Thursday, July 20, 2017

Weekend in the water

It wasn’t looking good that Tuesday—or, for that matter, the two days prior. Stomach cramps that at first seemed to be a GI bug (bad enough) turned into severe abdominal pain and nausea. But denial is how I was handling it. I wasn’t going to be sick, not this week, not the week of the Great South Bay Swim, after all the training I’d done, after all the work I’d put in to get there…the shoulder PT, the killer massage, and swim practice after swim practice—although that last part never felt like “work” even the 10,000 yard swim. I was going to make this one. I wasn’t concerned about time or place. 

That had been knocked out of me by last year’s swim. But I did want to finish this time, want to show that I hadn’t aged out of this business.

But by Tuesday, I couldn’t blow it off anymore. I had to dismiss my class early, felt nauseous. Needed Sandy’s help. An ambulance was called, and I was taken to the hospital. I wasn’t so sure I liked the idea of an ambulance—too expensive. But walking seemed out of the question and no luck with cabs (Sandy had called). So I was doubled over in pain lying on one of the couches in the Bonnell lobby, wondering if something really serious was happening and I’d find out I had cancer. Sandy stayed right there until they put me into the ambulance, and Liz came shortly after I arrived at Hahnemann, where I’d spend the rest of the day.

The doctors did two important things there: they gave me morphine and an anti-nausea drug, which made me feel much better. Then, after much waiting and some tests, including a CT, they informed me that I had a kidney stone—and that, importantly, I could swim if I felt okay on Friday, that there wouldn’t be further damage. Online I found out that swimming could even help pass a stone. While that would be nice, the fact that I had a name on my condition and a doctor’s assurance that if OTC meds calmed things down enough, yes, I could go ahead with the swim. I still felt wobbly that day, and Sandy gave me the day off the next day. But by the end of the day, I felt well enough to give the open water swim group a try. I was just going to swim easy, and pretty much did just that. John did rein me in when I started to do a few butterfly strokes just for fun.

“You have a race in two days! Stick to freestyle!”

But the river had energized me. My Amtrak reservation was ready. So was I. 


After packing clothes, swimsuit, goggles (including a spare pair in case the pair I was using broke), and swim nutrition needs and Safe Sea and Tri-Slide and my hopes, I headed for 30th Street Station. Go time. Original train delayed, but they honored my ticket on a train scheduled only 20 minutes later, so although the window of time to get the Long Island Railroad would be smaller, it was doable.

Aboard Amtrak, I relaxed, used their WiFi, drank from my water bottle (they reminded me at the hospital to drink plenty of fluids), and paid special attention to rivers—the Schuylkill (scene of so many runs and, further upriver, swims) and the Delaware and the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign visible to all who cross the Delaware on the train.

Smooth trip to New York… and then to Bay Shore on the Long Island Railroad… the trip happens in steps…always has… the trains, the limo/bus (used to be a taxi) to the ferry, the boat ride… taking me from my day to day world into Manhattan and out, across Long Island… “This is the train to… Babylon. Next station stop is ….” Others on the train headed for Fire Island… somehow I could tell… tote bags, beachy clothes…. And there at the Saltaire ferry dock, the bay laid out before me, calm looking, but I knew that was just within the harbor, not out in the open. It could be a rough ride. I took some more Tylenol.

The ferry…. the trip across, the Captree Bridge off to the right… West Island, I knew to the left, although I didn’t get a look… the lighthouse getting closer, and after a stop in Kismet, chugging along the bay front and reaching the dock. Sky was gray. But it was Saltaire, the Saltaire I love, that my heart goes back to even though I haven’t been to it since 2009. Everything so familiar, even the places rebuilt since Hurricane Sandy…. Home.

Mary and Harry Scanlon said hello. I was surprised Mary recognized me, even though my picture was in the Fire Island News—although both pictures of me showed me in a swim cap. Apparently, I became famous! (I felt all the more the need to swim b/c how, having been featured in the Fire Island News, could I back out, although, of course, there are things over which I don’t have control.)
Kathleen met me with a wagon… so true to Saltaire tradition. Wagons everywhere… for trips to the ferry or the grocery store or to transport children to the beach. Wagons and bikes. I have to admit I never got around to riding bikes despite the many years I visited there, but one of these days. But it’ll have to be one of the beach cruisers with the coaster brakes.

Two things I had to do: take a swim at the bay beach. If I was going to swim five miles there the next day, I suppose I should let it lap around me a bit the day before. Very easy swimming, floating on my back as I used to do, enjoying the waves, practicing sighting, doing some drills. It started to rain and get very choppy, which wouldn’t have kept me out by itself, but as the lifeguard wasn’t there and I’d heard reports of thunderstorms, I decided to make my exit. Still, it was a perfect welcome home swim. Then, I had to stop at the Saltaire Market (another place that was rebuilt) for something to bring to Kathleen’s house: Lighthouse Ale. Can’t get more appropriate than that since the swim would start at Fire Island Lighthouse.

And of course I had to visit the McManus house. I hoped it wasn’t bought as a “tear-down,” as some beach houses are. Happily, not only was it standing, but it looked in good repair. The next day, I met the person who bought it and who told me it was “the perfect house” for her and her four children. That did my soul good—another mom was going to give her kids special memories that would be etched into their lives (I hoped) for many, many years. These photos show different views of the house.

Tennis court across from McManus house

A couple of other old haunts...

The statue outside Our Lady Star of the Sea Church... her hand was broken off during the 1938 hurricane; it was decided not to fix it because (I think this is the story) the idea was that she suffered with the people.

Not streets but boardwalks (or cement walks). Only motor vehicles allowed were service vehicles (and in later years personal cars could be parked in the village in the off season, but had to be moved to the main land after Memorial Day until Labor Day. Even then, special permits were needed.)


Unlike past trips the swim on race day, for this one I’d already slept on the island, didn’t need to rush as much to get there. After a bowl of cereal, coffee, and last-minute packing of supplies, it was time to take the walk to the start, along Lighthouse Promenade to Lighthouse Walk in Kismet, to the Burma Road, past the old fire station (near it is a fresh water pond that I only discovered as an adult), and soon enough, the lighthouse. 

Sky was gray, rain predicted. Would we swim? Kathleen and I decided if the swim as a go, so were we. We weren’t about to back out. We would go as far as we could. We would finish, Kathleen said. And I, despite some worries about my ability to handle these conditions, especially having just been sick, I decided to be Zen about it, take it stroke by stroke, enjoy the experience. The weather and water were not in my control. My response to them was. We would do this. We decided to have a team name. While walking, I pulled out a Power Crunch bar to snack on… and it hit me. Team Power Crunch. It was crunch time, and we had the power in us.

At the lighthouse, I stopped in the restroom and was surprised no one was there yet. I wasn’t late, was I? A woman entered as I was leaving.

“Is there an event at the lighthouse today?”

“Yes, the Cross Bay Swim, and I’m swimming.”

She smiled, bowed, and gave me a blessing that sounded like it could be Islam, but I wasn’t sure. But I felt very loved and supported, as if an angel had been sent to me.

Then down to the dock to check in—and there reassured by the crowds getting off the boat. No. I wasn’t late. I was even a little early.

Much hustle and bustle. Decisions about what to take on the boat, what to send along with a swimmer’s mom who offered to take things across and meet us there. Nerves. 

Team Power Crunch (before)

Prayed a bit. Stretched. Sun salutation. Nerves calmed some.

Air bristling with anticipation and resolve. The countdown to the start… 15, 14, 13… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… 

GO! No burning up the water with sprints here, although the leaders pulled ahead quickly, and the rest of us settled into the task ahead, knowing we’d have to pace ourselves.
And here, the thanksgivings:
  • ·   God and the prayers people offered, so many prayers—the sense even when I first felt sick, that it would be all right, even though it was hard to believe;
  • Family—they may kid with me about my crazy passion (“why not just take the ferry?”) Yet they unfailingly support me not only with donations to the fundraising page, but with love, with presence and presents: Liz coming with me to the swim two years ago; the (formerly) Islip McManuses offering their house every year for me to stay; Rich and Cindy taking me in when I go to Boston for events; Pat sending me a beautiful beach towel! And more… see next item….

  • Kathleen’s and John’s generosity in providing me a place to stay, Kathleen on Thursday night to Friday so I could spend the night in Saltaire and John, Friday night to Saturday—I hadn’t seen him for quite a while, and this connected me to the Long Island McManuses; and Audrey who showed up at the finish with food, a sunflower, and a lovely scarf;

  • John Kenny’s coaching… The “you’re kidding right?” sets. The “wow” faces I’d make—but felt flattered he believed I could handle them. His wisdom about foot cramps: “There’s no such thing as cramps.” I needed to repeat that at times during the swim, as my feet would at times cramp. I found after a while that I was more calmed by saying “Oh, hello cramps, you’re back.” Then I’d stop kicking, focus on the exhale, and relax my legs as much as possible, be sure to drink and eat if I even suspected a cramp MIGHT come. John is adamant about nutrition. Thank you, John, for that. Thank you, Charles, for the focus on the exhale. But one thing I didn’t copy from John: when he won the first version of the Valley Forge Marathon Swim, he repeated to himself the Meow Mix chant, “Meow, meow, meow, meow….” That didn’t quite do it for me. However, I did think of some songs… when it rained, “Swimmin’ in the Rain,” a la Gene Kelly…. Sometimes “Born to be Wild,” as the waves lifted and dropped me…. Sometimes that old childhood ditty, “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding waves….”
  • Thank you, Nabil, who taught me to focus on the present and enjoy the experience, stay mindful, relaxed, open. Waves…. rain… chafing… seaweed in suit… temporary. Part of the experience. Let all of them wash over me. All would be well. I was in my beloved Great South Bay, a lucky soul getting to swim across in rain and chop. How many get to have that experience?
  • ·         The camaraderie, the support, the cheers—on and off-line tips from other swimmers; Did I mention Kathleen? Overnight accommodation, yes, but the bravery to go ahead with kayaking when she was so new to it and the water would be rough;
  • ·         The race crew—organizers, officials, volunteers… the Fischers! So much planning and work go into this swim. By January, they’re already at it. And the volunteers have a long, hard-working day. The year I volunteered (after which I needed a more relaxing task and chose to swim), the weather was much friendlier, and I can only imagine what it must be like when it’s blustery and rainy;
  • ·         CIBBOWS… the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers. I was fortunate enough to swim in some of their events—one in the Hudson, involving going partway against the current (wicked hard!), and two ocean swims—all of them escorted by “swim angels,” volunteers who swim with anyone who feels nervous. They stayed with me, even gave me some tips;
  • ·         Swimming in the ocean last year with Bruckner Chase’s group. I’m not a pro at ocean swimming, by any means, but getting out of my comfort zone for even a short time helped me, I think, prepare for the conditions I got in the 2017 edition of the swim.
  • ·         Jack Martin taking me open water swimming near his house. Jack and I are about as far apart politically as possible… but he welcomed me into his favorite swimming space, watched out for me, even though he’s a faster swimmer, and provided a most enjoyable experience, once I relaxed and, although exercising due caution, didn’t stress about boats passing by;
  • ·         Mike McDevitt, my first masters’ coach, who lit the fire with that summer coaching in 2005 and the Plunge for Patients…. Excited about having completed an ocean mile, I shared my experience with someone during a visit to Fire Island and that person recommended the Great South Bay Swim (also thanks to you, even though I don’t remember your name). Although I originally dismissed it as too long, the seed was planted.
  • ·        Yet it goes further back in time. My passion for Fire Island was nourished before I was born—when my grandfather bought the house in Saltaire in 1916. I grew up going to Saltaire when most never heard of it. I grew up feeling the sand under my feet, smelling the salt water, taking early swimming and sailing lessons, waking up to the sound of motor boats and gulls…. until salt water began running through my blood. After we stopped renting regularly, I visited as often as I could, hosted by Grandpa, by Florence and Frank, then Florence and Ted….then Charlie. Even now, with the house sold, I’m grateful a family has it who will truly appreciate it and create their own history.
I couldn’t have imagined completing this year’s swim as a first-timer. But since 2007, I’ve learned a lot, grown a lot as a swimmer. This certainly wasn’t my fastest swim. That came two years ago. But given the strikes against me, I’m at least as proud of this swim as I was of the one two years ago. I didn’t realize the inner resources I had and it takes a village to raise awareness. I thank my “village.”

Bob Fischer MC'ing awards... organizer extraordinaire!

Gary Smith, winner of 1956 swim with Rob Roos, who should be listed among the people I thank. Rob kayaked for me in the 2010 swim and has been an invaluable resource in many ways, from 2007 onward when I interviewed him for an article I wrote in the Fire Island News. As the swim historian, Rob has a wealth of information about the swim, past and present.

What we swam through to finish


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