H20, Humility, and Serenity in NYC

Three years ago, I wrote about my first experience with SEA Paddle NYC, a 26-mile stand-up paddle circumnavigation of Manhattan for the cause of autism.

(Here is the link to that post: https://www.hyde.edu/blog/2016/08/25/sea-paddle-nyc-2016/)

The 2016 experience was exhilarating and the tone of my post was triumphant. Simply put, it was the hardest physical challenge I had ever undertaken and we raised a great deal of money for a cause near and dear to my heart. 

This year I decided to return to give it another shot. I was motivated for at least five reasons: 1) improve upon my 2016 time of 5 hours, 45 minutes; 2) re-experience the major adrenaline rush of the event; 3) reconnect with the awesome people I met in 2016; 4) participate in the signature event of a sport I have come to love; 5) raise even more money for autism. 

So, if I posted in triumph three years ago, it seems only fitting and proper to also post about the humility I experienced three days ago.

Having trained consistently and systematically this summer, I was feeling good when I made my way on the New York subway, lucky paddle in hand, from my Manhattan hotel to the start under the Brooklyn Bridge. 

However, what began as a beautiful sunny day with 80 fellow stand-up paddlers in a prayer circle under said bridge, ended with me in an ambulance being transported to a New York hospital for dehydration, muscle spasms, dizziness, and heat exhaustion. I’m feeling fine as I write this post but that was definitely not the case for about 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon.

Although the skies may have been picture-perfect, the first four miles up the East River were more turbulent than I had expected. I fell at least 10 times during that stretch — As opposed to 2016 when I did not fall once during the whole race until Mile 23 — and my constant re-boarding amidst the crazy patterns of criss-crossing swells probably took more out of me than I realized.

After the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge, things evened out and I was indeed “feeling groovy.” (Get it?) In fact, I was clicking off a series of sub-9-minute miles — FWIW, on flat lake water my typical pace is 15 minutes per mile — in the oh-so bright 90-degree heat. I was having fun and feeling good. (Note smile in pic.)

Then, somewhere around Mile 10 my body started giving off some warning signs. First came the spasms in my fingers and hands which then worked their way up into my arms and upper body. I kept hydrating. When I stopped paddling for a bit to gather myself, one of the safety boats came by and suggested I take a break in the boat. (SEA Paddle NYC has an uncompromising “safety first” ethos. In fact, registrants must agree to follow all safety boat directives, including getting pulled from the race, with no objections.) Thanking him, I told him I wanted to continue. I proceeded another mile or so before the boat returned and he directed me to get in, which I did. (Apparently, by that point, I was looking a bit shaky.)

Once in the boat, I felt myself starting to recover and we even discussed the idea of me returning to the water. (When I told the excellent nurse on board that I had hydrated pretty carefully prior to the race, she explained that I had probably sweated all the electrolytes and nutrients out of me as she proceeded to feed me coconut water and power bars.)

Then all hell broke loose: dehydration, heat exhaustion, muscle spasms throughout upper body, a shortness of breath I have never before experienced, all of which kicked into high gear with a case of sea-sickness from being in the boat. (Funny, but sea-sickness has never before happened to me on a SUP board.) Before it was over, I transitioned to dry heaves just before the lights went out.

So, they took me to the finish, hooked up an IV drip, set up EKG, wheeled me on to the waiting ambulance, and off we went to NYU Langone where I spent the next five hours. (The folks there were great!) Although I felt fine only a half-hour after arriving, the doc decided to run two heart tests that apparently must be conducted at least two hours apart in order to rule out serious problems on that front.  (I remember him saying that he wanted to see if the activities of the day had “insulted your heart.”) In the end, he ruled out the heart issues and attributed my presenting condition to a rather extreme simultaneous convergence of the above symptoms.  I asked, “Could it have something to do with an old man playing a young man’s game?” He chuckled and said, “Could be, but your heart is good.”

I was released at about 8:30 PM and took a nice leisurely, and much needed, stroll back to my midtown hotel, lucky paddle, leash, and PFD in hand.

During my marathon days of 25+- years ago, I learned that athletic luck is not limited to games with a ball. On some days, your body and the elements manage to come together like a symphony. (The 1988 Boston Marathon was like that for me.) On other days, like Saturday, it doesn’t. The truth is, I trained hard for this event with a number of 12-15 milers (many in heat) in preparation.

While my body cannot do what it did in 1988, my psyche is so much more healthy today. I had to drop out of my very first marathon (NYC in 1986) at the halfway mark due to a damaged iliotibial band. Devastated, I felt like a failure. Sheer ego drove me back to New York the next year to make things right!

Today I have a more advanced understanding of what “right” even means. Some might call it serenity. Although Saturday just wasn’t my day, regardless of what happened to me on the water, we indeed raised a lot of money for autism. (In fact, only one paddler raised more than we did.) SEA Paddle NYC is a highly principled organization, one that will put those contributions to best use. Despite the fact that SEA Paddle NYC 2019 did not unfold as I had planned, it is no small consolation to know that, thanks to the generous support of many people who have never even been on a stand-up paddle board, others will benefit immensely.

And finally, I feel fine. (As I write, I am en route to Lake Placid for my beloved Geezer Lacrosse Tournament  where I will play in both the 60+ and 65+ age divisions.) Furthermore, I look forward to getting back out on the water ASAP. And yes, I am giving some thought to returning to NYC next year… as a member of a relay team!  Hey, if you, or anyone you know, might be up for doing a 5-mile stint, let’s talk!

Onward, Malcolm Gauld