By Sharon Gunderson
Hudson River Mikveh
[before I begin: thank you for waiting so long to read this. I essentially jumped from the river onto a plane to AZ, where I painted a good deal of my parents’ house for the last week.]
a mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath, a pure body of water used for spiritual purification and rejuvenation. I have yet to step into a formal one myself, but every time I have the privilege of swimming in the Hudson River, my whole soul is washed.
last year for the 8Bridges swim, I swam one stage: from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the George Washington Bridge (otherwise known as Stage 6). this year I decided to swim two stages: Stage 3 (from the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie to the I-84 Newburgh-Beacon Bridge) and Stage 4 (from the I-84 Bridge to the Bear Mountain Bridge).
for various reasons, one of which was more employment than I expected (yay!) I had precious little time to train this time around (boo!), and I didn’t enter the spring with much confidence. my primary fear was water temperature (the river possibly being on the cold side), and while I tried to stay longer and longer in the ocean at Brighton Beach, for both cold tolerance and distance, more often than not I would not reach my goals, and my discouragement was strong. both Stage 3 and Stage 4 take longer to swim than Stage 6, as their currents are considerably slower, and while the dream of finishing either one seemed distant indeed, I also didn’t want to look like a total fool.
(an aside here: the 8Bridges swim is the longest stage swim in the world, at 120 miles over 8 days, racing the changing of the tide each day. those that swim the whole thing are Olympic level athletes, absolutely world-class at the top of their game. others with not quite that much time or money swim one or a few of the harder stages, also elite athletes. that Rondi Davies and David Barra have created a structure for this race that allows amateurs such as myself to mingle with and swim in the same waters with such superstars is a thing of rare egalitarian beauty, and I bow in gratitude. imagine someone who played violin in junior high orchestra, then off and on through the rest of their life with a few lessons here and there, being invited to sit in for a concert with the New York Philharmonic, whose players went to conservatory and had 20 years of private lessons and thousands of hours of practicing also, at no point does anyone talk down to or act in the slightest snooty, judgmental or comparative way, down their nose or side-eyed at those of lesser or slower abilities. everyone encourages everyone else, every single day, period.)
one day while swimming at Brighton Beach in a terrible mood for no reason (bright sun! no wind! nice water!), I suddenly realized that I needed to stop focusing on results for my stages and instead *just enjoy the damn process*. why on earth was I doing any of this if I wasn’t enjoying it?? my headspace started to turn, even as I wasn’t too sure about my muscle power. swimming takes a sh*tload of energy, and long-distance abilities take a long time to develop. but I kept running into my wonderful swim friends who knew what I was up against but relentlessly encouraged me, and then Jeanne JC DuBois reminded me “you have a good base from last year’s training”, which is true!
at last, the morning of Stage 3 arrived. I thought I planned enough time to get ready, hahahaha! there never seems to be enough time! I had too many things, in too many bags. as I scrambled to organize, John Humenik my beloved friend and brilliant kayaker (and world-class swimmer too) focused me quick:
“Sharon, all you need is suit, cap, googles, feeds, water, sunscreen.”
(I had everything else, and a lot more
despite my self-pledge to Enjoy what I was doing, I was all nerves. a ridiculous amount of nerves, like I was about to play an orchestra audition. later when I wasn’t feeling so hot, I had to laugh: would I rather be struggling in the river or playing an audition? no contest there nope nopitty nopeness! (my musician friends will understand
the swim started okay, and while I immediately fell in love with the Hudson all over again as soon as I was in it, my intestines weren’t exactly thrilled with what I was doing, and my arms were sore way too soon. towards the middle of the swim, I was tempted to end it, to choose pessimism over joy, but fortunately this choice had been taken out of the equation: before I got in, I swore to myself that someone else would pull me from the water if I couldn’t finish. someone else would make that decision, not me. I was in for the duration.
I reminded myself I felt a thousand times better than last year, and started to think of all the people I love who have helped me so much on my swim journey: all my swim and water community friends, Jewish friends, music friends, yoga friends, all kinds of people I know for a hundred reasons: all of you reading this and more. I meditated on what you’ve said to me and how your positive energy buoyed me forward. what a gift! -to spend hours thinking about wonderful humans! as I did this, my mental soundtrack found Shabbat songs I could adjust to the tempo of my stroke, repeating their refrains over and over. I got so lost in this reverie that I didn’t exactly forget about the bridge I was trying to reach, but I felt so slow and inadequate that I was genuinely surprised when John indicated I would reach it in time, before the tide switched, if I could just kick a little harder at the end…
and I did! I made it! I finished Stage 3, having swum almost an hour longer than I’ve ever swum before: 6 hours and 9 minutes total. I was elated, yet dazed. how had I pulled that off? meditating on love and not giving up.
I was so stoked by this victory (over my own self-doubt, AND reaching the bridge!) that my mindset for Stage 4 was completely different the next morning. nerves were gone, and I was there for sheer love of the river. I knew it was likely I wouldn’t finish (I’m still too slow for this stage of many miles and moderate current), and I was sore as hell and exhausted from the day before. my goal was to reach Storm King, a beautiful lump of mountain rising straight out of the Hudson’s fjord (the water is 200 ft deep in places there)! the first part of the swim is a bit boring, as the river is wide and one doesn’t see much while swimming. and I was in pain. after maybe 90 minutes, a support boat suddenly zoomed up. “we’re going to jump you and another swimmer upriver”, they said, as we were too far back from the rest of the swimmers for us to be easily watched over and kept safe from boat traffic in the area. twist my arm, I thought, I’m not worried about officially finishing this stage anyway and I’m cold and tired! the boat was so warm and wonderful, and they scooted us up quick to the lead swimmers, while our kayakers raced to get up there too. well the lead swimmers were at Storm King! -which is the most gorgeous part of Stage 4, and arguably the most amazing of the entire Hudson. as soon as John caught up, I jumped back in, ecstatic that I would get to swim this magical stretch, rather than struggling to get to the beginning of it. the water was so pure and perfect I was tempted to drink it on purpose. like silk it flowed over and around my body, a miracle of grace.
oh that I could stay in those waters forever! but where I could swim through my pain during Stage 3, this time I was realizing that swimming through it would cause damage I didn’t want. I made it to the middle of West Point (what stunning edifices, from the water!), did breast stroke for awhile (which I’m good at), did a little back stroke (which I’m not), and finally decided to throw in the towel and get on the boat. I wasn’t sad about not reaching Bear Mountain, I was only upset to leave the water! but not for long: the best hug on earth was waiting for me from Janet Harris, and then she held out a huge tin of spectacular oatmeal raisin ginger cookies! I got to enjoy the rest of Stage 4’s beauty from the comfort of the boat, munching away. later my over-packing paid off: a swimmer who finished the entire stage was very cold, shivering madly as we wrapped him in multiple blankets. in minutes he was happy and improving, but I noticed his hands were still white, and pulled out my thick fleece-wool mittens, which he gratefully accepted.
the next stage, Stage 5, is the hardest: nearly 20 miles from Bear Mountain to the Tappan Zee Bridge (sorry Cuomo: I will call it The Tapp til my dying day), and faint current where the river opens wide for the last 10 miles or so. I volunteered on a support boat for this stage, which got a little exciting when a smooth curtain of rain erased the Tapp from view, and wind whipped the water into a roiling frenzy. but wow, that river was beautiful, and as the day wore on, I wished badly that I might swim in it some more. I joked with a couple people saying Hey, if someone drops out for tomorrow’s Stage 6, I’ll take their place, haha (the weather forecast was perfect, and the likelihood of a swimmer not showing up virtually nil). see, everyone must have a kayaker, and kayakers are like unicorns, especially on weekdays… so I was happily resigned to being a boat volunteer once again.
but then! -a text pops up after I’m home that eve: “come ready to swim. we may have an extra kayaker” -!!!- I couldn’t believe it. I did exactly that, my packing simplified the third time around. the next morning riding the train up, I noted all the landmarks I knew so well: Stage 6 was the stage I swam last year, under major physical duress, so no matter what happened this time I’d be happy. at the marina, swimmers paired off with their kayakers to discuss things briefly before the swim and hand off their feeds and water, but I stood waiting, watching, trying to determine if a mystery extra kayaker existed or not. the crowd began to thin, it was time to go, and I thought oh well, better get to the support boat. suddenly Alex Arevalo‘s voice rang out: “Abby will kayak for you. okay?” YES PLEASE.
now Abigail Fairman, who thought she’d be on a boat all day, is a world-class swimmer, completing the entire seven stages last year. but she’s decided to acquire kayaking skills as well, and I was elated: as a swimmer herself, she would understand my needs in the water, and I would give her the opportunity to practice (with a slow swimmer! in a tailwind with fierce current! no easy flat water here, nope! ha).
and down the river we went! what total, complete gloriousness. the sun bright, the water warm, the tailwind pushing me, the river flowing with rocking swells. I felt amazing, my stomach was fine, my intestines were fine, my arms were fine (mostly, til the last hour or so), my HEAD and heart were more than fine, exploding with joy. I was finally having a swim where nothing was wrong, and everything was right. I relived moments from last year when i was too sick to enjoy them much at the time, relishing those memories like Sarah Lilley seeing me off at the start and later cheering me on from Riverdale. Abby waved a feed at me every 30 min, just like John had done in my previous stages, but more than once I thought she was messing with me: 30 minutes couldn’t possibly have passed already! even as my arms started to complain towards the end, it didn’t matter. the beautiful George Washington Bridge soared taller and taller, until finally under her I went.
is this the most beautiful sight in the world, the underbelly of the GWB, its view a manifestation of spontaneous grace, the gift of a last minute swim, redemption from last year’s struggle and this year’s doubt? does my joy pop up and shine in this mikveh like the final red buoy, a shipping channel marker (we swimmers love those buoys, steady sentinels of order), a buoy unseen from the roadbed above, and forgotten by me, until I swam past it once again, with sweet surprise?