Last night my friend Tatania and I were discussing doing a long run together this coming weekend when she casually threw out the idea,“ I’m swimming a 5k in the Potomac River on Saturday. Why don’t you join me for the swim and we can do the long run after?”
Wha? I immediately thought of sharks.
Last August my brother Mike and I had a similar “casual” conversation about swimming at La Jolla Cove in San Diego. “I swim it all the time, and the La Jolla Swim Club is there every day, there are buoys to mark the distance, it’s great!” he said all in one breath in the very convincing, excited and determined way he speaks when he wants you to do something you’re not quite sure about.
I can swim. I grew up swimming competitively and vacationing at the beach with plenty of time spent in the ocean. And I was training for my first triathlon so I had been in the pool recently. But my triathlon only had a 1/4 mile swim and my training had been pretty specific to that distance.
La Jolla Cove is famous for the sea lion colony that lives in the cove. And sea lions have the word “lion” in their name. And lions are scary. Lions may eat you. While I have swimming experience in pools, my ocean experience was limited to “jump or dive” games in about 3-5 feet of water, in the Atlantic Ocean, not the colder, more intimidating Pacific Ocean. Not amongst sea lions. Or sharks.
“Eh, it’s a COVE for crying out loud. It’s warm and calm and there are swimmers everywhere and the Garibaldi are AMAZING! You’ll love it! Come on! It’s triathlon training!” My brother is a convincing guy. And I was kind of intrigued. But also really a bit scared. “I’ll stay with you and we’ll do it together,” he said.
And so I found myself standing on the edge of La Jolla Cove before sunrise one August morning, nervously adjusting my goggles, practically hyperventilating, listening to my brother and his friends make a plan for us.
“We’re going all the way across and back. Two miles,” my brother said, referring to himself, his friend Aaron and me.
The other two in our group, Jack and Sarah, said they would be going to the first buoy and back, ½ mile total.
“Maybe I should just stick with Jack and Sarah. I’m not sure I can swim two miles.” I said as I watched my brother begin to swim away. “WAIT FOR ME!” I shouted after him, remembering his words, “I’ll stay with you and we’ll do it together.”
He did wait, and I swam in his wake, as close to him as I could without getting my teeth kicked in. From the left came the swell of the Pacific, sloshing over my face every time I took a breath. “Take breaths on both sides!” he was yelling back at me. “I. cannot. breathe. on. the. left.” I choked. I was breathing right, swallowing salt water left and when I looked down, my field of vision was filled with schools of orange Garibaldi.
My brother loves the beautiful bright orange fish that fill the waters of La Jolla Cove. They are absolutely gorgeous. But they are also part of a food chain. If the Garibaldi love it so much here, then the things that eat Garibaldi are probably here and those things also probably want to eat me.
Plus, the Sea Lions were everywhere. I had read extensively about them. They are usually not aggressive toward humans but they are territorial and sometimes nip – WHAT? I swam on, as hard as I could. Stroke, breathe, swallow water, hyperventilate, etc. My heart rate was so high, not from the effort of swimming, which was a challenge for sure, but from pure terror of Creatures of the Sea. I made it across the cove using a combination of free style and pure adrenaline rush.
By the time we were approaching the beach on the other side of the cove, the halfway point, I was thrilled to stand up in the shallow water and sand.
“DO THE STINGRAY SHUFFLE!” My brother was shouting back to me again. Something about a stingray shuffle. I looked at him in confusion and then when he said, “You know, stingray, like the thing that killed the Crocodile Hunter,” my expression turned to horror. “Shuffle your feet in the sand so you don’t get stabbed.” Are you effing kidding me? I just survived a mile long open water swim chugging salt water and dodging Sea Lions and now I’m about to die from a Sting Ray? I immediately shuffled as best I could onto the beach.
“Maybe Jack and Sarah can come pick us up over here?” I begged. “Nah, all we have to do now is go back,” he said and made his way back into the water.
I had calmed down quite a bit. I knew if I didn’t get my heart rate down that the second mile was going to be a mess. I took a big deep breath and started swimming. And then I immediately looked up at my brother, who had also looked up at me and we locked eyes and he said, “That’s a big fish. But you know, they usually aren’t aggressive toward humans.” And he swam on.
And I was left there in his wake, looking down at a 4 foot shark that was about 2 feet below me in about 10 feet of water. Should I swim back to shore, which was RIGHT THERE? In my terror, I couldn’t even figure out how to turn around, so I just started swimming forward after my brother, as fast as my legs could kick and arms could pull.
And I thought to myself, “Why cry when the ocean will just swallow your tears? Just swim.” I’m not going to say I broke the 2-mile record at La Jolla Cove that day, but my second mile was incredibly fast as I tried desperately to keep up with my brother who also seemed to be swimming quite a bit faster. Every Garibaldi represented shark bait, every Sea Lion was out to get me. I tried to make myself go faster, faster, faster and finally we were climbing over the rocks and out of the water, finished.
“You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever done the entire 2 miles,” my brother said with a satisfied and somewhat surprised look on his face. “What? You’ve never gone 2 miles and you took me out there and also shark!” I said. Then Aaron, who had been swimming calmly and silently with us the whole morning, said, “Yeah, that was a big shark. And I got nipped a bunch of times by Sea Lions too.”
“You people are crazy.” I said. And then my brother broke it down for me. “I know you would not have gone for the 2 miles if you knew I hadn’t done it before and I knew you could do it. And I wanted to do it with you. And we did it, and we should both be really stoked.”
He can say stoked because he’s been surfing and open water swimming in California for eons whereas even when I write it I feel awkward. But goddamn, I have to tell you, I was really fucking stoked.
For the record, it was a leopard shark and they really are not typically aggressive toward humans, but if you ever swim alongside or right above one, you will likely immediately become quite unstoked.
So I guess I'm going back into open water again this weekend. I'm not going to do the 5k. Even without a swell, 3 miles of river swimming followed by a run sounds like a long morning. But the event offers shorter distances as well, so I'm putting my goggles back on. At least there aren't any Sea Lions in the Potomac.