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Stage 7: Liberty

After over 100 miles of mostly rolling hills and rural scenery we were treated to swimming into one of the world’s largest cities. Plenty to see on both sides, with Manhattan on the left and New Jersey on the right. Jamie Tout, one of the successful swimmers from last year, described it as swimming by the Pillars of Hercules with the Goldman Sachs building next to the Colgate Clock on the Jersey side to the right and the Freedom Tower on the left. On a bright sunny day the landmarks glittered–the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and even the Brooklyn Bridge if you looked at the right places at the right times.

We started in two waves, jumping in under the western tower of the George Washington Bridge. The timing was tight again, so we stayed to the right, hugging the shoreline and pushing strong against a diminishing incoming current. In the earlier stages of the race “boat traffic” was when we saw two other boats that weren’t one of the many safety boats connected with the swim. Today there was real traffic as we passed by Manhattan on a busy Tuesday afternoon. The conditions for the first half of the swim were good with the wind behind us and relatively calm water. Once we passed the tip of Manhattan and headed to Liberty Island the wind came up strong, the currents swirled and the challenge really began! By then we could see the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and I realized we were seeing the finish line–THE ACTUAL FINISH LINE. Not just the starting line for tomorrow, but the true end point of the seven day odyssey. The days really didn’t matter much. Early in the week I lost track the actual day of the week, just thinking of it as “stage three day or stage four day”.

Other swimmers told us that the ebb tide was powerful as we approached the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and we would be sucked out toward the Atlantic Ocean. Although that didn’t exactly materialize, “suck” did seem to be the operative word as we ground meter by meter toward the bridge. By this point the outgoing current slowed, but not the wind. Conditions got progressively rougher closer to the bridge. But after an eternity we were finally swimming under the bridge and finished the longest swimming race in the world!

While it was a tremendously difficult undertaking to swim, I can’t possibly imagine the work that goes into producing this event. Dave, Rondi, Alex, and their team did an amazing job guiding us down the river. There were 102 people on the contact list of people involved in the event to give a sense of the true scope of the undertaking.

The swim is always a challenge, but the awesome part of an experience like this is the crazy-amazing people. I truly enjoyed the company of the other seven “seven stagers”: Janice, Devon, Patrick, Steven, Greg, Katrin, and John (my favorite brother). Adding to the mix were a few dozen other swimmers who cycled through various stages and brought a spark each day. Often overlooked in a challenge like this are the kayakers. These amazing athletes kayaked 120 miles down the Hudson, an incredible athletic feat in itself.

7 Days…8 Bridges…and 1 amazing experience!

Stage 6: The Palisades

No rest for the weary; we were right back in the water this morning. Stage 6 is famous for the currents as the Hudson River narrows and funnels in toward the harbor. The stage started at the New Tappan Zee Bridge and finished at the George Washington Bridge with midtown Manhattan in the distance.

The day was bright and sunny because why not, it was an easy stage. There was a stiff tailwind most of the day, because it was an easy stage and we didn’t need the help. The wind and weather would have come in handy YESTERDAY!

We had been swimming past some smaller towns throughout the swim, but this was the stage where the landscape became progressively more urban. Breathing left, we saw the Palisades on the Jersey side of the shore and lots of trees and forests. Breathing left toward the New York side we saw Yonkers go by, as well as the Spuyten Duyvil bridge. We could see the GW Bridge from the start in the distance, so it was looming over the full stage, gradually getting closer. With a tailwind and a current that peaked around 2 knots we were flying.

Open water swimming is a unique sport. There isn’t another race I can think of where you can actually go in place or even backward at some points or see such tremendously different times by the same swimmers one year to the next. The Beast of yesterday was underscored by the fact that Diego, who finished first yesterday would only finished one minute ahead of the last place finisher from a year ago. The conditions are so variable one year to the next and one day to the next that times really aren’t relevant. If I did my math right I averaged 1 minute and 33 seconds per 100 yards yesterday. Today, on the same river in different weather, wind, and current conditions I averaged 48.9 seconds per 100 yards.

I felt the remnants of the Beast about three hours into the swim. The cumulative effect of the previous five stages were taking their toll and I could feel it. Fortunately we were riding a ripping ebb current, and by then a bag of Doritos could have finished the last three miles of the swim.

So a week into this adventure we are over 100 miles from the starting point in Catskill, NY with the Liberty Stage up tomorrow. We’ll swim past Manhattan, past the Statue of Liberty and finish under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the entrance to the New York Harbor.

Stage 5: The Great Bays

Stage Five is officially called “The Great Bays” but there isn’t anyone that doesn’t refer to it as “The Beast”. Today it definitely lived up to its name. It was billed as 19.8 miles, the same distance as Stage Two. So you would think it might take about the same time to complete. You would be wrong. You might also think that there wouldn’t be much to say about it. You’d be wrong again. While Stage Four was two distinct swims, the Beast had three phases.

Phase One: Currents Against You Are Less Fun Than Currents With You
Part of the challenge is that we jumped a little before 7AM. Early jumps are usually a good thing because there is often less wind early in the morning. However, when the slack tide is 11:16AM and you will be swimming against an incoming tide for over four hours it seems it might make for a bit of a long day. The jump time speaks to the genius of the event coordinators: Dave Barra, Rondi Davies, and Alex Arevalo. With the total ebb time of 5 hours 48 minutes (nearly an hour and a half faster than the men’s stage record) you gotta pick your poison–fight the current in the beginning or fight the current at the end. After 8 hours plus into a swim there ain’t any fight left, so fight at the beginning it is!

Adding to the difficultly was a 45 minutes boat ride before the start, so we saw first hand what we were in for. At the start, all the swimmers immediately followed the kayakers to the west shore. Closer to the shoreline there is less current to fight, so we hugged the shoreline, occasionally getting close enough to kiss it and also close enough to the trains on the tracks at the edge of the river that we could feel the vibrations in the water. While most of the stages had swimmers fairly well spread out by the three hour mark, we stayed in pretty tight groups along the shore. Finally we slogged our way far enough to cut across the river to find some favorable current. It wasn’t much, but better than nothing!

Phase Two: Wind In Your Face Is More Fun In A Convertible Than In A River
By the time we got to the middle of the swim we traded the head current for the wind. Again, with the Beast it’s “pick your poison”. I’d noticed on the map that when we passed a peninsula on the left side we had about seven miles to go. Being an eternal optimist, I assumed I’d reach that point before the six hour mark. About 6:30 I wondered if I missed it, then around 7 hours I saw it. That was about my fifth clue that today was Beastly!

Fortunately you can see the bridge by then and I thought I could just put my head down and take 5,000 strokes with each arm and be done. It’s always a good sign to see the bridge, even if it’s off in the distance because once it’s there it doesn’t go away…..Except on the Day of the Beast. After about 666 strokes into the 5,000 I looked up for the bridge and it was gone. So barring catastrophic infrastructure collapse, it meant that a storm was a’coming. It’s like seeing disaster on the horizon or a dental appointment on your calendar. You know it’s inevitable and there’s no getting out of it.

Phase Three: Hurricane Hudson
Well, it wasn’t actually a hurricane, but the storm that hit us in the teeth sure seemed like it. The bridge played “hide and seek” and by the time we found it about an hour later it wasn’t any closer. Even Luis, my “kayaker extraordinaire” thought we were moving backwards! Then we saw the Sing Sing prison on the left, and I realized there were worse places to be than in the Hudson getting hit in the face with waves and drinking so much water I wasn’t thirsty when it was time for my feeds. It was also about this time that I was cursing whoever was in charge of New York Public Works in 1955, because would it have killed you to build that bridge a couple miles north of where you ended up putting it??

But this is open water swimming. The worst conditions are saved for the hardest events, at least in my experience. So the bridge finally got tired of moving further south and gave up, allowing me to finally swim under it about nine hours after the jump.

Stage Six is considered of the easier stages. The 15.7 miles is tempered by what should be a ripping ebb tide and a sunny day with winds at our back, because, why not it’s an easier stage!

I’ll cross that Bridge when I come to it (or not)

My finish for Stage 2 of 8 bridges was under the walkway over the Hudson footbridge. I know from the NYOW event 2 Bridges it is about 1Km from the Mid-Hudson bridge the official finish for the stage. For those that have experienced that event in our beloved Hudson you know that direction has a huge impact on even that short of a distance. It was here that I received one final lesson from my former swim coach, Terry Laughlin, who left us too soon. NYOW put on a fitting memorial swim for Terry Laughlin last week in his favorite place to swim Lake Minnewaska. But it was here in the shadow of the Mid-Hudson Bridge when I last saw Terry in person. He was volunteering for 2 Bridges and I was swimming it. The place will always have a special energy for me as a result. I swam my first stages of 8 Bridges last year having heard of the swim from Terry in the previous year but too late to get a slot. My kayaker for this adventure was the angel Terry O’Malley who I know was sent to shepherd me down the Hudson by Terry Laughlin. We started the swim under the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge where I finished against the flood tide last year during stage 1. It was therefore on my mind to stay at it and try to get in before the river began to flood again. When the day started I felt bad for the first 4-5 miles which found the Hudson unusually glassy and calm. I was experiencing pain in my trapezius muscles. Maybe a remnant from a challenging swim across the Potomac river recently. I tried not to attach myself to the pain and give it any energy over me and wished it would float down the river away from me. I kept swimming and the soreness washed away. Terry would provide me with some useful stats on my feeds and we had a really good flow going. The longer we went the better I started to feel. The winds picked up a bit and I felt we were swimming into a headwind but it was still a good day on the water. Our bridge the Mid-Hudson came into view and I thought it would be a couple more hours before we reached our destination. However, we became sidetracked by the flood. The channel is now a friend turned enemy and into the eddy near the riverbank we retreated trying to escape the flood. Any swimmer who has had to crawl along here knows this is where the swim becomes more eventful. It is swimming over various river debris in a desperate attempt to get in. Rocks, Sticks, Leaves, while your fingertips drag on the bottom of the riverbed. At one point my stroke caught a dead fish which Terry claims I launched into the air to his amusement. I thought we would eventually get to the Mid-Hudson but the walkway became my exit this time around. The lesson being sometimes the end comes sooner than you expect it will so enjoy all the strokes that get you there.

Finding Beauty in The Beast

One year ago yesterday, I completed the full 8 Bridges challenge – all 7 stages, all 7 days, all 120 miles.  I got the job done and I did not embarrass the family, as Wally Fairman likes to say.  Yet, tomorrow morning at ridiculous-o’clock, I will be jumping off Launch 5 into the Hudson River for my third attempt at Stage 5, or The Beast as she’s more affectionately known in these parts.  The how I’m doing this stage is the easy part – I live here, my kayaker lives here, I didn’t even have to take a day off work.  The why – that’s the more complicated piece of this equation.

As a coach, I tell my swimmers to learn from each and every swim.  Whether it’s 1 mile or 20 miles is irrelevant – you always walk out of that water with a new understanding of some part of yourself.  A DNF is probably the most difficult experience to learn from, but also the most influencial.  After about 7.5 hours into my 2016 Stage 5 swim, I decided – not my kayaker, not an observer, not a race official – that I wasn’t going to make the bridge in time and announced that I was done.  I later learned that I was probably at most an hour from the bridge, and that the last group was pulled 1:15 after I stopped.  Could I have made it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But that day is seared into my brain for all time because I made the choice to prematurely end my swim.

In 2017, Alex and I agreed that we were not stopping until we found the Tappan Zee, or maybe if one of my arms fell off.  Fortunately, Mistress Hudson played nice that day as we had glorious conditions and got under the bridge with plenty of room to spare.  But the change in mindset cannot be overstated.  I went into that swim ready for a fight.  Did it make up for the year prior?  Not even a little bit.  But I was ready for the challenge.  Even now as I train for longer, colder distances, the memory of my DNF factors more than the other successes I have had since.

So why am I back now?  Part of it is the distance.  I had shoulder surgery 6 months ago and this is a good test/benchmark for Alex and me as we head into another substantial season.  Part of it is to enjoy a single stage without worrying about what comes next.  But most of all, it’s just to enjoy the beauty of a proper challenge.

At the end of the day, this adventure – whether you do one stage or all 7 – will change you.  You will want to come back again to appreciate the journey.  My swim tomorrow is a chance to remember the time spent with my Brazilian family Marta Izo, Flavio Toi and Harry Finger; to celebrate my American brothers Ed Riley, Jamie Tout and Steve Gruenwald; to get ready for my next adventure with Graco Morlan; and finally, to cheer on Katrin Walter as she pushes forward to her own 8B finish.  If you are anything like me, you will find the siren call of the Hudson rather hard to resist.  Here’s hoping The Beast will give us a good fight, but ultimately let us all pass tomorrow.

Stage 4: The Highlands

Stage four was a “two for one” special. It was like doing two completely different swims on the same day on the same river!

We jumped at exactly 10AM to begin the trek from the Beacon-Newburgh bridge to the Bear Mountain Bridge. The distance was 15.2 miles. The first five miles was a straight shot down a wide section of the river. For about an hour I had the same song stuck in my head, but at the finish I couldn’t even remember what it was! The middle section of the swim wound its way toward the West Point Campus. We had some spectacular views of the historic site as went around several river bends.

With about five miles to go the conditions went from being smooth and relatively calm to strong, consistent headwinds. This changed the complexion of the swim entirely. We still had a steady current with us, but the wind was unrelenting and a steady 10-15 miles per hour the rest of the way. The sunny skies gave way to an overcast day that lasted the rest of the swim.

We’re told not to look up at the bridges we are swimming to because never seem to get closer. On this stage the punishment for looking up was a face full of water, so the bridge seemed to come up so much more quickly at the finish!

The scenery was still pretty rural, with train tracks on each side of the river. The train horn sounding was enough to jolt us out of our reverie and back to the reality of the river.

The Bear Mountain Bridge is the most rural of the bridges. It was built in 1924 and was, at the time, the world’s longest suspension bridge. The next time we see the Bear Mountain Bridge we will be jumping in for Stage 5. The hardest stage of the swim awaits. Saturday is a rest day reserved in case one of the first four stages was washed out by inclement weather. Now we have another full day to prepare for the Beast!

…And I still haven’t remembered the song from this morning…

Stage 3: The Hudson Valley

It is poetic justice how the shortest stage of the event coincides with the longest day of the year! Summer solstice dawned early and the event crew was already hard at work getting Stage 3 ready to launch. It’s an interesting mindset to think “It’s only 13.2 miles today, it’ll be easy!” As with the rest of the event, yesterday’s finish line morphed into today’s starting line as we jumped just north of the Mid-Hudson bridge and took our first strokes shortly after 9AM. We started with the outgoing tide, which grew in strength over the next three hours.

The scenery most of the way was beautiful. Stunning landscapes on both sides of the river, it was described by another swimmer as “Something you would see in a Bob Ross painting that hangs in your Great Aunt Ethel’s living room.” There really isn’t a better way to describe it. The weather was amazing, not a cloud in the sky and a slight tailwind. It was just enough to lift everyone’s spirits.

This stage is also billed as the one with the “most scenic” cement factories. That didn’t disappoint either. It was a sight to behold, and it also meant we were about half way. The last three miles were pretty much a straight shot with the Beacon Newburgh bridge looming as the finish. It’s always a great feeling to swim under the shadow of the bridge since that means you’re SO CLOSE!

Another great day in the Hudson River. Four more stages to go!

Stage 2: The Lighthouses

While it’s officially titled “The Lighthouses” the second stage of 8 Bridges has acquired other less official names by a number of the swimmers! With the first day distance of 18.3 Miles and today billed as 19.8 miles you might be thinking “how much harder can 1.5 miles be?”

To answer that question you see finish times that were 1.5 to 2 hours slower for the same swimmers yesterday. An additional challenge of this event is the current window. This varies based on the day, but today we had a shade under 7 hours of the ebb (outgoing) tide. If you’re still swimming when the flood (incoming) tide starts then the last section of the swimmer is not a lot of fun!

We jumped early, about 30 minutes before our projected start time so we would start the swim with an incoming tide. While it would mean we had to fight the current initially, it provided a better shot at finishing before the flood tide. It’s easier to fight the current at the beginning when you are fresh than try to slog through an increasing current at the finish!

What made this swim harder than yesterday’s is that there were parts of the river that widened, lessening the current. An additional challenge was having to move out of the main channel for several large barges. The current is strongest at the deepest parts of the river so that is where we wanted to be. Unfortunately, the ships want that deep water as well and since they are bigger they win!

As we came around a final bend in the river, about three miles from the finish, the final bridge came into view. This is a mixed blessing. While seeing the finish line gives hope, it always appears way closer than it actually is. A rule of thumb to estimate how long it will take is to eyeball the distance and guess at a time. Then take that number, add a little bit…and double it!

Tomorrow we have the shortest stage of the event. It’s all a matter of perspective. You know the first two days have taken a toll when you think…”only 13.2 miles, that’s barely worth getting my hair wet”

Stage 1: The Islands

The event is called 8 Bridges, but it’s really just two bridges. That’s all you have to think about each day. It’s pretty simple really, you start and one bridge and you finish at the next one. How many miles the stage is and how long it’s taking seem less relevant as the miles start to blend together and the time starts to blur.

The starting point today was the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and the finish line about 18.3 Miles away under the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. This stage is officially called “The Islands” but it’s really “the warm up” as it’s our first chance to wrap our collective heads around how the water is moving, what the Hudson River Valley looks like on the way by, and the conditions that can make the exact same swim change vastly from one year to the next or one day to the next.

We had a favorable current and a tailwind which made the 18.3 miles move by pretty quickly. I had great help all day long from Luis, my kayaker, who did a great job of working through the challenges of the day including a lot of traffic on the waterway.

Overall the water was warm (74 degrees) and the conditions were favorable. It was a great warm up for the week ahead. All of the swimmers finished today. So one way to look at it is that we have a solid first day in the books, but we also have over a hundred miles to go 🙂

Only 120 Miles to Go…

On a 93 mile Uber ride from the airport there is a lot of time to think. We were making the trek on Sunday night from JFK to the first base camp in Poughkeepsie, some 40 miles from our eventual starting point in Catskill, NY. Most of our thoughts were some variation of…”wow this is a long drive” followed closely by “wait, we have to swim all the way back…and a lot more.”

That ride sets the scene for the longest stage swim race in the world as we stare down 120 miles of the Hudson River. Starting tomorrow we will be in the water for 13-20 miles a day.

Swimming is the perfect blend of the individual and the team. It’s difficult to imagine all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to pull of an event like 8 Bridges. Each swimmer has their own dedicated kayaker and, for the last stage, an additional support boat. So despite everything that has to come together for the opportunity, it’s still on the swimmer to take the next stroke, to swim towards the horizon, and in the case of this event on to the next bridge.

My brother, John, and I are two of the eight swimmers who are entered in each of the seven stages. We’ll be joining people from across the country and around the world as we swim our way back to the airport.