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Swimming for Hope - 2010 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim: Jim Bayles Recounts His Experience
If each journey starts with but a single step, for an open-water, cold-water swimmer, the journey often starts with a tentative foot into cold, open water or a cautious slip into a pool on a cold morning. For many of us, we do not know when our journeys start or when they end. For me, my journeys have definite patterns of preparation, completion, downtime and preparation as a continuous cycle.
For me, each new season begins after the last open water swim when the water and air are so cold, swimming outside is not worth the effort. However, before I started to swim indoors in earnest, two, and potentially three good things happened to me:
• I was voted into the Dartmouth Athletic Hall of Fame, "The Wearers of the Green" for my open water swimming.
• I was honored as the Volunteer of the Year by Epilepsy Foundation of Connecticut. This honor was very nice as it was recognition of the entire family. Trina, the girls and I have raised a lot of money for the Foundation and it was nice to be recognized.
• I was contacted by OnPoint for a position in Washington DC as an Analyst/Project Manager in implementing software that the Department of State. While the position would not be offered to me until April, it was nice that there was hope at the end of the tunnel.
I also know I am extremely lucky to be able to swim as much and as well as I do. As a child or a young adult, even up to "middle age," we take our health for granted. Unfortunately, my daughter Kate cannot take any of her health for granted as a good day is a day with no anxiety and no seizures, a rare occurrence.
I take for granted the working of my shoulders, the use of my hips and the ability of my heart to beat at 40 beats per minute at rest, 60 beats a t work and 100 beats while swimming in open water events. Kate hopes that any seizure that starts to happen, she can stop. This happens rarely.
I take for granted that I can work outside for hours doing yard work. Kate is lucky if she can walk around the yard, take a dip in the pool and not worry about a seizure.
Katie and I take all of these things for granted, my health and her lack of health.
The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim
This swim is a 28.5 mile, tide-assisted swim that begins and ends at the South Cove of the World Financial Center. While I swam around Manhattan in September 1999, I did not start at the correct position. Back then knowledge was not as readily available about swimming in New York City’s waters. Also, I was arrogant about being able to do anything and figured it did not matter from where I started. I thought it would be cool to swim from the Columbia C, home to Baker Field and all of the rich sports history of Columbia before the Ivy League stopped being a traditional football power. From there, I knew enough to swim counter clockwise around the island. In 1999, everything went as planned until I reached the entrance to Hells Gate and then the Harlem River. There I spent 5 hours going the 5 miles against the tide. However, I made it.
Just a note on how the tides affect the waters around Manhattan. First of all there are three rivers that surround Manhattan: Hudson to the west of Manhattan, the East River to the south and east of Manhattan and the Harlem to the north and east of Manhattan. The Harlem is a creature of the Hudson River. When the Hudson and East River floods north, the Harlem is compressed south towards Hells Gate and the East River. When the Hudson ebbs, the water is sucked north, out of Spyten Duyval, away from the East River and Hells Gate. At Hells Gate the East River runs into the flow of the Harlem River and Long Island Sound. Not fully comprehending how the tides work around Manhattan in 1999 caused me to swim a very long time in the Harlem River.
On the morning of MIMS, Brooke and Trina left early to get to the support boat while I filled myself with bagels water and Gatorade. Two very good friends, Liz Fry and Scott Lautman were already there as they were the lead swimmers for two English Channel relays. Tobey Saracino arrived a few minutes after I. Also there was a young woman from California, Jen Schumacher, who was swimming for a cause close to my niece Sara Bayles’s heart, Surfrider Foundation, which supports keeping the Pacific Ocean and its shore clean. As we were milling around on land, I went down to find my kayaker, Tracy Coon. We found each other, gave a wave and I knew I was in good hands, or should I say "arms."
I was the second in the water as we were given our numbers based upon the alphabet. Too bad someone with “BAR” entered the race or I might have been number 1! After a few pictures and some sculling around in South Cove, it is like milling on land, but in the water, we were off.
As usual, I tried not to go out too hard and get into oxygen debt at the start of the swim. It takes me between 100 and 150 strokes, about one-and-one-half cycles of 105 strokes to get into a steady breathing rhythm. It was a short distance from the South Cove, around the Battery and into the East River. It is interesting when one swims in the three rivers that surround Manhattan. The taste of the water depends upon in which river one is then swimming:
• The taste of the Hudson River changes depending upon if the tide is flooding or ebbing. The water can taste as salty as in the ocean or as brackish as tidal ponds on Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.
• The East River is always salty as it does not mix with any fresh water from the Hudson River.
• The Harlem River has a taste all of its own. It is water that is moved by the tide but does not seem to flow too much into the East River at Hells Gate or into the Hudson at Spyten Duyval.
Somewhere near the Battery, the kayakers found me. Near the Brooklyn Bridge/Pier 17 my support boat with Brooke and Trina found the three of us; now we are off towards Hells Gate. The swim up the East River was uneventful. However the scenery was quite lovely. The trio of bridges: Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg are each terrific in their own way. Unlike my first swim around Manhattan, I was in a race so I did not swim Backstroke under the bridges in order to look at the superstructure of the bridges and "rest."
I took my first stop for food about 1 hour into the swim. After the first stop I planned to stop every 30 to 35 minutes for sustenance. However, I felt so good while swimming that I stretched the later breaks to every 45 minutes. The view of Manhattan, Queens and eventually The Bronx from water level is quite different than from a boat. Everything seems larger and a bit further away than it is. Perhaps objects are closer than they appear works for swimmers in the water as well as the mirror on the passenger side of all cars. As lower and midtown Manhattan slid by me, I passed Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper, United Nations complex, Tudor City, the major Hospitals that are directly on the East River. Soon I was up to Hells Gate. I made my only goal, and it was a limited one, of making it to Hells Gate before the cutoff time. That I did quite easily. While I may have started towards the back of the pack, I was always catching either individual or relay swimmers.
When I arrived at Hells Gate I thought of my 1998 swim when I actually swam through Hells Gate and its whirlpools as part of my Greenwich to Downtown swim. For MIMS, the swimmer is instructed to swim close to the Manhattan retaining walls. We made it around Hells Gate quite quickly. In fact later my boat captain wrote me that he expected us to have a harder time at Hells Gate, but I flew right through it.
On the Manhattan side of the Gate there is a long bluish green building. I kept forgetting to ask what it was but I believe it is the home to the ASPCA. It was not very tall and it seemed to go on forever, but its length may have been the trick of the eye and the fact I that I had just passed Hells Gate.
Once in the Harlem River, the water was being sucked north towards Baker Field and then into the Hudson. In the Harlem River, we passed quickly by the new Yankee Stadium, which was not as visible as the old one.
The organizers of the swim set up a rest station for the Kayakers about two-thirds of the way up the Harlem at a pier or marina. About 15 to 20 minutes into the Harlem one of the kayakers was supposed to take off to the rest station; unfortunately, neither left soon enough to take a break. No sooner had one kayaker left when my other kayaker and I reached the rest station. I told her the second kayaker to stop as I would be fine. I often, too often for my family and friends, swim alone. However, one of two kayakers for another swimmer stayed with me while my kayakers took their biological break and a stretch on land. I remember going past Baker Field and the Columbia C painted on a rock face in The Bronx. All of a sudden we were under the Spyten Duyval railroad bridge and into the Hudson River. By the time my kayakers caught up to me, I was well into the Hudson and had swum close to seventy-five minutes without a break. I was a bit tired and needed to rest.
Down the Hudson we swam. One forgets how much land there is north of the George Washington Bridge and almost all of it full of woods and brambles, at least to the eyes of a swimmer looking up at the northern cliffs of Manhattan. Under the bridge stands the Little Red Light House that sits on a point that juts out into the Hudson towards New Jersey. At this spit of land, Manhattan is at its closest point to the Garden State. It is why the bridge and before it the lighthouse were built in this exact spot.
In the Hudson, we headed towards the eastern stanchion of the Bridge and then straight down and towards the middle of the River rather than staying too close to shore. In 1999 I did not know where to swim so I swam though the two boat basins and dodged stationary sailing vessels and mooring buoys. This year we were well out in the Hudson. While it seemed that we were in the middle of the River, I am sure we were no more that 25% of the way across the Hudson.
We swam quickly down the Hudson. On the way down the Hudson River there are great sights on the cliffs: Riverside Church, the Cloisters, Grant’s Tomb and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, to name a few. However, there was an apartment house that just did not seem to get behind me, but again, when one gets tired the mind pays tricks and we were making great progress.
Before we got to midtown, I could see the Empire State Building. It so dominates the sky from the Hudson it seems as if one can see it from the GWB. At first it seemed that we was never going to get to the Empire State Building; then it seemed that we would never pass it; finally, it seemed that I would always see it whenever I breathed towards Manhattan.
At the beginning of Downtown, just before the Woolworth Building, I wanted to move in close to the shore. My kayakers were insistent that we wait. We passed the ferry terminal and again, I wanted to move closer to the shore, again, my kayakers said to wait. Finally, with the North Cove insight they told me that we would aim for the southern wall of the North Cove. I made it easily and then swam along the wall. All of a sudden, the wall gave way to the South Cove and I “sprinted” for home. For me sprinting is relative, even when rested let alone after swimming for 8 plus hours. I was out of the current and swimming in very still water. I touched the platform at 8:22.24. It was a very nice feeling to finish so quickly.
After I touched, I swam away from the platform and moved my shoulders in a direction other than in the freestyle motion. I did a flip turn or two to stretch my back and then did about 10 strokes of butterfly back to the platform. As I climbed out of the water unassisted, Morty Berger, the race director, was standing at the end of the race course. He told me later that he had never seen anyone come out of this race looking so fresh. Turning to him and paraphrasing Ernie Banks of the Cubs I said: 'Let’s swim 2!'
There were only 3 fifty year old swimmers, one my age, Mo Seigel and Kristian Rutford who is 50. I was 12th out of 24. In this race, I beat one woman who was in her 20s and five people who were in their 30s and another five people in their 40s. I also beat both Two-Person relays, 5 of 7, Four-Person relays and 1 of 2 Six-Person relays.
I am also lucky in other ways: I am able to drive a car, go to the beach to sit or swim, get out of the house without worrying about a seizure or a panic attack. There are those who live with epilepsy but do not have this horrible disease under control. In Connecticut alone there are approximately 60,000 people who have epilepsy and an estimated 50,000,000 worldwide. Epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder in the United States after Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. It is equal in prevalence to cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease combined. Yet, of all the major chronic conditions, it is among the least understood even though one in three adults knows someone with the disorder.
I continue to swim because I can and I hope my swimming makes people more aware of this horrible disease.
Next Year & Beyond
What is next? As a homage to my father’s mother’s family, the “Rogers” side of the family and in remembrance of my youth, I will do my 2011 fundraising swim in Northern Michigan waters.
For two generations my family read about the Sleeping Bear and her two cubs that fled the forest fires of Wisconsin to swim across Lake Michigan. While the mother made it, her twin cubs did not. She never left the shoreline and went to sleep waiting for them to swim to her. She died waiting and the great Indian spirit Manitou covered her with sand and raised her two cubs up as islands just off the shore near Empire Bluff, Michigan in honor of the mother who selflessly waited for her children.
Ideally, I want to swim from The Sleeping Bear either to South or North Manitou Island, then to the other Island and back to the Bear. It is a round trip of about 21 or so miles in fresh water with no real current to aid me.
In 2012, 10 years after my first crossing of the English Channel, I plan on attempting it again at age 60.
After that, who knows?
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