Thursday, 18 June 2015

Looking back at the 8 Bridges....

I have just returned from one of the most intense, consuming, exhilarating, brutal weeks of swimming I have ever experienced. The 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim is an extraordinary gem in the marathon swimming canon - the longest marathon swim on the roster, passing 120 miles down the Hudson River from the Rip Van Winkle bridge in Catskill to the Verrazano Narrows bridge at the mouth of New York Harbour, swimming from bridge to bridge over 7 one-day stages.

At the end of the 2015 event, Lori King had successfully become the 4th person to complete all 7 stages in a single iteration, and I am humbled to be listed among a further 5 who have tackled every stage consecutively, but with one or more incomplete stages. As I described in a guest blog about the first 3 stages, I fell short by two miles on the second stage, unable to outpace the day's difficult conditions, but this disappointment was more than compensated for by the successful completion of the swim's toughest stage (stage 5) - a delightful surprise that exceeded all my expectations leading up to the swim. I was also lucky enough to have the chance to start stage 3 at the point where I had left the water the day before, adding a couple of extra miles to the day but enabling me to cover the entire 8 Bridges distance by the end of the week, even without completing all the stages. And so, with one DNF, 6 successful stage completions, and 120 miles and a grand total of 39 hours, 37 minutes and 22 seconds of swimming under my belt, I couldn't be happier.

Reflecting on the event, a few thoughts come to mind. Firstly, after my long struggle in 2013-14 to resolve my shoulder injury, I am over the moon that I didn't have a squeak of trouble from it throughout the swim. I had feared that my long swimming days were numbered, but the months of physio and the incisive stroke correction skills of Active Blu's Emma Brunning worked wonders. My rehab year, and the many months I spent drilling my way up and down the pool, paid dividends; without it, and with my old, perniciously ingrained stroke defects still intact, I don't believe I would have been able to tolerate the sustained stress on the body that an event like the 8 Bridges generates. For those struggling with injury, you have my deepest sympathy, but give it time and put in the work - not all problems and injuries can be so straightforwardly resolved, but for those that can be, patience is your friend.

Secondly, I know with certainty that the work of stroke improvement is far from over. Injury rehab and prevention was my top priority in this last round of stroke correction, but in changing my stroke, I have also witnessed a drop in my stroke rate - something that Emma had also pointed out to me but which I obviously didn't fully take to heart. I used to habitually swim at between 62-64 spm, but last week was sitting fairly steadily between 53-57. In part, this signals increased efficiency since there has been no parallel fall in pace, but in the coming year, I want to work more on my ability to sustain my improved stroke whilst pushing the stroke rate back up (as well as further working on efficiency). Hopefully, this will give me the greater turn of speed that I currently lack. As one of the slower swimmers at this year's 8 Bridges event, I feel that this is an area ripe for development. I'll never be the fastest or best of swimmers, but each event highlights a space for incremental improvements, and this will be my focus over the next year.

Thirdly, almost two years since my last long swim, the 8 Bridges has utterly invigorated my love of the sport. I've often noted my love of the luxuriousness of doing nothing all day except swimming, but extended to a week filled with swimming (and its many associated tasks and demands), the intensity of the immersion takes on a forceful, seductive compulsion. For a week, I thought about, and did, little else but swim; everything else got pushed into the background. This is both a prodigious luxury and an extraordinary experience, with my usually sedentary but preoccupying work of reading and writing supplanted by an intense focus on the body and its movements and well-being. It was the most profound and complete break from work that I have ever had. And in its place came the opportunity to experience a broad spectrum of emotions and bodily sensations; to witness a beautiful river as it drifted through a panoply of moods and tones; and to meet a host of fellow swimmers, volunteers, pilots and kayakers brought together by a shared love of the sport and a communal desire for the best possible outcomes for all the swimmers involved.

And amidst the everyday work of swimming that characterises a long stage swim, there are also spectacular and pleasurably memorable moments. I leapt exuberantly from the bow of Launch 5:

I swam past the foot of the Statue of Liberty:

And I passed under monumental bridges - the punctuation marks in our swimming journey:

It was, in short, a splendid adventure. Tough, but splendid. 

Many thanks to Rondi and Dave for organising such an incredible event; it is a perfect blend of the very best the sport has to offer. 


  1. Thank you, Karen, for all your 8BridgesSwim posts; they have made a world of difference to me as I am unable to swim at the moment due to medical issues. I did make it out and was able to view all of you swimming toward the George Washington Bridge - what a thrill it must have been to have both the current and the wind in your favor on that particular day.

  2. Hi Nicholas, thanks for your lovely comments. I'm very sorry that you're not able to swim at the moment - I really hope you are able to return to the water very soon.
    The currents and winds were our friends for stage 6 - a good day indeed.


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