1999 La Jolla Roughwater Swims

September 12, 1999


by Alan Liu

In 1998, I visited a friend of mine, Ben, down in San Diego. On one sunny afternoon, we drove up to La Jolla to swim the cove. We swam 1 mile across to La Jolla Shores and back again. The water was calm and not-too-cold, the sky was blue, and the scene was perfect despite the numerous sand sharks that swam all around us. My buddy told me of the La Jolla Roughwater swims held every September, and we agreed to compete in the 1999 event.

In the early part of this year, I told Ben how I was training 6 times per week to prepare for the USMS Nationals. Ben hadn't been training yet, and was worried that I would be in better shape by the time the La Jolla Roughwater happened. To add some incentive to the event, Ben bet me the amount of my San Diego airfare on the race - whoever came in second between the two of us would pay for the plane ticket. I was in great shape at the time, so I agreed to the bet without hesitation.

Later on, I asked Ben to be my best man for my wedding. He agreed. Not only was it an opportunity for Ben to be a good friend, it was an opportunity for him to set me back in my training. At the bachelor party weekend in Tahoe, Ben and the rest of my former-friends absolutely trashed me, showing no mercy at all. During the week preceding the wedding, I was unable to train and lost a lot of my base. All this while, Ben was quietly stepping up to 4 swim practices per week and a few practice swims in the cove.

After the wedding, I sent in my entry for the La Jolla Roughwater. There were two events offered: the Master's 1-Mile and the Gatorman 3-mile. I had heard the horror stories from the previous year of 60-degree water, so I thought that maybe Ben was just thinking of swimming the 1-mile event. I called to ask, and sure enough…3-miles!

In mid-August, I knew I was in trouble. I had only 3 weeks before the Maui Channel and Waikiki Roughwater swims, but I could no longer keep up with the Lane 8 crowd on Freestyle days. I was able to practice at least 4 times per week, and I decided that it would have to be enough.

In Hawai'i, I had a great opening leg to the Maui Channel Swim. Somehow, just being in the islands makes everything go ok. At the Waikiki swim, I beat my previous time by 4 minutes in equally challenging conditions. I began to think that I might be in good enough shape to swim well in La Jolla too.

The next weekend I flew to San Diego. Ben and I cruised up to La Jolla for a lunchtime swim. We went out about a quarter-mile and turned back in. The water was about 62-degrees at the beach, but it got a few degrees warmer out in the cove. There was hope that the race wouldn't be to bad. We then headed up to UCSD to watch the Olympic Cup meet featuring swimmers from the National Teams of Great Britain, France, and the United States. It truly was inspiring. We hit a Spanish restaurant for tapas for dinner and hit the hay early.

On the day of the race, I slept in until 9:00. All the travel and stress from work had caught up with me. The only thing that got me out of bed was the fact that it was the start of the NFL regular season and my team was on TV. Ben's girlfriend Jane drove us up to La Jolla at 10:30, and we watched the Women's Master's 1-Mile race from the cliff's edge. Somewhere in that pack of splashing arms and legs were Suzanne, Deborah, and Lynn. They started the race in separate waves of about 200 swimmers, and it still seemed too crowded. I wondered how the Gatorman start would be organized.

The Women's Masters Mile heads out to sea

We watched the finishers come up the beach. It wasn't too long before Suzanne and Deborah pulled themselves out of the surf and across the finish line. A couple of minutes later, Lynn sprinted in. They all had great swims! But they were all freezing cold. The water was 60-degrees at the beach, maybe a little warmer out in the cove. Still, my fears of suffering hypothermia and cramping in the middle of the ocean came creeping in to my mind. I decided against swimming a warm-up.

As we donned our yellow Gatorman caps, we learned that there would be just one wave at the start. How absurd! The beach is only 40-yards long at the most, and we had 400 swimmers in the event! I remembered how badly I was kicked in the face at the start of the Waikiki Roughwater, so I decided that I'd start in the front row for this event. The race organizers tried to line us up on the beach by entry number, but due to their miscommunications and the fact that us swimmers had our own plans for the start, I was able to wriggle my way up to the front.

The Gatormen get ready on the beach

The last swimmers from the Men's Master's Mile were still finishing their race, fighting their way through the 400 Gatormen on the beach. I thought about turning in to the finish chute myself, but I saw Ben standing behind me so I knew I couldn't chicken out.

The scene on the beach was tense. Everyone had their yellow caps on, were spitting into their goggles, and were jumping up and down to stay warm and loose. My heart was pounding as I looked out across the cove to the pier 1-1/2 miles away. They told us that there were two turn buoys out there, somewhere. They had put balloons up on the buoys for the 1-mile course but not for the 3-mile course, not that we could see them from the beach anyway.

At last, the starter got ready to send us off. We were packed in on the beach, ten rows deep, tip-toeing toward the water's edge. The starter hollered into his megaphone, "Take your marks…" and BANG! we were off!

The race is underway

I sprinted into the water and started hammering my way out to sea. I was constantly sandwiched between swimmers on both sides as I was climbing up the legs of the person in front of me. I took an elbow to my eye, and then another. Maybe the Swedish-style goggles aren't the best choice for these races. 30 yards out we began to hit the swells. I was thrown from side to side, practically on top of other swimmers. I tried to look ahead, but there was nothing but whitewater in my view. (Jane remarked later on that the start looked more like a pond at a fish farm.) My adrenaline was pumping, but I was hoping that the field would smooth out quickly so I could find a more sane pace.

We continued banging into each other past one of the Master's 1-Mile turn buoys. I was thinking that the balloons actually are a big help from the water's surface, but I would get no such help in this race. The water had warmed up a bit and I found a good rhythm for my stroke. I looked to my breathing side, and I could swear that it was Ben swimming right next to me. I tried to time my stroke with his to look for those orange-colored goggles of his, but another swell came across and I lost him.

It's all elbows and knees in the crowded start

The field of swimmers finally thinned out. I felt as though everyone was passing me from the moment we first entered the water. I began to question why I had positioned myself at the front on the beach. Some guy in a blue suit to my left was crashing in to me with every stroke. Or was I crashing in to him? I can't tell if I'm going straight or not. I look ahead and can barely see the pier, so I decide to follow the swimmers directly in front of me. I see a woman to my right; she's breathing to her left and our strokes are at the same pace. I look at her face with each stroke and wonder if she's looking at mine. The guy on my left crashes in to me again. It must be his fault because the waves are coming from the left, or so I tell myself.

I feel like I've been in the water for 30 minutes, but I still can't see the turn buoys. It's starting to get colder and colder. The water must be about 58 degrees on this side of the cove. My left foot feels like it's in a bucket of ice. I try to kick more to get the blood flowing, but I have to keep the motion smooth and loose to avoid cramping. But my foot just gets colder and colder. My whole body gets colder. I peer into the dark blue depths looking for sharks…

At last I can see the turn buoys. There are two bright orange floats in the water, linked together with something like a lane line. I'm so cold that I start to get scared. I look at the lifeguard boat and think for just a moment about calling for help. But no, I figure that I've made it halfway so I can make it back.

I turn the buoys, and suddenly, everyone is gone! As the waves rise and fall, I see a swimmer here and there, but they all look like they're going straight out to sea! Now I realize that I am completely disoriented. I catch up to two women and follow them for 20 yards, but it seems like they're headed for the cliffs. I definitely don't want to go that way because I'll have to fight the current at the finish. A swimmer flies by in the opposite direction. Is he lost or am I? Or are we both?

I look for the finish line and realize that I have no idea what the cliff face on that side of the cove looks like. That's the side that I'm always looking from, not at! Do I aim for the edge of the cliff or the big square building in the middle? How far from the edge was the finish line? I start to panic, and the two women pull ahead of me and out of sight.

OK OK OK. Calm down and swim. I cruise for a while, just hoping that I don't end up too far off course. I look around every fourth stroke, and I see nobody. No swimmers, no paddleboards, just a sailboat way off in the distance. I tell myself that everything will turn out fine. As I swim, I try to remember where the beach is. It's close to the edge of the cliff, where the cove ends. I think. Well, I have to go with that, and if I'm right, then I've definitely been swimming too far inland and will have to fight the current to the finish.

I turn into the waves and swim and swim and swim. A paddleboarder skims over to me from my right (sea) side. I hesitate to ask him where I am, and I just keep swimming. Once I pass him, he paddles away off to my right. Now I know I've gone too far inland toward the cliffs. I aim for the sailboat on the horizon. I'm still cold, and now I'm very tired, but I know that the lifeguards can see me, and I press on.

After a few minutes, I figure that I'm close to being back on course. I swim up to two paddleboarders and ask them to point me to the finish. They point out the strobe light at the finish line, and I head straight for it. At this point, I just want to finish. I'm back in the warmer water again, but my fuel tank is on Empty. I'm sure by now that Ben is way ahead of me and that I'm going to lose the bet.

I see the strobe light, then the stairwell to the beach, then the beach itself. About 25 yards offshore, I see a couple of swimmers. They're the first swimmers I've seen in about 20 minutes! I catch a wave onto the beach (I guess I learned something from Waikiki), and I run up to the finish line. I hear people congratulating me for finishing, and I look up at the clock. My time is 1:11.

I file through the finish chute and pick up my finisher's medal and t-shirt. I grab a PowerBar and some juice. A guy is trying to force hot chocolate on me - is he crazy? It's 80 degrees out here in the sun! I climb the stairs to the top of the cliffs. My time is better than I expected, but I'm sure that Ben is waiting for me up above.

I reach the top of the stairs and I see Jane. Ben hasn't finished yet, she tells me. We turn to look at the beach, and there he is, orange goggles and all. His time is 1:14.

I go to the lawn where my belongings are, and I realize that I'm shivering uncontrollably. No wonder that guy wanted to give me hot cocoa. I dry off and pile clothes on. Jane and Ben come up and pile more clothes on me. I shiver for 30 minutes. That water was really really cold.

Ben, Jane and I head up to town for some lunch. Anchor Steam and a burger seems fitting. I need something to balance the saltwater in my stomach. Other Gatormen come through for lunch. We all watch the football game on the TV. It's now 5:00 (where does the time go?), so we head back to the cove to get the race results.

As we walk up, they are posting the Gatorman results. Great timing! Ben and I find the 25-29 age group, and we're shocked. I placed 4th in the age group and Ben placed 7th out of 25 finishers. Unbelievable! They are handing out the awards at the time, so we wait around for our age group. The announcer calls my name, and I head up to the podium. None other than Miss La Jolla 1999 puts the medal around my neck - what a bonus! We snap a photo and head for home.

A job well done!

Once at Ben's apartment, we finish a 6-pack and veg-out in front of the TV. Ah, the spoils of war! It's time to get to the airport, and as we leave, Ben hands me the cash for the airfare. I tell him that it's double or nothing for next year, and that he should have La Jolla to turn on the pool heater in time for the race.