Last month I crewed for Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome on his victorious Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
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.
But first, a few thoughts on this unusual edition of the world’s longest annually-held marathon swim race.
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.
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.
- 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.
All that being said: lessons learned from Paul’s swim?
“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.
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.
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 Australian. Shelley Taylor-Smith won MIMS five times because she was a professional marathon swimmer competing against (for the most part) amateur Masters swimmers. She was simply a better swimmer.
- Paul Newsome’s Winning Manhattan Race Report (FeelForTheWater.com)
- We Won! (Swim Smooth Perth Blog)
- Wow! What a ride! (Swim Smooth Perth Blog)