MIMS 2013, Part 1: A perfect storm

MIMS 2013 was a disappointing, even heartbreaking experience for a number of very accomplished and competent marathon swimmers. Of the 39 soloists who started from Pier A, only 11 made it around the island unassisted – compared to 100% finish rates in 2011 and 2012.

I’m not in a position to grasp all the factors that contributed to the situation on race day – I daresay none of the swimmers are, either – but my sense is that it was a perfect storm of bad luck. Perhaps some human error (as should be expected in chaotic, stressful situations), but mostly just bad luck.

– A storm (literally), producing several inches of rainfall that swelled the rivers, inhibiting the predicted flood tide and amplifying the predicted ebb.

NYC-region weather radar - the day before MIMS.
NYC-region weather radar – the day before MIMS.

– Unseasonably cold water temperatures (61F/16C in the East & Harlem Rivers; a couple degrees warmer in the Hudson). The qualifying swim of 4 hours in 61F is designed to weed out unacclimatized swimmers; nonetheless, some swimmers were unprepared for the cold.

– A stable of escort boats still recovering from Sandy, leaving far less leeway for no-shows.

– Inevitable no-shows among the remaining escort boats, leading to chaos and last-minute reassignments at the starting line…

– leading to a delayed start, thus missing the peak flood current in the East River…

– leading to the slower two-thirds of the field missing the tide change at Hell Gate.

There may be (and has been) a tendency to blame the event organizers for the disappointing outcome. And while I don’t mean to completely absolve the organizers of blame – again, I don’t have enough information to judge (and neither do you!) – I would caution people against this tendency. I would encourage them to think of how many things have to go right in order for an event as complicated as MIMS to go off in the first place.

What does it say that people have come to expect 100% success rates?

Nothing is “guaranteed” in marathon swimming. Shelling out $1000s doesn’t entitle you to a successful swim – unfortunately, even for those whom the $1000s are actually significant.

My experience of MIMS 2013 was different than most. I was honored to be asked by Paul Newsome (founder of Swim Smooth) to serve on his crew. Paul was not only one of the 11 finishers; he was first among them. By my analysis, the delayed start and storm-shifted tides benefited him (due to his speed – and thus his ability to beat the tide changes) in the same way that it doomed the prospects of the slower swimmers.

More on this in Part 2…

On the South End Rowing Club “Pride Swim”

This Sunday is the annual South End Rowing Club “Pride Swim,” a short ~1.2 mile flood-assisted swim from “Coghlan Beach” (fronting the Golden Gate Yacht Club) to the SERC beach. It is one of many LGBT Pride-related sporting events in San Francisco, the Proudest among cities, and one in which I will Proudly take part.

Course route: "Coghlan Beach" to SERC
Course route: “Coghlan Beach” to SERC

Recently long-time SERC member Daniel M. sent the following message to the club email list, detailing some interesting history, placing SERC in the context of gay rights, AIDS, and the progressive tradition of San Francisco.

This email is one of many reasons I am Proud to be a South Ender.

Full names have been abridged in the interest of privacy.

This “Pride Swim” Sunday is in and part of a great progressive tradition of the SERC.  So everyone knows, in the early 1980s, Rich “Richy” P. was an out front gay member of our club and always stood up for gay rights.  He was a swimmer and a rower.  I met and befriended him in 1984 when I joined the club as I was immediately drawn to him as one of the most progressive members of our club at the time. There were still some male members of the club who hated the fact that the club was now integrated with women let alone open gays like Richy.  Richy also stood up for women’s participation in all aspects of the club and got into public verbal combat with other male members who were openly misogynist.

Sadly his lover was one of the first people who contracted the “gay cancer” which later became know as AIDS.  He was also a member of the club but I didn’t know him that well. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe his first name was Kevin.  He came into the sauna near the end of his life one day looking like a refugee from a WW2 fascist death camp.  We couldn’t figure out why he was so bone thin and didn’t want to embarrass him by asking.  Richy told us later what was going on and many club members, both men and women, came out in open emotional support of both of them.

There was a lot of fear about how AIDS was spread at the time so putting down the false rumors and standing by Richy continuing to be allowed in the club was super important.  He had a “bummer sticker” on his locker which had a slogan “SILENCE = DEATH” in the middle of a large pink triangle.  Amazingly, Richy never contracted AIDS and for years he gave his blood weekly so scientists could study why his immune system had resisted the AIDS virus.  As South Enders we were convinced that it was because he swam in the bay!!  He was too!!

Later in 1980’s, Richy lead many club members, including myself, to participate in the Gay Olympics, invented in San Francisco back then of course and which was open to both gay and straight amateur athletes.  I believe Richy was also a charter member and organizer of the Gay Olympics.

We did the swim division and, like the swim you will do Sunday, it was great fun!!!  It was also important as the USOC filed a law suit against Gay Olympics saying that it owned the right to word “Olympics” because they did not want gay people to use it.  The case went all the way to the reactionary Reagan Supreme Court at the time which upheld the USOC complaint. However, it did not stop the growth of what is now called and widely celebrated as the “Gay Games”!

Richy moved away from SF in the early 1990’s and I lost, sadly, lost contact with him. I do not know it he is still an “out of town member” of the club.  I hope is doing well where ever he is.

Given all this, it might be appropriate to celebrate Richy P. this Sunday…maybe name the swim after him in the future.  He did allot for all our democratic rights and participation in our club as well as gay folks “back in the day” when that was extremely hard to do.

Respect and Appreciation for our club doing this “Pride Swim” Sunday.

MIMS 2013

It’s that time of year again! In the weeks leading up to the annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the solo field starts trawling the internet en masse, looking for free last-minute advice. I always know MIMS is approaching when the incoming search-engine hits start spiking for my MIMS 2011 report.

I figured I’d save everyone some time and put all my MIMS posts in one place.

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim 2011

Other MIMS Posts

Photo by Hannah B.
Photo by Hannah B.

I’m excited to return to New York City this weekend for the first time since the Ederle Swim in 2011. I’ll be crewing for Paul Newsome, founder and head coach of Swim Smooth, a school of swim instruction far superior (IMO) to Total Immersion. I’m a long-time Swim Smooth fanboy, so this is quite an hono(u)r indeed.

Best of luck to the field, in particular Suzie Dods (fellow South Ender), Jim Neitz (SBCSA swimmer and benefactor), Karen Throsby, and Grace van der Byl (my Catalina support swimmer).

It’s possible I will be providing some on-the-water commentary via Twitter.

How to get an effective workout at public lap swim

This post is part of a collaborative project with Donal at LoneSwimmer, delving into basic issues of training and technique in swimming. Donal also published a post today, check it out here.

Whenever possible, I prefer swimming with other people – either with a training partner or in a coached squad workout. But occasionally my schedule dictates finding water at a public lap swim session. It’s possible to get a good workout at open lap swim, but it takes a bit of planning and training know-how.

Based on my observations at hundreds of public lap swim sessions over the years, there are some folks who come to swim laps, desire to become better swimmers, but simply don’t know how to go about the task. For those without a background in competitive swimming or similar sport, it may not be at all obvious.

For example, one of the more common approaches I see at the pool consists of: (1) Getting in the water. (2) Swimming continuously for X amount of time. (3) Getting out.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers on getting the most out of solo workouts at a public lap swim session:

Learn proper lane etiquette.

It will be less frustrating for you… and everyone around you in the pool.

Have a workout plan.

Not necessarily a full written workout with every detail, but at least a basic mental structure of a workout. What do you want to accomplish today?

A basic workout structure can be as simple as this:

  • Warm-up – mostly easy swimming.
  • Technique work & build into main set.
  • Main set.
  • Kick or pull set.
  • Cool-down.

Interval training is more efficient than continuous swimming.

Continuous low-intensity swimming is an inefficient way to build cardiovascular endurance. Interval training (repetitions of shorter distances, swum at higher intensities than one could sustain continuously) is far more effective.

Check out the Marathon Swimmers Forum for some good example interval sets:

Don’t rely on pool gear.

Fins, paddles, buoys and snorkels are swim tools, designed for specific purposes, typically strength or technique-related. When you use any swim tool for an entire workout (or majority of it), it’s no longer a tool but rather a swim aid.

If you can’t swim without fins, in my view, you can’t swim. What happens when they fall off accidentally in the ocean? If you always strap on paddles for the main set, what happens when you compete and you can’t use your paddles?

Learn flip turns – even if you only compete in open water.

If you do open turns, you’re basically coming to a complete stop between every length of the pool. Open turns are surprisingly common among triathletes, even relatively fast ones. I’ve never understood it; plus it looks goofy. Flip turns (sometimes called tumble turns) allow you to transfer much more momentum from one length to the next. It makes pool swimming much more bearable.

Learn all four strokes – even if you only compete in freestyle/front-crawl.

Different strokes work different muscle groups, and it will make you a better athlete. Backstroke can provide a nice change of pace for your shoulders after too much front-crawl.

Follow-up review: FINIS Swimsense watch

I had high hopes for the Swimsense, I really did.

Unfortunately, in the 2+ years since I bought the watch I’ve had two major issues that remain unresolved. With worthy competitors now available from Garmin – the 910xt and the Garmin Swim – these nagging issues are a deal-breaker. Absent any major product revisions by FINIS, I must retract my original recommendation of the Swimsense.

The deal-breaking issues are:

1. Build quality.

I’m now on my fourth Swimsense. The first three all became unusable after half a year of infrequent use, each time for a different reason. To FINIS’ credit, each was replaced free of charge.

My first Swimsense lost the ability to connect to my computer via the dock (and thus the ability to re-charge the battery). My second Swimsense developed moisture behind the crystal, and shortly thereafter stopped connecting to the dock. My third Swimsense developed a tear in a strap hole (see photo below) and no longer fit my wrist properly. Unlike the Garmin Swim, Swimsense wrist straps are not replaceable.


Keep in mind, I don’t even use the Swimsense that frequently! Once a week at most. For a $200 watch, these quality-control issues are unacceptable. (I paid $200 in January 2011. The price has gradually dropped ever since – does that tell you something?)

2. Accidental power-ons.

The Swimsense powers-on with the just a slight press of the top-left button. It’s so easy to turn on that it often happens accidentally. A most infuriating design flaw! I’ve learned to avoid putting the Swimsense in my swim bag. Inevitably, the jostling of carrying the bag to and from the pool will power-on the Swimsense. Then, next time I try to use the Swimsense, I’ll find the battery drained.

It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ve never come closer to smashing a piece of swim equipment against the nearest wall than I have with the Swimsense.

So, if I were to purchase a swim watch today, I would choose the Garmin Swim.

All that being said, if I have a working Swimsense in my possession, and if I succeed in transporting it to the pool without accidentally draining the battery… then it does a reasonably good job of counting laps and strokes.

My favorite stroke tip

Beginning with the catch, and continuing through the finish of your pull:

  • Keep your fingers pointed straight down toward the bottom of the pool,
  • palm facing directly behind you,
  • elbows high.

This is a distilled version of the “paddle stroke,” which has been taught in elite USA Swimming programs since the mid-1990s, but has only recently been widely taught in adult Masters programs.

I like this stroke tip for several reasons:

  • It’s simple and easy to understand, even for new swimmers.
  • It’s high-leverage, meaning it can produce large gains in speed.
  • It’s useful for swimmers of all abilities.


I use this “stroke thought” almost every time I swim these days. If I’m feeling fatigued or unfocused, it’s surprisingly easy to fall back on an “S” pull pattern (an unconscious but ineffective attempt to gain more purchase on the water), or to let my elbows slip.

Yet another reason I love the FINIS Agility Paddles: it is much easier to “feel” the early catch, and sustain it throughout the pull. If you start pulling through at odd angles (rather than straight back), the paddle may slip right off your hand.

fingers_down3Is that a Zoolander face?


Swim Report: Five Coves of Death

I renewed my membership at the South End Rowing Club this year, and am determined to get my money’s worth. So far this year I’ve done two club swims, a “sunriser” swim, an Alcatraz swim, numerous casual swims in and around Aquatic Park with fellow club members, and crewed on Cathy’s epic 3 Bridges Swim. Last weekend was the infamous “Five Coves of Death” – five laps around the perimeter of Aquatic Park at 5:00pm on May 5th. 5CoD is also the qualifier for Bay to Breakers, the crown jewel of the club’s long swim program.

What exactly constitutes a lap of Aquatic Park? This is a source of some confusion and controversy.  A “tight cove” is shown in an illustration by Joe B. :5coves_butlerStarting from the South End/Dolphin Club beach, one swims:

  • To the end of the docks, making a hard left around the Dolphin Club dock.
  • Along the buoy line and around the Flag with a right shoulder.
  • Through the goal posts and then the solitary post just beyond with a right shoulder.
  • Hug Municipal Pier as closely as possible along the full length of the curve.
  • Under the end of the pier (a.k.a. “wedding cake” or “roundhouse”) being careful not to impale oneself on broken pilings.
  • Around the buoy at the Opening with a right shoulder.
  • Under the rounded end of the breakwater (a.k.a. “Jacuzzi“), being careful not to scrape oneself on the barnacle encrusted concrete supports.
  • Behind the Balclutha and Thayer (port side, right shoulder facing the boats).
  • Around the bow of the Thayer and back to the docks.
  • Rinse, repeat, etc.

A “tight cove” (per Roper) or “honest cove” (per Walker) is about 0.85 miles (1.33 km) for one lap, or 4.25 miles for five laps.

On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.
On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.

But how tight is a “tight cove”? How close must you swim to Muni Pier along its curve? It’s not defined precisely. Some advocate swimming under the pier all the way, which eliminates any ambiguity (“Reptile cove”). Some advocate swimming close enough that the fishing lines and crab pots dangling from above are actually on your right shoulder (“Delneo cove”). Others find this unnecessarily dangerous, and swim further out for a somewhat “looser” cove. No one likes getting hooked by a fisherman.

As an example of the latter, here’s the course taken by the fastest three swimmers – Jim, Darrin, and me.


This cove is not as tight as it looks. I measured it in Google Earth and we averaged 25 yards off the Muni Pier curve. According to reports, some of the men directly behind us were even further off the pier (possibly in an attempt to catch up to us). We’ll call this the “Connolly cove,” in honor of the former swim commissioner Darrin, who led us along this course.

A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.
A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.

currents55Anyway, it was a nice day for a swim. Water temp 54F, air temp low 60’s, winds calm. We began about 20 minutes before slack water at the Golden Gate preceding a 3.4-knot flood.

I finished the Five Coves in 1 hour, 44 minutes, 26 seconds, placing third behind Jim and Darrin. My splits per lap were: 19:40, 19:35, 21:25, 21:35, and 22:11. Note, that first split includes about 20 seconds of swimming between the beach and the end of the dock that was not included in the other four splits. The Garmin Fenix GPS watch I had under my cap credited me with 4.13 miles of swimming.

I was getting cold on my fifth lap – I could feel my stroke falling apart – but perhaps I wasn’t as bad off as I thought, because I took only a few minutes in the shower and sauna to warm up.

Next up: Bay to Breakers (Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach) on Memorial Day, May 27th. Cathy did a fun write-up on the 2010 B2B. Looking forward to it!

The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.
The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.