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

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 to flip on my back and watch the world go by.

Carry me home, Henry Hudson…

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.

Rose (395m) Wilkinson (50m) Van Wisse (50m) Suñer (60m) Arrobas (135m) Morrison

Erica was punished by reaching the Hudson earlier than the rest of us

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 Janet from the jH20s relay team – and my suspicion was correct. I made friends with Janet and her relay partner John during a couple of visits with the 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.

Janet, by the way, has a blog at USMS and wrote a beautiful report on her experience: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

R-to-L: me, Ilene, Janet, Janet’s paddler. Photo Credit: Hannah B.

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.

The big bridge and the Little Red Lighthouse. Photo Credit: Hannah B.

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.

Upper Manhattan: Inwood, G.W. Bridge, Riverbank Park

5h0m @ approach to G.W. Bridge: Rose (300m) Wilkinson+Van Wisse (215m) Suñer (190m) Arrobas (50m) Morrison

5h30m @ approach to Riverbank Park: Rose (405m) Van Wisse+Wilkinson (130m) Suñer (290m) Arrobas+Morrison.

Photo Credit: Hannah B.

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:

Riverbank Park/145th to 79th Street Boat Basin

6h0m @ 100th-113th Street: Rose (630m) Wilkinson+Van Wisse (220m) Suñer (195m) Morrison (440m) Arrobas

6h15m @ 75th-90th Street: Rose (800m) Van Wisse+Wilkinson (370m) Suñer (75m) Morrison (240m)

Bring on the chop! Photo credit: Hannah B.

Erica extends her lead to half a mile. But I gain on everyone else.

Midtown: 79th St to 34th St

6h30m @ 50th-68th St: Rose (850m) Van Wisse (105m) Wilkinson (315m) Suñer (30m) Morrison

6h40m @ 34th-50th St: Rose (860m) Van Wisse (165m) Wilkinson (260m) Morrison (60m) Suñer

6h50m @ 18th-34th St: Rose (925m) Van Wisse (240m) Wilkinson (215m) Morrison (20m) Suñer

Midtown. Photo credit: Hannah B.

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.

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.

Downtown: 34th St to Finish

7h0m @ 12th-19th St: Rose (600m) Van Wisse (190m) Wilkinson (215m) Morrison (70m) Suñer

7h10m @ Spring-11th St: Rose (590m) Van Wisse (130m) Wilkinson (145m) Morrison (140m) Suñer

7h20m @ N. Battery Park: Rose (435m) Van Wisse (215m) Morrison (35m) Wilkinson (240m) Suñer

7h25m: Rose (370m) Van Wisse (180m) Morrison (60m) Wilkinson (315m) Suñer

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.

Passing from 4th to 3rd: Me & Ilene (L), Ollie & paddlers (R). Photo credit: Hannah B.

I am grateful to my pilot (Barry) and paddler (Ilene) for keeping me out in the river, allowing me make this final move. Look closely at the 7h10m GPS snapshot – notice #2 (Ollie) and #6 (me) and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, it was my strong swimming in the rest of the Hudson that gave my crew the opportunity to make this tactical maneuver at the end. It was, indeed, a team effort.

I “won” the final two segments of the race (from 34th Street down), and indeed was closing in on 2nd place John Van Wisse. It was a stunning, semi-miraculous finish.

About to round the corner into South Cove. Less than 15 seconds from the finish. Photo credit: Darren Miller

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:

Photo credit: Kathy Hecht Langdon

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:

R-to-L: Sarah Thomas, Sarah’s paddler, John, me. Photo credit: Kathy Hecht Langdon

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:

L-to-R: Ilene, me, Hannah, Barry

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.

8 thoughts on “Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 6 of 6)”

  1. Congrats again on a great swim! You had an awesome day, and it was great to see you looking so strong (as you disappeared into the distance ahead of us).
    Now I’m looking forward to reading about your Catalina adventure–hurry up and swim so you can post about it, won’t you!

    1. Thank you Janet! Too bad you and John didn’t have GPS tracking; otherwise we could recreate the game of water-leapfrog we were playing.

  2. Awesome job, Evan! I followed Rose from afar down part of the Hudson. One of the factors that slowed her down is that she had to come to a complete stop on a few occasions for ferries. Well, most notably she was stopped by the NYPD and forced to wait to the Norwegian Princess to pull out of port. What a sight! Great swim and great analysis. Best of luck on your remaining swims this year!

    1. Hi Frank, thanks for the kind words. Interesting observation about the ferries; I didn’t realize that. Good thing it wasn’t a close race or that could have been awkward!

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