The tributaries begin in the southern reaches of the Cascade Mountains, all that winter flood churning through the volcanic Ring of Fire and flowing south until colliding with the granitic snow melt of the Sierra Nevada and pushing onward toward the San Francisco Bay.
Millions of gallons tumbling and gushing through scores of wide rivers or trickling through half hidden, sun-baked creekbeds: the Coyote, Black John, Steamboat, Railroad, Yulupa, Napa, Sacramento — onward it all continues, unceasing.
Upstream, on this particular weekend, dams were opened, and still more waters came, the fresh water emptying like an ooze into the Bay and smashing into the wall of ocean water sluicing through the Golden Gate.
The water in this tumultuous meeting ground is green and brackish and tastes like salt and mountain mud and pennies.
I should know: I drank nearly all of it.
It took me just under a half hour to swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park, and in that time, I managed to consume however millions of gallons come from the mountains and however millions of gallons swell in from the sea. By the time I emerged from the water, crab-walking sideways on the beach from all the dizzy sea pitch, my belly was distended and full.
They say triathletes master the art of peeing on the go — on bikes or on the run. I can now see why.
But … I made it.
It may not have been pretty or smelled all that great, but as my first-ever triathlon approaches, I have to say: I’m ready. I can do this.
During this practice run, I conquered the one part that was literally keeping me up at night, making me sweat, filling every moment with dread: the swim.
When I jumped off the boat near Alcatraz and felt the initial spasm of cold water, I feared it was just as bad as I imagined it would be. The rush of cold water took my breath away and after an initial surge of adrenaline-inspired swimming, I stopped, gasped for breath and looked around for the safety boats.
They were nowhere in sight.
Four-foot swells hid everything but water — endless walls of water ringing me in the Bay.
What, I thought, have I done?
Then a swell caught me and I saw the boats and kayaks and the jet skis all there to scoop out tired or current-caught swimmers. I focused on breathing for a few minutes and got my bearings, aiming toward the markers on shore: the decommissioned Navy boat, the merchant ship, the condo-towers. It took me a few more minutes to calm down, but I finally began the swim … only to stop again when I realized I was no longer in a group of swimmers.
My plan was to stay with the group, hoping that if one of us got attacked by sharks or sea lions or rabid anemones, there was safety in numbers. So every couple of minutes, I stopped and waited for the group.
Swim, stop, panic. Was that a shark? Swim, stop, panic. Can you die from salt water consumption?
This got old, fast.
At some point during the swim, I said, “screw it,” and just kept on going.
I surfed the swells that had just moments ago had me wondering whether I could do this, and found myself being pushed toward shore. I was finally able to get a full breath, calm down and fall into an easy rhythm. Before I knew it, I was actually having a great time, surfing and swimming and inching closer to the beach.
And then, there it was: an enormous concrete wall right in front of me.
It was the breakwater. I had made it to safe harbor.
At the entrance to Aquatic Park, I stopped to chat with recreational swimmers out enjoying the day. One man gave me a high five. Then I barreled on toward the beach. When I checked my watch on the sand, I was amazed it took less than a half hour, especially with all those panic-fueled stops and idle chatter at the breakwater.
For one brief, sweet moment, I wondered whether I could not only do this again, but whether I had a chance — a real chance — of emerging from the water first during the race. Gone were the visions of being eaten and alive were the visions of … victory?
The pros do the swim in about 22 minutes. If I hadn’t stopped so much, I wondered ….
I sat in the beach waves for a moment, looking out across the brackish flow of water and toward Alcatraz, envisioning what it would be like to make the swim again, but next time faster, stronger, braver. It felt freeing to do something that scared me so much, to conquer one of those little demons lurking inside.
What if, I wondered. What if …
Then a cramp plowed into my stomach and I peed in my wet suit, thinking about all those natural forces that fill the Bay, unrelenting.