Bay To Breakers

Every year in San Francisco there is a running event from downtown to Ocean Beach, called the Bay To Breakers, as races go it is known more for the crazy costumes and revelry than serious athletic endeavor, but it is one of the major events on the San Francisco calendar. I’ve never run the Bay to Breakers in the 15+ years I have lived here, but when I joined the South End Rowing Club back in 2010 I discovered their own version of the event, a swim from the Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach, and I knew I wanted to do that one day.

In the intervening years the barrier to accomplishing that goal has always been lack of confidence in my ability to handle the cold water of San Francisco Bay for the required amount of time. My longest Bay swims to date had been ~2 hours, but due to the unseasonably warm water we had in 2014 they were at around 60F or warmer. In contrast a Bay To Breakers swim was more likely to be in the mid 50’s and also closer to 3 hours.

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Swimming with Friends

A SERC member who I also swim Masters with convinced me to join a group of swimmers down at the club early on Saturday morning. I’m not a morning person and generally only make exceptions for special occasions, but since I really needed to break the one hour barrier in the Bay I duly set my alarm and was down at the club first thing in the morning.

It ended up that another swimmer in the group and I were a pretty good match for pace so stayed together for almost the whole time I was in. The great thing about swimming with someone else was that it allowed me to push myself further without worrying that I was putting myself at risk. When I started getting the claw after an hour I elected to keep swimming and see how well I could handle it, and because the other swimmer was trying for two hours I was encouraged to stay out there as long as I could.

It looks a lot warmer than it is...

It looks a lot warmer than it is…

In the end I did three inside-outsides and kind of an abbreviated cove for around 1h 40m in the bay, and was fine when I got out and into the showers. The experience taught me that getting the claw was not the red flag that I’d perhaps been treating it as.

On Sunday I went down again with the intention of doing three coves with a friend, who unfortunately was unable to make it due to the parking/traffic issues associated with a half marathon that was being run in the area. With my new found confidence from the previous days swim I was able to crank the three coves out, though again definitely clawing up on the last one. 1h 20m in the water, may have to start wearing a watch as I would have probably tacked a flag on the end of the set to make sure I was over 90 minutes.

Pool swimming was interrupted by work on Monday/Tuesday but I managed to catch up with a long set on Wednesday and am happy to have broken 15 miles (~10 pool, ~5 Bay) for the week, though only managed 3 of the 4 hours I’d originally planned for the Bay.

Next week in Illinois for work, but staying up in Wisconsin to be near the Recplex, so hoping I can get 10 miles in the pool again, and try for another 5 or so in the Bay on the weekend.

Back in the Bay and Catalina thoughts

Despite all my good intentions to actually swim through winter this year, I’d not actually been in the Bay since December 28th. No real good reason – the Bay has been unusually warm through winter this year so cold was never really a factor, just the usual impediments tossed up by life masquerading as excuses.

This past Saturday however the weather in San Francisco was gorgeous, and I’d heard reports from others that the Bay was up to 55F (which is my threshold for not having any anxiety about getting in when I haven’t been swimming cold water regularly), so I popped down to the South End to grab a quick swim.

Winter? Not in San Francisco...

Winter? Not in San Francisco…

On the way down I noticed a lack of swimmers in Aquatic Park, which was unusual given the amazing conditions, turns out it was the annual SERC St Patrick’s Day luncheon so the club was packed with people decidedly not swimming. The shower/sauna in the Men’s locker room was also still out of action due to retiling, though the Dolphin Club has kindly offered theirs up for use, so having got instructions on the directions/etiquette of using the DC facilities I got changed and headed out into the Bay.

Since this was my first swim in a while, I only intended to do a single cove and then see how I felt, possibly extending to a mile. Before I was even half way around I knew I was in for a double, the water was crazily warm for this time of the year. Roughly 52 minutes and 1.6 miles or so later I got out a very happy man.

At a very gross level, the two barriers for succeeding in a long swim are the ability to swim the distance, and the ability to tolerate the environmental conditions (principally cold, but also swell, chop, salt water, fauna). The first can be reasonably trained for in a pool, but really the only way to know if you can survive a cold ocean swim is to swim in a cold ocean.

My previous long swims (Rottnest, C3) have taken place in water that was ~70F, and the experience of those swims has taught me that I am perfectly comfortable at that temperature. I’ve booked a boat for a Catalina Channel swim on August 16th, a swim that is both longer (21 miles vs. 12 miles) and colder (60F-70F) than anything that I have done before. The distance I am not worried about, it is simply a matter of knuckling down and putting the weekly miles in, but the cooler temperatures is something I don’t know how specifically I’ll react to.

In the 4 years I’ve been swimming in the bay I have done many swims in the temperature range of 50F-60F which is colder than Catalina, but they have all been shorter swims (1/2 hour to 2 hours) which don’t really translate into the kind of steady state tolerance that I will need.

The good news is that my booking is for the warmest part of the year with water temperatures averaging in the high 60’s, the bad news is that if I am unlucky the water temperatures could still dip into the low 60’s, and the last few miles are typically a few degrees colder due to a cold upwelling as you approach the coast.

So a big part of my training between now and August will be to get in as much time in Aquatic Park as I can. The water temperatures will be cooler, but my thinking is if I can crank out a 6-8 hour set in the chillier Aquatic Park then I should be set for Catalina (at least temperature wise).

Breaking through the cold barrier

I’ve been swimming in San Francisco Bay for three years now, waters that are not known for being “tropical” in temperature, so my idea idea of “cold” is somewhat different to what it was when I was living back in Australia.

That said I do feel that many of the swims I would like to do are currently not possible because of my cold water tolerance – I would not be confident of doing 4 hours at 60F for example, which is a temperature that is considered ideal by many marathon swimmers.

The bulk of my swimming in the Bay has been a single circuit of Aquatic Park which takes me 30 minutes – depending on the tide and how much I muck about with goggles and sightseeing. In my first winter of swimming in the Bay I was able to manage to make it through the entire winter doing these single coves, swimming in temperatures around 50F/10C without too much difficulty – I did have one scare swimming on my birthday when I thought I might not be able to make it back to the club so go out short, but I think that was mostly psychological.

The short jaunts in the water that I have been doing I think have served to acclimate me to the idea of cold water, but not the reality of extended swims. The only way to really get used to swimming for a long time in cold water is (not surprisingly) swim for a long time in cold water.

So to break through the cold barrier and become a “proper” marathon swimmer I’m focusing this summer on bumping up my cold water mileage, firstly by not allowing myself to do anything less than two coves (~1 hour) when I do get in the Bay (which also has the benefit of getting a better workout in) and secondly by making a determined effort to increase that number.

So far I am a month into this program and have 8 double coves and 3 triple coves under my belt. I actually felt so good on my first triple cove that I was up for a fourth but discovered that I start to chafe in the Bay after 90 minutes.

If I ever manage to exceed four coves I will need to start putting out feeds, but for anything up to 2 hours of swimming I’m confident I can handle without hydration or calorie intake.

I fully expect that come winter I will have to cut back on this resolution, but I would like to hold to hour long swims for as long as I can (e.g. at least below 55F) and see how far I can take the longer swims. We’ve had some deliciously warm (for San Francisco) waters lately, and I am hoping that it means we will have low 60’s all the way through September.