One of my fantasy bucket list swims is a 120 mile journey down the Hudson River, divided into seven swims between 13 and 20 miles. Due to my grad school graduation this weekend, I could not tackle the full odyssey. Instead I came up to charming Garrison, NY to swim Stage 4 or the seven stage challenge. Stage 4 is a 15 mile swim from Newburgh Beacon Bridge to Bear Mountain Bridge through gorgeous countryside and past West Point and a castle.
My mom and I took the train up from NYC on Monday night and stayed at an adorable inn that reminded me of our airbnb in Dover. On Tuesday, we met the other swimmers at the train station and went one more stop to where the swim would start. It was crazy to see the river the entire train journey and know that I would swim it back! In typical New York Open Water fashion, the schedule was impeccably timed and we had plenty of time to get ready and I got to meet my kayaker, Lizzy.
I said goodbye to my mom and all the swimmers boarded a really cool solar powered boat, the Solaris, to head to the bridge for the start. When we got to the bridge, Rondi asked one of the kayakers if he thought the tide was slack enough to start and from the boat it looked like he was using a fancy red, stringy apparatus to measure the river flow, but it turned out he was just using his hand while eating red licorice. Rondi said “3 minutes” and I thought she meant until jump time, but soon we were all being shepherded into the water. I stepped over the edge of the boat and jumped into the yellowish water before I could second guess myself. The water felt cool but much warmer than Lake Michigan. Before I had much time to think about the water temperature or anything else, Rondi began counting down for the start.
When they said go, I put my face in the water, swam under the bridge, and began to follow Lizzy down the river. The water was choppier than ideal and even though the wind was favorable, I struggled to find my rhythm. At this point, all the swimmers were still relatively close together and I had a brief mental struggle between wanting to stay focused on myself and finding someone to pace/race with. I decided not to stress about racing someone else at this early stage in the race.
Because Stage 4 was famous for beautiful scenery, I did not want to miss any of it but the strong winds (though favorable) were causing me to feel like I was swimming very low in the water. Not struggling to get air or anything but almost tipped more downward than I wanted to be. This made it more difficult to see the scenery while warming up to the swim. The half hour before the first feed is always the slowest but the fast water and interesting surroundings made it pass quickly and before I knew it, Lizzy was signalling for the first feed.
During the first half of this swim, I was really swimming feed to feed and my shoulders did not feel great and I had no rhythm. At some point, I just decided that it didn’t matter how I was feeling and I needed to remember to have fun. Around that time, I must have passed the castle but I was never certain that I saw it.
The water got increasingly choppy and I also felt discouraged because I could see many kayaks ahead of me and thought I must be lagging behind everyone. I found out later that there were several “floater” kayakers who did not have dedicated swimmers and were instead looking out for everyone’s safety and they were messing up my count.
Around the 2 hour mark, West Point loomed in front of us and I was excited to finally see one of the Stage 4 landmarks, but annoyed at myself that I did not look at a map to see how much I would have left. After we rounded the corner at West Point, the water got markedly calmer and I finally started to find my rhythm. At the next feed, I joked to Lizzy that it *only* took 2 hours for me to start to feel good.
Now I was having fun and playing with my tempo and speed and finally seeing some of the countryside. The next couple of feeds passed quickly and there were more swimmers around us now. I still had no sense of how long the swim would take and when I stopped for the 3 and a half hour feed, I was very surprised when Lizzy told me I only had 2 miles left. She told me to try to catch the two swimmers ahead of me and that if I could finish in under an hour, I had a shot at being under the record time.
I could see the bridge through a gap in the hills and for once was glad that I had paid attention to the briefing, where we had been told that we would be able to see the bridge through a gap long before we were actually there. I picked up my speed and was able to eventually catch one of the swimmers I was chasing. I was sighting forward too often and the bridge just was not getting any closer. I could see that there was still one swimmer ahead of me, but I was already swimming at the fastest tempo that I could maintain.
I could tell that about 30 minutes had passed and I was glad that Lizzy seemed to have decided to skip my last feed. I didn’t really need it and appreciated not having to stop. Finally the bridge seemed to get closer all at once and I put on another burst of speed. Lizzy and I crossed into the bridge’s shadow and I continued to sprint to make sure I was all the way through the finish. Lizzy signalled to me that I could stop and it felt weird to no longer be swimming. I was surprised to feel sad that the swim was over, as I had just started enjoying myself. The safety boat, Agent Orange, was very close by and someone onboard shouted that I finished in second and was under the previous record time. I was disappointed in the second place finish but happy with the time.
Before I had more than a few seconds to enjoy floating in the river, the jetski came over to take me back to Solaris. I climbed on board and got to watch the rest of the swimmers finish the swim.
This swim was the perfect training opportunity for me at this point in the season. It was certainly a confidence builder to know that I could grind out a 4 hour swim in racing conditions without having completed a similar training swim. The best part about 8 Bridges was undoubtedly the camaraderie. Both heading to the bridge and heading back to the dock after the swim, all of the swimmers were together on the boat and had time to chat and get to know each other. I met swimmers from around the country and really enjoyed this social aspect of what can be a very solitary sport.