Tuesday, 21 June 2011

MIMS 18/6/2011 - Swimming Around Manhattan With My Eyes Shut

A 45km swim race is not the time to make ‘school boy’ errors but less than an hour and a half into the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race my vision was blurring and my eyes were stinging so badly I was struggling to see. I couldn't initially work out what was wrong but even with a change of goggles I knew I was in trouble.

Four days earlier I had arrived in New York for this iconic swim. One 45km (28.5mile) lap of the rivers around Manhattan Island. Starting at the southern tip you swim up the East river under the famous Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Hopefully navigate the volatile currents at "Hells Gate" as you enter the slow moving Harlem River. Swim steadily up to the northern tip of Manhattan where you meet the massive, unpredictable Hudson before swimming the entire length of Manhattan back to the start. I had taken a ferry around Manhattan on my second day and tried to spot as many landmarks as possible to help me navigate myself on the swim. Two hours into the swim I was thinking to myself that all my research and preparation was getting wasted as I struggled to see my kayaker 2m away from me never mind the skyscrapers of downtown New York.

The start of the swim had gone well, I had started in the 3rd wave of fastest seeded swimmers. As the siren started I set off at a fast but manageable pace and only Erica Rose, the American Champion swimmer, had set off quicker. I was very conscious of three-time-winner Johnny Van Wisse being the man to beat and I also knew he had such great stamina that if he got away from me at the start I would never be able to reel him in. As it was, by the time my eyes started playing up I was holding 2nd place and we were passing many of the swimmers from the earlier waves.

By two hours we were well into the Harlem, the swift but churning waters of the East River were well behind and the unpredictable ‘Hells Gate’ had been expertly navigated by my kayakers. I then hit my second problem I was starting to bonk! Bonking has several meanings, but in endurance sport it refers to the dropping of blood sugar levels and the resulting deterioration of performance. I shouldn't have been feeling depleted at such an early stage and I had already had several feed stops so fueling shouldn't have been an issue but for whatever reason I had hit a wall. I eased back the tempo and just tried to grind through it knowing I would hopefully bounce back as the feeds kicked in but along with my increasingly blurry vision and a sharp ache in my right shoulder I was starting to think it wasn't going to be my day. At that moment Johnny swam past me and I thought to myself ‘well that's the last I'll see of him!’

The Harlem River is the slowest section of the race with the least tidal assistance but it is also the most dotted with bridges and I used each consecutive bridge I swam under as a little mental marker to note progress. By half way up the Harlem I was feeling noticeably better, I had increased the frequency of energy gels and my right shoulder, while still twinging occasionally, was bearable. The best boost however was that I was gaining on Johnny. I upped the tempo as I reached the top of the Harlem and moved slightly ahead of Johnny and back into 2nd place. The low swing bridge that marks the junction of Harlem and Hudson came into view and in an instant we were swept through into the expansive Hudson River. Nearly 4km away the massive vista of the George Washington Bridge was blurry but obvious. I also knew the tides were yet to swing into our favour and it would be almost an hour before we passed this last bridge. Johnny and I continued to cat and mouse, his very experienced paddler (Richard Clifford) had taken him much closer into the shore at this point where he later confided that the currents moved quickest. We had made some progress on Erica who at one point was less than a 100m ahead of us and it was all to swim for!

Behind us, one by one the following swimmers were coming into the Hudson and getting the increasing benefit of the rising tide. It was about this stage though I was really struggling with my eyes. My left eye was so sore that I had to stop every 15minutes or so to rinse it and try to relieve the intense pain I was feeling. I swam mostly with my eyes squeezed shut only opening them momentarily to check I wasn’t going off course. I had wondered whether it was sunscreen that had run into my eyes at the start but then I remembered the anti-fog spray I had liberally applied before the race. Usually I rinse the goggles thoroughly after applying the spray but we had jumped in and started so quickly I had barely immersed them before the siren had started.

As we progressed down the Hudson my vision was so blurred I could see very little of other swimmers, I could just make out some of the bigger structures along the Manhattan shoreline and I looked out for the more memorable buildings that I had seen during the boat trip a few days before. Johnny and Erica had slowly pulled away as I struggled to cope with my eye problems. Finally we hit the large piers that marked an hour or less to go and I tried to give it one last push to the finish. As we came to the last kilometers the support boats directed Johnny’s crew and mine to come closer to the shoreline, some of the trailing competitors took a wider line and made better use of the faster moving currents. I finally made out the large buoys that marked the last few hundred meters and I could suddenly see a swimmer just 20 meters ahead of me. With no idea who it was I kicked as hard as I could (which after 7 and ½ hours was a struggle!), I was making slow progress but the final bouy was suddenly upon us and we turned into the finishing area. I touched the steps just seconds behind the swimmer who turned out to be 3rd placed Evan Morrison, he had swum the better tactical line to the finish and nipped me at the end! Johnny was less than a minute ahead and Erica a few minutes ahead of him.

My emotions at the end were a mix of happiness at completing such a memorable and iconic swim but tinged with disappointment at being so close to 2nd and 3rd place and falling just short. Erica swam fantastically and at the end of the day I was beaten by great swimmers in Johnny and Evan but I had gone into the race with a belief I could challenge for a win and I fell just short.

Every swim offers you opportunities to learn and improve and sadly I learned a fairly basic lesson on this one but the increased feeding regime had worked well in the end and New York is definitely a swim that inside knowledge can be a huge benefit, so if I ever get a chance to swim it again I will be very much the better for it!

This was my 8th official marathon swim race, and like all the others before, was successful largely because of the brilliant support around me. I had two great paddlers in Terry and JC who were just fantastic and looked after me so well. My wife and mother were the official crew once again on the support boat and at every stop I could hear them yelling and encouraging me. My independent observer Darren was anything but independent! He cheered and yelled as loudly as anyone (perhaps not as loudly as Vickie). Finally my in-laws and father had also come to enjoy the spectacle and it was great to have so much personal support so far from home!

I really enjoyed New York, I met some great local and international swimmers, the local open water swim community, CIBBOWS, were incredibly welcoming and friendly and the race organisers put on a fantastic event. Who knows maybe I have some unfinished business in New York…..

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