Charles Bender

Charles Bender

by Sue Ann Rybak

Charles Bender, 50, of Mt. Airy, recently participated in the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim – a 120-mile, seven-day, seven-stage race in the Hudson River in New York. This year’s 8 Bridges Swim, the longest marathon swim in the world, was held from June 18 to June 25.

“People often joke about my needing shots and ask if I am worried about pollution,” Bender said. “Of course, I am worried about pollution and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). But, shouldn’t we expect to be able to swim in our rivers, streams, lakes and oceans without worrying about our health? After all, these waters are what truly sustain us and all life on our planet?”

David Barra, 49, founder of the 8 Bridges Swim, which is sponsored by Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swim (CIBOWS), said one of the goals of the event is to help raise funds and awareness for Riverkeepers Hudson River Water Quality Testing Program and Launch Five Hudson River Environmental and Safety Foundation.

According to, between 1947 and 1977, General Electric dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls into the Hudson River. GE’s PCBs are now found in sediment, water and wildlife throughout the Hudson River ecosystem as far south as the New York Harbor. In 2009, GE concluded Phase 1 of the long-delayed cleanup of those PCBs and has begun Phase 2.

“The Hudson River is great to swim in, but there are still issues with the water quality that mainly stem from the combined sewage overflow,” said Barra, who is one of the most prolific amateur marathon swimmers in the United States. “When rainwater exceeds a certain rate, sewage treatment facilities are forced to release untreated effluent into the river. The good news for 8 Bridge swimmers is that the areas that are frequently affected are rather localized and the water quality mid-river has an excellent testing record.”

The course, which strings together the Rip Van Winkle, Kingston-Rhinecliff, Mid-Hudson, Newburgh-Beacon, Bear Mountain, Tappan Zee, George Washington and Verrazano Narrow bridges, begins with the ebb tide at one bridge and ends at the next, covering distances ranging from 13.2 miles to 19.8 miles. Participants can swim in one, several or all seven stages of the event.

Barra said that because the Hudson River is a tidal estuary, swimmers have to deal with currents flowing both ways, and the distances between the bridges mean the swimmers must maintain a certain average speed to complete each stage before the tide changes and progress is halted.

“Swimming in open water gives you a unique perspective on life that swimming in the pool can never provide,” said Bender, who swam competitively in high school and college. “You’re immediately small and not fully in command.”

This was Bender’s first time participating in 8 Bridges. He completed Stage 3 by swimming the 13.2 miles from the Mid-Hudson Bridge to the Newburgh Beacon Bridge.

Bender said swimming in open water marathon events is truly a team effort. He said each swimmer is assigned a kayaker, just one of the many support team members, who helps to protect the swimmer from boat traffic, monitor the weather and provide the swimmer with nutritional needs.

Barra said one of the hardest stages of the swim is stage 7 because you are swimming through the heart of New York Harbor.

“The New York harbor is a mosh pit of tug boats, barges, ferries, tour boats, and every other variety of floating vessel,” he said. “It is the most intense stage for the support crews.”

Hidden corner of athletic universe

Bender said marathon open water swimming “is a small, almost hidden corner of the athletic universe.”

“There is no waiting for lottery results to see if you and 39,999 of your closest friends will get the privilege to run in the Broad Street Run or other city marathon,” he said.

From looking at the photo of Bender with the Newburgh-Beacon bridge in the background, you might think Bender has been physically fit his whole life. But, believe it or not, just a year and half ago, Bender was 70 pounds heavier, and the idea of swimming 13 miles in the Hudson River was not even on his radar.

“Swim training is inherently difficult and it’s really boring following a black line in the pool,” said Bender.

He said the decision to start swimming again occurred roughly a year and a half ago on Thanksgiving Day after seeing a photograph of himself with his two sons, Carlos, 9, and Matt, 17, who is currently a junior at Central High School and plays on the football team.

“I saw this picture of myself and I wondered how I had become this huge person,” Bender said. “That’s when a friend of mine got me hooked on open swims. I swim fairly regularly in the Schuylkill, which most Philadelphians regard as nuts, but our ability to do so is compromised after every single large rain storm.”

Bender added before the event he told his fellow swim buddies, whom he describes as “fantastically fit 20 and 30- year-olds who think nothing of training for a 140.6 mile Ironman race,” that he was “about to embark on a 13-mile swim in the Hudson River.”

“They looked at me like I was nuts,” Bender said.

No losers in this race

Bender finished the swim in five hours and 15 minutes – 10th out of all 10 swimmers. Even though he finished last, Bender said he still felt like a winner.

“One of the great things about being the last swimmer means you have the entire crew of swimmers, kayakers and volunteers cheering you on as you swim those final yards,” Bender said. “My goal and the goal of a lot of other swimmers is to just get in there and give it a go. Even, the best swimmers are at the mercy of the conditions.”

He said swimming in a big river was a constant constant reminder of how fragile a resource it is, pointing out that the greatest danger to all of our rivers is unprotected storm water carrying untreated sewage during storms. He said it was a constant concern in the Wissahickon, Schuylkill and Delaware river basins, with many of those problems beginning right in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy during large rainstorms.

“It’s really important to be able to swim in our oceans and our lakes,” Bender said. “It’s vitally important. If you can’t swim in it, how can we even think about drinking it?”