Stage Five is officially called “The Great Bays” but there isn’t anyone that doesn’t refer to it as “The Beast”. Today it definitely lived up to its name. It was billed as 19.8 miles, the same distance as Stage Two. So you would think it might take about the same time to complete. You would be wrong. You might also think that there wouldn’t be much to say about it. You’d be wrong again. While Stage Four was two distinct swims, the Beast had three phases.
Phase One: Currents Against You Are Less Fun Than Currents With You
Part of the challenge is that we jumped a little before 7AM. Early jumps are usually a good thing because there is often less wind early in the morning. However, when the slack tide is 11:16AM and you will be swimming against an incoming tide for over four hours it seems it might make for a bit of a long day. The jump time speaks to the genius of the event coordinators: Dave Barra, Rondi Davies, and Alex Arevalo. With the total ebb time of 5 hours 48 minutes (nearly an hour and a half faster than the men’s stage record) you gotta pick your poison–fight the current in the beginning or fight the current at the end. After 8 hours plus into a swim there ain’t any fight left, so fight at the beginning it is!
Adding to the difficultly was a 45 minutes boat ride before the start, so we saw first hand what we were in for. At the start, all the swimmers immediately followed the kayakers to the west shore. Closer to the shoreline there is less current to fight, so we hugged the shoreline, occasionally getting close enough to kiss it and also close enough to the trains on the tracks at the edge of the river that we could feel the vibrations in the water. While most of the stages had swimmers fairly well spread out by the three hour mark, we stayed in pretty tight groups along the shore. Finally we slogged our way far enough to cut across the river to find some favorable current. It wasn’t much, but better than nothing!
Phase Two: Wind In Your Face Is More Fun In A Convertible Than In A River
By the time we got to the middle of the swim we traded the head current for the wind. Again, with the Beast it’s “pick your poison”. I’d noticed on the map that when we passed a peninsula on the left side we had about seven miles to go. Being an eternal optimist, I assumed I’d reach that point before the six hour mark. About 6:30 I wondered if I missed it, then around 7 hours I saw it. That was about my fifth clue that today was Beastly!
Fortunately you can see the bridge by then and I thought I could just put my head down and take 5,000 strokes with each arm and be done. It’s always a good sign to see the bridge, even if it’s off in the distance because once it’s there it doesn’t go away…..Except on the Day of the Beast. After about 666 strokes into the 5,000 I looked up for the bridge and it was gone. So barring catastrophic infrastructure collapse, it meant that a storm was a’coming. It’s like seeing disaster on the horizon or a dental appointment on your calendar. You know it’s inevitable and there’s no getting out of it.
Phase Three: Hurricane Hudson
Well, it wasn’t actually a hurricane, but the storm that hit us in the teeth sure seemed like it. The bridge played “hide and seek” and by the time we found it about an hour later it wasn’t any closer. Even Luis, my “kayaker extraordinaire” thought we were moving backwards! Then we saw the Sing Sing prison on the left, and I realized there were worse places to be than in the Hudson getting hit in the face with waves and drinking so much water I wasn’t thirsty when it was time for my feeds. It was also about this time that I was cursing whoever was in charge of New York Public Works in 1955, because would it have killed you to build that bridge a couple miles north of where you ended up putting it??
But this is open water swimming. The worst conditions are saved for the hardest events, at least in my experience. So the bridge finally got tired of moving further south and gave up, allowing me to finally swim under it about nine hours after the jump.
Stage Six is considered of the easier stages. The 15.7 miles is tempered by what should be a ripping ebb tide and a sunny day with winds at our back, because, why not it’s an easier stage!