Late last year, word traveled within the open water swimming community of the inaugural "24 Hour Relay Swim" at Aquatic Park in the San Francisco Bay. The event was scheduled for February, and this could mean only one thing: water temperature between 50-52 degrees. An email from my friend Simon began something like this “… Do you guys want to do this? It sounds like fun.” Without hesitation my response was simply: “In. Woo!" Within a couple of days our team was set.
This 24 hour relay, unlike other relay events I have participated in the past, would include larger teams and be based from land, hosted at the South End Rowing Club at Aquatic Park in San Francisco. Swimmers in teams of 6 or 12 would begin swimming in rotation from 9am Saturday 8th February to 9am Sunday 9th February. Unlike my previous relays in the open ocean alongside a boat, this course was simple and predictable: an approximately 3/4 mile loop in the cove at Aquatic Park. Swimmers could swim as many loops as they liked and swim for as long as they desired. The format was flexible. Yet just like most relay swims, this would follow English Channel rules: no wetsuit, single swim cap and goggles and guarantee a substantial amount of sleep deprivation. Participating in this event seemed familiar and interesting enough. I was in.
Weeks passed by and I thought nothing more of this relay. Delayed arriving back from New Zealand in the New Year, I slipped quietly back into my swimming routine; a welcomed distraction from other events swirling around and allowing me to work towards goals hoped for later in the year. Routine was my savior, and continues to be. This has been an unusually warm winter – dry and sunny California days – and with each passing day increasing concern for the statewide drought. Despite this unseasonable heat wave, the water temperature of the San Francisco Bay hovered at a respectable 51 degrees.
Fast forward to Friday evening, the night before the relay. Truthfully, I wasn’t as excited as I once was to participate in the relay. As reluctant as I was to swim, preferring a much needed restful weekend over swimming in the Bay while sleep deprived, I had however made a commitment to my team: Melissa, Joe, Simon, Kirk, and Stephanie. Arriving at the mandatory pre-swim briefing that evening, the excited energy within the club was palpable. Laughter and giggles warmed the room. It was obvious that the pouring rain had not drenched the spirits of 54 swimmers who had gathered from around the world to participate in this event. We were all grateful for some much needed rain and would be wet swimming anyway. The weather forecast was for more rain. Lots more rain.
The next morning, though rainy and gloomy, all 54 swimmers gathered once again at the South End Rowing Club. A variety of safety measures were methodically organized and staffed by enthusiastic volunteers. On the dock, while standing in the pouring rain, numerous volunteers stood guard, noting the swimmers returning from their shift, as well as those swimmers who planned to continue swimming for another loop. Each swimmer was identified using a permanent marker pen, and inscribed on their arms with their team number and individual number. Each swimmer was carefully checked off as they entered and left the water. Volunteers on the dock not only accounted for swimmers, but applauded and encouraged. Out in the cove, volunteer kayakers shepherded, without complaint in the pouring rain, as the swimmers navigated the course.
Some swimmers wore silly swimsuits, others laughed as much as they swam. And despite the torrential rain and 51 degree water temperature, no one emerged from the water looking miserable. Each swimmer beamed with delight as they walked up onto the beach following their shifts. For 24 hours.
For me this relay was quite different from being confined on a boat 20 miles off the coast of California. Based from land, there were a variety of distractions and temptations to steer one from the task at hand: a warm shower, 200 degree sauna, solid meals and a real bed. Living close by, it was simply too easy to slip back in-between the comfortable sheets of my bed. Because of this, each shift became increasingly more challenging. It would have been so much easier to drop out of the relay.
The easy and sensible option would be to turn off the alarm clock and continue to sleep. Swimming in the cold pelting rain, depleted from the lack of sleep doesn’t sound entirely appealing. But there’s something supremely special about forcing yourself into a situation where your mind and your body are telling you this is crazy.
During my 2am shift, as the rain pummeled my face each time I breathed, I had an awareness and moment of gratitude. Appreciation for the enthusiasm and camaraderie that swaddled me within this odd-shaped bubble; a protective bubble from the storm of life containing the wonderful people of this crazy sport called open water swimming. It was, without a doubt, my Great Escape.