Race Report: Ederle Swim

Janet Harris

I met Janet Harris at a CIBBOWS gathering after the Great Hudson River Swim in May. A few weeks later, we swam side-by-side for a few minutes during the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Janet is known in the NYC-area swimming community for her infectious smile and tasty baked goods. Recently, she’s been making a name for herself as a marathon swimmer – as part of a 1st-place MIMS relay duo with John Humenik, and then completing two solo stages of the 8 Bridges Hudson River swim.

This past weekend, Janet placed a strong 5th overall in the Ederle Swim. Here is her race report.

I wanted to highlight Janet’s report because her experience, as she tells it, was everything mine was not (or everything I wish it had been). She writes of a tension between swimming “at sightseeing pace, taking my time and taking in all the beauty along the way and savoring the privilege of being able to swim under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, by the Statue of Liberty,” on the one hand, and “giving it my very best effort, and pushing myself to see how I could stack up against a strong field of contenders,” on the other.

Somehow, she managed to strike a perfect balance between the two:

I felt like I was pushing myself beyond comfortable the entire time…. I was also constantly taking in and loving everything around me—the blue-and-puffy-clouded sky, the undulation of the waves, the feeling of being surrounded and supported by the water. I waved to the Romer Shoal Lighthouse and the Statue of Liberty as I passed by, blew a kiss to the VZ bridge as I backstroked under it, and was excited by the ever-nearing skyline of Manhattan. The whole swim was simply joyful, and was the kind of peak athletic experience where the more energy I expended, the more I felt like I had to give.

This is marathon swimming at its best, isn’t it? An epic physical challenge, and at the same time a joyful adventure. A chance to push one’s limits of endurance and pain, and also to experience geographical places in unique ways. Millions have driven over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but how many people get to swim under it?

Under the VZ Bridge, on the way to Sandy Hook (photo by Vlad Brezina)

As I reflect on my season and look forward to the next one, one of my goals is to be more Janet-like. To experience my swimming more joyfully. There were many individual moments of joy this year, but they were always fleeting. As Janet showed, “joyful” doesn’t have to mean “slow” – and I can probably strike a better balance.

My typical experience during these swims has been as a struggle between body and mind. For how long can I maintain a certain pace? How much pain can I endure? A “masochistic death march,” is how I described it in a comment.

Not warm enough (photo by Kevin T.)

For me, the Ederle Swim was pretty much a death march from start to finish. Is it unsporting to suggest a swim that earned me a record and an AP mention was actually my worst of the year? Probably. So I won’t dwell on it too much. My training since Catalina has been sporadic at best, so I shouldn’t have expected a peak performance. I didn’t bother to taper – there wasn’t anything to taper from.

But my big unforced error was dressing inadequately for the boat ride to Sandy Hook. Such a rookie mistake! After an hour speeding across the water at 20 knots in sub-50F air temps, by the time I arrived at the start I was chilled and tight. Though the water was warm enough (68F) that I was in no danger of hypothermia, I never really recovered. I just felt unbalanced and uncomfortable the entire swim.

These things happen… but I’m disappointed that I let it detract from my joy in experiencing this beautiful, historic swim. It’s a rare thing to backstroke under the looming Verrazano; to watch the lower Manhattan skyline grow on the horizon from water level; to share the water with impossibly large cruise ships and barges. That’s why people pay good money for this.

The blue Atlantic meets the muddy Hudson (photo by Rondi Davies)

We can’t always have good days out there. Some days, I’m sure even Janet would struggle to muster much joy – she’s human like the rest of us. The lesson, I think, is that on those occasional bad days, to the extent you can step back from the pain and appreciate the beauty and privilege of what you’re doing, your experience will be much the better. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even see the Statue of Liberty as I passed it. I knew she was there, but I didn’t bother to look for her – I was too busy grinding. Three days later, I profoundly regret this.

A few words on my crew: I lucked out again. Manning the boat was my MIMS pilot Barry D.; paddling next to me was Kevin T. They steered me confidently through a multitude of odd currents and the confused chop of the final 2 miles. Pulling double-duty as official observer and crew was John Hughes – a warm and encouraging presence every 20 minutes when I stopped to feed. Thanks, guys.

So, that’s a wrap for my 2011 open water season! For now I’m taking a few days off to regroup and re-acquaint myself with the reality-based world. It’s tough to say what adventures 2012 will bring, but you’ll hear it here first. Thanks so much to my family and friends for their support and encouragement this year, and to my readers for their continued engagement.

May your off-season be joyful!

Approaching Manhattan from the south (photo by Vlad Brezina)

Links of Interest:

  • Official results [NYC Swim]
  • Daily News of Open Water Swimming article
  • Associated Press article (syndicated by ESPN, Washington Post, SF Chronicle, & others)
  • NYC Swim newsletter
  • History of the Ederle Swim [NYC Swim]
  • Fascinating analysis by Vlad Brezina (kayaker for Janet Harris)
  • My brand-new Openwaterpedia page, c/o Steve Munatones 🙂

15 thoughts on “Race Report: Ederle Swim”

  1. Wow Evan–I’m so touched and overwhelmed by your kind words! Thank you.

    And congratulations again on your very fine swim. I think it’s both brave and glorious to be willing to push your body so hard for so long on those days when things are not being fun out there. It must give you a lot of confidence as you’re looking ahead to whatever you’re planning next year to know you are capable of that.

    A joyful off-season to you, and I hope to see you in NYC again soon, or near some body of water somewhere!

    1. Janet, I figured people don’t want to hear me grouse about feeling crappy, so I decided to focus on your inspiring story instead. Much better to take that positive energy with us into the off season!

  2. Great blog! I’ve often thought myself lucky to be an adult onset swimmer with no expectations of speed and performance. It must be difficult for a swimmer of your caliber to not race the absolute crap out of everything. But I’ve seen you step back and enjoy the moment! Perhaps it was just one of those days :). Lady Liberty isn’t going anywhere 🙂
    I’m a little concerned about the “real world” comment, though!

    1. Hey, thanks! I think the Point is the only OW location where I’ve truly been able to just, you know, swim. Or sit on the rocks. Or do whatever. That’s why I miss it so…

      Don’t worry – I’ve got one more night of non-real world activity blocked off on the calendar!

  3. Evan –

    Congrats on a breakthrough year! I’m sure there are more good things coming next year as well. You have certainly earned a rest period.

    Glad you met Janet. If there’s a “Bucket List” of people you need to meet in the open water world, she’s definately on it.

  4. Nice post, Evan. It’s interesting to see you addressing this topic. I think of it like moving a heavy piece of furniture by “walking it”. You go as far as you can on one side, then switch to the other side. Progress is uneven until you get to the end.

    I saw your comment about not wanting to “complain”, but I would still like to hear about your experience.

    p.s. You’re not in Chicago anymore?

    1. OK, you got it! But in lieu of an “Ederle, Part 2” post, I’ll just put it here in a comment.

      As I said, when we got to Sandy Hook I was cold. When I took off my sweatshirt to lube up, I actually started shivering. Not a good way to start a marathon swim! When the call came over the radio for my wave to approach the beach, I had my boat drop me further offshore, so I’d have a longer swim to warm up & stretch out. I bodysurfed one of the tiny breakers into the beach and began to greet the rest of my wave – Emma, John, Lance, and Marilee.

      But literally as soon as I stood up on two feet, an airhorn sounded from the lead boat, signalling the start of the race. I was still facing the shore, so I turned around and saw the other swimmers already wading into the water. Whoops… time to get going.

      I didn’t have time to get my directional bearings, so I figured I’d follow someone until we met up with the paddlers. I followed on the feet of what I thought was Lance (who has the most experience on the Ederle course), but I found out later it was John. Soon enough we connected with the paddlers, who separated us out a bit. I was still cold and tight… my stroke felt rough and sloppy.

      Given how crappy I felt, I figured everyone was ahead of me, so I didn’t even ask for a race status update ’til the third feed (1 hour). My paddler informed me there were only a couple flotillas ahead, but that he thought they were from previous waves. I couldn’t believe it. The conditions were pretty fair most of the way to the VZ bridge… some minor surface chop here & there. I think I was finally “warmed up” by the VZ bridge (3 hours & 9+ miles into the swim), but by then, unfortunately, I was starting to fatigue. Out of the frying pan, into the fire…

      I kept thinking I was bound to be passed, but it never happened. With about an hour left, my paddler said, “We can’t even see anyone behind us.”

      About 2 miles before Manhattan we encountered a vicious chop. Something to do with the confluence of the Harbor water with the two rivers. Whatever it was, it was nasty and demoralizing. Plus my eyes were playing tricks on me. About 4 hrs into the swim the downtown skyscrapers looked big enough that I figured I was almost finished. It would be another hour & a half. I wasn’t as close as it seemed.

      Shortly before the finish my paddler told me we couldn’t land at South Cove – too much debris, chop, etc. – so they’d take my time as I passed and then I’d continue on to North Cove where we could get out. I didn’t care for the idea of swimming another half-mile, but the current was moving swiftly enough that we just floated up there.

      I hung around for a while to greet the next few finishers, but I had to get going. Stupidly I forgot my boat pilot’s gas money at the hotel in the morning, so I had to rush back and get it so the pilot could go home.

      That night I ordered Vietnamese for delivery in my hotel room. Too exhausted to bother going out… even in NYC 🙂

      1. Thanks. I feel like that story deserves to be honored too. Great job in every way. Such a bummer about getting cold on the boat.

        I never have any idea how I’m doing unless I’m pacing off of someone, preferably someone I know pretty well.

  5. Dude! That’s it for the year’s roll-up? Still waiting for the book.
    Congrats, seriously. But I don’t know why everyone is talking about the off season. There are still plenty of races going on in Europe. 😉

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