San Francisco. Monday, June 20, 2011.
Walking in San Francisco.
When you come down off of a high like this, the world – the normal world, with people floating in and out and waking up, walking around – looks strange.
Normal is strange. Regular looks weird. Nothing is how it should be, but I move through it just the same. Step, step. My feet work. I’m standing. Am I standing?
These are the thoughts that dance in my head as I walk down Polk Street in San Francisco, feet covered in work shoes, sidewalk slightly grungy from whatever last nights’ mess of partiers, diners, and hobo lovelies left around on the streets. I remark, in my mind, the incredible transformation that happens between 3am and 5am each day, as the world transitions from the late night ending to the early morning working in just a few hours. The sidewalk is quiet, save a few men clad in business suits walking aggressively in different directions. A lone jogger jiggles past me, the tin of her headphones blasting the latest pop song too loudly.
I walk a few more steps. Stores are shuttered closed; it’s early. Starbucks and Peet’s coffee are ablaze on the corners of Polk and Broadway, early bees starting their routines. A line of caffeine-addicted humans space out behind the register. Newly-caffeinated zombies titter with each other on the sidewalks. I walk a bit further, up the hill towards the infamous Lombard Street. I make my way up the hill, slowly, wandering without a purpose for a short while in the cold morning air. A single tennis ball bounces back and forth between two early risers; the ball bounce adds a soft drumbeat to my footsteps. Below me, water runs off of a lawn being over-watered and the sidewalk drips into the street. My calves burn a bit as the grade steepens. I reach the top of Lombard.
At the top, I stop and stare for a bit, a lone pedestrian standing in the morning fog of San Francisco. To the north, I can see out to Aquatic Park and to the east, I can see clear to the Bay Bridge. When the fog burns off, I’ll be able to see all the way to Oakland across the Bay.
The air feels different, tactile, and thick – although not as viscous as water and certainly more fluid in many respects. It’s easier (physically) to move through, although mentally I can’t wrap my head around it. I’m back on land, standing, staring. Already, I miss the water.
I stare in wonderment at the little island, the infamous Rock, and the swells that look laughably small off in the distance.
Did I just do that?
Flashback to yesterday, to the day before, to the weekend, to images of the events. I can hardly believe it’s real, and despite the evidence to the contrary splashed on Facebook and in my journals, and most of all, in photographs – I still have to pinch myself – ouch – yes, it happened – My sore arms remind me of what I just did. My triceps burn a bit. I raise my arms over my head and feel the memory imprinted in my muscles, albeit briefly. Yes, we did it.
Sometimes I surprise even myself. A little jolt of fear runs through my veins, but it’s exciting. This time, I’m overcome with an excitement:
I’m not afraid of what I can’t do. I’m almost afraid of what I can do.
Saturday, June 18th. Two Thousand Eleven.
Marin. At the Hotel.
My brain is in a whirlwind. It’s nighttime, before the race. I need to go to bed, but I can’t focus, and I can’t think, I simply can’t believe that tomorrow is already in front of us. Time is slipping away like the stars that zoom past the opening screens of the Star Wars movies – it seems to be rushing past me in a way I can’t contain. I know that in a few hours, I’ll be doing something, and I can’t get my head around it. I just can’t get it, no matter how I try to visualize it. Sometimes our minds can’t catch up, and it’s terrifying: mapping what I’m going to do is just not possible in my head. I’ve never done it before.
For a few seconds, I feel like I can’t breathe.
My body tells me to stop, to stop being crazy, not to try it, to quit – please – just sleep. All I want to do is sleep. My panicked mind and jumpy body lay parallel to the floor in the hotel bed, but I’m not sleeping. It’s 9:00 PM and I’m wide-eyed and awake.
Perhaps it’s a protective mechanism, perhaps it’s the way that I cope, but I forget about the swim. Throughout the entire day, I’ve alternated between frenzied giggles and extreme lethargy and through it all, I wonder if I’ll be able to make it through a distance swim of this length. I jump from fear to fear and attack myself in typical self-sabotage. (You aren’t qualified! What are you thinking! This is stupid! Run away, don’t do it!) My mind runs around in circles, pent up energy waiting to be released, and I do my best to relax, breathe, and settle down. We’ve got one night ahead of us – just a few short hours, and then we’re on.
Swimmers better be ready.
Am I crazy?
We have planned for months in advance, prepping for our longest event to date. The summer before last, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to swim again. This spring, after months of training slowly through the winter season, I made a plan to attempt four major swims over the course of the summer, each testing the limits of my capabilities in sequence, in events that I’d never thought of or dared to consider previously. In early March, I met with our team – Justin, Neal, Kim and myself – and we mapped out a strategy to attempt two solo Bay Crossings from San Quentin to Alcatraz, a 10-mile swim.
When we met to plan, the longest open-water swim I’d done was 1.5 miles; the Alcatraz crossing. The swim we began to plan was 10 miles – 6 times longer than the previous swim. With a solo row boat. On a swim that had never been done before by any woman.
It started as a dare, somewhat of a joke. What if we crossed the bay, made a map north to south, from one prison to another? What if we didn’t escape FROM Alcatraz, but escape TO it? What if we made an event of something that had never been done before?
We mapped the swims, planning for hours late in the evening one Monday night, discussing ebb and flood tides and optimal conditions and nailing down two possible dates based on tide charts and weather conditions. We had to nail it on June 19th or be delayed a month for a second attempt. By May 1st, we had it booked on our calendars, and in the weeks prior to the swim, our pilots worked invisibly, doing a tremendous amount of legwork to gain approvals from the South End Rowing Club, coordinate our arrival with the Marin Rowers Association, and book the boats, radios, flags, and prerequisites well in advance of the swim.
And then suddenly, it was here. It was Saturday – blink – Kim and I were doing a practice swim in the morning hours in Aquatic Park, testing our equipment, sitting in the cold water, getting used to the Bay and – blink – I was packing my bags and laying out the pieces I needed – blink – Kim and I were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and then –blink – it was 6:30 at night and we were eating dinner the night before the swim together and – blink – I was in bed and we were getting ready to wake up, sleeping just a few hundred yards from prisoners on Death Row in the California State Penitentiary, San Quentin, and we were going to do what we’d just laughed about doing – we were going to cross the Bay in a 10-mile open water swim.
Throughout the day, on multiple occasions, Kim and I looked nervously at each other. Our eyes caught each other’s and we said something along the lines of:
Holy Shit. This is happening, isn’t it?
Yes, yes it is – really soon. Really soon, it’s upon us,
Now, Kim, we’re going to bed –
Now and we’re going to wake up and start swimming.
Earlier that Saturday afternoon, the boys pulled up in row boats, docking and prepping the boats. I sat, quietly, bailing water out of the boat, mopping up dirt with sponges, wiping the boat down. We tied down life jackets to the side of the boat to prevent it from overnight damage. We wrapped up quietly, staring out at the highways above and walking through long, leggy grasses back up to the parking lot.
We booked a hotel aside San Quentin for the night, checking in Saturday evening and staying for a few short hours. The hotel was booked based on price – excessively cheap – located in the fringe corner of land between the San Quentin and the Richmond Bridge. Prime land, terrible neighbors.
We went to bed early, or at least tried to. Kim and I stretched and relaxed, lying across the beds, talking in bursts about the next day’s events. We reviewed the swim strategy, again, lining up our accoutrements bedside to wake up the next day. Wake time, 3:45AM. Breakfast call, 4:00AM. Depart the hotel: 4:30AM. Arrive at the boat docks, 5:00AM. Leave: 5:15AM. Arrive at San Quentin: 5:45AM. Swimmers Drop: 6:00AM.
That’s the name for the time when you lean over the edge of the boat, press your hands against the wood, stare into the murky blackness, and jump in. When you dive into a world of cold, wet, and unfamiliar. A world of sensations awaits you, but most of them are clouded by your mind – the worry, thoughts, fear, clarity, precision, and nervous energy voiding out most of the sensations of the moment.
I never really notice if the water is cold. I’m too busy thinking, planning, prepping.
And then, with a few short strokes, a quick pull through the water, popping my body up to the surface and settling immediately into the rhythm of breathing, I forget. The thoughts escape as quickly as they tumble into my mind, and I’m here. I’m swimming, and it’s all that I want to do. There’s nothing else. I give a short wave to Neal, my Pilot, and Justin – Kim’s Pilot, and with the quickness of my breath, the world disappears from my vision and it’s just me and the water.
We’re outside of San Quentin, two lone boats on the still, flat water, 100 yards off shore. Along the coast of some of California’s most beautiful landscape, a ten-foot concrete wall lines the periphery to encase the prisoners’ fortress. Thousands of prisoners, stuck inside the compartments of containment for the rest of their lives. Something small to think about while I embark on one of the toughest Bay swims in San Francisco.
The guard towers stand tall, menacing, a pile of folded sticks and huge structures, housing men with machine guns in lookout towers. Dominating. From the boats, Neal and Justin wave. Kim and I can only pray that they don’t shoot at us as we make our way over to the prison walls. It’s one thing to joke about a rifle tower pointed at you. It’s another thing to strip to your skivvies and jump in the water, daringly, right in front of them. My thighs shiver. We’ve obtained permissions and we stopped by the prison gates the day prior, but still. You never know.
We head off towards the starting point, Kim and I, and we swim easily over to the giant concrete walls of San Quentin. At the water’s edge, we put our feet down on the water’s floor and stumble on top of the slippery, wet rocks. We both stand and fall, grab the land, and try to stand but fall again. Graceful we are not. Kim and I laugh, the sound of our voices cutting through the silence of the morning. The light rises beautifully over the Richmond Bridge, a spectacular multi-colored sunrise framing the swooping bridge in morning light. Fog rolls over the Tiburon mountains, and in the distance, Mount Tam. We curl our toes over the rocks beneath the surface of the water and hug each other, turning around towards the boats. We wave. I nod at her and she nods at me:
Let’s get started.
We ease back into the water, our home away from home, our silhouettes casting a shadow in time against the concrete wall, erased quickly from the present by becoming the past as soon as we move away from it. An event only in time, captured briefly with a still photograph, taken from the rower’s boats. We ease into now, into swimming, into the journey we’ve set our crazy minds to begin, to do, to try.
On the water, my mind is a blank slate of motion, interrupted only by encouragement and feedings from my rower, Neal. Occasionally, I stop and think of something I must say and I pop my head up, say a sentence, and keep on swimming. Out of my periphery, I can see Neal laughing at me, although he’s busy doing everything I’m not doing – watching the tides, keeping the time, rowing the boat, leading the way, triangulating our position, communicating with the Coast Guard, observing vessel traffic, and prepping my feedings and water – the fact that he has time to keep me entertained as well baffles me. Throughout the swim, the rowers watch the swimmers nearly non-stop, keeping an eye on the sole body moving steadily through the water. My life is in the hands of the water, the world, and the pilot. I am responsible only for swimming, for ticking the metronome of time with my arms in the water.
Swimming, and time, has the odd sensation of taking both forever and finishing in an instant. Depending solely on the state of my mind, a few minutes can be intense agony, while an hour can be a freedom of floating, drifting in and out of subconsciousness. For the early part of the swim, I think about the aerial map of the Bay and try to understand where I am as I move across the surface laterally. I see the coastline off to my right and I keep an eye on it, the green hillscape and multi-million-dollar homes a testament to the effusive wealth of the Bay Area. A few boats pass by us, but for the most part – blink – the first hour of the swim passes uneventfully, a calm stillness on the Bay treating us well. I drink water before I need it, I eat before I want to, and when it comes time to check in with my Pilot, I laugh and gab about whatever was on my mind. What it was, I can’t remember now. Perhaps an idea, or an inspiration, or a quick and fleeting thought – but whatever it was, the thought drifted out of my mind the minute I set my head back down.
Swimming is like making music. It’s a rare form of dancing, of moving lightly on the surface between two viscosities, between the elements water and air, married briefly by the human body that touches the water, the air, and the water again in counterbalanced synchronicity. Swimming well is a rich cherishing of the body as a work of art, a place, a vessel that I’m delighted to be a part of for a short time. I am in awe of the precision of my body, and in constant wonder of the precious things we are capable of if we set our minds to just try. My muscles stretch and lengthen, pull and shorten, bend and borrow strength, and pull me along in the beautiful art that is swimming.
Years of training are imbued in each stroke. Each silent pull, each micro-effort and rotation of the body, each lengthening stretch and long side breath, is a work of more than two decades; of a body of people and events and seemingly inconsequential decisions that add up to this.
My mind is a part of my body, but my body also has a mind of it’s own; I am merely an embodied soul. More often than not, I need to separate my minds’ fears and insecurities and let my body, my self, my being do the work that it knows how to do. Every swim surprises me, changes me, tells me something new. The days when I think I’m too exhausted, too tired, too lethargic to swim, I’ve learned to dive headfirst in anyways. I trust in the going and I head to the pool or bay despite my hesitations. Do it anyways, I remind myself. And on those days when I think I’m too tired, or I feel too scared, or I worry too much – those days I find an unexpected physical energy, a delight in swimming, a clarity in being. It turns out the cloudy fog was just in my head, merely a mental block that, if I believed in it, would have prevented me from experiencing the events as they unfold in front of me.
I have a tenuous grasp on the luckiness I feel to be a part of this, this.
In the water, a song plays against the backdrop of my mind; Zac Brown Band’s rhythm of “Where the boat leaves from” skips around in my brain and the upbeat happy melody joins me for a half hour. I laugh and lift my head briefly and tell Neal about the song. He’s occupied and busy, but he entertains my random thoughts.
The hour is filled with things that don’t happen on a typical day: Running into seaweed patches. Peeing in my wetsuit. Watching the sun rise high in the sky. Stopping to see the moon high over Alcatraz. Getting lost in a deep fog that completely disorients us. Fighting through a windy chop near Raccoon Straights, the patch between Angel Island and Tiburon.
Neal is laughing. I pop my head up again. “Sarah! You just got a container ship diverted for you…”
We diverted a container ship. The visibility conditions were so low, the container ship didn’t want to run the risk of running over a swimmer without being able to see them. Neal switched the radios from channel 14 to 71 and talked rapidly with the Coast Guard. “What’s your visibility, Rower?” — “We’re at 2 Football Fields, Over.” — “Okay, we’ll divert the ship; Coast Guard to Vessel 89245, can you confirm the Southern Route?”
And in a second, a giant sideways skyscraper -a massive mess of containers aboard an inbound ship from China – moved it’s vector trajectory from the northern side of Alcatraz to the southern route, avoiding us and it’s rapid-speed movement. Swimmers don’t mess with container ships. In that battle, you lose. A human body can get sucked quickly into the churning propellers of the container ship and get tossed into the meat grinder like a rag doll in a washing machine. It’s never a battle you want to have. In the case of accidental paths crossing, you haul your swimmer on board as quickly as possible and row like mad. All you can do between you and the beast is get. out. of. the. way.
And the container ship bowed gracefully for us, to a lone swimmer and an invisible rower. With the tug and pull of a few navigations, the large cruiser moved effortlessly towards the southern side of the Bay, leaving the window of the north bay open for – well – for me. For me and Kim. For us to swim, our lone, sole efforts.
And then suddenly, Alcatraz appeared out of the foggy enclosure and the vertical walls of the Rock and the aged prison rose, statuesque, in a formal greeting to us and our efforts. I sucked my breath in and I stopped, briefly. I looked up and felt the world around me, a flatland of water and a vertical, mobile plane from which everything else rose upwards. I was at zero, the water level, the place where the gravity of the earth’s spin pulls you in as close to the center as you can get. The lands of San Francisco, all of the bumps and hillsides, rise steadily from the water’s zero point, carving upwards in the sky the topography that thousands of us march on and drive over each day. All of it, in my vision. And a few hundred yards left to swim.
That’s it? It’s over already?
I breathe again, a perpetual and necessary habit, tasting the bitter salt water and the rings of sand building around my ears and my face. A slight rubbing on my neck from the tight suit has turned into a steady chaffing, a red mark that will burn for a few days as a reminder of today’s exertions. We aim for the concrete structures, but just as steadily as we swim the tide ebbs and pulls us towards the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. The two vectors collide, directing us ever Westward in our approach, despite our mighty muscular arms. When we arrive, we’re at the western-most point of the Island, at the ‘little rock’ and Kim and I are there – together – we’ve finished within minutes of each other – and we’re laughing and we’re touching the rock, and then we’re climbing on top of little Alcatraz, and we’ve done it.
We swam from one Prison to the other Prison.
2 hours and 40 minutes, one strong ebb tide, and a 10 mile journey was started, finished, and complete.
Monday, June 20, 2011.
San Francisco. Standing.
I’m back on the San Francisco hillside, and it’s Monday, and I’m on top of the topography I look at for reference when I’m down in the water. I’m walking around in the early morning, feet on land, wondering in awe at the weekend. I can’t hardly believe what I’ve done, and in the morning when I wash my face in the bathroom sink, I giggle excitedly when I look in the mirror, before I get absorbed in the present again, looking at the drawings I’m working on, at the essays I’m cultivating, at my mind maps scattered on paper as I mull over thoughts.
It’s not really about the swimming, although those few hours were remarkable. It’s about doing things. About setting your mind to something and just, simply, doing it.
You are capable of anything. I truly believe that – Actually, I don’t just believe it, I know it. And if you know it, too, you’ll be unstoppable. We can’t stop in admiration of what others do for too long – we must go; we must create. Most of the blocks in our lives are mental – we just get in our own way too darn much.
Everything I do – everything I look at, struggle to attain, fight to achieve, quietly and methodically pluck away at – you can, too. Nothing is stopping you. NOTHING. Seriously, most of what’s stopping you can be eroded away at, with time and determination. It won’t all happen tonight. It won’t happen tomorrow. What will happen today and tomorrow will seem insignificant. The decisions you make now – to write at home, or to party, to work an extra 30 minutes, or to wake earlier by 10 minutes, to drink less coffee, to run once more per week – these are the decisions that matter. The littlest things – they add up. What’s stopping you? A fear that you won’t do it – or a fear that you will?
Here, in the city, on the hill, I wander around a bit longer, lost in my reverie. I stumble around a bit. Re-engaging is always a hard thing to do after the excitement of a challenge like this. I don’t know where to start, I just know that my vision of the world is subtly or suddenly altered, and I can’t go back to the way that things used to be.
I tread heavily on the sidewalks, the thunder of my footprints out of step with my balanced articulation in the water, and then I stub my toe because I’m not looking where I’m going. A crack in the ground jumps out at me and my body jolts – I trip, stumble, crash, and fall, my hands bracing against the crooked sidewalk. My bag slams the ground and a drop of fresh blood springs from the rough patch on my hands, gritty dirt quickly embedded in my calloused palms. Just as quickly as I daze off, I’m brought back to life, to now, to the being of being. I sit on the ground for a few seconds and smile. A passerby looks at me peculiarly from behind his cup of Starbucks Coffee.
Just another hobo girl in San Francisco, being weird.
[READER NOTE: This is part of the collection of thoughts on swimming I’m working on building this summer about the time I spend in the pool and in the open water. This is an excerpt from the book that’s currently in progress. Have any comments, thoughts, suggestions or reactions? Like it, hate it, want to know more? I would LOVE to hear your thoughts. Thank you.]