Why Do I Swim Today?

NOTE: The following is a post written by Charles Bender before his Stage 3 swim on June 20, 2014. Charles passed away on March 6, 2017, and will be sorely missed by the open water and triathlon communities.

This morning I will enter the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York with 9 other swimmers attempting to swim 13.2 miles (as the crow flies, not the swimmer swims) to Beacon, New York. It’s part of  8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, which is an eight day, seven stage swim totalling 120 miles from the Catskills to New York Harbor. It’s put on by the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS) and is in it’s 4th year.

In addition to being a marathon open water swim event, it is also designed to raise funds and awareness for Riverkeepers Hudson River Water Quality Testing Program (no we are not human test tubes) and Launch 5 Hudson River Environmental and Safety Foundation.  So I’m privileged to be doing something super challenging and for two great causes.

People often joke about my needing shots and ask if I’m worried about pollution, pcb’s etc. “Of course I’m worried about pollution and pcb’s” I tell them; “shouldn’t we expect to be able to swim in our rivers, streams, lakes and oceans without worrying about our health?” After all, these waters are what truly sustain us and all life on our planet.

But why me today?

I’m an “athlete”, sure in the sense that many of my 50 something year old friends are “athletes.” Fifty may be the new 40, but to race directors and organizers of every sport across america, it’s like a 0% interest loan from the Federal Reserve; guaranteed money in the bank. A 40 something captured the spirit perfectly several weeks ago as we were cycling in the Black Bear Triathlon; “So this is what you decided to do to celebrate turning 50?” He was able to make this slightly snide remark because I had my age marked on my right calf, part of the triathlon race rituals, my own scarlet letter screaming to all who I was and what I was about.

But swimming, especially marathon open water swimming, is a small, almost hidden corner of the athletic universe. No waiting for lottery results to see if you and 39,999 of your closest friends will get the privilege to run the <Insert your favorite city here> marathon. So this has the cachet of being a small, unique event and a real head scratcher to most folks you tell you’re attempting

I swam Tuesday night with a local group of mostly triathletes, in the Schuylkill River just north of Philadelphia. A number of my companions were fantastically fit 20 and 30 year old athletes who think nothing of training for a 140.6 mile Ironman race. But tell them you’re about to embark on a 13 mile swim and they step back and get dizzy telling you how nuts that sounds (sort of like the Group W bench in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.) So being able to stop an amazing athlete in their tracks as they praise you for  being some sort of superhuman freak of nature is pretty sweet.

But that isn’t really it either.

I’m a broken human being. Full of flaws, I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. For the last 13 months I’ve dealt with that head on. That makes me just human, I know, but we all experience our broken selves as a singularity; a lone, isolated event with a unique sense of isolation and despair.

Turns out, like dirty rivers, we can be healed, even a knucklehead like me. It just requires a little perspective, and practice and learning to sometimes, just live in the moment. I often mocked this type of bumper sticker philosophy (very common in my sometimes crunchy granola neighborhood of Mt Airy). How could I possibly live in the moment, and ignore “the facts” of my own life?

Being broke down, sick and tired and a little desperate turns out to be powerful medicine. It humbled me and opened up my mind, slowly, when I allowed it, to give me some perspective.

Perspective like this…

Earthrise from the surface of the moon

The pale blue dot

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Swimming in open water gives you fantastic perspective. You’re immediately small and not fully in command at the beach, on a lakeshore or a riverbank.

My earliest swimming memories are from Harvey’s Lake, Pennsylvania, where my grandparents had a summer home. I learned to swim in that lake at Sandy Bottom beach (now some fancy private facility) and on the dock of my grandparents second summer house. I loved swimming from that dock. Down the steep hill from the house to the road, and down some more to the lake and dock house I’d run every morning. At the end of the dock, the lake opened up to what seemed like another world on the other side (even though I had driven around and past that spot many times.) It was probably less than a mile, but it seemed like a much greater distance.

It would always take me a few days to get comfortable swimming in the lake. The water changed temperatures it seemed for no reason. It was clear to about 8 feet nearest the dock, but then dark and scary. There were living, breathing things in the water, which sometimes touched your feet and legs and gave me a jolt of fear. But slowly I’d find myself in the water. Each day I could venture a little further out, until my Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles would yell to me that I had gone too far, to be careful. That was the sweet spot, the special place looking back at their miniaturized figures on the dock, voices echoing on the water.

I swam a lot after that and then I stopped. Some of those swims in between were in open water, rivers, lakes and streams and were just for fun. But swimming became a sport and was done mostly in a 25 yard pool with crystal clear water. I loved being a part of my swim club, high school and college teams. The camaraderie was great, even when the work was hard and frequently tedious. But at 21, I found other interest and pursuits that consumed me. Post college life became very hectic.  I tried to swim, but found that every time I went to the pool, I hated it. I had no imagination and all I thought possible was chasing a black line on the bottom for exercise. Nothing spiritual, nothing fun, just the tedium of the pool and clock. So I stopped even trying.

Matt and me, summer 1999, campground S. Ontario

Carlos and me, Children’s Hospital Philadelphia, Feb 2006

A funny thing happened. I had kids, who turns out, didn’t see the pool as an endless black line, heavy breathing and a clock. It  was just a place to cool off, be held by their Dad and to test their boundaries. It was just another place to have fun and feel loved….with me!

I love the picture with Matt in my lap at a campground pool in southern Ontario. Now I would be the one sitting in his lap, his 6’1 frame easily surrounding me. He never got bit with the swimming as sport bug (football and baseball are his thing) and he won’t give Phelps or me much competition in the pool. But you know what, he still knows how to splash, play and have fun in the water.

Carlos is more of a water bug but not wired to be a competitive athlete. But Wednesday afternoon, there we were together playing catch and tag in the pool. And me deliciously holding his 9 year old frame close, walking and whispering together in the water, like we did those 2 long weeks when he was in the hospital as a young boy. So my kids taught me I could have fun in the water again.

I’ll set off today, blessed with a number of tools, that swimming laps can never provide. The first is a child’s love for the water, especially the open water of a lake or a river with it’s distant shore in sight, but maybe just out of reach..?

I’ll be blessed to know I’m just a small, slow, dot on the surface of a mighty river. And I’ll be connected to all that lives and breathes and draws life from it’s waters, so I won’t be inconsequential. Not fully in control, but not insignificant or meaningless either.

I can’t fail either, because I began the journey.

Capri Djatiasmoro, Ederle Swim 2013

That’s Capri Djatiasmoro, a veteran and real champion of open water swimming. I met her accidentally, when I was assigned as her “Observer” last summer at the Ederle Swim. She didn’t quite get to the beach at Sandy Hook that day. She was the first swimmer in the water and I believe the last swimmer out and had a magnificent swim. She had a great kayaker who knew the waters, tides and currents on the voyage that day. The last few hours I was almost frantic; “What do we need to do to help her get on the beach?” And when it was all done, and the decision had been made by her, to end the swim, I looked over and saw her and was stunned. She was happy, relaxed and smiling.

I’m glad I snapped that picture because it offers just as much perspective as those amazing NASA pictures from the moon or Voyager 1. Seeing her laughing brought a calm to me. She had a great swim and knew it. We had all worked as hard as we could to help her to the beach, but it didn’t happen. Oh well, that’s life. Was I really so arrogant that I thought that 7 little dots and 2 very small boats were in charge on the waters of New York Harbor? There was so much that none of us would ever be able to control, most especially the shifting tides and sea bottom, that itself had been shifted and sorted by a superstorm the fall before.

That day on the boat helped me continue to heal, feel less broken, and be more connected. Connected to my loved ones, especially those two boys who showed me how to just splash and play again in the water. Connected to a vast, unknowable universe and some of the people and places in between.

My training hasn’t been conventional or a straight line but I’m plenty fit and strong; stronger in fact than I have been in many years, maybe ever. My shoulder sometimes aches and I had to rush order a new suit and goggles because of course I lost my other new pair last week. But I am learning how to get my mind and spirit in the right place to take an adventure like this. I’ll pause along the way and accept and welcome the fact that the river and wind and spirits are more in control than me. I’ll be thankful for the many volunteers who labored over the logistics and  details to make this even possible. And I’ll smile a lot, especially when I get out of the water, wherever and whenever, because no matter what, I’ll have had a great swim.

“It’s only 13 miles….

Post script

I finished the swim in 5 hours and 15 minutes; 10th out of all 10 swimmers. Thru Day 3 everyone has finished which is fantastic. And being the last swimmer means you have the entire crew of swimmers, kayakers and volunteers to cheer you across the final yards. It was spectacular.