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 🙂

Ederle Swim tomorrow

UPDATE: Swim has been postponed to Sunday, due to high winds and a small craft advisory.

Tomorrow morning, while most sane people are sleeping in, a few friends and I will swim 17.5 miles from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and into New York Harbor, finishing at South Cove in lower Manhattan. The swim was pioneered by Gertrude Ederle in 1925.

This is the final event of the NYC Swim series, and my final marathon swim of the year. There are five waves, the first starting at 7:00am EDT. My wave (the fifth) begins at 7:50. Estimated finish time for the winner is 12:15pm.

The swim is timed during an unusually swift flood tide, so the winner will likely set a new record for the NJ-NY direction of the swim. The current record of 6:06 was set earlier this year by Liz Fry as part of her double.

The GPS tracking site is not yet available, but will probably be here. NYC Swim’s Twitter feed is here. I can’t guarantee either will be operational, but I hope they will be.