North River

One of the greatest joys in my life is learning something new. From an early age I was fascinated by knowledge, especially the knowledge that came from books. My grandparents had a set of encyclopedias in their house and I would spend hours turning the pages and looking at the photographs even when I didn’t know what the words meant. As a young girl, the library was a favorite place and I would cloister myself in my room reading about the adventures of Alec and his black stallion. As long as it could capture my imagination, I would read it. That love of learning new things continues to this day. It might be a fact about an important historical figure or how to prune an overgrown tomato garden. The subject doesn’t matter as long as I find the topic interesting. In the last few months I’ve read books about John Kennedy, about what it’s like to be a bird (which is pretty freaking amazing) and about Native American history. I’ve read about training a dog and about the civil war in El Salvador. Reading in itself is a great gift and easily my favorite way to spend a day, but it also gifted me with the knowledge that reading is only the beginning of learning. True learning comes from reflecting on what you’ve read and eventually it taught me how to reflect on my experiences as well.

The thing that I love most about marathon swimming is its ability to teach you something every time you jump in the water. And whether you want it or not, it is usually a lesson hard learned. Among other things, it can teach us about perseverance and resilience, about success and failure and about friendship and community. Through swimming, I’ve learned a great deal about body awareness and how the relationship between the physical and mental aspects of sport is complex and variable. I’ve learned how my body reacts when I’m swimming on less than ideal sleep or didn’t eat enough the previous days. Through trial and painstaking error I’ve mostly solved how to dig myself out of a mental black hole. I try to view each swim as a learning opportunity especially when things don’t go as planned. Being in the water for hours on end has given me the chance to explore my own character strengths and weaknesses and I’ve come to enjoy reflecting on how a swim shapes me outside of the water as well.

Most swimmers have a favorite body of water or place to swim. These places usually evoke something in me akin to the feeling of being in love. It is intangible and ethereal, defying description in mere words. And much like being in love, it can be complicated and daunting but also provide a tremendous amount of joy and delight. My gateway to marathon swimming took place 10 years ago in the Hudson River. It was a current assisted 10k from the Upper West Side to Inwood Canoe Club. The swim was dubbed the Little Red Lighthouse swim because it passes by a small lighthouse on the New York side of the George Washington Bridge. I knew nothing about the the history of the landmark at that time but later discovered the lighthouse was originally called the North Hook Beacon at Sandy Hook where it was originally built and existed until 1917. Four years later it was reconstructed at its current site and remains there to this day. My memories from that day are remarkably clear. I vividly recall that I was petrified to jump into the Hudson River. At the same time I knew it would be a super cool experience and a great adventure. So, on that late September day, I jumped off a dock into the Hudson River and a great love was born.

I remember feeling like I was flying up that waterway on the incoming tide, exhilarated by the experience, but also completely awed by the immensity of its expanse. I easily recollect how insignificant I felt in the grips of the current and also how elated I felt finishing. The Hudson and I were off to a smashing start. Little did I know that a few years later I would have a wildly different encounter further north in those waters. I experienced my first Did Not Finish (DNF) at the hands of that mighty current. The swim took place near Poughkeepsie between two bridges, hence its name, and although it is shorter in length it remains one of the more challenging courses I’ve done. On that day I was pulled from the water so close to the Mid-Hudson Bridge because I missed the cutoff for finishing. I swam in place for almost an hour and could have spent the better part of the day fighting that current to no avail. As I flipped on my back and drifted down to the dock, I knew that I had given it my best shot and would come back next year a little wiser about swimming against a current. So, I kept showing up at these swims and my love for this mercurial river continued to grow.

Over the next few years I had several successful swims in her waters, including an electric swim down the Hudson during a Manhattan circumnavigation that I will remember to my dying day. In retrospect, I probably grew a little complacent with my love. And then a few years later, it was time for another lesson. Another DNF. It was a picture perfect day but I had struggled with feeling cold during the previous day’s swim and simply gave up. I regretted that decision immediately and promised myself that I would never quit simply because I felt uncomfortable. A few days later I swam a much more difficult part of the Hudson on a less than perfect day and battled through the discomfort to finish. During that swim I talked a lot to the river. I begged her to let me finish. I swore that I wouldn’t take her for granted. And she acquiesced to my pleas. Since then I’ve done several longer and more difficult swims. I thought my days of not finishing a swim were behind me. Haha!

In June I had planned to spend a week swimming down the Hudson River. It was cancelled like virtually everything else. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get a chance to spend at least one day this summer enveloped in her majestic waters. I had done two significant swims in July that included the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and I thought it would be well chosen that my final swim of the season included both the Hudson River and this bridge. I made mistakes from the beginning. I didn’t realize how difficult or long this swim would be until I started chatting with Alex about strategy. I was shocked to learn that I would be swimming against the current for several hours. I didn’t relish the thought of knuckle dragging against the rocks for hours but I figured I could do it again. I didn’t bring enough warm feeds and tried something new. I changed the interval of my feeds hoping that would keep me warmer. Again, my complacency with this river got the better of me.

I have to go back several months in order to answer the question of what REALLY went wrong with this swim. I’ll spare you the gory details but sometime around May I started experiencing panic attacks. If you never had one they are scary and disorienting. I’d feel like my sense of spacial organization was completely warped and that I was going to pass out. Not fun at all. But in this age of modern pharmaceuticals there is a pill or pills for everything. I’ve never taken a medication continuously at any point in my life. I preferred to use things like diet and exercise to manage stress and anxiety. But my usual fallbacks weren’t working so I said yes to the medications. No one tells you that these pills come with a laundry list of side effects. Apart from the ones too embarrassing to share, my main complaints were that they made me nauseous and dizzy. My anxiety improved so I thought the trade off was worth it. Until I had another panic attack. By this point I knew the precursors and what was happening but this one hit me like a freight train. Afterwards my body shook for a long time. I was angry at what I perceived as a betrayal by my mind and afraid that these attacks would never go away no matter how many pills I consumed.

I have to say I didn’t go into Stage 7 in the best mental or physical shape. It’s taken me a few days to admit that myself. I had been struggling at work and took a leave of absence. Stress was making me physically ill in addition to the side effects of the medications I was taking. I had been slowly improving though and thought I could deal with doing a long, physically demanding swim. I was wrong. Almost four hours into the swim my body made the decision that this was over for me. I had been battling nausea for most of the morning but there was no way I was going to quit because I felt a little sick. I knew I could work through it. I had been doing it for weeks. I asked the river to help me and I talked to her for a long time. I felt her hesitation as the wind started to pick up. And then I felt the beginnings of a panic attack. I swam over to the kayak and wrapped my hand around a rope, petrified I was going to black out and drown. Sitting on the boat afterwards I knew I had made the right decision to get out. I had put a lot of pressure on myself to have a successful swim and it blew up in face. My body and my mind decided that I had done enough. Surprisingly, I’m okay with that. I spent four hours swimming in my favorite place. I learned to never underestimate the challenge of doing a long swim. Most importantly though, I realized that my expectations were overshadowing the simple pleasure of swimming.

I took a day to wallow in self-pity and the next day, with the help of my loving pod of swim friends, I got back in the water. I thought about that day 10 years ago on the dock in the Hudson River and how glad I was to overcome my fear. I tried to channel that courage as I stepped into the water unsure of what to expect. For some irrational reason, part of me wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to swim again. I told myself I was in a body of water that I knew and I tried to embrace the experience. And the next day I did the same thing. And the next the same. My confidence came back. I forgave myself being such perfectionist and for taking myself a little too seriously, both things I struggle with on a daily basis. Next week I’ll jump into the Hudson again with another loving friend by my side for a fast 10k. I’ll thank the river for giving me the chance to have fun in her world and for teaching me that I need to be a little more gentle and forgiving of myself. It’s great to have goals and want to achieve big things. I know now there is a time and place for that and I look forward to completing that swim sometime in the future. But right now, it feels really good to simply be able to swim.