All posts by Laura Picardo

How to Deal With “Swim Brain”

That swim you signed up for in December is here. It seemed like such a wonderful idea as snow fell gently outside, while Bing Crosby crooned on the radio, and visions of sugar plums danced in your head. But now, those sugar plums turn to mush, as the Hudson warmed to a nice 70F. 8 Bridges is here, and you can’t help but be a little (or a lot) scared.

Pre-swim nerves are common, understandable, and can help, but the days leading up to a swim can be a game of mental gymnastics I like to call Swim Brain (trademark pending). Swim Brain makes it tough to focus on anything else (school, work, loved ones, not missing your stop on the train) because there is a portion of your brain solely devoted to your swim. It can be awful! As a habitual planner and over thinker, I have a few techniques that help me deal with Swim Brain  that I hope can help you too!

  • DO NOT check Weather.com every five minutes

The weather is out of your control. Worrying about the wind speed and direction will not help at all. It is so tempting to look, but try to avoid it! Rondi and Dave are the most competent race directors on the planet, and will be doing plenty of weather watching for you!

  • Pack and unpack and repack your gear

When you feel the urge to check the weather, go to that swim bag and pack/repack it. It will help you make sure you have everything you need. Spare goggles? Sunscreen? Lucky stuffed pig you’ve had since you were 7… wait, somehow I think that one is just me.

Hamm
Monmouth County Swimming Championships 1997
  • Make it a Blockbuster night

Sit your butt down and watch a movie! It will help your muscles rest and help your mind focus on something other than the swim ahead. Some personal favorites…

touchwallsongseamcwilly

  • Paint with all the colors of the wind

Commune with nature! Sit under your favorite tree. Walk your favorite trail. Take a relaxing, non training dip in the ocean. Get outside and reflect on how beautiful the Earth is, and how lucky we are to get to swim in the most beautiful river in the world!

Willow
Grandmother Willow! I’ve come to talk to you!
  • Journal

Why do you think I am writing this right now!? My Swim Brian is off the charts! All I want to do is jump in the water, but I still have days to wait! It will help to get those feelings on paper, and be really fun to read after the swim. It is also a good time to reflect on all the little steps that got you here. All the people you met along the way, the fun and challenging training swims, delicious post-swim meals, the good swims and the bad.

Hopefully some of this helps you as we being the final countdown to 8 Bridges 2016! Wishing you all swift currents, delicious feeds, and a happy swim.

Hold fast,

Laura

The Adjustment

I always have a strange desire to listen to Christmas music after a big swim. I know, it sounds crazy. I think I have finally figured out why. Christmas (to me) means family and feeling warm and fuzzy. It is a feeling that is extremely close to the ones I have felt during my time on the Hudson. The bonding and camaraderie on this swim turns strangers into best friends. The shared goals and feelings form relationships that are unique and absolutely needed in a sport that usually requires one to spend hours alone. You form a family with whom you want to share all of your ups and downs, and for whom you would do anything.

For me, this family comes in very handy when I hit the letdown that often comes after a big swim. After months of training and planning and dreaming, the swim is over and it is time to recharge and focus on new goals. It takes me some time to adjust to that. When I return to my office, it is great to share stories with my wonderful co-workers, but when their questions fade away and we all return to our projects, I am still feeing the swim high, and have to remind myself that I have a different set of priorities back on dry land. It’s a necessary adjustment, but one that is made easier by the swim family.

In Steven Sondheim’s brilliant musical “Into the Woods”, Jack sings, “And you think of all of the things you’ve seen, and you wish that you could live in between, but you’re back again only different than before,” after climbing down the beanstalk. The bonds we built in the Hudson are exactly how we can live in between the swim and everyday life. Though we are from different cities and states and countries, our shared experience and love for the sport helps keep the magic alive.

But for now, we ponder what swim adventures are next and return to our home pools and beaches,  wiser, stronger, and more interlinked than ever. Now that, I believe, is reason enough to be in a holly, jolly mood.

For the last time in 2015…

Hold Fast,

Laura

 

My Shadow! My Very Own Shadow!

On the train to Stage 6 early yesterday morning, I was curious as to how I would know when to stop swimming. In two attempts, I had not made the final bridge of the stage. Would Alex just yell? Would he whack my shoulder with the paddle? Would Agent Orange blow the air horn? This was all a mystery to me!

The swim started out a little rough. It was choppy and a bit difficult to catch my breath and get into the rhythm of things. The beginning of a marathon swim can be like that. You think to yourself, “So, I really have to do this for three or four or six + more hours?” You look to find your kayaker and try to stay on course. Breaths come in short, gasping bursts. After a while, things begin to even out and you find that cadence to your stroke, play that song in your head (this and this were yesterday’s tunes), and the mission of the day comes into focus: swim.

I knew that we were flying downstream when I realized just how quickly the Tappan Zee disappeared. Last year, it seemed to linger there like a horrifying specter, teasing, and taunting me with its cold steel. Saying, “You’re really slow, Laura. Get out now.” This year, the bridge was gone before I really even had a chance to look for it.  At one point around Yonkers, we passed a green buoy at such speed, I thought for sure there must be a seal pushing my feet. This was going to be a good day.

When I looked to my left and saw Spuyten Duyvil, the reality that I would make the bridge officially set in. I allowed myself to look at the bridge just a little bit, and decided to make like smoke and oakum and gun it for the bridge. I wanted to feel that ending, and I wanted it NOW!

Nothing could have prepared me for the euphoria I felt when the shadow of the George Washington Bridge came over me. I felt like Peter Pan when he finds his shadow in the Darling’s nursery. It was “my very own shadow.” The shadow told me that I was there, I had achieved a goal almost two years in the making, and that I could truly celebrate. My brain had the dopamine rush that comes from eating frozen custard on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk, smelling the salt air, with my loved ones close by. I want to hang on to that shadow feeling for those lonely mornings when I am walking to the pool before dawn this coming winter, because it that feeling that makes the early wake-ups and work outs worth it.

The euphoria continued as I celebrated in the water with Alex (which included eating my peanut butter M&M feed since I told him I wanted to push through the last feed and eat them at the end) and saw Agent Orange heading over to pick me up. To celebrate my success is one thing, but I could not wait to revel in the success of everyone in the open water tribe. Hugging and smiling and laughing all of those who are there with you on this journey is the watertight seal on the feeling that hits when you reach the bridge and say, “I’m done. What’s next?”

Hold Fast,

Laura

The Goal Must Change

On some level, I knew within the first few minutes of splashing into the washing machine like Hudson River on Monday that I was probably not going to make it to the Mid Hudson Bridge. The chop felt, in some ways, worse than last year’s Stage 6. So, in that first hour, I began to make my peace with God, the Hudson, and myself. I wanted to quit right then and there. A day on Launch 5 with Rondi and the crew sounded positively delightful. But bad conditions or not, I had business to attend to. As a way of coping with the adverse conditions and still continuing to swim, I decided that the goal (and my stroke) of the swim would have to change.

My initial goal was to make it to the Culinary Institute of America. The school is not too many miles away from the finish so it would be a long swim, and I was also still holding out hope that my sister (an alum of their baking and pastry program) would have had students there throwing baked goods at the swimmers. Sorry that that didn’t happen, everyone. I tried! As the south wind howled with sustained winds of 15 MPH and gusts of 35, it became harder and harder to anchor myself in the water, and even to breathe. On one occasion, I took a full nose and mouth full of water and came very close to tossing up my last feed. I could not get the words of the greatCanadian songsmith Gordon Lightfoot out of my head, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turns the minutes to hours?” As we were tossed around, I figured CIA would not happen. I would have to find something delicious elsewhere…and I did!

The more realistic goal became to make it to my peanut butter M&M feed. Peanut butter M&Ms are my mid-swim treat. They taste good on land, but imagine how amazing they are in the river after spending hours battling chop and pulling and kicking with only very small and quick breaks. I nearly jumped out of the water with excitement Free Willy style when Alex shook my blue bottle and said, “Well, look what I have for you!’ I made it! My favorite feed, and the new goal set to keep myself from ditching the river too early!

Shortly after those delicious, rainbow colored delights, I simply said to Alex, “I hurt.” I decided it was time to call it quits. I do these swims for myself and for fun, and it was starting to not be so fun anymore. I did not want to put my body through anything unnecessary when I have another stage of the swim on Saturday. Why waste all of my energy now, when I will be back in the river so soon? So I abandoned the swim about 15 of the 19 miles in. It was a shockingly easy decision, and while I was disappointed I did not make the Mid-Hudson, I was happy to have made it that far in water and wind that tempestuous.

Congratulations to all who braved the river yesterday (kayakers included since they really had their work cut out for them), especially the two amazingly strong swimmers who made it to the bridge! We are lucky enough to get to swim in this river for 7 days every June, and for that, we all come out on top.

Hold Fast,

Laura

Not the Triumph, but the Struggle

“You’re swimming how FAR, in what TEMPERATURE, WITHOUT a WETSUIT!?”

Explaining marathon swimming to people is really fun. I will admit that I thoroughly enjoy the ego boost when some of the triathletes that swim at my home pool look at me completely gobsmacked when I answer those questions. Positive reinforcement like that certainly makes the hours logged in solitary pool confinement feel worth it! But the idea I strive to get across to those hearing about our sport for the first time is that one of the many things that makes it so special is that as a community, we value the struggle over the triumph.

A quote attributed to Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, sums it up better than I ever could: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” 

This quote is incredibly important to remember in a sport where a change in the wind or weather conditions can affect whether or not you reach the finish. You can swim every day, eat the healthiest food you can find, put in extra hours of dryland, and study your charts, but if lighting strikes or you face a strong headwind, you will have to face the unpleasant fact that you will not finish the event you have been training for. You may feel upset, angry, want to curl up into a ball and hide from the world. But the fact of the matter is, you jumped into that water that day, which is a major accomplishment in and of itself. And, more importantly, you likely struggled along the way. You probably spent months waking up before the sun, and had to resist the magnetic pull of your pillow and warm blanket. You probably had to say no to a lot of fun social events because you needed to get to bed. Your bath towels probably smell like chlorine. Your grocery bill (or at least waffle budget) probably skyrocketed! You have probably doubted your ability as a swimmer and athlete on more than one occasion. But you didn’t quit. You jumped off that boat, and began to swim, despite voices inside your head telling you not to. That is the true triumph!

My hope for my fellow swimmers as we swim downstream next week is that everyone achieves their goals, and we all get to swim under those bridges with beaming smiles. But if that 100% completion rate is not met, my hope is that after getting out the negative emotions of not finishing, we all feel the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from having reached for greatness. Just by reaching for it, you are already there.

Hold Fast,

Laura