8 Bridges Stage 4 – On Failure

Whenever I plan for a swim in a new body of water, I feel a certain reservation. Shall I trust these waters? Will they welcome me? The wisdom and experiences shared by other swimmers might give me an inkling of the kind of reception I might expect, but there is no telling until the moment the waters and I meet. Some waters have an instant chemistry with a swimmer. Perhaps the setting, the color, taste, and smell—even the weight—of the water, the way the sun reflects on the surface, or the latent power of endless water molecules moving in unison make a swimmer fall in love instantly. But other times, waters can be reserved and mysterious, not wanting to open up to a relationship, at least not right away. The latter is the case of the Mighty Hudson and me.

Encouraged by a dear friend, I decided to include one of the 8 Bridges swims in my season. 8 Bridges is a favorite of the marathon swimming community for the immense challenge it represents—at 120 miles the longest stage swim in the world—but also due to its impeccable organization and dedicated volunteers. My friend suggested Stages 3, 4, or 6 were more suitable for a newcomer. Being a fool for scenery, I picked Stage 4. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity swim by the U.S. Military Academy. The U.S. Army has been a part of my family for three generations.

The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.

Most people think of the city whenever New York is mentioned, but what they’re omitting is the natural beauty of upstate New York. The Hudson River Valley has always been a favorite of mine. Driving to the Garrison Metro-North Station through winding roads lined with lush trees was a beautiful prelude to what I expected would be a beautiful swim. The morning of Stage 4 was misty, with air temperatures in the lower 70s (21˚C). A group of about 50 people—swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers—boarded the train en route to Beacon, our starting point. From the Beacon Station one can see the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in the distance.

Next to the ferry dock is a boat house where the kayaks were stored after Stage 3. While the kayakers readied their craft, swimmers handed them their feeds and gear. By day four, many swimmers had already established a routine with their kayakers, particularly the intrepid nine who were swimming all seven stages. The through swimmers were five Americans, three Brazilians, and one Mexican, and one could tell these people had already forged a bond among themselves. One couldn’t find a more fun elite group of swimmers. I felt fortunate to be starting that day, not only because I’d be swimming for the first time in the Hudson and seeing West Point from the water, but also because there were many friends who were starting with me or volunteering, swimmers whom I’d met in Vermont and Arizona during the past year. I love the traveling circus atmosphere.

After checking in with my gracious pilot, Lizzy, I covered any exposed skin with zinc oxide. The day was overcast, but avoiding any potential sunburn is always a priority. The swimmers boarded Launch 5. We motored over to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge while the kayakers made their way from the boathouse.

I glanced south at the wide river. In the background, the Hudson Highlands were shrouded by the lifting fog. I gazed again at the river. Its gray-green, choppy surface pried my eyes away from anything and anyone. Underneath the waves, I could see the sheer power of the Hudson on its inexorable course south and I understood that it is called mighty because the instant I dove in, it would engulf me and punish me and either humble me or forgive my trespassing and let me go just as easily as it let me in. The mood in the boat was festive, but I’d picked a spot on the port gunwale to take the experience in quietly. Only one other silent swimmer stood beside me. I offered the Hudson a rock I’d picked up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay the week before. I had forebodings that it wasn’t enough to entice a welcome from the river. Perhaps I should’ve also offered a pink shell from Florida. Neither here nor there, the rock was all I had. I kissed it and threw it overboard.

The captain stopped the boat under the bridge. I looked up at the twin spans and recalled the Chesapeake Bay Bridge fondly. I knew that unlike the Chesapeake, these weren’t known waters; this wouldn’t be an easy swim, but I was determined to find it in me to finish it. Swimmers jumped in the water with glee. I was the last off the boat. Below the surface, the water was dark green and the visibility low. It felt very comfortable at 69˚F (20.6˚C). Lizzy and I found each other right away and soon I heard a loud ‘Go!’ I was grateful I didn’t have any time to consider how the swim would turn out.

Downriver Lizzy and I headed hugging the east bank. She was a fabulous paddler, smooth and steady, keeping her craft pointed on course through chop and wake. Throughout the first four and a half miles of the swim we were hit by unrelenting, deep head-on waves. On my left Lizzy guided me and on my right land features and barges passed by, but these were images that only existed in my subconscious, for I felt I was alone with the river and I belonged in its cool waters and breathing had turned from something vital for land dwellers to something amusing for water beings. The Hudson was punishing me, but it was still letting me through.

Lizzy pointed Bannerman Castle. The river narrowed after another mile at Breakneck Point. As we entered the Highlands the waves calmed. Further downriver, the wind died in the shadow of West Point. When we reached World’s End, just before passing West Point, we crossed the channel over to the western riverbank. Now the river enticed me with pleasantries like a fast current, lenses of cold water, and the magnificent views of the stalwart granite buildings of the Military Academy. The elation was not to last long. As I had expected, once past West Point, at nine and a half miles, the wind picked up and the river renewed its pummeling, invigorated. White caps, fast and shallow, hindered my progress. Every so often my arms would be knocked into a wave, but rather than fight it, I would dolphin through it. Gusts created ripples over the waves and filled the air-water interface with more oxygen than my lungs could breathe. Slowly Lizzy and I traversed the river. I stopped for a feed and looked back toward the Military Academy’s buildings. I was dismayed at how close they still were. Lizzy informed me that we only had two hours left before the tide turned and any remaining swimmers far from the Bear Mountain Bridge would be pulled. I judged I had another five miles left and realized I would never make it. Lizzy and I resumed our toiling while barges placidly sailed by. Lizzy took me into the wind shadow of the small peninsula of Con Hook. My goal was to swim to it so I could at least have a peek at the Bear Mountain Bridge that lay beyond. The safety vessels informed Lizzy the RDs would pull me. I swam nervously waiting for someone to actually tell me to stop. I paused to ask Lizzy when this would occur. She offered I could stop out of my own volition, but I declined. In the shallows near the shoreline the water was warm. My hand touched the bottom and it receded. It felt like a living, gelatinous, dormant creature, which briefly scared me. Lizzy guided me around the north side of the peninsula. Once we turned the corner, the safety vessels were waiting for me. The image of Cerberus appeared in my mind’s eye. I have never accepted defeat so readily. The Bear Mountain Bridge loomed three miles away. I’d swum twelve. The Hudson, gray and angry, impeded the way. I asked Lizzy if I could swim to green marker 35, only because that way I would know the exact endpoint of my swim. It was only fifty yards away, but it took a while to reach it because now I could feel the full brunt of the incoming tide. The Hudson, humoring the idiosyncrasies of an engineer while relishing in its power, declared it was finally time for me to leave. Humbled, I thanked the river for the safe passage and touched Lizzy’s kayak. My swim was over.

The track Lizzie led me on is a thing of beauty.

A few days later, back at my team’s pool in West Palm Beach, I spoke with my dear coach about what this DNF means. He reminded me that I have lofty goals and with those come harder races, some of which I might fail. Improvement is made by taking on races that seem just beyond my reach, not by taking on the ones where I have a high likelihood to succeed. He reminded me of the words of Michael Jordan, whose work ethic and dedication I hold in high regard: ‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ My coach asked me if I’d do Stage 4 again. I said I would.

Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2017 – At Peace

GCBS was the race that made me fall in love with marathon swimming. Granted, GCBS is not considered a marathon swim, but it was the training exclusively for a long-distance swim and spending hours in the open water that enthralled me. Before my first GCBS, I’d done the Swim Miami 5K and it didn’t have the same effect. Perhaps the love affair had to start at a place permanently embedded in my heart.

I ended up in the ambulance after I completed my first GCBS in 2015. Suffice to say that my gut told me not to wear a wetsuit in 76F (24.4C) water, but being a relative newcomer to open water swimming and seeing 600 people wearing neoprene made me think they knew something I didn’t. Truth is my confidence was not high enough for me to believe I could make the crossing in a swimsuit, so I wore the wetsuit and paid for it dearly with a heat injury.

Many have argued that wetsuits are used in this race as safety aids or as a way to promote participation since the race is a fundraiser. Ultimately, it was my decision to enter the lottery and to wear the wetsuit. Because of the heat injury, I learned that my body has an upper temperature limit, one that I keep revising down. I’m still looking for my lower temperature limit. I do not know what that is yet.

Last year I was fortunate to enter GCBS again. That time I wore a speedsuit, which I can now see signals that I still wasn’t so confident in my abilities. I had a good race in tough conditions. Even so, failing to make the crossing in a swimsuit still nagged me.

For a third year in a row I was selected by the lottery. This year the conditions were more favorable: water temperature was 72 to 74F (22.2 to 23.3C) throughout the swim, the lowest of all three installments, and we were starting relatively early compared to the two previous years, which would preclude me from swimming during the hottest part of the day. The air temperature remained between 73 and 74.5F (22.8 and 23.6C). The sky was clear. The bay had a very light chop. ESE to S winds remained under 7 mph and gusts under 9 mph. The stats below are from NOAA’s Annapolis buoy. It was a gorgeous day to be in the water. 


For the occasion, I wore my Maryland flag suit. Before starting the race, I felt this might be my last time, so I wanted to pay homage to my adoptive state for fostering my love for the open water. I have gotten used to small races where swimmers understand there is enough room in the water for everyone. Before I set foot on Sandy Point State Park’s red sand, I’d realized I’d become weary of races with hundreds of swimmers. It was bittersweet to acknowledge this would be my last GCBS start as long as I completed the crossing.

The Maryland flag contains the crests of the Calvert (black and gold) and Crossland (red and white) families.

The horn went off for the Wave 1 swimmers. I didn’t wait for others to go ahead of me, as I usually do. I waded and then dove into the greenish water. It didn’t taste as salty as other years. My body felt comfortable and limber; I fell into a rhythm with my first stroke. Soon enough I had reached one of the ‘beach ball’ buoys that mark the ‘gate’ where swimmers cross under the northern span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I swam along the northern span. My plan was to hold that line until at least the third of 4.4 miles. By then the tide would be pulling me to the south.

The chop was so light I almost wished for last year’s rough chop and pelting spray. It does no good to be in that frame of mind, so I abandoned it. Mile 1 is at the point where the west end of the bridge straightens and one is regaled with the most glorious sight of this swim: the twin spans stretching for three miles, the four suspension towers reaching toward a clear sky, and the Eastern Shore in the distance.

This curve can also be very frustrating. I was constantly bumped into by men in neoprene. When I pass a swimmer, I either go left or right, never over. I consider that lack of sighting sloppy, lazy swimming. Typically I just lean into a swimmer who has just bumped me and the swimmer veers away. I’m short and small compared to most male swimmers, so I’ve learned to defend the space around me. Even so, this race is chockfull of incidents. Last year a man hit my face so hard that my goggles came off and by cheek stung. This year, a man hooked his arm around my neck and pushed my head deep into the water. I instinctively turned toward him and slammed his chest with both my hands in order to cause him to release the hold on my neck. He popped his head up and apologized, but by then I was swimming away from him. My timing chip was about to fall off. I supposed he’d kicked it, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I stopped briefly to readjust it, though I had to repeat the procedure once more during the swim. My heart rate was quite elevated by the adrenaline slug that coursed my body when my head went under. I had already reached one of the massive concrete monoliths and was approaching the shipping channel. I slowed down to let my heart rate settle before picking up the pace again.

While crossing the shipping channel, the Wave 2 swimmers caught up with me and once again I was annoyed by people bumping into me. Past the channel is the second mile marker, where the first ‘food boat’ sits. I had put down my suit two 0.5-L silicone bottles filled with hydration mix, so I had no need to stop. The stretch between miles 2 and 3 is always peaceful. By then I had drifted just left of the centerline between the spans. I felt I was swimming alone, something I truly enjoy. Every so often I’d gaze toward the southern span: many swimmers were following that line. Past the second set of towers and mile 3 (and incidentally the second ‘food boat’), the tide started pulling me. I regretted having migrated to the centerline so early. Now I found myself right of center, swimming at 15 to 20 degrees from the southern span. I was steadily making progress, so I maintained my heading. I’d reached the point where the course crosses under the southern span. Unlike previous years, this one was fairly easy: no big waves or eddies to fight. All I had left at this point was the quarter-mile stretch before Hemingway’s Marina. I have true contempt for this part of the race. The water is always shallow and very hot and many swimmers walk. I swam until my fingertips touched bottom. I stood up and crossed the finish line with a smile. At last, I’d crossed the bay following English Channel rules.

Swimming GCBS 2017 was a very different experience than the previous two years. Between this and last year’s installments, I’ve completed six marathon swims. Before GCBS 2016, only one. The long stretches of time in the water have made me a more patient swimmer, which allows me to enjoy immersion more fully. Perhaps that is the ‘swimming to the next feed’ mentality many swimmers speak of. I’m unsure. I broke my feeds by mile given my limited supply of hydration and lack of a watch. In my beginner days, I used to zone out and constantly wonder how much more I had left to swim. Now I’m aware of my surroundings and swim thinking about every breath, every stroke, and every kick as if it were the most natural thing for humans to spend hours immersed in waters, whether they are sweet, salty, or brackish, clear or murky, flat or choppy, in order to go from one point to another, or to start at a point and after a roundabout, return to it.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge stands watch over placid waters.

Glancing back at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge after finishing the race, I felt with certainty that this would be my last crossing. I thanked the Chesapeake Bay for the safe passage she’d just granted me and for the gift of realizing that the open water is where I belong. If the Atlantic Ocean is my father, the Chesapeake Bay is my mother, and as her child she’s telling me it is time to explore other bodies of water.