All posts by Andrew Malinak

All 8 Bridges

This is the last thing I’ll say about this for now: here is my story. I set out on an adventure last week. I swam a lot, learned a lot, laughed a lot, and in the end accomplished what I set out to do. There is much to tell. Some of it I’ll write now, some of it I’ll tell you in person, and some of it you’ll never hear.

Stage 1

I said that I wouldn’t race, told myself for months to pace. But that tail wind pushing us downriver felt so nice. There aren’t many distractions up north and I was feeling strong. Having Rondi and John pacing next to me made me feel stronger. They were my training companions two years ago, so it felt like old times trying to keep up with them, pushing myself to match their speed.

Stage 2

Somewhere around the five hour mark, my kayaker Darian is told by Launch 5 captain Greg that if I swim the next 2.5 miles in 25 minutes, I’ll have Grace’s record. An audible laugh was my first response, but then I remember the current and some mental math I’d been doing earlier. If I swam fast, that might work! So I swam fast. At the bridge, out of breath, I’m told I got the record. The men’s record, they mean. I was 25 minutes behind Grace’s. That is when I learn that Greg may not be a reliable source for when to sprint. No more record chasing for me. Greg’s comment becomes a great source of entertainment for me for the remainder of the week.

After I finish, we spot Penrose fighting the flood tide along the Poughkeepsie waterfront. The current is against him, but he’s still going for it, sneaking along shore in front of us. I want a closer look, so put my suit back on and tell Harris to get off the paddle board. Watching James finish his swim from right alongside is great. My arms ache as I paddle back to the dock.

Stage 3

The snooze button gets hit again because I’m feeling too nauseous to sit up. Food will fix it, I think, but it doesn’t. Driving to the train station, I’m doing my best to avoid defiling my father’s steering wheel. He’s turned the air off in the car, I snap at him, turn it back on, and the sick feeling recedes. On the train, my sandals break.

My stomach feels no better swimming. My feeds go down and come right back up. My mouth feels dry despite both the amount of water I’m drinking and the fact that I’m swimming in water. It feels like my stomach has shut down, nothing is passing through. And strangely, I’m cold. I shouldn’t be cold.

We stop at the New Hamburgh Yacht Club, slightly off course, to chat briefly with Marylou, Ken, and Diane. It has been years since I’ve seen them. Treading against the current off the end of the dock, I see Rufus at the top of the ramp. He’s whimpering. Rufus always got nervous when I swam there. He used to doggie paddle out behind me when I left shore, and then turn back when I got too far.

Dave paddles over and asks how I’m doing. Something isn’t right, I tell him, but whatever it is, the answer is just there on the other side of that bridge.

Stage 4

The scenery is gorgeous. This is the closest I’ve come to Bannerman’s Island. Seeing Breakneck and Storm King loom up ahead is awesome. Watching them fly by is better. I made the rookie mistake of getting sunscreen in my goggles, so I stop often to take them off and enjoy my surroundings.

Somewhere in those surroundings I find my friend Emily. She is waiting on Little Stony Point. Emily is the one who put me in touch with Darian. She’s come up from the Upper East Side with Nick to watch us go by. We exchange a few words, but don’t stay long.

Stage 5

We pass Indian Point and the water gets predictably warmer. It also feels smoother somehow, and the waves are less irritating. I find a rhythm and pick up my pace. Rondi is up ahead pacing the lead swimmer. I steal her as I pass by, I’m now the lead swimmer. I seem to have found my power in the cooling water of a nuclear power plant.

We pass another power plant, this one far off on the west shore. It marks the halfway point, so I mentally await the symbolic moment when I’m directly in front of it. Watching the smokestacks move in front of the buildings behind takes ages. I’ll never reach halfway.

John jumps in tells me he has bad news. I’ll have to kick, he says, the tide might be turning soon. We pound our way into the waves together. His motions make him look like a porpoise, I think to myself. He tells me a little later that Rondi says once we reach the lighthouse we only have fifteen minutes farther to swim. The lighthouse approaches very slowly.

An hour or so later, I’m still between the lighthouse and the bridge. I’ve been lying to myself for an unknown period of time, only fifteen more, thirty more minutes. I look at the bridge. I’m ready to be done with this. Sure, I want to be under the bridge, but I want to be done. I look up again, and the bridge is a hair closer. If it were farther, if I were moving backwards, I would be done. But it isn’t, so I keep swimming.

The bridge doesn’t grow, but I can tell by the positions of the stanchions when I breathe that I’m still making progresss. Let’s end this, is the nicest thing I’ve said to the bridge for hours. That bridge is one of the few things to ever see me get angry. I sprint the last few hundred yards and it takes ages. I’ve been sprinting since the lighthouse.

7:30, I think when I get on the boat. Any longer and the tide would have changed I’d never have made it. 9:22, Rondi tells me. No way. I check the time of day. No way. I check the position of the sun. Finally it sinks in, the current has been flooding for nearly two hours, but I never admitted it to myself. Where did the time go?

Stage 6

Oh, this again? and I stop after ten strokes. The waves feel exactly like they did a few hours ago when I arrived at this bridge. I put my face back in and swim because I want to leave put the Tappan Zee far behind me. That bridge and I aren’t friends.

The scenery becomes familiar again. I watch the Palisades slide by on one side, and the Yonkers and Bronx rise on the other. Then there is the Henry Hudson Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil. I count down the blocks and watch the GW grow ahead.

Stage 7

The last time I swam this whole stretch of river she was next to me, and she’s here again. Christina paddles to my left, Darian to my right. She’s been kayaking for swimmers exactly as long as I have been swimming for kayakers, Christina was there when I first swam in the Hudson. I’m glad she’s here today, for many reasons.

Counting down the cross streets. Suddenly we’re at North Cove, the end of MIMS. Then we’re past it. I look up and hear a bell. I stop. There’s a green bell buoy ringing its carillon behind me, a packed Liberty Island ferry up ahead, and Statue off to my right. Caitlin has made her way into our company on board a small RIB. It feels fitting that she is here too.

With every breath I see a new tug and barge, or large ferry, or freighter. This harbor is busy. The Narrows Bridge is playing along with our little game. It is getting bigger, just like it is supposed to. We’re heading into waves two to three feet high, but I don’t care. The bridge is getting bigger!

Ed told me earlier in the week that the best moment in the swim is when you can see the bridge up ahead just by turning to the side to breathe. I can do that now. We’re close. Jumping in that morning was the most nervous I’d been on during this adventure; so close, but still with six hours of swimming to go. But now there’s nothing in my way now. Not storms, nor injury, nor boats, nor current. There’s nothing stopping me.

Wind SSW

While we all rested on Sunday, the wind was hard at work. We had four days of favorable weather during  the first half of 8 Bridges. On the fifth, as we arrived in the morning refreshed, ready to take on The Beast, a south wind was blowing.

Marathon swimmers rely on their training, kayakers, volunteers, and organizers, but they also rely on luck. Weather and currents can be forecasted and predicted, but not changed. Waiting in the narrow fjord beneath the Bear Mountain Bridge, the sky overhead was blue, but the water below was no longer flat. There was nothing else to do but jump in and hope for the best.

As four solo swimmers and a relay made their way downstream, the day looked promising. The current was running fast early in the course, spirits were high. As the river widened though, the wind was felt. It came in the form of short, choppy, irregular waves, head on. The kind of waves you look at from a boat and think nothing of, but as a swimmer you curse. These waves break your rhythm, and with it your spirits. Gulps of water come as frequently as gulps of air. Getting into the zone is difficult, and staying there is impossible.

As the day went on, the waves lengthened out into a more manageable, regular chop, something we could deal with. But during that time, another damage was being dealt by the wind, something more sinister than discomfit and a slight queasy feeling. The wind was slowing our current on the day we needed it the most. With the river at its widest during Stage 5, finding and using the ebb is critical in reaching the Tappan Zee before the flood.

By time the tide turned, no one was at the bridge. The waves were bigger now, and the lack of forward progress was demoralizing. Lighthouses did not fly by; bridges did not grow larger over time. An hour and forty-two minutes after the flood started, Andrew reached the Bridge. Shortly thereafter, the flood picked up to over two knots and halted the relay only six hundred yards from the finish. No one else made it.

Stage 6, another difficult day began where the last had left off. The same wind was blowing from the south as eleven swimmers splashed, and the ebb was again slow. Four finished before the tide turned, but all fought the same rough conditions for five to six hours. From the bow we watched our friends pushed backwards from the George Washington. It was sad to see so many not finish, especially when everyone gave a valiant effort.

But such is the sport we choose. For a few this event was the goal, but for most it was a part of something larger. For one swimmer who is training for the Ederle Swim, her mood was somewhat lightened to hear that her Stage 6 swim had been tougher than Ederle despite not finishing. Many other swam longer than planned, a feat in itself regardless of outcome.

And then the party afterwards. Sun beaten and weary, we pulled into Inwood. Swimmers, volunteers, kayakers, family, and friends mingled into the evening on the deck of La Marina. Sharing stories of the first six days, making plans for the future. The sunset across the Hudson couldn’t brighten the atmosphere more, though it tried. Fatigue waited patiently at the curb while swimmers reveled in the glory of one another.

Key to success

It is Sunday in the Hudson Valley and the River is quiet. No marathons are being attempted here today, despite the gorgeous summer weather. Things pick back up again tomorrow, today is a much needed rest from the past four days of constant motion.

With the first 66 miles complete, this is on track to be the most successful year of 8 Bridges by many measures. In the first four stages, twenty-two swimmers have started, and all have finished what they set out to do: Mo has completed two consecutive legs, Heather and Ed four, James and Andrew still making progress to seven. Records have been broken in every stage; Dave Farrell set the course record for Stage 4 yesterday on his longest swim to date. The weather has been amazing with nothing more than a gentle tail-wind and some light morning showers to note. The volunteers have been superb, a complex dance of kayaks, patrol boats, and jet skis getting it just right. Success, from any angle.

Rondi and Dave have not just created an event for us to swim. They have created an event that they want to swim. In the past they both have, of course, swum the event and therefore know intimately each leg of the swim and what is needed to complete all seven. But it has become very apparent in the past four days: they still want to swim this event.

From early in the morning, Dave can be found preparing the support craft while Rondi is organizing a stream of kayakers, swimmers, and crew. Through the first hour of each stage, the two can be found hard at work. But once things calm down and the swim is underway, both have been unable to stay out of the water. Each day Rondi has hands off her radio, watch, and clipboard to an able volunteer so she can pace with the lead swimmer for an hour or so. Meanwhile, Dave trades in the helm of Agent Orange for a pair of goggles and hops in as well.

And it isn’t just the two of them that want to be in the water. Numerous support crew have been in and out water during the first four stages, pacing swimmers, escorting by paddleboard, and offering eye-level encouragement. They all want to swim. And that is probably what makes this such a successful event. The people running 8 Bridges can, have, and want to be swimming the event. That’s a good sign.

From a swimmer’s perspective, it is wonderful knowing that the crew cares so much about swimming that they can’t not do it. That all tasks are so under control that an hour swim is possible and there are no frantic last minute emergencies is a sign of a well-organized swim. Seeing Dave or Rondi swim up next to you, seeing that they are willing to literally put themselves in your place, means that you are in a good place. It is very reassuring.

No one should be surprised it has been so successful thus far.

Looking forward to a successful Stages 5, 6, and 7.

Jumping in to Stage 1

At 7:20 this morning, an hour before the start, we finished loading swimmers and kayaks onto Launch 5. After introductions, a safety talk, and a briefing on the rules, we left the Catskill dock and motored up to the Rip Van Winkle. As the flood tide slowly went slack, the swimmers slathered up with creams, screens, and lotions. One by one, the kayaks dropped into the still water of the Hudson waiting for us in the shadow of the bridge.

The four swimmers of Stage 1 were all about to set out on at least four consecutive days of marathon swims. Ed Riley of New York, NY and Heather Camargo of Hollywood, FL will swim the first four stages, with James Penrose from London, England and Andrew Malinak from Seattle, WA continuing on with all seven.

One marathon swim is hard enough, but multiple back-to-back swims add many new levels to the challenge. Here is what the swimmers are thinking about the swim in the hour before they jump in:

Why are you doing this?

Heather: is a frequent participant in her local Key West Marathon Swim. Her daughter got the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall this June, so Heather is missing the annual Florida tradition. Looking for a bit of adventure up north, she found 8 Bridges. She tried signing up for one or two stages, but just couldn’t stop herself from signing up for four.

Andrew: has been thinking about swimming the length of the Hudson for longer than 8 Bridges has existed. He finally got around to scheduling the two weeks needed, and is very excited to return to his hometown (Fishkill) to swim in a lot of familiar water. This is a great opportunity to spend time with an amazing group of people in a gorgeous setting.

James: heard about 8 Bridges last summer when he met Dave Barra at MIMS and fell in love with the idea. He is looking to use this week as training for some other big, difficult swims he has in his sights, and hopes to come out a stronger, tougher marathon swimmer.

What have you done differently to train for this swim compared to other one-off marathon swims?

Ed: has taken the “swim all the time” approach to training. A typical week consists of training sessions once every twelve hours (5am and 5pm) six days per week. He focused on interval training during the morning session and distance during the evening, with longer swims on Saturday. He’s been totaling forty to fifty thousand yards per week.

Heather: sought advice from the event organizers and added some long back-to-back training swims to her routine. She has also been working to strengthen her shoulders by using paddles and weight training.

Andrew: has also been doing consecutive long swims on weekends to prepare himself. Accomplishing this meant altering his training location from the preferred cold water of the Puget Sound to warmer lakes. He has also been making weekly visits to a physical therapist, hoping to avoid shoulder pain early on in the swim.

What part of this swim is most daunting? What will you be working on as you swim?

Heather: lists pacing as a concern. Swimmers are taught to swim fast, but added speed depletes the body and increases the risk of injury. This swim is about maintaining a consistent, comfortable pace and not overdoing it.

James: is hoping to make it through all seven stages honourably. Treading water at the starting line, the path downriver looks very, very long.

Ed: sounds worried about the start of day two. Jumping in after day one, well he is expecting “a bit of an ouch.” But, he reminds us, no one wants to see a grown man cry. I suppose that’s why we all wear goggles, to hold the tears in.

Three, two, one…8 Bridges has begun!