In praise of the pool

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.

Hearst Castle. San Simeon, CA.

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. Friend-of-the-blog 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:

  1. Cold water acclimation. There simply is no substitute (including ice baths). If you want to swim in cold water, swim in cold water.
  2. Rough water acclimation. This is an area where I’ve really improved since I moved to Chicago last year. My success in the choppy first few miles of Tampa and the choppy last 10 miles of MIMS was probably due, in part, to my training in Lake Michigan (which is, more often the not, choppy).
  3. Over-distance training. For the long (10K+) swims that are an essential (if only occasional) element in the marathon swimmer’s training regimen, I find open water preferable to the pool. It’s easier, psychologically – time passes more quickly in open water. That said, I still think my 25K pool workout in March better prepared me mentally for Tampa and MIMS than anything else I did.

See, the chlorine box isn’t so bad! Especially if the chlorine box looks like this:

Los Baños del Mar Pool. Santa Barbara, California.

MIMS: Three rivers, Three races

Readers may be curious to see split times for the full rivers (East, Harlem, & Hudson) – not just the “segments” shown in the previous two posts. 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!

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 6 of 6)

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 Triborough Bridge), and finally to 6th (when Miguel S. passed me somewhere between the Third Ave Bridge and 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. It was Sarah Thomas from Colorado.

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:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Continue reading “Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 6 of 6)”

The story of the splits: East & Harlem Rivers

In the “GPS snapshots” I’ve shown in the last couple posts, you can see how far apart each swimmer is (6 of them, anyway) 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:

So, here’s what happened in the East River:

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.

What about the Harlem?

Some thoughts:

  • According to these splits, the field was pretty evenly matched in the Harlem. Erica gained a minute on John (and 2 minutes on Ollie) between the Footbridge and Yankee Stadium, but then gave back 30 seconds to John (and 90 seconds to Ollie) in the upper Harlem.
  • This isn’t necessarily because Erica was swimming less well. It’s possible that the trailing swimmers gained some relative advantage by swimming in the Harlem during a faster part of the tide cycle. Erica entered the Harlem River at 11:32am –  5 minutes ahead of 2nd place Ollie and 7.5 minutes ahead of 6th place Miguel S. Those may have been crucial minutes. Based on the slow speeds of all the swimmers in the lower Harlem (just under 30 minutes per mile), we were probably swimming into a head current at first.
  • The current really picked up in the upper Harlem. Again, the trailing swimmers were relatively advantaged by this, as they spent more time in the faster current. This may explain Erica’s surprisingly slow split in the upper Harlem.
  • I had a terrible 1st half of the Harlem; but, I already knew that.

Here’s the order of the top 6 swimmers as they passed under the Spuyten Duyvil railroad bridge and into the mighty Hudson:

  1. Erica R. – 2:08pm
  2. Oliver W. – 2:13:30
  3. John V.W. – 2:14
  4. Miguel S. – 2:15
  5. Miguel A. – 2:16
  6. Evan M. – 2:17:30

Are you ready?

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 5)

I don’t really remember passing through Hell Gate and into the Harlem River. But there were signs: The river narrowed, the current slowed, the surface chop smoothed out, and the water was noticeably warmer (72-73F, 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:

  • Erica’s lead got bigger.
  • John caught up to Ollie, passed him briefly, but then fell back again. Ollie entered the Hudson in 2nd, followed closely by John.
  • I got passed by Miguel Arrobas, then by Miguel Suñer, and entered the Hudson solidly in 6th place.
  • Miguel S. passed Miguel A.

And the GPS snapshots for the rest of the Harlem (click to enlarge):

And the distances between each of the top 6:

2:00 – Rose (300m) Wilkinson (50m) Van Wisse (10m) Morrison (20m) Arrobas (45m) Suñer
2:30 – Rose (350m) Wilkinson (10m) Van Wisse (80m) Arrobas (65m) Morrison (80m) Suñer
3:00 – Rose (430m) Van Wisse (15m) Wilkinson (120m) Arrobas (70m) Suñer (35m) Morrison
3:30 – Rose (495m) Wilkinson (135m) Van Wisse (135m) Suñer (40m) Arrobas
4:00 – Rose (455m) Wilkinson (135m) Van Wisse (150m) Suñer (180m) Morrison

Close observers will notice missing GPS tracks for me at 3:30, and for Miguel A. at 4:00. That would be our kayakers making pitstops at the Columbia boathouse.

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.

To be continued…

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 4)

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. Apparently it’s the most reliable form of public transit in New York, with an on-time performance of 96%.

In any case, 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.

Rose (85m) Wilkinson+Morrison (110m) Arrobas (250m) Van Wisse

Continue reading “Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 4)”

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 3)


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 GPS tracks aren’t reliable at this time because the kayaks (which carry the transponders) may or may not be next to their respective swimmers. Thankfully, 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:

  • 1:14-20 – Just ahead and to the right of Terry is my paddler, Ilene Levenson – in the red cap with the big ‘6’ on her back.
  • 1:16 – The race begins.
  • 1:24-30 – The three swimmers closest to the camera are, in order: Michael Gregory, me, and John Van Wisse. You can see Ollie Wilkinson already with a bodylength lead and, further toward the top of the screen, Erica Rose in 2nd.
  • 1:45 – Ollie is the first to pass the yellow buoy, followed by Erica (1:45+), me (1:47), and John (1:47+).
  • 1:56 – I take a left breath and notice John already falling out of my peripheral vision. That’s interesting, I thought. I am feeling smooth, controlled, and “light” in the water.
  • 2:03-16 – Notice John’s distinctive choppy stroke (79 SPM) in the middle of the screen. I’m about a bodylength ahead of him, closer to shore, stroking at 66 SPM. Ollie and Erica are now 2-3 bodylengths ahead of me, at the far right edge of the screen.
  • 2:20-3:00 – The camera pans to the trailing swimmers.
  • 3:03 – “I gotta go to the bathroom!”
  • 3:25-40 – A closer view of John VW.
  • 3:50-4:00 – Camera pans toward front of pack. Me… Ollie… Erica.
  • 4:00 – There’s Ilene again!

The video ends 2 minutes, 49 seconds into the race. At 10 minutes elapsed time, the leaders are approaching the Staten Island ferry terminal. Here’s the orientation of the top 6-seeded swimmers, according to the GPS tracks:

1=Van Wisse. 2=Wilkinson. 3=Rose. 4=Arrobas. 5=Suner. 6=Morrison.

The tracks at this point show me slightly ahead of Ollie, but I’m almost certain I was on his heels. This is probably an artifact of our kayakers’ locations. The distance between Erica and Miguel Arrobas (#4) is 107 meters. Miguel Suñer (#5) is “off the radar” here because his kayaker/GPS was, for some reason, up ahead near the Brooklyn Bridge.

We will soon be entering the East River, where a 3+ knot current will shoot us up toward Hell Gate with astonishing speed.

To be continued…