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Golden Gate Group IM

by Tom Keller

In the winter of 2006, a fellow English Channel swimmer, Becky Fenson, had the crazy idea of doing an individual medley across the Golden Gate Bridge – four miles total, one mile of each stroke. As I was eagerly seeking a break from freestyle, I began doing long distances of open water butterfly at the Dolphin Club in San Francisco. Unfortunately, my ambition was way stronger than my shoulders. As it was winter, I figured the sharp pain occurring in my left arm was due to the 50-degree February waters of our swimming hole.

An MRI revealed that I had torn up some tissue in my left shoulder both from the fly and training for the EC the year before. It took years of rest and rehab, relearning how to swim properly (lats, not delts), and concerted training in order to get my body back up to snuff with my ambition.

Golden Gate Group IMOnce I had the date for the swim down, some friends – Mike Chase, Mike Silva, John Ottersberg, and Jon Ennis - pledged to train and do it with me. None of us had even done a four-mile IM in a pool before event day, ostensibly adhering to the philosophy that one shouldn't run 26.2 miles before a marathon. However, we had done about three-quarters of the event in Aquatic Park. Even though this did help, no one could predict the other factors: 800 foot cargo ships, speeding fishing vessels, unpredictable chop, and fluthers of jellyfish.

I had to look up the collective noun for a group of jellyfish, a fluther, because we ran into so many of the up-to-football-sized gelatinous globs. On the other hand, the gross-factor and even their slight sting were strangely analgesic, being relatively pleasant distractions from the growing pain in our shoulders and ever-petrifying lactic acid in our hip flexors.

One mile of butterfly, lazily going about long strokes and gliding after a big kick, was the easiest part of our swim, taking an average of thirty minutes for us to finish. Touching Lime Rock, situated just east of the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, we turned over to our backs optimistically, having gotten fly out of the way and looking forward to everyone's second fastest open-water stroke, back.

However, it turned out to be our slowest leg of the swim, mainly due to the geography of our bay. The Golden Gate Bridge connects the peninsula of San Francisco with the southernmost peninsula of Marin County. The Pacific sweeps in during a flood tide, bottle-necking an ocean of strength at the one-mile span of the Gate. Once the turbid waters crowd their way through, currents then fan out in different directions of San Francisco Bay. During a full or new moon, tidal differences in the bay can be as much as seven feet. On our morning, picked a year in advance, there was seven-tenths of a foot of water moving between high and low tide. Though the current would be relatively anemic in both directions, tons of water were still diligent to their gravitational pull and offered great challenges when disagreeing with our direction.

Whenever any group decides to swim the span of the Golden Gate Bridge, they choose the end of a high tide due to the dying northward push enjoyed by swimmers coming from the coastline that gradually sweeps southward from Fort Point to Baker Beach. When a swimmer gets mid-span of the bridge, there is no longer a northward push, but a steady eastward current empowered by the 330 foot deep submarine canyon directly below at this point, offering a profoundly uninterrupted path into the bay.

When we reached this point during our backstroke leg, the northward current was somehow still pushing against us. This, coupled with a tanker moving conspicuously in our direction, made us turn to the west to let the tanker pass and fight against the dying flood. As the currents were shifting, the water became choppy and unpredictable. Breathing became difficult, as unpredictable chop would wash over our heads, making us sputter and aspirate water while our arms spun wildly to get back to Fort Point.

Past the south tower, the ebb current had kicked in and further delayed the end of the backstroke as menacing swells enveloped the monolithic stones buttressing Fort Point that we were meant to touch for our transition into breaststroke. After about 45 minutes, we reached it, took a quick feeding, and proceeded back north. Breaststroke was a tad slower than butterfly at about thirty-seven minutes, but the beauty of it was that we made it! I had really worried that we would have exhausted ourselves in the two legs of fly and back. There would be little to prevent us from failing to fight the ebb at mid-span while doing our most challenging stroke. Still, although we had to fight through a fortifying ebb at the south tower, it had not yet reached its potential as we neared the north. Waiting for another tanker to pass near the north tower, I saw that completing breaststroke would be possible and then we would be “free.”

The whole swim in its entirely took two hours and 25 minutes. Three of the five swimmers finished, the other two were pulled due to currents and cold. I had waited four and a half years to accomplish a swim that took about two and a half hours. However, and as always with big goals, the spirit we all put into the planning and training will last our lifetimes. In addition, we raised about $11,000 for our friends at Baykeeper, a non-profit organization that fights to keep our waters enjoyable and healthy.

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