Sunday, May 29, 2011

I swam in the Hudson River

Never Done: I swam in the Hudson River

I wanted to get in the Hudson River well before the triathlon so I could get a feel for what it is like to swim in the river before I do the triathlon in August. I knew of course that it would be a lot colder now than then, but I wanted to feel the chop, and the pull of the tide, and most of all -- what it is like to swim in a wetsuit -- so I signed up for three open water swims this summer -- the Great Hudson River Swim in the Hudson, a The Pancake spring triathlon in Raritan Bay, and the Brooklyn Bridge Swim in the East River.

The Great Hudson River Swim is a "beginner-friendly" (as per the NYC Swim website) 1.6 miles in the Hudson, from Christopher Street Pier 45 to Battery Park City. I was was worried about it being cold, and worried about what it would be like to swim in a wetsuit, and quite nervous about the start, when I'd been told people would jump in and swim on top of me -- but I was pretty confident about the swim itself. I've swim long distances before, I love the open water, I am in great shape right now -- and doing especially well in the pool.

Still, as I approached the sign-in area at 6 AM, I had knots in my stomach. I wasn't sure why I was nervous, because this wasn't a race for me; it was an experiment. My nerves calmed down as I signed in (first person to get my number: 208) penned in Sharpie onto the backs of my hands. They calmed down more as I waited an hour and a half for the swim to start, put on my wetsuit, and joked and talked with other swimmers.

Finally it was time to jump off the Pier, into the Hudson. Everyone says that the hardest part is the beginning, when other people are jumping in on top of you, so I made a deal with the person in front of me and behind me -- told them I wouldn't jump on them, and they shouldn't jump on me. It loosened things up a little bit, and made me feel better to have that level of human connection about the scariest part.

I was in the second wave of swimmers, so I got to see other people jump in and gather together to wait for the start. When my turn came, it felt otherworldly. I was on the edge of the dock, I was told to jump in, I hesitated for maybe 1 second and the man running the show told me to hurry, and so I jumped -- over my own natural tendency to take a little more time -- but I jumped. My goggles stayed on, and the water was chilly but not unbearably cold. (I had a sleeveless wetsuit, and that was just fine.) We waited a good 10 minutes in the water before our heat took off, and during that time I talked with the other swimmers, and waved to Josh who was supporting me from the pier, and thought cockily to myself, Well the hardest part is over. Nobody jumped on top of me, and this water is not too cold.

Finally we heard the countdown and the horn, and we were off -- and it immediately got hard. I set out nice and slow, and within a minute someone was swimming on top of me. I just pulled aside to let them pass, and started again -- and again, someone started to flail on top of me. It felt strange -- there was plenty of room for us to spread out, so I wasn't sure why they were on me, unless they couldn't see or they were panicking or they were assholes. (Probably it was at least one of those reasons.)

Meanwhile, I already hated the wetsuit. It was tight around my neck, and I was having a tough time breathing. Not from exertion -- I had barely exerted yet -- but I think from the compression of the wetsuit combined with my already-compromised lungs combined with the water temperature combined with my reaction to other people swimming on top of me. I couldn't take a significant breath, and I just wanted to rip the wetsuit off from around my neck and chest. I slowed down and let everyone pass, and just tested out what it was like to swim without anyone around. The strokes felt fine, but I could not breathe right. I didn't feel panicked at all -- I just knew that without breath, I wouldn't be able to swim a mile and a half. With a sinking feeling (metaphorically, not literally) I swam over to one of the rescue kayaks and told the guy in it that I shouldn't do this. I felt really disappointed, and also realistic.

He pointed me to the big rescue motor boat, and asked if I needed help getting there. I didn't -- I could swim over there just fine. (I mean, as fine as you are when you can't get a breath and you want to rip off your wetsuit, but really actually fine.) On my way over, it occurred to me that I could take off my wetsuit and get back in the water -- that this didn't actually mean the swim was over for me. So when I got up on the boat, I took off my suit, and asked the rescue captain if that was fine. He wasn't actually a race official, so didn't really care one way or the other. So I did it -- I jumped back into the Hudson without a wetsuit, and set back out on the course. Again, the water temp was fine on my limbs, and it felt great to be in my element without the wetsuit on, but I still couldn't get a breath. (In the end, all day and night passed without my being able to take a significant breath, so the fact that I couldn't get it in 62 degree water isn't a surprise.)

I went through the same process of disappointment and reality all over again, swam back to the rescue boat, and climbed back up. My Great Hudson River Swim was over. Lung fail.

But it turned out it wasn't over. Because I stayed on that boat -- with the two captains and the three other swimmers who got picked up -- for another 45 minutes. I tried to talk with the other swimmers, but they were pretty sulky. One of them had a cut hand, one of them was "off his game" and the other one wouldn't even talk. A sorry bunch, feeling sorry for themselves, while meanwhile, I felt surprisingly emotionally OK. I watched the swimmers in the water, and the rescue kayak culture -- trying to learn as much as I could from my unexpected vantage point. I felt a lot of appreciation for the boating support team. I watched the slow swimmers and noticed how good they were at taking their time, and also that they actually had support kayaks boating next to them. Had I understood that I would have had that level of close support, I would have stayed in the water, and while that increased my disappointment that I had gotten out, it also felt like it was still the point of doing the swim in the first place -- to experiment and to to learn.

In other words, I decided to practice Humility: Seek wisdom from others, and not to sink into humiliation.

Until later, once I was on land again, and I started to feel my confidence tank. If you've been around me over the past months, you've heard me sound pretty cocky about the swim -- saying again and again that the swimming part of the triathlon is no problem. I'm a great swimmer. My weak sports will be biking and running. Well damn, if I can't breathe in a wetsuit, it doesn't matter how good a swimmer I am.

I told Josh about all of this on the way home, and we discussed the etymological roots of the words humility and humiliation because I wanted to know how closely related the two things are. We weren't actually sure about the derivation, but Josh gave me a wonderful definition of what he felt I'd been through: Humiliation is being dragged kicking and screaming into a state of humility.

Later in day, he went out while I was napping, and came home with a beautiful spray freesias, and a redefinition of my entire race day. He said there were 6 waves of races: 5 waves of swimmers, and one boating wave. And then he said that I placed first in the boating wave, because I practiced so much equanimity and patience and humility.

Now I just have to keep practicing all three, as I strategize my way forward. Can I swim without a wetsuit? If I do that, do I just swim in my tri shorts and top? What about wearing a neoprine vest? Or maybe a one-piece trisuit? And maybe more importantly than all that, what is really going on with my lungs? Why does it feel like the rest of my body is getting stronger and stronger, while I can't get a full breath? I think it's time to practice diligence, and take my compromised lungs to the doctor. Onward.


  1. Jenny, thank you so much for sharing this journey. I am interested in every detail. Looking forward to hearing what is going on with those lungs too.

  2. I also want to thank you for sharing. You give us all so much to think about.

  3. Thanks, both of you. I find the big things -- the things I've anticipated doing for some time -- to be the hardest to write about. At the same time, I also find that when things go badly -- when there's an actual challenge for me -- it's easier for me to write about them than when things go well.