Last Sunday afternoon Cheryl Reinke joined a class of about 50 swimmers in the waters of Nevins Creek in Tega Cay to swim a leisurely two miles. It was a slow and refreshing swim – the 51-year old engineer lagged towards the back taking long, achy, slow strokes, alongside amateur swimmers, enjoying the warm open water.
Two miles seems like an almost unbearable distance to cover in the water without the assistance of a boat. It was nothing compared to what Reinke – who has lived in York for 12 years - had just endured.
Along New York’s Hudson River stretch eight iconic bridges spanning 120.3 miles that, for one week a year, become the center of the marathon-swimming world. The water running beneath the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, past West Point, under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, past Manhattan and into Upper Bay makes up the annual 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.
The marathon swim under the eight bridges is one that few swimmers dare to attempt and even fewer conquer. Forget that the water belongs to the Hudson River – historically one of the more polluted water sources in the world – this cold-water swim is broken into seven daily stages of which the shortest is 13.2 miles and longest is 19.8.
Two weeks ago Reinke confronted - and conquered - the 120.3-mile juggernaut.
Follow her journey down the Hudson River with this interactive:
Stage 1: Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge – 18.3 miles
June 26, 2016 – The 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim began with an 18.3-mile swim from near the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Swimmers reported to the public dock at Catskill Point, just over 2 hours north of Manhattan, full of anxiety and excitement in anticipation of the daunting task ahead.
The product of director David Barra’s dreams, 8 Bridges is now in its sixth year of existence. Up until this year’s race, only four swimmers successfully attempted and completed all seven stages and 120 miles of the race – one of which is race co-director Rondi Davies.
Swimmers opt to swim a single stage, multiple stages, or all stages – known as odyssey.
Reinke, along with six other swimmers in the 2016 race, attempted the swim in odyssey.
Once all the competitors were in the water, kayakers stationed, and safety boats signaled “all clear,” the countdown began.
“What have I signed up for,” ran through Reinke’s brain.
Four… Three… Two…
“No turning back now.”
Automatically Reinke’s thoughts quieted, her brain switched into gear, and she methodically churned through 18.3 miles of the Hudson until she reached the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge 4 hours, 58 minutes later.
Stage 2: Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge To Mid-Hudson Bridge – 19.8 miles
June 27, 2016 – Marathon swimming requires unyielding power.
Currents flow and tides rise in the open water. At one point the current works with, and then changes working against the swimmer. If it cannot be overcome the current leaves the swimmer suspended in place.
The 19.8-mile stretch wasn’t a race against the other 40 or so competitors, as much as a race against the current.
The second stage was estimated to last around six hours – swimming a pace of roughly 30 minutes per mile – but lasted just shy of eight hours.
“You don’t think of it,” Reinke said earlier this week at Rock Hill’s Upper Palmetto YMCA. “It’s 20-minute stages – you just go 20 minutes, 20 minutes, 20 minutes, and the 20 minutes just add up.”
Reinke’s 8 Bridges swim was a three-year training ordeal. The swimmer gradually eased herself into cold-water multi-stage swims. Beginning in 2014, Reinke swam the Lake George single-stage 10K in New York. The following year she traveled west to Arizona to compete in the four-day, four-stage, 42-mile SCAR Swim.
Reinke trained four to five hours a day in the indoor pool at the Rock Hill Aquatics center, using paddles to build her upper body strength. Reinke actually avoided training in Lake Wylie because the water wasn’t cold enough.
More important was the drastic reinvention of Reinke’s diet. In December of 2015, she eliminated carbohydrates – such as sugars and breads – from her diet. By only eating proteins and fats – primarily meats and vegetables – she taught her body to create energy directly from fat sources instead of the normal carb sources. Reinke increased her body’s overall energy production almost 10-fold – ensuring that at no point during the 120.3-mile trek would she collapse from a lack of energy.
So when the current switched four hours into a swim, Reinke’s body literally dug deep and powered her forward to the finish of the second leg.
Only one other swimmer completed the stage before the current trapped the remaining participants in stagnancy.
After two days in the Hudson, Reinke had covered 38.1 miles in 12 hours, 55 minutes.
Stage 3: Mid-Hudson Bridge to Newburgh Beacon Bridge – 13.2 miles
June 29, 2016 – Stage three was the shortest leg of the race, a meager 13.2-mile swim.
The painstakingly long swims evolved into a daily routine – wake-up, swim, eat, and sleep. The normalcy of the days became almost comforting, as Reinke entered a machine-like groove.
An Ohio native, Reinke grew up a pool swimmer. She earned herself a swimming scholarship to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, after a standout high school career. Reinke even competed for a spot on Team USA for the 1984 Olympics, failing to qualify by mere seconds. A shoulder injury ended her competitive swimming career shortly after.
It took her 25 years, but Reinke made her way back into the pool thanks to a push from a triathlete friend.
Forty-years old in front of her friends and family, Reinke competed again.
“I went to a swim meet up in Cleveland, where I’m originally from, and my father showed up. And you get out after the event and my father goes, ‘Your turns still suck.’ Thanks Dad! Glad 25 years later you’re still telling me the same thing when I get out of the water.”
A chance encounter with an open-water swimmer in 2010 opened her goggled eyes to a new kind of swimming, one that didn’t involve kick turns.
Still, Reinke swam her first open water event, the Charleston 2.4-mile in the Cooper River.
“I fell in love,” she said. “You can just enjoy swimming. From there it was like, ‘okay where can we go, what can we do next?’”
After 4 hours, 17 minutes Reinke crossed under the Newburgh Beacon Bridge – bringing her three-day total distance to 51.7 miles in just over 17 hours, 13 minutes.
Stage 4: Newburgh Beacon Bridge to Bear Mountain Bridge – 15.0 miles
June 30, 2016 – A kayaker must accompany each swimmer according to the rules of marathon swimming. The kayaker travels the entire distance with the swimmer, acting as a GPS, a fuel source, and information lifeline.
Success in marathon swimming depends as much on the skill of the kayaker as well as the swimmer. More often than not, swimmers hire a professional kayaker with an intimate knowledge of the currents, chop and geography of a body of water to guide them during the swim.
“They (the kayakers) are the eyes; they’re guiding and navigating,” said Rondi Davies. “They’re the ears, they’re listening on the radio for the support boats for any instructions. The kayaker is the primary support.”
Reinke’s kayaker was her husband, Chris.
“This race really is a team,” she said. “We were the only husband and wife team, let alone the only team that knew each other.”
It was a reluctant decision at first to weave her relationship with her husband so intimately into marathon swimming. But who better to have by your side during a grueling, almost unbearable swim than your partner?
“Most people hire a kayaker and you don’t know who you get,” said Reinke. “My husband has learned how to tolerate me and deal with it all.”
“He totally kept her on when those days were really rough,” said Davies, about Chris’ kayaking. “He was really encouraging and would tell her what she needed to hear.”
The fourth stage was nearly perfect – smooth water, sunny, as the swimmers passed West Point, home of the U.S. Military Academy.
For the Reinke duo, this stage in particular hit home. Last year the Reinke’s lost a family friend, an Armed Services veteran who mentored their son.
In a race she dedicated to her mom, Reinke dedicated this leg to the veteran who made such an impact on her family. When she and Chris reached West Point during the swim, they stopped briefly and toasted their friend with an applesauce.
Reinke set a new stage record for the 15-mile swim with a time of 4:10:12 – breaking the previous record by four seconds. She felt the good karma came back around.
“That was the day we set the record,” Reinke said. “We stopped and as a result, I think if we didn’t stop we wouldn’t have gotten it.”
Four days into her swim, she’d covered 66.3 miles in just over 21 hours, 23 minutes.
Stage 5: Bear Mountain Bridge to Tappan Zee Bridge – 19.8 miles
July 1, 2016 – The 8 Bridges race resumed after a single day of rest. The day off only made the swimmers’ bone-deep ache worse, though.
They had to hustle during the fifth stage – another 19.8-miler. It operated on a strict time constraint due to construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge, which required 8 Bridges organizers to obtain specific time slots for swimmers to pass beneath the span.
The Hudson River has historically been one of the more polluted bodies of water in the United States. The Hudson has recovered drastically since the passage of the Clean Water Act, but the efforts of environmental and water quality organizations have made the river safe enough to swim in – though the risk of illness remains.
“I did take the antibiotics. I chose to do that,” said Reinke. “I had eye-drops; I had antibiotic eardrops. I had everything on hand and ready just in case. I don’t think its any dirtier than Lake Wylie personally. “
Stage five combined poor water quality with a storm warning and tornado watch, cold-water temperatures, and the muscle fatigue that set in during the day off. All combined for a near-impossible swim. Only two swimmers completed the stage, Reinke and 23-year old Paige Christie.
“Two miles out I started swimming 100 strokes free-style, 10 strokes breaststroke,” said Reinke. “And the only reason I had to was because my back muscles were giving out.”
Reinke finished seven minutes before all remaining competitors were pulled from the race. Within ten minutes of Reinke’s finish, the storm unleashed buckets of rain that undoubtedly destroyed all remaining visibility in the water. It took her 8 hours, 28 minutes to cross under the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Reinke’s five-day total mileage: 86.3 in just under 30 hours.
Stage 6: Tappan Zee Bridge to George Washington Bridge – 15.7 miles
July 2, 2016 – “Some people say this sport requires 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical,” said Davies. “It takes a lot of mental process and endurance and a lot of young people don’t have that. Most of our swimmers – well a lot of them are in their 50s.”
The sixth and penultimate leg emphasized the maturity required by marathon swimmers.
“You learn in open water that you’re actually looking outside,” said Reinke about the daze that overcomes the swimmers. “It’s kind of like turning your ears off. Well, we’re looking but not seeing.”
Instead of swimming non-stop for 15 miles at a time, marathon swimmers break, or feed, every 30 minutes or so. These feeds - they tread water and are not allowed to touch their kayakers or their boats - allow swimmers to get vital information from their guides, hydrate, and refuel in order to continue along the race.
Reinke fed every 20 minutes, which broke an hour into three parts. The first two feeds were a 5 to 10-second water-drinking break. She ate applesauce during the third feed.
The regularity of the feeds evolved into a comfort for Reinke.
Music players, metronomes, and other entertainment devices are banned from marathon swimming, so competitors must develop methods to pass the time.
“Mentally, this was extremely trying because you cannot get frustrated, which is your first reaction,” said Reinke. “You’re so tired, and you’re like, ‘Really, is this going to get worse? Is it going to get better? Are we ever going to see the sun again? Is the current going to pick up?’ Mentally you have to focus in on that and a lot of times, a lot of people find this funny, I count.”
An engineer by trade, Reinke counted.
She mentally ticked off the strokes in each 20 minute feed, roughly 600 strokes of her right arm. During the brief feeding break, her husband told her a pace, and maybe the time. In her next 20 minutes, Reinke calculated her speed in miles per hour. Her pattern switched the focus from swimming 18-plus miles to swimming the next 20 minutes.
Marathon swimmers need the mental strength to persist onward – if you’re persistent you will finish according to Reinke. She understood that the race’s purpose – at least in her perspective – wasn’t to win, but simply to become one of the elite few to finish all seven stages of the 8 Bridges.
“I was there to be No. 5,” Reinke said. “That was my goal the entire time.”
The George Washington Bridge marked 102 completed miles in 33 hours, 23 minutes.
Stage 7: George Washington Bridge to Verrazano Narrows Bridge – 18.6 miles
July 3, 2016 – The final stage of the swim took the competitors through Manhattan’s Upper Bay. The athletes swam with the Manhattan skyline on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the left.
Stage seven mimicked the previous six stages in many ways – mentally trying, long, anxiety-filled. Because of the aquatic traffic in the bay on the weekend of July 4th, the seventh stage best resembled the classic video game Frogger.
“You as a swimmer are trying to cross through water taxis, ferries, Fourth of July weekend travelers,” said Reinke. “You’ve got Manhattan on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. You had all this traffic.”
In her final swim, Reinke enjoyed the scenery - what little she saw from within the water - as pride swelled inside her body.
She finished the 8 Bridges in seven days – making her only the fifth ever, and the first older than 50, to do so. Her goal was complete, with the bonus of winning stages one, three, four, six and seven and the overall race.
Reinke swam 120 miles in 38 hours, 43 minutes.
“I didn’t actually go into this to win,” she said. “Winning to me is a bonus.”
It was finished. The Hudson was conquered.