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August 8, 2011 10:10 AM

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Battling the Waves on the Hudson

Mother Nature was not cooperating around 4 a.m. Sunday when the athletes started to arrive at Riverside Park for the 11th Annual Nautica New York City Triathlon....

Mother Nature was not cooperating around 4 a.m. Sunday when the athletes started to arrive at Riverside Park for the 11th Annual Nautica New York City Triathlon. Rain that had started Saturday afternoon was still falling, soaking the bikes and the sleep-deprived participants who were nervously waiting to hear whether the 1.5K -- just under one mile -- swim in the Hudson River would go off as planned. 

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Turns out that a little rain can't stop more than 4,000 people determined to participate in one of the country's most sought-after races -- especially when there's no lightning. 

So it was all systems go. Hey, you get wet anyway, what's the difference? 

Once we heard the swim was on, we started walking up the Hudson River walkway from the bike transition area around 79th Street to the swim start on 99th Street. The rain wouldn't quit, so some of us wore slickers or carried small umbrellas to try to stay dry until it was our turn to hit the water. 

With many thousands of people participating, it was going to take awhile. 

Most New Yorkers look at you like you've got three heads when you say you're going to swim in the Hudson. They think it's dirty and dangerous to your health. Well, it is dangerous, but not because it's not clean -- it's actually the cleanest it's been in a century (well, apart from the recent sewage spill that forced the City to warn everyone to stay out of the river for a few days). But the issue really isn't cleanliness -- it's the current, and it was rocking Sunday morning. 

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The race officials actually delayed the start some 40 minutes to wait for the tides to switch direction and give swimmers the advantage of the Hudson's famous current assist downriver. (Swim course record holder Hunter Kemper bodysurfed downstream in under 10 minutes a few years ago -- take that Michael Phelps!) 

This year, the Hudson had other ideas. Those of us who headed out first were pummeled by white caps and huge swells as we tried to negotiate our way back to 79th Street. I'm a pretty strong swimmer (I refuse, however, to discuss my running) and I nearly panicked when I hit the water. All around me, other athletes were floating on their backs, breast-stroking and fighting to keep their heads above water. 

I managed to calm myself down, pretending it was just a windy day at the lake at my home where I practice my open-water swimming. 

In fact, I was dismayed to hear later that a 64-year-old man from New Jersey died of cardiac arrest in the water and a 40-year-old woman was in critical condition after suffering a heart attack in the water. 

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With my swim done, it was time to mount my Cannondale Synapse and head out onto the northbound West Side Highway, which was closed for the race. The rain still wouldn't quit and there were puddles that would drown a small child all over the sides of the highway. Between that, the potholes and the debris on the road, I must have seen at least three or four dozen athletes pulled over to the side with flat tires. I was lucky and managed to make it through the course unscathed. 

Then it was time for the run. And, lo and behold, the rain stopped and the sun came out, raising the temperature 20 degrees. Fun, fun. Well, at least my bike jersey dried in record time. 

But the crowd support lining 72nd Street and throughout Central Park was amazing and really kept us moving along. 

All in all, it wasn't the easiest of conditions, but I finished and got a big hug at the finish line by Karen Murray, the head of Nautica. 

Murray was also on the lookout for an apparel-industry big-wig doing the race: Terry Lundgren, chief executive of Macy's, who was the runner in a relay team. He was also acting as supportive spouse for his wife, Tina, who was taking on her first triathlon. Tina's finish time was a respectable 3:07, while her husband finished the 10K in 51:53. 

Turns out the Lundgrens are over-achievers in athletics too -- they were gone by the time I got to the finish line. 

The race was won by professional triathlete Ben Collins in 1:48:11. Rebeccah Wassner, a native New Yorker, won the women's crown for the third consecutive year with a time of 2:03:19. 
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