c/o Anna Lea M—–k
This is the story of the mid-night gap in my observation log, the missing three hours of Elaine Howley’s 32.3 mile Pend Oreille swim on 30-31 July 2014.
The boat was running. The sky was blushing. Elaine was swimming. I was laughing.
It was dawn, or just about to be. I zipped my light sweater up to the top against the morning’s stiffening breeze. Wearing nothing else except a small wet swim suit, the sweater was both insufficient and more than enough. It could have been worse. The night could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.
I looked down at her from where I sat, piloting a small grey boat alongside my swimmer. It was just the two of us for the moment. The kayaker, crew, and both big boats had all dropped back to regroup after the night’s events. As I watched Elaine swim, I thought I could see her looking back at me with every breath she took. I smiled at her, as if to say, glad that’s over. The smile grew into a laugh, uncontrollable. A laugh that was drowned out by the small two-stroke pushing me along, and the splash of Elaine’s unceasing arms pushing her along.
Three hours earlier, I stood on the top deck of our escort houseboat, snacking on Brie and olives and iced tea to ward off sleep. A sliver of new moon had left us shortly after sunset, and the stars above now gave just enough light to hint at the size of the mountains looming over us. Black silhouettes on a blacker background. The only other light came from our houseboat. Cozy and safe and bright. To shake off the sleep and give Elaine some company, at two hours past midnight I stuck a glowstick in my goggle straps and jumped off the bow to swim with her.
Night swimming isn’t bad once you’ve done it a few times. Getting used to the dark is easy. And good thing, because fifteen minutes after I joined Elaine, the lights on the houseboat flickered and died. Go on, yelled Eric, the organizer who put this swim together. Go on, it is just the generator, we’ll be back with you in a minute.
So we went on, Elaine between the kayak and me. We went on for ten or fifteen minutes this way, and I kept looking back at the house boat, watching its few remaining lights get smaller. When we stopped for the first time, we assessed our situation. Elaine had enough food to last for a while, and I’d been paying attention to the navigation and we all agreed on a course: hug the point up ahead, then we begin to cross the lake. So we went on.
When we stopped again, the houseboat was but a speck of light, discernible from the blinding stars overhead only by its position at the surface of the smooth lake. For a while now I’d been thinking of turning back to get the small grey dinghy tied up behind the houseboat, but it was too late. There was over a mile of pitch blackness between them and the three of us. Elaine told us she was very glad we were both with her. The kayaker said the same thing. I quietly pictured us huddled on shore, waiting to be rescued by some hikers in the morning.
I thought this would be a good time to share the punch line to a joke I’d told Elaine three hours prior. Something to lighten our dark situation. How many tickles does it take to make a squid laugh? was the joke. We went on.
We rounded the point on the east side of the lake and made a slight right turn. We picked our course by the mountains and navigation lights ahead, and we stuck to it. They’d know where to find us when they got the boat running again. I thought of the other joke I’d told to Elaine earlier that evening whose punchline was still waiting to be heard, although this joke would not be concluded just yet.What happens when a red ship hits a blue ship? It would be bad form to talk about crews being marooned, given our present circumstances.
Looking back again, we saw what appeared to be a flashlight moving near the speck that was once a houseboat. Did they finally launch the dinghy? Yes, fifteen minutes later it arrived. We’d been without a boat for about an hour, about two miles.
Eric and the cameraman were in the dinghy, looking down at us. The engine died and I immediately climbed in. I was surprised to see these two, of all the people on our crew. Eric had told me only a few hours ago he didn’t know how to operate a boat, and the cameraman was just along for the ride. Did you bring me a towel? Or dry clothes? How about food for Elaine, a VHF radio, a cellphone, a big flashlight, her crew, or anything useful? Well, at least we had two headlamps and a boat that worked.
I grabbed the starter cord and pulled. Nothing. I’d started this boat a dozen times since the swim began and now, in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night, Elaine was once again swimming away from a broken boat. I tried everything I could think of, which isn’t a lot since I’m not a mechanic. Finally, as Eric’s headlamp swung across the motor, I figured it out. The white line in the water trailing behind the boat perfectly illustrated the importance of securing the painter.
My goggles were still sitting on my forehead. I slid them back on and flopped in the lake. A few minutes later, the bow line was unwrapped from the prop, and I was back in the boat with the motor running, begging Eric to keep the light out of my eyes so I could find Elaine in the dark.
Meanwhile, a call had been made from the houseboat to Bruce, a guy with another boat. He’d woken up, untied his boat, and now we could see him zipping down the lake in our general direction. Having no way to get his attention except two small headlamps, we watched him zip right by. As we followed Elaine, Bruce made his way to the houseboat, and then traced our route back to find us.
He’d brought me a sweater and a muffin, plus some more crew and spare food for Elaine. Still no phone or radio. I asked him to return to the houseboat and get everything – everything we’d need to finish the remaining ten-plus hours of the swim, then come back. In particular, I wanted him to bring my orange dry-bag with my phone and GPS inside. After all, I was here to observe, and my documentation was lacking at the moment. Plus, a phone and GPS would be really handy right now.
We settled into our routine. Elaine was swimming. Eric was talking. The cameraman was filming. I was reflecting.
When Bruce returned, about two-and-a-half hours after I first jumped in to swim that night, he brought news that the houseboat was running and on its way. A few minutes later, with the crew reassembling on the houseboat, I was free to sit quietly in the dinghy and observe Elaine swimming under the dusty-red sky. That’s when the laughter started.
It could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.
On 31 July 2014, Elaine Howley walked ashore at the City Beach Park in Sandpoint, ID with a look or surprise behind the smile on her face. She’d just completed a 32.3 mile swim across Lake Pend Oreille, the first person to do so. There to greet her on the beach was the entire town of Sandpoint.
Elaine asked me to join her crew as the event’s official observer. Marathon swims are almost always done away from the eyes of spectators, so to ensure that rules are followed, that standards are upheld, and that claims are verifiable, marathon swims should have an independent observer along to provide credibility to incredible feats. I had no doubt that Elaine would make every effort to follow the rules she’d selected for herself. After all, we are co-authors of the Marathon Swimmers Federation rules she’d be following. On the boat before leaving dock, I sat the crew down to make sure they too understood the traditions and spirit of this sport, that Elaine would swim beach to beach without assistance from any of us other than navigation and provision of food.
They all said they understood. Done, I thought. This job was going to be a breeze.
Well, I managed to witness the whole swim. All 20 hours, 25 minutes, and 55 seconds of it. I’ll get into the details later, but keeping an eye on Elaine proved much harder than planned. For example, I swam with Elaine and the kayaker for an hour when the boat broke down and then piloted a RIB for two more hours while our captain was remounting solenoids to his engine compartment. In short, this was far more adventurous a swim than any I’ve been on, a distinction I give without even considering the fact that Elaine was in the water swimming 32.3 miles. The stories will come, but first let me finish doing my job.
Compiled in the below links are all the data I collected during Elaine’s swim. Observations every half hour (to the best of my ability given certain circumstances) that document the non-emotional side of things. They are presented here for posterity, and for your approval. If anyone feels that they are incorrect, they are encouraged to speak up to the community. But as they say in the business, Elaine is “squeaky clean.” Elaine *is* the spirit of marathon swimming.
PDF of the observer’s report, submitted 2 August 2014 to the marathon swimming community.
ZIP file of all available data, including .gpx, .kmz, .txt, .xlsx, and .jpg files. Just like that! You don’t even have to beg me or comb through my site to find them.
For any of you who look through the GPS files: the track followed my handheld GPS. The waypoints, marked down on the log were taken during my observations from a position very near Elaine’s. You’ll notice a three hour gap in observations and waypoints where the tracked speed drops to zero; this is when I was away from everything except my suit and goggles and Elaine and the night sky.
Tomorrow evening, Elaine Howley will embark on a 32.3 mile swim across the length of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. She will begin in the southwestern most part of Buttonhook Bay, Farragut Park and swim up to City Beach Park in Sandpoint. The swim will be done following the Marathon Swimming Federation standard rules for a solo swim.
This route poses an interesting challenge in declaring an official distance, since the shortest straight line between start and finish includes several mountains and a few train tracks. This route presented here is best described as the “shortest swimmable route.” It takes into account the local terrain and turns its way across the lake using the shortest distance between multiple points. Distance from shore along the bends in the route vary between 25 and 150m.
Precise start and end locations are yet to be determined, however deviations of up to 250m make no significant difference to the overall course length.
“As a kid I always thought I would have swum the English Channel,” Dan says to Scott, but now he feels he’s “too old.” Luckily, Dan made this comment to the right person. ”Without Scott’s encouragement, advice, and [assistance as] a training partner, I wouldn’t have even considered swimming the Channel,” says the present-day Dan.
It was back in 2003 when Dan said he was too old. Three years later, he swam around Manhattan. Two years after that, he swam the Catalina Channel. Then two days ago—eleven years after saying he was “too old” to swim the English Channel—Dan wrote this on the ceiling of the White Horse Pub in Dover…
7/21/14 11:59 E-F
Seattle, Wa, USA
Wichita Swim Club
It is written right above Scott’s name.
7-4-2000 10:37.23 E-F
Dan is not too old. Congratulations Dan.
Upon my return to Seattle, surprisingly high on the list of questions posed to me was this: did you get anything?
8 Bridges was not an insignificant event in my swimming life. I learned a lot, and ended up with a few new things to add to my nektonic resume. Of all the things people could and did ask me, this is that most puzzling. What did you get?
You mean, like a ribbon? I’d have been insulted. A free tee shirt? Please, don’t.
Now I’ve never been a big fan of swag. My life is littered with event ribbons and medals, the ones that didn’t get left behind or end up in the trash. They show up under car seats, at the bottom of swim bags, under my desk at work. And gift bags? Anti-chlorine shampoo and a discounted wetsuit rental aren’t really up my alley. At the end of 8 Bridges, I’d collected four pint glasses, but nothing else. And it didn’t matter. Swimming: I’m in it for the free junk like I’m in it for the money.
So what did I get?
I got to spend a week on the Hudson with Rondi and John, some of my favorite swim people. I got to watch Dave and Greg coordinate seven marathon swims, learning things that I’m sure will come in handy in my future. I even got to spend two weeks with my dad, two mostly painless weeks. This last one is something that greatly surprised me and, someday, I’ll probably admit that it was quite pleasant.
I got some great experience on pushing myself. I learned more about personal nutrition and muscle recovery than I’ll ever learn anywhere else. I got practice at breaking in a new kayaker, and I’ll be able to do it even better next time. I learned how to slow down, and how to speed up. I learned what it really means to lose track of time.
I got a new personal record for longest swim, nine hours twenty-two minutes. I think I set a few men’s course records. I did not break any of Grace’s records. In the end, I got my name at the bottom of a very short list; a list I inhabit with only two other names, very respectable names: Rondi and Grace.
I got a memento for completing Stage 5, a framed picture. It is the only thing hanging on the walls of my home, and it means more to me than I care to say.
Et cetera et cetera.
Did I get a finisher’s medal, or win a gift card in a post-swim raffle? No. That would have ruined everything.
Just like a 50:
start fast, finish strong, don’t fall
apart in between.
(Written 19 June 2014)
[Originally published 29 June 2014 at the 8 Bridges website: http://www.8bridges.org/all-8-bridges/]
This is the last thing I’ll say about this for now: here is my story. I set out on an adventure last week. I swam a lot, learned a lot, laughed a lot, and in the end accomplished what I set out to do. There is much to tell. Some of it I’ll write now, some of it I’ll tell you in person, and some of it you’ll never hear.
I said that I wouldn’t race, told myself for months to pace. But that tail wind pushing us downriver felt so nice. There aren’t many distractions up north and I was feeling strong. Having Rondi and John pacing next to me made me feel stronger. They were my training companions two years ago, so it felt like old times trying to keep up with them, pushing myself to match their speed.
Somewhere around the five hour mark, my kayaker Darian is told by Launch 5 captain Greg that if I swim the next 2.5 miles in 25 minutes, I’ll have Grace’s record. An audible laugh was my first response, but then I remember the current and some mental math I’d been doing earlier. If I swam fast, that might work! So I swam fast. At the bridge, out of breath, I’m told I got the record. The men’s record, they mean. I was 25 minutes behind Grace’s. That is when I learn that Greg may not be a reliable source for when to sprint. No more record chasing for me. Greg’s comment becomes a great source of entertainment for me for the remainder of the week.
After I finish, we spot Penrose fighting the flood tide along the Poughkeepsie waterfront. The current is against him, but he’s still going for it, sneaking along shore in front of us. I want a closer look, so put my suit back on and tell Harris to get off the paddle board. Watching James finish his swim from right alongside is great. My arms ache as I paddle back to the dock.
The snooze button gets hit again because I’m feeling too nauseous to sit up. Food will fix it, I think, but it doesn’t. Driving to the train station, I’m doing my best to avoid defiling my father’s steering wheel. He’s turned the air off in the car, I snap at him, turn it back on, and the sick feeling recedes. On the train, my sandals break.
My stomach feels no better swimming. My feeds go down and come right back up. My mouth feels dry despite both the amount of water I’m drinking and the fact that I’m swimming in water. It feels like my stomach has shut down, nothing is passing through. And strangely, I’m cold. I shouldn’t be cold.
We stop at the New Hamburgh Yacht Club, slightly off course, to chat briefly with Marylou, Ken, and Diane. It has been years since I’ve seen them. Treading against the current off the end of the dock, I see Rufus at the top of the ramp. He’s whimpering. Rufus always got nervous when I swam there. He used to doggie paddle out behind me when I left shore, and then turn back when I got too far.
Dave paddles over and asks how I’m doing. Something isn’t right, I tell him, but whatever it is, the answer is just there on the other side of that bridge.
The scenery is gorgeous. This is the closest I’ve come to Bannerman’s Island. Seeing Breakneck and Storm King loom up ahead is awesome. Watching them fly by is better. I made the rookie mistake of getting sunscreen in my goggles, so I stop often to take them off and enjoy my surroundings.
Somewhere in those surroundings I find my friend Emily. She is waiting on Little Stony Point. Emily is the one who put me in touch with Darian. She’s come up from the Upper East Side with Nick to watch us go by. We exchange a few words, but don’t stay long.
We pass Indian Point and the water gets predictably warmer. It also feels smoother somehow, and the waves are less irritating. I find a rhythm and pick up my pace. Rondi is up ahead pacing the lead swimmer. I steal her as I pass by, I’m now the lead swimmer. I seem to have found my power in the cooling water of a nuclear power plant.
We pass another power plant, this one far off on the west shore. It marks the halfway point, so I mentally await the symbolic moment when I’m directly in front of it. Watching the smokestacks move in front of the buildings behind takes ages. I’ll never reach halfway.
John jumps in tells me he has bad news. I’ll have to kick, he says, the tide might be turning soon. We pound our way into the waves together. His motions make him look like a porpoise, I think to myself. He tells me a little later that Rondi says once we reach the lighthouse we only have fifteen minutes farther to swim. The lighthouse approaches very slowly.
An hour or so later, I’m still between the lighthouse and the bridge. I’ve been lying to myself for an unknown period of time, only fifteen more, thirty more minutes. I look at the bridge. I’m ready to be done with this. Sure, I want to be under the bridge, but I want to be done. I look up again, and the bridge is a hair closer. If it were farther, if I were moving backwards, I would be done. But it isn’t, so I keep swimming.
The bridge doesn’t grow, but I can tell by the positions of the stanchions when I breathe that I’m still making progresss. Let’s end this, is the nicest thing I’ve said to the bridge for hours. That bridge is one of the few things to ever see me get angry. I sprint the last few hundred yards and it takes ages. I’ve been sprinting since the lighthouse.
7:30, I think when I get on the boat. Any longer and the tide would have changed I’d never have made it. 9:22, Rondi tells me. No way. I check the time of day. No way. I check the position of the sun. Finally it sinks in, the current has been flooding for nearly two hours, but I never admitted it to myself. Where did the time go?
Oh, this again? and I stop after ten strokes. The waves feel exactly like they did a few hours ago when I arrived at this bridge. I put my face back in and swim because I want to leave put the Tappan Zee far behind me. That bridge and I aren’t friends.
The scenery becomes familiar again. I watch the Palisades slide by on one side, and the Yonkers and Bronx rise on the other. Then there is the Henry Hudson Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil. I count down the blocks and watch the GW grow ahead.
The last time I swam this whole stretch of river she was next to me, and she’s here again. Christina paddles to my left, Darian to my right. She’s been kayaking for swimmers exactly as long as I have been swimming for kayakers, Christina was there when I first swam in the Hudson. I’m glad she’s here today, for many reasons.
Counting down the cross streets. Suddenly we’re at North Cove, the end of MIMS. Then we’re past it. I look up and hear a bell. I stop. There’s a green bell buoy ringing its carillon behind me, a packed Liberty Island ferry up ahead, and Statue off to my right. Caitlin has made her way into our company on board a small RIB. It feels fitting that she is here too.
With every breath I see a new tug and barge, or large ferry, or freighter. This harbor is busy. The Narrows Bridge is playing along with our little game. It is getting bigger, just like it is supposed to. We’re heading into waves two to three feet high, but I don’t care. The bridge is getting bigger!
Ed told me earlier in the week that the best moment in the swim is when you can see the bridge up ahead just by turning to the side to breathe. I can do that now. We’re close. Jumping in that morning was the most nervous I’d been on during this adventure; so close, but still with six hours of swimming to go. But now there’s nothing in my way now. Not storms, nor injury, nor boats, nor current. There’s nothing stopping me.
I am not just a
paper cup. To reach the bridge
requires much effort.
(Written 18 June 2014)
[Originally published 27 June 2014 at the 8 Bridges website: http://www.8bridges.org/wind-ssw/]
While we all rested on Sunday, the wind was hard at work. We had four days of favorable weather during the first half of 8 Bridges. On the fifth, as we arrived in the morning refreshed, ready to take on The Beast, a south wind was blowing.
Marathon swimmers rely on their training, kayakers, volunteers, and organizers, but they also rely on luck. Weather and currents can be forecasted and predicted, but not changed. Waiting in the narrow fjord beneath the Bear Mountain Bridge, the sky overhead was blue, but the water below was no longer flat. There was nothing else to do but jump in and hope for the best.
As four solo swimmers and a relay made their way downstream, the day looked promising. The current was running fast early in the course, spirits were high. As the river widened though, the wind was felt. It came in the form of short, choppy, irregular waves, head on. The kind of waves you look at from a boat and think nothing of, but as a swimmer you curse. These waves break your rhythm, and with it your spirits. Gulps of water come as frequently as gulps of air. Getting into the zone is difficult, and staying there is impossible.
As the day went on, the waves lengthened out into a more manageable, regular chop, something we could deal with. But during that time, another damage was being dealt by the wind, something more sinister than discomfit and a slight queasy feeling. The wind was slowing our current on the day we needed it the most. With the river at its widest during Stage 5, finding and using the ebb is critical in reaching the Tappan Zee before the flood.
By time the tide turned, no one was at the bridge. The waves were bigger now, and the lack of forward progress was demoralizing. Lighthouses did not fly by; bridges did not grow larger over time. An hour and forty-two minutes after the flood started, Andrew reached the Bridge. Shortly thereafter, the flood picked up to over two knots and halted the relay only six hundred yards from the finish. No one else made it.
Stage 6, another difficult day began where the last had left off. The same wind was blowing from the south as eleven swimmers splashed, and the ebb was again slow. Four finished before the tide turned, but all fought the same rough conditions for five to six hours. From the bow we watched our friends pushed backwards from the George Washington. It was sad to see so many not finish, especially when everyone gave a valiant effort.
But such is the sport we choose. For a few this event was the goal, but for most it was a part of something larger. For one swimmer who is training for the Ederle Swim, her mood was somewhat lightened to hear that her Stage 6 swim had been tougher than Ederle despite not finishing. Many other swam longer than planned, a feat in itself regardless of outcome.
And then the party afterwards. Sun beaten and weary, we pulled into Inwood. Swimmers, volunteers, kayakers, family, and friends mingled into the evening on the deck of La Marina. Sharing stories of the first six days, making plans for the future. The sunset across the Hudson couldn’t brighten the atmosphere more, though it tried. Fatigue waited patiently at the curb while swimmers reveled in the glory of one another.
[Originally published on 18 Jun2 2014 at the 8 Bridges website: http://www.8bridges.org/jumping-in-to-stage-1/]
At 7:20 this morning, an hour before the start, we finished loading swimmers and kayaks onto Launch 5. After introductions, a safety talk, and a briefing on the rules, we left the Catskill dock and motored up to the Rip Van Winkle. As the flood tide slowly went slack, the swimmers slathered up with creams, screens, and lotions. One by one, the kayaks dropped into the still water of the Hudson waiting for us in the shadow of the bridge.
The four swimmers of Stage 1 were all about to set out on at least four consecutive days of marathon swims. Ed Riley of New York, NY and Heather Camargo of Hollywood, FL will swim the first four stages, with James Penrose from London, England and Andrew Malinak from Seattle, WA continuing on with all seven.
One marathon swim is hard enough, but multiple back-to-back swims add many new levels to the challenge. Here is what the swimmers are thinking about the swim in the hour before they jump in:
Why are you doing this?
Heather: is a frequent participant in her local Key West Marathon Swim. Her daughter got the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall this June, so Heather is missing the annual Florida tradition. Looking for a bit of adventure up north, she found 8 Bridges. She tried signing up for one or two stages, but just couldn’t stop herself from signing up for four.
Andrew: has been thinking about swimming the length of the Hudson for longer than 8 Bridges has existed. He finally got around to scheduling the two weeks needed, and is very excited to return to his hometown (Fishkill) to swim in a lot of familiar water. This is a great opportunity to spend time with an amazing group of people in a gorgeous setting.
James: heard about 8 Bridges last summer when he met Dave Barra at MIMS and fell in love with the idea. He is looking to use this week as training for some other big, difficult swims he has in his sights, and hopes to come out a stronger, tougher marathon swimmer.
What have you done differently to train for this swim compared to other one-off marathon swims?
Ed: has taken the “swim all the time” approach to training. A typical week consists of training sessions once every twelve hours (5am and 5pm) six days per week. He focused on interval training during the morning session and distance during the evening, with longer swims on Saturday. He’s been totaling forty to fifty thousand yards per week.
Heather: sought advice from the event organizers and added some long back-to-back training swims to her routine. She has also been working to strengthen her shoulders by using paddles and weight training.
Andrew: has also been doing consecutive long swims on weekends to prepare himself. Accomplishing this meant altering his training location from the preferred cold water of the Puget Sound to warmer lakes. He has also been making weekly visits to a physical therapist, hoping to avoid shoulder pain early on in the swim.
What part of this swim is most daunting? What will you be working on as you swim?
Heather: lists pacing as a concern. Swimmers are taught to swim fast, but added speed depletes the body and increases the risk of injury. This swim is about maintaining a consistent, comfortable pace and not overdoing it.
James: is hoping to make it through all seven stages honourably. Treading water at the starting line, the path downriver looks very, very long.
Ed: sounds worried about the start of day two. Jumping in after day one, well he is expecting “a bit of an ouch.” But, he reminds us, no one wants to see a grown man cry. I suppose that’s why we all wear goggles, to hold the tears in.
Three, two, one…8 Bridges has begun!
There are a lot of things to be nervous about before an open water swim: the temperature, the distance, the sharks, the navigation, the boredom, etc. It is no secret; I get a little feeling of superiority watching pre-race jitters occur before a triathlon swim, because really what could possibly go wrong in such a short swim?
Now I’m not saying I never get nervous before a swim. Turn the distance dial up past ten miles, or turn the temperature dial down below fifty degrees, or throw some tricky weather and currents in front of me, and I’m bound to start second guessing my preparations. But 8 Bridges is different.
I’m not worried about any one stage of 8 Bridges. Individually, there is nothing about them that frightens me. The water will be warmer than what I’ve been training in, but not too warm. The distances and required paces are easily achievable with how I’ve been training for the past seven months. This weekend’s training was the equivalent (by time) of swimming stages two and three. I’m not scared for any of swims, and in fact the exact opposite – I’m excited for all the swims: the scenery, the people, the atmosphere.
A few weeks ago, I was scared for the second morning of 8 Bridges. Rondi told me that it’s like hiking the Appalachian trail; you start off a bit stiff each morning but then get into the rhythm and it’s all wonderful. Maybe that was her experience on the Appalachian Trail, but my brief time on it was three days of pain, discomfort, bowel irritation, and constant damp. Not the ideal metaphor for a good time.
Throughout my training, I’ve been scared that my shoulder would start hurting again on day one and make the full swim impossible. It is pretty painful when it hurts, but the pain goes away in a few weeks and then I’m good to go. Sadly, I don’t have a few weeks of recovery between swims, I have maybe sixteen hours. Luckily there is PT. Over the past three months I’ve learned a bunch about my joints, muscles, nerves, and posture that, so far, have kept the pain from recurring. I’m being cautious, but I don’t think it will be an insurmountable problem.
I was scared for day two, the waking up early and jumping in after the previous day. But this weekend’s training has got me thinking maybe day two won’t be so bad. After this weekend, with some critical lessons in preswim nutrition, postswim nutrition, stroke technique, and general mental toughening behind me, I’m not scared for day two. Rondi was right, it really isn’t that bad. Look at me conquering my fears!
So now I’m scared for day three. I’ve not seen day three yet.
On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, with less than a month to go before 8 Bridges, I was in the pool starting up a long workout. I’d gone for a long swim in the Puget Sound the day before, but with temperatures hovering around 51F, by “long swim” I mean just over 4k. Not nearly long enough. So I resigned myself to getting some much needed yardage in the pool on that dreary overcast Sunday.
But reverting to long pool swims at this time of year is difficult, having open water so close and accessible and relatively warm. Somewhere in the midst of the first kilometer I gave up. But around that same time I had a beautiful revelation. 8 Bridges is not a cold water swim, nor is it a salt water swim, so why wasn’t I training in Lake Washington? Pride and preference and lack of imagination.
The next afternoon, I headed over to Seward Park to try it out. And it worked! That day was my longest swim of the season, completing two laps of the 2.4 mile circumference peninsula. It felt so good to be able to get into that peaceful mental state where movement comes without thinking and there is no other reality besides the aqueous one all around.
That mental place is somewhere I haven’t been in a long time. The Puget Sound is beautiful, exhilarating, and downright fun, but swimming in the Sound can be dangerous if you go too far. Survival requires thought, and the Sound requires survival. In warm waters of the Lake, there was no fear of hypothermia, no need to figure out the tides and currents and if I’d make it back in time. There was only swimming: stroke after stroke after analyzed, critiqued, and perfected stroke.
With June Gloom yet to show up and a bright sun shining down on the Lake’s low-60 degree water for the two following weekends, there was no reason to hold back. The first weekend of June I swam three laps on Saturday with another two on Sunday. Then four laps and three the next weekend. This was new to me, back to back long swims, but this is what 8 Bridges is, times 7 (or times 6, or times 3.5, depending on your method of calculation). This is the training I needed, not a glorious swim with starfish or a dismal swim in a small pool.
I chose Seward Park because it provided short intervals across a dockless stretch of shoreline where figuring distance would be easy, and where friends could come and go with me as they pleased. In the five swims and fourteen laps, Steph joined for four, Dan and Melissa for three, Alison for two, and Dave for one. Their company was wonderful; it kept me on pace and helped me forget what a lonely, dull place is the back of Seward Park, and what a gross body of water are the shallows near the start and finish.
Yeah, the Lake isn’t the greatest of lakes. Pretty soon the water will be up in the 70s, and I’ve had enough of dodging boats in the anchorage of Andrew’s Bay, and more than enough of the duck itch (swimmer’s itch) I’ve been scratching at for a few weeks now. It’ll be a while before I go back.
While I’m looking forward to my return to the clear, cool, life-filled waters of Alki Beach, I will miss being able to swim for hours and hours the way one can in warmer waters.
Oh and this: Please don’t feed the ducks!
“Can you imaging wasting a minute of your life on something that wasn’t personal? Something that didn’t mean anything to you?” says a fictional character to another fictional character in a short work of fiction1.
So it isn’t just me. A published author, in an attempt to emulate real life, has felt such a value legitimate enough to bestow upon a supporting character in his short story! It is proof: humans do things that have personal meaning.
But this isn’t news to anyone, nor to me. Whenever the discussion about my Next Big Swim comes up, the Channel Question inevitably gets asked. My answer has been the same for the past few years. “No,” I say, “I like my swims to have personal meaning, and right now the Channel just doesn’t.” This way of selecting swims has been true for me since I began open water swimming, and I whole-heartedly believe it.
This isn’t to say some swims have not been stepping stones, but as a whole, my swim resume consists of water bodies that hold personal significance in my life. Manhattan is an obvious one, growing up just up river from the course. The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim ends on the island my mother lived on when I was young. Training swims in the Lake District where I’d vacationed. 8 Bridges (see previous post). The Strait of Juan de Fuca, near where I now reside.
Well, that last one. See, the Strait is sort of still the same body of water as where I train, the Puget Sound, sort of. And it is less than a four hour trip from Seattle, so it is basically like home. And I’ve been there, well, once, and…oh my god, I’d never been to Vancouver Island before this swim.
I’m a fraud! Here I am espousing the greatness and beauty of personal, meaningful, local swims, and I had never even set foot on Vancouver Island – apart from that one brief moment – until this month. I’d spent a grand total of barely two hours of my life gazing northward from Port Angeles towards Canada. Never actually swim in the Strait. And this personal connection was supposed to be my raison d’être? The reason I was swimming that swim?
What I think I wanted was a cool swim. What I was training for, and was mentally prepared for, was a swim in the Puget Sound near Seattle. That is my home water, where I train, play, and onto which I gaze longingly on a daily basis. That is where my big swim should have been. That was the personal connection.
And that is why I’m having trouble going back to the Strait. I want to, for sure. No self-respecting distance swimmer would call it a day and back down with a result like what I had, essentially amounting to a successful swim with an error in navigation. But it has become apparent that the Strait of Juan de Fuca is missing something critical. Something’s holding me back. A connection.
The narrow road ended abruptly and I made a quick left into a parking lot on the edge of a sun-filled meadow. My work clothes were exchanged for shorts on the hour drive south. I hastily emptied my pockets into the void beneath the driver’s seat and headed to the park’s info sign. After aligning the posted map with my iPhone map and using the sun as and mountains as a compass, I ran off down a gravel path, tripping over my sandals as I headed in what was hopefully a southerly direction. The shore was easy to find, and breathtaking, but not what I was looking for. I ran along the undulating coast, running because I didn’t know how far I had to go or how long the sun would be with me in the waning day. The short climbs up and down hills made my legs burn and reminded me how much I’ve lost my coordination for land activity, but I kept pushing south. Past two fishermen heading the opposite direction, the coastline grew more and more jagged and familiar. I ran, now trotted onward as the coastline pushed me west. And suddenly ahead, a cliff rose from the water, a cliff burned clearly in my memory. I’d run past them, the rocks I sought. Just behind me now, they were unmistakable, there in the cove, low to the water, protected from the wind. Where I started my swim 10 months ago to the day.
How had I never been here, to this spot or any like it on the Island? There: that is where I climbed out to start on shore. Why has it taken me so long to make this stretch of water my own? There: I stood on this rock while Steve bumped his kayak on to shore to start his own crossing. How can one look at those mountains, so clear on this spring day, and not be tempted? There: I jumped back in there, the tide was a little higher that morning. And why did I leave my suit in the car?
The sun wasn’t to set behind the cliff for another hour, and the sun felt warm that day. If the Strait and I are to ever be friends or lovers, we were going to begin right then. It was just the two of us in the bright evening light. No one was around to see me leave my clothes and modesty on the rocks as I swam out through the kelp. There was a tug, a voice saying, “come swim out a little farther.”
“Not yet,” I replied. “Not just yet.”
1 Lipsyte, Sam. “The Naturals” The New Yorker 5 May 2014; 60-66. Print.
Melissa had a birthday on the Sunday past, and so on the same day, Melissa had a birthday swim.
Owens Beach in Tacoma looks north across Dalco Passage to Tahlequah, upon the southern tip of Vashon Island. The hills of Point Defiance rise behind you as you stand there and block the winds and currents that race through the Narrows. The water is usually calm owing to the small fetch from all directions but east towards Commencement Bay, and the current nearly always pushes west regardless of tide. Along the water for 1km, there is a running path maring the boundary between the tall northwestern pines and the gravelly northwestern beach. This is the Tacoma open water swim spot.
Between Owens Beach and Vashon is 2.4km, but not without its challenges. Through this 400ft-deep waterway runs any ship, tug, tow, log boom, and recreational boat transiting between the southern and northern Puget Sound. Currents in the Narrows around the corner reach 6kts and come spilling out into Dalco Passage. Also, sometimes it rains.
Sunday morning, Tuesday and I put in at the Tacoma public dock at the edge of Point Defiance and set out to find, map, and understand the currents immediately before the birthday swim. There are no NOAA current predictions for a lot of the Puget Sound (I suspect because of the complexity the landscape induces), but the models I could find suggest that on an ebb flow, the middle of the Passage flows strongly east and eddies back to the west along the Tacoma shore. As we slowly made our way across and back in the bright morning sun and still air, not a current could be found. After two hours of searching for anything, water movement, drifting of the boat, tide lines, debris lines, anything, we gave up and headed into the beach to meet Melissa and Alison.
Melissa and Alison piled in and the three of us headed north to Vashon. When we reached the other side, where the swim would begin, we waited for the kayaker Heidi to complete her crossing. As we drifted near the beach, a moderate current pushed us to the west. Heidi reported some mid-channel water movement when she reached Vashon. These currents were not there thirty minutes earlier, I swear.
They jumped onto the sunny shore, smiled for a photo, and then jumped in the water and started the swim at 11:00am. The swim took a total of 52 minutes, and as swims go was straightforward. From my vantage, I was able to see many things a swimmer cannot. I could see the seals coming over to investigate, and watch the boats all safely pass us by. And I could finally see the currents. Where I’d previously thought perhaps I was no good at recognizing currents, I could immediately tell that I’d just been searching for them at a slack tide. The currents were ripping now.
About 1k from shore, we entered the strong eastbound current. The water racing out of the Narrows had made a hard right and was rushing past us. This torrent created boiling, swirling water, short choppy waves at the current interface, and a few standing waves with white caps. I was instantly jealous that I was not swimming. Melissa later told me that she could see the algae below her moving in different directions at different depths as the currents switched. And as suddenly as we entered the current, we were out the other side into a small, calm debris patch, as eddies roiled by behind us.
In the end, Melissa and Alison made it back to Point Defiance, and only 400m from where they planned to finish. The currents had done almost exactly what was expected (expectations set by this Tethys model), and so had we.
Back on the beach after, I was even more excited by this beautiful little boat that had just taken us there and back. She is very stable and handled well in some confusing water and I’m gaining confidence in my piloting and boat handling, and bigger things seem very possible. As an unexpected bonus, watching two friends swim for an hour made me want to swim, like really made me want to swim. It is that feeling that has been waning lately during the past few months of training, and it is nice to have it back.
Happy birthday Melissa, from Andrew and Tuesday.
Final boarding call
Suits drip from my carry-on
Next workout, next town
As of today, I have 1,600 continuous days of data showing my swim, bike, and run training. There are some small periods with more detailed records from when I was focusing on certain goals, like running paces, or swim duration, or what shoes I wore, but at a minimum I have recorded date and distance.
Tracking workouts has helped me greatly in establishing training goals, and in understanding my performance during events. At times, it has kept me motivated, when keeping a blue line near a yellow line was the only reason to jump into cold water. And an unintended benefit: being able to correlate training to and from the rest of my life.
At 1,600 days, I’ve made a new discovery that should be of great help after this June’s 8 Bridges. I’m not exactly sure how, but my goal for this summer is to do things other than work and swim and sleep. I’m going to talk to people other than coworkers and seals. I’m going to cook food that isn’t tacos, and eat it while sitting down. I’m ready to know what the people know, ask them my questions and get some answers. I’m going to…
…swim less than 2.5 kilometers per day!
Get home from work. Then,
eat all the cookies. Then, run.
Then, buy more cookies.
(Written 3 May 2013)
The number one criterion in selecting my next big swim is intrinsic value. To train for something for months and months and months, to bring oneself to the brink of self-destruction all for something that has no personal meaning is ridiculous! However, doing the exact same thing, not to mention spending a bunch of money to do so, for something that does have personal meaning, is…well, is everything. But we can come back to that after a few more drinks.
Twenty-three years before the first 8 Bridges, as an non-sentient infant, I moved to the Hudson Valley. As a tween and teen, I drove or was driven over, up, and down the course of the soon-to-be swim twice a day for six years to attend one or more swim practices. The Hudson is how I oriented myself geographically, how I aligned myself with my environment. It divided us from them, Dutchess from Orange/Rockland, and Section I from Section IX. I could go on, but to summarize, the Hudson River was hardly out of sight and never out of mind.
18.3 miles: We’re starting off a bit weak here. On Sunday, 26 September 2004, I drove over the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge heading east on my way home from the Garlic Festival. And as someone who purchases several thousand tons of Portland Type I/II bulk cement each year, swimming past a cement plant will be cool, I guess.
19.8 miles: One of my first (the first?) times in the Hudson was at the Esopus Creek outdoor education center on an elementary school field trip. We looked in microscopes at what lives in the Hudson, and found old glass insulators on the beach from the river’s more industrial days. I’ve been in the Hudson fewer times than one would imagine, so this stands out pretty vividly in my memory.
The Mid-Hudson and the old train bridge in Poughkeepsie straddle my first swim team’s pool, the old Dutchess Devilfish at the Poughkeepsie YMCA.
13.2 miles: Here’s where it gets personal. During this stage, I’ll be swimming less than four miles away from my childhood home. Swimming past Bowdin Park where I played soccer almost in sight of the river (just over the hedges), past New Hamburg where I spent a lot of time swimming, gardening, and drinking coffee after college, past Chelsea Yacht Club where I once hopped on a sailboat to crew for a stranger in a 4th of July sailing regatta, and past the pool where I held my first lifeguarding job. And I’ll be ending at the Hamilton Fish Memorial Bridge aka the Newburgh Beacon Bridge.
15.0 miles: It was across this bridge that I traveled almost every evening from sixth to twelfth to reach a pool at Mount Saint Mary’s college, and/or Newburgh Free Academy, and/or West Point for swim practices. In that short span of time between school and swimming, a time when I should have been making friends, I’d drive along the old waterfront with my dad’s film camera and take pictures of ships passing through the ice. Or I’d drive down to Mount Beacon or Breakneck Ridge or Bull Hill to get lost barefoot in the woods, although one can never really get lost in those hills because the river always points the way back to safety. During West Point swim meets, I’d run off to explore the forbidden trails of the military base that led down to and along the river. My father and I once biked this entire stage, to the Bear Mountain Bridge and back, in one day, only to discover that we were not in that sort of physical condition and should have known better.
Also, this is the site of my first real swim in the Hudson, the River Pool benefit swim of 2007 from Newburgh to Beacon.
19.8 miles: This stage is mostly filler. As it is the connector between Stages IV and VI, so it was with home and away. Nearly every time I ventured into this stage I was coming or going from the City, or the mid-Atlantic states, or a swim meet somewhere. And so it makes sense that I’ll be putting my head down during this stage to race the clock and the currents that can be unforgiving in this stretch of the swim, trying to get from point A to point B.
15.7 miles: If you have ever taken Metro North’s Hudson Line into or out of the City, you know this stretch of river. It is the wide, flat, exciting, inviting stretch you see on the way south, and the wide, flat, relaxing, soothing stretch you see on the way north. It is the part of the river that makes you remember that the river is Big. And it will seamlessly blend into the upper Manhattan waters.
18.6 miles: The photos on the 8 Bridges website can be tantalizing, but it was not until 2012, when I stood atop Riverbank one morning between a workout and work, that I really began yearning for this swim. I stood overlooking the river that morning because on the far side, there were two boats, a few kayakers, and about to be some swimmers. Sadly, I had to get to me car and drive over the GW to get to work at a reasonable hour. Swimming the length of Manhattan does not need to be justified. I’m sure it is something all New Yorkers see as obvious.
My college swim coach told me, as I stood in his Fort Lauderdale hotel room late at night, that I lacked commitment, that my generation lacked commitment. Coach Hayman felt it appropriate to give me this little spiel following my brief statement in which I told him I would not be sticking around for our winter training trip because I was quitting the team. That was 2004.
He was clearly the best, wisest, most inspirational, compassionate swim coach I ever had, and he was obviously completely correct. I lack commitment to swimming. Clearly.
Flash forward! In 2009, I wrote this email to my old age-group swim friends:
On 14 March 2009 01:16, A M <[email address redacted]> wrote:
Happy Pi Day. Remember to think circular thoughts today. Speaking of circular thoughts, would anyone be up for a really really long swim? I was thinking it could be super fun to take a few weeks off this summer and swim the 150 miles from Albany to the mouth of the Hudson. It would be more fun if there were other people doing it, I think. I am trying to figure out if it is possible to do in three weeks. The tides make it tricky. And since we are talking about open water swimming, I have found a nice little place to practice my open water swimming. One of the beaches near me has put in a 700m (approx) long buoy line to keep boats out. If you don’t mind boat fumes, hypersaline water, and a little bit of sewage, it is really pleasant. At least it will be until the jellies show up and the water boils under the desert’s summer sun.
In my original dream, it was a race. The rules were simple, that forward progress could only be made in the water, but you could land ashore and rest whenever needed (at least every six hours when the adverse currents began). The clock started when you stepped in at the Albany Yacht Club, and stopped when you stepped out under the Narrows Bridge.
Flash forward-er! Two years later, Rondi and Dave put together the first 8 Bridges swim (I did not know they existed at the time, they don’t owe me any credit). Four years after that, I’m signed up for a 120 mile swim from not-quite-Albany to the Narrows Bridge.
If only I were more committed to swimming.
“That looks fun,” I said to her as she returned to the wall.
The lady in the lane next to me was pushing a set of floaty dumbbells along the surface of the pool, and she had just spent the past four minutes or longer in shoulder deep water, feet on the bottom, face down, arms outstretched, spinning. And for the past four minutes or longer, I’d been watching her.
It was a ten past eight o’clock on a Tuesday night, and the last 100 yards of my 7,000 yard workout were eluding me. Somewhere over the past two hours, and past two weeks, I ended up on that downslope of the emotional rollercoaster. As I stood at the wall after a long, slow, tedious 6,900 yards with no desire to go any farther, something about this spinning lady entranced me.
What is was about her slow rotation, bright green cap, and uncustomary movements that caught and held my eye I cannot say. Spinning must have been for her either a workout, or something she really enjoyed doing, or both, because why else would she do it? Why was I doing what I was doing? Was it for any of those reasons?
“Well, you know,” she replied. Conversations with strangers are rarely begun by me, but watching her had really intrigued me. She added, “You must be more of a competitive swimmer.”
“Yeah,” I said in a tone that must have expressed what I was feeling right then about my own swimming, which was nothing positive.
“It get’s old after a while,” I offered. Not the direction I meant to take the conversation. I just wanted to know about her spinning.
“Well, as long as you’re competing against yourself, always setting the bar higher, that’s what matter.” Normally, this would be that little nugget of wisdom you hang onto and cherish forever. But no, goddammit, I was clearly set on being a miserable human.
“Unless you set the bar too high.” She asked what was too high, and I told her how far I’d swum tonight.
It was the second time I’d thought about this during my workout. New York State’s motto is Excelsior, or Ever Upward. The sad truth about this is, it is impossible to go Ever Upward. Everything has limits. Read a Stephen Jay Gould book, he’ll tell you. And what are my limits? Sure I can go farther Upward, but do I want to? Is it a good idea? Is it safe?
“That’s a lot,” she replied. “Well, my workout is nineteen laps, but it usually stretches out to twenty-one.” Then, something unexpected. “Because at that point my suit usually starts to fall apart. It’s an old suit. Some things take priority, you know.”
We laughed. Thank you spinning lady in the bright green cap. You just cheered me up a little.
One hundred yards to go, and then there is a Cadbury Creme Egg waiting for me in the car.