Train for it and, then, let it go..

So, a little self-disclosure so the reader can get perspective. I am a 59 year old who is not a gifted athlete; meaning, I was never an a sprinter and really only fared reasonably well in distance pool races. My only gift is between my ears! I train really hard. My reasoning is, I don’t want to complete a marathon swim, or, worse, not complete a swim, and have the thought, ‘I wish I would have.’ That means, that, this year to date, I have swum over 500 miles. I also do weight training once a week, and, I nap as much as I can! Sometimes, I wake up thinking, ‘do I have time for a nap today?’
Ok, now for my experience with NYOW events: I swam stage one of the the 8 Bridges Swim two years ago, 2017. Prior to this, my longest OWS had been 12.5 miles. Stage one is 18.6 miles, and, as I learned, the Mighty Hudson is called that for a reason. She was frisky that day. Started off nice and glassy and then, she got an attitude! We hit a head wind and from about half-way through until the end. Instead of fighting it, I decided to pretend I was having fun rocking and rolling with it. I was once given advice from Janine Serrell and Devon Clifford: “swim happy”, and, so, I did. When I was done, 6 hours or so later, I was elated, grateful and with a deep respect for the Hudson.
A year later….I tackled 20 Bridges. God granted us a beautiful day, little wind and just enough sunshine. (Notice I always us the plural pronoun. None of theses OW Marathon races are completed alone. Our kayakers, race organizers, volunteers and NYPD are all a part of the success of the swim.) The bay was a tad salty and lots of boat traffic was around. Once up the end of the East River, she calmed down and it was like I was swimming in a pool. Just as I was getting a little bored, I turned the corner to meet George (the GW bridge). The Mighty Hudson greeted me and, said, ‘let’s play’. The wind picked up just enough to make it interesting just as I was tiring. The last four hours were more difficult. I did not have any more bridges to look for and I was getting tired. When I finished, I was done, but, so thrilled. I felt patriotic, appreciative and amazed. I met swimmers from all over the world and counted myself blessed and humbled to be among them.
This year…I decided that to ramp it up one more notch would mean swimming back to back marathons. So, I entered Stage 2 and Stage 3 of 8 Bridges. The only thing I changed in my training was to try in the peak of my training, to hit just over 40,000 yards per week. Also, since I had felt depleted last year at the end of 20 bridges, I add more nutrition to my feeds. I added Hammer gel between some of my other feeds. My other feeds were a mix that I bought from Infinit. I called them for a consult and they put together a mix of all the right stuff to get me through a marathon. Settles well in the tummy, too. So, once again, the weather gods were with us and the morning of Stage 2 was beautiful. Little to no wind the whole way. Only the last 6 miles did we experience a slight chop. I felt strong the whole way. If a negative thought enters my head, I replace it with a positive one, such as, ‘ you are lucky enough to get to do this’, or, ‘your goggles are clear and it is a beautiful day’. I also spend most of the time praying for people I know who are going through rough times…And…I do pray for myself!!
Kudos to my kayakers, Terrence O’Malley and Shawn Lauriat (he guided me last year) who guided me expertly and kicked my butt when necessary.
Getting up the next day to tackle another marathon was tough, and the weather was cooler and I was, of course, tired. But, no time for negative thoughts, jump in and let’s get this party started. I was a bit chilly, but not uncomfortably so. And, before I knew it, it was over…4 hours and 30 minutes seemed so much shorter than the 6 hours and 30 the day before.
Wrapping up, I’d say that NYOW events are a must for your bucket list. Expertly, efficiently and safely run. And, I am learning that once I put the training in, I need to let the rest go; Stay positive and grateful.

Stage 6: the swim I will always remember

Originally I did not plan to do stage 6. I wanted to do the spectacular stage 7. Swimming into New York and seeing all the landmarks from the water level – the Statue of Liberty, The Colgate Clock, Empire State Building…I bought Stage 6 when I got a letter from the organizers encouraging the swimmers to do more stages and offering good conditions to those who would.
Stage 6 (15,7 miles) is believed to be an easy one because of the fast and helpful current. The forecast for the day looked good, air temp
23C, water temp about +20, quite comfortable for me. The only thing to worry about was chop, I do not have much experience swimming in choppy waters. On the other hand stage 6 could give me the experience I needed.
The splash was planned for 10:30 which gave enough time to get to the start, put on sunscreen, check the goodie bag with the famous “recycled” T-shirt, talk to Dasha, my kayaker and meet the swimmates. It was good to see my SCAR fellows “Batches” and Andrew Wells, both doing all the stages.
Another exciting thing about 8 bridges was Solaris, the solar-powered boat, that brought us to the start under Tappan Zee bridge. The air felt chilly, the water looked very choppy. Josh suggested a small intro game where everybody should answer a few simple questions: who are you, where are you from, how nervous you are on the scale of 1 to 10, what’s your favorite dish. “I am Professor of Medicine” said Charlie. “Great to have someone like that with us”, replied Josh. This is how I met Charlie and that is the only thing I remember from that intro game as my own nervousness was way above 10.
We jumped into the water and it all began. For me the chop was pretty tough, I could hardly see anything. “Just keep swimming”, that was the instruction given during the brief “your kayaker will find you”. Eventually I was relieved to see Dasha and the nose of her red kayak. The waves were pretty high and very dense. Once It felt like a giant fish fell on my back, so dense were the waves. They say that the scenery along the shore is beautiful but I am afraid I missed most part of the beauty as I was trying to keep my head as low as possible. I drank so much water from the Hudson that during the first couple of feeding sessions I skipped the water to make it easier for Dasha as it was tough for her as well. By the way, I agree with those who says the Hudson water is salty.
After the first hour I started feeling chilly which seemed to me a total nonsense. The air is warm, the water is warm why should it be chilly??? Later the guys said it was because of the head wind which takes the warmth from the surface. But I did not know that when in the water and so kept saying to myself that there was actually no reason to be cold, which as I now think helped a lot. Once I mistook a railway bridge for the GW bridge which was a slight disappointment. To avoid further disappointments I was just swimming from feed to feed until we cleared George Washington bridge and Dasha said we are done.
The majority of my swimmates had already been on Solaris, I was 11 out of 17. I did not look at it as a race, rather as a learning, so I was happy that I completed the stage, wasn’t in pain and even wasn’t too much cold. Almost everyone said they thought of quitting after the first hour, no one quitted.
The tragic end of the story is well-known. I wish I knew Charlie longer and better. From what my swimming friends told me and what I read myself later he was really a remarkable man with a big heart.
Despite the heartbreaking ending I think it was good to do stage 6. It showed weaknesses with which I can work and proved again the huge amount of warmth, friendship and support in the open water swimming community. I still want to swim into New York pass the Statue of Liberty which gives another reason to come to New York and eventually do it. ❤️Stage6 ❤️CDVH

Forever in my heart – Stage 6

I met Charles the morning of the swim. I jumped off the boat right after him at the start. He was so happy and determined to finish the swim. His words inspired me the whole time I was swimming. He said you have to be mentally prepared to swim- and he was ready today. I know how happy he must have felt swimming. I will forever look out at the river and remember his kind and brave message.

It Takes An Ocean Not To Break…

I wish this was a different post than the one I am writing now. It isn’t the one that I contemplated after completing my stages of 8 Bridges. I thought I would be writing about my difficulties being cold during Stage 1. The water was in the upper 60s and I didn’t think it would be an issue, but I hadn’t done much training in open water this spring. I learned from that mistake. Or about my DNF at Stage 2. The feeling of being cold the day before really got into my head and I could not find the mental strength to fight that day. I was convinced that I would never make the finish, so I basically demanded to get out. I wanted to be anywhere else but in the water that day. It was something that I had never felt during a swim and it scared me. Which isn’t exactly the best set up for the most difficult stage, which was a few days away. With a DNF in the front of my mind, I entered the water for Stage 5. I spent over nine hours battling mental demons and mother nature and have never been as happy to finish a swim in my life. I could have filled a blog with each of these experiences. Instead, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the people that I’ve met through swimming, the reasons why I swim and the fragility of our human existence.

When I heard the news that a swimmer was lost during Stage 6 I was in disbelief. I thought it just couldn’t be possible…not with the amount of people watching each person and the constant radio contact between them. I know from Stage 1 that when there is even the slightest inkling that a swimmer might be in trouble, extra precautions are taken. After telling Alex that I was cold, but making the decision to keep going, I felt like a baby bird with all my guardians hovering closely. I even joked to Alex afterward that it was bit much to see them constantly circling me or riding nearby. He said it was for my safety. And that feeling of being protected never left me over the next few days on the water. I have never felt safer during a swim than I have at a NYOW event. As swimmers, we prepare ourselves physically for these events. The team at NYOW is renowned for their emphasis on safety. But there is only so much we can do to keep ourselves and each other safe, especially in an environment like the open water. It is fluid and unpredictable, a great big unknown, which is part of the reason why many of us are drawn to it daily.

In the back of our minds, we all know that what we do isn’t entirely “safe”. It took losing a swimmer to bring that home to me. People often ask me why I do these swims. I never really reflected on it much until now. I didn’t know Charles personally, but I did meet him briefly before Stage 5. As I applied sunblock to his back before the start, he casually mentioned that he was a doctor in Chapel Hill. Reading about him after his death made me sad that I never got to know this incredibly humble and wonderful person better. He was the kind of person I admire. He was someone that dedicated his life to helping others. There are not many people in this world that can go to work knowing they are going to do something good for another person. But for all the rewards of that chosen life, it is a hard job. As a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, I know that firsthand. It is exhausting to give of yourself day after day. It is even harder to see your patients die. But the sacrifices and heartbreak are worth it, even on the most difficult days.

So, to cope with it all, I turn to the water. It helps me stay sane when I want to scream about the unfairness of life. It calms me when I leave work after trying to resuscitate a baby with my team. It gives me strength when I hear parents given the devastating news that their child has died. It might not be without risks, but it is my safe place and I would be a lesser person without its solace. So, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing knowing the risks are there. Life is so fleeting. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. But I am here today and there is a place I can go to help me feel more alive when all I want to do is shut down and go numb. And I’ll think of Charlie when I swim, knowing that he sought relief in the water, that he was the kind of person I could only hope to emulate in my professional life and that he will be greatly missed by many, not only in the marathon swimming community, but all over the world. We each swim for a different reason. Sometimes, those reasons are the things that keep us going each day. Without it, my life might be safer, but it sure wouldn’t be as rewarding or nearly as much fun. I’ll take my adventures in the unknown, with the opportunities it affords to see and experience the beauty of this world and the gift of meeting the most caring, innovative and kind people along the way…

Rough Water Riding

Stage 6 was everything that I thought it would be and everything that I thought it wouldn’t be. The water was warmer then what I thought it would be, which being from Arizona is somewhat of a relief. Even though you train in cold water whenever you can the water can heat up pretty quickly once the heat comes into the triple digits. My husband looked up the temp at one of the piers that we had passed and it said that the water temp was between 67 and 70 degrees.  The water was rough and choppy.  I have swam in rough water during my Catalina Channel crossing but that was the ocean and a much wider body of water. This water is obviously more narrow and when the wind whips across it, which it was doing all day, it creates one hell of a chop. That’s when you really have to rely on your swim training and just focus on getting a good catch each stroke, keeping your head down and just allowing the waves to bounce you around. The more you fight the quicker you will tire.

The beauty of this swim is that you have a very wide range, in speed, of swimmers. Alice Ma, from San Jose, CA, and I did a relay and once we got past the thrashing of the beginning, we ended up in the middle of the pack, if that’s what you can call it, as everyone is pretty spread out. I was first in and since Alice and I were a relay, we weren’t on the main boat that took the rest of the swimmers to the starting point underneath the Tapan Zee. Your heart pounds as you realize that this is what all those early morning swims were for and when they say go it’s not like in a triathlon where you can get swam over or kicked as swimmers jockey for position, it’s put your head down and look for your kayaker who are very skilled at getting next to you and steering you down the path of least resistance.  Our kayaker was Jim Marcinek. He was amazing. He always reassured us that we were doing excellent and had to wave me over to him several times, as I was starting to drift too far away.

In the middle of the swim the wind did die down just a smidgen to give you a reprieve in how hard you had to swim. The end of the swim is by far the sweetest as you you feel the shadow of the George Washington Bridge and keeping swimming until you know that you are just beyond the bridge itself. I’ve done many swims but knowing that you made it to the next bridge after being tossed around is an amazing feeling of relief and prideful satisfaction of conquering the 15.7 miles. Our finish time was 4:38:24.

Most swimmers don’t do relays for this swim and you may wonder why we did. Well I had torn my rotator cuff in my right should several years ago and the doctor was able to repair it but informed me that it couldn’t take 8+ hours in the water and if I tore it again then he wouldn’t be able to repair it. So relays it has been. I would highly recommend it as you get a chance to view New York from a different perspective then the other swimmers. Granted some would say that you have the opportunity to get a break and you do but with the wind blowing you are doing your best to stay warm so that your muscles don’t freeze up on you, sometimes being in the water the whole time can have it’s advantages.

The saddest part about this swim was the loss of Charles Van Der Horst. I didn’t know him personally or have a chance to chat with him but from what I read this man was an amazing researcher who contributed a lot to the advancement of HIV/AIDS research.

I will be back another time to do stage 7 as it was cancelled. So, Alice and I were unable to do it.

If you have the opportunity to do one stage or several stages I would highly recommend this swim. NYOW is very professional and it is well organized. The goody bag is one of the best that I have ever received.

Swimming in the shadow of the clouds and…

At 15.7 miles, Stage 6 down the Hudson River was to be the longest swim yet in my open water career, which started on a dare in 2011 from a triathlete friend. I have done quite a few races over the years, with the previous longest being a Little Red Lighthouse Swim that was just over 6 miles (modified at the last minute to be longer than usual). Once accepted into the Stage 6 lineup, I was excited and nervous and aimed to be as prepared as I could. I had taken a swim clinic from Swim Smooth in January 2018 and eventually adapted one of their training plans in the lead-up to June 2019. I did much research (Marathon Swimmers Federation, swimmers’ blogs like Lone Swimmer) prior to registering, and I asked many questions of friends and acquaintances who had done long swims (nutrition, Desitin vs sunscreen, Channel grease, how best to taper, pretty much everything it would take to finish a 4-5 hour swim). Plenty of my friends thought I was too worried and overtraining, that Stage 6 was definitely in my wheelhouse and I had nothing to worry about. But I wanted to be prepared for the worst of conditions, just in case. I had a really terrific training season from January to June, fitting in swimming between working full time as a professor at NYU School of Medicine, co-parenting two kids with my husband, and declining any work travel while we also planned our younger son’s bar mitzvah for late May. I had somewhat regular massages from a new massage therapist who could read my body, including my lupus and connective tissue disorder, which I knew I had to manage wisely during the intense training.

I felt as prepared as I needed to be when the morning of June 14, 2019, arrived. I had tapered and felt energized, nervous, excited. I met a few fellow Stage 6 swimmers, including one Charlie van der Horst, whose work was in a similar field as mine and whom I’d followed on social media, as he was friends with many of my swimpals. We had a sincere and meaningful conversation especially about his frustration with the previous day during Stage 5. He was so genuine and honest; I was touched by his vulnerability. And I looked forward to talking more after the race at the 8 Bridges dinner.

The day looked beautiful, yet I could tell the wind might be an issue. We jumped into the Hudson under the new, beautiful Cuomo Bridge in Tarrytown and started to swim at 10:30am. I couldn’t believe I was doing it, that I had set my mind to a training plan, stuck to it, and now found myself ready for over 15 miles of swimming. The water temperature was in the high 60s, as I’d expected. Pretty quickly we could feel the wind from the West. For the entire race, we had the most mixed-up conditions we could imagine, the “multi-pack”, I named it with my expert kayaker, Richard Clifford. We had winds from the West that gusted wildly, knocking me first and then walloping Richard. I smiled and hooted and hollered and enjoyed the tremendous bumps. I struggled a bit with the feedings, as the wind would bring a wave and make it hard to drink from the bottle, but I succeeded well enough for a first time feeding from a kayak. While swimming, I accidentally drank a fair amount of the Hudson, and I found it quite sweet. At some point, the winds turned and came up the river from the South, wind against the current that made for continued difficult conditions. For at least an hour during the swim, I felt like it was longer than I wanted to be fighting the waves, chop, wind. I wasn’t enjoying myself and the only good thing in those moments was the swift current taking us downstream. We were flying, even when the winds were across or against our course. I loved the beauty of the Palisades, steep cliffs along the river’s edge. And I watched the magnificent, puffy clouds, looking for identifiable formations – was that a smiley face, a bird, or what else could I find? We had rain showers along the way and bits of sun poking through every so often, truly a mixed bag. I would remind myself how much it took for me to get there, and I would smile in amazement and joy.

In the last 20-30 minutes, at Richard’s urging, I pushed my pace and for the first time noticed a little cold in my toes. I finally crossed the south end of the George Washington Bridge and let out a big “woohoo!” just as I had done at the start. I was so proud of finishing. It was an unbelievable high. Richard got me over to the jetski, and I kept my head down for a wild ride over to the Solaris boat, where I got dressed and warmed with help of the terrific volunteers, and waited for others to finish. After 4 hours and 10 minutes, I was the fifth to complete the race! I was just glad to finish.

Several of us were chatting away on the boat when at some point there was talk of an emergency; it got very quiet and confusing. Was it a false alarm? Why were the NYPD boats near the bridge and helicopter overhead? Had they been there all along? Yes, they must have been there since crossing the New York City line in the river. Was it a news ‘copter? But what about all those ambulances on shore near the Little Red Lighthouse? We kept assuming it was nothing and talking ourselves out of the possibility of a worst-case scenario. Everyone in the race had trained so much, nothing could go wrong beyond maybe some hypothermia. With more and more finishers and additional waiting, some of us started wondering where Charlie was, and then why was the Solaris heading up river without Charlie. But then we passed someone still swimming south, and I assumed it was Charlie and all was well; they must be waiting separately with another smaller boat, but wanted to get us to shore.

Everyone now knows how it turned out. Pure tragedy. I will say I am appreciative and so grateful that the New York Open Water directors were mum while we were on the boat, left us to chit chat anxiety-free and reminisce about our swim experiences, for some a first at that distance, and for others just a little blip in their extended swim histories. Yet finding out that Charlie had slipped under and so quickly was a complete shock. It made me sick to my stomach when I heard the truth during dinner. There was no false alarm. There really was an emergency situation, and it was terribly heartbreaking. It is such a tremendous loss to the public health field, to the swimming world, and to Charlie’s family and friends. I was grateful I had a small yet meaningful conversation with him. And I was so sorry I didn’t get to continue it after our amazing swim in brutal conditions. Charlie’s death has plagued me (as I’m sure many others), sending me into bouts of shock and sorrow, followed by a flip-flop into the acknowledgement and recognition of the enormity and delight of my accomplishment.

I will try to focus on the high I felt after finishing, because it brings a real smile to my face, true joy. I can’t believe I did it. And I need to focus on that, while being mindful of the truth of that beyond-bittersweet afternoon, in order to keep moving forward in my own swim career, wherever that takes me.

p.s. Thank you to all my swimpals who were there with me for Stage 6, especially Jennifer, and to Richard for being the River Whisperer and guiding me expertly down the Hudson.

Ginger Smalls Movie Shorts

Awesome kayaker Michael Smalley put together these funny (and spot on) movie shorts for Stages 1 to 5. The are classic!

Stage 1:

Stage 2:

Stage 3 (Into the River):

Stage 4 (Through the Highlands):

Stage 5 (The Beast of the Hudson):