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Fitness Bound

Bracing, Briny: This Is a Swim

September 16, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When my 63-year-old aunt invited family members to join her in the La Jolla Rough Water Swim in early September, I immediately dismissed the idea as lunatic. She and her husband--who founded the Ironman Triathlon in 1978--are bionic adventurers who spend their free time sailing the world, biking in exotic places and running inhuman distances.

I, on the other hand, had let my fitness regimen slip and hadn't swum regularly all summer. But the invitation was a gauntlet thrown down, so I decided to go for it. After initially trying to dissuade me, my husband, who has probably never swum more than half a mile in a pool, decided he would try it too. (To go all the way to La Jolla and not swim would be pretty lame, he said.)

So on a recent Sunday we found ourselves on the edge of a cliff at La Jolla Cove, clutching our goggles, staring out at a distant collection of buoys and balloons that marked our course and wondering if we were out of our minds.

Known affectionately as "The Big Wet One," the La Jolla Rough Water Swim is one of the oldest open-water swimming events in the country. The first La Jolla ocean race was held in 1916, as part of the World's Fair in San Diego. Seven men swam 1.7 miles from the Scripps Institute's Biological Pier south to La Jolla Cove that cold summer day. Over the next 86 years, the event's sponsorship changed, the course altered and the number of participants grew.

Today the La Jolla Rough Water Swim is one of 19 events sponsored by Southern California Aquatics, the largest adult swimming club in the United States. With race distances ranging from a half-mile to 10 miles, the events, known as the 2002 Southern California Open Water Swim Series, take place over four summer months. Swims are held from as far north as Avila Beach, above Santa Barbara, to as far south as Coronado. The final swim of the series, the Catalina Clearwater Classic, will take place Sept. 22.

Organizers estimate that more than 2,000 people participated in this year's La Jolla races, including 550 men and 305 women in the respective one-mile masters' races and 419 people in the three-mile Gator Man.

At the registration booth, my husband and I stripped to our suits, and volunteers scrawled numbers on our shoulders with black markers. I strapped on my heart-rate monitor but later found it didn't function in salt water.

A bystander at the railing above the beach showed us the course. Our event, the one-mile, was a triangle. From the small cove, competitors would swim east to a buoy half a mile out, head one-quarter mile west to the second buoy, then back to the beach, where a strobe light flashed from the cliff to guide us home.

Hearing that we were first-timers, the man offered tips. Get your bearings, he advised. You won't be able to see the buoys from the water, so aim for the red roof across the bay. Don't be frightened if you get tangled in the kelp; just keep your arms close to your body and float above it. Grab it and pull if you have to. And ride the waves in at the end, he said. They look small from up here, but they are actually so strong that when you are tired, they can pull you backward. Finally, he said, don't stop swimming until your fingers hit the sandy bottom. Then, and only then, should you run for the finish.

Several minutes before 11 a.m., they called the women's masters (in this race, anyone over 19). I was in the first heat, with all women younger than 39.

We lined up on the stairs leading down to the cove until the loudspeaker called us onto the beach. We scampered across the sand and lined up in the surf. The real competitors pushed to the front. I tried to stay near the back.

The waves were bigger down here. They looked as if they would take out the table of Gatorade cups and knock down the front-line swimmers. At sea level, the first buoy was a lot harder to see.

I had butterflies in my stomach.

A La Jolla councilman raised the starting gun into the air. Bang! And we were off.

Hundreds of women surged into the waves. We dived into the surf and onto one another like seals. The land world receded as I submerged into a sea of white bubbles. All I could hear was the thrashing of a thousand limbs. I focused on not getting kicked in the head.

We headed out to sea like a drunken school of fish. I could feel us careening off course to the right, but with swimmers on every side, resistance was futile. I lifted my head to try to see the buoy, the red roof. Nothing. I put down my head and went with the flow.

I tried to get into a rhythm, to not think about how far I had to go. I could see the swirl of seaweed below in the blue-green depths, and blurry patches of sand and rock.

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