04/16/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

Swimming As a Contact Sport -- Who Knew?

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I have already set my 2012 fitness goals. One of these is to participate in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco on June 10. Many have told me I am crazy for wanting to do this event. Who in their right mind would choose to swim a mile and a half from Alcatraz to shore, bike 18 miles through hilly San Francisco and then run 8 miles (includes the 400 equinox sand steps). Occasionally, I question my own sanity. Biking and running aside, I want to focus this post on the trials and tribulations of the triathlon swimming leg -- the most treacherous part of the Alcatraz event.

I have been a swimmer my entire life. I grew up in Michigan and learned how to swim in the state's beautiful lakes. I was on the team at our local swim club and then competed on my high school team -- I am no stranger to competitive swimming. That said, nothing can prepare a new convert for a triathlon swim start -- it is something that must be experienced to be appreciated. The most important word to describe the start is survival.

There are a few different types of swim starts. During a beach start, once the horn goes off, everyone in the wave runs into the water at the same time and starts swimming. As you might expect, there is an incredible sorting out of the bodies and during that period, there is a lot of contact. You get kicked, slapped and sometimes swam over (I've been guilty of swimming over slower competitors). The water becomes a huge washing machine and most tend to swallow a lot of water at the start.

Another type of start is called an "in water start" , which I prefer because I can position myself in front and near the furthest buoy. There is still some contact, but not to the same extent as a beach start. However, the washing machine effect at the start is the same, and there is no avoiding the occasional drink of water.

The other type of start, and the one I am dreading, is for competitors to jump like lemmings off the San Francisco Belle into the 54 degree brackish water of the San Francisco Bay. Anyone who knows me understands how much I hate being cold. In fact, I am more concerned about the temperature of the water than I am worried about the risk of sharks. I admit it, I am a cold water sissy and my children constantly remind me of this! I alternate between thinking about the thousands of people who do this event every year (so it can't be too bad, right?) and how much I hate being cold. I am hoping that on the day of the race just being with the other triathletes on the boat ride to the starting point will calm me. We are all in the same "boat" so to speak.

How am I preparing for a swim like this? Barry has me doing a lot of strength swimming (i.e. pulling with paddles or swim gloves). I plan to attend open water swims that begin the first week of May (Saturday mornings at 6:30 a.m.). I hope there is a dock so I can practice jumping into the cold water, shocking the body. Hermes and I are doing a short triathlon in Sea Isles City, NJ at the end of May. The swim is in the ocean and the water will definitely be cold. We are going to San Francisco the week before the Alcatraz race to practice swimming in the cold Bay every day. Hermes and I can also visit Napa and Sonoma -- someone has to taste the wine!

I also bought a book on open water swimming with a chapter on acclimating to cold water. One suggestion was to wear thinner clothing outside in the winter and skip the gloves and hat. I tried it and quickly abandoned the idea -- very uncomfortable, to say the least.

After obsessing about the cold water I found the perfect way to think about the swim on - swim like you are going to drown. This "mantra" runs through my mind each time I get into the pool and on race day I am pretty certain it will motivate me to swim fast and get the h#^* out of the cold water.

So why am I doing this and why would I set a crazy goal for myself? I have been told by fellow triathletes who have participated in the Alcatraz triathlon that it is one of the most spectacular races, truly a bucket list event.

By participating in triathlons, I have also learned that stepping out of my comfort zone brings big rewards.