“Did they let you out of the witness protection program?” Dave Barra zinged when I showed up to volunteer for the Ederle Burke Swim last fall. Whereas I used to be part of just about every local open water swim, the group I was most involved with had folded up shop, and other responsibilities and shifting priorities kept me away from the scene the past few years. This year, though, I’d fallen into a good training routine with other distance swimmers, and I knew that a goal would be good for me.
What better goal than Stage 4? I’d done it in 2013 as the third of three back-to-back stages and had the amazing experience of being the only swimmer that day. Under gray skies with Alex as my paddler and Dave on Agent Orange, I wended my way past picturesque islands and promontories of the Hudson Highlands while dodging the occasional storm debris. My family members provided close support for all three days including watching from the shore at different spots.
8 Bridges has grown considerably since then, so I knew I would be sharing the water but still hoped to focus on my own swim. The goal in itself certainly provided a wonderful focus, starting with 100 x 100s on New Year’s Eve. The weeks leading up to event day, it felt great to get back into the swim-organization mode, figuring out all the little logistical details: how to fit in the other long swims, when and where to acclimatize in the open water, which suit to wear, what to tell my paddler in advance, when to go shopping for snacks, when to make giveaway cookies and my chocolate pudding feeds, what bag to use, who to send my GPS tracking link to and how to explain the undertaking to those not familiar, where to meet Team Hannah Banana pals for a post-event dinner back in New York. It is a relief and a privilege to have these “issues” at top of mind rather other personal and worldy concerns.
The day before my stage, the next day’s weather report was calling for morning thunderstorms, and I checked my inbox expectantly for notice of a postponement. None came. Game on. There was a heavy rain the morning of my swim, but it was early and in Manhattan so the only impact was that I didn’t bike to the train station.
The train car I sat in happened to be the same one the pod of 8B paddlers and a few other swimmers boarded a bit south of the start in Beacon. In a brief conversation with Alex, I got the news that Terry O. would be my paddler rather than the preassigned volunteer with whom I’d been in touch. Normally any change in plan rattles me, but this was great news (even though I had confidence in the original assignment) since I’d worked with Terry at many events and knew he’d be a pleasure to swim alongside. “Keep me away from other swimmers,” was my main instruction as I handed off my feeds and a jar of cookies just for him.
During the wait to get on the boat, I felt a bit melancholy that despite being a Hudson Valley native I no longer had relatives who were able to come out. The swim community and the people following the GPS feed remotely are like family, though, and I enjoyed the dockside banter even if I did not participate much.
Soon enough we were on the elegant, quiet Solaris and then under the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge and time to go! I pushed hard at the start in order to find my own patch of water, dodging from side to side of Terry’s kayak, annoyed at times that people seemed too close. Eventually we had enough space for my liking and the sun started to peek out too. The wind, while favorable, resulted in a chop with a challenging rhythm for an hour or so — but with the clearing skies, Bannerman’s Castle with the partly submerged turret that I always think would be a great ice cream stand, and the majesty of West Point, I had plenty of distractions. The hard push was proving sustainable, so I kept it up — a stronger effort than past marathon swims. By the time we rounded the bend, passing some rock outcroppings I didn’t remember from last time, we had a full-on nice day and a perfectly positioned tailwind.
In addition to appreciating the scenery and my extreme good fortune at being able to have such an experience, I occupied my mind by thinking about the upcoming feeds. Canned peaches. A squeeze tube of chocolate pudding (a novelty even gear-geek Terry hadn’t seen before). Advil for an unexpectedly achy shoulder. All good. I was sorry to have worn two caps for warmth, since conditions were plenty toasty, but not sorry enough to stop for an easy adjustment. Terry tried to get me to smile, but I found that I took on water when I grinned, so the smile had to stay inside. Although I did occasionally see another paddler, whom I later learned was not escorting a swimmer, I was satisfied to be back in my own private Hudson.
The swim took 4:40 in good conditions in 2013, so I trained and packed feeds for up to 5:30 figuring that currents, winds, and my increased age could easily make it considerably longer. As we headed through a narrowing straightaway with a view of the Bear Mountain Bridge seemingly pulling the two cliffs together, I started to wonder if contrary to the usual swim experience — where bridges are not as close as you think — the Bear was actually approaching. Armed as ever with data about speed and position, Terry confirmed this to be the case at my 4-hour feed. Nonetheless, I almost stopped short when the shadow “hit” me before I was actually under the bridge. There it was! Backstroke allowed me to appreciate the span, and then much to my dismay the swim was over.
Happily, one more treat was in store: the opportunity to ride the swimmer “sled” at high speed behind the Jetski to get back to the boat! This was an innovation since my last 8B.
Back on the Solaris I finally tuned in to my fellow swimmers. Three of them were already on board and had all broken the course records! I’d accomplished my goal, too, as I was the only finisher in a span of 23 minutes. Talk about keeping clear of others!
Post-race noshing, preening, and chit-chat were jovial as more of the field finished and got back on board. Conditions had been so good that not only did everyone finish but we got to Garrison Landing in time for a train two hours earlier than expected.
The swim and the season leading up to it were all I wanted them to be, and I didn’t mind a bit that I could barely lift my arms over my head the next couple of days. Only later did I come to regret that my successful quest for solitude meant I’d missed one of the last chances to speak with an amazing person who also did that day’s stage. For the rest of us, the water is still there, even if we are not always there for it.