Early morning darkness shrouded the Santa Barbara Channel as Steve Dalke headed to Anacapa Island last fall to test himself once again. It was just the latest challenge the Bakersfield triathlete has embraced over the past three decades.

In 1986, when a then-25-year-old Dalke watched televised coverage of a triathlon – a combined swimming, biking and running endurance event – he set his sights on competing in one.

Two years earlier, Dalke, a native of Portland, Oregon, and an engineering graduate of Oregon State University, had moved to Bakersfield to pursue a job opportunity. He is now the general manager of the Kern-Tulare Water District.

“I had no swimming background so I headed off to the BC pool and taught myself to swim,” Dalke recently recalled as he good-naturedly described his first triathlon.

“I started the Bakersfield Bud Light Triathlon in one of the first waves of swimmers and was passed by wave after wave of swimmers. The last wave to pass me was the women, 50 years and over. After completing the 2K swim portion of the triathlon in nearly last place, I didn’t swim again for two years. It was a humbling experience.”

But Dalke did not give up. And in the years that followed, he trained and then competed in numerous triathlons, including nine Ironman Triathlons, which are one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world. They consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run – raced in that order, without a break.

“Eventually, I learned to swim but it has always been my weakest event,” said Dalke, who is now the 56-year-old father of three adult children. “Until this summer, I considered myself a runner who likes to bike, but not a swimmer.”

A little more than two years ago, Dalke’s training partner, Charles Brown, proposed the idea of competing in a 36-mile swim. The pair trained for about five months before traveling to North Dakota to compete in one of the nation’s longest marathon swimming events.

“It took me 13 ½ hours to complete the race,” said Dalke, reporting he finished 20th out of 21 swimmers. “I couldn’t lift my arms above my waist for three days. I didn’t swim again for two years.”

But in early 2017, Dalke’s interest turned to a 12.4-mile swim across the Santa Barbara Channel, from Anacapa Island to Oxnard.

“It seemed reasonable, because it was shorter than the (North Dakota) swim,” he said.

But he admitted he still was a bit intimidated, because it would be his first time swimming in the open ocean. The rules required participants to swim the entire distance without touching the bottom, a boat or another person. Wet suits, thermal caps and floatation devices were not allowed.

Dalke began swimming in the spring – about six months leading up to the channel crossing. His initial training consisted of one-hour swims at Bakersfield’s McMurtrey Aquatic Center and longer swims at Lake Woollomes, east of Delano. As the event neared, training increased to two- and three-hour sessions at McMurtrey and twice-weekly ocean swims.

“Swimming by myself in the ocean was terrifying at first, but after a couple of months, I got used to it,” Dalke said, explaining that eventually he preferred ocean swimming over pool swimming because it was less boring.

Dalke convinced his younger son, Ross, an engineering student at Cal Poly SLO, to join him for a 1-mile swim in Santa Barbara and a one-hour training swim at Avila Beach this summer. But mostly, family members took turns accompanying Dalke to the coast and “relaxed on the beach, while I swam. By the end of summer, we all had awesome tans.”

While Dalke called his swimming “mostly mind-numbing solitude, especially the training,” the rules for the Sept. 15, 2017, Anacapa swim required a “team.” His included three friends – Charles Brown, Jeff Cram and Mark Sweo – a boat captain and an observer from the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association.

“The event started at 3:30 a.m., with an hour-and-half boat ride across the channel. At the scheduled start time, both Jeff and I were seasick and throwing up over the boat railing,” he recalled. “The first hour of swimming was in the dark in rough water against the current and my stomach was still queasy. After a couple of hours, Mark had to convince the boat captain and observer not to pull me from the water for going too slow.

“Charles and Jeff took turns kayaking next to me for two hours at a time. The job of the kayaker is to paddle a straight line and feed me every 20 minutes. At feedings, the kayaker threw me a water bottle of recovery drink. I drank two big mouthfuls, threw the bottle back to them and kept swimming. I finished the swim in 7 hours and 7 minutes.”

Dalke said his favorite memory from the Anacapa swim was swimming toward shore and seeing Lauri, his wife of 29 years.

“I adjusted the direction I was swimming so that I was headed toward her. We both reached the water’s edge at the same time. She met me with a great big hug and told me that she was proud of me.”

Dalke is already planning and training for his next challenges.

“On Feb. 26 through March 2, Charles Brown and I plan on completing an Ironman distance triathlon each day for five consecutive days,” he said. “Next summer, Jeff Cram, Shaun Romans and I have some mountains we have scheduled to climb. After that, I’ll do something else.”

Why does he continue to challenge himself?

“It is about achieving a goal. Ideally, the goal is on the edge of what I think I can accomplish. I am drawn to the process of developing a plan, following the plan and dealing with the consequences as they unfold.” 

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