The Genesis Of 40 Bridges, Doing 57 Miles With A Smile

The Genesis Of 40 Bridges, Doing 57 Miles With A Smile

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

On July 28th and 29th, the inaugural 57-mile 40 Bridges – Double Manhattan Island Swim was hosted New York Open Water.

The 91.6 km race is the world’s longest one-day, non-stop open water swimming competition.

The new event starts and finishes at Pier A and circles Manhattan Island twice in a counterclockwise direction.

40 Bridges Double Manhattan Island Swim Results:
1. Jaimie Monahan 8:35:43 first loop + 11:36:28 second loop = 20:12:06
2. Courtney Moates Paulk 8:55:00 first loop + 11:20:55 second loop = 20:15:55
3. Michele Walters 8:50:00 first loop + 11:26:40 second loop = 20:16:40
4. Gilles Chalandon 8:36:00 first loop + 12:01:03 second loop = 20:37:03
5. Steve Gruenwald 8:23:00 first loop
DNF Mo Siegel

47-year-old Courtney Moates Paulk broke the existing double circumnavigation record held by Christian Jongeneel by two seconds. “What a truly amazing experience 40 Bridges was,” the attorney recalled. “I’m still processing it, but I have wanted to do this swim for many years. I actually discussed it with Morty Berger in 2013-14 [but] it just never materialized.

I reached out to race directors Rondi Davies and David Barra last fall and, interestingly, so had others. So, a plan was hatched and the next thing I knew I was planning for a 57-mile swim

Paulk describes her career, her training, and her longest swim to date.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you explain what you do on dryland at work?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I am a construction lawyer and represent Owners/Developers, General Contractors, Subcontractors and design professionals on matters related construction projects. I handle projects, essentially, from tee to green – from the negotiations of contracts to the handling of disputes.

I am a shareholder in my firm which has about 85 lawyers. In addition to being a lawyer, I also serve on my firm’s Board of Directors, as Chair of the Litigation Section, as Co-Chair of the Construction Practice Group and as the Hiring Partner. I truly enjoy representing my clients and my administrative duties at the firm.

Swimming provides an excellent balance to my career. My career is really focused on helping people address and solve their problems and issues – or in other words, it is about others and not me – and I’m perfectly okay with that. Swimming and, in particular, training for ultra-marathon distance swims, forces me to spend at least part of the day being a little selfish and focusing on myself. If I didn’t spend that time taking care of myself, I don’t think I would be as good of a lawyer or an administrator. Also, my clients think I’m pretty tough.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How many hours do you work (both at home and at the office), plus commuting time?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I typically spend 50-60 hours a week working. Thankfully, I only live about 8 minutes away from the office – so my commute is extremely short. Also, the pool I typically train in during the week is only 12 minutes from my house and about the same distance from my office. That’s one of the benefits of living in Richmond.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: When and where do you train?

Courtney Moates Paulk: During the week, I train with a masters swimming team at SwimRVA. It is a beautiful facility which opened in 2012. It has a 50-meter pool which was the Olympic Trials pool from 2008.

During the weekends, in the spring and the fall, I train in the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay. We have a house and a boat in a little town on the Rappahannock River near where it meets the Chesapeake Bay called Saluda, Virginia and my husband Matt and, from time to time, our friends, support me for long open water swims from our boat. And our Chocolate Lab Peake (named for the Chesapeake Bay) usually comes along. There is typically a good bit of eating and drinking on the boat – which, since I just have to watch from the water helps A LOT with training my brain to just focus on swimming.

I typically don’t train there in the summer months because the water temperature can reach the 90s. During the summer I either do my longer swims in the pool or I head to Boston, New York or Cork, Ireland for Distance Week for training.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you explain your training regimen for the 91.6 km 40 Bridges – Double Manhattan Island Swim?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I did masters swimming practices of 1¼ hours 3-4 mornings a week and typically tacked on at least another 45 minutes to an hour after practice ended. Some days I did doubles where I would go back to masters practice in the evenings. As the event got closer, I added on days during the week in the pool on my own.

I did longer swims on the weekends in the pool or open water. As for my open water training, I did longer swims in the open water through the spring in the Rappahannock River.

But, the training I found to be the most beneficial was going to Cork Distance Week in early July. I swam approximately 4 hours a day for 9 days – some days a little more, some days a little less. I returned home from Ireland 11 days before the swim and went directly into a taper.

The only downside to doing 40 Bridges so close to Cork was that I was completely acclimated to cold water when I got home from Ireland. The water temperature in Cork ranged from 50-58°F. Yet, the Hudson, East and Harlem rivers were in the mid-70°F’s. Thankfully, we had an overcast day and wind during the overnight hours – so I didn’t get terribly hot. But, as far as the distance and time in the water in Cork (in addition to the camaraderie in Cork – which is amazing), I couldn’t have asked for a better push leading up to 40 Bridges.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You really pushed one of the world’s greatest marathon swimmers, Jaimie Monahan, over a 20-hour period and nearly beat her. Were you trying to win or just to finish?

Courtney Moates Paulk: Before the swim, Rondi Davies said that, given the model she had prepared for the event, she thought we all had a chance of beating the current record of 20 hours, 15 minutes and 57 seconds. And, about 2½ hours out from the finish, my awesome kayaker for the second lap – John Humenik – said that Rondi wanted to let us know that we still had the chance to be beat the record.

Throughout the swim, for the most part, I really didn’t have any idea where the other swimmers were. I knew where Gilles Chalandon was when I passed him in the Harlem River and I saw Michele Walters when we entered the Hudson on the second lap.

But, I actually never saw Jaimie or had any idea where she was during the swim. During the second lap, as we were coming down the Hudson, the police pushed me towards the New Jersey side of the river to avoid a barge coming up the river and apparently, Michele and Jaimie were closer to the Manhattan side – so I couldn’t even see them. Also, Jaimie started in the wave ten minutes before I did so I didn’t really have any way of knowing where her time would fall in relation to mine. What is truly amazing is that Jaimie, Michele and I all completed the swim within less than five minutes of each other. When you consider that we were swimming for 57 miles for over 20 hours – that is truly remarkable.

So, while I really was just thinking about finishing the swim – I did kick it into a higher gear when I got the message from Rondi that I had the chance to beat the record. Other than a little nagging pain in my left bicep and some minor pain in my right elbow, I felt remarkably good throughout the swim.

From an energy perspective, I felt great for the entirety of the swim. I never even got sleepy during the nighttime swimming against the current and the headwinds in the Harlem. I was particularly pleased to have the fastest second lap. That made me feel like I had really achieved the plan I set for the swim. Go out slow and try to finish strong.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: 20 hours…what was going through your mind over that day- and night-long swim?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I’ve done a pretty good job over the years of training my brain to go quiet during long swims – so I really don’t think about too much. When I would find myself feeling like I was entering the hurt locker, I started singing Pharrell Williams’ song Happy and that kept me from going into too many dark places.

The great thing about a Manhattan Island swim is that you have so much to look at. During the day in the Harlem on the first lap, there was a group of cheerleaders with signs cheering us on. During the nighttime in the Harlem on the second lap, there were lots of people along the side of the river asking John what we were doing and then they would give a little cheer.

A local swimmer, Sharon, was out on one of the bridges over the Harlem about 3:00 am and was cheering us on from the bridge. She had the flashlight on her phone shining and she was shouting for us to go as John and I went under the bridge. Of course, the bridges and the rivers give you interim goals in addition to just swimming feed to feed. It helps break the swim down into definite units and goals. And, having so many bridges allows you to congratulate yourself as you reach each one and helped to keep me swimming positive and happy.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What were the biggest differences on the first loop versus the second loop?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I really took my time during the first loop because I knew we were projected to have to wait for the current to shift in the East River and that we would be on the swimming treadmill or hamster wheel in the Harlem for a really long time. So, I took time with my feeds and chatted with my crew during the first lap. I also wanted to make sure that I had enough left in me for the second lap.

During the second lap, during one of my first feeds in the Harlem, I swam under a bridge and then stopped to do a feed. John and I were chatting a bit while I was doing the feed and the next thing we knew we had floated about 300 meters or so back down the river in the wrong direction. So, after that, I tried my best to make my feeds a little faster.

I’m not sure I was entirely successful with that – but, I was at least a little more cognizant of it. The four hours we swam against the current and headwind in the Harlem were perhaps the most difficult part of the entire swim. I just had to put my head down and swim. I tried not to focus on the seawall which made it clear how slow we were really going and, instead, tried to just focus on John and the kayak. When you are out in the open ocean, you don’t have a seawall or really any bearings to judge whether you are making slow or fast progress. So, I did my best to shift my mindset to avoid focusing on the seawall. However, when it became clear around 3:45 that the current had finally shifted, it was great boost to start focusing again on the seawall and the buildings next to the river.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did you eat and drink during the swim?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I used a mixture of CarboPro and Tailwind in my liquid feeds. I fed every thirty minutes and took in solid food every 2½ hours. The solid food consisted of small packets of apple sauce, egg salad (yes – I realize that is very odd) and a variety of bars.

The apple sauce was, by far, my favorite. I also had plain water and ginger ale.

I did have a bit of an upset stomach in the Hudson during the first lap and spent about 5 minutes dry heaving. The police boat was nearby and at first they were pretty concerned. My awesome first lap kayaker – Terry Lopatosky – waved them off and said, ‘She’s okay – this just happens.] And I was able to shout in between some heaves and say ‘I’m okay’ and gave them the thumbs up. I tried to have a Diet Coke as a treat while I was treading water after the first lap waiting for the tide to change and that did NOT sit well.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How did your body feel after?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I was a little woozy when I hit the dock and had to sit for a bit. But, after I had a shower, a nap and some pizza in bed – I actually felt remarkably okay. My arms and upper back were sore and I was tired, but, all things considered I felt pretty good.

I had dinner with part of my crew on Saturday night and then had a great brunch with a friend on Sunday – along with some mimosas, followed by some wine. I’ve been more tired than usual this week…oh, and hungrier than usual.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What made you want to do this swim?

Courtney Moates Paulk: I haven’t yet found the place where I feel like I’ve pushed myself to the absolute limit. I need to find that place. I need to understand where that breaking point is – where I really just have to say, I can’t do anymore. I absolutely LOVED my goal to achieve the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. It motivated me and gave me more than just one swim to plan for. And, I loved each Triple Crown swim for entirely different reasons. So, I kept finding myself drawn back to the thought of swimming around Manhattan, across the English Channel and across the Catalina Channel.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If you could magically face your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give yourself?

Courtney Moates Paulk: Take bigger risks. I’ve always been a risk-taker – but, it wasn’t until I was a little older than 20 that I realized that it was okay to take big risks. I’m not afraid to fail.

I never head into a swim, or really anything in life, thinking that I’m going to fail or that I even have a chance of failing. But, when things don’t necessarily go according to plan in life – I don’t view that as a failure. I think of it as – I accomplished what I was meant to accomplish on the day or in whatever scenario I might find myself in. I feel like by just having the willingness to undertake to jump off the boat or take a risk makes me a winner and a stronger person.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What advice would you give young professional women who want to replicate your career and athletic achievements?

Courtney Moates Paulk: Take time to be selfish and take care of yourself. It’s like when the flight attendant tells you to put your mask on before you help others.

If you don’t take care of yourself, then you aren’t going to be able to help others and you are going to burnout. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not always great at balance because I’m passionate about the things I love to do – like my career and swimming. But, I endeavor, on a daily basis, to do my best to find as much balance as possible. And, sometimes that means I can’t swim as much as I had hoped during that week – but I forgive myself and move on.

Beating yourself up for things you didn’t do yesterday is a complete waste of energy. Looking forward to what you can do better tomorrow and living in the moment is the best advice I can give.

Courtney Moates Paulk is shown above only minutes after finishing her 20 hour 15 minute non-stop swim and with her husband and support crew member Matt Paulk.

Copyright © 2008-2017 by World Open Water Swimming Association