It was 7:30 am on Memorial Day. There I was, standing on pier 39 in San Francisco watching for the ferry to arrive at Alcatraz and drop the love of my life into water so cold and dangerous that not even prisoners risked the swim to escape.

I had been up since 4:45 am doing what people do to help their significant other get ready for an event like this. Tired and bleary eyed, but awake from adrenaline, my long sweater and jeans didn’t quite block the stinging wind so I hugged a cup of coffee to my chest for a little more warmth. My sweetheart, on the other hand, was getting ready to jump into 50 degree ocean water.

Denis was competing in the Alcatraz Challenge. It’s a 1.5 mile swim across the San Francisco Bay, starting from the Alcatraz Island. The current in the Bay is so strong that if you aren’t an experienced open water swimmer, or if you aren’t being led by a team of seafarers who know the difficult waters of the Bay, you’d be pulled out to the middle of the Pacific ocean headed for Asia in no time. The Bay is also freezing cold and the water wasn’t much above 50 deg that day. Thank goodness they invented wet suits for protection (and I saw several competitors who decided to shun that part of modern technology for a closer connection with the water), although one wouldn’t protect him from a shark bite.

The ferry, dropping off the swimmers near the island

I stood and watched as people jumped from the boat into the water. They were little dots so far away from shore, you can’t even see them in the picture above. The water was choppy and grey. The current was pulling so strongly west that the swimmers had to swim towards a point one full mile east of the finish line so they would end-up at the finish line. He hadn’t practiced his open water swim much lately and I prayed he wouldn’t be dragged out to sea, or worse, under.

Right after the swim there’s an optional 7 mile run over the Golden Gate Bridge and back which he also signed up for.  I decided to run the course that morning too, timing it so I’d pass him as he was on his way back.  That way I’d get my exercise in and see that he made it out of the water ok.

Once I started running, the course quickly turned from a fun beach jaunt into a continuous uphill climb. I didn’t even think about the hill. All I could think was “Where is he?”

What a beautiful experience it was to run over the bridge that morning. Thick fog loomed overhead and a foghorn blew repeatedly, cutting through the dense air with it’s ominous sound.  It was so easy to forget I was exercising. Instead, I was running through a scene right out of a mystery movie.

View from the Golden Gate Bridge

Then, there he was, running towards me with a smile on his face. In my mind, I figured he’d be fine, but seeing him in person was such a relief.  Once I knew he was coming to the end of his test of physical fortitude, I was able to evaluate to the run I was doing.  I’ll run that beautiful course again. And again. And again. However, I don’t think I’ll ever do that swim!

Extreme events like this are popular now. They can be very exciting, and they can motivate you to push yourself to fitness heights you’ve never reached before. But, as you go through your fitness journey, does your end goal have to be an extreme challenge in order for your fitness efforts to be worthwhile?

My answer is this: The way to long-term, fitness, strength, and vitality is to exercise consistently. You’ll continue to get better, stronger and faster if you simply push yourself to your own comfortable challenge when you do. How you exercise, where you do it, and what you ultimately end up doing will always be your choice. As you go through your fitness journey, you may find yourself on a different path to your peers, or to where you thought you yourself would be. It may be that you will be most comfortable in a gym. It may also be that one day, you will find yourself on a boat across the Northern Sea, ready to jump in. You will always be the keeper of your body and of your goals. But, the journey will require you to take the first, and then the second and then the third steps. And then some more.

You’ll get more fit whether you’re pushing yourself to swim a few extra laps in the pool, or a 100 more meters in the ocean, whether you’re pushing yourself to bike one more mile up a hill or on a flat. No matter if you’re working to lift 10% more weight on a chest press or do one more push-up in an exercise class, every time you push yourself just a little more, your body will respond by getting healthier and stronger.

Extreme events are the kinds of things Denis likes to do. Last summer he did several bike rides up the mountains in this area. The rides ranged from 12 to 25 miles straight up. The roads are winding, and the ride is up, the whole distance (with the descents that topped 45 mph). For everyday exercise, he practices with his judo team – the San Jose State University Spartans, a team that’s internationally ranked and is home to several Olympic medalists – the 2012 Games in London being no exception. (In case you don’t know, this kind of exercise can really hurt!) He’s done the Marine Corps Marathon 5 times. We can safely say that Denis likes to put himself to the test and see what he’s made of.

Denis running over the Golden Gate Bridge… smiling

I’m different. Sure, I’ll participate in some of his adventures (not all) and when I do I take it to my own limit – I don’t try to reach his. But, my favorite place to exercise is a gym where there are white towels, carpeted floors, and a great sauna and heated shower to go to after I’m done. I also love the outdoors, but I love to workout in beautiful surroundings whenever possible, where I can look at tree-lined streets and pretty houses, amazing mountain or ocean views, or beautiful city scapes. Even though we work out in different ways, both of us feel that exercise is our time to escape stress and other problems in life; it’s our time to get out and do something really good for our body and mind. And, when we exercise, we always push ourselves to what is our own limit for that day.

When you exercise, just keep doing something that challenges you, in a way you like to be challenged.

That’s how you exercise for a lifetime.

That’s how you get to your own optimal fitness level, in your own time, on your own terms.