L.A. County Ocean Lifeguard Swim Test


So today I tried out for L.A. County Ocean Lifeguard. There is a swim test, which is the first of 4 gates you have to get through in order to get the part-time, summer job that is being offered.

The swim test is a 1000 meter ocean swim. It’s basically a race to get a chance for an interview for the job (the interview is gate #2). Today there were 340 people signed up for the swim test (the most they have ever had) and 284 actually showed up and did the swim. The top 120 finishers were getting an interview slot.

I was excited to do this swim. I thought I had a chance to make an interview. Research I’d done online showed that most swimmers who make it to the interview round complete the 1000 m swim in under 20 minutes. I can (sometimes?) do that distance in less than 20 minutes. I found out about the swim test 3 weeks before the test date, and I thought if I trained and tapered smart, I could do it. I hoped I might even make it in 18 minutes. I completed the online job application by the deadline of Sept. 21st and then a couple of weeks later got a mail per U.S. post with a letter of admittance to the swim. Swim check in at 7 am in Santa Monica at Santa Monica Lifeguard Headquarters.

I showed up plenty early at Santa Monica Pier, before 6:30 am. There was a line at the parking meter machine. Waited in line almost 20 minutes to buy a permit. Grrr. Got to the check-in line by 6:45 am and waited over an hour and a half before I got to the door. I was race #00007 (or basically #7). Haha. I thought that would be lucky, no? They wrote the numbers on each shoulder and on the back of our right hand. We also had an index card with our name and wristband number on it and a wristband. And a bright green swim cap we were supposed to wear. They took a picture of each swimmer’s face, holding up our right fist to face the camera with our race number on the back of our hand showing and our index card held up next to our face in the other hand.

I should mention that the other swimmers at the event all looked very young, very fit, like college swim team members. OK, not all of them…most of them…80-90%. There were a few older people. Most notably the guy standing behind me in line who was at least in his mid- to late-60s. He had been an L.A. County Ocean Lifeguard at Zuma in 1966-1979, he said. He knew other lifeguards there and said, “Hi” to a number of people. Many of them recognized him and were surprised he was doing the swim. He said he’d been training for it for 8 months. Anyhow, I tried to tell myself that all of these fit-looking, young swimmers might not be good at ocean swimming or maybe they were water polo players (some were) who couldn’t swim long distance very well. The old Zuma guard behind me said that a mistake many of the young swimmers make is not practicing distance swimming.

So shortly after 9 am, when everyone had been checked in, they did a briefing where they described all the rules and procedures, the course, what to do if you had a problem during the swim, what would happen afterwards, about the warm up, where you could leave your stuff and how you would know your finish place and whether you got an interview. Then we walked down the beach to the starting area where we had a few minutes for warm up. And I mean a few. Not even 10, I don’t think. Anyhow, I got into the waves, swam out towards the first buoy and then turned around and came back in. While I was coming back in they sounded the 10-minute warning for race start.

So we had to get into the starting corals. They were checking off our numbers as we came into the coral to make sure they knew who had actually started the race.

This was a beach start. From a chalk line on the sand we had to run into the water, swim out to a buoy, turn right, swim almost parallel to shore (a bit inwards). We were swimming north-west towards the Santa Monica Pier. Someone said there was a very slight southward current, but apparently they didn’t think it would make much difference. Water was warm. 68F. It felt warm, too. (No wetsuits or goggles were allowed for this swim.) Waves 0-2 ft. Pretty good conditions for the swim.

When the start gun sounded, the people in front of me, really pretty much the whole field, shot off straight towards the water, such a sprint and leaping through waves as I have never experienced in a triathlon race. Usually I’m up towards the front of the swim pack at the start, but not in this case. I was very much in the back at the start. I got through the waves pretty efficiently. Not as well as I did at the Malibu Triathlon in 2010, but better than I do on an average training swim when I’m trying. I could see the first buoy most of the time. I headed straight for it. Some girl swam over my back kind of diagonal heading towards the right. Didn’t bother me too much.

I was wearing contact lenses for this swim, so I could see better than if I had no lenses, but I still couldn’t (or didn’t?) sight as well as I do when I’m wearing goggles. I seemed to close my eyes for the most part whenever my face was in the water. Then when I would look up to breathe or sight it would take a moment to open my eyes and get the water out of them to see and I’d close them again before I put my face back down. Just not as good and efficient as sighting with goggles. It didn’t hurt or anything, but I really didn’t see the buoy all the time. Still, I went pretty much straight for the first buoy, direct, dead-on.

But after turning the first buoy, and I turned it pretty tight, I could not see the second buoy. From shore I had been able to see it, but in the water I could not. Swell, distance, sighting difficulties? Probably all of the above. I could see the Santa Monica Pier, though, and I could see other swimmers in front of me, lifeguards on their boards and it seemed to me that heading for the ferris wheel on the pier was a good idea and probably about on-course with the second buoy.

So I took off heading for the ferris wheel. I was swimming pretty solid, but not all out. I was a bit afraid of going too hard at the beginning and then dying at the end and there was some swell. I mean, it’s ocean swimming, it’s not the same as pool swimming. But I told myself not to quit, and I really wanted this job, and to swim harder. So I was swimming along and thinking I’m making good progress, when about 500-600 meters into the 800 meter distance to the 2nd buoy I realize that I’m too far in to shore and I have to angle back out to get around the 2nd buoy. Heading for the ferris wheel was a mistake.

All this time I had not been near very many other swimmers. I had 2 or 3 bumps into other swimmers in the entire swim. Not like my typical triathlon swims where I bump into quite a few more people, even in training swims. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I was trying to keep a positive frame of mind and I knew I was nowhere near the leaders and never had expected to be. But I thought possibly I was ahead of the back of the pack and that’s why I wasn’t near very many other swimmers?

So towards the end of the swim I tried to pick up the effort. I got around the last buoy and headed in to shore. It wasn’t very far to shore. The waves were not bad at all. When I finally got to the point, though, where I could run up to the finish chute, I was tired. I was about 50 or so yards too far to the right. I mustered up what strength I could and ran up to the chute and there was a guy finishing just ahead of me. The top finishers were getting a tongue depressor with their finish position written on it (from 1 to 120) and that was their entry ticket to their afternoon interview. I didn’t see anyone handing out tongue depressors. I said to the guy in front of me, “Did we make it?” I thought I might have. Maybe they were handing out the tongue depressors a little further up the chute? He said, looking around, “We are back of the pack!” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t feel like I should have been back of the pack. There was a very long, single-file, finish chute that we had to walk through. I was looking to see how many people were ahead of me. Yes, it was quite a few. Was it over 120? I guess some of the early finishers had probably already exited the queue. Looking behind me, I could see there were not many finishers still coming in.

We had an opportunity while walking slowly through the finish chute, to ask the people standing nearby with clipboards what our finish position had been. Mine was 258. I could not believe I was so far back. Wow. But I looked in the finish chute at the people just ahead of me and just behind me, and there were many very fit-looking swimmer-types, around and near me. Other people who looked like pretty good swimmers who had finished in about the same time as I did. I did see the old Zuma guard finished a few spots behind me. Sorry he didn’t make it. There was a guy, Brent, who had been sitting near me during the pre-race briefing, whom I pegged to be somewhere in his early to mid-40s, and he finished a few spots ahead of me. Another lady I saw across the room at the briefing who looked to be in her 40s finished behind the old Zuma guard. So, the old people at the end of the line. Doh!

We did hear that it had been 4 or 5 years since a swim test was last offered. There was a hiring freeze so what apparently used to be an annual test was not held for several years during the hiring freeze. Also, some of the lifeguards remarked as we were going through the finishing chute that this was was an extremely competitive year with the fastest finish times they have ever had.

They didn’t give us timed results. There were no timing chips or timing gate. I had my Garmin 910XT on and started it when the start gun went off, but I forgot to turn it off when I entered the finish chute. So my watch read 28:24 when I finally remembered to turn it off. I think my actual time was closer to 27:00, though, or maybe around 26:30. I probably swam about an extra 200 meters due to being off-course approaching the 2nd buoy. If I had swum straighter I could have probably taken a good 4 minutes off. Still, this is considerably over the time I wanted to have. Not sure why. I thought I swam pretty hard. Solid, I mean. Somehow I always think when I finish that I could have put out more effort. There are very few races where I do not think that after the finish. When I compare my time to the official distance, it is actually not very fast. I’m not sure what to think. Here is the Garmin data:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/232990176

If I use the distance my Garmin says I swam (crooked and all) and my estimated 27:00 finish time I get 31 min per mile, which is decent for me. But the watch is known to overestimate distance, so…?

I guess the bottom line is that I am glad I tried this. I have no regrets. I am proud of myself. How many 50-year-old women go out and do an ocean lifeguard swim test that is basically a race against very fit, young swimmers? Not many. And I have only been swimming for about 2.5 years.

I won’t be doing this again, though. Even if I can improve my time per mile by 1 to 2 minutes each year over the next 3-4 years, I still don’t think I would make the cut off. I would so much love to do this job and I think I would be very good at it (with the correct training and support). I’m tough, very fit, and I like working hard. And I do believe my swimming skills are adequate to perform this job well. But so many people want this job and the first hurdle you have to get through is to be one of the fastest swimmers applying for the job, and that just isn’t going to be me, unfortunately. I guess I will make peace with this and just move on. I have other goals that need my attention.

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  1. #1 by Jenny on October 14, 2012 - 11:36 am

    Aww, I’m still proud of you too! How many people can say they have a 50-year-old mum who goes out and does ocean lifeguard swim tests with very fit, young swimmers? :P

  2. #2 by sheila on October 14, 2012 - 11:42 am

    Jenny :

    Aww, I’m still proud of you too! How many people can say they have a 50-year-old mum who goes out and does ocean lifeguard swim tests with very fit, young swimmers? :P

    Thanks, sweetie. :)

  3. #3 by Julie on October 15, 2012 - 9:16 am

    Sheila, I think you’re amazing. I don’t know anyone else who is 50 that would or could do this except my boss, who is a runner/triathlete also (has done an Iron Man, etc – and he is your exact age) but you two are rare birds!

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