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.
Even two years ago, this scenario would have seemed exceedingly unlikely. Two years ago, I’d barely heard of open water swimming, much less the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. I was overweight and out of shape. Two years ago last month, I did my first open water race - in a lake near Columbus, Ohio, where I lived at the time. I decided to go the night before, and I don’t even remember why. Whatever the reasons, this decision led, ultimately, to me standing on the dock at South Cove.
Open-water swimming tends to lend itself to a game of self-one-upmanship: If I can do 3K - as I did that day in Columbus - why not 5K? If I can do 5K, why not 10K? By October of last year, I had one-upped myself to 10 miles down the Tennessee River.
Around that time, my friend Mark Warkentin faced off against Petar Stoychev in a match race / record attempt around Manhattan. I watched intently as their GPS dots moved around the island. The seed had been planted - and at 11am last November 1st, I clicked Submit on my MIMS application.
I arrived in New York Wednesday evening. Swam at Brighton Beach with some CIBBOWS Thursday morning. Opted for the 50m pool at Riverbank Friday morning, and ran into Rondi. The pre-race meeting Friday afternoon was long, but it was fun to hear everyone’s stories. Quick dinner at Whole Foods and back to the hotel to mix my feeds and shave (both somewhat botched jobs). Got to bed too late, and even then struggled to fall asleep.
Loaded the boat the next morning at 7. Got to South Cove by 7:30. Applied suncreen & lube, hydrated, and tried to find some measure of peace before the main event.
This turned out to be especially important on the morning of MIMS, because it was a scene. Reporters, cameramen, families, friends, random onlookers - not to mention the field itself, full of well-known marathon swimmers from around the world. MIMS 2011 was particularly circus-like due to the Global Open Water Swimming Conference taking place in NYC the same weekend. Shelley Taylor-Smith, Penny Lee Dean, Anne Cleveland, Sid Cassidy, and Steven Munatones were among the open-water celebrities milling about South Cove that morning.
Here’s a video of Shelley interviewing race favorites (and eventual top 2 finishers) Erica Rose and John Van Wisse, as well as Van Wisse’s kayaker Richard Clifford:
The start of Wave 3 (the top 10 seeded swimmers) can be seen at 11:27. I’m the third swimmer from the right at the start - you can see me most clearly at the right edge of the screen at 11:30-31 when the camera zooms in. A few seconds later, you can see Erica already taking off into a lead she would never relinquish.
Also of interest is this video of Shelley and Penny Dean (perhaps the two best marathon swimmers of their generation - of either gender) catching up on old times before the race start.
Shortly before the Wave 1 was scheduled to jump, the full field gathered for a group photo:
Around 9:45am, my wave, the third of three, lined up on the dock in order, 10th seed to 1st.
Once everyone was lined up and accounted for, we jumped into the cove to await the starting gun. I noticed Ollie to my right - he asked me when I was doing my big Great Lakes swim. After a brief countdown, we were off.
I set off around the Battery at a relaxed pace - giving myself a chance to warm up and see how things sort out. I figured I’d try to stay on Van Wisse’s heels for a while (he started just to my left), so I was surprised when he fell behind after a couple hundred meters, out of my field of vision.
The first few minutes of MIMS are typically chaotic, as kayakers attempt to hook up with their swimmers while the field is still compressed. The Terry O’Malley (paddler for Michael Gregory) shot some video from his kayak of these first few minutes:
Like Rashomon, unexpected insights arise from different perspectives. For example, the video reveals that Ollie Wilkinson, not Erica Rose, was the first swimmer to pass the yellow buoy marking the exit from South Cove. A few notes, with corresponding timestamps:
The video ends 2 minutes, 49 seconds into the race. At 10 minutes elapsed time, the leaders are approaching the Staten Island ferry terminal.
We will soon be entering the East River, where a 3+ knot current will shoot us up toward Hell Gate with astonishing speed.
The Staten Island ferry terminal marks the southernmost tip of Manhattan, and the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers. The ferry - which carries 75,000 passengers per day and operates 24/7/365 - has figured prominently in several attempts to circum-swim the island.
In 2009 the entire MIMS field was held up shortly after the start as the ferry departed, allowing trailing swimmers to pull even with then-leaders John Van Wisse and Penny Palfrey. In 1995, Shelley Taylor-Smith was forced to tread water for crucial minutes during a record attempt as the ferry docked. She eventually did eclipse Kris Rutford’s 4-year old record by 9 minutes - and her incredible time of 5:45 still stands.
The ferry doesn’t care if you’re in the middle of a race; it has a schedule to keep, and besides, it’s bigger than you.
Thankfully, the ferry didn’t factor into the 2011 race. As Ilene (my paddler) and I passed the terminal I was still following closely on Ollie Wilkinson’s heels, with Erica Rose about 40m beyond us. As we entered the East River it was like stepping onto a moving walkway in an airport - the push was immediate and palpable. The current was rated at 3.1 knots that morning, and I don’t doubt it.
20 minutes after the race start, Ollie and I were parallel to Pier 11.
Half an hour after the start (10:20am) we had already passed the first two bridges (Brooklyn & Manhattan), and Ollie had begun to pull away from me. Erica now led by 120m.
Around this time the river started to get a little choppy - albeit nothing compared to what we’d encounter a few hours later in the Hudson.
15 minutes later we had passed the Williamsburg Bridge and Erica was approaching 14th Street (leading by 160m). I was still in 3rd, followed by the two Miguels and a still-trailing John Van Wisse.
At 1 hour elapsed time, Erica had passed 34th Street and was still extending her lead (190m). At the same time, I had begun to fall off the pace and John was making a move - passing both Miguels and closing the gap with me from 300m to 125m.
Half an hour later, Erica was entering Hell Gate and the rest of us were passing the northern end of Roosevelt Island, approaching Gracie Mansion. The field was now spread over 9 city blocks, from 83rd to 92nd Street. During this time Ollie had put another 270m between himself and me, and John passed me to move into 3rd place.
The chop subsided in the upper part of the East River. Around this time I distinctly remember feeling fatigued for the first time. My shoulders were starting to grind and I knew I was pulling less water. It was discouraging: I had felt strong through the first 3 hours of Tampa, and now I was already flagging after only 90 minutes? Were the past few days’ stresses and lack of sleep finally catching up to me?
Ilene informed me during a feed that John had passed me, and I was now in 4th.
I don’t really remember passing through Harlem River. But there were signs: The river narrowed, the current slowed, the surface chop smoothed out, and the water was noticeably warmer (low 70s F, compared to 67 in South Cove). Most of all, there was the taste. While the East River had been mildly salty (with the flood tide moving water from the Atlantic), and the Hudson would be distinctly sweet (with the ebb tide moving water from upstate), the Harlem had an altogether different mouthfeel. “Industrial” is the word that comes to mind.
The Harlem is a long, tough slog. The current - especially at first, and especially for the leaders - is slower. There’s nothing much to see, aside from the 13 bridges (more than I could keep track of). Most people are experiencing at least some fatigue, yet the entire length of the Hudson remains. At 7.5 miles, the Harlem represents just over a quarter of the MIMS distance - but at least a third of the time swimmers typically spend in the water. The Harlem is the least interesting part of MIMS - and therefore the toughest.
Here’s a typical view:
Photo Credit: Hannah B.
What about the race? How ‘bout a Cliff’s Notes version:
There’s not much else to say about the Harlem, really. One feed bled into the next, and one bridge bled into the next. I was in survival mode - I knew I was losing ground on the leaders, and my shoulders were unimpressed by the ibuprofen I just took. Nothing to do but just keep plugging away. If I ended up in 6th then, well, whatever. That was my seed ranking anyway.
Remember Rule #1 of marathon swimming: Whatever happens (within reason) - keep going. Don’t ever give up.
And remember Rule #1 of MIMS: Anything can happen in the Hudson.
As I rounded the 90-degree bend in the upper Harlem River into Spuyten Duyvil, I was not a happy swimmer. My shoulders throbbed - seemingly immune to pharmaceutical intervention. I had gone from 3rd in the upper reaches of the East River, to 4th (when John VW passed me just before Hell Gate), to 5th (when Miguel A. passed me near the Madison Ave Bridge).
My 20-minute feeds - Maxim interspersed with Perpetuem - kept me going, but just barely. My speed had been gradually deteriorating since Roosevelt Island in the East River. By now we’d passed all the swimmers from the first two waves… but I could see another boat creeping up on me, which I found later was Sarah Thomas.
The visual drabness of the Harlem gives way, in the Spuyten Duyvil area, to a more interesting view: the Columbia “C Rock,” the Henry Hudson Bridge looming high above, and finally, the railroad bridge marking the entrance to the Hudson:
I covered the 1,400m between the Broadway Bridge and the railroad bridge in 13 minutes (4.0 mph, or 55.7 seconds per 100m). The railroad bridge passes only 5 feet above the water - thus offering the best view of the current. As I did under every bridge that day, I took the opportunity for a few back-strokes.
When MIMS swimmers enter the Hudson River at the top of Manhattan, there are still 13 miles to swim - more than 45% of the total distance. It’s intimidating on paper, but once you’re in the Hudson you are, for the most part, home free. The ebb tide will carry you, as long as you can find a way to keep swimming.
In contrast to the Harlem, which at some points was less than 100m wide, the Hudson is vast - almost a mile wide. When I rounded the corner at Inwood Hill Park I was almost 10 minutes behind the leader, Erica Rose, and 90 seconds behind 5th-place Miguel Arrobas. Here we are at 4h30m elapsed time:
KEY: 1=Van Wisse. 2=Wilkinson. 3=Rose. 4=Arrobas. 5=Suñer. 6=Morrison.
The 2.3-mile swim to the George Washington Bridge was slow for all of us. The ebb tide wasn’t scheduled to begin until 2:30pm. So theoretically, Erica was swimming into a head current for her first 22 minutes in the Hudson (12:30 for me).
Shortly after entering the Hudson I noticed another swimmer (and her paddler) close by. I was passing them, but not very quickly. I suspected it was CIBBOWS group at Brighton Beach. I was happy to see them, and to see them swimming strong.
MIMS is the least lonely of marathon swims.
This 45-minute stretch - from the entrance to the Hudson to the George Washington Bridge - was my worst of the day. John Van Wisse, the “stage winner” of this section, gained two-and-a-half minutes on me in only 2.3 miles - and Ollie Wilkinson gained 90 seconds. I was really grinding. Occasionally I’d look up and see the enormous bridge looming. It seemed to never get closer.
But my fortunes were about to change. Soon after the G.W. Bridge, the chop picked up.
This is why they say: Anything can happen in the Hudson. Choppy conditions are actually pretty common during an afternoon ebb tide on the Hudson; and since MIMS is timed to coincide with an afternoon ebb tide on the Hudson, swimmers often have to deal with chop - 5 hours into an 8-hour marathon swim.
What you can’t predict is how the chop will affect people. Some will be unaffected. Some will become frustrated and fall off pace. And some may actually thrive in the chop. The leaderboard can get rearranged pretty quickly.
I’m not experienced enough at marathon swimming to say whether I “thrive” in chop. What I can say is that, like a defibrillator, the chop jolted me out of my slump. Suddenly, my shoulders didn’t seem to hurt as much. Suddenly, I had a bit more energy. Best of all: I started catching people.
The comeback begins. I pass Miguel A. (a 1992 Olympian in the 100 & 200m backstroke!) near 150th Street and am now in 5th place. John and Ollie are battling for 2nd. Erica continues to swim strongly - but I tie her for the segment. Miguel A’s crew shot some video right around this time. Notice the water treatment plant at Riverbank from 0:12-0:18:
I pass into 4th place near 42nd St. Here’s a quick video of this section of the Hudson from Miguel A’s crew. Notice the Empire State Building at top-right near the end.
At 7 hours elapsed time, there’s about 30-35 minutes left in the race. Erica has given up 325m in the last 10 minutes to John, but her lead is already insurmountable.
Seemingly, after the Manhattan shoreline turned south for the final stretch toward Battery Park City, normal river behavior resumed - i.e., faster currents offshore. During this section, Erica was swimming just a few meters outside the piers, while the rest of us were further out. This may explain much of the 3.5 minutes she gave up to me between 34th St and Pier 40.
I passed into 3rd place near Canal Street, just a few minutes before reaching Battery Park City. I was 215m behind Ollie at 7h0m; 145m behind at 7h10m; and 35m ahead at 7h20m.
What was it like, this near-photo finish after 7.5 hours of swimming? Honestly, after seeing Janet north of the G.W. Bridge, I didn’t see a damn thing until the very end. I always knew approximately where I was, thanks to the Hudson shoreline’s many recognizable landmarks. But I was only aware of my position in the race via my crew and paddler. In 20-minute intervals, I heard: “You’re catching #4” … “You passed #4 and are catching #5” … “You passed #5 and are catching #1 and #2.”
Then, on my last feed, Ilene said: “#2 [Ollie] is right there. Go get him!”
I didn’t see a thing until they brought me in to the Battery wall and I saw Ollie right behind me. I broke into a sprint - finding an energy reserve I had no idea was there. I rounded the corner into South Cove. It’s about 20 yards from there to the ladder attached to a dock - the same dock I leaped from at 9:50 that morning. The most thrilling 20 yards of my entire life in swimming. I’ll never forget it.
That’s why we train - all those endless laps - for moments like this:
I jumped back in the water and swam out to my boat. Hannah (my observer) found this amusing (“Haven’t you had enough swimming for the day?”), but what’s another 30m after 28+ miles? Words can’t express the gratitude of a marathon swimmer for his crew. And I wanted them to know it.
On the way back in I saw John (the other half of the jH20 relay) and we caught up on the day’s happenings:
I stuck around for a few minutes to watch others finish, but mostly I just felt gross. My sunscreen and lube were sticking to my clothes, the drawstrings on my suit were brown, and the ibuprofen was wearing off. Time for a shower.
I returned later that evening - this time to North Cove - for the post-race dinner. I sat with Hannah and Ilene and got to know them a little better. I hardly recognized Ilene in street clothes. She had been assigned to me at the last minute, and despite spending 7+ hours on the water together, we hadn’t actually “met” in person until then.
Once folks had at least partially filled their bellies with food, Morty got started with the awards presentation. He acknowledged every single swimmer - solo and relay, bottom to top. Everyone had their moment in the lights, and deservedly so.
A marathon swimmer and his enablers:
MIMS was a dream fulfilled: A swim that was inconceivable to me little more than a year ago. A swim that wasn’t my “best” in terms of performance, but that tested me (for external reasons, unfortunately) more than any other. A swim that reinforced, in a very personal way, that marathon swimming is mostly about mental fortitude. The human body is capable of unimaginable feats - but the mind must first imagine them.
To view the full set of photos taken by my boat observer Hannah, see here.
A mini-documentary from Paris-NY.tv. I make a brief appearance from 1:35-1:38.
In the “GPS snapshots” I showed in the narrative report, you can see how far apart the top swimmers are in terms of distance. Four hours into the race, for example, Erica Rose was 455m ahead of Ollie Wilkinson, who was in turn 135m ahead of John Van Wisse.
Another way to model the race is to look at when each swimmer passes a given landmark. This shows how far apart each swimmer is on a different dimension - time. Using the GPS tracks provided by NYC Swim, we can actually calculate “split times” for each swimmer between any landmark we choose. And, using those split times, we can calculate each swimmer’s speed (including current) for each segment.
For the purposes of this study, I chose 11 landmarks - three in the East River (Pier 11, Queensboro Bridge, and the Randall Island footbridge), two in the Harlem (Macombs Dam Bridge and Spuyten Duyvil), and six in the Hudson (GW Bridge, Riverbank Park, 79th St, 34th St, Pier 40, and the finish at South Cove). Hopefully they’re all fairly obvious reference points. Here they are on a map:
As you may recall, Erica Rose was about 85m ahead of Ollie Wilkinson and me at Pier 11. However, the GPS tracks were taken at 1-minute intervals - so I was only able to calculate splits to about half a minute of precision. That’s why Erica, Ollie, and I have the same split for the Start-to-Pier 11 segment.
In any case, everything here pretty much corresponds to what we’d expect. From the start to Pier 11 we were swimming through mostly slack water - thus slower overall speed (probably 1 mph net current). The first part of the East River was fast (up to 6 mph average speed). In the latter part of the East River (along Roosevelt Island), the current slowed by about a knot.
Erica pretty much dominated the East River.
Here’s the order of the top 6 swimmers as they passed under the Spuyten Duyvil railroad bridge and into the mighty Hudson:
Erica extends her lead to half a mile. But I gain on everyone else.
Erica is still pulling away, despite moving in close to shore. Usually, the faster currents in a gathering ebb tide would be found in the middle of the river. Possibly, her pilot was trying to evade the chop (which would also be greatest in the middle of the river). Or perhaps they saw something the rest of us didn’t. Either way, it didn’t seem to hurt her: She ties me for the fastest split of the segment.
John is pulling away from Ollie.
Readers may be curious to see split times for the full rivers (East, Harlem, & Hudson) - not just the “segments” shown above. So here they are.
You’ll notice a new swimmer in the mix here: Sarah Thomas from Colorado. Originally seeded 8th, Sarah managed to slip into 5th place overall with a roaring swim down the Hudson. Well done, Sarah!
Pools sometimes get a bad rap among open water swimmers. Marathon swimmers who live outside the Sun Belt are known to bemoan long winter hours in the “concrete prison.” David Barra memorably quipped to the New York Times:
The free spirits want to be outdoors, and have a relationship with a body of water…. You don’t have a relationship with a chlorine box.
But pools have their uses – even for marathon swimmers. Especially if one of your goals is to get faster. Alex Kostich was a U.S. National Teamer, an All-American distance swimmer at Stanford, and a training partner of Janet Evans in her prime. Now 41, Kostich is possibly the fastest Masters open-water swimmer in the country at the short distances (up to 5K). In the July/August issue of USMS Swimmer, here’s what he had to say about pools:
The easiest and most efficient way to get faster in open water is to do quality work in the pool.
Kostich is an open water specialist. He lives in Los Angeles. Yet he doesn’t train in open water.
He isn’t unique in this regard. Mark Warkentin, who also lives on the California coast, did nearly 100% of his training for the 2008 Olympic 10K in pools. Take a poll of the current open-water National Teamers, and you’re likely to find that all of them do the vast majority of their training in pools.
Pools are useful because they make training quantifiable, measurable, and precise. In pools there is accountability and objectivity. Ironically, many of the factors that make open water enjoyable - its freedom and unpredictability - are the same ones that make it less than ideal as a training environment.
The two best ways to get faster are to (1) improve your technique, and (2) improve your cardiovascular conditioning. In the pool, it’s easier to monitor and adjust technique. In the pool, it’s also easier to do the “quality” work necessary to improve your conditioning. That said, training in open water is useful, I believe, in three regards:
The chlorine box isn’t so bad! Especially if it looks like this: