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.

Stage 4 – 15.2 Miles

The Day of Mental Insistence

The sun was shining!  It was beautiful.  We made our way to the train station (the finish) then took the train two stops to the start.  I was going home to rest after this stage.  My spirits were high.   I was going to see my husband and my kids.  I missed them so much.  I would think about them on the river as I was swimming down.  I try not to think about anything but it was hard to not have them make guest appearances.

Sun - stage 4

John Humenik and Margrethe  – the sun was having an effect on everyone

I made sure I put extra sunscreen on and wore my Arena polyester suit, hoping to hold in as much heat as possible.  I listened to music, I was readying myself.  I was ready for this stage.  The sun gave me a boost.   It is amazing what a little bit of light can do to the soul.  We jumped in at the start and we were off.  The water was calm, beautiful calm.  I could see Margrethe to my left but the sun was so bright I could only make out the outline of her. That was fine with me, I was not going to complain.  I calculated I had about 9 feedings until the end of the stage and if the weather and water cooperated, my calculations would be right on.

Stage 4 the start Stage 4 – The start

We pushed our way down the river.  The river was slack when we started and she told me I was doing 20 minute miles.  I felt good but was not sure I could keep the pace I started with.  I was a bit too excited in the beginning.  around mile 7 we hit a really cold patch of water.  It remained cold for a while and I told my mind that this was going to be the temperature for the rest of the day but then I hit a pleasant warm patch.  This is how the day went, cold then warm.  It confuses the body and mind.  Just when the body starts to adjust for the temperature change…bam…it has to adjust again.

I didn’t care about the patches, I was so happy the sun was out and the water was calm.  Around 2 1/2 hours, Rondi jumped in and paces with me.  She remained with me for about 1 hour, possible 1 1/2 hours.  Rondi is a beautiful swimmer.  Even swimming next to her, I could see her effortlessly gliding through the water.  You can see she was meant to be in it.  She understands the feel of it.  Rondi, along with David, have an enormous amount of logistics to deal with when it comes to this 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim event.  Maybe it was the beauty of the water and the sun that pulled her in today, but whatever the reason, to swim next to her is always an honor.

Rondi Davies Satege 4 Rondi Davies – Stage 4

When Rondi left me, I was starting to get tired.  I took another feed and asked Margrethe about the bridge.  I couldn’t help myself.  She told me it was just around the bend.  I put my head down and went.  When I picked up my head for the 8th- 1/2 hour feed, she told me: “the bridge is right there.  You are 20 minutes away from the record.”  I said, “am I that close to the bridge.”  It really look further than 20 minutes to me.  Maybe she wanted me to finish strong, maybe she thought I could do it; whatever she thought, her words of encouragement worked and I put my head down and swam hard to the bridge.  I knew I was swimming longer than 20 minutes but it felt nice to feel the shadow of the bridge under me and hear Captain Greg Porteus sound his horn that I had finished.  I was going home.  I was going to see my family.  Even if it was for only 12 hours or so, it was worth it.  I would sleep well in my bed.  I would try to sleep in if I could.  I would hold and hug my family.  I would probably cry a little.  The day of mental insistence had come to an end and I made it through.  I will try to put the reputation of stage 5 out of my head.  It is nicknamed “the beast.”  I am hoping instead, stage 5 will be the day of buoyant optimism.

Stage 3 – 13.2 Miles

The Day of Positive Predictability

I woke up feeling pretty good.  I think, mentally, the though of doing 13.2 miles after the monster of the previous, was very appealing.  I thought this would be a good day to take it easy.  I had heard it was not so bad of a stretch.  Once we arrived at the meeting place, everything, as usually, seemed to move pretty fast.  The weather was not great, overcast and a bit of wind.  I didn’t even care.  I think I would have been surprised if the sun was out.  We made our way to the bridge on Launch 5.  It is funny how different the bridges look from when you swim under them, to the next day when you are looking at them from out of the water.  I always ask, “is this it? is this the bridge?”  What is wrong with me, of course it is.  Why would we be there?  We jump in, Rondi gave the countdown, and off we went.  In the beginning, the kayakers were not with us.  We swam for about 5 minutes or so without them but it felt like a lot longer.  Margrethe, my kayaker, is my other half and without her, I feel lost on the water.  She navigates for us and these swims are all about navigation.

Before we met our kayakers, Anna and I swam together.  It was nice having her swim next to me but that was short lived as I veered off to the right and I watched her slowly fade from me.  Margrethe caught up and just as she did the chop started.  Not terrible chop like the day before, just annoying.  Anna loves the chop, she excels in the chop.  Chop, for me, is like sporadic raindrops on my face–annoying.  You just want it to either pour or go away.  Swells I can do, chop…not so much.  As we settled in, it was clear that the day would be dreary and I started to get tired.  I knew if I dropped my stroke count Margrethe would think it was because I was cold.  I wasn’t cold.  I  could just close my eyes and fall asleep in the water.  I felt tired and achy.

Stage 3 - picture of the yucky day James Braddock swimming stage 3

Feedings came and went and the day seemed to move in slow motion.  At one point, Anna and I came together again, Launch 5, our big boat was between us as we fed.  Once we started again, the water seemed calm but then…wait…I saw a cap.   Just like that John Humenik started pacing with me.  He came, as usual, just in at the right moment.  John is an incredible swimmer and an amazing support for 8 Bridges.  Seeing him in the water brought my spirits up.  The water picked up and was churning us.  For a moment, I thought maybe a big tanker or cargo ship was passing and creating waves off of the side but no, it was just what the water was doing in that place.

John Humenik John Humenik – Just Amazing

John swam with me for about 1/2 hour or so and then said his good-bye to pace with Anna for a bit.  After he left, my spirits sank and on my next feeding (the 8th one), I said to Margrethe, “I don’t see a bridge yet.”  She said, “you want to see a bridge, it’s right there, look to your right, it’s small.”  And there it was.  I had about an hour to go (one more feeding in a 1/2 hour and then I would be there).

The best feeling is swimming under the bridge.  It doesn’t come for the longest time then it creeps right up on your and you are there, swimming under it.  When you get to the other side, the swim is called.  Waters picked up at the bridge and I immediately swam over to the boat to get on fast.  After that, we cheered on the other swimmers as they came in and one by one, smiling faces got on the boat.  Everyone, I can assume, was having the same feelings: relief, satisfaction, joy.  As an aside, I finally got to meet and talk a bit with Jim, the other seven-stager that rounds off our group of 6.  He, as I imagined, is nice, personable and enthusiastic.  Katrina, the New Zealander, is swimming 5 of the 7 stages.  She is hysterical and really adds humor, and positive vibes to each day.

Katirna stage 3 Katrina Price – Kiwi

I would say the only predictable thing about the day was the distance we were swimming.  While I sat on the boat grateful to have gotten through another day, in the back of my mind, I knew Stage 4 would come fast.  We would have just enough time to get back to the hotel, shower, eat an early dinner and get into bed.

Karen Throsby and I went and had a really good dinner at an Italian Restaurant.  We ate until we felt good and ready to slowly leave.  It was comforting talking with Karen, listening to her about life, swimming, and general chatter.  Maybe it is because she is British or maybe because the next day would be the hump day of this journey, but as I laid in bed I could not help thinking of Churchill’s famous, this is not the end speech.  I said it in my head: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  With that thought, I took some deep breaths and tried to drift into a good night’s sleep.  I wanted to be ready for the day of Mental Insistence.

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.