09/27/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

Swimming the Bay: Escape From Alcatraz

It has long been toted in my blogger bio that my athletic challenge on the horizon was the Escape from Alcatraz swim. I do not fancy myself a swimmer... especially outside of the pool. I have done plenty of runs, bike rides, and occasionally spend time in the lap lane, but I have never let my inner athlete play in open water.

I am blessed/cursed with the trait of "when I say I will do something I will do it," and it is primarily because of that reason that I joined some other nut jobs from the SF Tri Club in taking the plunge last Sunday.

How does a self-declared non-swimmer end up in such a situation?

My weekly commute includes trips over the Golden Gate, and over time, the repetitious Alcatraz sightings worked on my subconscious. I was incepted with the idea of swimming from island to shore. My brain fell in love with the thought of tackling the unfamiliar 1.5 miles of coastal waters. The imagery was powerful... leaping from the island, conquering the elements, feeling my hand melt into the beach on my final stroke, and forever being able to gaze out at the horizon knowing I escaped.

In the weeks leading up to the swim, I realized that while my Midwestern brain was envisioning the triumph, my Midwestern heart was pumping blood extra fast, fearing the ocean. The cold water, currents and what may be lurking in the murk were making me anxious. I went through odd variances in thought -- from total nonchalance to very much believing I was going to die. Perplexingly, taking time to ponder my pending doom was calming, and the potential finality had its benefits. For a few days I did whatever I wanted... I ate every doughnut, hugged everybody I cared about, and wrote my family to tell them I loved them. I was more aware of my inevitable death than ever before; I even managed to convince myself I was ready for it.

When my adrenaline wore off five minutes into the swim, I realized how much I wanted to live. Forty-three of us had leaped from the boat, but shortly after taking the group jump, I was very alone. Nothing in my training had prepared me for the waves, and the rolling chop kept me from seeing my comrades and made breathing very difficult. Gasp after gasp was met with mouthfuls of the Pacific and soon panic was crashing over me along with the seawater.

The buoyancy of the wetsuit saved me. I rolled onto my back and floated... regaining my composure as a normal breathing cycle took over. I began to feel a rhythm within the waves, and after taking one final glance at The Rock, I turned face down and began to pull with regularity. As I swam through my un-comfort zone, I thought of my position in the water. To my left and right were iconic bridges that give safe passageway to my favorite city... and I was choosing the psychopath less traveled by. As I plowed forward, I prayed that there was no beastly guardian, unseen but for a fin, following in my wake.

After the longest 42 minutes of my life, my hand melted into the sand exactly as I had envisioned. However, when I turned around, although I did see the horizon differently, it was not through the eyes of a conquistador. Rather, I saw Alcatraz as a symbol of human fragility. For the first time in years, I had an explosion of positivity and a complete appreciation for being alive. Naturally, being human, the feelings have begun to fade... but I have a hell of a reminder to live life to the fullest on my weekly commute.

As we grow older our hearts grow colder, and it is important to occasionally remind ourselves that what we have is special. Take your own plunge out of your comfort zone and realign your perspective. Any given Sunday could be our last... Eat every doughnut, hug your friends and don't miss an opportunity to share your love.