My Own Private Hudson

“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.

Calm (Stage 3) before the storm (Stage 6)

When I signed up for 8 bridges in February of this year, my plan was to train some for stage 6 knowing I’d have a boost with the strong current.  Heck, I could even float if need be! I’d enjoy the views and rest content on completing a nice long swim. I guess it’s not really in my nature to “sort of” do something because before I knew it, “training some” turned into joining the Red Tide Masters team, training at distances I hadn’t attempted since college, and signing up for an extra stage (stage 3) just a month before splash time.  I was right about the views, wrong about the floating 🙂 

Stage 3: Mid-Hudson Bridge to Newburgh-Beacon Bridge

I came into Monday morning excited but nervous for stage 3, knowing that I’d be swimming with a bunch of experienced veteran open water swimmers.  At 13.1 miles, this was my longest swim to date. My previous longest swim was 9 miles in the ocean with a RHIB and no kayak. Among the marathon swimming veterans was Charles Van Der Horst, who I met while waiting for the shuttle bus to pick us up.  He introduced himself and told me he worked at UNC, which is where I went to grad school. It was a brief introduction and conversation, but Tar Heels always share a special bond.

We were lucky on Monday because the conditions were pretty ideal.  There had been rain in the forecast and on Sunday evening, I was nervous the sky would open up in the middle of the swim.  Those fears melted away when I felt the sun and jumped into the brisk water at the Mid-Hudson bridge. The start crept up on me so quickly, it felt as if we had been on the Solaris for just a couple minutes before Rondi told us “start is in 45 seconds!” I didn’t have time to think about “what if’s” or how the conditions may effect the swim. 

I passed the time watching the Metro North pass along the shoreline, wondering where people are going on a Monday mid morning, knowing that most people I know are at work while I’m in my own little world, gliding down the river. The water felt familiar even though I had never been at this section of the Hudson.  It felt as if I belonged there in the here and now, and not back at my desk in midtown. I felt as if I could keep my pace forever as I watched the trains and the trees, buildings and boat clubs pass by. My favorite sights along the river were the large red buoys. I had arrived early in the Hudson Valley the day before and made a trip to Storm King and the sculptures that struck me most were made of a bright red metal which contrasted against the bright blue sky.  The red buoys made the same contrast and I couldn’t help smiling as I was cruising through the aquatic version of Storm King.

About 3 hours in, I saw nothing between me and the bridge besides the Solaris and beautiful, flat, Hudson River water.  As it began to get cloudy, i felt the fatigue set in. As an accountant by day, it’s probably no surprise I enjoy swimming by the numbers.  To help keep myself calmer and focused, I played a little game called “see how much closer the bridge looks after 100 strokes but don’t look at it before then.”  While more painful than the beginning, counting the strokes made the time pass quickly, and before I knew it, I was underneath the bridge. My kayaker Alex had been smiling at me between strokes, knowing I was still having a blast.  I let out a “woo” as one of my breaths. Stage 3 in 4 hours, 15 minutes! 

It might sound a little crazy but I had enjoyed the swim so much that I didn’t want to get out of the water immediately after I had cleared the bridge.  I said I would swim to the boat on my own. I accidentally overshot the boat and I gave Alex an extra workout since he had to row me in against the current.  Spolier Alert: I definitely had to use the Jetski after stage 6.

Stage 6: New Tappan Zee Bridge to George Washington Bridge

With stage 3 behind me, I was confident going into Friday because I figured the toughest swim on my schedule was over. Although Stage 6 is longer, at 15.7 miles, the current assist is much stronger than the other 6 stages, making it a little “easier.” The 3 days in between gave me rest which I needed, but at the same time, I was ready to get back in as I glanced at the NYOW tracker any time I had a free moment, wondering how the other stages were going.

When Friday finally came, I felt just as ready as before.  I took the Metro North up to Tarrytown looking out the window at the river the entire way and thinking about the return trip.  When I first jumped in, everything seemed as it was on Monday. The air temperature was warm, the sun was shining, the water felt great, the bridge was beautiful… but none of that seemed to matter as I was dodging waves at every breath.  At first I thought, “Okay wind, that was funny for a minute but you need to stop now.” When it continued and I realized it wasn’t going to stop I just got angry. Although the current was ripping, I felt stagnant. I tried to focus on the beauty around me like I had on Monday, but the wind was distracting me from it all.  I swallowed so much water the first 45 minutes that I didn’t even make it to my first feed at the 1 hour mark before I had to pause for a break. I couldn’t imagine another 3+ hours like this.

And then while stopped I said something that I’m embarrassed to share.  I told Alex “I don’t know if I can do this.” As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I didn’t believe them and I don’t think he did either. i don’t remember his exact response, only that it was hesitant.  It was a ridiculous thought. Out of all the possible emotions I could have felt, the overpowering one was anger – at the wind, at myself for even saying that, at the Palisades for looking SO far away. The big difference on this swim as compared to Monday was the fact I’d had expectations that it would be “easy.” So I decided I’d leave those expectations north of Yonkers, although it was easier said than done.  The chop became so much less of an issue when i realized “I don’t have experience with this kind of water, this IS the experience.” Compared to the first hour, the middle and end were much “easier” as I improvised my breathing when I saw waves approach. I focused on how good it felt when I was able to breathe without the wind interference, on the occasional and slight lulls in the waves, on the bright sunshine that would occasionally pop out from behind the clouds and illuminate the water while my head was down, and on the little orange flag I saw on the kayak in front of me which started out small and got larger as I crookedly flew down the Hudson towards Yonkers.

I kept seeing lots of residential buildings, some of which looked familiar from looking out the window on the train earlier that morning.  Even though I’ve done the Spuyten Duyvil 10k twice, I didn’t recognize it as Yonkers until Alex said we were in the home stretch during one of my feeds. Also on that feed, I could hear Abby cheering me on from the Solaris, urging me to pick up the pace.  Her guidance had helped me through my training, and I felt even more thankful to have her by my side during this challenging swim. At this point the little orange flag on the kayak that was behind me wasn’t nearly as little, and I was able to pass it about 10 minutes later.  I kept the momentum going when I saw the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge and then La Marina, 2 landmarks that meant I was “so close but so far.” From La Marina, I started to count my strokes again. 100 and the GW was finally gaining size… another 100 and I could clearly see the cars on the bridge. 100, 100, 100… I lost count a couple times.  Exhausted, accomplished, happy.

I was contemplating the swim and watching the current as other swimmers began to cross the bridge.  The water looked much calmer from this perspective. Suddenly, I saw the police boat, an Agent Orange safety boat, and a jetski ZOOM to the northeast side of the GW bridge in a matter of seconds.  In my experience, the volunteers and NYOW organizers emphasize safety in all aspects of each event, from detailed briefings before, to attentive kayakers during, to hypothermia prevention measures for all participants on the safety boat immediately after the swims, and I’m incredibly grateful to each and every one of them.  So, it wasn’t surprising that most of us assumed the best when we saw the units go “all hands on deck,” we knew all measures were taken. After learning what a significant role CVDH played in the Chapel Hill community (which is one I’m familiar with) I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for those closer to him and those back at UNC.  My heart goes out to his family, friends and loved ones.

Now that it’s been nearly a month since my 29 mile journey down the mighty Hudson, I’ve had more time to reflect and appreciate this challenging experience. In the future, I know I need to work on the mental aspect of this sport just as much as the physical, if not more.  As I’ve been looking at future swim odysseys to try, I realize that “perfect storm” swims like Stage 3 was for me are going to be the exception, not the rule. If this sport was easy, then everyone would do it! I swim for both the fun and the challenge, but negative thoughts like the ones I had at the beginning of Stage 6 can sabotage that purpose.

Also, one final thought: I read so much of this blog before deciding to sign up for these swims.  If you’re like me and are also reading and debating whether to sign up for one or multiple stages, my advice to you is to stop thinking and just do it!  What are you waiting for?

Thanks, NYOW!  See y’all in the Mighty Hudson.