The final stages…

With stage 5 out of the way, and delighted at having completed it, I found it hard to refocus on stages 6 and 7; we were nearly done, and yet there was still so much to do. And so we moved on to stage 6, from the Tappenzee to the George Washington bridge. For the first time this week, we had a strong tail wind, which combined with a speedy ebb promised to send us flying down the river; I was hopeful for a good day on the water…and a chance to recover a little from the previous day’s 8 hours.

But first came the boats. I am really not good with boats, and get seasick on pretty much anything but the most fat-bottomed of ferries. It had been  a problem for me on stage 2 after a prolonged period below deck, keeping ourselves out of the way of the kayakers while they launched from our main boat, Launch 5. With this in mind, and knowing that we would have an hour’s boat ride to the start of stage 6, I took some motion sickness pills in advance, but once we arrived at the Tappenzee, our small boat had to idle in the rolling waves as the kayaks struggled to launch in the difficult conditions. My stomach started to reel and I was becoming unable to focus my eyes on anything without a tide of nausea rising. The river looked dark and angry, but I was desperate to get in, to be out of the boat, and no-one was happier than me when splash time came.

The first hour was difficult for me. Although I knew that the tailing wind and fast tide were working in our favour, the water was lumpy and unpredictable. The seasickness had distorted my sense of balance, and compounded by the residual fatigue from the day before, I struggled to find stability and co-ordination in the water. There was nothing for it but to slog on and wait for things to get better….which they did after an hour or so, as my sense of balance returned and my stomach settled, and in spite of a very mediocre performance from me, the swift tides and tailing winds were our friends, and Jeff (my kayaker) and I passed under the magnificent George Washington bridge in just over three and a half hours.

And so to stage 7…the final stretch of the river from the George Washington to the Verrazano. I was incredibly nervous at the start…if I finished this stage, I would have covered the whole 120 mile distance (even with the DNF on stage 2) – a tantalising possibility that exceeded all of my expectations when we started our adventure. There were no long boat rides, conditions were good, and I was feeling well rested and  recovered. But still…I was nervous. Splash time was a good couple of hours before the ebb tide to give us time to complete the stage – a move that involved hugging the shoreline on the west side of the Hudson, riding a generous and welcome eddy. I enjoyed this stretch enormously, with the closeness to the shore giving a strong sense of progress, as well as an opportunity to peer nosily at the houses on the shoreline. As we headed south and began to ride the ebbing tide, I recognised familiar Manhattan landmarks passing by on the opposite shore and started to feel increasingly confident that I would make it. As we passed Battery Park and moved out into the harbour, Jeff rewarded me with a celebratory jelly baby. All was well. We passed Ellis Island, and then the Statue of Liberty; I kept swimming, but relished the absurd splendour of finding myself swimming at the foot of such an iconic landmark.

liberty

And then, as if a switch had been flicked, all hell broke loose in what was to be two of the most intense hours of swimming I have ever experienced. The water churned unpredictably as rising headwinds combined with the wakes of boat traffic to make steady swimming challenging (as well as tough work for the kayakers), but it was the water traffic that blew my mind – ferries, tugs, huge barges, leisure boats and swarms of jet skis lumbered, cruised, forged and zipped around the harbour. After days of relatively peaceful swimming, this overload of activity was overwhelming, even with the limited vision afforded to a swimmer; I learned later that for the kayakers and boaters, it was even more intense. I felt tiny.

But in situations like this, you have to trust your kayaker and the safety crews – they can see what you can’t, and I knew that they would be communicating with traffic and keeping us all safe. Occasionally, I found myself surrounded by a cordon of safety boats to protect me from passing jet skis, or Jeff would calmly indicate a slight change of direction in anticipation of a  huge barge passing by, towering above us. I could hear a symphony of propellor tones under the water, and every so often, a blast of cold water would be churned up from below by a passing boat – a refreshing, enlivening boost in this already over-stimulating aquatic environment.

Tiring in the lumpy water, I forged on slowly amidst the mayhem of the harbour towards the bridge, with Jeff by my side, and observer Janet Harris on board our accompanying safety boat, shouting encouragement. And then finally, we were there, passing under the enormous span of the bridge, firstly through its shadow on the water, and then past the stanchions that mark the end of this extraordinary, exhilarating, exhausting odyssey.

approaching the Verrazano

Stage 7 finish

We were back to our original cohort of 7-stage swimmers plus the New Zealand relay team today, but we were missing one of our members – Anna DeLozier – who had fallen ill the day before and was unable to swim. We missed her hugely, and there is absolutely no doubt that had she been able to swim, she would have stormed the stage and completed the 8 Bridges. For the rest of us, there was a mixture of relief, celebration and a little sadness that such a tremendous week was over. But the plaudits of the day belong to our kayakers and safety crews who kept us safe and successfully led us through the insanity of New York harbour to our triumphant finish. It was an amazing day.

Stage 5, and a surprise…

Ever since I started even contemplating the 8 Bridges swim, I have always assumed that stage 5 was off the table. The guidance suggests a minimum 3 hour pace of 27 mins / mile, and I’m generally nowhere near that, hovering at best at around 29 mins/mile. So when we set off on the stage yesterday, I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic…and in fact, I was secretly harbouring the assumption that I would get to 6-7 hours, it would become obvious that I wasn’t going to finish and I would get out, saving myself for the later stages. It is nicknamed “The Beast”, but I decided that this was too macho and intimidating for me, so I renamed it “The Kitten” – small and feisty, with teeth, claws and an indomitable spirit, but ultimately small enough to pick up and put in a box out of harm’s way.

It was a beautiful, calm day from the start, and the stage started well with the opportunity to leap from the front of Launch 5. Anyone who’s read my blog, The Long Swim, will know that for me, these annual leaping pics are an enormous source of vicarious pleasure, oozing pleasure and confidence in and around the water. To have a picture of me doing that same leaping is a source of enormous delight.

 

leaping

 

And after the leaping, the swimming. The previous day’s rest day had helped with recovery, and I enjoyed a steady-paced swim along the wide stretch of river. The water was generally calm, and even starting a couple of hours before the turn of the tides to get a jump on the distance gave a much better sense of progress than I had expected. My feeds slipped down well, and my body was tired but pretty much in one piece. And I always had the comfort that I wouldn’t get anywhere near making the swim and would be able to get out once everyone was sure I wouldn’t make it.

But the time trundled on and we continued to progress, and the Tappenzee Bridge, and the construction for the new bridge littered around it, slowly crept into view. I was still sure I wouldn’t make it, but it was also tantalisingly there and a grumble of determination finally stirred. And then came the news that I was 2 miles away and that I could make it if I put my head down. I cursed and for the first time that day, decided to commit to the challenge. It was a painful, stressful hour, full of the uncertainties of an unknown, and likely very close, outcome, as well as the discomforts of fatigued muscles. Shouts from the kayaks and from the boats punctuated the effort, spurring me on and I dug down for as much energy as I could muster, shoulders burning, lungs heaving, stomach knotted. By this time, I had abandoned “The Kitten” and had reverted to “The Beast”, but with a choice expletive inserted for emphasis. It seemed appropriate. I also somehow got it into my head that I needed to be heading over towards the right, and contrary to all evidence, and the shouts and gesticulations of Pat, my kayaker, I bounced repeatedly and doggedly back to my deranged course, until Janet Harris appeared by my side, smiling and swimming gracefully, beckoning me towards her and onto a path that might actually get me where I needed to be. For this, and for her perfectly timed company, I am eternally grateful.

And slowly…oh….so….slowly….the bridge’s stanchions inched into the foreground, until finally they were by my side and I had completed Stage 5 in a time of just over 8 hours. This remains a total surprise to me, and a great pleasure. Without question, the excellent swimming conditions made it possible, and without those, I doubt that I would have managed to reach the finish before the turn of the tide, which was only a matter of minutes away when I finally crossed the line. But if I’ve learned nothing else on this trip, it’s that you have to take the good luck when it comes. So there it was – stage 5 completed, against every one of my expectations.

Perhaps I should learn to be more ambitious and should never have written it so thoroughly off in the first place; but the surprise of finishing is lovely, and has been one of the highlights of this swim adventure for me. 100% of the day’s swimmers crossed the line, with me bringing up the rear; that’s what I call a result.

Many congrats to all of my fellow swimmers, and heartfelt thanks to everyone who worked to make this most memorable of days possible.

Metaphors…

I’ve been trying to find the right metaphor to describe the 8 Bridges as an operation in all its logistical complexity. I started off with ‘circus’, but that implies something chaotic; then I was thinking about those Health Robinson contraptions with lots of eccentrically cobbled together moving parts combining to form an impossibly complex device to perform the simplest of functions. But while they make a simple act complex, the 8 Bridges makes something very complex appear simple and coherent, so that doesn’t work either. And then I thought about the clock at the heart of my local shopping centre when I was growing up in the early 1980’s – a huge sculpture of brass petals, vines, leaves and feathers that would spring to life on the hour, water cascading, flowers spinning, birds flapping before retreating back into itself. But even though the 8 Bridges runs like clockwork and shares that element of unfolding, it not only lacks the unnecessary flambouyance of the shopping centre clock, but it also transcends its mechanical inflexibility. Instead, as an operation, it moves and adapts, accommodating different paces and capacities, folding around a constantly shifting cohort of swimmers and reaching out to individual swimmers to meet particular needs or grant new opportunities – warmed feeds for those feeling the cold; a different start location for those who came up short the day before. It’s more organic than mechanical; an organism rather than an object.

The shifting nature of the cohort is one of the greatest pleasures of the swim. There is a core of swimmers who are attempting every or most stages, either as solo swimmers or in relays, and then a fluctuating band of people flowing in and out of the week – some are adding one or two stages to an already growing 8 Bridges collection, accumulated over several years, while others are attempting a single stage, venturing into previously untried distances. And then there is the team of volunteers who join and depart, keeping us safe and cheering us on. The tone and texture of the event, then, is simultaneously sustained and yet constantly changing in response to this heady mix of people, ambitions and accomplishments, gently but determinedly co-ordinated and facilitated by Rondi and Dave.

And today, a hiatus in the action while we rested (although not Rondi, who has been emailing instructions and advice, or Dave and Mo, who have been back out on the river, banking some extra miles in Mo’s attempt to swim the distance over the week, rather than the stages). We slept, ate, and took inventory on the state of our bodies, stretching out taut muscles and tendons, tending to sunburned or chafed skin, laundering clothes and washing out feed bottles. And now it’s evening, and feeds are being mixed and dinner prepared, ready for the next episode in our adventure. The river and the intimidating challenge of stage 5 await.

Relentless…

This has been among the most intense, relentless three days of my life. I knew it was going to be hard, and I welcomed that, but I hadn’t really comprehended the relentlessness of the task at hand. I don’t mean that as a bad thing – there is something compelling about doing something so utterly consuming and bounded by time. But it’s really tough, and I feel that I am nosing up tightly to the edges of what I am capable of.

Stage 1 was tough, but I learned the valuable lesson that a watched bridge refuses to slide into the foreground; I’ve taken a vow of discipline – head down, swim on.

Stage 2 was tougher….wind and waves made for slow going, and all but two of the field got fished out as the tide stopped our progress. First off, it’s worth noting that the two who made it – Anna DeLozier and Lori King – are fabulous swimmers, and watching them is a sight to behold. I cannot imagine the training that has gone into producing such performances. But secondly, even where DNFs prevailed, the atmosphere was as relentlessly upbeat as it is tough, and full of encouragement at the end of a day where everyone had pushed themselves hard. In the nicest possible way, I think that a swim as hard as the 8 Bridges has a lot to teach us about how to fail well, not least because to push yourself to your very limits, you have to have the confidence to discover that your limits are not where you’d like them to be.

In my mind, stage 3 was going to be easier – a much shorter stretch of river. I can hear the gods laughing as I write that. Rather than starting at the bridge as usual, Bridgette Hobart and I were dropped a couple of miles back, where we had been pulled out the day before, so we could have the chance to finish the distance. I really appreciated this opportunity, not least because as an operation with so many moving parts, this kind of flexibility is extremely generous. But unfortunately, later on in the swim, the wind licked up again and the waves rolled down the river into our faces, slowing our progress. It was touch and go as I crawled painfully towards the bridge (where I broke my bridge vow, but exercised more restraint); and by the time I finally pushed my way through to the tall stanchions, I was moving so slowly against the turning tide that I think I saw every individual brick as I crept incrementally forwards. It was painful and stressful in the uncertainty of the outcome, but finally passing the last stanchion is the highlight of my trip so far. A good moment. All the stage swimmers made it successfully – a rewarding outcome after yesterday’s battering.

And then there’s the river….the quiet lead player in this saga. It’s broad and thickly lined with trees, punctuated by various smatterings of habitation and industry. The water is brown-green and slightly peaty in taste (most of us have accidentally swallowed more than our share on the rougher days). The bridges punctuate the river, but in itself it is an edifice, an oblivious host to our paddling. It is capricious in mood; subject to tide, wind and weather; and beautiful. Relentlessly beautiful.

 

Before…

The start of the 8 Bridges swim is only 48 hours away, and jet lagged after flying over to New York from the UK yesterday, I’ve been lying awake since the early hours thinking about what’s to come. To be honest, I haven’t given the swimming much thought over the last week, scurrying around at work tying up loose ends and writing lists and making piles on my bedroom floor of the kit and supplies I needed for my trip. But now, it’s all about the swimming.

There is a lot of uncertainty before a marathon swim: what will the conditions be like? Will I make it? Will my body hold up? Did I remember to pack my….? Seven consecutive stages of long swimming takes me well outside of my comfort zone, and I really have no concrete sense of what it will be like, or what I am capable of. But in the end, and whatever the outcome, it’s about the swimming. Whenever I start a long swim, I always tell myself: “All you have to do today is swim”. It is my way of remembering the privilege of being able to do something as lovely as swimming all day; of the opportunity to visit new places and see the world from water level. The luxury of marathon swimming lies in its lengthy slowness, and this is what I’m relishing most about the week to come.

And of course, this luxury is facilitated by the labour and support of others – volunteers, organisers, kayakers; all I have to do each day is swim because so many others are doing the work that makes it possible and safe. This too is a privilege which makes me extra determined to make the most of this week – to succeed where possible, but mostly to relish the challenge and the delicious absurdity of swimming 120 miles down a river.

Good luck to all of my fellow swimmers this week. Let the adventures begin.