Keep Portland Weird? Absolutely!
I’ve had so many swimblogging false starts lately. I’ve written half-finished product reviews for everything from suits, haircare for habitual chlorine offenders, and swimming MP3 players . I’ve thought about writing about my nutritional challenges during long events and long training sessions. And I thought about writing about recovery from injury after going through some shoulder struggles a short while ago. None of these topics really seemed to light me up, but I did do something cool on July 10, and I thought you should know about it.
After 2 long years of Covid cancellations, the Portland Bridge Swim was finally a GO! I signed up for the 2020 edition of this unique event way back in 2019 when the Earth was green and the dinosaurs roamed, and there was no global plague to mess everything up. The concept: swim the 12 bridges of the Willamette River right through urban Portland, Oregon, with a healthy current assist and an official US Master’s Swimming Association designation. 11.8 miles (roughly 19-20km) of torpedo-ing next to BIG boats, with 99 other swimmers. A Portland getaway, with all the requisite donuts and food carts and craft beer….who wouldn’t be tempted?
I had been in the Willamette River back in 2013, when I attended the World Domination Summit (that’s DOMINATION, not DOMINATRIX, as had to be clarified to border officials). The conference has become known for it’s unconventional approach, and each year they attempt to break a world record. The record in question was the longest human chain on water, so everyone who attended the conference was outfitted with a colourful inner tube. On the day of the attempt, everyone got into the river, sat in their floaty tube, and held hands while the official Guinness People did their count on jet skis. So really, just my butt was in the water, but the end result was something epic. Much like the Bridge Swim, really.
So, the plan was to swim in 2020, and I don’t need to tell you what happened. Cancelled. 2021 – cancelled again. For 2 years the organizers kept swimmers in the loop, and one day the call was made – 2022 was on! This would be my first “official” event since the virus swept the world, and I was thrilled to ramp up my training and activate my support crew. What began as a plan for a quick 3 day hop over the border turned into a full week of exploring the city and its many charms (and many donuts) with my daughter, my sister, my niece, and Harriet the dog. We stayed in a great AirBnB in the Alberta neighbourhood, and took in as much (caloric energy) as possible, including a day on the coast to play in the ocean waves and gawp at the Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, a performance of Rent, Multnomah Falls, and the legendary Powell’s Bookstore.
I tried to learn as much about the swim and what to expect ahead of time, but this was a challenge. There aren’t many accounts of past Portland Bridge Swims online, and just a smattering of social media posts. I was most intrigued by the notion of “current assisted”, which I took in a positive sense to mean that the swim would take me much less time than what I’d typically swim 19 km (evidenced from my Christina Lake swim in 2020). Information emails from the organizers predicted a cold swim with a fast current, but as the date grew closer and I did manage to connect with some past participants, I grew to believe that the assist would be minimal, and that I should prepare for anywhere between 5-7 hours. This is critically important for planning feeds, especially as I’ve been struggling with this aspect of planning as I attempt longer distances and nothing seems to work really well after 12 km or 4 hours in motion. Like, I barf and lose energy and lose my will to live. But more on that in another post! My suspicions about the current were confirmed at package pickup, when one of the organizers confirmed that if any assist was present at all, it would be during the first 2 km. And that’s it.
I knew I was in for the long haul, so we made sure that Scarlet was also flush with snacks and hydration for the kayak. Portland was as hot as a witch’s bazingy that week at 40 C. I don’t know how the swimmers in wetsuits do it – because the water was at least 20 and probably higher in spots. I really wish my feeds had been cold, and that’s something I will try to put in place for the upcoming Lake Zurich swim. It seems that pre-mixed warm anything is going to make me feel like hell, and sure enough, I did have 2 small hurls and 1 gigantic projectile vomit at around the 12-13 km mark, when even the thought of the next warm slug was almost too much.
Swimming under 12 bridges – all of them unique – was really cool. Swimming through Portland’s port-ly past made this a particularly unique swim, with each landmark or tanker or other boat (there were so so so many boats!) providing visual interest and a true sense of getting some place. I felt really motivated being in such a strange location, since the current made it feel like I was hardly moving at some points. I could usually see other swimmers and their kayakers on the water, with this whole other “lane” of people going about their business and leisure right beside me. Scarlet took some great photos, on top of being a shrewd navigator and top notch bottle thrower.
Other than the pukes, which were such a minor part of this swim, I felt pretty good most of the way and didn’t experience anything out of the ordinary. In a long swim like this, I tend to go through mental stages much like any other major life event. I start out nervous but excited, and hit a real streak of positivity for the first 8 km. I’m happy to be in the water, I’m neither hungry nor burping up breakfast, and all my limbs are doing what they’re supposed to. At some point between 9-12 km, things start to crop up. A nagging headache, a numb left arm/hand, a burning right elbow, a wave of nausea, a fear of not finishing, doubt about future swims, a drop in confidence. Sometimes I decide that this will be my last swim. But somehow, one stroke at a time, the finish grows nearer. I rely on Scarlet’s encouragement, their sweet face, their consistency and timekeeping, and their honesty. They know I can do it. I know that they know, and so I do it. I just get it done.
Coming into the finish felt great. I forgot about the pain as soon as I could hear the cheering. I saw my sister and my niece and could hear the genuine encouragement in their voices. With a few wobbly staggers up the sand, I was over the line and getting all the hugs, a finisher’s medal, a cold bottle of water, and a tamale!
It’s always awesome to be part of an event where you can feel how connected the organizers are. This group were so happy to have pulled it off, achieved that 10 year anniversary, and celebrated being back in the river together. Their joy was contagious. I wish them congratulations and want to thank them for a thrilling day and a truly unique swim. I’d recommend this event to anyone who’s curious about stretching their distance limit beyond 10 km, or seeks a destination swim in a clean river in a vibrant city. Or who likes donuts and food carts and fun. It was the perfect test case for my upcoming 26 km in Zurich, giving me a little confidence boost and the fuel to keep on training, and keep it weird.