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8 Bridges

They say 8 Bridges is like a vacation. They say it is like hiking the Appalachian Trail. You’re a bit sore starting off each morning, but then you settle into the rhythm and enjoy it. But then, only two people have ever completed the whole 120 miles in one go.
 


Prizes

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.

8 Bridges – all 8 bridges

[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.

Stage 1

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.

Stage 2

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.

Stage 3

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.

Stage 4

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.

Stage 5

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?

Stage 6

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.

Stage 7

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.

8 Bridges – Wind SSW

[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.

Take it too far – illustrated

The illustrated guide to the previous post: Take it too far.

Take it too far

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

Stage 5

Stage 6

Stage 7

8 Bridges – Jumping into Stage 1

[Originally published on 18 June 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!

8 Bridges – fear

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.

8 Bridges – my eight bridges

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.

Stage I – The Islands

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.

Stage II – The Lighthouses

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.

Stage III – The Hudson Valley

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.

Stage IV – The Highlands

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.

Stage V – The Great Bays

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.

Stage VI – The Pallisades

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.

Stage VII – Liberty

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.

8 Bridges – here’s why

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.