Paul Newsome wins MIMS: Reflections from the escort boat

– Previously: MIMS 2013, Part 1: A perfect storm

Last month I crewed for Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome on his victorious Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Though we had not met in person, Paul read my 2011 MIMS report and felt I could assist him in navigating the twists, turns, and tricky currents of the rivers around Manhattan.

It was a great honor and pleasure to meet and spend the weekend with Paul, his business partner Adam, his paddler Amanda, and all the rest of the Perth squad. They treated me very well, and I left New York City with a swirling headful of inspiring memories and new friendships.

I’ll defer to Paul’s story of his own swim. Instead, these are more general reflections on the experience of seeing MIMS from on the water – quite different, naturally, than being in the water.

Hannah (observer) and Evan, before the start.
Hannah (observer) and Evan, before the start. Photo by Adam Young.

“Expect the unexpected.”

A well-worn chestnut of open water swimming, of which MIMS 2013 often reminded us. The day before the race, the Daily News of Open Water Swimming reported on the apparent female domination of MIMS, proclaiming one the “overwhelming favorite.” Instead, men swept the podium, 1-2-3.

Ignore the chaos in the East River – it means nothing. Shut up and swim.

All sorts of odd stuff happens in the East River. At one point, 9th-place finisher John Hughes found a current and was actually leading the field. He ended up 50 minutes behind Paul. Typically, swimmers are in the East River somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours, out of a 7.5-to-10 hour race. Nobody wins MIMS in the East River – or loses it. So forget about the race and conserve your energy – both physical and mental. You’ll need it later.

Train for the worst case scenario.

The “observed qualifying swim” for MIMS 2013 was 4 hours at a water temp of 61F. Why 61F? Because historically in early June, the water in the NYC region could be in the low 60s. Are you prepared for 7-8-9 hours at 61F? The fact that two swimmers were pulled for hypothermia less than 2 hours into the race indicates that some were simply not prepared.

“A grim patch.”

Memorable words spoken by fellow boat crew Adam via marine radio to paddler Amanda, instructing her to move Paul around a certain spot in the Harlem River. Probably for naught – it was all pretty grim. Paul was sick for two weeks afterward.

The importance of good pilots.

There are meaningful differences among boat pilots, in knowledge, skill, and frankly, how much they care. If you’re trying to win MIMS, these differences matter. For the sightseers, I suppose, it matters less.

Moreover, in MIMS, there are actually two pilots. The boat pilot and the kayaker. This contrasts with a channel swim in the open ocean, where the boat can set a consistent course that the kayaker mirrors. In the crowded waterways of Manhattan, the boat is more of a roving escort and cannot always set the course. In which case, the swimmer depends on the kayaker to set the course – either based on his/her own local knowledge, or via communication from the boat.

Pay attention to the tide cycles.

When Paul was approaching Spuyten Duyvil and the Hudson River entrance, we were confronted with a choice: Cut the corner and stay close to the Manhattan shoreline, or head straight out into the river? At the time, Paul was leading Lochie Hinds by 400-500m, but this lead could vanish quickly with the wrong navigational choice.

Typically, the Hudson is fairly slack when the leaders reach it, and it’s best to stay close to shore and gradually move out toward the east stanchion of the GW Bridge. But because of the late start, we reasoned that the Hudson might already be moving, with a faster current out in the middle.

At Spuyten Duyvil, we motored ahead of Paul and Amanda to scout the currents. Indeed, there was a visible back-eddy along the shoreline, and we measured a 3+ knot current further out. We radioed back to Amanda to bring Paul straight out into the river.

His lead was preserved.

Shit happens.

No, I’m not talking about the “grim patch” in the Harlem. I’m talking about cruise ships.

A giant one pulled out into the Hudson at Midtown, right in the middle of the race. Fortunately, Paul was already past it. For a brief moment we thought our challenger (Lochie) would get stopped, effectively ending the race. But the ship took its time starting up and Lochie got past. The swimmers right behind Lochie (Ceinwen and Bill) did get stopped. I am not sure if the final order of finish was affected. It’s not fair, but that’s life in crowded urban waterways. Small swimmers and big ships.

[Cruise ship pulls into the Hudson]

In the end, MIMS is won by the fastest swimmer who is also sufficiently prepared.

There were four swimmers in the MIMS 2013 field of roughly similar pure pool-swimming speed: Paul, Lochie, and the two who got pulled for hypothermia early on. One of these four was almost certain to win. Two of them, evidently, were not sufficiently prepared. Which left Paul and Lochie. They each took nearly-identical lines around the island. So Paul beat Lochie because he was able to swim faster, for longer. Simple as that.

MIMS success has nothing to do with being female, or being Australian. Shelley Taylor-Smith won MIMS five times because she was a professional marathon swimmer competing against (for the most part) Masters swimmers. She was simply a better swimmer.

MIMS is won by the fastest swimmer who is also sufficiently prepared. On June 8th, that was Paul Newsome. A victory for “Swingers” everywhere ;)

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Evan, Paul, Adam, drinking beer in a wine cellar.

Related Links

Related Videos

[Racing in the East River]

[Paul at the Finish]

[“Big Swim” – Channel 10 news segment]

 

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…

The “Freshies” – My 10 favorite open-water happenings of 2011

End-of-year list-making: It’s not just for music aficionados, film buffs, and the New York Times Book Review. Why not open water swimmers, too?

So, here are my 10 favorite open-water “happenings” of 2011 (“happenings” because they’re not all swims).

The list is, admittedly, U.S.-centric – America is where I live and what I pay the closest attention to. While I greatly admire (for example) Nejib Belhedi’s 1400K Swim Across Tunisia, I have no unique insights to add to what others have already said. Perhaps Donal or somebody can make an international list.

The list also reflects my own personal biases. I readily admit, I couldn’t care less about “stunts” in which the promotional efforts are more impressive than the swim itself. Sorry, but I find such things distasteful and think they degrade our sport.

With that in mind, here are the winners of the inaugural “freshies” (in no particular order):


Rob Dumouchel: New Year’s Day Polar Bear 10K.

6 miles through sharky 53F (11.6C) ocean, from Avila Beach to Pismo Beach, CA. Quite possibly, the northern hemisphere’s first marathon swim of 2011. Long live the adventure beard!


David Barra & Rondi Davies: 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.

A 120-mile expedition stage swim from Catskill, NY to the Big Apple. Earned a feature in the New York Times while still seeming under-promoted. A surprising omission from the WOWSA nominations.


Jen Schumacher: Mt. Whitney & Lake Tahoe Back-to-Back.

Day 1: Climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. (14,505ft / 4,421m). Day 2: Swim across Lake Tahoe length-wise (21 miles at 6,225 ft elevation). A lung-busting feat of cross-training. A tacit acknowledgment of the spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers.


Forrest Nelson: Catalina Circumnavigation.

Forrest doesn’t call the L.A. Times. He doesn’t hire a camera crew to film a made-for-TV special. Forrest lets his swimming do the talking. The most impressive marathon swim of 2011 by someone not named Penny Palfrey.

  1. Roger Allsopp: English Channel at age 65.
  2. Pat Gallant-Charette: Catalina Channel at age 60.
  3. Elizabeth Fry: Double crossing of the English Channel at age 52.

Three heroic swims, three new age records.


NYC Swim: A re-written record book. The first double-Ederle swim, by Elizabeth Fry (and along the way, new one-way records in each direction).
Then, re-broken one-way Ederle records, by Lance Ogren and myself.
Best of all: Rondi Davies’ and Ollie Wilkinson’s incredible MIMS match race, with both swimmers breaking Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary 16-year old round-Manhattan record.
Morty Berger isn’t someone who seeks out attention, but I’ll just go ahead and say: He deserves a lot of the credit for these record-breaking swims.


Penny Palfrey: Cayman Islands Swim. If this wasn’t the greatest feat of endurance swimming in history, it’s second only to the English Channel triple-crossings (Jon Erikson, Alison Streeter, & Philip Rush).


Petar Stoychev. Not a terribly original choice, but you can’t under-sing this guy’s praises. Petar is, it would seem, immune to water temperature. He already holds the fastest English Channel crossing (6 hr, 57 min). This year, he won the FINA 25K world championship in 32C (90F) water. He has won the FINA Grand Prix circuit 10 years in a row, and is still going strong at age 34. At some point soon, he will probably be acknowledged as the greatest open water swimmer…ever.


USA Swimming 10K Open-Water National Championships. Rough-water swimming at its finest – and the most exciting open-water race I’ve ever seen. For 9,800m, Andrew Gemmell, Sean Ryan, Arthur Frayler, and Mark Warkentin battled it out in insanely choppy conditions. Swimmers were colliding with each other from opposite directions on a rectangular course. Alex Meyer slipped in for the win, to qualify for World Championships (and eventually, London). Here’s a video.


State of California: Shark fin ban. Because shark-finning is barbaric and shameful. Sometimes, government can make a difference.


For what it’s worth, I endorse the following nominees for the WOWSA awards:

  • Man of the Year: Simon Griffiths (publisher of the new H20pen Magazine)
  • Woman of the Year: Penny Palfrey
    • Note: Penny is listed in both this category and the “performance of the year” category. As I predicted, she is splitting her own vote.
  • Performance of the Year: Forrest Nelson
    • Need another reason to vote for Forrest? I haven’t gotten a single email or Facebook post from him, begging for my vote.

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.

MIMS with French subtitles

Here’s a neat video by Paris-New York.TV (whatever that is) about the 2011 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.


I make a brief appearance from 1:35-1:38.

I’m off to New York again this weekend for my final marathon of the season: the Ederle Swim. Check my Twitter feed for info on GPS tracking & other commentary.

Race Report: Great Hudson River Swim (belated)

On a whim in late May, three weeks before MIMS, I flew out to New York on a Friday evening, woke up the next morning and did the Great Hudson River Swim. The first race of the NYC Swim series, the GHRS is a quick 1.6-mile dash down the Hudson. I had a free hotel night expiring soon, found a cheap flight, and had an itch for some early-season racing. So I figured, what the hell. Perhaps I’d even gain some immune-system benefit from a quick dip in the Hudson before MIMS? Continue reading “Race Report: Great Hudson River Swim (belated)”