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.