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.

Race Report: Nike Swim Miami 2011

RESULTS.

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”

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.

Four Lakes, Three Rivers, and a Canal

The 2011 open water season hasn’t even started yet, but I have an important announcement to make regarding my plans for 2012.

I call it the “Four Lakes, Three Rivers, and a Canal” Swim.

Mid-June of 2012 I’ll set off from the mouth of the Chicago River and swim 375 miles north to the Straits of Mackinac. From there I’ll swim the 250-mile length of Lake Huron to the St. Clair River, which will lead me (via Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River) into Lake Erie. I’ll then swim 250 miles across Lake Erie (hugging the Canadian shore) to Buffalo, where I will enter the Erie Canal. From there it’s 360 miles to the Hudson River near Albany. Finally, I’ll take a 140-mile “victory lap” down the Hudson to New York City!

“As the current flows,” it’s about 1,500 miles from Chicago to New York. I figure it will take me about 4 months: 2.2-2.5 mph swimming pace, 6-8 hours a day of swimming, with a little extra time built in for unforeseen contingencies and slow canal locks.

I’ve assembled a world-class support crew: my wife, our cat, former president Jimmy Carter (for moral strength), and a local outdoorsman (i.e., street person) here in Chicago, whom I recruited for his scavenging skills. Did I forget to mention? After each stage we will set up camp along the shore. As it’s not feasible to carry four months’ of supplies in two kayaks, we will “acquire” our next day’s supplies at each stop. In more rural areas, this will necessitate scavenging and possibly hunting.

I’m also happy to announce that the swim – which I will be promoting by its catchy acronym “4L3RaaC” – will be a fundraiser for my favorite charity: Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.

I’m super-excited. I wonder if this will get me on Open Water Wednesday?

N.B. 4/2/2011: This is an April Fools’ joke.