The fastest swims around Manhattan (Part 2)

Part 1.

Shelley Taylor-Smith recorded the fastest swim around Manhattan (5:45:25) in 1995, but it was a special “record attempt” swim scheduled on an unusually fast tide. What are the fastest swims in the regular Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race, which is typically held on a slower tide? Over the 29 years of the modern MIMS, the 10 fastest swims are as follows:

  1. Tobie Smith, 1999, 6:32:41
  2. Tammy van Wisse, 1999, 6:51:31
  3. Rob Copeland, 1999, 6:52:49
  4. Susie Maroney, 1990, 7:00:27
  5. Matthew Nance, 1990, 7:04:53
  6. Jim Barber, 1991, 7:06:34
  7. Kris Rutford, 1991, 7:06:44
  8. Matthew Wood, 1990, 7:07:32
  9. Susie Maroney, 1994, 7:08:10
  10. Igor de Souza, 1991, 7:08:20

Interestingly, 9 of the 10 fastest times happened in just 3 years – 1990, 1991, and 1999. The 3 fastest times were all in one year – 1999. Perhaps these years were “stacked” with outstanding swimmers. Another possibility is that these years saw especially favorable conditions (faster currents, smoother water, warmer water, etc.).

One simple method of estimating the effect of conditions is to find the median time in each annual race – and compare each individual to the median of that year. The fastest swims relative to the median would therefore be judged as the “most outstanding” swims. Here are the top 10 swims, compared to the same-year median time:

  1. Shelley Taylor-Smith, 1989, 7:32:34 (84 minutes faster than the median)
  2. Shelley Taylor-Smith, 1998, 7:18:07 (-77 minutes)
  3. Jay Benner, 1998, 7:19:40 (-76 minutes)
  4. Chris Derks, 1998, 7:24:02 (-71 minutes)
  5. Jim Barber, 1989, 7:45:15 (-71 minutes)
  6. Shelley Taylor-Smith, 1988, 7:27:44 (-71 minutes)
  7. Susie Maroney, 1990, 7:00:27 (-70 minutes)
  8. Penny Palfrey, 2007, 8:36:01 (-69 minutes)
  9. David Strasburg, 1989, 7:51:10 (-65 minutes)
  10. Matthew Nance, 1990, 7:04:53 (-65 minutes)

And… there’s Shelley Taylor-Smith again! In fact, 3 of her 5 swims (all 1st place overall finishes) are among the top 10 “most outstanding” swims. In other words, she was demolishing the field.

No matter how you look at it – solo “record attempt” swims or regular MIMS races – Shelley Taylor-Smith is the greatest Manhattan circumnavigator of all-time. It’s really not even close.

Swimming vs. Tide Surfing around Manhattan (Part 1)

It’s well known that Shelley Taylor-Smith holds the record for the fastest swim around Manhattan: 5 hours, 45 minutes, 25 seconds.

What’s not quite as well known is that she achieved this feat on a special “fast tide” – a convergence of maritime conditions in the East, Harlem, and Hudson Rivers that occurs only once or twice a year, if at all.

With the founding of the modern Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race in 1982, and more sophisticated understanding of tide cycles, a string of specially planned solo “record attempt” swims were undertaken in the ’80s and ’90s, all on fast tides. After Diana Nyad‘s 1975 swim in 7 hours, 57 minutes, the record was lowered six times by four different people over the next 20 years:

  • 7:14 – Drury Gallagher in 1982
  • 6:48 – Paul Asmuth in 1983
  • 6:41 – Drury Gallagher in 1983
  • 6:12 – Shelley Taylor-Smith in 1985
  • 5:54 – Kris Rutford in 1992
  • 5:45:25 – Shelley Taylor-Smith in 1995

Her record has stood ever since, despite an assault last year by world-class marathon swimmers Petar Stoychev and Mark Warkentin.

To give a sense of how much the tides matter in these swims, Taylor-Smith’s 5:45:25 works out to a pace of 45.2 seconds/100m (12.1 minutes per mile – almost 5 mph). If you assume a 20 minutes/mile average swimming pace (world-class for marathon distance), that means she derived 40% of her overall speed from the river currents!

All this is by way of saying: There’s a reason nobody ever comes close to 5:45 in the annual race. MIMS is never held on the special “record attempt” tides. Why not? Though I haven’t seen this stated explicitly anywhere, I assume it’s because while the “record attempt” tides may push a fast solo swimmer around Manhattan very quickly, it may not be suitable for getting a group of swimmers (of varying speeds) around Manhattan in a reasonable amount of time. The “MIMS tide,” as I understand it, is actually selected to punish the fastest swimmers with head currents (they arrive at Hell Gate and Spuyten Duyvil ahead of the tide change ). As a result, the MIMS field tends to compress much more than would a current-neutral swim of similar distance.

So basically, the MIMS race and the special “record attempts” are two entirely separate categories of swims. We all know that 5:45 is the fastest overall swim, but that was on a “record attempt” tide. What are the fastest swims on the regular MIMS tide?

Stay tuned for Part 2….

NOTE: Much useful information in this post was gleaned from Capt. Tim Johnson’s wonderful History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming.

Urban dictionary: Marathon swimming edition

Two of my favorite new phrases (well, they’re new to me, anyway):

“Getting chicked” and “grandpa pace.”

“Getting chicked” is when a man is beaten by a woman in an athletic event. Commonly uttered by exhausted men after ultra-distance races. Some might find it misogynistic, but I see it as a celebration of female superiority in endurance sports.


  • Jim got chicked by Shelley Taylor-Smith in the 1985 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. And again in 1987. And again in 1988. And again in 1989. And again in 1998.
  • Evan got quintuple-chicked in the Nike Swim Miami. But at least they were almost all teenagers.

“Grandpa pace,” popularized by Gordon Gridley (e.g., in this post), describes a relatively slow or conservative rate of swimming, suitable for channel crossings.


  • Kevin may not be the fastest swimmer, but damn, he can hold that grandpa pace forever.
  • The main set is four times through: 5×100 best average on 1:30, followed by a 300 grandpa pace on 5:00.

Any other good ones out there??

Race Report: Nike Swim Miami 2011


Pre-race with college roommate and swim team-mate John


My second visit to the Nike Swim Miami went much better than the first, even if my time (2:27:51) didn’t really reflect it. I felt strong from start to finish and held my stroke rate consistently in the high 60’s / low 70’s. Even accounting for slight navigational errors, 2:27-high seems way off – even more so considering the favorable (if somewhat warm) conditions and buoyantly saline water.

The course was probably a bit longer than 2K – and then compounded over 5 laps. But that’s just the nature of the game in open water. Who knows what times mean. Even, apparently, with a closed-loop course under neutral conditions.

So how else to judge my swim, if not by time?

  • My “2K” splits were consistent – 27:49, 29:37, 30:02, 30:07, 30:17. Almost certainly my best-split 10K OW.
  • I nailed my nutrition: 150-calorie carb drink at 2/4/6/8K, supplemented with 90-calorie gels at 4K & 6K. Plenty of energy throughout (thanks to my wife who spent 2+ hours sitting on a dock in UV-Index-10 sun with a bunch of coaches).
  • The 10K field was almost identical to last year’s. 62 swimmers, split about 50/50 between USA-S and USMS. 6-8 super-elite / professional / national-team types at the top.
  • Last year, I finished 27/62 overall and 9th among Masters swimmers. This year, I was 14/62 overall and 1st among Masters. (A 32-year old guy finished 3rd overall but didn’t swim with the Masters wave. He’s also a 4-time Olympian).
  • Last year, I was 34 minutes behind the winner. This year, I was 22 minutes behind. Continue reading “Race Report: Nike Swim Miami 2011”

It begins…

My 2011 open water season officially begins this Saturday, at the Nike Swim Miami. The 10K main event is scheduled for 10am EDT, and will be streamed live on the web at Swimming World TV (and syndicated here).

There’s a new venue this year – the Miami Yacht Club on Watson Island. According to the promotional materials, the Yacht Club offers “cleaner water and a more beautiful backdrop,” as well as the opportunity to “swim past homes of notorious celebrities, one of which is Gloria Estefan’s residence.” Wait…what?

Because, let’s be honest: The biggest issue with the previous venue is that we didn’t get to swim past Gloria Estefan’s house.

Yacht Club = red | Marine Stadium = blue

The course has also changed a bit – a 5 laps of 2K rather than 4 laps of 2.5K – to reflect the layout of the 2012 London Olympics course.

It will be my first race and first non-chlorinated swim (with one brief exception) since October. Time to dust off the cobwebs!

As some of you know, I did this race last year (my first 10K). Amazing what a comedy of errors it seems in retrospect. Should be plenty of room for improvement.

More Lance

So apparently this is Lance Armstrong finishing the 2.4-mile RLE Open Water Swim at Mansfield Dam in Austin, TX. He’s the third guy out of the water, behind pro triathletes James Bonney and James Cotter:

And here’s (what I assume to be) the three of them rounding the buoy at the halfway mark:

A couple observations. First, Lance isn’t really close enough to Bonney and Cotter to be getting any draft – which is evidence against some folks’ theories that he must have drafted the whole way. Second, it sure doesn’t look like these guys are going 48-high/49-low speed. Lance even does a little breaststroke coming into the buoy. But who knows.

Am I crazy to think it’s newsworthy that one of the most famous athletes in the world competed in an open water swim? It generated lively discussion on the USMS board and various triathlon boards, yet… not a peep from the “swimming media” (such as it is).

Don’t fight the water

People sometimes ask me what I think of Total Immersion. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say: While I may quarrel with a few of the details, I think it’s general emphasis on “harmony with the water” is quite valid – and its validity increases with swim distance.

T.I. coaches teach their students to not “fight” the water. Beginning swimmers often fight the water (almost by definition), but advanced swimmers aren’t immune. I often catch myself doing this when I’m fatigued and trying to hold a pace slightly beyond my comfort zone. I’ve paid much more attention to not fighting the water since I started doing marathon swims. You might be able to get away with fighting the water in a 50, or even a 200, but in a marathon this is death. A relaxed, efficient stroke is essential.

On days when I’m not feeling so hot, I try to forget about going fast and just focus on relaxing and swimming efficiently. If I’m working out with a team, this may require slight adjustments to sets.

For example, say the coach assigns a descend set – 4×200 descended 1-4. Instead of trying to go faster on each 200, I’ll try to hold the same pace on each one, but with progressively less effort. The only way to hold pace constant while using less effort is to become more efficient. Incidentally, I think these types of sets are useful as a warm-up to a long swim – or during the few days leading up to it.