What Makes a Long-Distance Swimmer Tick?

Good morning. It’s Monday. Today we’ll hear from an endurance swimmer who is bringing his Speedo, his goggles and his cap to the Hudson River. His goal is more than just bragging rights for making his way through the Hudson from beginning to end, 315 miles in all.

Credit…Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

I’m not much of a swimmer, but I was intrigued by Jesse McKinley’s story about Lewis Pugh, a British maritime lawyer-turned-swimmer who has set his sights on the Hudson — so intrigued that I asked Pugh to talk about what motivates him.

I know swimmers who have circumnavigated Manhattan, apparently confident that the Hudson’s polluted industrial past is indeed in the past. Pugh wants to focus attention on the Hudson as a prime example of how a toxic waterway can be revived.

How did you get the idea to swim the Hudson?

Why the Hudson? I’d been looking for many, many years to do a swim down a river that could tell a story about all rivers, and again and again it comes back to the Hudson. She’s an incredibly beautiful river. She’s unlike any other river in the whole world, where at the source there are bears and beavers and vultures and at the end is one of the greatest cities on this earth. She’s unique. It’s a river that was misused, was cared for and has been turned around. Yes, still a lot more work needs to be done, but it’s a river which gives hope.

If I had tried this swim 50 years ago, it would not have been possible. I’d have gotten incredibly sick. I doubt any swimmer would have been able to make it.

Even so, you have a medical guide for this that says you’ll be exposed to everything from “human sewage and rat infestation” to chemicals like mercury that are remnants of the Hudson’s industrial past. Isn’t all that enough to make you think more than twice?

Any river is always a work in progress, and huge strides have been made in cleaning up this one. This is a good news story. Rivers are essential for life on earth, right?

In a career of 36 years, I’ve only ever done four river swims. In three of those, I got seriously sick. What is clear to me is we cannot have clean oceans, which are my passion and my drive, without clean rivers, because everything that goes down a river eventually ends up in our oceans. So not only does pollution destroy the health of a river, it goes on to do the same in oceans. It’s so much more manageable to clean up a river than to clean up an ocean, which is so much more vast. This is a swim to highlight that.

Perhaps I will get sick, but I believe that protecting the health of our planet is the defining issue of our generation, and I want everybody to care for our rivers.

I lived in a city which almost ran out of water — Cape Town, which in 2018 was going to be the first major city in the world that was going to run out of water. The mayor announced “Day Zero,” the day, given the consumption of water, that we would run out. This was announced in January 2018. We were projected to run out of water by Easter. Each of us was limited to about 75 liters per person per day. We had long queues, people standing and waiting for water. It focused your mind on how important water is.

Parts of the Hudson are so shallow that you can’t swim there — you’ll have to run along the edges. There are snakes there. That’s not putting you off, is it?


I’ve swum in proximity to sharks, polar bears, crocodiles, hippos, you know? I respect these animals incredibly.

I’m going into this river to tell a story about life and how important life on earth is. We’ve scouted this river very carefully, and we believe we can do it safely.

And you’re going to wear only in a Speedo, with goggles and a cap — no wet suit. Is going “unassisted” different from swimming in a wet suit?

That’s the way I’ve done every single one of my swims. Other people swim with equipment. They may use a wet suit or a dry suit or flippers. They may go down on a board or use hand paddles.

I not only swam the length of the English Channel in Speedo, cap and goggles, I swam across the North Pole. There the water is 29 degrees Fahrenheit. Minus 1.7 degrees centigrade. With salt water, the temperature at which it freezes is minus 1.8.

This was no in-and-out dip. This was a symbolic swim along the North Pole, a one-kilometer swim which took me 18 minutes 50 seconds. It felt like 18 hours. It was so cold. People asked, “Does it get better?” No, it gets worse. You get colder. That pain at lowest temperatures is excruciating. I did this swim in 2007. That was a time when many people were denying the reality of what was happening the high Arctic. I did it to show the Arctic was melting so much that you could even swim across the North Pole.

The Hudson will be warmer.

A lot warmer. I absolutely think the water temps are going to be perfect. I like 17 degrees centigrade (62.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Not 18 (64.4), not 16 (60.8). I think in the upper reaches, it will probably be around that.

How much will you swim each day?

The short answer is about five hours — two hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon.

You don’t want to be swimming in the middle of the day, just because of the solar load on the back, and if you’re doing a long swim for 30 days, you want to break it up so your body is getting as much rest as possible. So, swimming in the morning, then before the sunset getting back into the river and doing a big chunk.

How is this swim different from what you did on the English Channel?

It’s a similar length, and obviously in the English Channel there’s pollution. But where there’s pollution in a river, it’s much more concentrated. And salt water, in the sea or in the English Channel, has a way of healing any wounds. You hit a rock in a river, that can start getting infected.


Expect a mostly sunny day with a high in the low 80s and a slight chance of showers in the morning. Temps will drop to the high 60s in the evening.


In effect until Aug. 15 (Feast of the Assumption).

The latest Metro news

Mallory Grossman in a social media image provided by the family.Credit…via Facebook
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‘Lobby, please’

Dear Diary:

I was leaving my apartment to walk the dog. When I got on the elevator, there was a man there who asked where I was headed and motioned toward the buttons.

“Lobby, please,” I said.

Somewhat confused after noticing that none of the other buttons were lit up, I asked where he was headed.

“I’m the elevator inspector,” he said. “I’ll be here a while.”

Shannelie Mendez Carlo

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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