20 Bridges Manhattan Island Marathon Swim: Drop expectations and just swim

New York, the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps, the Big Flipper (at least that’s what I like to call it). This is the city where you can dream big, where anything can happen, and anything is exactly what happened.

New York was the last leg of the Triple Crown, an open water swimming journey I’ve been on for 3 ½ nearly 4 years. It’s taken me on an amazing ride, I’ve met more people that have become close friends, best friends, swim friends, mentors, and family in these past few years than I think I’ve known my entire life. The Triple Crown began as an idea, an idea a few people said I would not be able to achieve. Well, I did and I lived my journey my own way, openly and honestly. This is the last leg of this journey, yet the next step in many more to come.

Leading up to the final swim or final whatever it is in any journey is a lot of pressure, mostly internal pressure you put on yourself to do well. I planned New York for the last swim in my Triple Crown journey because everyone (with the exception of one) said it was the easiest of the three swims. “You’ll have fun, it’s so amazing, you’ll love it.” It was a swim where the currents are so wicked fast in parts that a rubber duckie could finish the swim. It was a swim where the home stretch down the Hudson is a victory lap….. or that’s what it was supposed to be.

The 20 Bridges Manhattan Island Marathon Swim is first and foremost one of the best organized swims I’ve ever had the privilege of taking part in. My kayaker, Terry, was fantastic and one of the most knowledgeable people about his kayaked body of water I’ve ever met. My pilot, Barry, was amazing, had a great personality, and did a great job ensuring I was protected and safe throughout my swim. My observer, Andreas, was giving back to the marathon swim community by observing the very swim he is attempting in a few short weeks, something I think most marathon swimmers strive to do, volunteer and help others. Overall, New York Open Water put on a quite exceptional event!

Before the swim there was a lot of hype. You could feel the energy in the air as the 15 swimmers and their crew arrived. It was a huge international group of swimmers, some I’ve only met on swim forums and others that I’ve met at previous swims across the globe. There were a total of 9 swimmers hoping to complete the last leg of the Triple Crown that day, the most determined swimmers in the world, and the most kind as well. I was dying to meet Pat Gallant-Charette and when I saw her I introduced myself and was completely star-struck. She is one amazing woman and that’s when it hit me. I’ve worked hard to be here, I’ve earned my place for the opportunity to meet these amazing swimmers. A big smile came across my face, the sun was shining, water was flat, and for the first time I was truly swim-geeked-out excited for 20 Bridges!

Like every other swim, my crew got me greased up, sunscreen on, supplies loaded into the boat and we were ready to go. It was beautiful, the Statue of Liberty in the background, the morning sun gleaming off the skyscrapers. We were in New York City, the place I would become a Triple Crown swimmer!

Everything as usual, the course looked fast (all though I was pre-warned the currents were a little weaker than usual based on the lunar phase), the course looked flat, my family was cheering for me from the pier above, and the horn went off to start. I felt great, we rounded the bottom tip of Manhattan Island, I felt unstoppable. Some boat traffic came in and kicked up certain sections of the water as we headed up into the East River, which was expected, feeds were going well, and as I glided under the bridges you could feel the magic of the city. Everything everyone said about the swim was true, expectations were met….. until they weren’t.

Somewhere between the East River and the Harlem River things started to change. Apparently the flat water wasn’t the best sign that early on in the swim in that when comes sooner than usual it indicates a somewhat abnormal current/tidal shift. I don’t know which one it was, but it was going great, and then my legs hit a back eddy that spun me nearly 180 degrees in the blink of an eye. I hit a couple more and my kayaker moved me closer to the wall. My kayaker asked me my comfort swimming next to a wall before getting in and I said fine, but I didn’t know it meant 6 inches from the wall! My coach, Ben, got in and we both swam scraping our hands on the wall from time to time to take advantage of the current and avoid the many eddys in the middle of the river. It still felt fast though, so I was okay with it.

While Ben was in I started getting hot on my back. I was constantly thirsty even though I was drinking like crazy, the water temperature picked up (remember it is 20 degrees warmer than I’m used to swimming in) and the sun blazed in a 90+ degree cloudless sky. I could feel the heat affecting my stroke and then…. wait, hold up. Was that a…. puke….. dead bloated rat I just ran in to? Yes. As I was deciding whether to puke or not the water taste changed and visibility went from so so to less than an arm length. Ben got out after his hour of swimming and then we went into a very industrial part of the city and all I could smell and taste was creosote. It was flat out nasty, I saw a couple more bloated dead rats (thankfully not the headless one my crew saw), and as I stopped for a feed near an old factory thought man, I need my Skratch with a side of tetanus. Gross. As we continued the creosote got worse, I got hit in the face with plastic bags, a straw somehow got lodged in my suit, and all I could think of was that I’m basically ingesting this stuff. Then I hit a wall with my swimming.

This wall may have been Hell’s Gates where you have some static swimming, but it just got really hard out of nowhere, my energy tanked, and as I was cussing out my hippie doctor who refused to prescribe me antibiotics before the swim I saw to NYPD boats flying by a bridge that had 5 or 6 cop cars on the overpass, lights and sirens blaring. I thought this is it, this is where I will see a dead body. There’s a jumper, the NYPD is sending in the dive team, and I’m going to be the one to run into it. Just stay calm, be prepared, let me kayaker know so they can call it into the police, but keep swimming because you have to finish this. A dead person can’t ruin my swim. Luckily that didn’t happen, but I watch way too much Law and Order not to expect it.

All I was thinking is just get through this and once you make it to the Hudson you’ll be home free. Rounding out the northern tip of Manhattan, the water still tasted nasty, my crew saw some Harlem silverfish (you can ask them what that means), not really any jellyfish like I heard there would be (some, but not like Alki), but the scenery was beautiful and forested….. until I saw some dude taking a crap in the park on a rock. Great, now I need a fecal disease vaccination too.

On my next feed, my kayaker pointed to where the Hudson began and I could see it in my sights. I’m almost on my victory lap home! As I went under the Henry Hudson Bridge, I estimated about 3-4 hours to go by the sun’s position in the sky and smiled thinking this was it, I’m almost a Triple Crown swimmer. I had been swimming in crud for so long, against something going on under the water’s surface that I was ready for what everyone said would be the best part of the swim. My expectations were high and then the headwind started, an expectation I wasn’t prepared for, waves and some whitecaps as far as the eye could see, and my heart sank.

Something had been going on under that water all day. I don’t know what it was, but something was going on. Paul got in to swim as it was apparent to my crew I was miserable and a shake of a stick away from being defeated. I didn’t talk to my kayaker during a feed or my crew for the first time in any of my swims. It was silent other than the wind whipping by my face. Paul kept me company, but it was miserable out there, completely unenjoyable, and he was the only thing that kept my spirits up as we headed towards the George Washington Bridge. Yeah we ran into something by the sewage plant, but we did it together. I had somebody there until it was time for him to get out.

For the next however many hours I almost cried in my goggles. The pain in my shoulder was severe so I had to sacrifice speed just go manage getting rocked by the waves and avoid having my shoulder fall off. The waves were coming from every direction, no pattern, no rhythm, not cyclical at all. Passing boats kicked up more waves, I thought at one point I’d get a concussion from the waves slamming the side of my head, and my spirits sank further and further. I wanted to quit, to get out, but didn’t want THIS to be the swim that broke me. I stopped, told my kayaker I just needed a minute for a mental reset, and while it worked it didn’t at the same time.

I was angry with the water for the first time of my life and every time I asked for help, every time I asked for a little break, it got worse. I was concerned I wasn’t making forward progress, so I started sighting as a breathed to the side to track landmarks. I was making forward progress and I started to think about my family and all the people that have supported me. Someone said to me once that “even if it’s slow progress, it’s still forward progress” and that was my mantra the rest of the swim. I thought about Scott who in Catalina during one of my low moments told me to make it to the next feed and then we’d make a decision. I started doing the math and thought okay 4 more feeds and then it’s 3. If I make it to 3, then I only have 2 left, which is so close to 1. Okay, that’s fine then, I’ve got this.

I was drowned by the waves periodically, pushing me under the water so far that I used them as a break to stay under and not swim just for a few seconds while I pulled my way back up to the surface. Each passing moment I wondered if England at 16hrs 52 minutes was tougher than this or if puking for 11 of 12 hours of Catalina was tougher. Which one would I do again? That’s when it hit me that I made the mistake of setting expectations for a swim instead of just swimming. Maybe the reason it felt so much more miserable than England was because I had expectations of what it is supposed to be like 99% of the time. Turns out this was an abnormal year with an unseasonably strong headwind and everyone was struggling. I kept seeing someone in front of me and said I can’t be the one to quit, if they’re in, I’m in and if they’re struggling, I’m going to struggle too. I’m moving forward, it’s just slow, but I’m still moving.

A really rough, tough, hot 9 hrs 24min later, I finished at Pier A right back at the same place I started. I had visions of it being a glorious finish and it wasn’t. All I wanted to do was get back to the boat so I could get off of it and puke in the bathroom, which I promptly did upon exit. The only part I enjoyed about the swim was that my entire family was there, my mom and her side of the family and my dad’s side of the family drove all the way from Michigan just to see me finish. Seeing them, feeling their love and support was the highlight of my swim aside from getting out of the water.

Once I got back to the pier I wanted to stick around and chat with everyone, but just felt so sick, I couldn’t. It was a struggle to wait for the taxi to the hotel. I was hot, exhausted, ornery, tired and all I wanted to do was see my family at the post-swim pizza party, eat, drink wine, and sleep. Well, that didn’t happen either. My stomach felt too awful to eat or drink anything, so I just hung out with the family, my crew, my kayaker, and my mom, caught up, and shared stories.

It was rough, it wasn’t the finish I had hoped it would be, but it was my finish and what I am proud of is how hard I worked to get the Triple Crown. None of my swims were easy, but if it were easy then everyone would do it. A few of my biggest reflections of this whole process and things I thought a lot about during the swim were expectations (which I royally messed up on this swim) as well as training, coaching and preparation.

Ben Bigglestone, my coach and friend, has been there on every single one of my Triple Crown swims. I know a lot of people that say you don’t need a coach, you can get a personal trainer if you need to and swim on your own, but what I’ve learned through this process is that there’s a huge difference between someone who trains you and a coach. Anyone can physically train you or write workouts to be stronger, to be faster, to get results. A coach is different. A coach also trains your heart, trains your mind, strengthens your connection with the sport, and builds you mentally. Ben is not a trainer, he did not train me for the Triple Crown, he coached me.

Marathon swimming can be a very isolating sport and it’s because of Ben and how he prepared my heart and mind to be strong that we achieved the Triple Crown together. Our relationship has grown as a result of this swims and I can only hope that I have taught him a small fraction about this sport I love compared with the infinite amount of knowledge I’ve gained from him. I will forever be grateful for his friendship and that he, as my coach, the best coach, never gave up supporting me and this crazy idea of mine from day one.

Lastly, going back to expectations, this journey taught me that without support of friends and family, expectations of swims will never be met. I’ve had some amazing experiences in my swimming career, but without family and friends to share them with, the expectation of achievement was not met. Alternatively, I’ve had some really rough swims with some really challenging conditions like New York, but because of my parents, my sister, my Granny, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, VO2 teammates, NAS friends, and new swim friends, expectations were met regardless of how the course was technically swam. Everyone’s constant love and support is what made this swim great.

As of June 30, 2018, I am a Triple Crown swimmer. Let us all dare to dream, lose sight of expectations, and live our dreams on our own agenda. Let day 1 of the next swim-venture begin.

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For more photos see my 20 Bridges Manhattan Island Marathon Swim photo album.

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