Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Manhattan Island Marathon Swim 2013: "Dodging Harlem white fish!"

Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (or MIMS as it is known for short) is an annual race for marathon swimmers covering a 46km counter clockwise circumnavigation of the island. To qualify for this race, you must have completed an English Channel or Catalina Channel crossing within the last two years or something of similar difficulty. Entry is by acceptance of application and a small select field (40) is taken.  Applications for June 2013 filled well over the fifty mark within the first 20 minutes of registrations opening.

MIMS, whilst being the longest marathon swim in the world, was not in my opinion touted as the hardest of the swims. In fact to me, MIMS was ‘the guaranteed’. The hardest part about this race was getting a spot, the next hardest was getting back into training after a successful Channel swim and then backing up to do it all again.

How wrong I was going to be.

View from the the Rockefeller Centre
This race was definitely a challenge for me personally, but the thing that excited me most as I met up with my fellow friends/competitors in New York in the days before the race, was we would all be celebrating together post race on Saturday night. This is something that just isn’t possible with Channel swims where only 30% succeed. Week on week during Channel season dreams are achieved and lost as some swimmers make it and some don’t. For this swim, the thing I was really looking forward to was everyone being successful because the heartbreak of watching people you care about miss out on their dream sucks. Every distance swimmer knows how much it takes to achieve these marathon swimming goals: the dedication to training, balancing work, life, family, friends, diet, keeping your body healthy, happy and being able to do this week on week, month on month until race day, and then to have the ability to break through the walls of pain on the day on top of everything else, well it takes a certain type of crazy person to revel in this. Being one of those crazies, it is a nice feeling to know that all those who have qualified should be able to complete the swim in the allowed 9.5 hour timeframe, and that we would be out there together in the same conditions on the same day.

Arriving in New York, I was excited! I walked into the apartment my family had rented to be greeted with a “SURPRISE” from my sister who had flown in from Sydney, joining my parents and my brother Mark from Hong Kong as my support crew for the week. I was impressed, amazed, gob-smacked. I actually live with my sister and never even realized she was going to come – she had cited firm work commitments would render it impossible! Not only that, she had arrived in NYC five days before me, and despite bumping into numerous Sydney people during her stay, not a single one had let it slip on Facebook. It was a huge surprise! So armed with my entire family yet again, I was ready to take on Manhattan. 

Training with fellow MIMS swimmers at Brighton Beach
The week leading up the race consisted of a daily swim at either the New York Athletic Club or venturing down to the freezing cold Brighton Beach, training my arms with retail therapy, eating the most insanely delicious food (New York knows how to do food) and doing the required site seeing. We had a ball! I’m sure it goes to say that New York is a much better venue than Dover for a pre-swim time kill!

Forecasts for race day were not looking favorable in the lead up. Water temps were slow to warm up and it appeared that this would be the coldest water temperature in the history of the race. We all started freaking a few days before the swim, suddenly realizing that this swim would be comparable to our Channel swims, and with less cold water training and less Channel weight than last year, this would be a challenge. Thankfully my eight-hour swim in Melbourne five weeks earlier in 15 degrees C gave me, and fellow training mate Lochie Hinds, quite a bit of mental courage.

Statue of Liberty 
In New York one of the best race preparations I did was take a three-hour boat cruise around Manhattan Island three days before the race. This fantastic cruise gave us a full view of the course the whole way around as well as some great historical stories to go with it. My crew later said it was a key part to the actual race as they were always prepared with what was coming.

There were also some other pre-race issues to deal with. The organisers had accepted a record number of swimmers this year – 40 solos and 3 duos, which meant they required 43 support boats, but unfortunately due to Cyclone Sandy last year, many boats had been damaged and were not ready to use for race day. Further a number of boats that had locked-in, withdrew in race week as they realized they wouldn’t be operational in time. Swimmers were asked to pair with other swimmers and share a boat where possible, and more observers were sought. They also changed the start and finish point of the race due to damage from Sandy to the Pier we would normally start. As a result, our start/finish position was moved down the Hudson River meaning slightly different race tactics.

The last issue we had to contend with was the massive storm that hit New York for the 24 hours before race day. The rainfall was huge – you couldn’t walk outside without being drenched and the rain just didn’t let up. It was still pouring as I went to sleep the night before. As a result of all this rain water temps were very low on race morning and the tidal flow which is usually very strong at the start, had been substantially mitigated. There had also been a sewage leak at Ward Island and the New York Sanitation Dept was threatening to cancel the race on race morning. Thankfully, I didn’t know this prior to the race, but it would explain why I was hit with a very unpleasant stomach bug 24 hours after the race.

The Gorman family pre-race

Pre–race I felt good. I had had a good build up to this race: Rottnest Channel in Feb 2013, followed by the four day 60km S.C.A.R swim extravaganza in Arizona in May, and then winning the South Head Roughwater in Sydney just before I flew out to New York. It had been a busy four months trying to balance everything, but I felt I was in good form and would have a solid race, and I was so stoked to have my whole family here with me in NYC while I did it.

The race briefing was like a big summer camp reunion. So many friends were there whom I had made from the Channel last year, S.C.A.R this year, Rotto, even London the week before the race. I have been so fortunate with the amazing swimming people who have become my friends. This is one of the things I love most about this sport – it’s intimate, it’s special and inclusive and it’s full of the most passionate and dedicated people.

Race day: Saturday June 8, 2013

Wide awake at 3:30am, ready for the day ahead. Race day nerves can be so annoying some times! I spent 40 minutes lying in bed, thinking about the day ahead, and going through how I would pass through each wall of pain I would encounter. Sometimes knowing the challenge ahead is not always a good thing and I did wonder how I would hold up mentally when I hit the inevitable wall. I had been through this process a few times now and sometimes it actually gets harder the more you do it! Support crews were due at Pier 25 at 5am, so my ever-dutiful mum and dad headed out the door just before 5am. Fifteen minutes later my brother Mark and sister Bel and I were in a cab heading downtown.

 Arriving at the Pier, the excitement was high. The water temperatures, however, were not, measuring only 14.9 degrees Celsius. There was much organisation on the pier with check-in procedures and boat loadings and departures. Unfortunately approx. five boats did not turn up on the morning so more boats were forced to double up with swimmers. Many swimmers found themselves paired with someone they didn’t know who potentially was not of similar speed. More re-shuffling of swimmers again and boats unloaded and reloaded. It was a bit of a nightmare, and to be honest, a miracle we actually even got onto the water. We were all pretty cold by the time we boarded the start vessels and my trick of dressing in a garbage bag, whilst good, was not enough!

Finally, covered in zinc, Vaseline and wearing a new pair of Speedo’s with the Aussie flag across my chest, I boarded the start vessel along with my fellow wave 3 starters and we headed down to Pier A. Cheers from my brother, sister and pal Hugh Selleck were heard as we arrived and my paddler Mike came and identified himself to me just before I jumped into the water. Most people were relying on a local paddler whom they had never met, myself included, and Mike turned up and we exchanged three sentences before I hit the water. He said “Hi, I’m your paddler” I responded with “Thanks so much! Appreciate the support. I feed every 30 minutes” His response: “Great, what side do you breathe?” “Left” and that was it! They called my start and we were in the water and 30 seconds later it was “go!”

I had done my research prior to this race and read every blog out there, spoken to previous swimmers and worked out that the biggest gap to be gained on the other swimmers was in the first section of the East River, so the key was to go hard and get as much distance on everyone else as possible in the first few hours. So hard I went. I ended up the lead swimmer of my wave, and the fastest wave who left only four minutes after me didn’t catch me until the Williamsburg Bridge, 55 minutes after we started. I felt like I was flying. Two hours into the race, the wave behind me who started only two minutes behind me, still hadn’t caught me. As we passed Queensborough Bridge, the water temperatures moved up to 16C/60F.

The city skyline enthralled me.  We were swimming very quickly with the current. We only had minutes of seeing each building towering above us as we swam along, my paddler Mike navigating a great course working the currents. We passed the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building (one of my most favourite buildings in all the world) and the United Nations and as I passed Roosevelt Island and headed up towards Hell’s Gate, I marvelled at how unique this view of the city was.

The field ahead

The Empire State Building

The United Nations

The time for marvelling was cut short, as I reached Hell’s Gate I noticed the water had gone slack and there was a slight current against me. Over the next few hundred metres this quickly built against me and I head Dad yell “Tides turning!” Suddenly I was having flashbacks to last years Channel swim, and I knew then it was time to crank up my pace to push through the current. I noticed four NYPD police boats all surrounding the boats and swimmers behind me who were approximately 150m from me at that point.

Beautiful conditions just before Hell's Gate

What I didn’t realize was that the conditions had gone from relatively flat water to rapids against the swimmers in a matter of minutes. My brother and sister were standing on land cheering me on and watching the chaos that suddenly occurred as paddlers were swept backwards and the officials started making the calls on the radio to the NYPD to pull the swimmers. Nothing was coming through to my crew, but they could see what was happening and urged me forward knowing that I was on the edge of the tide and needed to break through it. According to my GPS I literally did not move forward for 6 minutes, swimming on the spot.

Slowly I crept forward, gaining ground and focusing on reaching Ward’s Island Bridge and the swimmer ahead of me. I stopped for a feed break and realized the current was still against me so we skipped it and pushed on to break at the bridge instead. I saw the boats that had been behind me driving past. I figured the swimmers must have been pulled out and were being dropped off ahead. Mike confirmed this was the situation. I stepped up the gas for the last slog to break through the tide. Finally, I was through it and swam under Ward’s Island Bridge. I had gone from eight-minute kms to a 33 minute km. It had been tough, but I had made it. I would later find out it was by a mere one hundred and fifty metres because if I had I had been back with the rest of the pack I would have been thwarted by the tide with everyone else, with no chance to break through the rapids that suddenly appeared as the waters from Hell Gate sucked south down the East River to the Hudson.
The tide turns: Paddlers battling to get through the currents at Hell's Gate

Ward's Island Bridge - through the tide turn
At this point I overtook fellow Aussie swimmer Tim Donovan who had had a tough slog with me in the current and we headed up the Harlem River. What I didn’t realize at this point was that every other swimmer who had been behind me, (25 in total) and boat assisted up the river, was no longer officially in the race, and I suddenly found myself very much alone in the river. We were only three hours into the race, and I would have six more hours swimming alone for the rest of the race seeing only one other swimmer just before I swam out into the Hudson River at Spuyten Duyvil.

As we headed up the Harlem River, we passed under bridge after bridge (14 in total) and I enjoyed the different designs and architecture as I swam under them, often rolling onto my back and doing a couple of arms of backstroke to take in the bridges full majesty. As I swam up the Harlem River, the water became filthy. For an hour and a half I dodged plastic bags, an empty syringe, rubbish, dead birds and even got hit in the head with a condom! It was putrid and there was no escape. I was definitely keen to not have to do that section of the swim again. My boat crew tried to find the clear sections of water and my paddler Mike said I should have seen some of the things he was flicking out of my way. I am very glad that I didn’t. When I told him about the condom, he said: “We call them Harlem White Fish” – you have the love the American humour!

Syringe, condom and other rubbish I had to swim through in the Harlem River

Finally, six hours after the start, the very long and lonely Harlem River was over as I arrived at Spuyten Duyvil, passed fellow swimmer Ellery McGowan whom I had a quick chat to, and headed out into the Hudson River.

Wow, what a change that was. The relatively peaceful albeit dirty river turned to highly turbulent waters and suddenly the water went from being extremely salty to very brackish. It was a welcome relief for my mouth, which swells from the salt water during long races. I used Listerine to combat the swelling throughout the race but the brackish water was far nicer. The water also seemed to rise a degree in temperature, which was also very welcome, as the sun seemed to have disappeared behind the clouds at this point.

Mark and Bel - best siblings in the world
For the next 14 kilometres, I swam an average of 7-8 minutes per kilometer. I was flying with the current down the Hudson but battling the rough and bouncy wind-against-tide waters. A lot of the Hudson ended up in my tummy. At various points my brother and sister in their matching shirts would pop up on the shore cheering me along. It was like playing a game of "Where's Wally" seeing where they would pop up. I found the last section quite difficult mentally – I knew I had a good 2.5 hours of swimming to go and I was pretty lonely in the water, and getting cold. Onwards I swam, under George Washington Bridge, passing by the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial, and the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier. At this point I was stopped by a ferry coming into the wharf and had to wait for it to pass before continuing my swim. For the last five kms the current eased and I slowed down. The views as I approached the Financial District were amazing. This was what I call the “money shot” – an iconic photo to remember the swim by. I passed by piers and saw friends waving on the end, and as I got closer to the finish, I heard my name being cheered and yelled. My New York friends had all turned up for the finish! Massive thanks to Hugh Selleck, Tom Christensen, Jacquie Purcell, Andrew and Marliesha Bartop and baby Edie, Sally and James Bertouch and baby Sophie, Camilla Crane, Pete Davies, and of course my incredible brother Mark and sister Bel, who had followed me almost the whole way around Manhattan on foot.

The last 500m
As I swam the last 500m the crowd on the wall were all cheering, my friends were running and cycling alongside me and my parents on the boat were waving. I finally rounded the corner at Pier A and saw the finish buoy where I gave it a very solid slap to finish in 8 hours and 53 minutes, coming 10th overall. Official Results here.

The finish! 8 hours 53 minutes

A swim like this is pretty iconic. Being able to swim past icons like the Financial district, the Empire State Building, the United Nations building, the Chrysler Building, Gracie Mansion where the mayor is meant to live (Michael Bloomberg doesn’t as he prefers his own home), the Yankee Stadium, the Pepsi Cola sign, Hell’s Gate Bridge which is a complete mini replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge by the same architect, just to name a few, is a pretty spectacular way to “see” New York.

I was very relieved to have made it, but devastated for those swimmers who got pulled. It seems ridiculous that only 11 of 42 swimmers finished. It was not what was meant to happen, and it was devastating that we couldn’t all be celebrating our achievement that night at the prize giving. The evening was full of mixed emotions. Fellow Australians Paul Newsome and Ceinwen Williams took out first male and female overall, and my swimming buddy Lochie Hinds was second male overall. These results were definitely cause for celebration, but it was bittersweet that not all ten Aussies were official finishers, especially when they are all such great swimmers. For my international friends who came along with their entire families, it just doesn't seem fair. I cherish the time we got to spend together before the race, however, there is nothing that would entice me back in the filthy waters of New York.

Three swimmers DNF'd and were taken to hospital due to hypothermia including my buddy from S.C.A.R in Arizona and the current Catalina Channel World Record holder Grace Van der Byl, and 10k FINA World Cup swimmer Gustavo Helguera. It was the coldest MIMS on record by some margin at officially just on 16.0ºC (60.8ºF), compared to 2012 which was 19.9ºC (67.8ºF).

I must call out a massive thanks to my amazing support crew whom were all allocated to me randomly by NYC swim: my boat captain Tony and his wife Denise were so positive, smiling and happy and were totally wonderful to my parents, my observer Tom who had flown in to volunteer for this event and diligently took my stroke count and measured the water temperatures throughout the race, as well as cheering and taking photos throughout, and my paddler Mike, whom I found out has done this race five times previous to 2013 and is a super keen kayaker. Mike’s knowledge of reading the currents definitely played a huge part in my success and his calm and patient attitude kept me sane throughout. He also told me interesting facts about all the buildings at every feed, and later when I found out he was a schoolteacher I was not surprised!
My amazing support crew: Tom, Denise, Tony, Mum and Dad
Observer Tom, Mum, Dad and I pre race
To my family, having you all there as I achieved this goal meant so much to me and I was so thrilled I could share this with you all. We are nothing without our support crew, and my family not only supported me on the day, but have supported these goals and ambitions for the last three and a half years as I have picked crazy long swim goal after crazy long swim goal. They are always there in some form, when I race in Australia and my brother is in Hong Kong he always calls continuously throughout the races and cheers for me from afar. My sister is always there on the finish line to greet me, and my parents are always alongside me in the support boat. The time and effort they put into ensuring I am prepared and that I can achieve my dreams and that they steadfastly believe in me in something I am so thankful for.

So, with seven marathon swim races in this year alone, and 20 marathon swims races now complete since this hobby began 3.5 years ago, I am going to spend the rest of this year enjoying life (before deciding what the next challenge will be!)

Full course and splits available on the link to my tracker page above 

Other blogs on MIMS 2013:


My 2012 Channel buddies: Tory Thorpe, Deidre Ward and myself

Geoff Wilson and Ceinwen Williams from Perth
My sister Bel and I

Awesome jumper designed by mum

Zincing up against the sun - not sure why my brother missed the section in the middle!

Passing the Concord

Freedom Tower

The Financial District

Bel and Mark on the Hudson

Under one of the 20 bridges of the race

Bel and Mark at Hell's Gate
Tim Donovan and myself - the last two swimmers through Hell's Gate