…I almost swam around Manhattan. Let me explain.
Yesterday I started the 20 Bridges marathon swim, an iconic swim 28.5 miles around the island of Manhattan. This swim is historical. It used to be called the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, but had to be picked up by another organization, the incredibly organized and run NY Open Water. This swim is also a part of the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming, sharing that title with the English and Catalina Channels.
The swim is not a race. Swimmers start at different times based on their average one-hour pool swim distance. My distance was in the 3600-yard range in my weird tiny Russian pool. Rondi Davies figures out your start time based on that. My start was 0715. The earliest start was 0655 and the latest was 0720. These times are all figured so that you catch the tides and swim around the island with Mother Nature’s help.
My kids, Sam and Maggie, were my crew. We met our kayaker, the incredible Agnes M., and observer, Hsi-Ling, got the requisite jump photo, and got on Paul’s boat, the All Aboard.
(Henceforth, all times and distances are estimated. I need to get back to Moscow so I can sync my Garmin and see the data.) I went out too slowly, obviously. At my second feeding (1:30) my kayaker told me I had to pick it up. So I went into overdrive…as much overdrive as I can anyway. Same thing at the second feeding (2:00). During this time, two (of two!) jet skiers came by and spoke with Agnes. Hmm…
I breath right-side only, despite preaching and sometimes practicing bilateral. Can’t help it. So for this swim, I knew I wouldn’t see anything of Manhattan, only other parts of NY and NJ. That’s fine. And this turned out to be great. If I had seen…
So at my 2:30 feed, jet skier Ed told me we had to have a talk. I had to decide whether I wanted to quit or be moved and have an assisted swim. Then he and Agnes pointed to my left side. I saw the wall she had me swimming next to, and I was very quickly moving backwards. Apparently, for some unspecified time I was making no progress. I learned later that one of the jet skiers had told her I had 55 minutes to go 50 city blocks, and I managed only 20.
Well when they ask you if you want to quit a mere couple hours into a swim you’d been training for for months or get moved up river a bit and be disqualified (but still get to swim!), of course you respond “I’ll take the assisted swim.” Ed and Agnes both cheered. I got on Ed’s bladder torture board on the back of his jet ski, and got on my boat, while Agnes paddled like lightning to get to bridge #5 (Ward’s Island footbridge). (I had passed bridge #4 maybe 200-300 yards earlier.)
I apologized to my observer and my boat driver. They brushed it off. I thought about asking Hsi-Ling how my stroke count was prior to getting pulled, but decided against it. I made the decision there and then that the minute I started up again in the water, I’d stick to the rules again. Just because I DQ’d and am doing assisted, doesn’t mean any other part of my swim needed to be assisted. I wouldn’t hang on to the kayak or boat or anything like that once Agnes and I started up again. When Agnes was just about ready I jumped in, peed (ah, relief) and got back to work. All negative thoughts left my brain and I just concentrated on my swim.
(When I got back to the AirBNB last night after a wonderful dinner with family (more on that below), I pulled up Google maps and did some elementary mensuration. Turns out I got pulled a little over 6 miles and then from where I restarted to the finish was a bit over 21 miles. So really what I did yesterday instead of swimming all the way around Manhattan was do two marathon swims with a ~25 minute break in between.)
The swim from here on out was, at least for a few hours, awesome. The Harlem is very thin and not so deep. I’d see a bridge coming up and then zoom, I was past it. As the river got thinner, I’d see the walls zooming by. I felt so fast. Feeds came and went. It was lovely.
I had two mantras during this (these?) swim(s): Swim to the next feed. If I ever felt blah, or wanted to quit (often), I’d just think swim to the next feed and reevaluate. Repeat.
The other mantra I’ve adapted from something David Barra, incredible marathon swimmer and founder of NY Open Water, said, and I paraphrase:
The most anyone can hope for during a marathon swim is to come to a general understanding with the body of water you’re swimming in.
So yes, your former atheist returned Catholic did, several times during difficult parts, ask for the river’s help with a push. I know the Harlem listened, wasn’t sure the Hudson did until the end, and didn’t start asking the East early enough.
After the Harlem we turned into the choppy Hudson. Very wide, with only one bridge very early on and very tall. It also went by pretty quickly, so I assumed I was still getting a push, but hard to tell with such distances. At the first feeding in the Hudson, I asked Agnes if that was bridge 19. She said nope, it’s the last one. That made me feel great! Only…I failed to remember looking at the map weeks ago. That bridge comes quickly and then there’s still something like 11 miles after that. Ugg.
The Hudson was tough. I wanted to quit several times. The water all around was slightly salty, but still too salty for my liking, and I was starting to hate the taste. I can’t say I ever got queasy like in Issyk Kul the first time, but a few times I thought “I think I’m gonna puke.” A couple times I was hoping I would puke so I could stop thinking about it. But then I’d change up my feed and hope for the best.
My feeds were water with Crystal Lite and Justin’s Nut Butters. I had also brought along small bite size pepperoni and baby bell cheeses. When I asked for one of those (“Agnes” stroke stroke “pepperoni” stroke stroke) she actually smiled. I think she must have thought it odd for a swimmer to bring those types of foods!
I grabbed a pepperoni, switched to elementary backstroke, and enjoyed the tangy taste. Same, later, with the cheese. Wonderful switch from the nuts.
Agnes had me in some fast water. I’d start to view buildings over in Jersey and watch as they were first at 1 o’clock relative to me, then quickly 2 o’clock and then I’d zoom by them. I was very thankful. But suddenly she gave me the sign to swim away from her and she had me take quite the angle away. I was very confused when I saw some pilings. Wait! There’s no turn in the Hudson. What are we doing.
The NYPD boat had us get out of the middle of the Hudson because a cruise ship was backing up and departing. They pushed us to an isolated cove where some folks were learning how to kayak. Agnes got me up to date. She continued to follow my rule of not telling me how far I’ve gone or how far I’ve got, thank God. I asked her for some cheese and pepperoni. “Yeah, might as well have a picnic while we’re here.” In a few minutes (five?) the cops told us we could continue.
I knew at some point I’d see coming into my 1 o’clock Lady Liberty. Yet, at the same time, I really didn’t want to look for her. I was afraid she’d be so incredibly tiny that I’d know I still had a long way to go. Thankfully, it was so choppy I really couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to see her as the waves were blocking anything small over there. So I just stuck with the buildings abeam of me and kept stroking. One more time, who knows how long after the first time, they pulled us over again, this time for a ferry, so I ate and gabbed. More quickly we were back on it.
My crew, my kids Sam and Maggie, took tons of pictures, as did Agnes. I figured I was passing historical stuff. I didn’t want to look. I just wanted this over with. At one point, as the island curves to the left, I caught a glimpse of One World Trade Center. Pier 25, where we loaded the boats in the morning, is right there at that building. And it was still far away. Ugg. Dammit. When will this swim be done? Why not just quit?
No! So I kept stroking. At one of my later feedings I took a glance to the left, and One World Trade Center was closer, grand and tall. Thank goodness, that means I only have a little ways to go. I waved off the next two feeds and just kept going. I had enough liquids in me as I was peeing once or twice between each feed. Let me finish this!
It never seemed to end, but I knew I was close as Ed was back with his jet ski but this time smiling. I started to hear cheering and thought it was nice of those folks to cheer for the last place guy. Then I heard my sister-in-law’s whistle (incredible!) and knew it was my family. Then a horn went off, Agnes smiled and raised her paddle and I was done.
Sure enough, my family (20+ folks!) were all there, along with dozens of others wishing me well. It was awesome. I got on Ed’s bladder torture board and he took me to my boat, where I immediately emptied the rest of my bladder.
Back at Pier 25, we alighted from All Aboard, thanking Paul for his help. I thanked Hsi-Ling for her help today, and proceeded to the bathroom to change. Along the way I met another swimmer that started with me (sorry, can’t remember your name!) and his observer (Patty) and we gabbed a bit about the swim. After I was changed we went and found Agnes, running into Rondi along the way. She was telling me she was sorry about me not getting past Hell’s Gate (that should have clued me in, that name!). OMG, Rondi, not your fault! The fault was all mine! You were amazing!
Agnes gave me back all my stuff, we hugged many times, got pictures (no jumpography, this time), and promised to stay in touch. (I can 100% recommend her for anyone doing this, or any other NYOW swim.)
The kids and I took a taxi down to Pier A where my family all were waiting for me. Felt great to see them all, get and give hugs and kisses (we’re a very touchy family…Italians) and then proceed to the Pier A Harbor House to try and find room for 21 people to eat. We found 3 tables that covered 16 of us. The table next to mine had two men at it with beer. I offered to buy their next beers if they’d give the table to us. They refused the beers and said no problem, they just needed to pay their bill then they’d move to the bar. What wonderful people New Yorkers are!
We ordered and ate. I hardly tasted my tuna burger. For the first time ever I was unable to finish a Brooklyn Brewery beer (Summer Ale). I think it was the salty water, but my voice was like I’d been shouting all day and nothing tasted right, especially that beer.
We finished up, my family and I started the 2.3 mile (according to Google) walk to the house, and the rest of the family went to their rentals up by Times Square. I agreed to the walk when my sister told me “You’re only staying a mile from here.” About 15 minutes into the walk, when I still didn’t recognize anything, I asked my sister-in-law, “This is a long mile.” She said, “No, we were 2.3 miles away.” Ugg. So I can add a 2+ mile walk to my list of stuff I did that day!
All in all, great and difficult experience. My sincerest thanks to the wonderful people of NY Open Water: Dave Barra, Rondi Davies and Alex Arévalo. Thanks to Hsi-Ling Chang for observing my swim, to Paul Stone for piloting the boat, and super big hugs to Agnes Michalek for getting me around the island and through some tough spots, both physically and mentally. Finally, love, hugs and thanks to my crew-kids Sam and Maggie who didn’t mind getting up at 0400 to spend the next 14 hours with their dad, instead of seeing more of NY. I could not have done it without you all!