In the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine six writers who grew up near the Northern Michigan water reflect on how freshwater shapes their lives today. Traverse City native Bill Bradley, who now lives in Brooklyn, is one of the six writers. In his essay he talks about his thoughts on New York City swimming water compared to Traverse City’s swimming options.
The first time I went swimming in New York City, it was out of necessity. I’d gone on a long run, in putrid heat, through Brooklyn to Coney Island. Tom, my running partner, who grew up swimming in the East Coast’s less pristine urban waters, made his way for the crowded ocean. Like a cat walking circles on the edge of the bathtub, I stood on the shore. Three summers in the city, and I’d never even dipped a toe in.
Did this make me a water elitist? Here I was hot and sweaty near a cool, massive body of water—my solace, since my first trip to Lake Michigan as a child—and I couldn’t bring myself to swim.
I’d been here before. In high school, a few (slightly insane) guys on the track team had the terrific idea of swimming in Lake Michigan every month of the year. There is something exhilarating, if not death defying, about diving into hypothermic waters (it certainly takes your breath away). So, Thanksgiving weekend, I met a handful of runners at Clinch Park, where, after standing on the frozen sand like a frightened child, I was coerced into the frigid waters. Peer pressure always works.
And it was equally effective that punishingly humid day in South Brooklyn. Tom, who worked at the New York City Health Department, assured me that the water was safe for swimming. (There were, after all, hundreds of people swimming, shoulder-to-shoulder.) Convinced, I dove in, just like when my idiot friends convinced me it wasn’t that cold. (It was.) Taking the train home from Coney Island that day, sticky with sweat and salt water, a switch flipped in my head: I live on an island.
Traverse City Central’s cross-country team always ran along the water. There were running routes that took us to the west side of town and the dusty trails at Hickory Hills. But, when the sun was out and the weather was nice—which in T.C. qualifies as “45 or above”—we ran out Old Mission Peninsula. A few guys would lobby for other loops—We always run the Peninsula, they’d moan, not quite wrapping their young minds around the beauty of the place—but they were quickly vetoed. It was Peninsula or bust.
When I signed up for my first marathon in 2012, I had to venture outside the four and five mile loops on congested sidewalks in my NYC neighborhood. I slowly gravitated toward the city’s bridges, the running path that hugs the East River, and a track in Red Hook, an industrial Brooklyn neighborhood that, on a good day, is cooled by a pleasant breeze from the river. (It’s hard to escape old habits.) The Hudson River Greenway, which stretches from northern Manhattan to the tip of the island, offered 12 miles of waterfront running. It didn’t smell as fresh as Old Mission, but it did have the similar calming effects of home. Water is water, even if it’s a Superfund site.
“Crowding is a stressor,” Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist, told me. “Not being able to see the horizon, being boxed in. Humans are drawn to water for relaxation and calming. The fresh air, the fresh smell, the spaciousness.”
Perhaps I was unconsciously seeking out the waterways of New York as if they were some sort of proxy for home. But mostly I just enjoyed the breeze and wide-open spaces. Now, on more adventurous long runs, I’ll venture from my Brooklyn apartment out to the Far Rockaways, where I can go for a post-run swim in the Atlantic and eat tacos with a nice ocean breeze and a cold beer.
And when I make it back to Traverse City, I like to run from the East Bay Boat Launch out M37 to Bluff Road and finish at Haserot Beach. It’s exactly 13.1 miles—exactly a half-marathon—and the formidable mile-long climb up Smokey Hollow serves as a good fitness benchmark during training.
I was home for my sister’s wedding in mid-April and made the trek. It was an unseasonably warm Saturday for April in Northern Michigan. The water was clear and flat at Haserot. And, for a minute, I considered taking a quick dip. But I thought better of it—I learned years ago to wait for the ice floes to melt before you get in the bay.
Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, Runner’s World, Vanity Fair, and VICE, among others. He graduated from Traverse City Central.