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

 

What an Adventure

Hey guys I just want to say thank you for letting me share such an adventure with you all. I know I didnt get to swim much but I got to share in your pain and achievements every day as an observer especially on the frustratng Day 2

I have been fortunate to swim around the world and this swim will be hard to beat, the organisers Rondi and David, the support boat Launch 5, to Sean and Tom who I spent alot of time with and you crazy brave kayakers, day after day your priority was always about the  swimmers making this swim `top notch in my book’.

To all the swimmers great to meet you and if you ever what an adventure in NZ waters let me know I’ll be free.

To Mo ` where are you’ hope you have stopped swimming theres no more bridges, see you in NZ for Cook Strait.

This is Tail End Charlie Saying Thank You and Good Bye

The final stages…

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

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

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

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

liberty

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

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

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

approaching the Verrazano

Stage 7 finish

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

Stage 7 – 18.1 Miles

The Day of Fierce Determination

Nerves.  I was a bundle of nerves.  Hell, I was full on terrified for this one.  I calculated that I would have about 12 feedings until the end.  This would be important.  Andrew and I spoke about the cold.  For him, he says he knows he has about 3 more hours after the shivers set in before his body really starts to react.  I had no time to test this for myself so I just took his calculation.  I figured if I got to my 6th half hour feeding with no shivers, I would have 3 hours to make it to the finish with shivers.

The beauty of this stage was that the original 6 of us 7 stagers and the kiwi team, Katrina Price, & heather Osborne, were the only ones doing this stage.  We started together and we were all going to finish together – just us.  One piece of terrible news was that Anna DeLozier was much worse, throwing up and very sick.  She would not be joining us for the last stage.  This was extremely upsetting to me.  We had made it down the river together, she was a strong swimmer and these stages did not phase her beyond the normal aches and pains one would expect to experience.  She would have done stage 7 and finished strong.  We all knew that.  It was not the river that took her down but illness.  My heart sank for her and my spirits were low for myself.

King_stage 7 beforeStage 7 BridgetteStage 7 JimKaren Stage 7  Mo - Stage 7  Katrina and Heather Anna

(Me, Bridgette, Jim, Karen, Mo, Heather & Katrina, Anna)

The other swimmers started a half hour ahead of me.  Rondi and I sat quietly at the stern of the boat.  She would look at me and smile every once in awhile and tell me it was going to be fine.  She warned about the temperature drop to 65 degrees in the Battery.  I asked her how long I had to swim once in the Battery. She told me about 2 hours, maybe less.  I thought, “ok, if the cold crept in and settled then I would have 2 hours of shivers and an hour extra if conditions were bad.”  Conditions were beautiful though.  The water was calm, the sun was out.  Rondi told me she was going to get in if it was ok with me.  I told her, “absolutely,” and that I would love for her to swim under the bridge with me if I made it that far.  With one more push in of my goggles to my face by Rondi and a hearty hug, she told me it was time to jump in.  This was the most scared I had been all week.  It was the moment of truth.

I jumped in and Margrethe was there and ready for me.  We went down the river together.  It was nice and calm and if you could pet her and say, “nice river. Be good for me today.”  I was tense in the beginning.  My first feed took for-ev-er.  I made peace with myself that this was how the day was going to go. It was going to crawl.  I flew yesterday…today the river wanted to make me work.  Maybe she wasn’t ready to see us all go after all.

Around an hour and a half into my swim I didn’t think I would finish.  I was using the mental exercises that Karen Throsby, a fellow 7-stager had taught me.  Warm, warm, I am warm.  If I’m not warm then I say, “I’m not as warm as I’d like to be,” but never put the word “cold” in the mind.  Remove it completely.  Karen is a seasoned open water swimmer…I was going to listen to her.  By two hours Rondi jumped in.  Ahhh…I got a boost and I didn’t feel cold. The top of the water was warm but the underneath was cold.  I reminded myself that the sun was shining, Rondi and I were swimming and Manhattan was next to us.

King Paced by Rondi Davies_Stage 7

Probably my proudest moment: Margrethe Kayaking as Rondi Paces me (Rondi in Green cap, me in yellow) – Feeling loved, & supported

At some point Rondi drifted back onto the boat and boat traffic seemed to really pick up.  Things were getting sloppy.  I saw the statue of liberty and she look beautiful.   I knew I had about 5 miles to go.  We passes ferry boats, we passes big tankers, we passes tug boats pushing the big boats.  Every boat seemed to be out in the harbor today and we were little fish in a very big river. As I worked through the wave trying to find my rhythm, a green cap appeared.  It was Andrew Malinak!  I stopped for a feed, looked at the bridge and asked if he was going to swim under the bridge with me.  He told me he would stay until I told him to leave.  I wanted him to stay.   I wanted him to bring me under the bridge.  We swam sloppy and crazy the rest of the way to the bridge.  Feeling the shadow of the bridge on my back felt good.  I hugged Margrethe and thanked her for everything–for getting me down the river safely, for keeping me calm and taking control.  We did it together.  Without her, I would not have made it.  I hugged Andrew–a hearty hug that was supposed to say, “thank you, I now know that feeling.”  We got on the boat and there was Rondi with a big smile on her face.  She hugged me and it was at that moment that I felt the journey was over.  It had been another beautiful day on the river.  We all made it.  Mo Siegel swam 120 miles in 8 days, Bridgette Hobart, Karen Throsby -swam 120 miles in 7 days – James Braddock, Katrina Price and Heather Osborne – we all did it.  We boarded the boat together 7 days prior and unloaded our stuff for the last time today.  Anna was missed.  I think we all felt it-not quite complete.  She would have finished and finished strong.

Andrew & I swimming crazy sloppy to the bridge Andrew and I on boatMargrethe and I on boat

Left: Andrew and I swimming crazy to bridge (another proud moment);

Right: Andrew Brought me to the finish where it all started one year ago (we hugged in the water and I cried – I couldn’t help it)

Bottom: My better half – Margrethe at the finish of Stage 7

As Andrew and I sat on the bow of the boat, he told me I had the look.  The look I saw on his face at the end of his completion of 7 stages almost one year ago.  I had mixed emotions.  I was happy to have completed all the stages but sad the journey was over.  As we pulled up to the dock my family was waiting. There were hugs, good-byes, and congratulations all around.  As I walked off the dock I looked back one last time at the new family I had gained over the past week.  I knew I would see each of them again at some point.  With a lump in my throat, we headed home.

Stage 6 – 15.7 Miles

The Day of Controlled Chaos

When I walked into my friend’s apartment, after stage 5, I looked like I had been beaten with a baseball bat (or at least that is how I felt).  Janine was swimming Stage 6 but immediately she brought me in, fed me, made me take a shower (god I needed it) and gave me two advil PMs.  With both shoulders icing, I fell asleep.  It was the first time I slept through the night all week.  I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go.  We were catching a train that would get us to the meeting place a good 15 minutes before we needed to be there.  Things were good, but then…

We got to the start and Launch 5 was pulling away.  For a moment I panicked.  I thought that maybe I could do a runner and jump onto the boat like they do in the movies; however, this plan would have never worked since the boat was taller than the dock.  I would have ended up smacking into the side of the boat and falling into the water.  I waited to hear plan B.  We were to get on the zodiac (another support boat).  As we sat on the zodiac, me huddled on the floor, I finally noticed the weather and felt the rocking of the boat.  The day look ominous…a day when you look at the water and it looks creepy.  The water was sloppy, it seemed to be moving us in all directions.  Just when I thought things could not get better, I felt little pelts of rain on my face…awesome.

Stage 6 - Zodiac

Zodiac Ride here we go with Hannah and Janine

The zodiac made it’s way down the river a bit to the start and we quickly docked to do some fancy kayak maneuvering onto and off of boats.  By the time we met up with Launch 5 I was feeling sick.  I turned to my right to make sure I had space in case I needed to throw up over the side.  I thought we were going to board launch 5 but, no sooner did they give Margrethe her kayak skirt, we were untied and sped away.  I thought about doing another runner but again, I would have just hit the side of the boat and bounce off into the water (the zodiac sits much lower).  I looked to Hannah who was trying to be encouraging by saying, “look at the sun shining over New York,” and I said to her, “please ask them if we can get on the boat.”  The next go around, we boarded launch 5.  I was full-on sea sick and Anna was NOT doing well either.

Stage 6 Before Ominous before the start of Stage 6

Before the start - Stage 6 Getting ready and waiting

After a flurry of activity and a great deal of excited chatter on the radios, we jumped in, Rondi gave the count down and off we went.  I love big rolling chop and we had a tailwind with us!  Once I got comfortable and settled into my stroke Margrethe and I were surfing the waves and it felt good.  The sun came out and I felt that push down the river.  Maybe the river finally wanted to play nice, or maybe she wanted to spit us out…whatever the reason I didn’t care.

We had made it out of the controlled chaos, that was base camp at the Tappan Zee Bridge, to the George Washington Bridge in record time.  Everyone was smiles with the exception of Anna who finished the stage in amazing time but who was approaching the seriously ill stage.

Stage 6 - end   Me after stage 6Stage 5 - Kayak crew

Kayak crew enjoying some down time (Alix, Steve, Michael & Luis)

The day started out dark and chaotic with lots of s#its and Fu*ks but ended with hugs and pats on the backs.  Everyone celebrated with dinner at the dock.  I was happy to see my family and friend who made the journey into the city.  I was happy they got to meet my, now, extended swimming family– but the twitch in my stomach was not quite gone.  We had one more stage to complete. Stage 7 was one I had been dreading.  The warm spots down the river were going to come to an end.  I needed to get mentally prepared for the cold and physically prepared for a 6 hour swim.  I was tired.  I was nervous but I was going to fight for this one.  I already knew what this last stage would be called if I actually made it this far – Stage 7 was going to be the day of fierce determination.

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

Stage 5 – 19.8 Miles

The Day of Buoyant Optimism

I had been dreading this stage from the moment I signed up for 8 Bridges.  I knew it was called “the beast” and I knew it had taken down many strong swimmers before me.  I was nervous for this fight.  When we got to  the marina things moved pretty fast and we were on our way to the bear mountain  bridge.  The sun came out, conditions seemed good.  I was still terrified.  Until I got in the water, felt it and started swimming, I was not going to be able to relax.

Serious Stage 6 Readying myself with Margrethe

It was time to jump in and I remember thinking, “good-bye boat,  good-bye crew  members.  I can’t wait to see you soon.” But I had no idea what soon meant.  Good conditions, 7 hours?  Bad conditions 8 or 9?

Anna and I jumping off launch 5 to tackle the beast Anna DeLozier and I jumping off the bow

When I got in and started to swim, the river was smooth.  It felt good and the temperature was lovely.  We hit chop around the two hour mark I think.  It was not terrible chop and I was so happy that everything else was going well that I didn’t even care.  One thing I will say was that I was tired.  I remember thinking, my shoulders are just going to unscrew from my body.  The week was catching up to me.  I was tired, achy and the fear of this stage had taken some of my energy.

Around 3 hours into the swim I got a shooting pain  from my elbow down the back of my arm.  This could not continue.  At the next feed I stretched  it and told Margrethe I was tired. She told me I was doing great and away we went.  We passed Yuta on the way and after a cheer and hello we continued on.  Then we caught up to John and said some “hellos” to him and Alex.  After that, Margrethe and I were alone until….ta-dah…

Sending warm feeds Stage 5 - hurt

Team effort: Rondi handing Buddy Porteus my warmed feed and Buddy giving it to                                           Margrethe all done smoothly while I swam on.

Andrew came up along side of me and was paddling next to me.  Like magic he knew just when to get there.  The chop picked  up and I was losing my battle with it.  This stage needed to end.  I stopped for a feed and told Andrew that  I just wanted  to jump on  the board with him.  I thought, “yeah.  We could paddle around  together.  Check on everyone.  Talk about stupid stuff and laugh and my shoulders wouldn’t hurt.”  But as soon as I told Andrew my idea of jumping on that board, he said that was  his cue to leave.  He knew all too well how great that temptation was from my point of view.

Andrew to the Rescue Andrew to the rescue

Once Andrew left we made our way around a turn where we could finally see the bridge.   Side note:  I looked up.   Big, big mistake.  Andrew told me not to look up.  Margrethe told me not to but I just couldn’t help myself.  I looked, I saw it and I knew I was in trouble.  By my calculations, I still had about 4 feeds to go (2 hours).  This was bad.  The bridge was now on my mind and each minute of not getting my feed felt like an eternity.

At some point Rondi jumped  in with me and we swam together.  I was grateful for the company.  She told me once I saw the lighthouse to my left, that the bridge was about a half mile away.  I couldn’t see any lighthouse and the  bridge did  not seem closer.  I put my head down and  just swam.  My shoulders hurt, my right hip hurt, my neck ached but I just thought that if I kept moving my arms I would get there.

Approaching Tapanzee Bridge Margrethe and I approaching Tappan Zee

Well, I finally saw the lighthouse and that 1/2 mile felt like it was about 1 1/2 miles but eventually, Margrethe and I conquered another stage.

I wish I could say that we slayed the beast – that we fought through ridiculous conditions and made it to the other side of the bridge alive and well.  In truth, the beast was sleeping.  It was still 19.8 miles.  It was still a 6+ hour swim and  it was still hard but the alternatives could have been worse.  Today was a  day of buoyant optimism.  The beast will always be known to me as the gentle giant who let me swim through the day virtually unscathed.  Tomorrow is another day.   The day of Controlled Chaos is what I am calling it.  I do not know what to expect, but whatever is thrown at me, I will try to control as best I can.  It may be like trying to catch dust in my hands but I’m gonna try.

Stage 5, and a surprise…

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

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

 

leaping

 

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphors…

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

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

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