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San Francisco 24 Hour Relay

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

Have you ever gotten that itch to go swimming in the San Francisco Bay at 3:30 AM with water and air temps in the low 50s/high 40s? Yeah, me neither... until I participated in the 24 Hour Relay. Okay, that's a lie. I didn't actually want to go swim at 3:30 AM. I can't say I ever have. But, the relay was an absolutely unforgettable experience, filled with so many happy memories, and a couple I'll categorize as "sufferfest". Here's a quick overview of my experience, followed by some of my favorite photos of the event. The Event: The relay was started a few years ago by Suzie Dods, and has thrived ever since. Several teams "compete" for absolutely no points, titles, or medals - it's not actually a race. It's just a chance for people to train in cold water in a protected space. And, a chance to meet some pretty cool people. The main rule is that someone from each time has to be in the water at all times. Multiple people can be in the water from the same team, as long as they follow the check-in, check-out procedure with the dock master, which ensures we know who is in the water at any given time. Other rules include: eat all the food all the time, don't burn yourself with warm water after you get out, and keep the facility (the Dolphin Club) clean. The night before the relay starts, there's a dinner and a show. The entire event is "volunteer-run," with everyone participating in the event having some event responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities include set up, cooking, cleaning, dock duty, locker room monitoring, kayaking, and a few more I'm forgetting. I got to help cut A LOT of cheesecakes for the pre-event dinner, set up the tables and chairs, and serve food for the pasta dinner. Back to dinner and a show. Folks sit down, listen to the safety briefing/plans for the event, and eat. The best is yet to come: the after-dinner talent show. Apparently, last year, there was some sort of show involving a stripper pole and swim suits, and we tried to top that again this year with a talent show. Another Yeti, a swimmer named Chris, and I had planned some props, makeup, and choreography for him to lip sync a performance of "Part of Your World" from the Little Mermaid. I learned how to put on some light drag makeup in 5 minutes or less, created some stick-on seashell bra cups, and some props to go with Chris's mermaid tail and cherry-apple red wig. Chris's performance stole the show, being one of the most epic things I've ever witnessed. If you've never seen a 6 ft tall hunk of a swimmer don a sticky bra, mermaid tail, red wig, and fake lashes sit on a stag and mermaid to a Disney song, you haven't lived. (If you need to see a video of the performance, let me know. I've got it squirreled away for either blackmail or laughter therapy.) The night wrapped up and we hit the hay, excited for the next day. The weather was supposed to be warm and beautiful, the winds non-existent, and there was talk of lots of junk food. In the morning, we packed our swim bags and headed over to help with set up and cooking for breakfast. I started cooking an absurd amount of bacon, and Chris started scrambling about 72 eggs. If you've ever seen a "vat" of anything, picture that to understand how much bacon grease happened. At 8:30 AM, the first swimmers from each team started getting ready for toes in at 9 AM. We all went out to the small beach and dock to cheer as the relay began and people started swimming. To be fair, some people didn't start swimming right away, since the water was a nippy 53 degrees. There were some sharp inhales, screeches, and splashes as people started sprinting to get warm in the water. The race was on. I was slotted to swim 4 x 30 minute increments as Yeti #2. I got my suit on, ear plugs, caps, and goggles ready, and headed down for my swim time at 9:30 AM. Shannon, Yeti 1, elected to stay in for a second 30 minute swim with me, so as she swam in to "tag" me (epic high fives, by the way - we swimmers know how to do those), I started inching into the water. It was really f**king cold. "Y2 getting wet!" I yelled to the dock master. And then I dove in and started swimming with Shannon. Although I had gotten in for a half hour the day before, pre-dinner festivities, seeing the ships, Ghiradelli sign, Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz, and everything in between (as well as the cold water) took my breath away. It was gorgeous. Totally worth it. By 3 minutes in, I was no longer hyperventilating, and absolutely loving it. If you've never swam at Aquatic Park, you totally should. Go. Right now. 27 minutes later, Shannon and I swam into the beach, checking out with the dock master. "Y1 and Y2, getting dry!" The sun was shining, the air warm, and I decided to dry off and go for a run before after drop started. Turns out, you can't feel your frozen feet for a good 15 minutes after you start running, but running prevents the after drop! I grabbed some lunch around 11:30 AM when I returned, and hung out with some Yetis while more of my teammates swam. My next swims were slotted in at 3:30 PM, 9:30 PM, and 3:30 AM. At around 2:30 PM, I started getting ready to join Shannon in the water, as I had decided to go in for an hour (3 - 4 PM). I repeated my water-entering process, uttering a few choice expletives as I got in. Again, 2-3 minutes was all my body needed to start enjoying itself, and by the end of the swim, I didn't really want to get out. But, I was legit cold, and had started fantasizing about trying out the sauna to warm up, and getting out seemed really appealing once we turned the corner around the dock and saw the beach. We tagged our next Yeti in, and made our way to the sauna, which, it turns out, is Party Central for the ladies. If you've never been in a sauna, naked, with at least a handful of other women, telling random stories about your car, weddings, other swims, and everything else on the planet while doing party squats (to try to stop shivering and get feeling back in ones feet), you're missing out. Another reason to sign up for the relay next year. Unless you're a guy - I can't guarantee Party Central Sauna's for you. You're probably going to have to sit, bored and naked, in a not-as-fun sauna with a bunch of cold dudes. Dinner was great, but I was getting nervous for my 9:30 PM swim. I had decided to only go for a half hour, so I got ready around 9 PM, getting all my visibility gear on (lights on my goggles and suit, glow sticks zip tied onto my tow float (tow float recommended, not required). I've done night swims before, but never in super cold water, and never without a kayaker next to me. As Shannon swam in to tag me, I inched in, panicking slightly. Historically, it takes me forever to get into cold water, and that's not how Yetis roll. Shannon was not going to wait for my wimpy self to take my 30 minutes to slowly get in, so I toughened up and dove in. Panic set in, and I swam, making sure to keep Shannon in sight on every other breath as we swam around the dock. As we turned the corner, the night time view of the skyline was absolutely majestic (thanks Ghiradelli sign, for all the light pollution that created a pretty illuminated Aquatic Bay). I was still a little freaked out, mostly because I couldn't really see where the buoy lights were (added by the kayaker(s) monitoring the course), and couldn't see other swimmers. But, even if you're freaking out, the only thing you can really do in that situation is swim, so that's what we did. We stuck to the buoy line, which wasn't long enough to keep us from getting bored. We swam to the pizza box light (sign up for the relay, and you'll learn why it's called that), and back to the first buoy a few times, and then headed back in to tag the next Yeti in. First night swim, DONE. Now, to sauna and possibly nap before my 3:30 AM swim. Sauna, hot showers, warm clothes, food, and friend time ensued... until the fireworks went off. When you're expecting fireworks, they're loud and a little startling. When you're not expecting fireworks to be shot into the air about 200 yards away from you, you kind of crap your pants a little. We went out to the dock to see what was happening, knowing the swimmers in the water were probably really startled by what sounded at the time like cannon blasts. We saw a group of people huddling and laughing, so I tried calling the cops, asking for some help. I'm not normally against fireworks, but when you have swimmers in the ocean, in the dark, you can't have cannons blasting on the beach. It's just not good form. Funny enough, the cops told me there wasn't much they could do. Being hopped up on cheesecake and brownies, mad at the world for the cops not coming to our aid, and invincible in my Yeti hat and swim parka, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I popped into the kitchen, grabbed a vat-stirrer (I'm guessing it was either the worlds largest wooden spatula, or a cricket bat that was weirdly stored in the kitchen), stuffed it all the way up my parka sleeve, and headed to confront the group of firecracking hoodlums. Yeah, I know, not a good idea. But I had a vat stirrer that was literally longer than my sleeve (it poked out of the hand hole and made my shoulder look VERY pointy), and that was going to protect me. And, I figured I could make it back to the Dolphin Club, or straight into the water, if things got rough. I doubt any hoodlums would follow me into the water at 11 PM. Mustering up all my courage, I circled the very inebriated group of young gentlemen loitering on the beach parking lot. I'm guessing a lot of beer, weed, and maybe something else... maybe they would follow me into the water. Crap. They saw me and called me over, which was an unexpected development (not a scenario my brain had run through while I had envisioned myself running in flip flops, fully parka'd, into the Bay). I calmly approached them, and they asked what I was doing, and if I wanted any beer. Clearly, I didn't need the vat stirrer, but what on earth was I going to do with it now? I calmly pulled it out of my sleeve, tossed it onto one shoulder, and told them I'd pass on the beer, but that it would mean the world to me if they could stop shooting fireworks over where all the swimmers were swimming. They were FLOORED. Swimmers? Now? In there? Isn't it cold?! Why? They were actually intrigued, and seemed to respect my request, claiming they knew nutin about no fireworks. I also may have promised to flash them my boobs from the water if they came back at 3:30 AM, provided there were no more fireworks (note: there was no way I'd actually do this, but even if I had, there was literally no way they could have seen them from the beach). They left, and Yeti 2 walked back to the Dolphin Club, victorious. The vat stirrer was returned to the kitchen, ready to stir soup or play a game of cricket, and I decided it was time for me to go for a nap. I went back to my hotel room, in which Chris, my bunk buddy, was already asleep. I set my alarm for 1:30 AM and promptly fell asleep for a good hour. 1:30 AM: "Why the hell am I doing this?" 1:40 AM: Alarm goes off again (thankfully) and I re-parka to return to the Dolphin Club. Why didn't I sleep for another good hour? I'm one of those "nap and lose yourself" people. When I wake up from a nap, I'm the groggiest, most confused human on the planet. And I shiver. I figured I'd give myself time to shuffle back to the Dolphin Club (I had stayed in the Argonaut Hotel across the street from Aquatic Park, so a 1 minute walk), glare at the other 10 humans awake, grumble, wander around the dock, stop shivering, and convince myself to put on a swimsuit. All that actually took me a good hour, so then it was time for me to get ready to tag in via Yeti 1 (Shannon) who had agreed to swim with me again. Keep in mind, she's been doing full hours, swimming an extra 30 minutes with me every time. She's my swim angel. 3:30 AM: F****************K WHY DID I SIGN UP FOR THIS??? 3:33 AM: That wasn't so bad. Everything's actually just fine, and I'm not going to die. It was a really blissful 3:30 AM swim - the water was completely calm, the city was quiet, and the only sounds were water splashing. Utterly serene. I was more than done swimming at 4 AM when Shannon and I got out, and ready to go sit in the Party Central Sauna, which was wonderfully warm. If you lay on the top bench in the sauna with your feet on the ceiling, you get the warmest of the warmth on your frozen feet! Note: I can't remember what time Walter and I wrote greeting cards to each other, but it was either before 3:30 AM, or around 4:30 AM. I got the card Walter wrote me in the mail 2 weeks ago, and after deciphering Walter's chicken scratch, I realized we were a little zonked out (which is exactly what he wrote). If you ever want a 100% realistic souvenir from the relay, write yourself or someone else a greeting or post card between 1-5 AM, and you're really have a gem. 2nd Note: Also at some point in the early hours of the morning (probably closer to 2 AM), some drunk guys ran into the water, trying to swim around the docks. If you're drunk, or not a part of an organized swim event, please, just don't. One of the guys started calling for help, and our crew was ready to jump off the dock to save him. Thankfully, he managed to take a few strokes and get to a shallow area to stand up and walk back ashore as his buddies made fun of him. Again, just don't be a dumbass. When the sun started coming up, I had been doing dock duty with Walter, using a headlamp and a glow stick. We had entertained ourselves by watching the Raccoon Roadshow, featuring 3 friendly raccoons that had emerged from the bushes on the beach to forage and play on the dock across from ours. Racoons are super cute, but even cuter when they're playing together at 5 AM. Again, sign up for next year's relay, and you'll be able to experience the joy for yourself. By 6 AM, I had entered a zombie-like state. The sunrise was beautiful, but I was so sleepy, I tried to keep myself occupied by taking photos, doing dock duty, and whatever else I could find so I didn't fall asleep where I stood. Around 7:30 AM, everyone started buzzing about planning the last swim, as the Yetis were planning on joining Chris for his last 8:30 AM swim. I'm pretty sure I moaned and groaned quite a bit because I hadn't been expecting to swim for a 5th time. I didn't have a dry swimsuit, and had been so relieved at 4 AM that I didn't have to swim again... but I realized that I would regret it if I didn't go swim with my amazing team, and with the sun shining (and the wind picking up quite a bit), it would be FUN! It was 100% worth it. We all swam between the ships and the docks, which ended up being a barnacle obstacle course with large chains and ropes over and under the water. We swam out of the park, looking at the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the SF Bay and taking some photos and video in the waves. We swam in together for the 9 AM finish, battling some serious surf. As 9 AM tolled, we all cheered and started exiting the water. I had put my goggles on my head to wade out when a huge wave hit me and rolled me around a bit. When I came back up, my goggles were gone. RIP. Seriously, still crushed about the goggles - I swam some other epic events in them, and they were my go-to practice goggles, being perfectly tinted, reflective, and sized for my face. Sadness. After searching for my most likely long-gone goggles, everyone gathered on the beach for a photo. By this time, the wind was in full force, and we were freezing on the beach, but the Yetis insisted on a few more photos on the end of the dock (also totally worth it). 9:15 AM: Sauna Party time. 9:30-9:45 AM: shower, pack up, clean up, hug everyone, head back to the hotel 10 AM: I fall asleep, snoring, on the edge of my hotel room bed as my bunk mates pack up, and then we all head to the airport. Strangely enough, I barely slept on the plane, and felt so weird and off when I got home at 11:45 PM that I went on a mile run before going to sleep. Let's just say that work the next day was one of the longest, sleepiest Mondays ever. Totally worth every minute. Videos from the event, courtesy of Elvind Hagen: Another fun read:

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