8 Bridges Stage 4 – On Failure

Whenever I plan for a swim in a new body of water, I feel a certain reservation. Shall I trust these waters? Will they welcome me? The wisdom and experiences shared by other swimmers might give me an inkling of the kind of reception I might expect, but there is no telling until the moment the waters and I meet. Some waters have an instant chemistry with a swimmer. Perhaps the setting, the color, taste, and smell—even the weight—of the water, the way the sun reflects on the surface, or the latent power of endless water molecules moving in unison make a swimmer fall in love instantly. But other times, waters can be reserved and mysterious, not wanting to open up to a relationship, at least not right away. The latter is the case of the Mighty Hudson and me.

Encouraged by a dear friend, I decided to include one of the 8 Bridges swims in my season. 8 Bridges is a favorite of the marathon swimming community for the immense challenge it represents—at 120 miles the longest stage swim in the world—but also due to its impeccable organization and dedicated volunteers. My friend suggested Stages 3, 4, or 6 were more suitable for a newcomer. Being a fool for scenery, I picked Stage 4. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity swim by the U.S. Military Academy. The U.S. Army has been a part of my family for three generations.

Most people think of the city whenever New York is mentioned, but what they’re omitting is the natural beauty of upstate New York. The Hudson River Valley has always been a favorite of mine. Driving to the Garrison Metro-North Station through winding roads lined with lush trees was a beautiful prelude to what I expected would be a beautiful swim. The morning of Stage 4 was misty, with air temperatures in the lower 70s (21˚C). A group of about 50 people—swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers—boarded the train en route to Beacon, our starting point. From the Beacon Station one can see the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in the distance.

The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.

Next to the ferry dock is a boat house where the kayaks were stored after Stage 3. While the kayakers readied their craft, swimmers handed them their feeds and gear. By day four, many swimmers had already established a routine with their kayakers, particularly the intrepid nine who were swimming all seven stages. The through swimmers were five Americans, three Brazilians, and one Mexican, and one could tell these people had already forged a bond among themselves. One couldn’t find a more fun elite group of swimmers. I felt fortunate to be starting that day, not only because I’d be swimming for the first time in the Hudson and seeing West Point from the water, but also because there were many friends who were starting with me or volunteering, swimmers whom I’d met in Vermont and Arizona during the past year. I love the traveling circus atmosphere.

After checking in with my gracious pilot, Lizzy, I covered any exposed skin with zinc oxide. The day was overcast, but avoiding any potential sunburn is always a priority. The swimmers boarded Launch 5. We motored over to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge while the kayakers made their way from the boathouse.

I glanced south at the wide river. In the background, the Hudson Highlands were shrouded by the lifting fog. I gazed again at the river. Her gray-green, choppy surface pried my eyes away from anything and anyone. Underneath the waves, I could see the sheer power of the Hudson on its inexorable course south and I understood that it is called mighty because the instant I dove in, she would engulf me and punish me and either humble me or forgive my trespassing and let me go just as easily as it let me in. The mood in the boat was festive, but I’d picked a spot on the port gunwale to take the experience in quietly. Only one other silent swimmer stood beside me. I offered the Hudson a rock I’d picked up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay the week before. I had forebodings that it wasn’t enough to entice a welcome from the river. Perhaps I should’ve also offered a pink shell from Florida. Neither here nor there, the rock was all I had. I kissed it and threw it overboard.

The captain stopped the boat under the bridge. I looked up at the twin spans and recalled the Chesapeake Bay Bridge fondly. I knew that unlike the Chesapeake, these weren’t known waters; this wouldn’t be an easy swim, but I was determined to find it in me to finish it. Swimmers jumped in the water with glee. I was the last off the boat. Below the surface, the water was dark green and the visibility low. It felt very comfortable at 69˚F (20.6˚C). Lizzy and I found each other right away and soon I heard a loud ‘Go!’ I was grateful I didn’t have any time to consider how the swim would turn out.

Downriver Lizzy and I headed hugging the east bank. She was a fabulous paddler, smooth and steady, keeping her craft pointed on course through chop and wake. Throughout the first four and a half miles of the swim we were hit by unrelenting, deep head-on waves. On my left Lizzy guided me and on my right land features and barges passed by, but these were images that only existed in my subconscious, for I felt I was alone with the river and I belonged in its cool waters and breathing had turned from something vital for land dwellers to something amusing for water beings. The Hudson was punishing me, but she was still letting me through.

Lizzy pointed Bannerman Castle. The river narrowed after another mile at Breakneck Point. As we entered the Highlands the waves calmed. Further downriver, the wind died in the shadow of West Point. When we reached World’s End, just before passing West Point, we crossed the channel over to the western riverbank. Now the river enticed me with pleasantries like a fast current, lenses of cold water, and the magnificent views of the stalwart granite buildings of the Military Academy. The elation was not to last long. As I had expected, once past West Point, at nine and a half miles, the wind picked up and the river renewed her pummeling, invigorated. White caps, fast and shallow, hindered my progress. Every so often my arms would be knocked into a wave, but rather than fight it, I would dolphin through it. Gusts created ripples over the waves and filled the air-water interface with more oxygen than my lungs could breathe. Slowly Lizzy and I traversed the river. I stopped for a feed and looked back toward the Military Academy’s buildings. I was dismayed at how close they still were. Lizzy informed me that we only had two hours left before the tide turned and any remaining swimmers far from the Bear Mountain Bridge would be pulled. I judged I had another five miles left and realized I would never make it. Lizzy and I resumed our toiling while barges placidly sailed by. Lizzy took me into the wind shadow of the small peninsula of Con Hook. My goal was to swim to it so I could at least have a peek at the Bear Mountain Bridge that lay beyond. The safety vessels informed Lizzy the RDs would pull me. I swam nervously waiting for someone to actually tell me to stop. I paused to ask Lizzy when this would occur. She offered I could stop out of my own volition, but I declined. In the shallows near the shoreline the water was warm. My hand touched the bottom and it receded. It felt like a living, gelatinous, dormant creature, which briefly scared me. Lizzy guided me around the north side of the peninsula. Once we turned the corner, the safety vessels were waiting for me. The image of Cerberus appeared in my mind’s eye. I have never accepted defeat so readily. The Bear Mountain Bridge loomed three miles away. I’d swum twelve. The Hudson, gray and angry, impeded the way. I asked Lizzy if I could swim to green marker 35, only because that way I would know the exact endpoint of my swim. It was only fifty yards away, but it took a while to reach it because now I could feel the full brunt of the incoming tide. The Hudson, humoring the idiosyncrasies of an engineer while relishing in her power, declared it was finally time for me to leave. Humbled, I thanked her for the safe passage and touched Lizzy’s kayak. My swim was over.

The track Lizzie led me on is a thing of beauty. (Photo credit: track.rs)

A few days later, back at my team’s pool in West Palm Beach, I spoke with my dear coach about what this DNF means. He reminded me that I have lofty goals and with those come harder races, some of which I might fail. Improvement is made by taking on races that seem just beyond my reach, not by taking on the ones where I have a high likelihood to succeed. He reminded me of the words of Michael Jordan, whose work ethic and dedication I hold in high regard: ‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ My coach asked me if I’d do Stage 4 again. I said I would.

Originally posted in Blue Mermaid.

Recovery: The Day After

It was a poignant moment seeing Agent Orange, David Barra’s intrepid safety RHIB, tied up at the Washington Irving Boat Club. I was dreamily re-living the week’s swims from the comfort of an Amtrak train back to Albany. It traces the eastern bank of the Hudson, and this journey is the source of my fascination with the Hudson.

Here were the Palisades that we passed just two days ago. And here, in reverse order were all those stunning bridges. The train sped by the large fjord at the Tappan Zee, and on to Bear Mountain, a glorious bridge. I revisited sights along the way which had been made memorable by the commentary provided by Roy, Greg and Rondi on Launch 5.

My own recovery will feature a sad retreat– from writing about this intense experience each day, and from a wide group of people whose company I enjoyed throughout the week. I wondered how the swimmers would manage their physical and mental recovery, though. I knew that full withdrawal may be delayed in some cases, as several swimmers and kayakers were planning to volunteer for the 20 Bridges round Manhattan swim this coming weekend.

Abby Fairman’s recovery was delivered to her right off the boat by an unlikely waiter at La Marina – Ed Riley, his arm draped with a bar towel greeted her with a cold been on a platter.

Harry Finger was staying on for a few days in New York, hoping for a long-delayed massage. Flavio Toi was also looking forward to seeing more of New York and spending time with his son Tiago who swam under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with him yesterday. His wife Estela would today embrace the prospect of dry land after a nauseous ride across the Battery in the observer boat yesterday. I laughed at the Facebook video of these three friends pretending to swim through Times Square.

During a rather difficult year, I have taken refuge in the prospect of joining the 8 Bridges volunteers, and it has been a huge privilege. I have been encouraged by all the positive comments about the blog from the swimmers, and on Twitter and Facebook. That kept me cranking out the pages each evening. I have shared an extraordinary week and learned not just about marathon swimming, but about determination, perseverance …. and punctuality.

I have appreciated:

The strength and consistency of Stephen Rouch. Focused and dominant, he was never beaten, but he loved a challenge.

The cheerfulness and good humor of Ed Riley, Graco Morlan, Steve Gruenwald and Abby Fairman.

The commitment and disciplined preparation of the Brazilian team. Marta and Flavio just kept getting faster. I will always be grateful for their kindness to me.

The resilience and self-belief of Harry Finger and Jamie Tout.

The persistence of Katrin Walter who struggled with the cold, but kept on turning up and nailed every single other day.

The expertise of the kayakers, and Captain Greg.

I will remember great conversations with Spencer Schneider, Roy Malinak, Devon Clifford, Jackie Boner Luis Lopez, Louise Hyder-Darlington, Pat Kerrigan, Janine Serrell, Greg Porteous and Rondi Davies.

And while I was asking about approaches to recovery after each marathon swim, Ed Riley chipped in, offering his own inimitable remedy. “I have sex”. Of course.

 

 

Stage 7: George Washington Bridge to Verrazano Narrows Bridge, 18.1 miles. All to Play For

 

This was the last leg of our odyssey down the Hudson. The conditions were perfect, as they are always claimed to be, except they really were. Light cloud, no wind or rain and good prospects for the day. The group of swimmers all assembled at La Marina, the scene of last evening’s 8 Bridges party. Everybody seemed to arrive early, excited to get going. Today’s stage demanded complex logistics; the congested shipping lanes of New York City, and the ports of New Jersey, require all swimmers to be accompanied by a boat, as well as a kayak. On board the boat is an official observer, and I was accompanying Harry Finger of Brazil. The 8 Bridges swim, like other marathon swims is conducted under Channel Swimming rules. These require that the swimmer is unassisted, so no touching the boat or kayak, and they must wear only traditional swimsuits, cap and goggles.

Splashtime was around 7.30am, and swimmers were starting in the flood tide. They were directed towards the New Jersey side of the river where they hugged the shore, with kayakers skillfully steering them away from rocks, pilings and general debris.  Right breathers were treated to a view into some of the most opulent properties in the New York area – large homes with private docks and marinas. Left breathers were about to see the magnificent skyline of New York City as we passed the Chrysler Building, The AT&T Building, the Chrysler Building, Bank of America Tower and the Empire State Building. It is hard to imagine a swim with a more impressive backdrop.

The swimmers were making the most of the calm waters as they reached the Battery at the tip of Manhattan. Just as the tide turned to ebb, the benefit was almost neutralized by the emergence of a sharp chop and a headwind. This was at the point where the Lincoln and Holland tunnels disappear under the Hudson, their locations identifiable only by their ventilation shafts. At this point, both bridges were in view and the distant Verrazano Narrows Bridge seemed to arch her eyebrows in amusement at the swimmers’ discomfort.

It was not only the waves and chop which were an impediment to the swimmers. As the current towed us into the shipping lanes around the Statue of Liberty, a dizzying array of craft appeared to be aiming right at the swimmers. There were tankers, barges, cruise liners, ferries, water taxis, sightseeing boats and of course, the Staten Island Ferry which is not used to having to alter course. With skillful maneuvers from the boat pilot, the jet skis, and the kayakers, the swimmers were kept on line and out of danger. An escort from the NYPD Launch Antonio Sanchez offered Harry Finger safe passage for the final two miles. The calmer conditions allowed Harry to reach the bridge and complete his 7 swims before the tide slackened.

The best reward for a week’s solid and improving swim performances is to secure a finish in all 7 stages. This is testament to preparation, determination and execution. Since 2011, only 6 swimmers had nailed each of the stages. They are now joined by 9 more – a quite sensational result. It seems discourteous to speak of a winner when clearly, at the end point of the 8 Bridges, there are 9 winners, and many more who have met personal goals. The official record will show the fastest swimmer over the week was Stephen Rouch, but I know him to be a humble and generous man who will insist on sharing the glory with Graco Moran, Abby Fairman, Flavio Toi, Marta Izo, Ed Riley, Jamie Tout, Steve Gruenwald and Harry Finger. An honorable mention as well is due to Katrin Walter who suffered with the cold on stage 2 and did not complete it. Since then she has resolutely returned and completed all other stages. She has been an inspiration, as have all the others.  As they all swam under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, there was no flotilla to meet them, no firehoses or bands. There was some honking from the bumper to bumper traffic above, but it was not aimed at them. The affirmation and congratulation comes from those around you – this exceptional community which today has almost tripled in size. Those bonds will endure far and long beyond 8 Bridges 2017, and it has been my privilege to be a part of this wonderful endeavor. Swimmers, kayakers, volunteers and organizers – I offer my congratulations, and my thanks for sharing this hugely momentous week.

Feeding the marathon swimmer

Swimmers are usually encouraged to eat well an hour or two prior to getting in the water, but with early, and irregular, starts for 8 Bridges, planning feeds can be problematic.

During a swim of 5-7 hours, all swimmers will need to drink frequently, and the organisers issue instructions to kayakers to feed the swimmers every 30 minutes. This means that feeds need to be mixed, stored and handed over to the individual’s kayaker prior to splash time.  This is the person who has the job of marshalling all the feeds and responding to directions from the swimmer. During endurance events, there is a need to store and replenish carbohydrates, electrolytes, energy and calories. Electrolytes include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium and are essential to metabolism. There are specialised mixtures on the market, but each swimmer will have their own preferences. Here are some of the chosen provisions on the menu for this year’s swimmers.

Popular choices are carbohydrate and electrolyte-rich drink mixtures such as Carbo Pro, Maxim, Hammer Perpeteum, Ultima Replenisher and Gatorade gels. Personal taste and careful blending leads to some strange confections:

“I’ll be mixing some potions of Ultima Replenisher for electrolytes with CarboPro for calories, and also drinking an Infinit custom blend. In addition, I’m taste testing all the gels I can find to see which are best and packing some straight up VT maple syrup”.

 Other choices are chocolate, bananas, dried fruit, and plain water.

Sometimes the national dishes of a country can make provide excellent sources of endurance fuel. Here is the choice of one of our Brazilian swimmers: “Before training in the morning, it is sweet potatoes. In training it is potatoes with something sweet (here in Brazil we have sugar cane derivatives). I take liquid carbohydrate and potatoes during training and sometimes some derivative of sugar cane (when training is longer)”.

Taking on board solid food can be a matter of personal preference. “Generation UCAN. It’s been my go-to for years now and has worked great! I have a hard time eating anything solid while swimming, and other gels/sports drinks never seemed to sit well. The simplicity of it has made life a lot easier on my kayaker, too!”

This swimmer really likes to mix up the liquids and solids: “Feeds occur every 30 minutes, 1) Infinit is my carb mix of choice, 2) plain water, 3) powerade, 4) bite size peanut butter filled pretzel 5) bite size chocolate chip cookie 5) flat coke”.

Peanut butter is a good source of calories and electrolytes. I still remember the swimmer form last year who mixed it in smoothies with M&Ms. Others will mix it with fruit juices and gels such as applesauce or mango squeezes. Others are more relaxed about nutrition, and will be feasting off, “whatever I can throw together from the fridge the night before; probably something with blueberries, a touch of oatmeal, water, honey, more fruit…?”

Whatever is in the bottle, it can be difficult to keep food down during a marathon swim. Losing electrolytes can lead to feelings of nausea and muscle cramping. Failing to replenish calories can mean the swimmer tires early or succumbs to the cold. Keeping it all balanced is an art which is perfected by the experienced swimmer. In an event like this, those of us observing are learning a lot from the experts.

Stage 6: Tappan Zee to George Washington Bridge – 15.7 miles

The Metro North train has not just been our constant companion on the east side of the river, it has also provided transport for many of our swimmers. Stops at Poughkeepsie, Beacon, Garrison, Ossining and Tarrytown have coincided with several 8 Bridges embarkation and landing points, including our starting point today, the Washington Irving Boat Club. We have appreciated the reliability of their service. And I should mention they were giving out free coffee, pens and lens cleaner cloths today.

Another constant companion has been the wildlife along the river, changing from upstream river waders like herons, who are now joined by estuary birds like seagulls and cormorants. The improved water quality and environment has secured the habitat of bald eagles who patrol low over the water, snatching fish out of the current. We are occasionally startled by jumping fish, especially the larger 20lb stripers. There are reports of whales as far north as the Tappan Zee Bridge, but none have appeared for us – yet.

Splashtime was just after 10am today, and we turned to take a last look at the Tappan Zee Bridge which is about to be demolished, as the sides of the new one, under construction right next to it, are joined together in the middle.

Today is all about the Palisades – high vertical striated bluffs rising high from the western shore. To city dwellers, the Palisades is the highway north out of the city to New Jersey, but to us, there are new depths to explore. Rondi, who has a PhD in geology, explained the origins of this unique rock formation. It is known as sill, which means it is a volcanic intrusion. Apparently, this arose from within the earth 200 million years ago, co-occurring with the opening up of the Atlantic Ocean, when the Americas broke away from the continents of Europe and Africa. Other geological activity has exposed the columnar basalt stacks, rather similar to the Giants’ Causeway in Ireland. The significance of the Palisades to our swimmers today was the shelter they offered from the wind out of the west. The waters of the Hudson were calm almost all the way down to the George Washington suspension bridge, visible for the entire duration of the swim today.

Among those 1-stagers joining us today were Andy Feldman, a New Yorker who is taking a break from moving house; Jackie Broner who enjoyed Spuyten Duyvil last year, and Marty Healey who at 73 is the oldest swimmer attempting a stage of 8 Bridges. All were to have successful swims today.

It will be no surprise to followers of the 2017 blog that Stephen Rouch led the whole way today. He was followed by Graco Morlan, and Katrin Walter who just keeps getting faster each day, and attributes this to the warmer waters (75F). The favorable current and lighter winds made it a fast stage today, and Flavio Toi, Abby Fairman, Andy Feldman, Marta Izo, Jamie Tout and Ed Riley swiftly followed each other under the girders of the George Washington Bridge. This is an imposing structure which carries two levels of traffic between New Jersey and Manhattan. It offers superb views of the New York City skyline, and also the tiny Little Red Lighthouse which is hidden from just about every vantage point except the river.

The Mighty Hudson can be a capricious mistress, and heavy chop was an impediment to the next wave of swimmers, but none was denied a finish. This means there are still 9 contenders for the 8 Bridges Hall of Fame, and so tomorrow’s swim to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge will be a high-stakes event. But each stage of this marathon of marathons is celebrated in its own right. As we docked at La Marina in Manhattan, Harry Finger turned to relish the skyline. It is his first time in New York. The merely mortal fly to this city – Harry, and all of his companions today, have swum in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

               

Stage 5: ’The Beast’ – Bear Mountain to Tappan Zee Bridge, 19.8 miles.

Rondi Davies and David Barra have devised this challenge of swimming a marathon of between 13.2 and 19.8 miles per day, fast enough to beat the flood tide. At the end of Stage 4 there were 9 swimmers with qualifying finishes – all determined to keep the dream alive. It was now Tuesday, and the swimmers have had a day’s rest. How would that suit them? Would it help, or hinder recovery?

Recovery is both physical and mental. Monday was a day without the scorching of skin or the cramping of muscles. Some went in search of a massage, or rested by the hotel pool. Others sought refuge from the anxiety of reaching the finish line, and went shopping or sightseeing. West Point Military Academy and Woodbury Commons retail outlet were popular search items on phones at breakfast time. But there are also dangers in having a fallow day – would the claims of normal life intrude on the focus required for 8 Bridges? Were the swimmers prepared for the massive challenge ahead in Stage 5: The Beast?

This was where plans to keep pace with a rival swimmer are eclipsed by thoughts of how to ensure a finish. It would be a long day of swimming, and the 6am splashtime meant there would be several hours of swimming against the flood tide, initially. Should the swimmer go all out at the start, or save energy for the push towards the Tappan Zee Bridge. There was due to be only 5 hours and 36 minutes of ebb tide, and the swimmers had to rely on kayakers to sense when that flow began. Everyone had been up around 3am today, and the lack of sun, and the boat ride up to Bear Mountain, meant that some were shivering even before entering the water. This, together with the prospect of spending up to 10 hours in the water, offered a daunting prospect.

Swimmers have different personal routines before splashtime. There are a lot of fist bumps and well-wishing. Ed Riley and Abby Fairman perform their own version of the New Zealand haka – butting heads while growling “three more, three more, three more”. Ed has another unusual custom, which is to pick up some small trophy from the previous day’s swim, and offer it as a tribute to the river before the next. Today he was stroking a smooth heart-shaped stone as he jumped into the Mighty Hudson from Launch 5.

Splash was at 6.15am after a glorious trip up river from Ossining to Bear Mountain illuminated by the rising sun. Entering on flood tide, the swimmers tracked straight towards the west shore and hugged the rocks to stay out of the current as far as possible. The calm water meant they made excellent progress and by 8.45 were passing Indian Point, picking up a southerly headwind as they rounded it. The waters are warmer here by 5-7F, as this is a nuclear power facility. We were shadowed by Sergeant Munoz and his deputy aboard Rockland Country Sherriff’s patrol launch who made friendly enquiries about the swim and helped keep us safe from river traffic. Not so welcoming were the security detail from the power plant – keen to make sure we kept our distance from the reactors. An AWACS plane made several passes overhead.

As we passed Verplanck Point, some lively chop kicked up, along with a crosswind. On top of a red marker buoy were sitting a host of cormorants (I understand the correct collective noun is ‘a gulp’). This told us two significant things: the river is getting cleaner year on year, and the ebb tide was with us at last. The swimmers were in a good position to let it pull them right into the bridge.

Stephen Rouch swam the whole distance out in front, as he has for most of the previous days, but the chasing pack of Marta Izo, Flavio Toi, Abby Fairman, Jamie Tout, Graco Morlan, Katrin Walter, Ed Riley and Devon Clifford was tighter than usual. Everyone was putting their whole energy into today’s stage. This is where the training started to pay off. As the swimmers entered the fjord leading up to the bridge, a crosswind activated a moderately strong chop which ensured all swimmers were a little shaky at the finish. All of our 9 contending 7 Stagers conquered The Beast, which means the Hall of Fame may have to widen its doors in 2017. Particularly delighted were Steve Gruenwald and Harry Finger who had been concerned about Stage 5. We should mention, too, an excellent successful stage by Eric Schall.

The day ended earlier than anticipated. The calm waters early on, and the fast ebb current meant swimmers were carried through the Tappan Zee stanchions well ahead of the 10 hour window. Each swimmer could turn and look down the river where the skyscrapers of Manhattan were just visible. Our swimmers know they are close to their goal now.

 

 

 

A “short dip”

By Diego Lopez

I am thrilled to have just completed Stage 3 of 8 Bridges. With 13.1 miles, it was my longest swim to date, and one that I considered key in preparing my attempt to swim around Manhattan Island next August. I had recently taken the plunge into the Hudson for the 2 Bridges and I knew what to expect (sort of), so I was very keen throughout the week leading to the event.

More importantly, I was excited to meet the amazing group of swimmers that were tackling not only Stage 3 but the 120 miles separating Rip Van Winkle Bridge and Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Moments before the splash, I met with Graco who quickly asked me if this was the only stage I was going to do. I replied positively, saying that my goal was the round-of-Manhattan (like if I needed an excuse to swim “only” 13 miles), to what he responded: “oh, how many rounds will you be doing? Cos’ I’m doing two in July.” So there I was, about to swim over 20 kilometers down the river with a bunch of (delightful) crazies.

The Mighty Hudson could not look better that Saturday morning. Very little wind, no rain, and water temperature at a chilly-but-bearable 67 degrees. More importantly, I had one of my best friends kayaking for me, which was a huge reassurance and support. I had had some bad recent experiences with random kayakers, and I was very happy to count with Mark by my side, besides all the awesome support of NYOW.

Swimming a marathon over 10K requires a different strategy and mindset than any other race. I focused my energies on swimming efficiently and on stopping for the hourly feeding, which I tend to be very forgetful about. I breathed bilaterally throughout the race and tried to enjoy the river as much as I could, for which I had to change my shaded goggles for some yellow Swedish – yes, I am one of those old-school, pool swimmers.

Three hours down, and I am enjoying some banana and having a lively chat with Mark during my third feed. “Are you going for the course record? I don’t think so, not enough current.”  This is when I look back and realize I am not as alone as I thought I was, and Stephen – the winner of Stages 1 and 2 – is approaching me at a fast pace. “Shit Mark, let’s go, no more feeds for me till the end!”

Before the start, some other swimmer had warned me not to look too much at the finish line – the bridge, as it usually looks closer to what it really is. But after 3h40’ of race, and some serious competition next to me, I only had two thoughts – this Stephen is coming up very strongly and this goddamn bridge is further away every time I look at it. We all have that competition instinct inside us, and I was slightly disappointed to give up in the last 10 minutes a race I had led throughout, but this did not undermine even a bit the feeling of satisfaction I had for completing my longest race ever with very good sensations.

In its seventh edition, 8 Bridges has become a highlight of the Open Water Swimming international calendar, and one that hooks you into badly. My family and friends back home, who were tracking my little red circle during the race, are already asking me if I will sign up for the whole thing next year. “We shall see, there is a beautiful island I need to circumnavigate before that.”

The support teams

Monday 19th June is a rest day. Many of the swimmers will be relocating nearer to New York City for the last three stages. A chance, then to mention the role of the swimmers’ support teams.

The New York Open Water team of 8 Bridges takes care of safety of the swimmers during the race, but before, and after, and during the long months of training, support is the provenance of family and friends. Since there is no cheering section, other than a blast on the horn from Greg Porteous’ Launch 5, it is really important to know that someone will scoop you up and make you the priority when you finish the stage, and hopefully they will  celebrate your achievement too. There’s a great deal of texting, tweeting and Facebooking from swimmers when they land.

So here is a salute to those stoical individuals who remain on dock, who drive to the right place, who greet their swimmer with a warm drink. They hold towels to preserve what modesty the swimmer still cares about after 20 miles. They handle moods, calm anxieties and slather various unguents over the swimmer’s body. They too deserve our admiration.

Here are some supporters I have met during the week.

First of all, the magnificent Estela Toi, wife of Brazilian swimmer Flavio Toi. She provides support for her husband and all the other Brazilians, Harry Finger and Marta Izo. She is an ace driver and navigator, scopes out the right restaurants to stoke up with carbs, and she is also a physical trainer, ready to massage aching limbs and strap up injuries. Her and Flavio’s delightful son Tiago chooses the right music to energize us for each early morning drive.

Katrin Walter looks forward to the sight of Steffen Gruber. They are both here from Switzerland, and as well as supporting Katrin, Steffen is using the time to train for his own challenge – and Ironman triathlon in August.

Jamie Tout is welcomed by the serene presence of his wife Tina. She knows how to read his needs and ensures she is there at the finish.

Graco Morlan is supported by one of Mexico’s top swim couches, Jorge Villegas. Jorge is also volunteering on one of the RHIBs.

Stephen Rouch is accompanied each day by his father, Stephen Senior. The younger Stephen seems unusually self-possessed, needing assistance only with his daily covering with, and removal of, Butt Paste.

Roy Malinak is known as the rockstar of supporters. A rock indeed – his steadying arms, as swimmers climb aboard the boat, groping their way from horizontal to vertical, are the most reassuring sight of all.

The kayakers are a breed apart, supervised by Alex Arevelo. They have a long slog each day navigating from charts, and instructions from David Barra. They need to keep an exacting eye on the swimmers at all times during the swim, issue feeds on time, and encouragement. They often camp at the docking points and nobody knows how they manage to go to the bathroom during the race. It is a closely guarded secret.

The jet skis stand guard over the swimmers and act as outriders. Whenever another vessel, either sailboard or cement-laden river barge comes too close, the jetskis can move fast to put themselves between it and the swimmer. The can also speed over to the main Launch 5 to get hot drinks out to any kayaker, to deliver a warm boost to any swimmer suffering with the cold. They have rescue boards attached to the back, to allow swimmers to cling on and take a swift ride to shore or Launch 5.

The hypothermia support is very impressive. There have been just a couple of very cold swimmers who have been transferred aboard Launch 5. There is a warm wheelhouse to bring them into, and experienced staff to dress them and make sure they are responding to their care.

This is team work – organizers, volunteers and supporters both on land and on the water. All of them have these amazing swimmers as their focus.

Stage 4: Newburgh-Beacon Bridge to Bear Mountain Bridge 15.2 Miles

Swimmers emptied off the Metro-North train to Beacon, exuberant to be back for another day. For most, the previous three days had been successful. There was portentous talk, though, of stage 5, still looming ahead. They all know how tough it is, and how relatively few people finish. Some were telling tales of previous attempts, hoping to conquer ‘the beast’ this time. But today was Stage 4, and they must focus on one day at a time. It was one of the shorter stages, but taking some interesting turns around Bannerman Island and bends in the river. A highlight of the stage would be West Point Military Academy – its imposing granite citadel dominating the river valley.

You almost feel sorry for these phenomenal elite swimmers because there are so few onlookers to offer admiration and applause. Swimmers’ friends and family turn out to cheer the start and finish, but so many of them land back on deck unobserved, uncelebrated. They really deserve their own stadium, but marathon swimming takes place away from crowds and in the isolation of open water. It is not a spectator sport.

There was some nervousness about the rigors of today as well. Swimming huge distances day after day has a way of taking its toll on the body, depleting energies and making it more difficult to warm up each evening. A few swimmers are sporting kinesotape strapping around the shoulders. The physical demands can leave the swimmer vulnerable to what I heard Abby Fairman refer to as ‘residual’. This can make the first few hours of the swim uncomfortable, especially in view of the chop today. There was intermittent sunshine and a water temperature of 69F (20C) which would reduce the risk of succumbing to the cold. The wind was strong, though, and coming from the south. Swimmers were face-on to some whitecaps, favoring those who can raise their bodies out of the water and almost surf forward with each stroke.

The chop eased off as we rounded West Point. The mountains were high enough to offer some shelter from the wind, and this seemed like a haven to the swimmers who had fought their way through the morning’s tough conditions. This was where Rondi got in for a swim alongside Josh Gordon of the UK. The slight lull in the chop did not last long and the rough water picked up as the blurred form of Bear Mountain bridge emerged from the blue haze. The calm proved to be deceptive for the swimmers; the headwind and the waves dogged them for most of the race.

Today, the risk to swimmers came not from the large cement containers, shunted upstream by tugboats – it came from the Sunday speedboaters slashing along, often oblivious to attempts to warn them via marine radio. Captain Greg Porteous was constantly on the alert and would maneuver to flag boats down by a blast on the horn and a polite request to slow down and look out for swimmers and kayakers.

Stephen Rouch was once more the stage winner, crashing down over the chop and launching his way forward. He barely seemed tired. Others did not look quite so fresh as they exited, drained by the relentlessly exhausting conditions. This year, the men are proving dominant, as Stephen was followed by Josh Gordon, Ed Stoner, Flavio Toi, and Graco Morlan, before Marta Izo broke the stream emerging just before Mark Spratt and Abby Fairman.

This is also the year of consistent finishes, and there are several swimmers doing all seven stages who are on course to enter the very exclusive 8 Bridges Hall of Fame. Among them are Stephen Rouch, Flavio Toi, Graco Morlan, Marta Izo, Abby Fairman, Ed Riley, Jamie Tout, Steve Gruenwald and — Harry Finger of Brazil who battled for 40 minutes against the flood tide to make the last 100 meters to the finish today. Those of us who are aware of our own frailties can perhaps borrow some of the strength of extraordinary people like these, and stay inspired by the memory of their determination.

And there, as we witnessed successive triumphs under the suspensions of Bear Mountain Bridge, we heard seagulls for the first time, telling us we are getting close to the end of our odyssey.

Stage 3: The Short Stage

Stage 3: Mid-Hudson Bridge to the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge: 13.2 miles

Perfect conditions

There was more moisture and warmth in the air today, less wind but still a lot of cloud. The river was glassy and calm. Ideal conditions for swimming, if unusually cold. “What’s the temperature?” Rondi shouted down a radio to a kayaker. “67.2” (that’s 19.5 C) came the reply, “and I waited until the swimmers were out of earshot until I told you that!” Nobody wants to send swimmers on their way with negative thoughts or fear of the cold. For David Barra, conditions in the water are always ‘perfect’, and that’s the message you want to convey to keep spirits high. It seemed to work for Katrin Walter, who came out early yesterday because of low temperature, was back today, and feeling optimistic. Also cheery was Harry Finger, not just because it was his 60th birthday, but also because his sore shoulder was feeling a lot better.

Rivalries, new and old

This event has rekindled some old, but friendly, personal competitions. In one case, it is an ancient rivalry – Jamie Tout and Ed Riley have been racing each other over many decades. “What makes two old Dreadnoughts keep turning up”, said Ed, roaring with laughter. He is an easily identifiable figure both on land, with his white beard, and in the water, where he cuts his swim cap down to a bandana. Jamie stands out with a full sleeve of arm tattoos which he makes sure to cover in sunscreen.

Mark Spratt is a stage 3 swimmer and he was pleased to see Spencer Schneider at the Poughkeepsie Marina. They have met each other at many long swims. Spencer is also a team mate of his fellow Indianan Stephen Rouch.

Straight into the lead today was a one-stage 8 Bridges swimmer, but winner of the recent 2 Bridges swim, Diego Lopez of New York. How would he hold out against the Stage 1 and 2 winner, Stephen Rouch? Would this new entrant disrupt the previous days’ 1-2 of Stephen Rouch and Graco Morlan?

Rivalries really don’t endure beyond the landing dock. They are folded instantly into strong friendship based on shared experience and respect. Rondi agreed, reflecting on her own 8 Bridges swim in 2012 when she swam alongside Grace Van Der Byl for 120 miles. “It’s like she became my sister, when you experience all of that together”.

The most significant thing about this group is the sense of community. The Brazilian group of Marta Izo, Flavio Toi and Harry Finger (who has his 60th birthday today!) have traveled together and provided mutual support over many years. Others enact a teasing, joshing contest each day. Abby enjoys passing just about anybody, but especially Ed Riley, when she can. Not today, though. She enjoyed a touching simultaneous finish with Marta Izo.

Ed Riley, Abby Fairman, Marta Izo and Flavio Toi

Towards the end, we saw Stephen Rouch start to move on Diego Lopez’s lead with about 4 miles to go. Two miles from the bridge, they were neck and neck, but Diego had to let his lead go and Stephen surged ahead. The two had not met before, and so today, a new rivalry was born. It was lovely to see them congratulate each other the deck of Launch 5. Third home today was Mark Spratt; 4th was Flavio Toi, delighted to come in ahead of Graco Morlan. 5th was Anael Astic, followed by Ed Riley who was just ahead of Abby and Marta.

This was the shortest stage and there were some superb views along the way. We were joined in the wheelhouse by Charlie who was helping out with navigation and he is also knowledgeable about local history and landmarks. The Tilcon cement works at Clinton Point is hardly a thing of beauty, but the river is wide and still at that point, with the mountains in the far distance – relentlessly beautiful, as Karen Throsby said when she swam in 2015. I have to agree.