“Hey, you’re that guy!” I turned and saw that the actor David Duchovny was talking to me. It was 5:30 in the morning. We were in line to get body-marked at the 2004 New York City Triathlon.
“You’re the reason I’m doing this,” Mr. Duchovny said. “I registered after reading your article. I grew up in New York and always wanted to swim in the Hudson River.”
I’d written a little piece in the Sunday Times sports section, with an accompanying photo, about foolishly attempting my first Olympic distance triathlon (1.5 kilometer swim, 40K bike, 10K run). Single at age 48, I figured the triathlon was a crash course that would get me in shape for the summer, even though I’d only trained for six weeks and hadn’t swum in years-never mind in the Hudson. But wasn’t it all cleaned up these days?
Forty-five minutes later, I was in the river, joking with other men in purple swim caps that designated our age group while we waited for the triathlon to begin. Waves of athletes were going off every four minutes. Surprisingly, I had no pre-race jitters. The water wasn’t all that cold, and my new wet suit gave me buoyancy and confidence. I was mentally rehearsing some swimming tips when one of the competitors mentioned that the swim portion had been canceled the previous year.
“Why?” I asked. “Rough water?”
“No, it rained the night before last year’s race,” he said. “All the city sewers and septic overflowed and ran off into the Hudson. They tested the water-it was completely toxic.”
Then the starter’s air horn sounded.
The water was mud brown, with a mossy green tint. A blizzard of mystery particles swirled around in front of my goggles. But unlike the comfy pool I had trained in, I saw no bottom. My chest tightened and I started to gag after only a few strokes. I couldn’t breathe. Competitors kicked and smashed into me.
My head popped out of the murk. I panted and paddled like a dog as the fast swimmers left me in their wake. After some frantic thrashing, I tried swimming again. This time, I gasped for air and sucked in a mouthful of liquid biohazard. I resurfaced, choking on the salty water. There was no doubt in my mind that the particles immediately started attacking my immune system. Forget PCB’s and the G.E. plant up north-did Riverkeeper know about those sewage overflows? My pulse raced. It felt like the wind was knocked out of me. My first-ever panic attack had waited to sink me in the middle of the Hudson River.
In the choppy water, I couldn’t see the finish nearly a mile away at the 79th Street Boat Basin. Instinctively, I flipped over on my back and began to float with the current, like trash tossed from the Circle Line, adrift in the shipping lanes of the Hudson. The morning sun blinded me, but some fresh air did squeeze into my constricted lungs. It was humiliating, but not as bad as the potential Post headline:
“LOSER IN LOVE COMMITS SUICIDE BY TRIATHLON.”
Spectators walked along the bank in Riverside Park following their swimmers. They pointed at me, wondering, no doubt, why I was randomly drifting downriver in an endurance race. Once my breathing fully recovered, I experimented with moving my arms and legs from the spread-eagle position. My muscles remembered the elementary backstroke, a survival technique I learned at childhood swimming lessons. A volunteer on a kayak yelled something that I couldn’t hear-right before my head cracked into a buoy and I got tangled up in the rigging. Then a wave of pink-capped women swam over me as if I was, well, just floating on my back.
After a half hour of staring at clouds, I filled my cheeks with air, closed my eyes and rolled over to swim the final 20 yards. Race organizers always take official pictures to sell to the participants. With a snapshot of me actually swimming, I’d have evidence to plausibly deny having spent the race as a piece of human driftwood. I emerged from the river and immediately got sick all over the dock. The photographer caught me in action.
The transition from the swim to the bike was a slapstick routine. I’d never worn a wet suit before, so before the race, when I saw all those muscular guys spraying themselves with Pam cooking oil, I figured that this triathlon crowd was a vain lot-they oiled up those delts, quads or whatever, I was certain, just to look good in their Speedos. My gluteus was not the least bit maximus, so I stayed corn-oil-free. But now in the transition, these same athletes easily peeled off the rubber straitjackets like Houdinis on Balco steroids while I was trapped in a rubbery hell, wasting valuable time rolling on the ground with my legs over my head trying to kick, pull or scratch the damn thing off.
I kept my head down during the bike and run portions to avoid being recognized and embarrassed by anyone who had seen my Hudson River performance. I realized that because I’d worn a wet suit, cap and goggles, only people in the water right around me could finger me as that guy who wrote the article.
My legs stiffened up and I Herman-Munstered across the finish line in three hours and nine minutes. The athletes hung around and replenished with bagels and bananas. Two attractive women wearing form-fitting racing outfits stood next to me.
“Did you see that guy who just bobbed on the water?” the cuter of the two asked. She looked fast, even standing still.
” See him? I had to swim over him. He cost me a personal record!” her friend complained.
“That’s like walking in a marathon,” the first woman said. “Just finishing doesn’t mean you’re a runner. He had no business being in a triathlon.”
Then she noticed me. “Hey-you’re that guy!” She held a pink swim cap. My breath went shallow and I felt nauseous again.
“I loved your article.” She smiled, maybe even flirted. “How was your first open-water swim?”
Did she say “love”? “Surprisingly good,” I said. “With the wet suit and strong current, it felt like I was just floating on top of the water.”