Open Water Dreamers: It’s Time To Register For La Jolla

Digging through the mail I find too much junk, too many bills, too few checks and oh—now I smile--my La Jolla Rough Water Swim registration form. September 9th must be right around the corner. The form hasn’t changed a bit. It’s the same swim course, 1 or 3 miles (or for some, 1 and 3 miles). And it’s the same frightening waiver reminding signers of the POTENTIAL FOR SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. (Every year I like to re-read the risks that include but are not limited to: EXTREME PHYSICAL EXERTION, FALLS, CONTACT WITH OTHER PARTICIPANTS, ROCKS, EVENT EQUIPMENT, WATERCRAFT, POWERBOATS WITH PROPELLERS, VEHICULAR TRAFFIC, SHARKS AND OTHER POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS SEA ANIMALS, WEATHER AND COLD WATER.)

Let’s examine these risks one by one. Extreme physical exertion, yes. That’s something we train for. It is ill advised to do this event if you have not been training routinely in the pool or, if you’re lucky enough, in the ocean. That said, my friend Jill did the one-mile one year (backstroke) after just a few sessions in the pool.

Falls? Hmm. I suppose you could fall down the steep stairs leading to the beach at the start of the race; or more likely fall up the stairs when you are cross-eyed from the extreme physical exertion after you finish.

Contact with other participants. Well, that’s a given in an event this size. My advice at the start is just to keep your head down. The frothed frenzy usually doesn’t last that long. Last year, some bloke was jabbing his fingernails into the soles of my feet for about 2 miles. Now that’s obnoxious. I tried dodging the drafter by veering right, then left but he was always right there. I tried kicking really hard (which for me is extreme physical exertion indeed) but he didn’t get the hint. I got cramps in my feet as a result, but didn’t lose the drafter. Not that there’s anything wrong with drafting, mind you, but when you’re poking someone’s feet on every stroke, Man, you need to back off. I think he eventually must have passed me.

Rocks. Yes, my friend Lisa stepped on a rock on the beach and hurt her ankle badly right before the race last year. Watch out for those.

Event equipment. Don’t get tangled up in those flags that line the queue when you’re getting marked. And don’t put that ankle chip on so tight it restricts blood flow. Then again, make sure it’s tight. Those things are expensive to replace if you lose one.

Watercraft. Kayaks and surfboards police the course. They should be watching out for you, but still. Beware.

Powerboats. Have you ever met anyone that got too close to a propeller? My point exactly.

Vehicular traffic. Yes, well, don’t expect to find a parking space anywhere near the cove.

Sharks and other potentially dangerous sea animals. Now we’re talking. Leopard sharks live on the bottom. They are small and harmless. I know this because a) I’ve seen them and b) there is a nice lady from Scripps who told me all about them one year before the event. They say there’s never been a shark attack in all 76 years of the event. And I believe them. Mostly, expect to see those cool orange Garibaldi’s that frequent the shallows, and maybe a curious seal eyeing you from a rock. One year, when it was particularly warm, there were giant schools of small bait fish, the size of minnows, which were really fun to swim through. You could part them like the Red Sea. And then there was the time my friend Screven got stung in the face by a jellyfish. It didn’t stop him.

Weather. I’ve heard of years when ocean conditions were described as “a washing machine.” But every year I’ve been there, it’s been sunny and beautiful and easy swimming.

Cold water. Now that’s a different story. The air might be 80 degrees, but the ocean can be 58, like it was the first year I did this race. I recall seeing the Gator-people exiting like popsicles, teeth a chatter, lips a blue, and lifeguards whisking them under blankets into heated vans when they didn’t know their own names. No wonder it took me several years to get my nerve up to swim the Gatorman. Relax. For the past three years the water has been in the 70s. That’s perfect if you ask me.

So, what’s a little risk when the reward is a day at the beach in La Jolla? Yeah, I guess it’s time to register (on or before August 24), book my room and book my flight. (To download a form, go to http://www.ljrws.com/.) Last year, I registered early, but didn't decide to actually go until the day before. I logged on to the internet to see what the conditions would be. Big swells and rip currents were forecast! How could I miss it? Especially since I'd aged up and actually had a chance to do better than 5th. I checked with Southwest Airlines and found out I could take a flight from Tucson that morning and return that evening after the race. Not a bad commute. I booked it. Next thing I knew, I was enjoying the day in La Jolla, and setting off the metal detector at the airport with a bronze medal in my pocket on my way home. Sweet!

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