It is a brisk February morning and the air temperature in San Francisco is a cool 37 degrees. Walking up to the Dolphin Club, I meet my good friend Simon.
The club lights are already on; it is clear even at 5:45am, we are certainly not the first in the water today. We go our separate ways to the locker rooms and, as if on cue, excitement stirs within. I simply love pre-dawn swims. In addition to a great workout, I am blessed with a unique and quiet perspective of some of the world’s most iconic landmarks: Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline, as the city sleeps.
Mindful of my propensity towards mishaps and injuries, I hold onto the rail as I gingerly pick my way down the staircase to the beach. The sand covered steps are damp and cold against my bare feet.
Trudging across the soft sand towards the water’s edge, a small group of unknown swimmers join us. Handshakes and greetings in our swimsuits in the dark - as if this is all perfectly normal - and it is time to swim. This group of swimmers plunges into the inky 51 degree water, screaming terror upon submersion. Getting in the water is always the most difficult part of the swim. The water temperature is most often quite a shock. Their screams – though in jest - demonstrated that perfectly. Your mind is doing everything it can to remind you this is not normal, and suggest that you might be more comfortable curled up in your cozy bed. But then you remember how wonderful you feel when you emerge after your swim. There’s nothing quite like that feeling.
Simon and I stand alone at the water’s edge, watching the other swimmers swim into the darkness. Always the master at stalling before a swim in cold water, I busy myself with a few pre-swim rituals. Pointing at distant landmarks lit within the cove, we discuss the route for our swim. Never a fan of water in my ears, I ensure my earplugs fit securely. I check my watch. Next, I turn on the tiny blue blinky light and fix it to the back of my goggles. This LED light, visible for up to 1 mile, enables Simon to see me in the pitch-black water as I swim beside him. It helps us keep track of each other for safety reasons. “Where’s your light, Simon?” “Oh, I didn’t bring mine today.” Laughing it off, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Or so I thought. At least he could see me…
Putting on my goggles, it appears that I have inadvertently selected the tinted goggles from my swim bag. This is not the first time I’ve done this. But each time, I shake my head at my mindlessness. Tinted goggles in the dark??? Any limited visibility while swimming in the dark is made exponentially more challenging. Next time I will remember my clear goggles.
I set my stopwatch. 3…2…1… we both dive into the water. Sensing Simon is nearby I ease into my stroke while trying to ignore the severe brain freeze that pounds my head upon entry. Moving through the blackened water it feels dreamlike and incredibly serene. As I breathe I note how my arms glisten under the moonlight. Glancing at my hands in front of me as I push through the water, I can see tiny twinkles of bioluminescence fly off my fingertips.
Even with the faint moonlight and occasional lamppost beaming down from the concrete pier surrounding Aquatic Park, it is still very difficult to see Simon swimming next to me. Without the tiny light fixed to his goggles, I am unsure of his location. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of his feet splashing the water, or his arm slapping the water mid stroke. Suddenly I feel very alone. And I am struck by how much that bothers me.
I’ve swum in the dark in the ocean many times. Propelled by massive surges of adrenalin, and surrounded by enormous expanses of the unknown, it is an experience unlike any other. And I love it. Why, then, is this little swim in the San Francisco Bay, on this ordinary weekday, any different? Tucked safely east of the Golden Gate Bridge, there is no risk of a shark attack. Playful sea lions and seals are still sleeping. Even the sea birds are nesting.
While a certain amount of fitness and stamina is required to swim, I am realizing that the ability to undertake these swims can be distilled to one major ingredient: belief. All of these adventures – whether in the Bay or in the ocean - are possible because of a set of thoughts, a set of beliefs, that certain measures will ensure a favorable outcome. A belief that an object as simple as a small light, can provide you with the safety net you think you need. A belief that a little LED light on the back of your goggles or light sticks that adorn the boat or kayak next to you as you swim, will function as you hope; a beacon in the vast expanse of dark nothingness at the mercy of Mother Nature.
As we continue to swim, thoughts of vulnerability and loneliness give way to blissful euphoria as my brain numbs with the cold water.