Sonoma State University Math Professor Sam Brannen had been training for this day for a long time. Brannen could be seen on campus in flip flops and shorts in 50 degree weather, training to swim the icy waters between Alcatraz Island and San Francisco's Aquatic Park. His freezing was for a reason.
The17th annual Alcatraz Invitational Swim included Brannen, who normally spends his time teaching mathematics to college students. When others are bundled for winter weather, he was often seen on campus during the past winter months in shorts and a t-shirt to help prepare his body for the chilly event.
This past Saturday, Brannen made the swim from Alcatraz to the Presido--without a wet suit --in 50 degree water. The journey of 1.5 miles was made in a speedo and goggles.
Water temperature is critical as every degree drop in temperature makes a serious difference. The Coast Guard warns that half the people who swim in water this cold can perish in 50 minutes. But Brannen trained every day at the SSU pool and says becoming acclimatized to the cold was very important.
Besides the water temperature, Brannen was concerned about the strength of the current and shipping-lane traffic. Strong currents can make the swim longer making it more dangerous. Unexpected ships can do the same.
But on Sept. 8 Brannen joined others in the icy waves of the San Francisco bay. He was nervous in the days leading up to the swim. He wasn't worried about the cold or the distance since he trained for those aspects, but he was worried about swimming with 1,000 other people.
"I jumped off about in the middle of the pack, and quickly swam away from the boat while gasping for air due to the shock of the cold water," says Brannen. "That shock wore off after about a minute, and then I found myself swimming in the middle of the bay for the first time in my life."
The water was more wavy and choppy than he anticipated, resulting in a few mouthfuls of seawater. He adjusted his stroke to compensate and managed to get into a rhythm that did not involve swallowing water.
"Eventually I realized that I was getting close to Aquatic Park and that I was going to make it. I swam the rest of the way with a big smile on my face. I got onto the beach and stumbled to the finish line."
Greeted by his family and his dog, he walked back to his hotel feeling accomplished and ready for a well-deserved rest.
He completed the race with a time of 57 minutes and 52 seconds. The fastest time was 29 minutes and 40 seconds by Peter Kline of Salinas (23 years old and in a wetsuit).
Swimmers ranged from a 7-year-old girl from Aptos to a 73-year-old man from Bay City.
More than 800 swimmers (550 males and 311 females) finished the race. Brannen placed 427th overall.
"I think this was kind of a 'midlife crisis' thing for me", he said. "I'm 51 and wanted to convince myself that I could still do significant athletic things. Challenging myself to do something I've never done before gave me a goal to focus on which kept me from thinking about my pending mortality."
Despite freezing for months of training, Brannen said he enjoyed himself and if he finds other swimmers to compete with him, he would do it again.
Brannen - with his wife Robin Prince, daughter Sierra Brannen, and mom Ann Brannen - taken about 5 minutes after he finished the race.