The ocean is a funny place. Some days it's quiet, and then without warning it's not.
I have a race one week from today, Vineman 70.3, which is a half-ironman distance race. At this point, as my coach likes to remind us, you can't do anything to make your race better, so now is the time to taper and be ready for race day. To that goal, I had a 45 minute open water swim on my schedule for today.
The "Chicken of the Sea" swim with the LA Tri Club takes place at 8:30 am on Sunday mornings. It is called "Chicken of the Sea" because the location is sheltered by the Marina, and is considered ideal for those who are nervous about waves in the ocean. We swim north toward the Venice Pier, about a mile away.
Now, I'm no "Chicken". I've lived in Los Angeles for four years and during that time have done numerous ocean swims. I join the Tower 26 group every Wednesday morning during the summer, where we practice entering and exiting over and over again. I was on call until 9 am, so I entered the ocean a bit later than everyone else, so I was swimming alone. But, I did see a member of my team there and said hello to him at the start, so that someone knew I was there.
I entered alone and swam alone, though there were several swimmers in the area. The water was a bit wavier than usual. I did my swim on my own. I kept it at a leisurely pace since I have a race coming up next week. It was uneventful.
About forty minutes later, just a few hundred yards from the Venice pier, I prepared to exit. Initially, the water was pretty flat. And as I headed to shore, I swam looking behind me periodically so I would not be surprised by any major waves.
A few hundred feet from shore, a rather tall wave approached. I'd say it was about six feet high. I prepared to dive under it. As I dove under, I got caught in the wave and was dragged forward. My left arm twisted and I felt it pull hard. I think I was dragged to the floor and it felt like eternity before I came up again.
But as soon as I could stand up, another big wave came. Barely having caught my breath from the previous wave, I tried to dive under, but similarly, I was dragged with it. And I stood up again coughing, not sure which direction I was facing. Another wave was coming. I thought I was in front of a lifeguard tower, but might have been dragged in one direction or another, because I didn't see the tower any more. I could barely speak but I put my hands overhead hoping to get attention from someone on the shore. But I didn't get a chance as another huge wave pounded me. As I was dragged underwater this time, I lost my swim cap and goggles.
I was absolutely wiped out, gasping for my breath. Again I put my hands overhead and yelled "Help!" I have no idea how loud I yelled. Probably not very loud. Unfortunately, I didn't get anyone's attention. Fortunately, the waves calmed down and I was able to get to shore.
I sat down on the sand, heart still pounding, still gasping. As I sat there, another club member came by, and asked if I was ok. I was calm by then, and I walked with him back to where we had started our swim.
In the end, I have a strained left shoulder and right groin muscle, which seem to be calming down after I iced them. I had a throat full of sand, my ears were packed with sand, and even hours after this adventure, whenever I lean foward salt water and sand drain out of my nose.
The ocean and I need to spend some time apart for now.
My lesson from today is that even if I know people at a swim, I can't be swimming alone, even if I am experienced. Another swimmer with me might have been able to pull me in when I tired out, or could have been more effective at getting the attention of a lifeguard.
The other lesson is that no matter how calm the reputation of the water where I'm swimming, conditions can change, and I need to be ready.