The Ocean is my Gatorade
Today was a lovely day for a swim in the ocean. Overcast, and cool 70 degrees with a nice ocean breeze, 68 degree choppy water with 4 foot swells and green as a bottle of Heineken. As always, I met the usual suspects by the municipal parking lot in Brighton Beach. During the summer, we meet by “Grimaldo’s chair”, but now that fall is upon us the lifeguards of summer and Grimaldo’s chair are long gone.
Today was a special day as several reporters from various magazines and shows came down to interview us. They were doing a story on this intrepid band of swimmers that hit the surf from March through November. After each of us gave our respective interviews, we made for the water to do our usual circuit. This consists of a 5K + swim (depending on the current) starting East towards the end/beginning of Brighton Beach, then in the opposite direction to the Coney Island Pier and then back to where we started. All totaled it takes approximately two hours.
As a Triathlete, an Ironman Triathlete at that, I probably have a bit less body fat than the rest of the group. I am already cold and shivering long before our toes touch the water. I know however, that I will warm up as soon as I get my heart rate gets moving. Tucking a flask of Hammergel into my swimsuit, I set after the lead swimmers of our group.
I am not the fastest swimmer among us, but I am also not the slowest. This usually means I am somewhere in the middle of all the swimmers through most of the swim. We start out by going left towards our first landmark, the white house – an apartment building – that marks the end of Brighton Beach. Beyond this house lies about a half mile of rocks separating Brighton Beach from Manhattan Beach. I am told that on occasion, the current is so strong that some swimmers from various groups past were swept to Manhattan Beach and had to walk back.
No such event happened today and the lead swimmers waited for the rest of us to regroup. I usually arrive at this spot 15 minutes into my swim. It is around this point that you also realize which way the current is moving. Everyone arrives in short order, where we chat in the open water several hundred yards away from the shore. It is our equivalent of a running group taking a break by the water fountain.
Today we have our swim cut out for us. The swells are clearly making their presence known and we often get a mouthful of salt water when we turn to breath. At least I don’t have to worry about getting enough electrolytes into my system. The ocean water serves as my own special Gatorade – it has all the salt, plankton, and jellyfish I need to energize and refuel myself. If that doesn’t do it, the occasional jellyfish sting prods me to go forward.
From this point to the pier is approximately two miles. We swim very far away from shore to avoid the jetties. Within a few minutes, I am swimming quite alone. The high seas make it tough to consistently keep an eye on the landmarks. At least I am breathing to my right, which helps keep the waves from breaking into my mouth, except when the break over my head.
The feeling of being alone in the middle of the open water is very hard to describe. If it wasn’t for my complete lack of fear when it comes to drowning, I suppose I would be nervous. The only thing I am really antsy about is having a plastic bag hit me in the face when I am swimming. Few things are as revolting and disconcerting as a slimy, cloying plastic bad being plastered to your face by the force of the current. The only thing I really touched during this swim was the occasional jellyfish. Several times the tips of my fingers plunged through a jellyfish as it was floating by. They feel like a hairy slimy blob. If I were playing the game where you had to guess what you are touching by placing your hand inside a bag and not look, I would guess that I was touching hairy scalps. Don’t ask me where this thought came from. Blame it on hypothermia.
I thought it was fitting that on my way towards the Coney Island Pier, the Cyclone Rollercoaster begins to appear in the corner of your eye. A swim through choppy water with decent swells is like a nice rollercoaster ride. At one point, a large wave broke and rolled right over me. I stopped for a second wondering if I just got hit by the wake of a boat. No boat was in site, so I continued along my merry way.
Occasionally during these long open water swims, there comes a point where you feel you are just not getting anyway. For me, this point is usually where two large white apartment towers stand. It can feel like you are swimming for days before you pass them. Sometimes when the current is strong, swimming past them is pure torture. It is like walking the wrong way on an escalator. The moment you slow down, you start going in the opposite direction. Today I was feeling strong though, and I got past the towers with little trouble.
Finally I got to the Coney Island Pier. I was out far enough in the water that I was just beyond the end of the pier. I was able to look for other swimmers from my group, when the swells lifted me up high. Finally I saw my friend Cristian come up from behind me (he is faster than me, but I had a head start) and then my friend Lori swam over to us. We bobbed around for a while waiting for others, while the fishermen and crabbers on the pier looked down at us. You could hear their minds asking who these crazy people are floating around in the water.
After several minutes, it was apparent that the three of us were the only ones who decided to swim the entire distance. I started to head back first while Lori and Cristian waited another minute to see if anyone else came along.
After a couple of minutes swimming back to the start, I noticed that I was heading right for the jetty sticking out into the water. The waves must have pushed me too close to shore. I am glad I noticed in time to swim back out, because crashing onto the rocks would not be a pleasant part of my swim. I headed back out and put some more distance between myself and the shore.
The water started to get a bit rougher by this time and the waves would disorient you on occasion. At one point during my swim back, I noticed the Coney Island Parachute jump from my right eye. This would be fine if I as swimming towards the pier, but since I was swimming in the opposite direction, it could only mean that I was swimming right out into the open water. I was pretty far from shore now, but at least I was also far away from the jetties. In any event, I finally picked a landmark ahead of me to keep in sight and made the rest of the way back uneventfully.
I was the last one out of the water since Lori and Cristian finished well ahead of me. Everyone else got out of the water much earlier. Drying off and changing back on dry land, we all agreed it was a great day for a swim and couldn’t think of anything else we would rather have been doing.