Exactly a month ago I was stroking and kicking through my first ever marathon swim. I swam a whopping 18.3 miles, more than double the distance I’ve ever swum at once.

Somehow I never get to train properly for my races. Not because I can’t get serious about the training but there is just always something in the way – an injury, crazy workload (same reason I didn’t get to sit down and write this right after my swim – a month ago); limited time, money or both. 8 Bridges was no exception even though I did get to squeeze in 3 2-milers and a bunch of 20-60 min training swims. I was more prepared than for any other races I have ever done, but would it be enough to take me through 18.3-mile swim?

I picked Stage 1 for all the wrong reasons – not because of the distance and my previous experience, but because I had friends living ‘just’ an hour drive away from the starting point so I could have a place to stay. I practiced my nutrition in a 1-hour swim trying to chug down a quarter of a 20 oz bottle, not a 4-hour swim with feeds like David Barra recommended.

But here is a good and bad thing about open water swims – ready or not, but the daycomes when you better take your clothes off and jump in the water and do the best you can. And so I did, we all did. Some swimmers starting their 7-day journey down to Verrazao Bridge, some, like me, doing their longest ever race; all determined and ready to push our limits.
Jump in, fix your goggles, find the turquoise kayak. 10,9,8,7… GO!!!

8Bridges start

The next 30 minutes I was debating with myself if I should stop and tell Luis that I want him slightly behind, not in front of me – before this swim I never knew where I prefer my kayak to be. Now I know. I wouldn’t have to pick my head up to check where the boat is if I don’t see it when I breathe, but I could also see what the paddler is doing, see his face and expressions every time I turn. There was nothing bad in stopping for 30 seconds to communicate that to him.

For the first couple of miles I was enjoying seaweed all around me. I would pick it up with my fingers and try to play with, laughing (bubbling) when it would get on my head or stuck on my nose. There was so much seaweed!
I was trying to tell myself jokes but somehow I could barely remember any. I would definitely need to read more jokes before next race. I was trying to do math in my head but there was not much to do – I counted how long I would be swimming by the time I finish my first feed – 2.5 hours; second – 4.5; third – I didn’t want to think beyond that point. The stage record was 4 hours 30 minutes, I knew it would take longer for me but a girl can hope, right?

First feed came, another one, some more – first bottle done. I mixed something different into the second one. Oh how yummy it was!!! Never knew I would be drooling over my feed in the middle of the Hudson! Worth to pick up the pace until the next feed, like if it would come sooner if I swam faster… ☺

My left shoulder started hurting after the 1/3 of the distance. I hoped it’s just soreness and not an old injury and miraculously it stopped aching after another two hours of swimming. My shoulder probably knew I need it for a little longer.

I tried to look around as much as I could, saw some trees and houses on the shore. A lighthouse, other swimmers and kayakers passing by. I had wished I could be in a kayak or one of the support boats so I can see all the beauty of this swim. I would try to enjoy every stroke and the view coming with it for a bit and than I would put my mind back in the water, pick up the pace and just swim trying to get the Kingston Rhinecliff bridge to come sooner.

8bridges - swim

I knew from reading past blog posts that me seeing the bridge didn’t mean I’m close. But when Luis told me we are 2/3 way there I asked myself ‘What??!?!!’ I knew it was too good to be true but I couldn’t hide my excitement. Of course the current wouldn’t allow it to be that easy. Only after another 2-3 hours of swimming, dealing with back pain (was good to learn later that it is normal to experience pain in a lower back on longer swims) I got in the shade of the bridge, swam all the way to the south end of it and rolled into a ball to stretch my back. How good that felt, finally!

When I was signing up for this race I had no idea how much it is going to mean to me. The burning feeling inside, the sense of accomplishment – it feels like the door opened into something wonderful and new. As if I was able to do this is there really something I can’t do?!?? Swimming the last mile, I thought, “Why do I do this in the first place? It’s hard, painful sometimes and it takes so much time out of our precious lives. Why can’t I be like my friends spending all day in front of the screen and playing video games instead?” A couple of days later, after all the feelings settled down I knew the answer. Because without water, without what I do, I wouldn’t be fully living.

Huge THANK YOU to Rondi, David and the rest of the 8Bridges crew, you did terrific job organizing this event, and I really hope you’ll do many many more!
Thank you to my amazing kayaker Luis for handing me feeds, water and keeping my spirits high. I don’t know if you saw me smiling while I was swimming but here and there, for a great part of the distance, I was 🙂
Thank you to my amazing boyfriend for always supporting me no matter what kind of crazy things I do.
Thank you to all my swimming students for your stories, inspiration and helping me to make this happen.
It was my first real marathon swim and I know there will be many more to come.

LET’S SWIM! ENDLESS SWIMS! DENSE SWIRLS

by Janet Harris

Friday shortly after 4am I met up with other NYC-based swimmers to travel upstate to swim in Stage 5 of 8 Bridges.  It was a morning with some complicated event logistics.  Swimmers, kayakers, and the smaller support vessels launched from three different locations before converging under Bear Mountain Bridge at splash time, and cars were parked at yet a fourth place near the finish. Rondi’s shuttle van plan to get everyone where we needed to go worked to perfection, and is just one example of the ways the organizers tweak this event to make it better every year.  My kayaker for the day was Terry, who has worked with 8 Bridges from the beginning, and I was looking forward to enjoying her experience and easy camaraderie on the river.

The swimmers rode the main support boat, Launch 5, upriver from Ossining, and we were treated to a reverse preview of nearly the entire 19+ mile course.  It was a beautiful morning, and I enjoyed the view from the bow of the boat while chilling out with friends.  I felt peaceful, confident, and ready to take on the challenges the day would bring. 

Once Launch 5 was under the bridge, Dave pulled alongside on Agent Orange and boarded the boat for a brief safety briefing and course preview.  He had just come from doing the same for the kayakers, who were entering the river from the west and paddling downstream towards the bridge.  Soon we were in the water and off.  Under the bridge away from shore the current was still flooding—I was one of the first off the boat and had floated back a bit during the brief interval before the start—but once underway we moved to the far western shore, hugging the shoreline and enjoying an eddying current that took us swiftly downstream.

It was fun swimming so close to shore—seeing wooded areas, rocky outcroppings, and houses passing by so quickly made it feel like we were making good progress.  Once or twice I had to scull along because of rocks under me, but that was ok.  I used to get creeped out by underwater outcroppings and the possibility of touching things underneath me, but the lake swimming I’ve done the past few seasons has made me braver.  Now I think it’s interesting to swim in depths where you can see the bottom.  That close to shore, I could also feel the vibrations of approaching freight trains, whose tracks ran right by the water—it was really cool to see and hear them zoom by at such speed

I was feeling good, the water was a little warm but still comfortable, and the sun was occasionally peeking out from the clouds.  The river seemed busy, with boats zipping by out in the channel and a big barge floating slowly upriver.  At one of my first feeds, my kayaker explained to me that a passing boat had been on fire, and that Launch 5 had taken on its passengers until help arrived.  We watched a fire boat racing up to the scene while I stopped to feed.

I was loving the day, feeling exuberant, and playing games by making anagrams from the branding on the side of Terry’s kayak (WILDERNESS SYSTEMS).  LET’S SWIM!  ENDLESS SWIMS!  DENSE SWIRLS in the water?  Are those YEW TREES or MYRTLES on shore?  I hoped to avoid any MESSY WRENS or SLIMY NEWTS.

Around 2h30 into the swim I started feeling sick to my stomach.  For some reason I didn’t want to tell my kayaker, but she cottoned on when I started requesting just water for some feeds and telling her I didn’t want to eat any more solid foods.  The nausea, which persisted during the rest of my swim, was a new experience for me, and a surprising one, since I have always used quite a variety of feeds and never before had a problem.  One of my goals for the day was to be proactive at solving problem on the water, working to fix things that could be fixed instead of simply trying to endure them.  I started thinking about what I could do to improve matters.  I drank more water for the next few feeds, thinking that maybe my carbs-to-water ratio was off, and dropped the more substantial feeds (milk, sticky rice concoctions) from my rotation.

The current was beginning to change, and we soon headed out into the channel to take advantage of the increasing ebb.  Here our progress was faster, but less apparent because onshore landmarks were further away.  I liked being in the cooler water away from shore with a bit more movement in it.  At one feed Terry asked me if I could feel the south wind picking up—I couldn’t feel the wind per se, but knew that the sort of wind-against current chop we were experiencing meant that it was blowing stronger.  (The fact that she was having to paddle a little harder, and that the front of her kayak was occasionally out of the water, also clued me in).

Meanwhile I was still having stomach issues, and they were getting worse.  I was feeling weak and little chilled, and my stroke count had decreased.  I needed more calories, but was simply unable to take in much at each feed. Somewhere between 5 and 6 hours I discussed getting out with Terry and she asked me if I wanted to get out right now, or a little later.  I decided that I could swim a bit more.  At this point I was feeling such an aversion to putting anything else in my stomach that I wanted to swim away from the kayak whenever she held up a feed bottle.  I decided to force the issue by gulping down as much of my gatorade/water mixture as I could.  That had the expected result, and I felt a little better for about a half-hour. 

Although I knew I wasn’t swimming very strong at this point, I was still enjoying being in the water.  Large hawks were soaring overhead, and I wondered if some of them were bald eagles.  As a volunteer on Launch 5 during the previous stage, I had seen lots of fish jumping out of the water.  I saw splashes around and imagined they were made by curious fish leaping up for a closer look at us.  During one feed, Terry told me that one jumped right behind me, but I missed it.  Occasionally I saw movements under the water, and wondered what the creatures might be below me.  I was hoping to see a big sturgeon.

We passed Ossining marina, where we had started our day, on the left, and the Tappen Zee was looming far ahead.  We continued making progress, and at one point Terry told me we had an hour until the flood current started, and that if I stroked hard she thought I could make it.  I imagined myself consisting of just arms and legs, with no queasy stomach in between, and tried to move my limbs as strongly and deliberately as I could.  Tobey on the jet ski came by and hovered close for a while, and I saw a boatload of other swimmers who had called it a day being ferried up to Launch 5.  They cheered me on as they passed, and I waved back.

At this point I knew it was becoming more and more unlikely that I would make the bridge by the time the current turned.  Unlike previous stages, where swimmers can creep along shore after the flood starts, construction zones for the new Tappen Zee bridge mean that Stage 5 swimmers must finish near the shipping channel, where the current is strongest.  The south wind would probably hasten the onset of the flood, and although I was still plodding along I was far from my best swimming self at the moment.  All this passed through my mind, but in truth I wasn’t much concerned at this point with whether I finished or not.  All I wanted was to feel better.  I reasoned that if I was feeling this bad, I might as well feel bad in the water (where there was plenty of room to puke) as on a crowded boat, so I just kept stroking along.

At about 8h45 in, we were still a little less than two miles from the bridge when Sean’s RHIB motored up beside us.  Janine told us that lightning had been spotted and that the field was being evacuated.  I think I was too out of it at this point to feel either disappointment or relief.  My kayaker and I climbed aboard, and we picked up a few more swimmers and another kayaker before going ashore.  We were reunited with the rest of the swimmers and our bags at Tarrytown marina.  Once out of the water, I slowly did start to feel better, and eventually was able to eat some of the food I’d packed for after the swim, which perked me up even more.  Some scary weather followed our exit from the river.  Kudos to Dave and Rondi for making the call to pull us, and to them and the boaters and volunteers for getting all the swimmers and kayakers off the river and out of harm’s way.

I was very happy to hear that the two swimmers who have made all the previous stages, Paige and Cheryl, were able to make it to the bridge before the bad weather set in.  They were the only two of the fifteen of us who started who were able to finish the stage.  Another swimmer, Steve Gruenwald, was closer to the bridge than I and seemingly had a good chance of finishing—I had seen his kayaker pass by me about a half hour before we were pulled, and he was looking really strong.  Others hung tough for hours in some challenging conditions and met their personal goals or found new confidence for future events.  Jim Braddock, for one, told me after the swim that it was his longest to date.  Despite the abrupt end, there was lots of good to take home from the day on the river. 

Once I felt better physically, I was able to look back on my day and feel pleased with my efforts.  I took away plenty of positives, learned some things that I can put to use in future swim adventures, and once again got to enjoy the glorious experience of swimming in the Hudson—a win-win-win day after all!

Through the Eyes of a Kayaker

Charts, weather reports, supplies, radio, … check, check, check, check … and after all that, sometimes it just goes out the window … or maybe it went down the river; wherever it went I’m trying to pull it back together.

The swimmer has a lot going on below the water. I can’t even imagine or pretend to know. But I’ve seen the smiles, tears, screams, wild emotions, rejoicing … you name it. That’s the swimmers’ world and they are an amazing bunch of people.

As Erica’s kayaker [and significant other], there’s also a lot going on above the water. Before the event, I’m watching the weather, calculating tides/currents, figuring out a schedule for the days ahead, checking the course for the best path, going over feeds, checking the schedule to make sure she’s where she needs to be, etc. I try to keep Erica focused on the swim and deal with all the logistics. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal 😉

Once the swim starts, I’m keeping her on course, providing the feeds, monitoring her condition and stroke count, keeping my ears on the radio and steering around whatever needs to be steered around (small and big). When needed, I try to throw out some words of encouragement. It doesn’t always get received as I hoped, but I hope she knows. We have a saying: “What happens on the water, stays on the water.” Except for the good stuff … we take that with us!  In the end, we keep a good attitude and have fun.

Oh, and then there are the sights!! I try to snap a picture when I can so Erica can see all the cool things she swam past. And the Hudson does not disappoint. It is a very scenic river to travel down.

The 8 Bridges event is really amazing and well organized, even for kayakers. During the event, the safety boats are in communication with the kayakers and any and all boats in the area keeping everyone safe. It’s kind of fun to listen to the chatter as a large tug goes by. At least one will ask about the event and the reactions are priceless.

Dave and Rondi are great, and everyone is so down to earth, friendly, and warm. I just can’t say enough about how well organized this event is.  The fact that they have a core set of kayakers that return every year says a lot! It’s also great for the swimmers to know that they are getting linked up with folks that know what they are doing. Keep doing an amazing job Dave and Rondi! We’ll be back for more!!

Ps: Erica likes any swim that ends with a beer and a chocolate chip cookie …. Hey, make that an order for two!

Take Me To The River

“Swimming 15 miles? I wouldn’t even walk 15 miles,” a familiar refrain I hear, often followed by, “you are nuts.” Yes I am nuts, thank you very much. And no, I wouldn’t care to walk 15 miles either. Its boring. Have to wear clothes, shoes, maybe mismatched socks, walk with other people, dull talk, go somewhere, maybe rush, wait on line, etc. Not that interesting. Swimming in open water – not boring. Water, solitude, rhythm, consistency, unpredictability, danger, fear, doubt, confidence, elation, breathing, bubbles, waves, peace, war, pain, pleasure, warm, freezing, fish, and other marine creatures . . . ad infintum. And besides people can walk 15 miles; but only nuts would commit themselves, through physical and mental conditioning, to be able to engage in this endeavor. Its fun to spend a few days on the river with other nuts. Some are like kindred sprits. In and out of the water. I think everyone is aware on some level of the other invisible nuts all headed to the next bridge. I certainly felt that on Wednesday for Stage 4. Thanks for a great day on a calm river.

you can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water

By Louise Hyder-Darlington

Beyond swimming, I love to write. I was happy Rondi took up my offer to write up a few words for Stage 6. While training leaves little time for writing, it provides endless hours for swimmers immersed in watery contemplation. Time to contemplate breathing, stroke, technique, fatigue, aging, motivation, fear, friendships, futures, pasts. All jumbled together. This will be my second year swimming stage 6. I swam stages 3 and 6 in 2015. I was dead last for both stages and would not have changed it for the world. I overcame challenges and pushed myself farther than I had thought possible. I guess that is why we love 8 Bridges. The memories I have from last year bring smiles, not fear, to my face, even now. The joy of hearing David coaxing me to the shadow of the second span of the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge, surprised that passing under the first shadow was not sufficient. “Just a little further Louise.” The hearty handshakes from everyone on the boat after finally clearing the Agent Orange ladder … worst part of the swim. Hearing Rondi cheering me on as I finally approached the towering George Washington Bridge. Hearing her call from far off “….you can do it Louise.” Indeed, I did it.

I return to Stage 6 this year because my husband of 32 years wanted to give it a try. As did one of my best and dearest friends as well. They have worked hard. Nailing training swim after training swim. Endless hours immersed in their own contemplation about 15.7 miles down the Hudson River. Why we do it is different for each and every swimmer. I believe this is especially true of those wonderful heroes in the arena who know they won’t be in the front of the pack. Those in the rear swimming their hearts out, terrified of that tide that will turn before they finish. I had those very same shared fears last year and I will have them again on Saturday. It is guaranteed that the river will always give us what we need, not necessarily what we want.

So I guess that is what I wanted to say about Stage 6. It is a long, long swim in one of the most beautiful rivers in one of the most gorgeous places on earth organized and populated with some of the greatest souls in the world. It is never the same swim. Each year the river presents the precious lesson that man is not in control. It is fun and it is frightening and yet we do it every year. And here is a sweet little gem of a quote by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. If you are reading this and have run out reasons; run out of dreams … cut this out and tape it to your mirror. Find that sea you have been wanting to cross, grab a friend and jump in. I promise it will be the most terrifyingly wonderful feeling in the world!

“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941

Monday Monday

I never wanted to get to Poughkeepsie as bad as I did Monday, June 27th. There she was in the hazy distance. With her hills, docks, old homes with porches; a town that has seen better days. Oh, and her bridges. Just 1,000 yards/meters apart. The longest such distance for a swimmer anywhere in the world, according to Mr. Barra. But 1.3 miles away (and with the river against me – 2 hours away – and 10 hours already in the drink), Rondi and Dave correctly decided that I would have to wait till next year to complete Stage 2. I am so grateful to them for giving me and everyone the time to try to accomplish what only 4 of us were able to accomplish. Seeing that Michael Smalley, my brother kayaker, was determined to make it, kept me going, pushing, fighting. Honestly, I never really felt good in the water yesterday. I did get my rhythm. But my right shoulder was giving me a lot of trouble as were some lousy songs stuck in my head, no matter how hard I tried to change the channel. And I was cranky from all those chops. But it was simply gorgeous out there. And I wanted badly to finish it. And Im very grateful for the chance to swim in simply one of the world’s great events and for everyone involved. Total pros. Oh, and my savior Jim who waited for me and drove me home to my door, 30 minutes out of his way!

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

picture this….

In preparation of swimming Stages 3&4 my coach suggested that I ‘visualize swimming the Hudson, putting in as much detail as you can’ So here’s my dreamy Stage 3 – Think Positive, Be Positive, and Positive things will happen! Come back in a week I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

Jump in. The water’s cool and a little salty, flat as glass. It’s slack tide, and I start to swim. My paddler’s right next to me, smiling. I can see in his dimples that he’s as happy to be on the river today as I am.  I begin to stroke, smooth as silk. In my head, I chant, ‘bubble, bubble, breathe’. I’m in my happiest of places, swimming to a bridge, with a great team to support me. No matter how this day ends, its beginning is perfect.

The sky is light blue due to a little cloud cover. The water temp is 69, air 82. As I look into the water, its color – bottle green with a little gray and a slight drop of yellow – imprinted in my mind from other days, I’m home. I’ve always thought of the Hudson River as my home water. Even though I have not swum in it often as compared to many other waters it’s where I jumped in for my 1st official open water race 7 years ago. And for more than 20 years I lived alongside it in various apartments in NYC. Someday’s I would ride my bike along its shores on the way to the pool before work and it would inspired me to be a better swimmer. Some apartments had sliver river views that I took in along with my morning coffee. But rarely was there a day that I did not see the river even long before I took up swimming as a passion.

In the middle somewhere, I’ve been swimming for some time. I think how it’s funny that I always wear a watch and have never looked at it during a swim. I feel great; rotating and breathing – ‘reach and roll’ I silently chant. The current is swift, and I’m flowing like the kids in the fast lane of a pool. Stroking, breathing 4,2,2 – My rhythm. Like most of my swimming, it’s not textbook, but it’s me and it’s effective for what I do and where I’m at.

I know I’m close to the bridge now as I see Launch 5, the former NYPD patrol boat who supports us every year. She’s strong and sturdy, I can’t imagine anything that would phase her or her captain. Part of me wants to frolic a bit, but I know better – the tide turns hard and fast in this river. ‘bubble, bubble, breath,’ I chant, and stroke until I feel the shadow of the Newburgh Beacon Bridge over me and I roll over and back stroke to enjoy the view. Before I get out I take a moment to say thank you for my fellow swimmers, family, and friends who helped me on my journey to get here. I’m so grateful that this river supports me and returns the love I feel for it.

I always find the end of long swims bittersweet – so happy I finished and so sad it’s over. But this time’s a little different because I get to do this again tomorrow. How lucky am I?

The Journey – Final Thoughts

I have been trying to figure out what I would write to summarize all that I have felt over the last week and how to describe the experience.  I have come to the conclusion that I do not think I could ever find the exact words to convey just what I am feeling.  The journey itself, moving down the river with a fun, supportive, responsible, driven crew of people, far exceeded my expectations.  Karen Throsby did an excellent job in trying to describe the 8 bridges operation in all its logistical complexity, in her blog: Metaphors.  So much goes into each and every day that it is a wonder we were able to ship-off each day on time…but we did.  How?  Well, first, I think we need to go back to the beginning.  This swim started as a thought by David Barra and was carried to fruition with the help of Rondi Davies.  After testing the waters themselves, the event evolved into a well-oiled machine.

Rondi and David  Rondi Davies & David Barra

I believe these two, alone, and what they created, is what makes this event special to it’s core.  They have felt the water, they have swam through each stage, they understand – mentally and physically – what is involved and what each swimmer goes through.  They are there, each day, on the water, going through each stage with the swimmers and their crew. They have given all of us in the open water swimming community, an opportunity to chase our dreams.  For some, it is tackling one stage, for others it is getting through multiple stages, and most have far deeper reasons for attempting any of the stages.

For me,  I cannot fully explain the “why” but I will say that this journey has changed me.  It has taught me that my mind is stronger than I thought and while my emotions still remained soft, physically, I fought harder than I believed I could have and won those fights.  You learn a lot about yourself as you spend hours upon hours swimming.  You also learn a lot about others.  I learned that not everyone is out for themselves, and on this river, in this event, no one is.  I learned that there were people that genuinely wanted to see me thrive, grow and achieve – and when I though I was not strong enough, I learned that I had those that knew I was and reminded me during my most difficult moments.

I can close my eyes and remember the moments down the river.  All of it.  The nervous times, the cold times, the relaxed times.  I can see smiles, hear voices of those that cheered me on and feel the embraces of those who hugged me when I finished or before I Started.  I can hear Margrethe asking me if I was warm during my feeds–being sure to keep the word cold out of the question.  I can see John Humenik and Janet Harris after I finished stage 4 standing on the boat with big smiles on their faces…as happy for me as anyone could be.

I also learned that strong bonds can be fortified in a very short amount of time and last forever.  Swimming is NOT an individual sport.  The kayakers, the boat crew, the other swimmers, we are all a team and any weak link of that team can damage a swim no matter how hard the other parts are working.   For this swim, I remember all of the crew that came and went, all of the kayakers – not just my own because everyone was helping everyone.  We cheered for one another, we sat silent with one another, we cried if needed.

The week-long swim journey down the Hudson River was THE MOST physically, mentally and emotionally challenging event I have ever done and I tried to appreciate every minute of it.  Each day brought with it a new challenge and a lesson in just have far the mind and body can adjust when pushed.
Every day, the best part of the swim was feeling the shadow of the bridge on my back and knowing I had completed another stage.  With each completion came a greater anxiety leading up to the next one.  Day after day, the anxiety-relief-anxiety cycle played out.  For the last stage, Andrew Malinak,  was there and swam with me under the Verrazano Bridge.  I still cannot describe my emotions during that time but, as I made my way onto the boat and Rondi Davies was there to congratulate me with a big hug, I remember a wave of relief finally settling over me.
I never cry during or after swims but I did after stage 4.  I’m not sure why.  As Rondi and I sat on the bow of the boat, she looked at me and said, “you must feel so good right now,” and with that I started to speak and just cried.  I told her I didn’t know why I was crying but she understood why.  It was the stress of the event, the overwhelming nature of what we, the 7-stagers, were tackling, the constant movement of it…even when we were back at the hotel and sleeping we were moving forward.
The river, the event, changed me.  My swim family has grown and I still miss every one of them.  Andrew and I had some ideas of how we could make living on the river with group work – put in a research grant- yeah-we would put in for a research grant about something or other and then we could move around the river together as a team…and see each other every day…and work…and play but…life doesn’t work that way and reality hits hard.
David Barra and I didn’t really get a chance to speak much on the river.  He was operating agent orange and spent most day’s with Mo Siegel.  Before I left though, we hugged.  I started to cry again – what was wrong with me?  He told me I had made them all proud.  This moment was there with swimming with Rondi through the harbor – that was another great moment for me – only crying could express my appreciation for him saying that.
Karen, in her blog, spoke about the “next big swims.”  For me, I have to prepare for the swim around Manhattan on August 1st.  I’m nervous as hell for that of course but I will have Margrethe beside me kayaking and I know she will steer me in the right direction.  I also have been thinking of another swim for 1 1/2 years now.  It will be a swim that I want to do, that I think I can do but with a good crew and sound advice from those who know water well.  If all goes well, it will happen next spring.  For now, I am going to allow myself some more time to reflect on the amazing journey that just took place and the amazing people I met along the way.

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