Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) 2009

A strong and experienced field assembled for MIMS 2009. For the men, John Van Wisse from Melbourne was back to defend his title. He was up against a couple of Brits who had registered impressive English Channel crossings, as well as Murph Renford from Sydney, who we know is a fast swimmer. The main rivals on paper for Penny appeared to be Elizabeth Fry and Marcy McDonald, both very experienced and strong marathon swimmers, with many fine results from races and crossings.

MIMS 2009 was held a few weeks earlier than normal, before summer had truly arrived in the big apple. As a result the water was expected to be cold. We were advised to expect water temperatures of between 58 to 68F (14 to 20C). This would particular affect swimmers like us who hail from warm climates. We arrived five days before the race and swam at Brighton Beach (near Coney Island) to acclimate. The actual temperatures were around 60F (15C), which made me (Chris) a little nervous, as I’m not great in cold water.

After a few days of rain and cool weather, race day turned out fine, and the sun was out for the latter half of the race. We started as usual from South Cove, The Battery, at the south western tip of Manhattan, on which New York City is situated. Start time was scheduled for 7.00am, although we didn’t actually get away until 7.16am, which hurt some of the slower swimmers.

We heard from three different sources, that the water temperature at the start (and all the way to Hell Gate) was 60F (15C). But it certainly felt a little warmer than that. Perhaps it was a combination of wearing 2 swim caps (permitted under MIMS rules. Although, apart from this, MIMS is very strict about swimming attire, and only allows the very basics. And a purist event like this is fine with us, as no one has an advantage), ear plugs, grease around the neck and shoulders, and the adrenaline you get at the start of an important event.

There is a head current for the first part of MIMS until you get round the Battery into East River. Staying close to the wall helps to minimise its effects. The leaders were held up for a few minutes as the big and scary Staten Island ferry left its terminal. But once we entered the East River and got into the flood (assisting) current, we experienced the fun part of MIMS. The current rips you along, and it is possible to travel at up to 10 klm per hour, as you travel past the gleaming skyscapers in the financial district, under the massive and historic Broklyn bridges (and other bridges equally as impressive), straight past the United Nations Building (with NYC police boats holding station as we pass) and up to Gracies Mansion (the mayor’s residence).

At this point, we reach Hell Gate, which is renowned for its strong and treacherous currents. Our boat and kayaks (we are all assigned these by the race organisers) keep us close to the left (Manhattan) shoreline. Failure to do this can mean that the current rips you out toward Long Island Sound, and an early shower. The current disappers at this point, and we maybe even have a slight head current as we pass Randalls Island and enter the Harlem River. The race is now over two hours old for most competitors. Unfortunately for a five solo swimmers and one team, they were not able to make the cut off time at this point and had to be extracted from the water.

At around Randalls Island, at the front of the race, Penny officially hit the lead, as she passed John Van Wisse for the first time. Her lead was short lived, as JVW surged and regained a slight ascendancy. But being ten years John’s senior, Penny was still having a great swim, and they had left all the other solos well behind. I (Chris) was starting to feel the cold at around this point, and my shoulders had tightened up. I told myself though that the Harlem River would be warmer, and the daytime heat would progressively make this aspect of the swim easier. The Harlem was a little warmer, at 62 to 63F (16+C), but still coller than I was hoping for.

The Harlem is the least clean of the three rivers we swim in as we make our counter clockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan. This is due to less tidal movement. And heavy rains the day before had raised some concerns of the water quality due to run off from the city’s drains. But the water was acceptable (definitely not advisable to drink much of it, however) and swimming along the 14 odd klm stretch of the Harlem was uneventful. There are lots of old and unusual bridges to swim under and mark your progress, as well as Yankee Stadium on your right, in The Bronx. And the most welcome landmarks in the Harlem are the tall bridges and Columbia University graffiti, which signifies that the Hudson River is very close.

We arrived at the Hudson just as the ebb tide started, ensuring a fast ride down to the finish. To give you an idea of the tidal assistance, the distance from Spuyten Divyl (Harlem/Hudson juncture) to South Cove in downtown Manhattan is 20 klms. I covered this distance, swimming into a headwind, in around 3 hours and 10 minutes. Penny and the faster swimmers would have been much quicker. The Hudson is around a mile wide, so you generally stay well out from shore on the NYC side. On the other side of the river, is the state of New Jersey.

Under normal prevailing conditions, a southerly sea breeze develops around midday, and that is what we copped as we headed in a southerly direction as we headed toward the finish. The breeze was light at 5 to 8 knots, but with wind against tide, we were crunching into an uncomfortable 1 foot chop (nowhere near as bad as 2007 however, when we had to punch into a three foot  chop and 15 knot headwind. That was tough!).

But the sun was out, and as we entered the Hudson, the water temperature suddenly increased to 66F (18.5C). That was a welcome relief, although it chilled down a little for the last hour before the finish. While the wind and chop made for challenging conditions, we could see good progress being made, which kept the spirits up.

Penny finished second overall, 6 and a bit minutes behind JVW. Her time of 7 hours 17 minutes was a PB for this course. And Murph Renford made for an aussie trifecta (for the second year running). This was the third year in a row that Penny has been the first female finisher in Manhattan (as well as outright winner in 2007). I finished 13 th overall (my highest placing for MIMS) in 8 hours 21 minutes. But most pleasing for me was handling the cold water. It gives me a lot of confidence leading up to our Catalina crossings in September.

Now we are playing tourists in NYC, and thoroughly enjoying the character of New York City. Thanks to MIMS organisers and volunteers, boaters and kayakers, and most of all, to Dan and Brooke, who crewed for us and showed us a great time. Hopefully, we can repay the hospitality sometime soon.

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Open water swimming crossings and races in Australia and around the world. Stories and reports of our adventures in and out of the water.