Central California swim race highlights need to prep for cold-water racing

On Saturday, Aug. 24, ultra-marathon swimmer Scott Zornig, 42, emerged first from one of North Americas coldest and longest ocean swims.

The Orange County, Calif., resident finished the 6.2-mile swim from Pismo Beach to the Avila Beach pier in a time of two hours, 31 minutes, capturing the first-place title for a second consecutive year.

Finishing second by seven minutes was Forrest Nelson, 36, of Los Angeles. But Nelson, whose body temperature had dropped to 92 degrees, nearly collapsed on the beach from hypothermia after crossing the finish line.

As paramedics attended to the shivering Nelson, Sue Free, 39, of San Francisco exited the water in 2 hours, 43 minutes, winning the female division. Free said that other than the discomfort of some numbness in her toes, she had good company from a group of seals who swam alongside of her most of the way.

Third-place finisher Eric Jarvis, 37, of Los Osos, Calif., says he was pleased with his two hour, 50 minute finish time. He recalled that the most difficult time came around mile four when his toes and tongue went numb, but says his attention was quickly diverted when a group of seals began bouncing off his feet, giving him "extra speed."

Earlier that morning, the 10 scantly clad swimmers, outfitted in just swimsuit, cap, and goggles, lined up along the waters edge at Pismo Beach, a sleepy seaside town in central California better known for its craggy coastline and wealth of wineries rather than for long-distance swimming.

Under overcast skies, 10 escort kayaks rolled into the pristine waters of the Pacific and waited beyond the surf. Minutes later, Dave Van Mouwerik, the race director and participant, whistled the start. Without hesitation, the group dove into the 57-degree water and took their first strokes.

A combination of minimal surf and the cooperation of nearby mountains aided in holding back the usually heavy fog, and made for near-perfect swimming and visibility.

Kayakers guided their swimmer on a straight course through some of Californias most scenic coastline.

Successions of monstrous rocks locals refer to as "Bird Rock," "White Rock," and "Avila Rock" provided for course landmarks along the way.

After all 10 swimmers successfully finished, fourth-place finisher Van Mouwerik, 44, of San Luis Obispo, smiled as he presented plaques to the top finishers of his race.

Five years ago, Van Mouwerik decided that his regular swim route from Pismo to the Avila Beach Pier would be a "natural" for a race. The event has continued to grow, but each year he emphasizes to interested swimmers that "this swim is not like a pool swim, its not warm water."

"After speaking with them about their experiences in water under 60 degrees, and the possibility of rough currents, I often suggest they compete in several cold-water 1- to 2-mile swims before attempting this one. I want people to understand cold and open-water diversity."

Zornig, whose accomplishments include a recent 28-mile swim around Manhattan Island and 60-mile relay from San Clemente Island to San Clemente, Calif., says the sub-60-degree water temperature makes this swim his toughest.

"Practicing in cold water helps," Zornig says, "especially getting a good warm-up in to acclimatize your body to the water and ease breathing in the beginning."

He also recommends double-layering swimsuits, a silicon bathing cap, and spreading a lubricant such as Vaseline on the shoulders and neck, along with earplugs, to minimize heat loss.

Having just come off a second-place finish weeks ago at the Santa Barbara 10-miler, Nelson says he didnt think a few degrees colder would make a big difference.

"But I hit cold pockets where my body was screaming," he recalls.

Nelson also admits that his critical mistake was skipping his planned 45-minute food stops to try and keep pace with Zornig, who didnt break until 90 minutes later. Nelson feels this contributed to his hypothermia.

At 67" and 270 pounds, Zornig, who relies on Gatorade and Clif Shot for nourishment during swims, says his body size allows him to go longer between stops.

He advises that in cold water, "you need to stay on a plan for you and not deviate."

Van Mouweirk says he is encouraged by the increased participation in his race each year, and plans to continue to hold the annual event. But, he warns, "this event is no light romp in the ocean."

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