I swam around Manhattan last August, counterclockwise from Battery Park to Battery Park. It was a goal I set for myself, then trained for for the better part of a year, attempted in June unsuccessfully, and then finally met on a bright summer day in August supported by an incredible team of friends and family. It was not a typical Manhattan Island Marathon Swim; NYC Swim, the race organizers, called it “Quiet MIMS” in reference to the absence of bells and whistles that ordinarily accompany a big race. And because of the circumstances that led to the field of swimmers being who we were, it wasn’t competitive. You see, for the most part, the fast swimmers who take on Manhattan aiming not only to finish, but to finish faster than other swimmers do, they’d been done with Manhattan since June. With only nine of us in the water that day, and all of us united by our shared experience of frustration and our desire to finish something we had started earlier that summer (see this post for more on that), everything about the day felt amazing. Swimmers, kayakers, crew, race organizers, volunteers and supporters alike wanted nothing but success and happiness for everyone, and it showed. The Manhattan Island Marathon “Quiet” Swim was a real love fest and I ate it up.
Why Write Now?
That was six months ago. Until today, I never wrote about the swim itself. But I did write: a lot. Despite setting out to put the experience into words back in September, I found myself distracted by the thoughts and emotions the swim inspired, and so I wrote about those. I circled round and round a few ideas: on finding (and not finding) physical and psychological limits, on why many of us will never have to in our lifetimes, and why some of us still choose to push far beyond comfort and even safety. Each path I explored through writing revealed to me numerous new ones I hadn’t considered. I wrote and rewrote, framed and reframed the ideas and questions again and again, never sitting down to the piece a second time satisfied with where I had taken it the time before. I was dedicated to it, though, and didn’t want to publish anything else on my blog until it was done and posted. But, it turned out to be the deepest rabbit hole I had ever written myself into, and for months I felt lost in it. So today I set it aside, knowing that it will still be there tomorrow. Today I reflect on swimming around Manhattan, an idea that a few years ago sounded tempting but huge and scary as hell, and is now just a tame, sunny memory I keep in my pocket.
Ebb and Flow
I had my eye on MIMS since getting involved in open water swimming a few years before, and experiencing my first long (for me at the time) swims. It scared me a little to even dare to imagine I might do it. Even after deciding I wanted to, I had to question the wisdom behind it when watching the 2012 swimmers finish the race triggered a swelling tide of anxiety in my chest.
A few months later, once I had put that anxiety aside long enough to apply and get accepted into the swim, June 8, 2013 became a singular focus in my life. I started training in December and quickly felt myself getting stronger. Thinking about the day itself was exciting and motivated me to push myself. It was going to be fun, I insisted— to myself and to anyone else who wanted to hear about it. But although the ultimate goal was an exciting one (to swim a single, beautiful lap around New York City), the day to day experience of training for it became stressful and unpleasant: Night after night, I forced myself to bed earlier than was in my nature so that I could drag myself back out of bed for my morning moon-lit walk to the subway. And for what? For the pleasure of swimming back and forth in pool— for longer, farther, and more often than I had ever done in my life. When I had imagined what might be hard about swimming around Manhattan, pool swimming was not what had come to mind.
Several months in, as the ever-accumulating hours logged in a chlorinated environment began driving me mad (and making me sick), I noticed myself resenting the whole undertaking. With time, my excitement for the swim faded, and I just wanted to get it over with. It was an unfortunate realization that the swim had shifted in my mind from a goal that excited me, to some kind of cruel joke that had complete control over me— unsympathetically, it kicked me every morning from a place of peace and comfort into the pool, a place I had come to view as a steaming box of poison gasses and human waste (see this post for more on that). I was still looking forward to being able to say that I had swum around Manhattan, but in preparing to do it, I lost touch with my excitement for the swim itself.
The Best Day Ever
That is, until I swam it in August (see this post about June). It was fantastic! But aside from the really great time that I had, which was great, I was surprised by an unanticipated feeling that started to form in the final miles of the swim. “Swimming around Manhattan,” it turned out, was more than a string of words that sounded pretty cool together. What I discovered was a hard-to-describe, yet distinct, new feeling of having swum a continuous loop around the city. The best I’ve done to put that feeling into words, even for myself, is to compare it to cutting a shape from a sheet of paper. I imagine a NYC map, and my scissors tracing around the contour of Manhattan: the last careful snip frees the island from the rest of the paper, the other boroughs and a sliver of New Jersey fall to the floor and I am left holding Manhattan in my hand. In a way, it felt like that when I swam into the finish —which had also been the start— like I was holding this thing I had circled, a complete embrace, not an inch left unswum. And that’s what I’ve got in my pocket.
The Last Six Months
Living locally has had its benefits in the months after the swim. Most notably, I enjoy the reminders that present themselves pretty much everywhere I go. Driving or walking, I steal glances of the water surrounding Manhattan. On cue, an internal movie reel plays.
STANDING ON THE PROMENADE IN BROOKLYN
When I stand on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, facing Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge Park, near where I work, I trace the path of my swim with my eyes, from the race start at the southern tip of the island, up the East River, and in my mind I am swimming it: trusting my kayakers as they guide me past the mammoth Staten Island ferry, backstroking under the shadows of familiar bridges —Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg— and then less familiar ones —59th Street and the walkway to Randall’s Island— and then the endless bridges in the Harlem River that I do not know at all and cannot see from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
THE TUNNELS— BATTERY & HOLLAND
The drive from my Brooklyn apartment to New Jersey (don’t ask) begins with a trip through the Battery Tunnel in the East River. Driving through it, I always spend a few moments imagining that I am underwater— which I am— but since there is absolutely zero sensory information that confirms it to be true, I have to fight the feeling that it is make-believe. I take in the endless tiles on the walls and ceiling of the tunnel and think, I swam over this right at the beginning of my swim, which brings back the somewhat choppy, adrenaline-rich start: chatter and smiles and camaraderie treading water until the sound of the horn, when we put our heads down and began the long, relatively solitary, entirely personal experience we each came for. I wish I could say that I imagined cars driving under me when I swam it. But I didn’t.
Resurfacing in Manhattan, I drive up the West Side Highway en route to the Holland Tunnel. It’s a particularly memory-rich stretch of road and river, as it contains the numerous turn-offs for start and finish, kayak loading, and boat, crew, and swimmer loading. I pass the turn-off for kayakers where I introduced Josh (my brother) to Terry (my trusty kayaker who would be loaning him a boat for the day so that he could come along for the ride as my kayaker #2), and where Andrew Malinak’s father unexpectedly presented me with a gift of thanks for my help in Andrew’s swim earlier in the summer— the giant rubber ducky became an instant swim mascot. Making my way up the highway, I spot North Moore Street where my crew and I unloaded the car. I remember all the waiting in the morning, the boat-loading logistics, connecting with other swimmers and their crews out on the pier, and waiting to board the rib that would ferry swimmers to the start. Continuing to drive north, towards Canal Street, I am reminded then of the final miles of my swim, until I turn inland for the Holland Tunnel, which will take me through the Hudson River to New Jersey. Driving through the tunnel I imagine myself, again, driving underwater, and it’s a ridiculous thought that I have to force myself to believe. Last August, by the time I was swimming over the tops of cars in the Holland Tunnel, I was flying with the current and headed to the finish.
DRIVING HARLEM RIVER DRIVE
I do not travel up the east side of Manhattan by car all too often, but I have driven the length of the FDR and Harlem River Drive a number of times since the swim. The FDR, from the Battery all the way to the Triborough (now RFK) Bridge, brings the obvious memories of the first leg of the swim— landmarks and iconic bridges in quick succession— but driving along the Harlem River, something I am sure I must have done previously but never really paid any attention to, has become something special. You see, while swimming up the East River, my stomach felt off, the constant visual stimuli of boats and the city kept me overly alert and focused on my surroundings, and I never felt like I could relax into my groove and find the rhythm of my stroke. Once I hit the Harlem, all of that changed. It was quiet and peaceful. I had feared the Harlem’s water would be dirty, but it was surprisingly pleasant: free of garbage and odors. I had feared the endlessness of it, as it is long and the water is relatively still, only minimally affected by the tides, but instead I was happy to pass the time in this intimate and relaxing stretch of water. I was also buoyed by the support of a friend (and MIMS 2012 swimmer) who showed up along the barren seawall to cheer— a sweet surprise that he repeated a number of times before I reached the Hudson. Now, driving a car on Harlem River Drive, I feel a connection to this easy-to-miss ribbon of water that cuts a long, thin line between Manhattan and the Bronx. Unlike the East and Hudson Rivers, you could easily cross over the Harlem on one of its many bridges and fail to notice you were leaving the island of Manhattan at all. It is a shy boundary that announces the edge of this mighty city with the faintest whisper. And like a whisper, swimming it last August felt peaceful and sweet.
PEERING DOWN AT THE SPUYTEN DUYVIL
Whenever I drive down 9A from Upstate, I crane my neck out the window to get a glimpse of the Spuyten Duyvil bridge below, a small steel “swing bridge” built in 1900 and used only for Amtrak trains. A swimmer’s arrival at Spuyten Duyvil marks the end of the Harlem and the beginning of the Hudson, the final leg of the swim. Swimming under the Spuyten Duyvil felt as fantastic as I had imagined it would, as the Hudson is breathtakingly huge and majestic. As I back-floated triumphantly under the tiny, low bridge, my brother, who had been pretty even-keeled up until that point, yelled something I thought might be a “look out!” but wasn’t. He was just sharing in the excitement: “Caits! You’re in the Hudson!” he repeated, smiling, once I had pulled my ears from the water.
DOWN THE WEST SIDE HIGHWAY
My support boat, carrying my food and crew (Laura and my mom) had to wait a long time for the Spuyten Duyvil to swing open and let them through. That meant that Terry, Josh, and I were alone on the Hudson until well past the George Washington Bridge, and something about that felt awesome—we were three impossibly tiny travelers on this massive river. I had been anticipating the Hudson most of all for its promised tidal assist, which I was a little disappointed to discover would not be noticeable until I was most of the way down it. But I was entertained, and I think of it each time I travel down the West Side Highway. Just after marveling over passing under the George Washington Bridge some 200 feet above, I was struck by a sight I did not understand. With each breath to the right I saw my brother with a T-shirt tied turban-like around his head, which made sense to me as his solution to blocking out the blaring-hot sun. But something bright yellow had appeared on his nose and I had no idea what it was. With my head in the water I tried to puzzle it out, but I came up with nothing. Finally, he came close enough for me to see it clearly. And even when I saw it clearly, I had no idea what I was looking at. When he showed me that it was a perfectly rectangular section of banana peel that he had secured on his nose using the bridge of his sun glasses, I kind of lost it. Along with my food that was trapped behind the Spuyten Duyvil in the support boat, was sunblock and a hat. Totally exposed on the surface of that great river with neither, he improvised. It was brilliant, and ridiculous, and only then did I realize what a hot day it was. Mine was, by far, the more comfortable mode of transportation. I didn’t stop thinking about that banana peel for the rest of the swim, it cracked me up so much. In fact, I still haven’t really stopped thinking about it. Maybe you had to be there?
Returning to the Start; or, The End
Driving the lower half of the West Side Highway brings back memories of big chop, high winds, and fast currents. The clapping onlookers walking along the seawall in the final blocks to the finish reminded me of the year before, when I had done the same for friends of mine: outwardly smiling and cheering, inwardly anxious and glad it wasn’t me in the water. But it felt amazing to be swimming in the end. I felt great, and could have kept on going (a fact that has bothered me a bit upon reflection, and about which I have a rabbit-hole of a post draft).
A few blocks from the finish, after swimming the entire Hudson without seeing another swimmer, I was surprised to find myself sandwiched closely between two others: Karen and Phyllis. My enjoyment in slapping the finish buoy, 8 hours and 40 minutes after jumping in at the same spot, was only made sweeter by finishing within the same three minute period as they, and celebrating with a big ol’ water-treading bear-hug. As I said, it was a love-fest, and I ate it up.
Final note: I have pictures. Of course I have pictures. But if I don’t publish this now, it may sit another month before I do. I will come back and add pictures later.