Portland Bridge Swim: 11 miles - 11 Bridges  

Open water swimming is one of the fastest growing sports in this country and beyond. From 1K races to ultra-distance marathon swims of over 20 miles. It's easy to see how a race can emerge from a desire to swim out and around a pier or from pier to pier, both popular swim courses. However, once in a while a unique swim is introduced. Some times they are the result of a single swimmer setting the goal for themselves one year, and then taking on the much harder job of promoting it as an annual event. This is the case of Marisa Freider's Portland Bridge Swim: 11 miles & 11 Bridges.

In 2010 Marisa Frieder looked at the Willamette River (pronounced will'-am-et) as it passed through Portland and saw something no one had seen before. It was a special challenge that would bring attention to this beautiful watercourse. Moreover, it was also a chance to swim under all 11 bridges that cross the river as it winds 11 miles through downtown Portland, Oregon. Thousands of people already see Portland from it's bridges every year. However, they all do it on bicycles, and instead of getting wet in the river, they stay high and dry on the bridges themselves. If you are one of the few who ride all 10 bridges of the Portland Bridge Pedal you have bragging rights for the year (In the swim the 11th is a railroad bridge). But for Marisa that was not enough. She wanted to do it swimming.

Marisa Portland Bridge Swim

Marisa Frieder during her pioneering swim in 2010

Photograph courtesy of Marisa Frieder

So in 2010 she set off with her support crew that include Tim Cepedes as head honcho on board the support boat. Renowned marathon swimmer, Michele Macy, was on board as a pace swimmer. Michele was in the water to help Marisa maintain a constant swimming speed and in doing so, swam the entire 11 miles herself. Marisa completed the swim easily, and the rest is history. Well, at least it appeared to be easy to those on the shoreline. Now if that isn't impressive enough, you should know that just a few years before, all of Marisa's swimming was all done in a pool and commonly at 50 & 100 yard distances. Impressive to say the least.

Tim Portland Bridge Swim

Tim Cepedes and Michele Macy at the start of Marisa's 2010 Swim

Photograph courtesy of Marisa Frieder

Following that performance, in 2011 Marisa joined with Tim to promote the race giving other swimmers a chance to replicate her swim. Without going into details, let's just say that to put on a swim of this nature requires a lot of administrative work ahead of time, and a large support team in and out of the water to make it all come together. With safety as a primary focus, each swimmer would be accompanied by a kayaker, and additional boats would be stationed along the course staying in touch with each other by radio.

For this race Aurora Martin kindly agreed to be my kayaker. She voluntarily gave up her Saturday to be in the water, even though we had never met before the day of the swim. But for her gracious sacrifice, I would not been able to participate in the race.


My Kayaker Aurora Martin

Photograph by Bob Needham

The day of the swim brought a windless day with a bright blue sky and water temperatures in the high 60's. Many people's first reaction to hearing that I swam in the Willamette at those temperatures, would be to assume that I was wearing a wetsuit. However I did not. Water in the high 60's is generally considered by open water swimmers to be an good temperature for a swim. Not too hot, not too cold.

Coming in for a feeding

Photograph by Aurora Martin

One of the big differences between marathon swimming and open water swims of 5K or shorter, is that feeding during the swims is critical. Each swimmer decided how often they would take nourishment and what they would consume. I chose 1/2 hour intervals and stuck with the things I had consumed at the Tampa Bay 24 mile Marathon Swim. The nourishment was kept on board the kayak, but the swimmer had to make sure they avoided contact with the kayak or face disqualification. While purely incidental contact was not a violation, if you even grabbed the kayak momentarily you were expected to disqualify yourself. Swimmers consider this a serious matter, and self enforcement a matter of pride.


Downtown Portland, Oregon

Photograph by Aurora Martin

There have been many races where I was so focused I was barely aware of my surroundings. However, in this swim I had more than enough opportunity to take in the wonderful vistas of Portland. Living nearby in Lake Oswego one might speculate that I could not ignore the chance to get a unique perspective on the city, but if you did you'd be off the mark. Actually, at the root of my sightseeing was that I was having a terrible day in the water. Sooner or later, all open water swimmers will have a bad day, and this was to be mine. I had been not feeling great the week before, and if marathon swimming does anything, it preys on your weaknesses both mental and physical. I was barely a mile into the race and I knew I was in for a hard day.

When things are going well I get into a zone and focus on the moment. But on this day, hardly a minute went by that I didn't consider abandoning the swim. I had been training well so my body responded to my effort, albeit weak. But it was apparent that the day's true challenge was to be mental. Despite the pain I was in, I had to fight the demons and finish the swim. One of the great injustices in the sport is that good swimmers can look strong in the water, but feel terrible inside. Appearances are deceiving.


Looking relaxed in the water you wouldn't know how bad the day was going

Photograph by Aurora Martin

To watch a video of me swimming on this portion of the course Click Here or on the picture above.

I suppose a good blog entry would talk about my experiences as I swam from bridge to bridge, but frankly I was barely cognizant of passing under the bridges. I kept having negative self-talk throughout the swim. I tried my best to remember where the points were for a swimmer to abandon the swim in the event they could not finish, but I couldn't. So I kept putting one hand in front of another. I had heard of people suffering during a long swim, but this was a first for me.


Me looking forward to reaching St. John's Bridge

Photograph by Aurora Martin

As I approached the last bridge, St. Johns Bridge, I felt a great sense of relief. And then it occurred to me: the day had presented a special opportunity to experience what a truly bad day in the water felt like, and to fight on to the finish. This was an invaluable lesson that will pay off if I run into a tough time while attempting to cross the Catalina Channel in September.


Aurora still in great spirits at the end of a long day

Photograph by Bob Needham

So you may ask where did I find the strength to soldier on and finish the swim? The answer is simple. It was the great support, and good spirits of Aurora of my support paddler. If someone could cheerfully give up their Saturday for someone they did not know, the very least I could do was to complete the swim. Thanks Aurora. I could not have finished without you.

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