Racing on the River

The five-mile To The Bridge And Back race is the latest and greatest attraction of the James River, and a sure sign that Richmonders are increasing their commitment to outdoor fitness.

by James A. Bacon

The temperature was an invigorating 37 degrees Saturday morning as the sun peeked through the trees lining the banks of the James River. The water shimmered in the early morning mist, reflecting autumn leaves on the far shore like a blurry mirror. Then, the stillness was broken as wetsuit-clad swimmers — nearly 70 of them in two waves — plunged into the slow-moving current. The first group plowed upstream toward the Rt. 288 bridge before gliding back with the current, a five-mile lap. Later, a second pack embarked upon a 2.4-mile circuit, a length equating to the swimming segment of an Iron Man Triathlon.

Thus began the first (and hopefully annual) To The Bridge And Back race. The Richmond region has its fair share of natatoriums and indoor swimming programs but To The Bridge And Back is the most ambitious open-water swimming competition in the region.

There was little glory in the swim, which was staged at Robious Landing several miles upstream from the City of Richmond. There were no cheering throngs at the finish line, no radio DJs on hand, no sports reporters or photographers to record the event. No one becomes a household celebrity winning an event like this. Even so, several dozen people braved the chilly waters to see what stuff they were made of.

Jon Wilkinson strips off his wetsuit shortly after completing his 2.4-mile swim.

Jon Wilkinson was the first athlete to round the yellow buoy, swim to the finish line, wade ashore and trudge up the peleton-lined winner’s ramp. He wore the red cap of the 2.4-mile racers. No one else came close. Splitting his time between Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire, the 41-year-old Wilkinson competes successfully in open-water swims nationally. It was a beautiful river to swim in, he said later. The water was “amazingly clear.”

Abby Nunn hunches over in exhaustion after emerging from the river.

Abby Nunn, a graduate of Henrico County’s Deep Run High School who now attends medical school at the University of Virginia, won the 5-mile race with a time of about one hour, 45 minutes. If anyone could be said to be a celebrity swimmer at the event,it was Nunn. She had won the grueling 27-mile race around Manhattan Island in July, making her one of the most accomplished marathon swimmers in the world. Her personal goal, she says, is to complete the “triple crown” of marathon swimming, which includes the Manhattan Island marathon, a 21-swim across the Catalina Channel in California, and the grueling, 21-mile crossing of the English Channel.

There were plenty of other victories Saturday, although they were personal. Two men braved the chilly waters without wetsuits — and lived to tell the tale. Cherie Mehler completed the 2.4-mile course while pulling a small inflatable boat bearing a special passenger with tussled black hair and a big, toothy grin — a disabled child and daughter of a friend. For some men and women who would strike no one at first glance as athletic, it was an accomplishment worth savoring just to finish.

But perhaps the biggest winner was a man who didn’t even dip his toe into the river — Jay Peluso, the event organizer. “We’ve heard some really great things [about the event],” he confided toward the close of the race. “I hope next year will be even bigger.”

Organizer Jay Peluso keeps tabs on events up-river by walkie-talkie.

Peluso deserves kudos as one of Richmond’s great civic entrepreneurs for putting on a quality event on a boot-strap budget. Volunteers greeted swimmers just out of the water and wrapped them with heat-trapping foil blankets. There was a tent with hot tubs where racers could elevate their body temperatures. A masseur and masseuse were on hand to rub down weary muscles. Under another tent, athletes could replenish depleted carbs with plates of hot eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes and biscuits. Volunteers had created To The Bridge And Back t-shirts, placed the peletons, hung the banners, set up signs for sponsors and kept score. Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment was recruiting boaters, kayakers and surfboard paddlers to accompany every one of the swimmers on their journey. Safety was a top priority, and with good reason — one swimmer suffering hypothermia had to be fetched from the river.

“This [event] is very well run,” said Wilkinson, a veteran of many open-water swimming competitions. Even though it’s a small race, he said, he was impressed by the beauty of the course and the abundance of volunteers. “It’s safe and fun.”

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One Response to Racing on the River

  1. These are the kinds of events and activities that help to draw young active people to a place and often these young and active are college educated and entrepreneurial and I’d say that this kind of thing contributes to the quality of life that many young actives seek.

    Richmond has a different tempo that NoVa and while DJ sees it as a fetid backwater, I see it as an up and coming place – that could make up for the Fed draw-down of DOD money.

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