A few years ago, I went cage diving with great white sharks. The experience was incredible. While living in San Francisco, I wanted to take full advantage of as many activities local to the surroundings like eating fish and chips in the Wharf, kayaking out of Sausalito into the bay with whales and sea lions, sailing a twenty-two foot sloop under the Golden Gate Bridge, and visiting the Farallon Islands, affectionately called the devil’s teeth, for some cage diving with great white sharks. The last was one of the most memorable and hypothermic experiences of my time on the Pacific Ocean.
For context, the Farallon Islands or Farallones if you’re channelling your inner Spaniard are a group of islands that sit about thirty miles west of San Francisco. In the fifties and sixties, it was reported to be a radioactive dump site. Get ready for some three-headed shark encounters. But all that apparently stopped in the seventies when a whistle-blower made it public. Before sailing out to the islands for my planned cage dive, I read Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks. The book was interesting and definitely sets the stage for what you can expect on the islands. Her own story is a little creepy and so self-serving, you can’t help but to strongly dislike the author for her lack of common and rational sense. Nevertheless, a good book to get you in the mood for the great white shark, bone-numbing cold adventure that awaits you at the Farallon Islands.
There are many outfitters who are more than willing to take your money and give you a ride out to the islands so you can put on a wet suit, get inside a fishing cage, and submerge yourself under the 56 degree Pacific Ocean. I tend to find any business is just as good as its people, and people tend to come and go, so check out recent feedback and comments on a sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor before you pick one.
Usually you can rent a wetsuit, fins, etc. from the outfitter, but you might consider obtaining your gear ahead of time if possible. There are no guarantees the suit will fit unless you tried it on ahead of time and there’s no guarantee they’ll have enough when the time comes, unless you want to slide into someone else’s suit after they pissed themselves while in the cage. I recall a guy needing to use two right boots because they couldn’t find any lefties in his size. Same with the goggles. You want a pair that fits well and doesn’t let the water in or it’ll be a frustrating and probably painful experience.
It’s a fairly miserable boat ride out to the rock islands. If you’ve never sailed or boated around San Francisco, the winds are unlike anywhere else, as is the choppy water. The boat leaves around six in the morning so hopefully you skipped breakfast or it’s likely going to end up over the rail. I’d recommend packing a breakfast or CLIF bar to consume when you get to the islands and the up and down of the boat stops. For anyone with sea sickness, load up on the dramamine or skip it altogether. There are other ways to dive with the great whites and not spend almost three hours of your life puking on the rail.
Upon arrival, it’s still a balmy 50 degrees, foggy, with a slight wind coming from who knows which direction. Pack a beanie, waterproof coat and pants, and warm gloves if you plan on spending any time on deck.
As you look out from the boat, you see there is nothing else around but the jagged rock islands, which are in my estimate completely uninhabitable despite knowing from the book that humans could live on at least one of them, the boat under your feet, the people next to you on the boat, and the sharks.
Once the crew begins moving the cage into the water, setting up the air machine (technical term), and requesting their patrons change into their wetsuits, shit got real. The realization of what I signed up for hit home. I’m going into great white shark infested waters inside a fishing crate.
To lighten the mood, the crew pulls out cooking grills and tosses a few dozen burgers and hotdogs on. They also warm up a huge vat of chicken noodle soup. Hot chocolate and coffee is ready to ward off hypothermia for the poor souls emerging from their time in the cage. Make no mistake, the water is freezing cold and you’ll feel it.
Once in and under, the adrenaline kicks in and you realize you need to breathe through your mouth or you’re going to die, and you forget about the cold for a little while.
Even start to enjoy yourself. Hello.
I spent a lot of time looking at nothing. A few jellyfish, lots of really cold, green water, trying not to think about how long nuclear waste actually lasts in any given area and what long term affects this might have on any offspring, and wondering if I’ll actually see a shark up close.
Oh hey, there’s another jellyfish.
Knowing these killers are less than a football field away from you, lurking in the liquid green fuzz is still terrifying. Every shadow is suspect.
Oh wait, that pic wasn’t actually taken by me, I poached it from a luckier diver.
After emerging from the thirty or forty minutes endured under the teeth-chattering ocean surface with those man-eaters – seen or unseen – one might feel like a complete badass.
The ride back to San Francisco is far better for what it’s worth. Traveling with the wind, it’s faster and smoother. With a belly full of warm soup, an adventure completed, and tiredness setting in, the ride is quiet and fairly quick.
The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge greets us and we’re back on land, oh lovely land, minutes later.
A few tips if you plan to go on your own shark diving adventure. In your duffle bag, bring a formidable plastic bag for storing wet clothes, wetsuit (if you bring your own otherwise they’ll take them from you), and anything else that is wet after your dive. It’ll save soaking your other clothing and your bag.
After you get out of the 56 degree water into the 50 degree air you will be cold. Don’t stay under water if you start shaking inside your wetsuit. Get out immediately and into dry clothing. Drink the hot soup whether you like it or not. At the time I was a vegetarian and all they had was chicken noodle soup. It was steaming hot and I was freezing so I drank it. And it was delicious. I witnessed a guy shake uncontrollably after his dive. According to the captain, once that starts, it’s tough to stop on the boat. He spilled everything he tried to hold to drink to get warm. Once he got out of the wetsuit and into the slightly warmer cabin, the shaking subsided.
There was a woman who brought a small pillow full of popcorn seeds. I had never seen one, but it was incredible. Pop that pillow into the microwave for thirty seconds and it was wonderfully hot for up to ten minutes. Place it on your hands, neck, feet, wherever you need to warm up, and it did the job.
Take lots of pictures and enjoy the journey.
Plagued with injury, against all odds (and doctor’s orders), more fear than most that I will crap myself on the course, I got through it. But I did more than get through it. After 26.2 miles, I found myself finishing with my arms raised up in victory across the finish line, even with a distinct limp (lovingly referred to as my pimp limp for the next five days). Then, shortly, a medal was placed around my neck. Tears fell down my sweat-dried and salt-dusted cheeks; and I could only muster up a head nod when the volunteer said, “congratulations,” for fear words might cause uncontrollable sobbing.
I hobbled slowly down that victory lane watching other runners seated along the parallel curb, some drinking beer out of plastic cups, others icing shoulders, knees, and ankles. All of us with a profound sense of accomplishment. My grandmother would be proud of me.
It’s been a few weeks since my injury and I haven’t seemed to be able to recover. I can go about five miles before debilitating pain sets in. It starts in my foot, travels to my toes and then up into my shin, eventually traveling along my IT band to my hip, where it likes to exude a leg-numbing pain. Man, it sucks. So I’m bummed. The marathon is about five weeks away and it’s looking like I’m likely not going to finish it, or run/walk it slow enough to officially DNF. I’m sick over it. Praying for a miracle.
On Saturday, August 17, I ran 16 miles. It was the farthest I had ever run. That same day, I severely injured my left foot. I can’t tell you why after the first three miles I decided to keep pushing on for another 13 with an angry foot, but I did. I guess I wanted to complete the long run. That damn long run. And now I’m paying for it. After getting home I iced my knees and said foot. The knees recovered but the foot remained hurt.
I tried to run on Monday, but it was near impossible. I waited a week and tried again, only to be disappointed that after a mile, the pain returned. I tried again the next day and ended up in tears. On Aug 26, I went to an orthopedic and he determined it wasn’t a stress fracture (thank you God) and referred me to a sports podiatrist, which I visited the next day. The podiatrist said I was ridiculously tight and she was surprised I didn’t have shin splints in addition to the nerve damage I had along the top of my foot. She prescribed yoga three times a week, new supportive running shoes, no bare feet at home , no more Chuck Taylors (mind you, I have over 10 pairs – I live in these), and wrote a prescription for cream for my foot that acts like ibuprofen, only localized.
So I tried running again the next day in my new shoes with no luck. After half a mile, I was feeling the pain and came home after walk/run a total of two. I took the next day off and started with some yoga. I did yoga two days in a row and ran three miles this morning with the pain returning at mile two. Better than mile one.
It’s been some journey. I have only six weeks until the marathon and I’ve only been able to do two long runs, one for 14 miles and the other for 16. I have to find a way to at least get an 18 or 20 miler in there before the day. If I can’t do that, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to do or finish the run in October. I’m so saddened by this turn of events. But I’m hopeful that if I do what the docs are telling me to do, I’ll find a way to get in and finish that marathon. I’ve got to.
I did it. The Summer Breeze half marathon in San Leandro happened last week and I finished it in 2:33. I thought at some points along the way that my left leg might stop working. My IT band was so tight by mile 9 that it was causing pain from my hip down to the front of my ankle with every step. Damn, it hurt, but I kept moving, at a snail’s pace, and willed myself to get through those last four miles.
Taken at mile 11. Does this look like the face of a happy runner?
I think not. But I finished. I’m halfway there.
No idea how I will be able to turn around and run another 13.1, but I won’t think about that for now. I just might throw up.
I have a ton of gratitude for all that has come my way. I get to eat dinner everyday and sometimes hem and haw over which cuisine I might fancy. And I often get to have seconds if I so desire. I get to sleep in a comfortable bed every night with clean sheets under a roof that doesn’t leak in a house that is a safe place. I get fresh water freely and take hot showers daily. I work inside a building where, unless I’m really clumsy in the cafe, I won’t lose a finger or limb. My life is abundantly blessed.
Today on my 10 mile run I thought about many of the things, big and small, that I am grateful for including the ability to run freely under an open sky, at my own pace, feeling myself breathing, watching the path disappear under my feet, pushing my boundaries under my own will. It was perfect at times. I’m so lucky to have moved to a place where I have relatively easy access to a running path that will serve as my marathon training ground. I’m so lucky to have the means to afford running shoes, shorts, bras, hats, etc. And to afford to enter a marathon, with both my time and money.
All of this gratitude helped ease the pain on the run today, but make no mistake, there was pain. Enough to scare me into wondering how the hell I’m going to do almost three runs like the one I completed today with less than three months left of training time. I thought the fear and anxiety would have subsided by now, but I couldn’t have been wronger. The reality of how long this run is couldn’t be more real or scarier. I just don’t want to let anyone down.