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 ;)

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]


Stroke Thoughts

The swimming stroke is not unlike a golf swing: a complicated, interconnected series of fine and gross muscular movements. For the few who do it well, it appears fluid, natural, unified, and effortless. For most, the movements of swimming and golf can feel unnatural, difficult to integrate, and frustratingly unamenable to brute force.

Even those who have mastered the swimming stroke/golf swing can develop subtle technique flaws, of which they may not even be aware. One must maintain constant vigilance against these creeping flaws, ideally through a combination of mindful practice, well-selected drills, coaching, and video analysis.

One method I find useful in maintaining proper form and guarding against creeping flaws is: stroke thoughts. I didn’t invent this phrase or idea, but I define it as: simple, succinct technique pointers repeated subvocally (internally) while swimming.

In practice, I use stroke thoughts most often at the beginning of a session (while warming up), or when I feel myself lapsing (mentally or physically) in the middle of a workout or race. I repeat each thought by itself for a few stroke cycles, focusing on just that single part of my stroke, before moving to the next thought. Basically, I’m “checking in” with each part of my stroke.

I use seven specific stroke thoughts, starting with the hand entry and proceeding through the catch, pull, hip drive, and kick.

1. “middle finger first”

I have a slight tendency for a thumb-first entry, especially on my right/breathing side. So, I focus on keeping my hand in a neutral position as it enters, fingertips parallel to the surface of the water, with the middle/longest finger entering first.

2. “reach”

When I get fatigued and/or cold, I have a slight tendency to shorten my stroke too much and rush the catch. So, I focus on reaching forward before I initiate the pull. Notice I did not say glide. I don’t pause at the front of my stroke, like catch-up drill. I’m simply trying to reach forward a bit more. The reaching motion comes from body rotation, which in turn comes from hip drive. (Everything is interconnected!)

3. “fingers down”

When I finish reaching forward, I tilt my wrist slightly and point my fingers toward the bottom of the pool. I try to keep them pointed toward the bottom (not angled to the side, not horizontal) all the way through my pull.

4. “elbows high”

I sometimes drop my left elbow slightly as I breathe to the right, especially with fatigue. This is not only less efficient, but can also irritate my left shoulder. So, I focus on keeping that elbow high, “grabbing” the water with my lats, all the way through the pull.

5. “pull straight back”

No “S”-stroke. Straight back. Like a big paddle.

6. “tight kick”

I sometimes do a slight scissor-kick as I breathe. This is an unconscious compensation for the slight “unbalancing” caused by my breathing motion. However, it greatly increases drag. So, I focus on keeping my kick tight, kneecaps close together and toes pointed inward. This has the follow-on benefit of forcing me to take a more efficient and balanced breathing motion. (Everything is interconnected!)

7. “drive the hips”

With fatigue, I also tend to rotate less, increasing the burden on my shoulders. Ironically, this causes me to become even more fatigued. So, I focus on driving my rotation from my hips, less from my arms and shoulders.

After I cycle through my seven stroke thoughts, I turn my brain off and focus on the overall rhythm and “feel” of my stroke. If something still doesn’t feel quite right, I cycle through the stroke thoughts again and try to identify where things are breaking down.

Notice I’ve said almost nothing about the recovery phase of the stroke (except perhaps “middle finger first” –> the very end of the recovery). I don’t think much about my recovery because frankly, it doesn’t much matter. It doesn’t contribute to either propulsion or drag reduction, because it’s happening above the water.

What matters is what happens under the water. That’s why elite swimmers display a wide variation of recovery styles, but are comparatively similar under water. Think Janet Evans vs. Sun Yang.

Important note: Stroke thoughts are intended as a temporary “check-in” or tune-up. Like with the golf swing, over-thinking can lead to paralysis. In the middle of a long swim or tough interval set, I’m mostly trying to focus on rhythm, flow, and feel.

Here’s a video of me swimming 100 yards at the recent Swim Smooth coaching clinic in Livermore. Which stroke thoughts should I be focusing on?

Swim Smooth stroke filming from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

Dave Scott on open-water swimming technique

After his victory at MIMS, Paul Newsome and his Swim Smooth business partner Adam Young embarked on a cross-continental road trip to experience America via swimming.

Along the way, they stopped in Boulder, Colorado and met up with 6-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott. Paul did an interesting video interview with Dave on the topic of open-water swimming technique. It’s worth your time to watch all 7 minutes, 46 seconds of this video. Here’s the money quote from Dave:

“I’m not concerned about distance per stroke. I like an effective front-end of the stroke, on the catch.”

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…

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.