(View of the Palace of Fine Arts — right next to our parking lot/start point of the race so I passed by on my drive in)
Swim Across America!!! Well, it was inevitable. After all my swimming escapades and as soon as I knew that I was coming back to the Bay area to work — I would be swimming in this. Swim Across America is an organization that organizes fundraiser events for various cancer related facilities and there are a few open water swims that they host every year. The one in the Bay area has been around for now eleven years and has benefited UCSF for much (if not all) of that time. The goal of this fundraiser specifically sends money to our survivorship program which helps patients who are survivors of childhood cancer. Definitely a worthy cause.
In advance, I did some fundraising online — thank you to all who donated and as a team (Team UCSF Survive!) we raised over $50,000. It turns out at this fundraiser we raised over $600,000 total! That’s mindblowing and some really great things will be done with that money.
There are two options for the swim — 1.5 miles which is the full distance or 0.5 miles. Did I forget to mention it’s in the San Francisco Bay? Yes, the water temperature today was 59 degrees. … Not exactly Saipan-style warm bath water. ;)
As you can see here, we start basically just under the Golden Gate Bridge and swim towards the shore but not in a straight line. Going in a straight line causes you to get caught up in some eddy’s that are not fun so they really really emphasized that we go towards the East (aiming for Alcatraz Island) and then wrapped around towards San Francisco.
We started very early in the morning (as seen by the Palace of the Fine Arts pic above) with check-in starting at 5 AM. We checked in and then boarded these awesome San Francisco trolley buses that took us to the boat launch near the Ferry Building at Pier 39.
Check-in process, getting our bag for our stuff
(haha… yup, too late now!)
When we got to the boat. it was MUCH bigger than I thought. I guess that makes sense seeing as how there were something like 320 swimmers and we all got on one boat.
The good news (that I didn’t know beforehand) is that it was an enclosed ship! aka, not freezing cold. I was already wearing my wetsuit at this point (well I had the bottom half on and was wearing a Tshirt and hoodie on top) but had brought a hat and a scarf just in case! I guess I just assumed we’d be in a much smaller ship.
We got to watch the sunrise behind the Bay Bridge (not the Golden Gate) which was nice .. as we waited for all the trolleys to come in.
Inside, they had plenty of snacks including yogurt, pastries, hot coffee and hot tea which was really nice. We basically milled about for awhile and enjoyed the views of the city.
Oh! and I forgot to mention Swim Across America works with a number of Olympians!!! How cool is that! Well, I didn’t see any Olympians who were in Rio but there were a number who went to various other Olympics and they also raise money and hang out and encourage us. I got to sign the water polo ball with one of the names of my patients that I was swimming in memory of. They were able to tread water and pass the water polo ball the whole distance! Uh, and they did it WAY faster than I swam it!
We also got some temporary tattoos including a “ROOKIE” tattoo that I got on my arm. Part of the issue was that I had a full body wet suit on (a necessity although there were a handful of brave (and crazy) souls who did it without a wet suit) so I didn’t really have room for too many tattoos.
(yeah, I messed up the S a little bit)
We also were able to take a bunch of pictures as the boat made its way out to the area under the Golden Gate. It took about 30 minutes for the boat to get there. I am assuming there was some type of permit or timing that was done in order to prevent any big ships from running into us. There were also a ton of kayakers, stand up paddlers, and zodiac drivers (as well as small boats and jetskis) that were at the same time taking off from shore and moving towards us.
On the way out, they gather everyone for a time of reflection about those with cancer and they allow time for anyone in the audience to share. It was so moving to hear about those who had beat cancer, who fought alongside their family members, and/or were swimming in memory of someone not there.
They also signed a lab coat for the beneficiaries of the money as a keepsake. Of course, they also gave us directions on how we would be doing the swim. We all were going to be jumping off the boat and we needed to do so quickly. We would get off the boat hopefully in order from slowest swimmer to fastest. We all were instructed to hold onto our goggles and jump in with our feet scissored one in front of the other (like you are standing with a one foot a few feet in front of the other) so that you didn’t sink too far down into the water. Because of the speed we all got in the water, I was glad I got to enjoy the views before the boat dropped us off because once I was in, it was go go go! (or I felt that way!)
A view of San Francisco from inside the boat
It was a beautiful day with no fog (this is rare for San Francisco) so the views were great. I was really glad that I brought my phone on the boat to take pictures. Who else will ever get to see the underside of the Golden Gate bridge!
Here are some of us on the deck of the boat under the Golden Gate — we all had swim across america caps and there was definitely an excited but nervous energy. Or maybe that was all in my imagination.
Regardless, once they had us ready to go, we were ready to go. We jumped off at around 8:45 AM and were off. They had told us that the tide was going in so that would push us towards the East and I could already see in the water that there wasn’t too much chop. There weren’t many white caps so I felt relatively reassured. Once I jumped in, we all bobbed for one or two seconds to check out the Golden Gate bridge behind us and then swam in the direction everyone was swimming. I really hadn’t practiced much in my wetsuit and I do think that I probably had a size too small which, after a lot of swimming, I realized … but too late now! The current definitely pushed us but I was a combination of a little nauseous from the boat (my Achilles heel) and I think just hungry (as it had been about 4 hours since I had left my house that morning and I didn’t really feel like I should eat any unknown things on the boat prior to this swim). I saw the water polo players pass me pretty soon after I left the boat and I knew they had gotten in last so I already knew I was near the back of the pack. Because we were swimming towards the sun, it was a little bit hard to spot so I had to pretty much breathe and spot with every second stroke.
One of the issues with cold water is that you have to consciously remember to breathe — the coldness takes your breath away kind of and while I didn’t feel that cold initially (thank the Lord for wetsuits), I did find myself not breathing as well as I could. In some moments though I was able to put my head into the water and just concentrate on swimming which was super calming. The hard part was this was totally unfamiliar waters to me so spotting and figuring out where I was was quite difficult. My goggles were a little uncooperative and kept fogging up so I had to stop often to unfog them so I could see.
I felt pretty tired and was frustrated that I couldn’t really tell how far I’d gone. The 1/2 mile swimmers get dropped off near the point where you are supposed to turn into shore so you can mostly spot for the big ship for the beginning part. I did have to get told by a few kayakers to stay in a straight line so I can just imagine how much we were all kind of veering the wrong way.
After starting the move towards shore, that’s when things got rough. You didn’t have the current behind you and by then if you’re me and haven’t been swimming quite enough, you are dead tired. But, you think about why you are doing the swim and you just keep swimming. The undercurrent this year was very tough and many people commented on it when we got out of the water. They said that many people had to get ‘repositioned’ which was basically when you get picked up and jetski’d or something like that over to the place you are supposed to be. (I originally thought ‘repositioning’ meant that the kayakers would tell you you were going the wrong way which happened to me MANY times) I definitely was told so so so many times that I wanted to be more towards the right and I think this was everyone’s problem. I certainly tried but I think when you’re tired and just let yourself float a little bit (another benefit of wetsuits) you definitely get pushed by the current more. I was so tired by this point and still a little nauseous and there was a point I was worried I was going to need to throw up (again.. see Escape from Managaha year one experience) but I didn’t and kind of just pushed through.
It was a rough last quarter mile as basically everyone had been pushed to the east of where we were supposed to get on land and then we had to go against current towards the west to get to shore. I just remember stroking and stroking and being a little tired and numb — my hands were pretty cold by then and the idea of actively keeping my fingers together was really difficult and so I knew I was swimming very inefficiently but kind of didn’t know what else to do. At the end, I just put my head in the water and kept swimming as hard as I could and I remember basically hitting the sand with my chest and being like.. I made it!!! It felt good to put my feet on the ground for sure. As you got out of the water, they handed you a really nice towel (I had already been warned to wipe my face off as soon as I got out of the water since most people have a layer of dirt from the dirty water on their faces when they get out.. gross). Then, you get funneled through a chute to a place that you have to check out to make sure they account for every swimmer. (Psssttt.. we supposedly jumped in at 8:45 and I got to shore at 9:53 and it was not a race so no one is timing anything but .. I wanted to know approximately how long it took. It felt like I was in the water forever!)
After that, I think I stood for about 5 minutes a little dazed until I found one of my colleagues who had swam the 0.5 miles and was waiting on shore, warming up in the sun. We chatted for a bit until we figured out there was a tent where we could warm up and pick up what we had dropped off that morning so we made our way over there, got our finisher T-shirts and shed our wetsuits in favor of warm sweats. They also provided a warm bowl of chili and some quiche and a bunch of different types of power bars. I am always VERY hungry after a swim and I think I was hungry going into it, so this was tremendously good for my morale to have some food in my stomach. I regrouped with various colleagues who had swam and we all checked in to make sure we had made it.
Here are some pictures after I got my phone back from the place I washed up to shore… jkjk, I did swim until the end but it felt very tiring. (we put our things from the boat in labelled bags and they brought it to shore at the end after everyone had finished).
It really was quite a beautiful day and looking at this picture I think.. I cannot believe I did that. Despite a lot of my internal complaining along the way, there were a few moments when I was just swimming and not worrying/etc and I was able to think about those patients who have been fighting cancer or those who fought hard against it — and all those in my life who have been affected by cancer. It was a strong thing to remember and reflect on as I was doing this.
There is still a lot of work to be done but for now, I’m glad I was able to help in some way and I got quite the experience out of it! If I do this ever again, I will stick with the half mile swim!!!! haha