In order to apply for a spot in the 25-person field of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, one must have recent, documented cold-water marathon swimming experience. In practice, that means either a channel crossing (English or Catalina) or a completion of one of NYC Swim’s two ultra-distance events (MIMS itself or the 17.5-mile Ederle Swim).
Otherwise, one can do an “observer documented qualifying swim” - which in the case of MIMS means a 4-hour continuous swim in water 62 degrees F or colder.
Was I ready for a 4-hour, 62-degree swim? Not really. The longest I’d swum continuously was the Miami 10K in April (2 hours, 34 minutes in 75-degree water). The coldest I’d swum was 58 degrees, a few weeks ago at the Point - but that was only for 25 minutes. The closest thing to a “long, cold swim” I’d done was this year’s Big Shoulders - 71 minutes at 63 degrees. Then, this past Monday morning, I swam for 53 minutes in 60-degree water (2 laps of the 57th Street Beach).
But I was as ready I was going to be, given my narrowing window of opportunity. Lake Michigan had already begun its Fall turnover. Any day, a strong west wind could blow in and drop the lake into the 50’s - from which it might not return until June!
After my successful cold swim on Monday, I figured it was time. I arranged for Kim and
Hammer Perpetuem in 80 ounces of warm water, insulated in a coffee pot and Stanley thermos.
Photo Credit: Amanda Hunt
Conditions were close to ideal - sunny skies, water and air both 60 degrees and calm. Nothing to do but take the plunge - which we did at 10:02am. After a few obscenities (an effective cold-water coping tactic) we were off, stroking toward the 59th Street pier. Was I certain I wouldn’t end up in the hospital? Nope.
From the Point (top right), where Kim was stationed with my warm feeds, I took one of three paths:
Over the course of 4 hours, I did each of these loops three times - with the exception of the final “small triangle,” which I replaced with a 1060m “beach run” (from the Point, to the beach, and back to the Point). That’s 13,130m in total (14,359 yards, 8.16 miles).
Every time I finished a loop I took a 10-oz warm feed, which Kim handed to me from the Point’s famous limestone revetment. That’s 8 feeds over 4 hours, or one feed every half-hour or so. Normally in cold-water situations one should take short feeds, to minimize heat loss. Instead, I chose to take longer but extra-warm feeds - approx. 140F, almost like tea - which I had to sip rather than chug.
I think this was a good call. I took a couple minutes for each feed (compared to 5-10 seconds in a race situation), and it was a psychologically comforting “reset.” It gave Kim the chance to talk with me and gauge my mental coherence (an indicator of potential hypothermia). And it gave my core a nice thermal jump-start. The feeds were so hot that I could actually warm my hands by wrapping them around the bottle.
In the end, I never really got that cold. My hands and feet reached a certain stage of semi-numbness within the first hour - and then were steady for the duration of the swim. I was definitely uncomfortable, but after 4 hours I actually felt more tired than cold. I shivered a bit when I first exited the water, but it soon passed. The water temperature had risen to 61 by the end; the sun still shone brightly, but a steady chop, which had materialized out of nowhere during the first hour, remained.
In retrospect, the window for this swim was probably only three days: the day I did it, the day before, and the day after. By Thursday and Friday the lake was too warm (63-64). This morning a cold front blew in, bringing 5+ foot swells and semi-unswimmable conditions. Tomorrow the forecast is for mid-50’s water temp. We may not see another “6” on the thermometer ‘til next year.
So, I’m glad we got it done when we did. It was a satisfying way to end the Chicago O.W. season, and a big confidence booster for future cold-water swims. Suddenly the English Channel (similar temperature, though twice as long) doesn’t seem entirely out of reach. And of course, I owe a substantial debt of gratitude to Kim and Amanda, who made an unpleasant task infinitely more bearable. Thanks, ladies!
One more from our swim last Sunday at Promontory Point. Thanks, Louise, for the wonderful photo.
This morning, while 45,000 runners sweated through an unseasonably warm October morning in the Chicago Marathon, I went for a nice long swim in Lake Michigan.
I was joined in this outing by my new friend Thomas - ultra-distance cyclist, fellow Point swimmer and, it turns out, owner of a sea kayak! After a recent Point outing Thomas had suggested that if I ever wanted to explore regions of the lake outside the swim buoys, he’d be glad to provide an escort. With the last blast of summer weather, the stars were aligned - I took him up on the offer.
Thomas and his kayak live in a charming old building on Jarvis Beach in Rogers Park (just south of Evanston). I arrived a few minutes after 7am and went to the water for a temp check. With the warm weather I had hoped the thermometer might show me a ‘6.’ I did get one, but in the wrong decimal place - 56F.
I’d swum an hour at that temperature just yesterday, but this morning we’d planned a 2 hour, out-and-back swim. At some points we’d be half a mile offshore, and I didn’t want to risk either (a) having to turn back early or (b) having to be rescued. So I went with the wetsuit. It’s sleeveless, so I got a little taste of the cold on my hands, arms, and feet - but my core was protected.
In any case, the primary objective was fun; a secondary objective was getting some practice with a kayak before my 10-mile race this Saturday. Thermoregulatory practice can wait for another day.
We pushed off around 7:30am. The sun had just fully emerged on the horizon, commencing its rise over the vast inland sea. I wish I’d taken a picture, but this one from 10am will have to suffice:
Aside from the cold, the lake could hardly have been more perfect. Glassy, with tiny 2-3 inch swells to remind you that gravity still existed. With the sounds of the city muted on a Sunday morning, there was nothing to hear but the slap of my hands (and Thomas’s paddle) against the water.
The plan was simple: Swim north for an hour, towards Northwestern University. Then turn around and come back. I stowed a Garmin GPS unit in my swim cap, and here’s the story it tells:
In an hour (actually, 59 minutes), we made it nearly to the peninsula separating the Northwestern lagoon from the lake. After a 5 minute break to feed and chat, we reversed course and returned to Jarvis Beach 61 minutes later. We took a somewhat longer route coming back, so it seems I was fairly close to even-splitting it.
I also took two intermediate feeds at 30 and 90 minutes, lasting a total of 3 minutes. Remarkably, though I scheduled the feeds according to my watch, they occurred geographically at nearly identical latitudes - notice the slight “jigger” in the trace line at Elliot Park. (The “jigger” shows us drifting eastward during the break.)
A few stats:
And, just for S&G, here’s the NOAA nautical chart showing the lake bottom contours (soundings in feet):
Just… a spectacular morning. Thanks, Thomas!
The phrase “little red lighthouse” may evoke something quaint and isolated - possibly in Maine - but make no mistake: This is a big, urban swim. After a summer of so many rural lake swims, I was looking for an excuse to try one of NYC Swim’s well regarded events. Most were either too short to justify traveling to New York or, as in the case of MIMS and Ederle, longer than I was ready to do this year.
But the Little Red Lighthouse Swim fit the bill precisely: a current-assisted 5.85-mile dash down (or rather, up) the Hudson River. Finishing times from previous years seemed to indicate that it swam more like 5-6 kilometers rather than miles.
Two days before the race we got an email indicating that the course had been moved ~25 blocks up the Hudson, and would now run between the 79th St and Dyckman, near the top of the island. This adjustment allowed for a more standard distance of 10K, but even better, a climactic pass-under of the George Washington Bridge just before the finish.
Swimmers gathered in the pre-dawn at the Boat Basin Cafe provided comfortable and architecturally interesting shelter as we waited for the race briefing.
I arrived earlier than most and spent a few minutes on the footpath below to take in some scenery. Even from 5 miles away, the bridge was a striking feature of the horizon:
In a typical looped 10K it can be tough to grasp, in a visual sense, how far you’re actually swimming. The picture above captures the moment this finally “clicked” for me. And to think: Once we made the bridge, we still had more than a mile to go!
Shortly after Morty’s presentation we checked our bags (to be transported via moving truck to the finish) and lined up along the footpath. The first (slowest) wave of swimmers marched down the dock to cheers of encouragement. Subsequent waves (2-7) were set off about 5 minutes apart.
Instructions were fairly simple: From the start at the edge of the dock, get out into the river ASAP to find the current. Aim left of the blue sailboat a couple hundred yards upriver, and then keep left of the big orange buoys all the way up to the bridge. This would keep us in the middle of the river but slightly on the Manhattan side. At the bridge (which was visible the entire swim, even from water level) we would turn right and follow the final buoys into the finish at the Inwood Canoe Club.
By the time I reached the blue sailboat just upriver from the start, I was ~25 yards ahead of the rest of my wave (#6 of 7). Although I had no one to swim with, there were 200+ folks ahead of me from earlier waves. The course was reasonably easy to navigate - the buoys were large and the bridge was enormous - but all the bright swim caps provided semi-useful intermediate sighting markers.
The current was strong, and got stronger throughout the swim. Near the end it was almost like bodysurfing. The bridge - a huge, 8-lane span - which for an hour seemed never to get closer, came and went in just a few seconds.
I managed to pass (in some cases, dodge) every single person from Waves 1-5, I think except for one. A few minutes before the finish, Harry Stephenson from Wave 7 caught and passed me.
I ended up 5th overall, behind Stephenson and three others from Wave 7. Though I suspected it beforehand, it’s clear in retrospect that I’d have been better off in Wave 7. It’s always easier to swim fast with people of similar speed, who can push you and provide drafting opportunities. I also found out later that the flood tide had maxed out about an hour after I finished. In other words, Wave 7 had about 6 extra minutes of increasing current.
So it goes!
The final few swimmers coming in; G.W. Bridge in the background:
After a mercifully brief awards ceremony (cool glass plaque for 3rd overall male!) and a brief chat with new friend-of-the-blog amazing brunch with an old college roomie and his wife. Then, off to LGA where a plane would bring me home in time for a home-cooked dinner. A whirlwind 24 hours.
This was one of my favorite swims of the year. Impeccably organized, exciting vibe, and a spectacular point-to-point course along one of the most famous stretches of river in the world. I’ll be back.
Swim the Suck would be my last race of the year: an epic season finale, the longest swim of my life, and a test run for even longer events next year.
There was, unfortunately, some question as to whether I’d even make the trip. I had gone to the doctor Tuesday for my MIMS checkup, and made the fateful decision of getting my tetanus shots updated (this is required for MIMS). Turns out, those suckers can make you sick! Not incapacitated-sick… but fever, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues. Mild flu symptoms, basically.
Thursday morning I had some difficulty getting through my 2000-yard taper workout… 10 miles sounded like suicide. Thursday night was mostly sleepless, from all the trips to the toilet. By Friday morning, though, things seem to take a slight turn for the better. So I packed up and made my way to the airport.
Did you know Chattanooga lies in the Eastern time zone? I sure didn’t. (What is it with me and time zone issues?) Lucky for me, I rolled into town a couple hours early.
We gathered Friday evening at Outdoor Chattanooga, the local adventure-organizing outfit. After meeting our kayakers/pilots (unless you brought your own) we went for a practice swim in the river - just a short walk across Coolidge Park.
Tony (my pilot) and I went out for 40 minutes - 20 minutes upriver, then back. There wasn’t much current. Afterward, a warm shower, pasta dinner, and race briefing awaited us back at the barn. Karah’s PowerPoint deck was detailed and informative, but basically boiled down to: Stay right of the green buoys!
The river flow, apparently, would be greater than expected, thanks to an extra release from the upstream dam. I prepared myself mentally for a 3 hour swim.
In the morning, we left our cars at the historic Pot House, the location of the post-race festivities and just upriver from the finish. The swimmers and pilots were then shuttled back to the start near Baylor School, just downstream from Chattanooga.
The kayak put-in and race start were in a small inlet 75-100 yards from the main river. You crossed through a narrow opening under a bridge before entering the river. Once the pilots were in the water and beyond the bridge, the swimmers lined up on the dock. Some put their feet in the water. I was the first to fully immerse, mostly because, well, I had to pee.
Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill
(Minor gripe: The race had advertised “English Channel rules,” so I was disappointed to see two guys - including the eventual winner - wearing legskins. Oh well… perhaps I should have brought my B70 out of retirement?)
A few moments later Karah, in the dual position of swimmer and race director, said something like, “I guess we should go now,” and started swimming. Having foreseen a bottleneck at the bridge, I had positioned myself on the portion of the dock nearest the bridge.
I passed under the bridge with 2 or 3 others and swam out toward the kayaks. I figured it would be easier for Tony to find me than vice versa, so upon exiting the inlet I turned right (downriver) and didn’t look back for half an hour.
Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill
By the time I made the turn downriver I was by myself - that is, nobody ahead of me and nobody in my peripheral vision. When Tony found me after a couple minutes, I put my head down and settled into a rhythm.
Feeding plan. 10oz Hammer Perpetuem every 30 minutes. 1 Hammer gel pack every hour. Water as necessary.
After 30 minutes I saw Tony use our pre-arranged “feed” signal, so I pulled up and shot a glance behind me for the first time. One guy about 25 yards back. I downed the feed in 10 seconds or so and set off down the river again.
Photo Credit: Karen Nazor Hill
60 minutes. Feeling great. Guy behind me a little further back, maybe 35-40 yards. 90 minutes. Still in a good rhythm. Lead back to 25 yards. 2 hours. Starting to falter now. Feel out of energy but my stomach can’t handle any more. Lead down to 10 yards.
Photo Credit: Amanda Hunt
2 hours, 30 minutes. Really bonking badly now. Andrew passes me sometime around here, but I hardly notice and have no energy to chase. Current seems to be picking up, though - I can see the trees moving by unnaturally fast. 3 hours. Just trying not to pass out. I’m somewhere near the finish, but have no idea how near or far. It might be a quarter-mile, it might be a mile. 3 hours, 5 minutes. Tony says, “See the boat right there? That’s the finish.” 3 hours, 7 minutes. Done.
Thankfully, no one else passed me. I clambered into the boat with Andrew; within the next few minutes two others finished and joined us. The head pilot shuttled us back to the Pot House, and the only thing on my mind was a warm shower.
A few words about my pilot, Tony: What a pro. Seriously; he’s the best. He’s never piloted for a swimmer before, nor, as far as I know, does he know much about swimming. But he paddled straight and true, managed my feeds efficiently, and communicated effectively with nothing more than his paddle. He’s not a big talker (which I prefer), but when he did, it was with just the right words to buck me up during a rough patch. So, thanks Tony.
Anyway, I got my warm shower and changed into something comfortable. The boat brought swimmers back from the finish, 4 or 5 at a time, over the next couple of hours. There was food and beer, but I was still shell-shocked and had no appetite. Literally, no appetite - I didn’t eat anything until dinner.
I got the chance to talk with almost all the other swimmers during the after-party, which is a benefit of a small race. The afternoon was sunny and warm - just a nice day on the deck, next to the river. It was easy to forget we’d just swum 10 miles. After the last swimmer got back, Karah handed out awards. Beautiful hand-made pottery.
This may have been my poorest race of the summer, performance-wise. Being sick didn’t help matters - my energy reserves were lower than usual, and my still-sensitive stomach prevented me from refilling them even when I desperately needed to. But I should have adjusted my strategy accordingly - laying back the first hour so I was sure to have something left at the end.
It’s scary to admit this, but I may not have made it another hour. Can you imagine? A DNF after leading the first 2+ hours? I guess stranger things have happened in marathon swimming.
And… that’s a wrap for the 2010 open-water season. What a summer it’s been. Stay tuned for a full-season recap.
Despite my best efforts, the 2010 open-water season is now over! Like USMS open-water national championship series - North Carolina, California, Colorado, Virginia, and Indiana - and finish off the season at Big Shoulders in Chicago.
As the year wore on, I found excuses - one by one - to add more events. For the Nike Swim Miami, it was an excuse to visit an old college roommate. For the Cascade Lakes Festival, I got to meet up with my parents and visit my grandmother. For Madison, the drive from Chicago was too short to pass up. Ditto for Diamond Lake. For Little Red Lighthouse, it was a chance to try an NYC Swim race before applying to MIMS. For Swim the Suck, it was a chance to try a true marathon swim and extend my season into October.
And now here we are, 17 races (in 12 states) and 57.4 racing miles (92.4K) later. True to the blog’s title, all races took place in freshwater lakes, with three exceptions:
How to even begin to sum up this experience? With a list, of course!
Best Event Organization
All the races I attended this summer were actually pretty well organized. Some stood above the rest. The finalists:
Tough call, but the winner is… NASTI.
Most Interesting Course
Point-to-points will always have an advantage in this category over looped courses. The finalists:
The winner: Toss-up, but we’ll go with Little Red Lighthouse. Famous landmarks that double as navigation aids and progress markers!
Most Challenging Conditions
**Big Shoulders. 63 degrees and stormy as hell!
Most Competitive Field
**Nike Swim Miami by a long shot - 5 current USA Open-Water National Team members, a Brazilian open-water Olympian, the defending Junior Pan Pacs Open Water champion, plus some crazy-fast Masters swimmers.
Among Masters events: probably the Noblesville 10K.
Central Oregon Masters (Cascade Lakes Festival). Food and fun for the whole family! Really good food, too.
Nike Swim Miami. After I finished my 10K I was looking around for something to eat. Because I was hungry. Because, you know, I had just swum a 10K. I saw a big basket of bananas at the “hospitality” stand, and asked if I could have one.
hospitality lady: "No, those are for the swimmers."
me: "I am a swimmer. I just swam a 10K."
lady: "Well, you have to wait until everyone is finished."
me: "Are you joking?"
Most Beautiful Venue
Elk Lake (Cascade Lakes Festival).
Worst Logistical Decision
Madison Open-Water Swim - Having 208 wetsuited swimmers start ahead of 91 non-wetsuited swimmers in the 2.4-mile race. Because the fastest swimmers in this race usually don’t wear wetsuits, this means a few people trying to pass a lot of people.
Best Performance (personally)
Probably the 5K at Elk Lake. Among single-race events, a toss-up between Little Red Lighthouse and the Del Valle 1.5 mile.
Worst Performance (personally)
I’ve mentioned Swim the Suck, though there were extenuating circumstances (not to mention the 2+ hours before I bonked). But I’ll have to go with the Chris Greene Lake Cable Swim. Not realizing the “big guns” usually enroll in the first heat for the cooler water, I went in the 2nd heat and found myself dragging the pack for 2 miles. And it showed - a slow 1:21/100m pace.
Overall Favorite Event
Cascade Lakes Festival. But that’s not really fair - they had three days to impress! Among single-day events: Swim the Suck.
Racing is fun, but it can exact a toll - physically but also psychologically.
The combination of long distance and high intensity in open water races can deplete one’s glycogen stores dramatically, and the result can be temporary lethargy in the water. In my experience this summer, while I wasn’t noticeably affected by races up to 5K, the four 10K’s I did (not including the current-assisted Little Red Lighthouse “10K”) all messed me up for a while. It was typically about a week before I felt back at full strength in practice.
While the body needs time to recover from a long, intense race, I also found that the mind may need time, too. It’s not often discussed, but for me the “post-race blues” are very real. The longer the race, the longer it takes. The more important the race, the longer it takes. The symptoms: Basically, a lack of desire to swim. And if I do drag myself to the pool - a lack of joy in swimming, and a lack of motivation to work hard.
In any case, it’s not surprising that in the aftermath of last weekend’s event, I discovered new depths of exhaustion, both physically and psychologically. 9 days later, I’m still not there.
It’s OK, though - it was the last race of the year. Fall is traditionally a time of resetting and renewal in the swimming world. The summer championships are over, and most teams have taken at least 2 weeks off. Lots of drilling, lots of long, slow stuff.
And the same will be true for me - though the “new year” is beginning in late October rather than the typical mid-September. I’m looking forward to dusting off my strokes, and perhaps making another run at 4:30 in my 400 IM. I’m looking forward to focusing on speed again, and finding my way back to a sub-5:00 500 Free. (When you start doing 10K’s with any frequency, you come to see the 500 as a sprint.)
My most important focus for the next couple of months, though? Technique. It’s been 16 months since I began training consistently again, and as I ramped up my racing distance the top priority was fitness. At this point, I’m comfortable with my fitness. And though there will be some further fitness ramping a few months down the line, the highest-leverage area for improvement for me right now is technique.
But then what? I can’t say I haven’t given some thought to Open Water Tour 2011. In fact I’ve given it quite a lot of thought. The only solid conclusion from these thoughts? That there won’t be one - at least not anything like the 2010 version.
I will probably swim the 2.4-mile race in Madison in August, because it’s an easy drive. That will likely be the only USMS national championship race I’ll attend. And I’ll be at Big Shoulders in September, of course.
The only 2011 race I’m currently registered & paid for is the 10-mile Kingdom Swim in northern Vermont on July 9. There will be some other ultra-distance type stuff that I’ll eventually add to the calendar. I’ll announce it when I do.