Yes, I am basking in the afterglow.
3 years after I initially signed up for it, Stage 4 of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim has been completed!
I swam from the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge to the Bear Mountain Bridge in the Hudson River.
When I signed up for Stage 4 in 2013, I had yet to do a swim of that distance. I’d done 10 miles, a few times, and a 13-mile, but 15 was new. And the idea of bumping up to that distance had felt incredibly intimidating. I still remember the stomach churning anxiety, and then, the grief of having to drop out before the swim. As I mentioned before, it was the swim that remained undone, the one that got away, and I couldn’t let it go.
Thankfully, time and circumstances meant that 2016 was my year, and that Stage 4 of the 8 Bridges swim was going to happen.
There is so much to say about my experience so let’s start simple, with flowers, because they were beautiful in the Hudson Valley of New York at this time of year.
I left the day before the swim, driving almost 2 1/2 hours to my hotel, The Inn at The Garrison, where I strolled the grounds to enjoy the flowers, and tried to relax after stopping at Beacon to watch tired, taxed swimmers finish their second day of swimming against headwinds and chop. (Note to self—don’t go look at how swimmers fare the day before you have a big swim. It will only stress you out more!)
As I walked the grounds of The Garrison, I could see the river in the distance.
There it was. The Hudson, and the very stretch I would be swimming the next day. It was cloudy and warm and quiet and beautiful.
Since 2013, I’ve done the Stage 4 distance, 15.2 miles, and longer swims, numerous times.I know more about my feeding needs, the way my body responds to long distance swimming, the aches and pains I will have to work through, and how to get through the doldrums that happen periodically during a swim marathon.
But while I know more about myself, every swim is unique and the same swim, on another day, can be entirely different experience.
This time, I was going in with more confidence about my distance abilities, but with other variables. I traveled by myself and was without the family, and most important, without my incredible husband to kayak for me. While I knew I would be okay, it was another kind of challenge.
And no, I was absolutely not nervous at all!!
Okay, maybe a teensy bit nervous.
I needed distraction so it was off to Cold Spring for dinner.
I found myself at a lovely French bistro, and it was quite nice to read a book, enjoy a glass of wine, and relax a bit. And yes, I drink wine the night before I swim. I find a glass makes no difference in my swim, and it’s a treat with dinner.
Back at the hotel, I mixed feeds, in the bathroom of my room. Like the class act that I am.
I’m still liking a mix of CarboPro and Gatorade for my feeds as I find that the Gatorade (I know—yuck) gives the CarboPro the little bit of flavoring I need
Then, it was early to bed, for an early wake-up and to catch the 8:00 train to Beacon.
The 8 Bridges swim is unique in many, many ways, one of which is that swimmers take the train to the race start for a few stages, including Stage 4. And there was something really fun about meeting at the Garrison train station in the early morning, all of us excited about the day to come.
See the guy in the yellow PFD? That is Mark, my kayaker extraordinaire, and this gave me a great opportunity to get to know him a bit.
And the fabulous woman in blue? Marathon swimmer Janine Serrell who was doing her first back to back stages, 3 & 4.
In many ways, finally going to 8 Bridges was like coming back to a family reunion, with some folks who’d never met one another, except virtually, and yet are part of this same crazy swimmer family we all love so dearly.
We boarded the train, swimmers and kayakers and race organizers chatting about the day ahead, giggling and, in many cases, getting to know one another.
It’s one of the things I love the most about marathon swimming. I feel like I have friends and comrades in this craziness–and they are spread throughout the world! When I am lucky enough to spend time with them in person, it’s truly a gift.
In minutes, we had arrived in Beacon and it was time to LUBE UP!
My companion in sunblock artistry was the wonderful Charles van der Horst, who I was so super excited to finally meet in person after knowing each other virtually. Charles is a fantastic swimmer, but also just a genuinely incredible human being who has spent his life as a physician, educator, and activist dedicated to researching HIV infection and working to find treatments and therapies to help those infected with the virus across the globe. He’s one of those people who is just, simply put, a hero. (And he has a heck of a sense of humor too!)
This was to be his longest swim to date and it was exciting to be there together.
All swimmers slathered ourselves with zinc and other sunblocks, while race co-director David Barra gave us a quick pre-swim briefing.
From there, it was off to the boat because the tides in the Hudson wait for no one! And it was critical that we be ready for our 9:42 Splash Time!
Kayakers headed out, and we boarded the boat that would deliver us to the starting point.
And let’s be clear—by this point, I was LOOKING GOOD!
We ALL were.
Here’s another bonus of hanging out with a bunch of marathon swimmers: There is no ego about what we look like.
We all look ridiculous. We are covered with white goo, our suits are unflattering, we’ve all spent the morning pooping from nerves, and that’s just what it is. No one looks askance, no one judges, no one looks at anyone else’s body with criticism or judgement. We are there to share this experience and to marvel at the wonder of the water.
We are there to SWIM, damn it!
Aboard the boat, captained by the fantastic Greg Porteus, we were shuttled to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, our starting point in this bridge to bridge adventure.
The water was perfect. It was calm and the wind was non-existent. I felt such relief that I had missed the two previous stages, rough and incredibly challenging. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good challenge, but I wanted to finish this swim. I wanted to get it done, and I didn’t want conditions to prevent that.
At the bridge, the kayakers waited for us. (And let me say again, as I have said million times before, this would NOT happen without our incredible support crew members!)
Some of the most fun 8 Bridges photos are of swimmers jumping off of the launch boat, and I certain I wanted to be a part of this grand tradition!
We treaded for a moment or two, finding our kayakers as David, on the famous Agent Orange, got us ready to begin.
And then, we were off!
The water felt dreamy. Warm in a way I had not expected, it was silty but not icky. I couldn’t see much, but hadn’t come to the river expecting to.
Mostly, I was eager to get through the first few miles. The first 5 are the least interesting of the swim as they are in the widest part of the river and have the most buildings, boats, and man-made structures.
Mark and I settled into a rhythm, and I appreciated that he had listened to, and was honoring, my swimmer requests. It wasn’t much, but it’s important that a kayaker stay on my right, remember that I need to feed every 30 minutes, and steer me back in the right direction if I start to veer to the left, my natural tendency on every swim.
Stage 4 is supposed to be the most beautiful of all 8 Bridges stages, but I confess that I saw almost nothing while swimming. Powering through the water, feeling distinctly different than I had in open water swims of late (thanks to some technique changes in the last few months), I wasn’t focused on the scenery and I completely missed Bannerman Island, apparently a highlight of the stage.
Soon, in relative terms, we had passed through the first part of the swim and were at the part where the river narrowed and the buildings turned to cliffs and greenery.
I had no idea where I was in the field of swimmers, but I knew that I felt good. As with any swim, that’s really what matters to me.
The lead boat seemed to be nearby, often, but I assumed they were going back and forth, checking on all participants. It never occurred to me that I was in one of the top positions. (Yes, I am the consummate underestimater of my own abilities.)
Still, I knew I was pushing hard, focused on beating the tide change and thinking about finishing in a time I felt happy with.
I swam. And swam.
My right shoulder felt tired, but not in a “uh oh” kind of way. There was no pain, just fatigue.
There was a yellow kayak nearby, but I had no idea who it was. I did notice, however, that we were playing a bit of a game of cat and mouse.
But when I am swimming, there is not time
Mark stopped me every half-hour, and I chugged my feed and kept going, no sense of how far I had to go, but eager to see the Bear Mountain Bridge in the distance.
Then, there was West Point. I wish I had photos of swimming past the monoliths that make up the West Point campus as that was one of the highlights of the swim for me. It might be because I breathe to the right and West Point gave something to focus on, to look at, to be distracted by as I swam.
I knew that passing West Point meant I was getting close.
Then it was gone, and I was reluctant to look in front of me.
I wanted to look up and see that bridge, but I didn’t want to look up and NOT see the bridge either. It’s part of the mental game we swimmers play. Counting strokes to pass the time, trying not to think about how much is left while also obsessing about how much is left.
Occasionally, David Barra and John Humenik, aboard the good ship Agent Orange, passed by, checking on us. And co-Director Rondi Davies, on the main support boat, checked in with Mark, monitoring my stroke count to make sure there were no issues.
The yellow kayak swimmer and I continued to trade places, back and forth in front of one another.
And then, Mark pointed.
The Bridge! In the distance, I could see The Bridge! I had no idea how far it was, but it was there and I could see it, and stroke by stroke by stroke, it got bigger.
I felt myself quicken my pace, side-by-side with yellow kayak swimmer, then behind, then in front. I pushed harder.
She pulled ahead, and while I fought to keep up, she gained distance. And it was okay. I was swimming as hard as I could, and sometimes, other people swim harder.
The Bridge got closer and closer and closer.
It was there! And I was there! And I was under it, stroke by stroke by stroke.
At that moment, it was the most beautiful bridge I had ever seen.
I swam to the support boat, climbed aboard, and realized, it was almost empty.
I looked around for swimmers. But there was just one, the incredible Cheryl Johanni Reinke, who had not only finished first, but had set a new course record by 4 seconds!
And that meant I was Number 2!! Overall!
Oh My Goodness!
I was thrilled, and shocked, and happy that my hard work of the past several months has been paying off. I’ve been concentrating on form and efficiency and getting more power from my strokes, and I could feel it working for me in the water.
To finish so close to the top made me feel more confident for my Italian swim coming up soon, despite the fact that it’s a lake swim and will not have a current assist. (I’ll be doing the Lago d’Orta Marathon Swim in just over two weeks, a 27 kilometer adventure near Milan.)
I confess that I was also pretty thrilled when Janet Harris, another incredible marathon swimmer, pulled out a tin of her world famous and fantastically delicious cookies, which so hit the spot at that moment, I cannot begin to explain.
I felt tired but excited to welcome more swimmers to the boat. It was wonderful to watch swimmers approach, working their way through that water and pushing as I had, each of us swimming our own swim that day, and I loved greeting people as they boarded.
We were a mess, covered with sunblock and thirsty and with terrible goggle face, and it was great.
Swimmer after swimmer boarded the boat, all of us counting and trying to remember who was still out there. I felt so proud to be a part of this group of strong athletes.
Oh–and I got a prize!
I love it!! And I loved having Rondi Davies, who I admire so much, give it to me while we bobbed on a boat in the Hudson, my 8 Bridges stage finally finished, 3 years after it began as just a dream.
Swimmer after swimmer arrived at the boat, and apparently, I had some thoughts about that. What is up with that look on my face?
Finally, the last swimmers arrived, and we started the trip back to Garrison, leaving the Bear Mountain Bridge behind us. Within minutes, it was out of sight until next year.
I said goodbye to Mark, my spectacular kayaker, hugged new and old friends, and got in the car, heading home tired and happy and a bit stunned both that it was over and that I had done as well as I had.
And I leave you with this—when you finish a marathon swim, before you go out in public, take a peek in the mirror. Because this might explain why I got all of the funny looks while merely trying to get a sandwich and a cup of coffee for the road. Perhaps wiping the zinc off of my face might have been a good idea?
Marathon swimming – it ain’t pretty, but it sure is worth it!
Thanks again 8 Bridges! Can’t wait to see you all on the water again soon.