If you read my post from the evening of June 7th, you know I was gearing up to swim the 28.5 miles around Manhattan the next morning. But if that’s the last you heard (I never claimed to be good at posting regularly!) you may not know that I did not make it all the way around. It’s kind of a long story, and so this is kind of a long post. But there is some good news at the end of this story: Tomorrow, August 25th, I get a second chance! That’s right. The good folks at NYC Swim have organized an extra Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) this season, open only to the many swimmers who, like me, were plucked from the East River before our time… as the tides turned…
The swim starts tomorrow, August 24th, 2013, at 9:45am Eastern Daylight Time.
You can follow me on Twitter @ThrowMeIn, and also other swimmers using #MIMSQuiet, and you can GPS track our progress on the NYC Swim website.
It’ll All Be Worth It
Let’s briefly go back again to that night, June 7th. I spent the evening reflecting on a winter of training in a swimming pool. I was frustrated and I was excited. The frustrating: a long winter of cold, dark 5am walks to the subway before the sun was up; a 9pm bedtime and resulting flatlined social life; hours of wheezing and coughing in my overly chlorinated local pool; and the knowledge that I’d been swimming in an awful lot of grossness. And the exciting!: The day had finally arrived and I was ready…ready to do more than just swim around Manhattan (which I was really excited to do). I was ready to retroactively justify my frustrating winter —the 5am, the 9pm, the wheezing and coughing, the gross!— it would all be worth it when I crawled out of the Hudson River in lower Manhattan sometime about nine hours after jumping in at the same spot. It was going to be a great day. It had to be a great day.
A Lot of Combined Disappointment
Anyone who followed along to mine or other swimmers’ MIMS updates on Facebook or Twitter that day knows that MIMS 2013 was something of a train-wreck. At least 28 of the 39 swimmers who set out to swim continuously around the island that morning did not. That’s a lot of combined time, money, sweat and tears culminating in a lot of unmet goals, to put it impossibly simply. It was also completely unprecedented. Although it is quite common in the sport of marathon swimming to attempt a big swim and not succeed, it is not common in this marathon swim. Between the careful organization of the event, the difficulty of the qualifier, and the competitive application process, most who attempt a NYC Swim-sanctioned swim around Manhattan (which is the only kind there is) make it successfully around.
A World of Confusion
Not to exaggerate the popularity of the sport, but MIMS draws swimmers from around the world, and with them a global audience following along via GPS tracking, FB posts and Twitter feeds. It’s not terribly surprising that there was a lot of upset and confusion on the day of the event, and a corresponding deluge of explanations and tellings of some version of this story to come after.
So what did happen on June 8th, 2013? Tell the story already, you say? I’m getting there. But first a disclaimer: Below I share my experiences of the day and how I have come to understand what led to them unfolding as they did. I do this knowing that, as with any story that involves upset parties (people like to have someone to blame!), there is no single telling with which everyone will agree. Nor is there a single collection of details that could possibly capture everyone’s experiences. So this particular collection of details is none but my own. For other accounts and interpretations of the day, take a look here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here… (there are no doubt more than this, and I will continue to add links as I happen upon them or rediscover them).
Ripple Effects of “Superstorm” Sandy
Unlike the previous two decades of successful swims around Manhattan organized and sanctioned by NYC Swim, this MIMS, it now seems, was doomed long before the swim even began.
Not Enough Boats
A swim around Manhattan is not possible without the help of boaters who escort swimmers, transport their crew and feeds, and look out for everyone’s safety during the day. There is a large number of boaters (a fair number from New Jersey and Staten Island) who participate in these events on a regular basis. Many of those regular boaters found their boats damaged in the hurricane (which was technically downgraded to a “superstorm”) that wrecked havoc on NYC and surrounding areas last winter. So fewer escort boats than usual registered for the event. Then, in the months leading up to June 8th, as boat owners began putting their boats back into the water for the first time since the winter, even more of them discovered damage that they had not been previously aware of. So escort boats, that were already in limited supply, were dropping out right and left leading up to the swim. Even as NYC Swim worked hard securing new boaters, in the days leading up to the event, they were losing boats faster than they were adding new ones.
We knew it was an issue when, a few days before the swim, swimmers were offered the option of sharing an escort boat with another swimmer, agreeing to swim at the same pace as that other swimmer, and receiving a discount of $400. A few swimmers took them up on the offer before race day, agreeing to swim together and share a boat. No swimmer who was actually racing (as in, those in the top of the field who had a chance to win or place) would do something like this, but the rest of us (as in, those of us whose big goal was to finish) could consider the option. I did not volunteer to do this, mostly because I didn’t have a friend or training partner swimming in the race. That is, I had no idea if my pace was a good match for anyone else’s.
Start/Finish Dock Unusable
Sandy had also put the planned start/finish dock out of commission. Just a day or two before the swim, we were told the start had been changed. Instead of jumping off the dock at South Cove for the start (and crawling up onto it for the finish), the new plan involved swimmers being ferried in zodiacs from Pier 25, where the boats were loading, down to Pier A, where we would jump in and swim from the water at the start (and touch a big orange buoy and crawl back into our escort boats for the finish). Logistically, the new plan had a few more moving parts and required a bit more organization. Perhaps it also warranted a bit more time built into the schedule.
Race Day Morning
I Am Not Responsible for Andrew Malinak’s Crazy
Race day morning, my crew and I met my kayaker, Terry O’Malley, at the kayaker check-in at North Cove marina at 4:45am to say hello and hand off my first bottle of feed (a liquid carb+electrolyte mix). There I met Andrew Malinak’s father who said, “are you Caitlin? … You’re the one who put all those crazy ideas in my son’s head!” Once I figured out who his son was, I concluded it was a ridiculous claim, as Andrew was crazy long before he met me. I was not sure why I was receiving any of the credit. Although misinformed, Andrew’s dad was super sweet, volunteering that morning even though Andrew was all the way over in Seattle.
Pier 25: The Big Wait
Up at Pier 25 by 5am, we unloaded our gear and began the big wait. (The first wave of swimmers was scheduled for 7:40am.) There were 39 solo swimmers plus a few 2-person relays participating, which is a lot of swimmers, crew members, swimmers gear, crew gear, boat observers, volunteers, and friends and family getting organized at once. Which is not to say it felt chaotic, as it certainly did not. We all stood, sat, and paced around in a relatively organized line along the walkway, waiting for our crew to be called down to the dock below to board our escort boats. What happened next was confusing at the time but makes sense now. The wait had dragged on; the numbers had thinned as more and more crews and bags had departed on boats; but boats with crews already on them started returning to the dock to pick up additional crews. Swimmers started finding out that they were sharing escort boats with other swimmers, even though they had not agreed to do it. I know that in that moment, this shift was troubling to a number of swimmers who simply had not mentally prepared to share their day with a stranger (Remember, this day is the culmination of an awful lot of hours, effort, money, sleep deprivation, forfeited social lives, etc.)
Only after the swim was over and my crew and I unloaded our bags back onto Pier 25 late that afternoon, did I really understand what had gone on that morning. As one NYC Swim volunteer pointed out, there were 10 unclaimed boater envelops left on the dock after all the boats were loaded (and a few of the boats were double and triple-loaded). That means that something like 10 boats just didn’t show up that morning. That’s a lot of boats to just not show up. (I don’t know for sure if the number of no-shows was actually 10, though the envelope evidence suggests that it was. I didn’t take the time to research that information because the exact number is irrelevant. What is relevant? A lot of boats were missing.) But why? I have heard that at least one boat captain reported seeing stalled boats in the water on the way over from Jersey or Staten Island. But he didn’t report seeing ten stalled boats. So what happened to the others? I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t know who knows the answer or if anyone knows the answer. Here’s one thought I’ve have about it: I wonder if some of the boats that had signed on in those few days before the swim had done so not entirely understanding what they were signing up for, or not aware of what a crucial role they would play in this event. Then Saturday morning at stupid-o’clock rolls around (Maybe 3 or 4am to get to Manhattan by 5:30?) and the idea doesn’t sound so nice anymore. Snooze.
A Very Late Start
I wasn’t wearing a watch at this point. I had no idea we were so far behind schedule by the time we were being ferried down to the start. I was wearing socks and Crocs and full sweats, but some swimmers had less on and were feeling cold. A few waves of swimmers were squeezed on escort boats for the trip to the start, while others went by zodiac. I wasn’t sure why we weren’t all on zodiacs as planned— did we have fewer zodiacs than we were supposed to have? I’m still not entirely sure why we ended up on someone’s escort boat on the way to the start, but I wonder (speculating here) if the smaller crafts intended to ferry swimmers to the start had been used to replace missing escort boats, and so were occupied by crews and gear. But why we were on escort boats is not really important. What is important is this: Things didn’t go as planned; boats didn’t show up; those who were manning the start improvised and got every crew on an escort boat and every swimmer down to the start; but despite all the problem solving going on at boat loading, instead of arriving at the start around 7:30, as scheduled, it was closer to 8:30am. The race got off about an hour behind schedule.
Why a Late Start Killed all the Fun
Here’s the thing with a swim around Manhattan. MIMS is a very precisely timed swim. Despite the course taking place on waterways referred to as “rivers,” they are in fact part of a complex tidal estuary (Manhattan is not far from the Atlantic Ocean, whose changing tides flood those “rivers.” The effects of the flood can be felt in the swim from both the south, with water coming up through Lower Bay and NY Harbor, as well as from Long Island Sound to the east, which empties into the East River at Hell Gate, just before the East River meets the Harlem River). The race organizers choose the date of the event to fall on a particular kind of tide at a specific point in the tide cycle so that the tidal assist that swimmers receive in both directions (up the East River, past Hell Gate to the Harlem River, and then down the Hudson) is the most favorable. This kind of precise timing makes a swim around Manhattan possible for both fast swimmers, and moderate-paced swimmers. (No amount of careful timing would allow a slow swimmer to get around as it is impossible to swim in a forward direction once the tides have turned against you).
I had not been paying attention to the time and had no idea the swim was off late. I jumped in and started with my wave, cheered on by the crowd at Pier A of friends, families, and confused passers-by who happened upon the start. My brother and mom followed along on Citi-bikes, waving as I passed by them. I fell in beside Terry quickly and got to it. It wasn’t until about 2 hours into the swim that I knew something was up. All of a sudden my kayaker, usually goofy-faced and playful, looked pissed. I noticed this first. Then I heard him yell “No!” toward the sea wall to my left. Still quite oblivious, I thought perhaps someone had thrown something at me? I pulled my head up and asked him, “What?” At which point he said, pointing ahead of him, “You have to swim fast or they’re going to pull you.” Uh, WHAT? Up until that moment I had been thinking a lot of things (which I’ll explain in a minute), but that was not one of them. Pull me? Why? Terry continued, “Go! Close the gap with those swimmers ahead of you or they’ll pull you. We are skipping your feeds. Sprint!” I didn’t know why, but I followed orders and started hauling ass. A few minutes later my escort boat pulled up along side of me and I saw Louise (good friend and 1/2 of my crew) standing on the side of the boat yelling urgently, “Go, Caitlin, Go! You gotta MOVE it!” She was swinging her arms forward, motioning which direction to go. Yeah, I thought, I get it. I was going as fast as I could at that point. Still not sure what was going on I started thinking: I’m sprinting here. I can’t sprint for 6 hours. But it was soon to be a moot point. After about two and a half hours of swimming, and 15-20 minutes of it sprinting, at around East 70th street, Terry said, simply, “That’s it. They’re pulling you.” I had closed a lot of the gap between myself and the swimmers ahead, but at that point, all those swimmers ahead were getting pulled too. It hadn’t mattered after all. I swam to my boat and got out. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t as disappointed as I could have been in that moment, because, although I wouldn’t have ended my own swim, I had been having an absolutely miserable swim up until that point.
I Was Cold
In previous years, MIMS water temperatures ranged from the mid-sixties to the low seventies. Not bad. But this year was different and a lot of folks were caught unprepared. I was one of those folks. I actually like a cold water challenge, but I hadn’t been training for one and I just wasn’t ready for it. The temperature readings my crew got from the surface of the water were in the low sixties, but I swear there was an undercurrent of water that dipped well into the fifties. It felt like huge pool jets of icy water coming up from below. Only minutes into the swim I started thinking, “This is not comfortable. I’m really cold.” And that quickly led to, “This is not fun. I was planning on having fun during this swim.”
I desperately had to pee for the first hour or so but I couldn’t make my body do it. It was my first experience with this particular problem while swimming. When I finally coerced my bladder into letting go, I felt even colder, as if I had been swimming with a warm water-bottle strapped to my abdomen and had just let it go. It was a bitter sweet experience that repeated a number of times before I was pulled.
Stop Looking at Me, I’m Miserable!
Every time I saw my mom and my brother appear along the sea wall on their bikes—which was impressively often— their faces would be washed in sunlight, and they’d smile and wave big loving waves. I couldn’t help but sort of hate them for following me. I was so miserable, why did they have to keep looking at me? (Spoiler alert: Both have front row seats for tomorrow’s swim. My mom is joining Laura on crew and my brother is joining Terry as a second kayaker. These guys can’t get enough of this swim, even after I was so ungrateful!)
I knew I needed to get in the right mindset. I started by looking for the light. I had experience feeling miserable in a swim and I knew it was possible to shift my frame of mind and find lightness where I felt only darkness. But that fell flat. I couldn’t find it. The sun was out but in my head it was all dark. I was just so cold.
So the next best thing was to channel Grace. Friend and super-champion open water swimming legend Grace Van der Byl had been interviewed in some little news or promotional segment that I had watched a week or so before the swim. In it, she talked about being uncomfortable. She said, “to be successful as a long distance open water swimmer you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” Or something like that. So I started repeating Grace’s words to myself: Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. And it helped. A little. But I was still pretty miserable, and not really that comfortable with it.
For the most part I just thought about sitting around in a restaurant after the swim with coach Lance and my boyfriend Mark and Terry and Louise and Laura and my mom and brother and all the other MIMS swimmers. It will be over. Just keep going and eventually it will be over. Never did I think I would call it quits. I was cold but I was not hypothermic.* I had worked too hard and talked too much about it. I had at least one student who was following along on GPS and was planning on being at the finish. I was definitely going to continue to endure until I finished. I did think a bit about the relay swimmers and how I would never be able to do what they were doing. If I got out of this water, I thought, there is no way in hell that I would get back in. Little did I know that in a short while I would be getting out of the water, and my crew would be aggressively encouraging me to get back in.
Get back in? Here’s how it went: The tide turned before most of the swimmers made it to Hell Gate. Those of us who fell into that category were pulled, and then transported to the Harlem River and allowed to continue swimming from there. Depending on where exactly a swimmer was pulled (many only blocks away from Hell Gate but already swimming backwards) the distance they were transported and the time they spent on the boat varied. As can be imagined, there was lots of confusion about what was happening and how to proceed. Usually when a swimmer is pulled from MIMS they are not allowed back in the water, but this time they made an exception. Why? I am guessing here, but I think the hope was to mitigate the anger and frustration that the swimmers would be feeling and directing at the race organizers. (People traveled from all over the world for this swim!) At least, this way, most people still got the experience of swimming around Manhattan. Even if it was only a 27.3 mile swim, instead of a 28.5 mile swim, or whatever.
I was not sold on this “getting back in” idea. I had thought about those relay swimmers already and knew that getting back in is exactly what I would not be able to do. While I knew I wouldn’t have aborted my swim voluntarily, now that I was sitting on a boat contemplating an “unofficial” or “just for fun” swim the rest of the way around, why on earth would I choose to get back in?! I had been miserable and only barely able to keep myself going. What would I have to keep me going now? Get back in? Yeah right.
My crew did exactly the right thing and got me back in the water. They were ruthless, as I would hope they would be. “Get in there and finish what you started!” they said. I dug my heals in but eventually made my way to the back of the boat. I stepped down onto the ladder and then sat down in about two and a half inches of water. Then I started to cry. I don’t think I was crying over the dashed dream. I think I was crying at the memory of the first leg of the swim, and the thought of repeating the misery. I stood up for a moment. But then I got back in. I grumbled and swore and put my head down and swam. But in addition to the cold, two things were not right when I started my swim in the Harlem River: My left shoulder was killing me and the water was disgusting.
Ever since my shoulder surgery, and all through my training for this swim, I focused on my stroke and worked to make it the best, lowest-impact stroke I could. I watched videos and listened to different coaches and experts and physical therapists and I played with my stroke until I found what worked. I also found tiny adjustments I could make whenever I felt a niggling pain or any discomfort at all really. I had been swimming without pain for over a year. And I hadn’t felt any pain before I was pulled. Why now? Here’s my theory: Because of the cold, I had been very tense. I was working to relax as best as I could, but I had felt like I was carrying everything in my shoulders and neck and I struggled to release it. I couldn’t relax. Then they told me to sprint. I don’t blame them. I would have told me to sprint, too, had I been in their position. But I attribute the sudden onset of pain to 20 minutes of high adrenaline, super tense, apparently reckless sprinting. My shoulder was pissed. I felt a shooting pain with each stroke after getting back in to the Harlem River. Strike one. Well actually, strike two, because I was still stupidly cold which was an obvious strike one. What was strike three? The water was totally disgusting. And for that, we can blame the rain (and humans).
What the Rains Did
The rain we experienced before the swim actually seems to have had a number of negative influences on the swim. I have heard claims that the sheer amount of rain water in the rivers shortened the duration of the favorable flood tide. I don’t know much about that, so I’m not going to go into it here. I have also heard people explain how the rain water actually contributed to the cold: something about forcing colder water up from below. I also don’t know much about that. The most indisputably negative effect of all that rain (and something I’ve come to know a little bit about) was something called “Combined Sewer Overflow.” And it is exactly what it sounds like. Let me explain…
Heavy rains in NYC are a problem. It is a well-known fact that the NYC sewer system is flawed, and one of the biggest threats to its sound functioning is rain. According to a very cool project called Don’tFlushMe “Release of untreated sewage occurs at 460 sites around NYC called Combined Sewer Outflow (CSO).” But why would NYC release untreated sewage into the rivers? Rain! Let’s take that tropical storm we experienced here in the city in the days leading up to MIMS this past June, for example. For more than 24 hours we experienced torrential rains. All the rainwater that flooded the streets ended up in the sewer along with everything New Yorkers were flushing down their toilets. In fact, “70% of NYC sewage systems collect storm water runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe.” While our sewer system is designed to treat water before releasing it back into the wild, it can only handle so much water before it is at capacity. And when the system is overloaded, the excess spills out into the rivers untreated at those CSOs. Yep. That’s right. “Some 27 billion gallons of raw sewage is dumped into the harbor every year.” (All stats in this paragraph come from dontflush.me, a project that NYC swimmers should be particularly interested in. Read the idea behind it here)
Back to the swim and those three strikes. I spent about 40 minutes in the Harlem River wondering why on earth I was swimming it. I was cold. My shoulder hurt bad. I was swimming through water that smelled horrible and was full of garbage I don’t care to explain in any detail. And I was enduring all of this why? To salvage the day and get a “good swim” out of it anyway despite the obvious setback? This was not a good swim! I had long ago given up hope of a good swim… all I had wanted was to endure a completed swim around Manhattan, and I wasn’t getting that. I could think of no good reason to keep going, so I got out.
Sick After the Swim
Many pulled swimmers did stick it out and swim most of the way around Manhattan that day. Eleven swimmers (including one friend) had a great day of swimming and accomplished what they set out to do. But a disturbingly large number of swimmers (official finishers as well as “boat assisted” swimmers) got sick afterwards. At least one swimmer wound up in the hospital. In fact, it was rare to hear of many swimmers who didn’t get sick. I didn’t get sick, and I attributed that to two things: 1. My expert skill at not letting any water into my mouth, and 2. The fact that I only spent 40 minutes in the Harlem River.
I was a little disappointed to read later in a NYC Swim newsletter that the NYC Office of Emergency Management considered canceling the race due to water quality issues on the morning of the swim, but no one told the swimmers this. Not that I think I would have chosen to sit out the race if I had known. But still, finding this out after the race made me a little uneasy. Considering all of the issues working against the swim, I’m not convinced that going ahead with it was the right choice. At the same time, I’m not sure canceling it would have seemed right either. Here is NYC Swim’s concise explanation of the troubles faced that day (from their June 21st newsletter):
Manhattan was drenched by over four inches of rain in the 24 hours before gunshot. Boats committed to the event had trouble making it in, resulting in a shortfall and a delayed start. All this, on top of already unseasonably cool water temperatures, compounded problems caused by Sandy last fall. On race morning, the NYC Office of Emergency Management considered canceling the race due to water quality issues. Despite the challenges, the race was held, with just one swimmer bowing out. That afternoon, 11 solo swimmers and one relay triumphantly finished the course straight through. An additional 17 soloists and two more relays made it to the finish after being boat-transported briefly in the East River, where the heavy rains had diminished the flood tide such that it did not provide enough of an assist for most of our field to get to the Harlem River.
I take issue only with only the last line, which implies that the “boat assisted” swimmers didn’t make the cutoff solely due to the rain. Sure, the rains diminished the flood tide, but starting an hour late put us at a great disadvantage that should have been included in an honest account of the day.
In discussing the day with swimmers, I have heard a lot of anger voiced. While I don’t question anyone’s right to feel angry, it hasn’t been my response. Either I don’t know enough damning details to be angry at anyone in particularly, or I just so badly want to believe the best about people (I was an Obama apologist for longer than I’d like to admit). Whatever. We are only humans, trying to accomplish strange feats in nature, who threw us some curve balls this time, perhaps at least partially because we are destroying the climate… and other nonsense.
Wait, You’re Doing it Again?
That’s right. I’ll be taking another stab at this swim at 9:45am tomorrow morning with 8 other swimmers who were also unsuccessful last June. (NYC Swim is calling it a “Quiet” swim, as it is not a regularly scheduled or advertised event.) The unseasonably cold water has warmed and the city has experienced very little rain recently. The forecast for the day is sunny. It will be a little windy, but otherwise should be a good day for a swim around Manhattan. The reason for my desire to swim around the island has shifted many times since I first signed up for the swim, and perhaps once I’ve done it, I’ll think up a really nice reason for why I did. At this moment, however, I just want to get’er done.
Wish me luck.
* A couple of swimmers were actually pulled for hypothermia this year, at least one of whom suffered pretty seriously from it.
p.s. I have pictures and other things to add to this post but I gotta get to bed… big day tomorrow!
Here’s the field: