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:
- to the pier and back (1500m)
- to the beach, to the pier, and back to the Point - a.k.a. “big triangle” (1700m)
- to the beach, then out to buoy #4 in the middle of the cove, then back to the Point - a.k.a., “small triangle” (1235m)
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!