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Relentless…

This has been among the most intense, relentless three days of my life. I knew it was going to be hard, and I welcomed that, but I hadn’t really comprehended the relentlessness of the task at hand. I don’t mean that as a bad thing – there is something compelling about doing something so utterly consuming and bounded by time. But it’s really tough, and I feel that I am nosing up tightly to the edges of what I am capable of.

Stage 1 was tough, but I learned the valuable lesson that a watched bridge refuses to slide into the foreground; I’ve taken a vow of discipline – head down, swim on.

Stage 2 was tougher….wind and waves made for slow going, and all but two of the field got fished out as the tide stopped our progress. First off, it’s worth noting that the two who made it – Anna DeLozier and Lori King – are fabulous swimmers, and watching them is a sight to behold. I cannot imagine the training that has gone into producing such performances. But secondly, even where DNFs prevailed, the atmosphere was as relentlessly upbeat as it is tough, and full of encouragement at the end of a day where everyone had pushed themselves hard. In the nicest possible way, I think that a swim as hard as the 8 Bridges has a lot to teach us about how to fail well, not least because to push yourself to your very limits, you have to have the confidence to discover that your limits are not where you’d like them to be.

In my mind, stage 3 was going to be easier – a much shorter stretch of river. I can hear the gods laughing as I write that. Rather than starting at the bridge as usual, Bridgette Hobart and I were dropped a couple of miles back, where we had been pulled out the day before, so we could have the chance to finish the distance. I really appreciated this opportunity, not least because as an operation with so many moving parts, this kind of flexibility is extremely generous. But unfortunately, later on in the swim, the wind licked up again and the waves rolled down the river into our faces, slowing our progress. It was touch and go as I crawled painfully towards the bridge (where I broke my bridge vow, but exercised more restraint); and by the time I finally pushed my way through to the tall stanchions, I was moving so slowly against the turning tide that I think I saw every individual brick as I crept incrementally forwards. It was painful and stressful in the uncertainty of the outcome, but finally passing the last stanchion is the highlight of my trip so far. A good moment. All the stage swimmers made it successfully – a rewarding outcome after yesterday’s battering.

And then there’s the river….the quiet lead player in this saga. It’s broad and thickly lined with trees, punctuated by various smatterings of habitation and industry. The water is brown-green and slightly peaty in taste (most of us have accidentally swallowed more than our share on the rougher days). The bridges punctuate the river, but in itself it is an edifice, an oblivious host to our paddling. It is capricious in mood; subject to tide, wind and weather; and beautiful. Relentlessly beautiful.

 

The Goal Must Change

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

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

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

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

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

Hold Fast,

Laura

STAGE 2 – 19.8 Miles

The Day of Trepidation

I went to sleep feeling tired and a bit achy. I woke up feeling good.  This was a pleasant surpriseCould it be the CarboPro? I think so. We packed our bags, ate and headed to the meeting area.  Again, we boarded a bus to the start, unloaded then reloaded onto the boat. I sat in the wheel house because I knew our awesome captain, Greg Porteus, would turn the heat on for me. I was already concerned, no, down right scared, about the water. It felt warmer outside then the day before but it was windy on the water. I was hoping to feel that warmth I felt yesterday when I jumped in. Rondi gave the 15, then 6 minute warning. Where did the time go? We, the swimmers, at that point, were all huddled below deck so the kayaks could be loaded into the water.

Stage 2 the beginning

Me before the start – no clue what the day will bring

The kayakers and crew are an essential part of the swimmers’ team. They are our eyes and ears when we are in the water and they are constantly on high alert to make sure all the swimmers have the best chance of finishing. It is not holding the line (sometimes that’s impossible) but  staying on course and making adjustments as needed. It is a skill that makes them unique and essential.

Today was an excellent example of this unique skill that I mentioned. The wind was bad (sustained headwind at 15 mph with 25 mph gusts), the weather was bad, and the chop was unforgiving. The kayakers had to work through headwind all day. The chop was not my battle today. The chop was hard but not a breaker for me. I felt good, I felt strong. My battle was the cold. Around 2 hours into my 6 ½ hour swim, the cold crept in again. I, responsibly, told my kayaker I was feeling cold. I say responsibly because I thought about keeping it to myself and just monitoring myself for signs of hypothermia. I am lucky I told my kayaker. She asked if I wanted warm feeds, I didn’t want to have to bother the crew to get them to her but “yes. Yes, I need warm feeds” is what came out. The next feed was warm water mixed with my CarboPro. Those warm feeds, and the experience of my kayaker saved the swim.

The cold did not go away but it did not get worse.  I did not start to feel the signs of hypothermia, the cold was kept at bay.  After the second warm feed, I realized the cold would not go away so now it was a mental game. Chop let up sporadically and little throughout the day. We were fighting.  Mother Nature did not want us in her waters today. With each 30 minute feed that I took, I got the warmth and a burst of enegy. I knew the record was 5 hrs. 30 mins. So I had added an extra hour and calculated that I would need to go through at least 11 ½ hour feeds before the finish. Once I got to the 6th feed, the count down began and I did everything to hold off the cold thoughts that were invading my mind.

Feed 9 took the longest to get to. I looked up for the first time and saw the bridge but, no…I wasn’t going to fall for it again. I ask my Kayaker, Margrethe, “is that the bridge?” I kind of knew it was but I wanted to make sure. She confirmed so I cautiously said, “so about 3 more feedings (translated – 1 ½ hours)?  She responded “I think we can do it in two.” With that, I started to turn it over fast (or at least I thought fast) with a burst of energy. The second of those two feeding landed us right before the walking bridge. There is a walking bridge before the Mid-Hudson bridge. These bridges are about ½ mile apart. They feel like they are 1 ½ miles apart. I took a final feed between the two and not long after I swam under the bridge. The cold didn’t even bother me as much as it did yesterday when I ended. I was so happy the mental battle was over, I finished feeling strong and was grateful to get on the boat to eat the cookies I was thinking about during the last 4 miles.

Anna was toweling herself off and we gave each other a hearty hug. Besides my kayaker and the crew that day, she, and her kayaker Lynn, also aided in getting me to the finish. I am not sure what mile but I believe around 3 ½ hours into the swim, Anna and I were together. As week took our feeds, I saw her on the other side of my kayak but she did not see me. My spirits rose. To see another swimmer feels so good sometimes, good for the psyche. I knew she would be leaving me…passing me…I gave a shout of “go Anna go” or something to that effect. Anna is a beautiful, powerful swimmer so I’m not so sure she needed that but I know I did and it felt good to get her smile before we took off again.

Stasge 2 - the bridge Approaching the bridge

Getting on the boat and anxiously awaiting the other swimmers to come in felt good but hearing swimmers dropping out or getting pulled tugged at my heart. You never want to hear about swimmers getting pulled.  You feel it for them.  Not as much as they do but you understand.  It was a brutal day and most got on the boat in good spirits – they were saving themselves for another stage, or the cold crept into them as well, or they wanted to get to a certain point and they did so they were ok with it. Whatever the reason I know it still hurts. I’ve been there and I have not ruled out the possibility that it could happen this week. Not because of the miles, I feel they may be ok for me. My coach has trained me well. My battle will be the cold. I won today…tomorrow is another day. That is what this journey is about for me. Seeing what I can get through and learning my weaknesses so I can improve for the next swim. Tomorrow is another day. It is predicted to be an easier day then today so maybe tomorrow will be the day of Positive Predictability.

Dinner after Stage 2

Swimmers and Crew enjoying dinner after a monster day

STAGE 1 – 18.3 Miles

The Day of Uncertainty

While standing in the parking lot of the bridge finish, waiting for the bus to pick us up and bring us to the start, I couldn’t help but feel absolutely nervous. What was I nervous for? I had swum long distances…I had swum short…I had swum in complete darkness. Every event, no matter what the distance, makes me nervous. I know it will hurt, I know it will be hard, but the predictions one can never really make are how hard it will be, how much it will hurt and what else can happen.

The bus ride was pretty benign as I listened to my music and tried to settle my nerves. I tried to listen to the songs I wanted to play in my head. Once we got to the landing, the bus was unloaded and the boat was loaded. Kayakers met swimmers, swimmers met swimmer and the race directors gave instructions. This is how each day will go. This will be the routine for those of us attempting all 7 stages. Speaking of our little family of 7 stagers, it is a wonderful group. A group that you want to be around, to spend time with and get to know on an individual basis. Each swimmer unique in his/her own way. Mo’s trait is his honesty. He says what he means and means what he says. He does not sugar-coat things. He is the pioneer in this group.  He will swim the 120 miles.  If he doesn’t make it to the bridge one day, he will swim until they pull him and then GPS track his location and drop him in the water the next day.  Then there is Bridgette. Her humor and positive attitude are so loved and appreciated. She’s also a great and seasoned swimmer.  You want to be around her any chance you get.  Karen is someone you can sit and talk with for hours and never get bored. Her fingers translate her mind beautifully on paper too! She is an experienced open water swimmer who, you can tell, really understands what she is getting herself into.  James is one swimmer I have not had the pleasure to really meet yet other than before the start…I’ll get back to you on him. Last but certainly not least is Anna. My daughter shares her name…I knew she had to be special and she is. Anna is quiet and humble but when she speaks and smiles she holds your attention. Anna is also a beautiful powerhouse of a swimmer and her humble nature instantly makes you a fan. Now that you have met everyone, on to the swim.

Stage 1 - preparing Knowing it will be a long week

The air was cold, 55 degrees cold. I didn’t want to take off my clothes to jump in. I did of course, but I didn’t want to. All nerves, one by one, the 12 swimmers jumped in. I politely let the men go before me because I didn’t want to be sitting in the water too long (is that mean?). When I jumped in, I was pleasantly surprised. The water temp was a lovely 70-71 degrees. Rondi gave the countdown and we were off swimming.

After a few minutes I could not see the other swimmers, everyone tends to spread out a bit across and personal space is established. It did not take me long to get in synch with my kayaker. She was very conscientious and met me on all the requests I had asked of her (tell me what to do, make sure I take in enough fluids, and keep the middle of the kayak in line with my vision – done, done and done).

The start was nice and smooth…dare I say, flat? But then, like all good things, the flat ended and the chop started. The chop seemed to last, off and on, for most of the swim, but I had other things to worry about like the fact that I was getting cold! The cold started to creep in around mile 9. I didn’t want to tell my kayaker but I did. I told her around mile 10. By my next feed she let the boat know and they asked if I could continue. I said yes. The CIBBOWS have taught me a great deal about cold water, signs to look out for etc. I put my head down, tried to think about other things and kept moving my arms. My thoughts, as I was swimming through head-on wind chop at mile 10, were: “what did I get myself into signing up for all 7 stages?” And “I can’t imagine how I am going to do this tomorrow.” With those thoughts, I put my head down and swam. When I got to my next feed, I looked up and saw the bridge. It was a burst of newfound energy for me, mentally and physically but…

Lesson 1: Never expect that just because you can see the bridge, that it is close. IT’S NOT!!!!

Stage 1 - our view as we approach the bridges

The bridge as it looks when we are approaching

Rookie move on my part, I thought I had about 30 minutes left…WRONG. I heard over the radio I was 7 miles away. The chill in my bones returned. I put my head down resigned to not let the cold stop me.

As an aside, this is my story. With the exception of 1 other swimmer, who has absolutely no body fat, no other swimmers felt cold when they got out. Mark, an Aussie training for the English Channel which he will be swimming this summer, was disappointed it was not colder!

Another thing to remember is that the cold hits people at different times, in different ways. Sometimes water can be colder and it’s fine for a person, sometimes water can be warmer and it’s not.

Eventually, I did make it to the finish, I did get on the boat, and I was greeted by a supportive crew and Anna. She wasn’t cold and she didn’t look as beat up as I felt. Rondi gave me some warm water and the shivers subsided. As we watched and waited for the other swimmers to finish, cheering them on, feeling their achy strokes as if they were mine, I felt relief.  The day of uncertainty was over; however, the day of trepidation was already starting to seep into my mind.

Before…

The start of the 8 Bridges swim is only 48 hours away, and jet lagged after flying over to New York from the UK yesterday, I’ve been lying awake since the early hours thinking about what’s to come. To be honest, I haven’t given the swimming much thought over the last week, scurrying around at work tying up loose ends and writing lists and making piles on my bedroom floor of the kit and supplies I needed for my trip. But now, it’s all about the swimming.

There is a lot of uncertainty before a marathon swim: what will the conditions be like? Will I make it? Will my body hold up? Did I remember to pack my….? Seven consecutive stages of long swimming takes me well outside of my comfort zone, and I really have no concrete sense of what it will be like, or what I am capable of. But in the end, and whatever the outcome, it’s about the swimming. Whenever I start a long swim, I always tell myself: “All you have to do today is swim”. It is my way of remembering the privilege of being able to do something as lovely as swimming all day; of the opportunity to visit new places and see the world from water level. The luxury of marathon swimming lies in its lengthy slowness, and this is what I’m relishing most about the week to come.

And of course, this luxury is facilitated by the labour and support of others – volunteers, organisers, kayakers; all I have to do each day is swim because so many others are doing the work that makes it possible and safe. This too is a privilege which makes me extra determined to make the most of this week – to succeed where possible, but mostly to relish the challenge and the delicious absurdity of swimming 120 miles down a river.

Good luck to all of my fellow swimmers this week. Let the adventures begin.

 

 

Tasting the Hudson

lori2_swimming_7

Many people have asked me what my next swim endeavor will be, and when I tell them about 8 Bridges, the first response is, “are you crazy?” followed by “wow, I can’t even swim a lap,” and usually there is an ending like, “gross, you are going to swim in the Hudson? Is it safe?”

Let me address the last comment first.  Last year, I participated in Stage 7 of the 8 Bridges Swim.  This was 18.1 miles, swimming from the George Washington Bridge to the Verrazano Bridge.  I had no idea what to expect but I did know that I would be swimming through New York Harbor.  At no point, did I ever feel like I was not in beautiful water.  It was not the most pleasant of days – the sun was in and out and the head-on wind chop was not the best, but the water, itself, was lovely.  It looked fine, it smelled fine, and it tasted fine (I should know because I drank half of the Hudson that day).  The Hudson did not leave me feeling sick afterwards, and I resumed my daily activities the next day.  These are some of the feelings and impressions the Hudson, and swimming Stage 7 did leave me with:

I knew I wanted to swim another stage the next year.  It was not just the swim itself, but rather the whole experience – and it is an experience.  This is not a race, I guess it can be if you want it to be, but it is more a journey.  A personal journey with the backing of experienced crew (most of whom are fellow marathon swimmers), helping you to achieve your goal.  It is a beautiful exercise in what wonderful things can be accomplished with camaraderie, teamwork, and positive support.  The crew was fully engaged through the entire swim and just when I started to fade, Rondi  Davies, and John Humenik, after 7 days of supporting and swimming with others, jumped in and gave me the push I needed.  They wanted to see me succeed; they wanted me to finish and they made sure I got the mental boost I needed – to know I was not alone.

When everyone was safely on the boat we headed back to LaMarina.  Andrew Malinak had completed all 7 stages!  He looked tired as he sat by the railing of the boat but he had a look on his face that I can still see – contentment maybe– a combination of words I cannot find to describe his look.  He had, not a smile nor a frown.  The sides of his mouth curled up slightly as if he was thinking, “it’s done.  The journey is over.”  At that moment, whether my mind knew before my heart did I cannot say for sure, I knew I had to know what Andrew was feeling, not by asking him but by experiencing it.  For me, every long swim has started out by me thinking, “I wonder what that feels like.”  Is it painful? Is it tiring? What do you think about while swimming for hours and hours?   I’ve learned that while you can ask a fellow swimmer these questions, the experience is different for everyone and sometimes you just have to go through it yourself.  As Andrew wrote in his blog about 8 Bridges, some things I will share, some things you will never know.

I will try to write down something about each stage.  I will be as honest and raw as I can be, but I think, there are some things you just have to go through yourself to truly understand and know.  There is a great deal of uncertainties in Open water swimming.  One thing I am certain about is that the crew is top notch.  The group of people leading us swimmers down the Hudson will do everything possible to make this an experience we will look back on as fond memories.

I will spare you writing about the logistics of trying to plan for a 7 day swim odyssey but I feel like actually getting everything together and getting to the event is an accomplishment in and of itself!

The picture above is me at age 5 or 6 before a race.  The face I am making is how I am feeling right about now.  Nerves have been with me and in high gear for the past week.  I am told, by my coach and others, that I still make that face before a swim.  Those that will be joining me on the Hudson will be seeing that face a lot.

Not the Triumph, but the Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

Hold Fast,

Laura

All 8 Bridges

This is the last thing I’ll say about this for now: here is my story. I set out on an adventure last week. I swam a lot, learned a lot, laughed a lot, and in the end accomplished what I set out to do. There is much to tell. Some of it I’ll write now, some of it I’ll tell you in person, and some of it you’ll never hear.

Stage 1

I said that I wouldn’t race, told myself for months to pace. But that tail wind pushing us downriver felt so nice. There aren’t many distractions up north and I was feeling strong. Having Rondi and John pacing next to me made me feel stronger. They were my training companions two years ago, so it felt like old times trying to keep up with them, pushing myself to match their speed.

Stage 2

Somewhere around the five hour mark, my kayaker Darian is told by Launch 5 captain Greg that if I swim the next 2.5 miles in 25 minutes, I’ll have Grace’s record. An audible laugh was my first response, but then I remember the current and some mental math I’d been doing earlier. If I swam fast, that might work! So I swam fast. At the bridge, out of breath, I’m told I got the record. The men’s record, they mean. I was 25 minutes behind Grace’s. That is when I learn that Greg may not be a reliable source for when to sprint. No more record chasing for me. Greg’s comment becomes a great source of entertainment for me for the remainder of the week.

After I finish, we spot Penrose fighting the flood tide along the Poughkeepsie waterfront. The current is against him, but he’s still going for it, sneaking along shore in front of us. I want a closer look, so put my suit back on and tell Harris to get off the paddle board. Watching James finish his swim from right alongside is great. My arms ache as I paddle back to the dock.

Stage 3

The snooze button gets hit again because I’m feeling too nauseous to sit up. Food will fix it, I think, but it doesn’t. Driving to the train station, I’m doing my best to avoid defiling my father’s steering wheel. He’s turned the air off in the car, I snap at him, turn it back on, and the sick feeling recedes. On the train, my sandals break.

My stomach feels no better swimming. My feeds go down and come right back up. My mouth feels dry despite both the amount of water I’m drinking and the fact that I’m swimming in water. It feels like my stomach has shut down, nothing is passing through. And strangely, I’m cold. I shouldn’t be cold.

We stop at the New Hamburgh Yacht Club, slightly off course, to chat briefly with Marylou, Ken, and Diane. It has been years since I’ve seen them. Treading against the current off the end of the dock, I see Rufus at the top of the ramp. He’s whimpering. Rufus always got nervous when I swam there. He used to doggie paddle out behind me when I left shore, and then turn back when I got too far.

Dave paddles over and asks how I’m doing. Something isn’t right, I tell him, but whatever it is, the answer is just there on the other side of that bridge.

Stage 4

The scenery is gorgeous. This is the closest I’ve come to Bannerman’s Island. Seeing Breakneck and Storm King loom up ahead is awesome. Watching them fly by is better. I made the rookie mistake of getting sunscreen in my goggles, so I stop often to take them off and enjoy my surroundings.

Somewhere in those surroundings I find my friend Emily. She is waiting on Little Stony Point. Emily is the one who put me in touch with Darian. She’s come up from the Upper East Side with Nick to watch us go by. We exchange a few words, but don’t stay long.

Stage 5

We pass Indian Point and the water gets predictably warmer. It also feels smoother somehow, and the waves are less irritating. I find a rhythm and pick up my pace. Rondi is up ahead pacing the lead swimmer. I steal her as I pass by, I’m now the lead swimmer. I seem to have found my power in the cooling water of a nuclear power plant.

We pass another power plant, this one far off on the west shore. It marks the halfway point, so I mentally await the symbolic moment when I’m directly in front of it. Watching the smokestacks move in front of the buildings behind takes ages. I’ll never reach halfway.

John jumps in tells me he has bad news. I’ll have to kick, he says, the tide might be turning soon. We pound our way into the waves together. His motions make him look like a porpoise, I think to myself. He tells me a little later that Rondi says once we reach the lighthouse we only have fifteen minutes farther to swim. The lighthouse approaches very slowly.

An hour or so later, I’m still between the lighthouse and the bridge. I’ve been lying to myself for an unknown period of time, only fifteen more, thirty more minutes. I look at the bridge. I’m ready to be done with this. Sure, I want to be under the bridge, but I want to be done. I look up again, and the bridge is a hair closer. If it were farther, if I were moving backwards, I would be done. But it isn’t, so I keep swimming.

The bridge doesn’t grow, but I can tell by the positions of the stanchions when I breathe that I’m still making progresss. Let’s end this, is the nicest thing I’ve said to the bridge for hours. That bridge is one of the few things to ever see me get angry. I sprint the last few hundred yards and it takes ages. I’ve been sprinting since the lighthouse.

7:30, I think when I get on the boat. Any longer and the tide would have changed I’d never have made it. 9:22, Rondi tells me. No way. I check the time of day. No way. I check the position of the sun. Finally it sinks in, the current has been flooding for nearly two hours, but I never admitted it to myself. Where did the time go?

Stage 6

Oh, this again? and I stop after ten strokes. The waves feel exactly like they did a few hours ago when I arrived at this bridge. I put my face back in and swim because I want to leave put the Tappan Zee far behind me. That bridge and I aren’t friends.

The scenery becomes familiar again. I watch the Palisades slide by on one side, and the Yonkers and Bronx rise on the other. Then there is the Henry Hudson Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil. I count down the blocks and watch the GW grow ahead.

Stage 7

The last time I swam this whole stretch of river she was next to me, and she’s here again. Christina paddles to my left, Darian to my right. She’s been kayaking for swimmers exactly as long as I have been swimming for kayakers, Christina was there when I first swam in the Hudson. I’m glad she’s here today, for many reasons.

Counting down the cross streets. Suddenly we’re at North Cove, the end of MIMS. Then we’re past it. I look up and hear a bell. I stop. There’s a green bell buoy ringing its carillon behind me, a packed Liberty Island ferry up ahead, and Statue off to my right. Caitlin has made her way into our company on board a small RIB. It feels fitting that she is here too.

With every breath I see a new tug and barge, or large ferry, or freighter. This harbor is busy. The Narrows Bridge is playing along with our little game. It is getting bigger, just like it is supposed to. We’re heading into waves two to three feet high, but I don’t care. The bridge is getting bigger!

Ed told me earlier in the week that the best moment in the swim is when you can see the bridge up ahead just by turning to the side to breathe. I can do that now. We’re close. Jumping in that morning was the most nervous I’d been on during this adventure; so close, but still with six hours of swimming to go. But now there’s nothing in my way now. Not storms, nor injury, nor boats, nor current. There’s nothing stopping me.

Wind SSW

While we all rested on Sunday, the wind was hard at work. We had four days of favorable weather during  the first half of 8 Bridges. On the fifth, as we arrived in the morning refreshed, ready to take on The Beast, a south wind was blowing.

Marathon swimmers rely on their training, kayakers, volunteers, and organizers, but they also rely on luck. Weather and currents can be forecasted and predicted, but not changed. Waiting in the narrow fjord beneath the Bear Mountain Bridge, the sky overhead was blue, but the water below was no longer flat. There was nothing else to do but jump in and hope for the best.

As four solo swimmers and a relay made their way downstream, the day looked promising. The current was running fast early in the course, spirits were high. As the river widened though, the wind was felt. It came in the form of short, choppy, irregular waves, head on. The kind of waves you look at from a boat and think nothing of, but as a swimmer you curse. These waves break your rhythm, and with it your spirits. Gulps of water come as frequently as gulps of air. Getting into the zone is difficult, and staying there is impossible.

As the day went on, the waves lengthened out into a more manageable, regular chop, something we could deal with. But during that time, another damage was being dealt by the wind, something more sinister than discomfit and a slight queasy feeling. The wind was slowing our current on the day we needed it the most. With the river at its widest during Stage 5, finding and using the ebb is critical in reaching the Tappan Zee before the flood.

By time the tide turned, no one was at the bridge. The waves were bigger now, and the lack of forward progress was demoralizing. Lighthouses did not fly by; bridges did not grow larger over time. An hour and forty-two minutes after the flood started, Andrew reached the Bridge. Shortly thereafter, the flood picked up to over two knots and halted the relay only six hundred yards from the finish. No one else made it.

Stage 6, another difficult day began where the last had left off. The same wind was blowing from the south as eleven swimmers splashed, and the ebb was again slow. Four finished before the tide turned, but all fought the same rough conditions for five to six hours. From the bow we watched our friends pushed backwards from the George Washington. It was sad to see so many not finish, especially when everyone gave a valiant effort.

But such is the sport we choose. For a few this event was the goal, but for most it was a part of something larger. For one swimmer who is training for the Ederle Swim, her mood was somewhat lightened to hear that her Stage 6 swim had been tougher than Ederle despite not finishing. Many other swam longer than planned, a feat in itself regardless of outcome.

And then the party afterwards. Sun beaten and weary, we pulled into Inwood. Swimmers, volunteers, kayakers, family, and friends mingled into the evening on the deck of La Marina. Sharing stories of the first six days, making plans for the future. The sunset across the Hudson couldn’t brighten the atmosphere more, though it tried. Fatigue waited patiently at the curb while swimmers reveled in the glory of one another.

Key to success

It is Sunday in the Hudson Valley and the River is quiet. No marathons are being attempted here today, despite the gorgeous summer weather. Things pick back up again tomorrow, today is a much needed rest from the past four days of constant motion.

With the first 66 miles complete, this is on track to be the most successful year of 8 Bridges by many measures. In the first four stages, twenty-two swimmers have started, and all have finished what they set out to do: Mo has completed two consecutive legs, Heather and Ed four, James and Andrew still making progress to seven. Records have been broken in every stage; Dave Farrell set the course record for Stage 4 yesterday on his longest swim to date. The weather has been amazing with nothing more than a gentle tail-wind and some light morning showers to note. The volunteers have been superb, a complex dance of kayaks, patrol boats, and jet skis getting it just right. Success, from any angle.

Rondi and Dave have not just created an event for us to swim. They have created an event that they want to swim. In the past they both have, of course, swum the event and therefore know intimately each leg of the swim and what is needed to complete all seven. But it has become very apparent in the past four days: they still want to swim this event.

From early in the morning, Dave can be found preparing the support craft while Rondi is organizing a stream of kayakers, swimmers, and crew. Through the first hour of each stage, the two can be found hard at work. But once things calm down and the swim is underway, both have been unable to stay out of the water. Each day Rondi has hands off her radio, watch, and clipboard to an able volunteer so she can pace with the lead swimmer for an hour or so. Meanwhile, Dave trades in the helm of Agent Orange for a pair of goggles and hops in as well.

And it isn’t just the two of them that want to be in the water. Numerous support crew have been in and out water during the first four stages, pacing swimmers, escorting by paddleboard, and offering eye-level encouragement. They all want to swim. And that is probably what makes this such a successful event. The people running 8 Bridges can, have, and want to be swimming the event. That’s a good sign.

From a swimmer’s perspective, it is wonderful knowing that the crew cares so much about swimming that they can’t not do it. That all tasks are so under control that an hour swim is possible and there are no frantic last minute emergencies is a sign of a well-organized swim. Seeing Dave or Rondi swim up next to you, seeing that they are willing to literally put themselves in your place, means that you are in a good place. It is very reassuring.

No one should be surprised it has been so successful thus far.

Looking forward to a successful Stages 5, 6, and 7.