Jump Shots

To me, there’s something quite special about the moment someone enters the water to begin a marathon swim. It’s an act of great courage; a willing surrender to a foreign and potentially dangerous environment; an acceptance of inevitable pain and struggle soon to be experienced.

The moment is even more dramatic when “entering the water” requires jumping from a dock – as in MIMS. Tom M. (a.k.a. bklynpolar on Flickr) and his camera were on the dock for the MIMS start, and captured these moments for a number of swimmers. Here are the “jump shots” for the top 8 seeds, in descending order. Click to enlarge.

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 1)

A few minutes before 10am Saturday, I jumped off a dock on the far southwestern tip of Manhattan and into the Hudson River. After a brief countdown I began a journey that would bring me around the Battery, up the East and Harlem Rivers, and back down the Hudson to the very same dock. 28 and a half miles in 7 and a half hours (give or take).

I had a lot on my mind in that moment – suspended in midair, before plunging into the 67-degree water – not all of it relevant to the task at hand. But some portion of my thoughts were directed at the question of how it was that I found myself there – jumping off the dock at South Cove.

Photo Credit: Tom McGann

Continue reading “Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 1)”

Swimming around Manhattan, tides are (almost) everything

Just over a week ’til the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim! Hard to believe it’s already upon us.

Sometimes people ask me if I have a “goal time” for the swim. That’s an interesting question. As anyone who’s spent much time in open water knows, the relationship between time and distance is somewhat complicated; even moreso for marathon swims.

MIMS is a different beast, though. I’d go so far as to say that MIMS times are pretty much meaningless — as an indication of speed. The typical winning time of 7 hours, 30 minutes works out to just under 59 seconds per 100m. So: world record 1500m pace, 28.5 times in a row. In MIMS, the tides are king – perhaps moreso than any other major marathon swim.

How important are the tides? Think of it this way. My ultra-marathon pace is about 2.3 knots. A world-class marathon swimmer? About 2.6-2.7 knots. The slowest swimmer in the MIMS field? Maybe 1.6 knots. Why am I describing swim speeds in terms of knots? Because that’s how river currents are measured. Now, guess what sort of current we will encounter when we round the southern tip of Manhattan and enter the East River? 3.1 knots. The river will be moving faster than we will be swimming.

It won’t always be 3.1 knots – that’s just the max flood tide at the Brooklyn Bridge, at 9:52am. But you get my point: MIMS involves navigating three separate rivers, on three separate tide cycles. At the start (from South Cove until we hit the East River), we’ll actually be swimming into a slight head current. The Harlem will max at about 1.4-1.9 knots. In the Hudson, an ebb tide of about 2 knots (max) will carry us home to the finish.

How important are the tides? You could take the best marathon swimmers in the world and, if you dropped them in one of the rivers at a particularly disadvantageous point in the tide cycle, quite possibly they would be unable to finish the swim.

And that’s not all! The currents don’t affect everyone equally – it depends on where you are in the river (i.e., how fast or slowly you’ve swum up to that point). For example, if you’re a fast swimmer, you may arrive in the Harlem River before the tide change – so you’ll swim into a head current at first. Slower swimmers arriving after the tide change will get a push from the outset. This has the effect of compressing the field (the trailing swimmers end up closer to the leading swimmers than they would in a slack current).

Same thing in the Hudson: the ebb tide doesn’t begin until 2:30pm – possibly after the leading swimmers arrive. And the tide doesn’t max out until just before 6pm – well after the leading swimmers have finished. In other words, the trailing swimmers get a better push coming down the Hudson, making their finishing times seem “faster” relative to the winner.

And that’s not all! Sometimes the tide change arrives early – or not at all. Sometimes (especially in the Hudson), a strong south wind will blow against the ebb tide and whip up a nasty chop – in effect, neutralizing the current assist.

The point is: Who the heck knows what MIMS times mean? The only thing that matters is the order of finish. All this is a round-about way of saying: I don’t have a goal time. The rivers will do what they will do; my job is to keep swimming until I finish.

There’s a saying among English Channel swimmers (attributed to Alison Streeter, I think), that “even a paper cup will eventually wind up on French soil.” I don’t know if that’s literally true – but to the extent it is, it’s probably even more true of MIMS. You don’t have to be a fast swimmer to finish MIMS. The tides will carry you. The important thing is to keep swimming until you get there.

So, if you ever hear anyone talk about their MIMS “time” as if it indicates anything about swimming speed – now you know to ask: “So how does that compare to a paper cup?”

In Asheville

A friend’s wedding brought me to beautiful Asheville, North Carolina this past weekend. While hunting ’round the ‘net for a place to swim while in town, I noticed Asheville Masters was hosting an open water clinic Saturday morning. I emailed coach Andrew Pulsifer to ask if I might join them and swim around on my own during the clinic. As luck would have it, two AMS members are also preparing for upcoming long swims – the Noblesville 25K for one guy, the Ft. Myers 10K for the other guy. Andrew graciously invited me to join them.

I rolled into the tony Biltmore Lake community around 7:45am and found Coach Andrew setting up. I was the first swimmer to arrive. We chatted for a bit and I was soon reminded of how small the open water swimming world can be. One of the guys I’d be swimming with was a fellow soloist from the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.

Biltmore Lake near Asheville, NC

We helped set up the buoys and set off on our workout. The lake (man-made – there are no natural lakes in western North Carolina) covers 62 acres, but we were confined to a triangular 200-yard course near the beach. Liability reasons, I guess. Around 8:30 the clinic participants began trickling in.

I ended up swimming for about 90 minutes, including a couple breaks to watch the clinic. Andrew’s an excellent coach, and he included lessons not only on open water technique (sighting, turns, drafting), but also on psychological issues. For many of these swimmers, the first order of business was just getting comfortable in the open water – figuring out how to relax when there’s no lanelines, walls, or black lines telling you where to go.

It was inspiring to see people with little open water experience overcoming their natural fears. And it was inspiring to see their dawning realization, after a bit, that hey… this is fun! Asheville’s not a big town, but the clinic drew 45 people. That’s got to be a hopeful sign for the future of the sport.

There’s a nice wrap-up of the event here.