Why Do I Swim Today?

NOTE: The following is a post written by Charles Bender before his Stage 3 swim on June 20, 2014. Charles passed away on March 6, 2017, and will be sorely missed by the open water and triathlon communities.

This morning I will enter the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York with 9 other swimmers attempting to swim 13.2 miles (as the crow flies, not the swimmer swims) to Beacon, New York. It’s part of  8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, which is an eight day, seven stage swim totalling 120 miles from the Catskills to New York Harbor. It’s put on by the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS) and is in it’s 4th year.

In addition to being a marathon open water swim event, it is also designed to raise funds and awareness for Riverkeepers Hudson River Water Quality Testing Program (no we are not human test tubes) and Launch 5 Hudson River Environmental and Safety Foundation.  So I’m privileged to be doing something super challenging and for two great causes.

People often joke about my needing shots and ask if I’m worried about pollution, pcb’s etc. “Of course I’m worried about pollution and pcb’s” I tell them; “shouldn’t we expect to be able to swim in our rivers, streams, lakes and oceans without worrying about our health?” After all, these waters are what truly sustain us and all life on our planet.

But why me today?

I’m an “athlete”, sure in the sense that many of my 50 something year old friends are “athletes.” Fifty may be the new 40, but to race directors and organizers of every sport across america, it’s like a 0% interest loan from the Federal Reserve; guaranteed money in the bank. A 40 something captured the spirit perfectly several weeks ago as we were cycling in the Black Bear Triathlon; “So this is what you decided to do to celebrate turning 50?” He was able to make this slightly snide remark because I had my age marked on my right calf, part of the triathlon race rituals, my own scarlet letter screaming to all who I was and what I was about.

But swimming, especially marathon open water swimming, is a small, almost hidden corner of the athletic universe. No waiting for lottery results to see if you and 39,999 of your closest friends will get the privilege to run the <Insert your favorite city here> marathon. So this has the cachet of being a small, unique event and a real head scratcher to most folks you tell you’re attempting

I swam Tuesday night with a local group of mostly triathletes, in the Schuylkill River just north of Philadelphia. A number of my companions were fantastically fit 20 and 30 year old athletes who think nothing of training for a 140.6 mile Ironman race. But tell them you’re about to embark on a 13 mile swim and they step back and get dizzy telling you how nuts that sounds (sort of like the Group W bench in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.) So being able to stop an amazing athlete in their tracks as they praise you for  being some sort of superhuman freak of nature is pretty sweet.

But that isn’t really it either.

I’m a broken human being. Full of flaws, I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. For the last 13 months I’ve dealt with that head on. That makes me just human, I know, but we all experience our broken selves as a singularity; a lone, isolated event with a unique sense of isolation and despair.

Turns out, like dirty rivers, we can be healed, even a knucklehead like me. It just requires a little perspective, and practice and learning to sometimes, just live in the moment. I often mocked this type of bumper sticker philosophy (very common in my sometimes crunchy granola neighborhood of Mt Airy). How could I possibly live in the moment, and ignore “the facts” of my own life?

Being broke down, sick and tired and a little desperate turns out to be powerful medicine. It humbled me and opened up my mind, slowly, when I allowed it, to give me some perspective.

Perspective like this…

Earthrise from the surface of the moon

The pale blue dot

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Swimming in open water gives you fantastic perspective. You’re immediately small and not fully in command at the beach, on a lakeshore or a riverbank.

My earliest swimming memories are from Harvey’s Lake, Pennsylvania, where my grandparents had a summer home. I learned to swim in that lake at Sandy Bottom beach (now some fancy private facility) and on the dock of my grandparents second summer house. I loved swimming from that dock. Down the steep hill from the house to the road, and down some more to the lake and dock house I’d run every morning. At the end of the dock, the lake opened up to what seemed like another world on the other side (even though I had driven around and past that spot many times.) It was probably less than a mile, but it seemed like a much greater distance.

It would always take me a few days to get comfortable swimming in the lake. The water changed temperatures it seemed for no reason. It was clear to about 8 feet nearest the dock, but then dark and scary. There were living, breathing things in the water, which sometimes touched your feet and legs and gave me a jolt of fear. But slowly I’d find myself in the water. Each day I could venture a little further out, until my Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles would yell to me that I had gone too far, to be careful. That was the sweet spot, the special place looking back at their miniaturized figures on the dock, voices echoing on the water.

I swam a lot after that and then I stopped. Some of those swims in between were in open water, rivers, lakes and streams and were just for fun. But swimming became a sport and was done mostly in a 25 yard pool with crystal clear water. I loved being a part of my swim club, high school and college teams. The camaraderie was great, even when the work was hard and frequently tedious. But at 21, I found other interest and pursuits that consumed me. Post college life became very hectic.  I tried to swim, but found that every time I went to the pool, I hated it. I had no imagination and all I thought possible was chasing a black line on the bottom for exercise. Nothing spiritual, nothing fun, just the tedium of the pool and clock. So I stopped even trying.


Matt and me, summer 1999, campground S. Ontario

Carlos and me, Children’s Hospital Philadelphia, Feb 2006

A funny thing happened. I had kids, who turns out, didn’t see the pool as an endless black line, heavy breathing and a clock. It  was just a place to cool off, be held by their Dad and to test their boundaries. It was just another place to have fun and feel loved….with me!

I love the picture with Matt in my lap at a campground pool in southern Ontario. Now I would be the one sitting in his lap, his 6’1 frame easily surrounding me. He never got bit with the swimming as sport bug (football and baseball are his thing) and he won’t give Phelps or me much competition in the pool. But you know what, he still knows how to splash, play and have fun in the water.

Carlos is more of a water bug but not wired to be a competitive athlete. But Wednesday afternoon, there we were together playing catch and tag in the pool. And me deliciously holding his 9 year old frame close, walking and whispering together in the water, like we did those 2 long weeks when he was in the hospital as a young boy. So my kids taught me I could have fun in the water again.

I’ll set off today, blessed with a number of tools, that swimming laps can never provide. The first is a child’s love for the water, especially the open water of a lake or a river with it’s distant shore in sight, but maybe just out of reach..?

I’ll be blessed to know I’m just a small, slow, dot on the surface of a mighty river. And I’ll be connected to all that lives and breathes and draws life from it’s waters, so I won’t be inconsequential. Not fully in control, but not insignificant or meaningless either.

I can’t fail either, because I began the journey.

Capri Djatiasmoro, Ederle Swim 2013

That’s Capri Djatiasmoro, a veteran and real champion of open water swimming. I met her accidentally, when I was assigned as her “Observer” last summer at the Ederle Swim. She didn’t quite get to the beach at Sandy Hook that day. She was the first swimmer in the water and I believe the last swimmer out and had a magnificent swim. She had a great kayaker who knew the waters, tides and currents on the voyage that day. The last few hours I was almost frantic; “What do we need to do to help her get on the beach?” And when it was all done, and the decision had been made by her, to end the swim, I looked over and saw her and was stunned. She was happy, relaxed and smiling.

I’m glad I snapped that picture because it offers just as much perspective as those amazing NASA pictures from the moon or Voyager 1. Seeing her laughing brought a calm to me. She had a great swim and knew it. We had all worked as hard as we could to help her to the beach, but it didn’t happen. Oh well, that’s life. Was I really so arrogant that I thought that 7 little dots and 2 very small boats were in charge on the waters of New York Harbor? There was so much that none of us would ever be able to control, most especially the shifting tides and sea bottom, that itself had been shifted and sorted by a superstorm the fall before.

That day on the boat helped me continue to heal, feel less broken, and be more connected. Connected to my loved ones, especially those two boys who showed me how to just splash and play again in the water. Connected to a vast, unknowable universe and some of the people and places in between.

My training hasn’t been conventional or a straight line but I’m plenty fit and strong; stronger in fact than I have been in many years, maybe ever. My shoulder sometimes aches and I had to rush order a new suit and goggles because of course I lost my other new pair last week. But I am learning how to get my mind and spirit in the right place to take an adventure like this. I’ll pause along the way and accept and welcome the fact that the river and wind and spirits are more in control than me. I’ll be thankful for the many volunteers who labored over the logistics and  details to make this even possible. And I’ll smile a lot, especially when I get out of the water, wherever and whenever, because no matter what, I’ll have had a great swim.

“It’s only 13 miles….

Post script

I finished the swim in 5 hours and 15 minutes; 10th out of all 10 swimmers. Thru Day 3 everyone has finished which is fantastic. And being the last swimmer means you have the entire crew of swimmers, kayakers and volunteers to cheer you across the final yards. It was spectacular.

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