On Sunday, October 2, 2011, I had the privilege of swimming 17.5 miles from Sandy Hook, NJ to Manhattan. I’m glad that I took some time to absorb the swim before writing about it. Although I started writing this blog post many months ago – after having brunch with my local open water swimming buddies this weekend, I decided it was time to finally finish it.
My initial reaction when I got out of the water was that I hated every minute of the swim. But, the time since the swim has allowed me to look back at the whole swim and let the entire event soak-in.
Matt and I headed to NYC to stay with my cousin, Sally, on Thursday evening. Given my relative decrease in training over the few months leading up to the swim due to some health issues, moving and work obligations, I felt I needed the day on Friday to truly rest and prepare for the swim on Saturday.
On Friday morning when we checked the weather forecast for Saturday they were calling for a high probability of rain. We had talked about getting Matt some rain gear before we left Richmond – but, as things go, that hadn’t happened. Given that we were in the retail capital of the world, however, I thought we would be able to find some! So, I got online and did a search and found a few places in the Flatiron District. So, we headed off shopping…not exactly conducive to resting up for a 17.5 mile swim! But, we found rain gear, had a great high-carb lunch and I got my ritualistic pre-swim pedicure (not sure it makes a lot of sense given that I swim through dirty, muddy water – but it is relaxing and I like my toes to look good for the fish!).
Back at Sally’s, I stretched a little and headed to bed around 9:30 since we would need to be up at 3:30. Amazingly, I fell right to sleep but was awoken by Sally around 11:00. She had heard our phones ringing and got up to learn that the swim was being postponed to Sunday. My brain raced for a few minutes, I sent some e-mails letting people know and then I went back to sleep. I had caught a bit of a cold earlier in the week and this delay was going to give me a chance to rest-up a little more before Sunday.
I got lots of sleep on Friday night and did my best to rest some on Saturday. We headed out for more carbo-loading on Saturday night and, of course, to bed early again. Thankfully, no late night phone calls. We were up at 4:00 (the start was pushed forward rather than back due to the tides) and Matt and I headed to the start.
There were tons of people unpacking cars, unloading kayaks, etc. when we got to North Cove at 5:00 a.m.. This is where we were to check-in and board our boat to head to Sandy Hook. It was dark, cold and drizzly but the spirit in the air was light and warm. I saw many friends and wished those swimming good luck.
The amazing thing about these swims is what it takes to support 19 swimmers swimming 17.5 miles. Each swimmer had one motor boat, one kayaker, one boat observer and at least one crew member. That is at least four volunteers/supporters for each swimmer. Then, of course, there are the race officials and volunteers. These people are truly amazing and we swimmers could not accomplish our goals without them.
We were called to our boat, grabbed our four color-coded boat bags and various other bags and loaded. Pulling away from Manhattan in a boat in the dark was awesome. The city was quiet and the lights from the buildings lit up the sky. I turned to see if I could spot the Statue of Liberty. I found her, but, it was so early, her lights were not yet on. A few minutes later when I looked at her again, someone had flipped the switch. She was now lighting our way out of the Hudson, into NY Harbor and off to Sandy Hook.
The boat ride over was almost as adventurous as I anticipated the swim would be! The wind was pushing pretty hard from the southeast and the tide was ebbing out of the north. When the wind and tide are coming from different directions they beat against each other and cause the water to become very angry and rough. The waves began breaking over the bow of the boat. We all got beaten about during the ride to Sandy Hook. But, the sun was coming up and it was almost time to swim.
When we unloaded the kayak from the power boat, one of Henry’s foot pedals in the kayak became dislodged. It was going to be a long day and Henry needed his foot pedals – so he went ashore to fix it on land. Unfortunately, as Henry got close to shore, his kayak overturned and filled with sand. I felt terrible that Henry’s kayak had taken such a beating. Given that the swim waves go off according to the tide and the relative speed of the swimmer, I needed to start with my scheduled wave.
I jumped and swam to shore to start with my four person wave. There are actually very few swims that I do where there is a true “beach” start…but, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is one of them. I had to chuckle when the four of us waded-in to start as compared to the 350 people I start with in the Bay Swim…much less dramatic. But, then I remembered that the swim ahead of me that day would be significantly MORE dramatic than the Bay Swim. One cannot judge a swim solely by the start.
When I started, I did not realize that Henry was still ashore working on his kayak so I ended up swimming next to my friend Mo Siegel and his kayaker for a while until I caught up to my motor boat. The crew on the boat alerted me to Henry’s status and instructed me to swim next to the boat until Henry could catch-up.
So, we were off – the Verrazano Narrows Bridge far off in the distance. The water had calmed, but only just a little – which signaled to me that the tide was starting to turn. Given what I had experienced in MIMS, I was expecting a good tidal push to come quickly and for the water to lay down nicely since the wind was from the southeast. But, the tide didn’t hit as I anticipated. In fact, each time I stopped to feed, it felt as if the current was nearly slack. There had been a lot of rain New York in September (including a hurricane) and there was a lot of water entering the streams and rivers which feed into the Hudson. Since we were swimming north, I speculated it was because the tide was being offset by the excess water from upstate. The water remained relatively rough for the first 4 hours or so of the swim. Matt experienced sea sickness for the first time – despite many hours on boats watching me swim. Thankfully, as I got closer to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (a little over 4 hours into the swim), the water calmed, both Matt and I started to feel a little better, and the tide picked up – each were much needed for the psyche at that point.
Once I passed under the Verrazano Narrows, I really started feeling the tidal push. There was a VERY large tanker/barge anchored just beyond the bridge and we were approaching it so quickly I was afraid I wasn’t going to get around it. And, at that point, I finally could see Manhattan in the distance. But, the buildings in Manhattan are so tall that it makes the distance very deceptive.
I had about an hour to an hour and half where I found my “happy place.” I felt pretty good, we were experiencing a good tidal push, I was warm and taking in good feeds every 30 minutes. Henry and I were in sync. My friend Mo Siegel was relatively close by and Manhattan was slowly but surely getting closer. Sil – my boat observer – said about 5 ½ hours in that, while he wasn’t making any promises and anything could happen, he thought we were about 1 hour from the finish. Now…I am experienced enough to know that – Sil was right, anything could happen and that I shouldn’t count on finishing in an hour.
So, at six hours I did my usual feed. But, when the crew stopped me to feed at 6 ½ hours – I refused my feed. It had been an hour since Sil had mentioned the possibility of being an hour from the finish – so, I had to be close. I could see the Statue of Liberty, I could see the tip of Manhattan, the Staten Island Ferry had whizzed by a few times – surely I was close. Then, my crew stopped me again at 7 hours – and I felt like I hadn’t made any progress in the last 30 minutes…and I (quite angrily) refused my 7 hour feed. At that point, it had been an hour since I had fed and I really knew better. But, my mind was starting to let me down. I was tired and grumpy, the tidal push had absolutely died and the water was getting rougher and rougher by the minute. I began to worry that the tide was beginning to turn and that I wasn’t going to make it. I tried to get my mind back in the game – but, it was very, very difficult.
The race organizers were telling us to head towards New Jersey to avoid the ebb tide from the East River. And, I couldn’t understand why we were headed toward New Jersey instead of up along the Manhattan side of the Hudson. My crew continued to tell me to follow them, but, in my head, I didn’t understand and, frankly, I was just ready for it to be over. I began swimming for a few minutes and then stopping to see where I was. My crew was really begging me to feed – and I kept refusing. My brain had so let me down that I think I convinced myself in some crazy way that, if I didn’t feed, I would finish more quickly (silly girl). And, between the rough water and the fumes from the ferries and other boats – I didn’t feel that great and I REALLY didn’t want to “feed the fish.” I think I may have taken-in a gel at some point to stop the nagging – but, I’m certain I wasn’t happy about it!
Then, we finally turned away from New Jersey and headed toward Manhattan. The water was so rough that the swim organizers had not been able to set up the finish platform – so I was instructed to just swim past South Cove. When I could actually see South Cove and the spectators – I was elated. The end was in sight. I started singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall – and thought that I probably wouldn’t get to 75 bottles left on the wall. But, sadly 75 came and went. Then, I could make out my cousin Sally at South Cove cheering me on – and it was the best feeling of the day. I got right up to South Cove and Morty yelled from shore that I needed to swim just a little bit further north. I tried to get around Henry – and before I knew it, Morty was calling time. It was over – 7:58:31. Whew.
The boats unload a little further north at North Cove – so, unfortunately, I had to get myself into the boat right after I finished. There was one very small “step” on the boat and Sil and Matt and I tried several times to get my tired, slimy body into the boat. It was quite an adventure – and I’m sure quite a sight for those watching from South Cove.
We got to North Cove and I thanked everyone on the boat and Henry! Then, I saw Sally running up to the boat and I was so excited to see her. She was planning to crew but had a conflict once the swim was bumped to Sunday. Sally is prone to sea sickness – and given the roughness of the water that day, I was so grateful she wasn’t able to be on the boat. That would have made a hard day even harder to get through.
Before the swim, Matt and I had considered the possibility of leaving Manhattan and starting the drive home to Virginia after the swim. It was clear that was NOT going to happen – we were both completely wiped out. So, I visited with friends at the finish, passed along my congratulations and headed back to Sally’s. Perhaps the funniest moment of the day came when I walked into Sally’s apartment building in the Upper East Side and past her doorman dressed in dirty sweat pants, bulky socks and hiking shoes, swimming parka and Matt’s camo hunting cap! I was quite a sight for a doorman in the Upper East Side!
We showered and headed to dinner. I thought I wanted warm pizza – so we went to the end of the block to a great pizza place. I got some soup and started to feel VERY bad. I ate my soup and just a little pizza and had to leave to go back to Sally’s to lie down. After a little nap I felt better and was able to visit with Sally for a while – Matt fell asleep on the floor in her living room!
The next morning – I was very proud of myself. This swim was the toughest swim I have ever done – and perhaps the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. And, upon reflection, it was exactly what I needed heading into the 2012 season. I needed a good mental kick in the butt and Ederle gave it to me.
The primary lesson learned from my 2011 season – open water marathon swimming is really more mental than it is physical. While the physical is obviously important – without the right mindset, you simply aren’t going to make it. And, I’ve learned that it doesn’t always have to be a super-positive mindset – but, just the “right” mindset for the moment. Sometimes that is figuring out how to take your mind off of getting bashed in the head/face over and over by the chop. Sometimes it is giving yourself a pep-talk to get you through a very rough physical/mental patch (which I like to call my “dark places”). Sometimes it is focusing on taking in the beauty of where you are and realizing how lucky you are to be alive at this moment swimming past the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes it is just a peaceful, quiet mind. I got through Ederle – but, it was pretty much despite my mind, not because of it. If I had been able to get my mind in-gear, it would have been a much more enjoyable and productive swim. But, the great thing about such events is that I will not let myself make that mistake again – if I can help it.
I also learned that I must feed – even if I don’t want to, even if I’m annoyed, even if I’m sick to my stomach and even if it comes right back up. The last 2 hours of Ederle would have been much more enjoyable and productive with feeds and a good mindset. I had not made that mistake in the past and I will not make it again.
My job is to swim and to listen to my crew and do what they tell me…not to question it (at least not too much). My job is to enjoy the adventure – otherwise, what’s the point.
Upon reflection, I am glad Ederle happened the way it did. The lessons learned were incredibly valuable heading into 2012 with MIMS and my English Channel attempt in August. In all, I raced a little over 60 miles from June to October. And, I enjoyed nearly all of those miles and learned a lesson for nearly every mile swum. I could not have done so without the support of my dear friends and family, support crew members and volunteers, and loving husband. I have said it before and will say it again – open water marathon swimming is truly a team sport!
Swimming one stroke at a time (mostly),
This was great to read. I was there in the morning (arm in sling) signing people in and then calling folks to their boats. After everyone had pulled away from the dock, all I could do was imagine a swim from Sandy Hook to Manhattan, each varying speeds (I could watch on the computer) but more or less the same for everyone. Posts like yours bring color and emotion to the story, and are a good reminder of how much goes on for each swimmer physically and psychologically. I’m sure all 19 of you had vastly different stories to tell by the end. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m looking forward to following your 2012 season!
Thanks Caitlin! I remember you and thanks so much for volunteering (especially at the crack of dawn)! It is great to know that people actually read my posts 🙂 Hopefully I will see you in June at MIMS!! All the best, Courtney