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

The caption shows the distances between each swimmer. So in this case, Erica (#3) is 85m ahead of me and Ollie (6, 2), who were 110m ahead of Miguel A. (4), who was 250m ahead of John VW (1).


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 continued to extend her lead.

Rose (120m) Wilkinson (65m) Morrison (140m) Arrobas (325m) Van Wisse

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.

Approaching the Williamsburg Bridge. Photo Credit: Hannah B.

15 minutes later we had passed the Williamsburg Bridge and Erica was approaching 14th Street. I was still in 3rd, followed by the two Miguels and a still-trailing John Van Wisse.

Rose (160m) Wilkinson (45m) Morrison (125m) Arrobas (50m) Suñer (125m) Van Wisse

At 1 hour elapsed time, Erica had passed 34th Street and was still extending her lead. 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.

Rose (190m) Wilkinson (105m) Morrison (125m) Van Wisse (25m) Arrobas+Suñer

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.

Rose (175m) Wilkinson (375m) Morrison+Van Wisse (115m) Suñer (40m) Arrobas

The chop finally subsided in the upper part of the East River – probably right around the Queensboro Bridge. 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 finally catching up to me?

It didn’t help when Ilene informed me during a feed that John had passed me, and I was now in 4th. Here’s a picture from just before then:

John Van Wisse (left, with paddler Richard Clifford) about to pass me. UN Building in the background. Photo credit: Hannah B.

Was this it, then? A promising start, only to fall off the pace before even hitting the Harlem River? How many others would pass me before the end?

It was a dark time… and it would get darker before the day was done. Before we leave the East River, though, make sure to watch this clip from a classic Seinfeld episode, in which Kramer takes up swimming in that same “heavily trafficked, overly contaminated waterway.”

Frankly I thought the East River was fine, water-quality-wise. The Harlem, on the other hand…

To be continued…

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