As mentioned, my last race was thirteen years ago. The race was one mile, from South Cove in Battery Park City to Pier 25 in Hudson River Park. I was visiting New York with my friend Patty and the swim served as early, possibly-useful research for eventual sections of Sage Island (still an evolving idea at the time). “Can’t be that dirty, right?” I said when Patty confirmed my online registration. “I wouldn’t swim the East River though,” she grinned.
We wandered around Battery Park in search of the race start, arriving late but in time for the course briefing and for an organizer to jiffy-marker 19 onto both my shoulders. I tucked my hair under a cap. The countdown started. An air horn blasted, and we were off, a pod of water birds in a cloud of froth. The course ran the length of a seawall where Patty could follow me on foot, cheering and hollering under the sun. Twenty-four minutes later I slapped my hand against a gangway ladder, marking my finish. Someone hosed me down. Patty and I celebrated with blender drinks on a friend’s rooftop patio—accessible only through a window—overlooking Manhattan.
Imagine my dismay when I arrived at the BCNSWIM race check-in this morning to find I was assigned number 19. Out of 320 swimmers, the same number I was given thirteen years ago in NYC! Of the 320 registered swimmers, only 53 were women. I collected my cap and secured time chip around my ankle. An organizer drew 19 on my shoulders with a marker.
Dance music pumped from loudspeakers at Port Forum Beach. The conditions looked okay except for the breakers crashing onto shore. Swimmers warmed-up behind the surf, loosening-up their arms and legs like responsible athletes. I sat on my towel and bought a Coke and water from a random guy selling pop and chips out of a plastic bag. I had absolutely no idea what to expect as a result of this experiment other than a) I wanted to complete the swim, and b) I preferred not to finish last.
The pre-race briefing was held completely in Spanish. I understood nothing save the countdown. A countdown sounds like a countdown in any language, and then you run into the ocean and try to stay close to at least one other swimmer. At least this is my strategy.
Diez. Nueve. Ocho. Siete. Seis. Cinco. Cuatro. Tres. Dos. Uno! We ran into the ocean and dove into a swell. The fastest swimmers took off in a drove. I swam steadily with competitors to either side. The pack thinned out and I knew there were swimmers ahead and behind me. The water temperature was about 25C. Warm. No wetsuits allowed.
I approached the first buoy, overjoyed to notice that a swimmer had taken up residence to my left. We stroked in unison around the giant orange bobble. Underwater, I could see that her swim suit had a comic book pattern.
We took turns sighting, keeping each other on track toward the next buoy. She had smaller arms than me. Actually, she appeared small in general, and for the first half of the race I had two predominant thoughts: You can swim 2500 meters, I told myself. And: Please don’t be twelve. I really didn’t want to pace this race alongside a child, as endearing a thought as this may be. Wait. Were children even allowed to register for this? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t sure. You can swim 2500 meters. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Please don’t be twelve. You can swim 2500 meters. Please don’t be twelve.
We rounded the third orange buoy at 1300 meters and raised our heads simultaneously, unable to see the next marker. We bobbed in the swells, and she said something in rapid Spanish. “No comprendo,” I said. “Sorry?” Together we sunk into a trough and caught sight of another buoy. “Over there,” I waved. She pointed, “Allá, allá!”
We swam toward the 1500-meter buoy. She was not twelve. She was definitely an adult. After 1500 meters, we didn’t realize that we’d started to zigzag. The swells pushed us around. We’d stop and look for the next buoy, see nothing but ocean, and put our faces back down to keep swimming. We swam so close together our arms would sometimes graze. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Sight. Back down. Swim.
A yellow blur slid across our horizon. We bobbed like seals. Lifeguards on a paddleboard. A fit of Spanish broke out between my pacer and the guards. We’d started swimming off course, I gathered as much from the gestures alone. They motioned for us to bear left. She turned to me, pointed in that direction, nodded, “Okay?” “Okay!” I said.
The final buoy came into view. We picked up the pace. How had I forgotten the adrenalin of the finish, when the dark water brightens to a sandy glow, lighter and lighter until you can grab the sand in your fist and crawl onto your feet?
My comic print pacer ran up the beach and finished four seconds ahead of me. On the other side of the finish line, where officials retrieved our chips, we released our goggles and grinned at each other. “Thanks,” I said. She was in her early twenties. “Good job,” she said. There were still at least 20 women behind us, and I sat on the beach to watch them swim into the finish. A few were towed in on boards and escorted up the sands by the Creu Roja. When the results were posted I ran my finger over the names, Raquel, Natalia, Manuela, Rosa, to find her, one name above mine: Melania.