A Tale Of 20 Bridges!

On July 13th, 2019 I was lucky enough to be selected to participate in the 20 Bridges Swim which is a 28.5 mile circumnavigation of Manhattan. Here we go:

Thursday

I arrived in New York City the Thursday before the swim with my parents. My dad is not only my crew chief but he is also the expert navigator so he drove us all! My sister and brother-in-law live in NYC, so we met up with them after checking into our hotel near Battery Pier. It was raining, so instantly I was nervous. I was thinking about how gross the water might be if the rain continued with the sewage that runs into the rivers. We decided to make the 4 mile walk from the hotel to my sister’s office but nothing in NYC is ever easy. We started walking toward times Square but realized we wouldn’t make it fast enough so after about 2 miles we grabbed a cab thinking it would be better. Well naturally traffic was a nightmare but at least we weren’t in the rain, right? Wrong! After driving for about 10 minutes and going a mile the cab driver kicks us out of the cab back into the rain because he needed to end his shift so he didn’t get fined for going overtime.

Luckily the rain stopped and we met my sister at her apartment. She was nice enough to get some fresh fruit to serve before dinner and in NYC it probably cost her $20 for the watermelon she had. I can’t eat just one piece of watermelon and I figured I was carbo loading anyway so I made the brilliant decision to eat about 1/2 of the entire watermelon by myself. I finally told her to take it away! After catching up we went for a nice Italian dinner. I have heard that the sleep two nights before the swim is the most important so we ate quick and I made sure to get to sleep nice and early. I think it may have been around 9:30pm.

Friday

On Friday I didn’t set any alarms and woke up nice and late around 6:45 am. My parents and I got some breakfast at the hotel and it was great. I made sure to continue my carbo load with Belgian waffles and croissants. Obviously with the swim a day away, I had no intention of sight seeing and since I had the nerves going I was not the nicest person to be around. After breakfast my parents and I walked over to the North Cove Marina so that we knew exactly where to go on Saturday morning. This relieved some of the stress because I knew exactly when we would need to leave the hotel to be at the meeting point the next day by 5:45 am.

After this walk I went back to the hotel to continue to eat a bucket of pasta while my parents went sight seeing with my sister and brother-in-law. My wife took the train in that morning and met them at The Vessel. While they were out having fun, I enjoyed a nice yoga session in my hotel room to stretch followed by more pasta and then a nap. John, my kayaker, also called and gave me a nice pep talk and I was also talking with my coach Dan Simonelli who was doing the same. I did leave the hotel once to grab some lunch at a diner next to the hotel.

I came back to the hotel after lunch and enjoyed one more quick nap and then the moment came to prepare the feeds for the swim. I had been putting this off all day but I could not procrastinate any longer. Luckily my dad and wife were back by then and since they were my support crew on the boat the next day, I decided to delegate making my feeds to them while I supervised. I figured they would need to know how to make it on the boat the next day so it was good practice. Once this was done and everything was packed and ready to go we went for an early dinner. I like to stop eating 12 hours before I need to leave so I only had some toast, jam and tea for dinner. We were in bed by 8:30 pm and probably asleep 15 minutes later.

Saturday-Time To Swim!

July 13th started with a 4:30 am wake up call. After 7 months of sacrificing all my free time to training, the day was finally here. I woke up nervous about the swim but also excited. I couldn’t wait to just get started because I knew the moment the swim official said “GO!” all of my nerves would melt away and it would just be me and my thoughts for the next 7 to 8 hours. So I jumped out of bed 5 minutes before the alarm and did my business then woke up my wife to get ready. My wife, my dad and I were out the hotel door by 5:30am and met all the other swimmers and swim organizers at the North Cove Marina at 5:45am.

After getting settled in and using the bathroom about 40 times, I met some of the other swimmers and then the swim briefing started. The swim organizers gave us some basic info and safety precautions and then we took a group photo of all the swimmers for the day. At this point we broke up into our crews and waited for our support boats to pick us up and bring us to the starting point at Mill Rock to meet up with our kayakers. I was in the 2nd to last wave going off at 8:55am so I had a little time to spare but the swimmers in the first wave at 8 am had to book it to the swim start. While waiting for my boat to arrive I met my observer Louis and we went over some of the rules and just chatted a bit. Louis flew in from Colorado and volunteered to watch me swim. Talk about a great guy! After sitting around for a while, one of the swim organizers called my name since my boat was pulling into the marina.

My support boat was awesome. We were on the Reel Passion and our captain was Captain Joe. Joe was a man from Italy who quit his job to fish and do fishing charters for a living. He was great and he explained all the people he has been an escort for and how much he likes when his swimmers have the fastest time of the day. I promised him I would do my best but no guarantees. Boy am I glad I didn’t make him any promises because he would have been let down. Once my dad, my wife, my observer and I were on board, Captain Joe took off for Mill Rock. All I remember from this ride was thinking how long it took to ride in a boat going fast to get to Mill Rock and thinking how the heck am I going to swim this.

We arrived to Mill Rock around 8:10 am and there was a lot to do before my wave went off at 8:55am. At this point I synced up with my support kayaker, John, who would become my best friend for the next 8 hours. He would feed me, motivate me, guide me, put me in the fastest possible currents and protect me from boats, ferries, helicopters and Leptosporosis! John has done this swim before and he is the father of one of my friends that I swam with in college. It was important to me to try to get a kayaker who was also a swimmer because they understand the importance of feeds and know when to motivate and when to back off. Once we met up, John and I went over the feed plan and our signals and I passed off about 4 hours worth of feeds. Then it was time to get greased up! Everyone on board was excited for this. My dad and wife were excited to get the grease all over them and Captain Joe was pumped to have this indestructible substance all over his boat. Before I knew it my wave was starting in 5 minutes so I jumped in and started to swim to the starting point.

About a minute before the countdown I turned to the other swimmers in my wave and asked if it was too late to turn back. They didn’t find it as amusing as I did. It is tough being the clown of your swim wave! About 30 seconds later, I hear the count down for our wave start begin and John asked me if I was having a Why The Heck Am I Here moment…I was! “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Go!” and I was off!

The Harlem River

We started at Mill Rock, East 96th Street. John had said we were going to be swimming into the current for a bit and then it would turn. I knew I needed to be out of the Harlem River and into the Hudson between 11:00 am and 11:20 am to hit the current and whip around and into the Hudson. Knowing this and knowing I had to head into the current for a while, I probably took the swim out a bit harder than I normally would. Not probably, I totally did. My normal stroke rate is 60-62 strokes per minute and I was averaging 75 strokes per minute. The Harlem River was relatively uneventful or so I thought. I did my normal feed plan. On the odd half hours I drink 200 calories of carbo-pro and on the even half hours I drink 250 calories of GU Roctane. Then I use a GU packed on demand if I feel like I need a little pick me up. At hour 3 to 4 I eat a Cliff Bar and 4 Advil.

Everything was going to plan about 90 minutes in to the swim. I had 3 feeds under my belt and I was in a nice rhythm. At this point I ran into 2 issues which would punish me for the next 1 to 2 hours. The first issue was I got caught up in other people’s swims. This swim is not organized as a race at all but once you put two people next to one another, they are racing! I knew this was a potential issue and since I can be competitive I did my very best to only worry about myself. Needless to say this didn’t happen and I was constantly looking to see where I was in relation to the other swimmers. I fell into the trap of focusing on passing people or keeping pace with swimmers passing and this really made me push much harder than I wanted to in the first portion of the swim. I train to negative split all my long swims and at this point that didn’t seem like it was going to happen. That was the first issue. It was totally preventable and 100% my fault for not sticking to my swim. The second issue was dehydration. The conditions were great by most people’s standards but it was hot compared to what I was used to training in. The air was 90 F and sunny but that was less of the issue. The bigger issue is the water was around 77 F. I train on the North Shore in Massachusetts and I have been training mainly in 58-60 degree water most of the year. So I was very hot and most likely sweating and losing fluids at a much faster rate than I normally train at. The combination of these two issues lead my upper body to start cramping and I went from feeling pretty good about the day to not sure if I could finish.

Columbia Rock With My Kayaker John

Columbia Rock With My Kayaker John

So when you are 1 hour into a 7 to 8 hour swim and you are already thinking about how you are going to finish you know things are bad. At this time I remembered something my coach, Dan Simonelli, told me right before my Catalina Channel swim last summer. He told me that just because you feel bad now doesn’t mean you will feel bad in 30 minutes so push through and you will come out the other side. That became my mantra for the day and it was a huge help since the day really didn’t go as planned. The other massive change I made was changing my feed schedule. At this point I was feeding every 30 minutes but at that rate I believe I was losing fluids too fast and I need more frequent feeds. I told John that I was changing my feeds. Instead of going every 30 minutes I decided to go every 20 minutes for the next hour and see how things went. I also added in a GU gel every feed as well since I already felt depleted. I followed this plan for the next hour and it started to work. I was feeling better and the cramping in my forearms, biceps and chest started to go away.

While rounding the tip of the Harlem just before entering the Hudson, apparently there is a sewage treatment plant and let me tell you, you could smell it. It was a rancid smell that made my nostrils burn and made me want to puke. Talk about motivation to pick up the pace! Just like that I was out of the Harlem and into the Hudson right on time too!

The Hudson River

1 River down and 2 to go! The current in the Hudson was ripping but I couldn’t tell at all. When I first entered the Hudson, it didn’t even feel like it was NYC. We were surrounded by trees on both sides and no buildings were in sight. It was definitely a different perspective of NYC. The feeds every 20 minutes seemed to be working great so I didn’t want to mess with it. I was still in “race” mode but as we all spread out more and I was focused on just making it to the next feed, this started to fade more and more. When we got to the GW Bridge, I tried to enjoy it and flipped over and did backstroke at the recommendation of John. We were in the Hudson for about 3 to 3 and a half hours and even though the current was moving fast, it was tougher than I thought. The way the first few hours went, I knew today was just not my day. I was confident I would finish but something just felt off and once this thought got in my head I couldn’t shake it. It became a vicious downward spiral that I thought I would never get out of. Luckily my support crew on the boat and John in the kayak really worked hard to keep my spirits up and to keep me going. This made the swim more enjoyable and once I made it half way down the Hudson my attitude started to shift. I still knew I was in for a long last 3-4 hours but at least it wasn’t nearly as bad as the first 3 hours. The swim started to get a little more fun once the sky scrapers were in sight!

About an hour into the Hudson, John decided to cut me off from one of my feeds. He had some concerns that my heart might explode because the feed I was taking in a bit more frequently was caffeinated. I think after having the equivalent of like 6 cups of coffee in an hour he got a little concerned. He definitely had my best interest in mind and we only met a few hours prior. I was happy he made this decision. The swim was hard enough as it was, I didn’t need to add exploded heart to the obstacles I was dealing with. So for the next few hours we went with the non-caffeinated feeds every 20 minutes. As the day went on I learned the importance of being flexible given the conditions and making changes on the fly. Not only was this important but I realized how much trust I had in my crew, as they were making decisions based on my progress and I never had a doubt that their intentions were to make sure I had a good swim. This came from having the same crew on other big swims and training swims and from several conversations over the phone with the crew I couldn’t train with to make sure that my expectations were clear. I couldn’t have asked for a better support crew!

It was really interesting to see the landscape change from all trees, to spread out apartment buildings and finally to sky scrapers on top of one another. As we got closer to Battery Pier it was pretty cool to see The Vessel, The Intrepid, Chelsea Pier, and the Frying Pan. It was at this point that John started to yell to me that my mom, sister and brother-in-law were running from pier to pier to watch the swim. He was pointing to them with his oar. I think at one point I actually saw them but who knows because I was in the zone and didn’t want to break it. I knew they were all there and that was enough to help keep me going. While I was swimming john really helped to keep my spirits high when I started to struggle and my wife was posting a bunch of live videos to Facebook so my friends and family at home could be part of the journey.

While on the Hudson, as I went under each bridge I kept noticing the same jet ski waiting under each bridge. Since I was really only focused on myself and finishing the swim, I was convinced he was waiting for me thinking I was going to be a safety issue. This definitely got in my head and I felt like I was the last swimmer on the course. I later realized that this wasn’t the case but it sure felt like it! The Hudson was choppy for sure. At points we were seeing 3 to 5 foot swells and the way they hit me made keeping a rhythm hard. I would get into a decent rhythm and then I would get slapped in the face with a wave and would have to start over. I was feeling better than I did the first half of the swim but I was still focused on just making it to the next feed and hoping that just because I felt bad now hopefully at the next feed I wouldn’t. The waves were a welcome distraction because I was so frustrated with the chop that by the time I realized it I was already at Pier A and coming up on Battery Pier to make the turn into the East River. John did a fantastic job kayaking because I was later told that at this point there was a lot going on with other boats, the conditions and the large ferries but he was so great that I didn’t notice a single thing. I thought everything was smooth sailing!

On the way down from the Intrepid to Battery Pier, I started to pick off some of the swimmers from earlier waves and I was feeling better than before but by no means did I feel good. I felt like I was finally making good progress despite the choppy conditions and then all of that came to a halt…literally. Once we got the ferry terminal, one of the Staten Island Ferries was coming into port. The swim organizers made me sit and tread water for 5 minutes until the ship had docked. This was the right call for sure for safety reasons but I was frustrated because all those people I caught were catching back up and I found out that at the end of the swim the swim organizers don’t take the 5 minutes off of my time even though I made no forward progress and would have otherwise been swimming. I get it though. When you swim Catalina or the English Channel, if they put you in a hold for a tanker they don’t take the time off. Let me be a brat for a moment, I’ll get over it….Okay, over it! I used this time to enjoy the sights and to take a pee break. From here I could interact with some of the people on the pier, I could see the Statue of Liberty and the cool architecture of the back of the ferry terminal. It was also awesome to see the big orange Staten Island Ferry from in the water but I also hate the Staten Island Ferry for making me stop. It is now added to my list of enemies for life! As soon as the swim organizer cleared me to go, I was off, working to grow the distance between myself and the people I had already passed. Within a few minutes, we were in the East River.

The East River

2 rivers down and 1 to go! The East River was gross! As I came around the ferry terminal and into the East River, my nose and lips began to burn. All I could smell and taste was the gas and fumes coming from all the boats in the area. Between the water temperature being so warm and this gross gas taste and smell, I could not wait to be done. Also there was a whole watermelon floating down the river. Captain Joe even made it a point to pull out a net and capture the wild watermelon! I guess once a fisherman, always a fisherman.

Finding the fast water was more important in this river than the other 2. John was fantastic at finding the fastest water and putting me right in it. At this point we were flying up the East River toward Mill Rock. I remember there may have been an altercation between my support boat and one of the ferries. I’m not sure what happened but I think the NYC ferry was about to launch and I was right there in the water and they may not have seen John and I. Captain Joe took matters into his own hands and basically put his boat in the way of the ferry before it launched so that I didn’t end up turning into chum after getting sucked up in the propellers. After we got through this sketchy situation the rest of the swim went swimmingly (haha see what I did there!).

As I approached the last 2 bridges, I knew the end was in sight. The pain and discomfort were starting to dissipate. I knew I would be done soon. Over the next hour to hour and twenty minutes, I followed John all over the river as he was putting me in fast water. In this river, I was able to pass 3 or 4 more swimmers from earlier waves. After about an hour to an hour and 20 minutes, John signaled to me that it was time to feed. During the feed he proclaimed that this was the last feed and we were about to go under the 20th Bridge, the Queensboro Bridge. I couldn’t be more excited. In less than 20 minutes I would be done and could stop swimming! I also couldn’t believe it because 7 hours prior as we drove up the East River on the boat, I just thought how long the distance seems and that I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. As we passed under the Queensboro Bridge, I flipped onto my back and did some backstroke to soak in the last bridge. It wasn’t much to look at from underneath but it certainly was a view most people don’t get. Once I passed the bridge, it was time to give the swim everything I had left until I got to Mill Rock.

I started to pick up my stroke rate which was a steady 65 spm for most of the swim and really started to kick. It didn’t matter how much it hurt because I knew it would all be over in less than 15 minutes. With every stroke, Mill Rock got closer. I could hear my crew yelling and cheering the entire time. John was getting more and more excited and all of this energy kept me pushing hard. I remember breathing to the right and seeing the small light house that we passed earlier that day which was maybe 100 to 200 yards from Mill Rock. I knew I was so close. I kept pushing with everything I had and feeding off the energy of my support crew. Within a another minute of swimming, I heard John yelling and there was an orange boat right in front of me with Rondi from NY Open Water on it congratulating me and giving me my cumulative time of 7 hours 25 minutes (I like to subtract 5 minutes because that is how long I waited for the Staten Island Ferry so 7hours 20 minutes but officially 7hours 25 minutes. I guess I lied earlier, I wasn’t over it…Okay, now I’m over it!). I was done! The feeling of accomplishment washed over me and it reminded me why I choose to do this. During all the months of training and sacrifice prior to the swim and even the day of the swim, it is easy to lose sight of why I do this but the moment it is over the feeling is overwhelming. I thanked Rondi and swam over to John and gave him what I thought was a big high five but was more of an excited hand shake and thanked him for everything! A jet ski came up beside me and told me to get on the back, so I grabbed on and went for a nice little ride over to my crew on the boat. I looked like a fat bloated albino seal riding over. My dad and wife both helped me get in the boat and told me what an awesome job I did and how proud they were. They got me settled in for the ride back to the North Cove Marina and then it was time to celebrate!

Once we got back to the North Cove Marina, my mom, sister and brother-in-law were all waiting on the pier for me and the crew to unpack and congratulate us. This was a swim that I really didn’t look forward to that much. It was more of a swim that I needed to do to work toward my Triple Crown. When the swim was over I I couldn’t be happier that I got accepted and was given the opportunity to swim. I was given a very unique perspective of Manhattan and it was so special to have my wife and dad as crew and to have my mom, sister and brother-in-law all running around NYC like crazy people just to catch a glimpse of me swimming from a a far. Then having the added connection of having John be my kayaker was a bonus. I truly owe a lot of getting through this day to him and my support crew. They kept me going when I was struggling and made sure my heart didn’t explode. What more could a swimmer want?

I have said this before but marathon swimming is anything but a solo sport. The love and support that I felt from my family on land, on the boat and even those watching on Facebook at home was an extremely special feeling. When I am swimming I don’t really think much about that but when I am done it is just a nice reminder that I am not alone in anything I decide to do. I am lucky to have such a strong support system. Although I may go through ups and downs and complain about swimming sometimes, I know how lucky I am to be healthy enough to take on these challenges and to be able to afford them. I have no right to complain because there are people who truly suffer through some of life’s difficulties yet they persevere. I try to remember this when I start getting negative. I am extremely fortunate for this and for my massive support system. This gives me the motivation and courage to take on goals that require sacrifice and are not guaranteed to happen successfully. I couldn’t be more thankful to my family who were there and all my friends and family supporting me from home. Thank you all so much and thanks for reading this very verbose account of my swim!

TL:DR It was a long day with ups and downs but I’m thankful for my amazing family, support crew and kayaker who all kept me going. The biggest take away I learned was just because you feel bad now doesn’t mean you will feel the same at the next feed so just keep swimming!

Always remember…Successful swims are built with Endurance!

Craig LewinComment