The story of the splits: East & Harlem Rivers

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.…

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Swimming around Manhattan, tides are (almost) everything

Swimming around Manhattan, tides are (almost) everything

Just over a week ’til the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim! Hard to believe it’s already upon us.

Sometimes people ask me if I have a “goal time” for the swim. That’s an interesting question. As anyone who’s spent much time in open water knows, the relationship between time and distance is somewhat complicated; even moreso for marathon swims.

MIMS is a different beast, though. I’d go so far as to say that MIMS times are pretty much meaningless — as an indication of speed. The typical winning time of 7 hours, 30 minutes works out to just under 59 seconds per 100m. So: world record 1500m pace, 28.5 times in a row. In MIMS, the tides are king – perhaps moreso than any other major marathon swim.

How important are the tides? Think of it this way. My ultra-marathon pace is about 2.3 knots. A world-class marathon swimmer? About 2.6-2.7 knots. The slowest swimmer in the MIMS field? Maybe 1.6 knots. Why am I describing swim speeds in terms of knots? Because that’s how river currents are measured. Now, guess what sort of current we will encounter when we round the southern tip of Manhattan and enter the East River?…

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The fastest swims around Manhattan (Part 2)

The fastest swims around Manhattan (Part 2)

Part 1.

Shelley Taylor-Smith recorded the fastest swim around Manhattan (5:45:25) in 1995, but it was a special “record attempt” swim scheduled on an unusually fast tide. What are the fastest swims in the regular Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race, which is typically held on a slower tide? Over the 29 years of the modern MIMS, the 10 fastest swims are as follows:

  1. Tobie Smith, 1999, 6:32:41
  2. Tammy van Wisse, 1999, 6:51:31
  3. Rob Copeland, 1999, 6:52:49
  4. Susie Maroney, 1990, 7:00:27
  5. Matthew Nance, 1990, 7:04:53
  6. Jim Barber, 1991, 7:06:34
  7. Kris Rutford, 1991, 7:06:44
  8. Matthew Wood, 1990, 7:07:32
  9. Susie Maroney, 1994, 7:08:10
  10. Igor de Souza, 1991, 7:08:20

Interestingly, 9 of the 10 fastest times happened in just 3 years – 1990, 1991, and 1999. The 3 fastest times were all in one year – 1999. Perhaps these years were “stacked” with outstanding swimmers. Another possibility is that these years saw especially favorable conditions (faster currents, smoother water, warmer water, etc.).

One simple method of estimating the effect of conditions is to find the median time in each annual race – and compare each individual to the median of that year.…

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Swimming vs. Tide Surfing around Manhattan (Part 1)

Swimming vs. Tide Surfing around Manhattan (Part 1)

It’s well known that Shelley Taylor-Smith holds the record for the fastest swim around Manhattan: 5 hours, 45 minutes, 25 seconds.

What’s not quite as well known is that she achieved this feat on a special “fast tide” – a convergence of maritime conditions in the East, Harlem, and Hudson Rivers that occurs only once or twice a year, if at all.

With the founding of the modern Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race in 1982, and more sophisticated understanding of tide cycles, a string of specially planned solo “record attempt” swims were undertaken in the ’80s and ’90s, all on fast tides. After Diana Nyad‘s 1975 swim in 7 hours, 57 minutes, the record was lowered six times by four different people over the next 20 years:

  • 7:14 – Drury Gallagher in 1982
  • 6:48 – Paul Asmuth in 1983
  • 6:41 – Drury Gallagher in 1983
  • 6:12 – Shelley Taylor-Smith in 1985
  • 5:54 – Kris Rutford in 1992
  • 5:45:25 – Shelley Taylor-Smith in 1995

Her record has stood ever since, despite an assault last year by world-class marathon swimmers Petar Stoychev and Mark Warkentin.…

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Don’t underestimate Tampa

Don’t underestimate Tampa

Some people do the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim as a “warm-up” for one of the triple crown swims. And it makes sense: Tampa is early in the season, 8 weeks before MIMS and more than 3 months before high season for channel crossings.

But thinking of Tampa as a “warm-up” might tempt a person to take it less seriously – and that would be a big mistake. TBMS is one of only four annual organized ultra-marathon (25K or longer) swim races in the U.S. (along with MIMS, Ederle, and Swim Across the Sound), and it may be the toughest. While water temperature is not usually a factor, pretty much everything else is. Glancing through the archives, tide changes and rough seas seem to be the two big ones.

Swimmers typically start with the flood tide, which pushes them up Tampa Bay — for a while. If you don’t swim far enough over the next few hours, though, the tide reverses direction and starts to push you back towards St. Petersburg – making it effectively impossible to finish.

Tampa Bay is also quite large, so conditions can mimic those in the open ocean. …

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Origin Stories

Origin Stories

Many open-water swimmers seem to have origin stories. A moment of revelation when one identifies – in a powerful and lasting way – with the experience of being in open water. In reality it’s usually more of a process than a single moment, but often there’s a particular event that seems to crystallize that process and lend it symbolic meaning (perhaps only retrospectively).

Lynne CoxOne of the great legends of open water swimming, Lynne Cox, turned her own origin story into an award-winning book. Cox’s story, too, was a process – but she also describes a moment from which the rest of the moments in her incredible career seem to flow. In 1971, she entered the Seal Beach Rough Water Swim and, as a 14-year old, won the women’s race and beat all but two of the men. Only a middling talent in the pool, Cox was encouraged by her coach, Don Gambril, to try open water.

Cox’s description of the race start sounds almost surreal, but I think many who’ve caught the open water bug will know exactly what she means:

The water was cold, salty, buoyant, smooth, and the deepest blue.



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Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?

Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?

If you like gadgets and/or swim toys you may have found yourself, at some point over the past couple of months, drooling over the FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor. And after playing with one for a few weeks now, I’ll admit, it’s pretty cool.

Before you fork over $200, though, consider the question: What does the Swimsense – and swim watches in general (e.g., the Swimovate Poolmate and Oregon Scientific’s watch) – offer that a simple pace clock doesn’t?…

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