by Alan Liu
In 1999, San Diego resident Ben Soule was looking for some motivation to get back into the pool. He decided to challenge his friend from Mountain View, Alan Liu, in the annual La Jolla Gatorman 3-Mile Roughwater Swim. Soule and Liu had swam together in college, and while Liu had maintained his swimming via Masters competitions, Soule was woefully out of shape and in need of exercise. The two agreed to a friendly wager: the loser would pay for Liu's airfare to San Diego. Soule was the loser.
"I beat his butt," Liu recalled a few weeks ago. Soule had been the faster distance freestyler in college, but he was unable to keep up only a few years later. It seemed that Soule had settled into a sedentary lifestyle in the comfort of So-Cal suburb-ville. Liu was shocked by the change. In fact, Liu had veered far off course and suffered the effects of mild hypothermia, but he still managed to win. Soule stayed on course, and his build did not make him susceptable to hypothermia, yet he still managed to lose. It was an upset to say the least. (Refer to the 1999 story for details.)
For the past two years, Soule has steamed over his loss. Again out of shape and low on motivation, he looked to rebound in the 2001 event. Spurred by his desire for revenge, Soule trained long and hard in order to beat his rival from the North. He trained in pools and in the Cove itself, competed in local ocean swims to practice, and perfected his beach start technique.
The day before the race, Liu arrived in San Diego. Soule tempted him with Sam Adams beers and a heavy meal that night, and tossed him upon the bumpy futon for the night. The morning of the race, Soule lured Liu to a cafe, where Liu gave in to his addiction to coffee, liters and liters of coffee, which would leave him dehydrated by the start of the race. No mind, Liu thought to himself, since the temperature would be the main factor.
The water, it turned out, was relatively warm: 69-degrees. However, the wind was blowing, the skies were grey, and the surf was up. Way up. It was a ROUGHwater swim.
Soule and Liu lined up at the start side-by-side. And they were off! Liu was glad to feel warm for once, and he headed for the turn bouy at a good pace. "I was drafting a pack of swimmers about 1/2 mile from the start, but they slowly pulled away from me," he said afterward. "The swells were so high that I could hardly keep them in sight as they took off. I was on my own until I neared the turn bouys." At that point, he picked up a draft from a swimmer who had caught him, "but it seemed that this guy didn't see the bouys. He kept veering off toward the shoreline." Liu ditched the draft, and made the turn.
Heading back for the finish, the waves came from Liu's breathing side. "I was having serious trouble breathing from the start, and the second half of the race was miserable. I must've drank 3 gallons of seawater," he recalled. Then, the unthinkable happened: Liu bonked with a mile to go. "I could swim about 500 yards before needing to stop and do breastroke. As the race dragged on, I needed more and more breaks. Part of it was being so gassed, and part of it was from not getting enough air in the waves," Liu said. "The strobe light at the finish just didn't get any closer."
Soule thinks he passed Liu about 1/2 mile from the finish. "I think I saw him," Soule said, "I saw some skinny, tan legs. It must've been Liu."
"The waves were just pissing me off at that point," Liu stated. "I just wanted to finish. I was drained, and the surf was just beating me up, adding insult to injury."
As Liu stumbled up the beach and across the finish light, he saw the wide smile of Soule near the juice table. All Liu could do was shake his head. "I gave it all I had. Soule beat me fair and square today," Liu admitted. True to form, he was so exhausted that he put his finishers medal on backwards for the post-race photo (above).
Soule and Liu had a late lunch with some friends, and Soule basked in his deserved glory. Will there be a rubber match sometime soon? Neither swimmer would commit since it is nice for each to have one victory to his credit.