere. Of course, I was but when your landmark is several miles away, it doesn't move very much. Objects may appear farther away than they actually are. I was doing my best but the Pacific wasn't going to make it easy for me to get back. I began praying (and I'm not a particularly religious person). Please. A little help would be greatly appreciated. Just make the current a little less. Does this have to be so hard?
My brain was still sending me signals to let me know I was painfully cold. Since there was nothing I could do about the current and nothing I could do about the cold, it seemed pointless to suffer further and risk succumbing to the all-powerful Pacific. I had to do something to shut off the SOS signals in my brain. I began counting strokes to drown out the white noise. As I would breathe right, every time my right arm entered the water: 1,2,3,4...10. At 10, I would switch sides, sight for a stroke or two, and count every time the left arm entered the water: 1,2,3,...10. Over and over and over a few thousand times.
I could see the road leading down to the Cove in the distance. I kept angling myself left, left, left. I knew I had gone too far west; I just didn't realize how far. I swam past a few fishing boats. Anger rose within me. Fishing boats are illegal in the Cove! Later, I would discover that the fishing boats were nowhere near the Cove; it was I who was swimming in their territory--out in the open sea, not the protected Cove area. I swam past a tall, yellow stick buoy to my right and an odd, pink balloon buoy to my left. I had never seen those buoys before. Weird. However, the closeness of a fixed object strangely comforted me. Plus, I could see that I was actually making forward progress since I clearly swam past the buoys. Was it me, or was the opposing current beginning to subside a bit?
I reached the kelp beds and picked my way through. I began to feel elated, not a normal emotion when swimming through kelp beds. First, the current had definitely shifted, and I was clearly being pulled over the kelp beds and towards the Cove now. I slipped easily over the obstacle course, instead of the normal clawing battle I do to avoid being strangled by the enormous tangling forest. Second, I could see the stairs leading from the beach to the grass at the Cove. Which meant...I was 1/4 of a mile away. I was going to make it! I was so flooded and overcome with ecstatic euphoria that it suddenly hit me at that moment: the reason I was so happy was because just 10-20 minutes earlier, I did not think I was going to make it back.
The final 1/4 mile of that swim was pure and simple rapture. I was going to survive this. I swam past snorkelers, swimmers, and scuba divers, all blissfully unaware of the dire peril I had just overcome. I reached shore and fought to stand up. And fell down. I got back up again. Wobbled. And fell down. This happened several times. The waves lapping around my ankles didn't help. It was as if the Pacific was reluctant to let Her human sacricial offering escape. Two lifeguards started towards me. I was able to wave them away as I staggered onto the beach, grabbing onto the stair railing for support. I literally pulled myself up the stairs, using the railing. My legs just weren't working. Being in the cold water for 2.5 hours had made it difficult to stand. Plus, there was no blood in my legs.
I reached the top of the stairs, much to the relief of a group of friends who had been worriedly waiting. After some warm clothes, hot coffee, liquids, food, and lots of hugs, I was right as rain again. The rest of the weekend was pretty crazy too--I warmed up with an 18 mile run. On Sunday, I did a 60-mile hilly ride through Del Dios/Elfin Forest. That concluded my "Death Weekend." Let's just end here by saying that I'm never going to use the word "death" with any of my future workouts.
Tips on Open Water Swimming:
1. Never swim alone.
2. Always tell someone on land where you are going, and when you can be expected to return (a lifeguard is preferable for this).
3. If the swim is going to be over an hour, make provisions for food and water.
"After one hour of moderate-to-intense swimming, blood sugars will drop, precipitating a mental 'bonk' as well as an increased risk of shivering and hypothermia." Kim Mueller, Competitor, July '08.
4. If the water is cold, or you are not trained for cold, wear a wetsuit.
5. Sight often.
6. If the swim is more than 2 miles, find a kayaker or paddler to escort you.
7. If you begin experiencing signs of hypothermia (shivering, goosebumps, disoriented, fatigue, sluggishness, lethargy), get out and warm up immediately. Treading water conserves more heat than swimming (because energy is conserved). Hypothermia can occur even in warm water.
Open-Water Swimming Sites: