MIMS: Three rivers, Three races

Readers may be curious to see split times for the full rivers (East, Harlem, & Hudson) – not just the “segments” shown in the previous two posts. So here they are.

You’ll notice a new swimmer in the mix here: Sarah Thomas from Colorado. Originally seeded 8th, Sarah managed to slip into 5th place overall with a roaring swim down the Hudson. Well done, Sarah!

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

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The story of the splits: East & Harlem Rivers

In the “GPS snapshots” I’ve shown in the last couple posts, you can see how far apart each swimmer is (6 of them, anyway) in terms of distance. Four hours into the race, for example, Erica Rose was 455m ahead of Ollie Wilkinson, who was in turn 135m ahead of John Van Wisse.

Another way to model the race is to look at when each swimmer passes a given landmark. This shows how far apart each swimmer is on a different dimension – time. Using the GPS tracks provided by NYC Swim, we can actually calculate “split times” for each swimmer between any landmark we choose. And, using those split times, we can calculate each swimmer’s speed (including current) for each segment.

For the purposes of this study, I chose 11 landmarks – three in the East River (Pier 11, Queensboro Bridge, and the Randall Island footbridge), two in the Harlem (Macombs Dam Bridge and Spuyten Duyvil), and six in the Hudson (GW Bridge, Riverbank Park, 79th St, 34th St, Pier 40, and the finish at South Cove). Hopefully they’re all fairly obvious reference points. Here they are on a map:

So, here’s what happened in the East River:

As you may recall, Erica Rose was about 85m ahead of Ollie Wilkinson and me at Pier 11. However, the GPS tracks were taken at 1-minute intervals – so I was only able to calculate splits to about half a minute of precision. That’s why Erica, Ollie, and I have the same split for the Start-to-Pier 11 segment.

In any case, everything here pretty much corresponds to what we’d expect. From the start to Pier 11 we were swimming through mostly slack water – thus slower overall speed (probably 1 mph net current). The first part of the East River was fast (up to 6 mph average speed). In the latter part of the East River (along Roosevelt Island), the current slowed by about a knot.

Erica pretty much dominated the East River.

What about the Harlem?

Some thoughts:

  • According to these splits, the field was pretty evenly matched in the Harlem. Erica gained a minute on John (and 2 minutes on Ollie) between the Footbridge and Yankee Stadium, but then gave back 30 seconds to John (and 90 seconds to Ollie) in the upper Harlem.
  • This isn’t necessarily because Erica was swimming less well. It’s possible that the trailing swimmers gained some relative advantage by swimming in the Harlem during a faster part of the tide cycle. Erica entered the Harlem River at 11:32am –  5 minutes ahead of 2nd place Ollie and 7.5 minutes ahead of 6th place Miguel S. Those may have been crucial minutes. Based on the slow speeds of all the swimmers in the lower Harlem (just under 30 minutes per mile), we were probably swimming into a head current at first.
  • The current really picked up in the upper Harlem. Again, the trailing swimmers were relatively advantaged by this, as they spent more time in the faster current. This may explain Erica’s surprisingly slow split in the upper Harlem.
  • I had a terrible 1st half of the Harlem; but, I already knew that.

Here’s the order of the top 6 swimmers as they passed under the Spuyten Duyvil railroad bridge and into the mighty Hudson:

  1. Erica R. – 2:08pm
  2. Oliver W. – 2:13:30
  3. John V.W. – 2:14
  4. Miguel S. – 2:15
  5. Miguel A. – 2:16
  6. Evan M. – 2:17:30

Are you ready?

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 4)

The Staten Island ferry terminal marks the southernmost tip of Manhattan, and the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers. The ferry – which carries 75,000 passengers per day and operates 24/7/365 – has figured prominently in several attempts to circum-swim the island.

In 2009 the entire MIMS field was held up shortly after the start as the ferry departed, allowing trailing swimmers to pull even with then-leaders John Van Wisse and Penny Palfrey. In 1995, Shelley Taylor-Smith was forced to tread water for crucial minutes during a record attempt as the ferry docked. She eventually did eclipse Kris Rutford’s 4-year old record by 9 minutes – and her incredible time of 5:45 still stands.

The ferry doesn’t care if you’re in the middle of a race; it has a schedule to keep, and besides, it’s bigger than you. Apparently it’s the most reliable form of public transit in New York, with an on-time performance of 96%.

In any case, the ferry didn’t factor into the 2011 race. As Ilene (my paddler) and I passed the terminal I was still following closely on Ollie Wilkinson’s heels, with Erica Rose about 40m beyond us. As we entered the East River it was like stepping onto a moving walkway in an airport – the push was immediate and palpable. The current was rated at 3.1 knots that morning, and I don’t doubt it.

20 minutes after the race start, Ollie and I were parallel to Pier 11.

Rose (85m) Wilkinson+Morrison (110m) Arrobas (250m) Van Wisse

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Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 3)


I set off around the Battery at a relaxed pace – giving myself a chance to warm up and see how things sort out. I figured I’d try to stay on Van Wisse’s heels for a while (he started just to my left), so I was surprised when he fell behind after a couple hundred meters, out of my field of vision.

The first few minutes of MIMS are typically chaotic, as kayakers attempt to hook up with their swimmers while the field is still compressed. The GPS tracks aren’t reliable at this time because the kayaks (which carry the transponders) may or may not be next to their respective swimmers. Thankfully, Terry O’Malley (paddler for Michael Gregory) shot some video from his kayak of these first few minutes:

Like Rashomon, unexpected insights arise from different perspectives. For example, the video reveals that Ollie Wilkinson, not Erica Rose, was the first swimmer to pass the yellow buoy marking the exit from South Cove. A few notes, with corresponding timestamps:

  • 1:14-20 – Just ahead and to the right of Terry is my paddler, Ilene Levenson – in the red cap with the big ‘6’ on her back.
  • 1:16 – The race begins.
  • 1:24-30 – The three swimmers closest to the camera are, in order: Michael Gregory, me, and John Van Wisse. You can see Ollie Wilkinson already with a bodylength lead and, further toward the top of the screen, Erica Rose in 2nd.
  • 1:45 – Ollie is the first to pass the yellow buoy, followed by Erica (1:45+), me (1:47), and John (1:47+).
  • 1:56 – I take a left breath and notice John already falling out of my peripheral vision. That’s interesting, I thought. I am feeling smooth, controlled, and “light” in the water.
  • 2:03-16 – Notice John’s distinctive choppy stroke (79 SPM) in the middle of the screen. I’m about a bodylength ahead of him, closer to shore, stroking at 66 SPM. Ollie and Erica are now 2-3 bodylengths ahead of me, at the far right edge of the screen.
  • 2:20-3:00 – The camera pans to the trailing swimmers.
  • 3:03 – “I gotta go to the bathroom!”
  • 3:25-40 – A closer view of John VW.
  • 3:50-4:00 – Camera pans toward front of pack. Me… Ollie… Erica.
  • 4:00 – There’s Ilene again!

The video ends 2 minutes, 49 seconds into the race. At 10 minutes elapsed time, the leaders are approaching the Staten Island ferry terminal. Here’s the orientation of the top 6-seeded swimmers, according to the GPS tracks:

1=Van Wisse. 2=Wilkinson. 3=Rose. 4=Arrobas. 5=Suner. 6=Morrison.

The tracks at this point show me slightly ahead of Ollie, but I’m almost certain I was on his heels. This is probably an artifact of our kayakers’ locations. The distance between Erica and Miguel Arrobas (#4) is 107 meters. Miguel Suñer (#5) is “off the radar” here because his kayaker/GPS was, for some reason, up ahead near the Brooklyn Bridge.

We will soon be entering the East River, where a 3+ knot current will shoot us up toward Hell Gate with astonishing speed.

To be continued…

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 2)

When we left off in Part 1, I was enjoying the view from South Cove and trying to find a measure of peace before setting off on the 28.5-mile adventure-slash-race. I always try to make room for a few moments of solitude in my pre-race routine – a parcel of grass, an empty park bench – to rid myself of tension and to reflect on how fortunate I am to be there.

This turned out to be especially important on the morning of MIMS, because it was a scene. Reporters, cameramen, families, friends, random onlookers – not to mention the field itself, full of well-known marathon swimmers from around the world. MIMS 2011 was particularly circus-like due to the Global Open Water Swimming Conference taking place in NYC the same weekend. Shelley Taylor-Smith, Penny Lee Dean, Anne Cleveland, Sid Cassidy, and Steven Munatones were among the open-water celebrities milling about South Cove that morning.

Continue reading “Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 2)”

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Part 1)

A few minutes before 10am Saturday, I jumped off a dock on the far southwestern tip of Manhattan and into the Hudson River. After a brief countdown I began a journey that would bring me around the Battery, up the East and Harlem Rivers, and back down the Hudson to the very same dock. 28 and a half miles in 7 and a half hours (give or take).

I had a lot on my mind in that moment – suspended in midair, before plunging into the 67-degree water – not all of it relevant to the task at hand. But some portion of my thoughts were directed at the question of how it was that I found myself there – jumping off the dock at South Cove.

Photo Credit: Tom McGann

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