A few days after my birthday, I ran, swam, and biked a lot. Here I am on the pier, struggling to get a wetsuit past my knees in preparation for a 1.2-mile swim from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park. Here are some lessons I learned.

A few days after my birthday, I ran, swam, and biked a lot. Here I am on the pier, struggling to get a wetsuit past my knees in preparation for a 1.2-mile swim from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park. Here are some lessons I learned.

1.  If you have to run first, don’t run for miles. It’s better to swim away from the prison first, so that when you are a half-mile between the rock and the shore, your calf doesn’t bunch up into something the size and elasticity of a baseball. It’s difficult to swim successfully from Alcatraz with a cramp. Instead, rest beforehand, drink warm fluids, and say a few prayers to the shark gods that their minions will be occupied in the saltier waters nearer the ocean.

2.  Pick a nice day–sun, no wind. Saturday, for instance, was lovely.

3.  You will be leaving the captivity of Alcatraz in the captivity of a 3mm, Yamamoto rubber suit. It’s like Spanx for your whole body. You won’t be able to move except to windmill your arms.

4.  Wave to the tourists before you jump into the water. They will make themselves known by arriving at the prison on a colorful boat, wearing layers of San Francisco gift-shop apparel, and carrying cameras. It’s unlikely that they will dismiss as ordinary twenty rubber-clad people leaping from a sound vessel into the bay, so when you do, step up on the rail, hold your goggles with one hand, and offer a cheerful wave or salute (whatever the rubber suit permits) to the row of camera lenses. Leap.

5.  The water will be cold enough to chill a bottle of champagne. Multitask your hyperventilating and begin windmilling toward the shore. All that thrashing will warm you up.

6.  Actually, don’t aim for the shore. Five million gallons of water are leaving the bay every second, creating a strong ocean-bound current. Aim for something very east of your target.

7.  Keep windmilling. By now, your goggles have fogged up. Maybe you’ve even lost a contact lens. If you have a buddy, now is the time to keep her in sight, because whatever very-east target you were aiming for is just a horizon enveloped in a salty blur of light.

8.  If so blinded, do not think deeply about danger cues; for instance, exhaust fumes or buzzing engines. Sounds underwater are farther than they seem, and you are not being hunted by a roving pod of Ninja blenders, or otherwise. Imagination is not your friend.

IMG_32099.  If you are aiming for Aquatic Park, you should pass the breakwater around the thirty-five-minute mark. The water will get warmer and flatter, and the beach will appear. You will experience a rush of relief, and suddenly remember how to swim well. Show some gratitude, and don’t pass your swim buddy.

10.  Stand up in two feet of water. Wipe the gunk off your face. Hug your swim buddy. You just escaped from Alcatraz.

Thank you to Eric Gilsenan for running the Escape Academy, the Oakland Triathlon Club for the chance to participate in it, and especially Erin, the loyalest swim buddy, best friend, and love of my life. There is no other way I’d rather spend a birthday. 

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