Stages 3 & 4 Brrrrrrrrr That’s Cold

So I’ve decided to write about my experiences – but first a note of thanks to Rondi, Dave, Alex and the rest of the NYOW Swim Family – thanks for putting on such a great event and for providing great support, energy, enthusiasm and an awesomely supported swim course!  While this was my first NYOW event, they greeted me like only an OWS enthusiast and family member could – with warmth and smiles – which was great since I was so nervous.

Nerves you ask?  So I am not new to OWS – I swim with WaveOne and Denis Crean (double crown swimmer with Manhattan and last year Catalina under his belt) in Washington DC, where from April to Oct – we swim in the Potomac River where the water seems to be perpetually 85 degrees.  And I love that.  I am a warm water swimmer with no natural insulation and I love swimming in water the consistency of split pea soup (I know – awful graphic image – but welcome to the Potomac River).   I have swum the 9 mile Ocean City, MD OC Games swim in the Atlantic Ocean (with a wetsuit and fairly warm ocean temperatures of 75 or 76 degrees) and the very warm (77 degree) 12 mile Lake Travis Swim in Austin TX, along with 7 years of open water swimming at 10K and other distances – but all in very warm water.  I have also done Tiburon in San Francisco Bay in the mid 60 degrees but that was only 1.2 miles and I was in a wetsuit and had a thermal cap.  So I knew I could do a 13.2 Mile (stage 3) and 15.2 mile (stage 4) distances – but could I do it in 70 degree water and do it back to back without a wet suit?  Denis developed a 65 mile training program for me and I was pounding out practices of 3-4 hours per day after work, 5-6 days a week for almost 8 weeks – but all in pools at 80 degrees.  I had the distance down pat – after Denis’ training plan, I felt like I could swim forever (thanks Denis for endless BI training plans!).  But could I take the cold.  In the few practices in cold water, I start shivering and can’t stop.  My wet suit sadly was my security blanket.  And I had to decide, if I used it to ensure I finished, it would not count.  But if I didn’t use it, then there was a real risk that the cold would defeat me and I would not be able to finish.  I ditched the wetsuit and committed.

I know Denis has drilled into me, OWS is not as much a physical challenge, as much as it is a mental and emotional challenge.  And so lots and lots of cold showers, a swim camp in NC in early May with 69-70 degree water for 4 days, and a few trips to the Chesapeake bay to swim in 73-74 degree water was the limits of my cold water acclimation – not nearly enough – but I was bound and determined to make every mile.

Stage 3 dawned with glorious sunshine the entire day and 71 degree water (I think) that while cold, didn’t take my breath away.  My coach Denis was my kayaker for Stage 3.  I could hardly believe

that at about 4 hours I could see the bridge – asking Denis – is that really the finish line?  I am a 30 minute miler so I had anticipated swimming for 7 or 8 hours.  At 4:40 I crossed under the Newburgh Beacon Bridge smiling from ear to ear (at a 21 min/mile – thanks to the river and current gods and a nice tail wind the entire way).  And not cold or shivering.  I focused on the sun rays warming me to keep me focused and warm in spirit throughout the swim.

Stage 4 – as you’ve read by now – a tale of two swims.  The day was overcast – no sun to warm me.  And a new kayaker – Manuela, who had the greatest sense of humor – as Denis was paddling for another team mate of mine – Anita – who was doing Stage 4 with me.  The first half of the swim we had the same wind and current gods for the first 7 miles or so and while it was defintely colder without the sun, the water was supposed to be about 2 degrees warmer than the Stage 3 –  it didn’t feel that way.  And Manuela kept me in the channel most of the swim to take max advantage of the current.  Just as I swam by West Point, the winds shifted and I had a head wind for the rest of the swim.  It was not a nice head wind.  It slapped at me and it seemed with each passing mile, my body ached and my stroke count was dropping.  Again around the 4:30 mark, I could see the next finish line – Bear Mountain Bridge.  But each time I came up for air, I only ended up swallowing more and more river water.  Each breath I tried to take – more river water swamped me as waves of 12-18 inches seemed to be bound and determined to to keep from getting a breath.   I know how to swim in rough water, having swum in the Atlantic Ocean for my whole life.  But this was unrelenting, mile after mile.   I had swallowed so much river water that I was throwing up several times and suspended feeding at about the 4:30 mark.  I knew I only  had about another hour to go, and not feeding was not a smart move, but anything I tried to swallow just came right back up.  I did one or two GUs, but that was it.  At one point it seemed that the bridge was not getting any closer, but was actually getting farther away.  I could see the current helping me down river and I could see progress along the shore line, but the bridge and my mind was playing terrible tricks under duress.  With my head back down, and for the first time feeling waterlogged and that I had water filled up to my esophagus – a feeling I had never experienced before – I began to question if I would finish.  With a mile left to go, I had decided that the river and wind gods were determined to not let me finish and that no matter how hard I tried, the river and wind gods were going to stop me. I remember asking Manuela at one point, if she thought I was going to make it and finish, because I didn’t think I could finish.  She looked at me, said “ah, probably not”….then broke into a grin and basically yelled at me to keep going, not give up, told me not to be silly, that I was making great progress, and that I was almost done…or at least that is what my head told me she said…..

It was not looking good, I was cold, angry at myself for essentially swimming to the 14 mile point, feeling like I must be far over my 30 min mile pace, and then thinking that I needed to give up.  But Manuela continued offering me encouragement, I switched to breast stroke to calm my nerves and get some air, and then made a final push going back to free because I was not going to cross the finish line doing breastroke.  At 5:40 I crossed the finish line with the finish boat and Manuela cheering me on.  Manuela asked if I could swim to the finish boat, but told her I needed help.  I couldn’t feel my hands or feet, had blue nail beds, and just wanted to be out of the water.  the Jet skier swooped in, and hauled me to the finish boat.  They tried to explain how to use the ladder and I just looked up and said I needed help.  One swimmer jumped to the fantail, and he and the EMT pulled me out of the water.  I was shivering so badly I could not control it – I had swimmers swarming me and covering me with towels, caps, aluminum survival blankets and finally quilts.  I had never felt so cared for and protected in my life, from a group of strangers who I had barely met.  That is what the OWS family feeling is all about.  And what I couldn’t get off my face, was a silly shit eating grin that I had at having accomplished 28.4 miles in 2 days in cold water without a wet suit.  Oh yeah and my mile pace:  22 min/mile – only about a minute slower per mile than Stage 3.  I realized once I figured out my split times, that it wasn’t the river gods who were trying to stop me after all – it was only the wind gods.  The river gods had carried me along just like they had done the day before.  And I then I silently thanked the river gods (but still to this day curse the wind gods!).  Tom Hull





Hudson River Mikveh

By Sharon Gunderson

Hudson River Mikveh

[before I begin: thank you for waiting so long to read this. I essentially jumped from the river onto a plane to AZ, where I painted a good deal of my parents’ house for the last week.]

a mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath, a pure body of water used for spiritual purification and rejuvenation. I have yet to step into a formal one myself, but every time I have the privilege of swimming in the Hudson River, my whole soul is washed.

last year for the 8Bridges swim, I swam one stage: from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the George Washington Bridge (otherwise known as Stage 6). this year I decided to swim two stages: Stage 3 (from the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie to the I-84 Newburgh-Beacon Bridge) and Stage 4 (from the I-84 Bridge to the Bear Mountain Bridge).

for various reasons, one of which was more employment than I expected (yay!) I had precious little time to train this time around (boo!), and I didn’t enter the spring with much confidence. my primary fear was water temperature (the river possibly being on the cold side), and while I tried to stay longer and longer in the ocean at Brighton Beach, for both cold tolerance and distance, more often than not I would not reach my goals, and my discouragement was strong. both Stage 3 and Stage 4 take longer to swim than Stage 6, as their currents are considerably slower, and while the dream of finishing either one seemed distant indeed, I also didn’t want to look like a total fool.

(an aside here: the 8Bridges swim is the longest stage swim in the world, at 120 miles over 8 days, racing the changing of the tide each day. those that swim the whole thing are Olympic level athletes, absolutely world-class at the top of their game. others with not quite that much time or money swim one or a few of the harder stages, also elite athletes. that Rondi Davies and David Barra have created a structure for this race that allows amateurs such as myself to mingle with and swim in the same waters with such superstars is a thing of rare egalitarian beauty, and I bow in gratitude. imagine someone who played violin in junior high orchestra, then off and on through the rest of their life with a few lessons here and there, being invited to sit in for a concert with the New York Philharmonic, whose players went to conservatory and had 20 years of private lessons and thousands of hours of practicing  also, at no point does anyone talk down to or act in the slightest snooty, judgmental or comparative way, down their nose or side-eyed at those of lesser or slower abilities. everyone encourages everyone else, every single day, period.)

one day while swimming at Brighton Beach in a terrible mood for no reason (bright sun! no wind! nice water!), I suddenly realized that I needed to stop focusing on results for my stages and instead *just enjoy the damn process*. why on earth was I doing any of this if I wasn’t enjoying it?? my headspace started to turn, even as I wasn’t too sure about my muscle power. swimming takes a sh*tload of energy, and long-distance abilities take a long time to develop. but I kept running into my wonderful swim friends who knew what I was up against but relentlessly encouraged me, and then Jeanne JC DuBois reminded me “you have a good base from last year’s training”, which is true!

at last, the morning of Stage 3 arrived. I thought I planned enough time to get ready, hahahaha! there never seems to be enough time! I had too many things, in too many bags. as I scrambled to organize, John Humenik my beloved friend and brilliant kayaker (and world-class swimmer too) focused me quick:

“Sharon, all you need is suit, cap, googles, feeds, water, sunscreen.”
“Sunscreen!! SH*T!!!”
(I had everything else, and a lot more 

despite my self-pledge to Enjoy what I was doing, I was all nerves. a ridiculous amount of nerves, like I was about to play an orchestra audition. later when I wasn’t feeling so hot, I had to laugh: would I rather be struggling in the river or playing an audition? no contest there nope nopitty nopeness! (my musician friends will understand 

the swim started okay, and while I immediately fell in love with the Hudson all over again as soon as I was in it, my intestines weren’t exactly thrilled with what I was doing, and my arms were sore way too soon. towards the middle of the swim, I was tempted to end it, to choose pessimism over joy, but fortunately this choice had been taken out of the equation: before I got in, I swore to myself that someone else would pull me from the water if I couldn’t finish. someone else would make that decision, not me. I was in for the duration.

I reminded myself I felt a thousand times better than last year, and started to think of all the people I love who have helped me so much on my swim journey: all my swim and water community friends, Jewish friends, music friends, yoga friends, all kinds of people I know for a hundred reasons: all of you reading this and more. I meditated on what you’ve said to me and how your positive energy buoyed me forward. what a gift! -to spend hours thinking about wonderful humans! as I did this, my mental soundtrack found Shabbat songs I could adjust to the tempo of my stroke, repeating their refrains over and over. I got so lost in this reverie that I didn’t exactly forget about the bridge I was trying to reach, but I felt so slow and inadequate that I was genuinely surprised when John indicated I would reach it in time, before the tide switched, if I could just kick a little harder at the end…

and I did! I made it! I finished Stage 3, having swum almost an hour longer than I’ve ever swum before: 6 hours and 9 minutes total. I was elated, yet dazed. how had I pulled that off? meditating on love and not giving up.

I was so stoked by this victory (over my own self-doubt, AND reaching the bridge!) that my mindset for Stage 4 was completely different the next morning. nerves were gone, and I was there for sheer love of the river. I knew it was likely I wouldn’t finish (I’m still too slow for this stage of many miles and moderate current), and I was sore as hell and exhausted from the day before. my goal was to reach Storm King, a beautiful lump of mountain rising straight out of the Hudson’s fjord (the water is 200 ft deep in places there)! the first part of the swim is a bit boring, as the river is wide and one doesn’t see much while swimming. and I was in pain. after maybe 90 minutes, a support boat suddenly zoomed up. “we’re going to jump you and another swimmer upriver”, they said, as we were too far back from the rest of the swimmers for us to be easily watched over and kept safe from boat traffic in the area. twist my arm, I thought, I’m not worried about officially finishing this stage anyway and I’m cold and tired! the boat was so warm and wonderful, and they scooted us up quick to the lead swimmers, while our kayakers raced to get up there too. well the lead swimmers were at Storm King! -which is the most gorgeous part of Stage 4, and arguably the most amazing of the entire Hudson. as soon as John caught up, I jumped back in, ecstatic that I would get to swim this magical stretch, rather than struggling to get to the beginning of it. the water was so pure and perfect I was tempted to drink it on purpose. like silk it flowed over and around my body, a miracle of grace.

oh that I could stay in those waters forever! but where I could swim through my pain during Stage 3, this time I was realizing that swimming through it would cause damage I didn’t want. I made it to the middle of West Point (what stunning edifices, from the water!), did breast stroke for awhile (which I’m good at), did a little back stroke (which I’m not), and finally decided to throw in the towel and get on the boat. I wasn’t sad about not reaching Bear Mountain, I was only upset to leave the water! but not for long: the best hug on earth was waiting for me from Janet Harris, and then she held out a huge tin of spectacular oatmeal raisin ginger cookies! I got to enjoy the rest of Stage 4’s beauty from the comfort of the boat, munching away. later my over-packing paid off: a swimmer who finished the entire stage was very cold, shivering madly as we wrapped him in multiple blankets. in minutes he was happy and improving, but I noticed his hands were still white, and pulled out my thick fleece-wool mittens, which he gratefully accepted.

the next stage, Stage 5, is the hardest: nearly 20 miles from Bear Mountain to the Tappan Zee Bridge (sorry Cuomo: I will call it The Tapp til my dying day), and faint current where the river opens wide for the last 10 miles or so. I volunteered on a support boat for this stage, which got a little exciting when a smooth curtain of rain erased the Tapp from view, and wind whipped the water into a roiling frenzy. but wow, that river was beautiful, and as the day wore on, I wished badly that I might swim in it some more. I joked with a couple people saying Hey, if someone drops out for tomorrow’s Stage 6, I’ll take their place, haha (the weather forecast was perfect, and the likelihood of a swimmer not showing up virtually nil). see, everyone must have a kayaker, and kayakers are like unicorns, especially on weekdays… so I was happily resigned to being a boat volunteer once again.

but then! -a text pops up after I’m home that eve: “come ready to swim. we may have an extra kayaker” -!!!- I couldn’t believe it. I did exactly that, my packing simplified the third time around. the next morning riding the train up, I noted all the landmarks I knew so well: Stage 6 was the stage I swam last year, under major physical duress, so no matter what happened this time I’d be happy. at the marina, swimmers paired off with their kayakers to discuss things briefly before the swim and hand off their feeds and water, but I stood waiting, watching, trying to determine if a mystery extra kayaker existed or not. the crowd began to thin, it was time to go, and I thought oh well, better get to the support boat. suddenly Alex Arevalo‘s voice rang out: “Abby will kayak for you. okay?” YES PLEASE.

now Abigail Fairman, who thought she’d be on a boat all day, is a world-class swimmer, completing the entire seven stages last year. but she’s decided to acquire kayaking skills as well, and I was elated: as a swimmer herself, she would understand my needs in the water, and I would give her the opportunity to practice (with a slow swimmer! in a tailwind with fierce current! no easy flat water here, nope! ha).

and down the river we went! what total, complete gloriousness. the sun bright, the water warm, the tailwind pushing me, the river flowing with rocking swells. I felt amazing, my stomach was fine, my intestines were fine, my arms were fine (mostly, til the last hour or so), my HEAD and heart were more than fine, exploding with joy. I was finally having a swim where nothing was wrong, and everything was right. I relived moments from last year when i was too sick to enjoy them much at the time, relishing those memories like Sarah Lilley seeing me off at the start and later cheering me on from Riverdale. Abby waved a feed at me every 30 min, just like John had done in my previous stages, but more than once I thought she was messing with me: 30 minutes couldn’t possibly have passed already! even as my arms started to complain towards the end, it didn’t matter. the beautiful George Washington Bridge soared taller and taller, until finally under her I went.

is this the most beautiful sight in the world, the underbelly of the GWB, its view a manifestation of spontaneous grace, the gift of a last minute swim, redemption from last year’s struggle and this year’s doubt? does my joy pop up and shine in this mikveh like the final red buoy, a shipping channel marker (we swimmers love those buoys, steady sentinels of order), a buoy unseen from the roadbed above, and forgotten by me, until I swam past it once again, with sweet surprise?



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”