Have you ever counted how many strokes you take in a long distance open water event? Don't worry, neither have I, but it's a lot! At an average stroke rate of 82spm (strokes per minute) over a distance of 45.8km (28.5mi) and in a time of 7 hours and 14 minutes that equates to just under 36,000 strokes or 12,000 breaths when breathing bilaterally. The good news is that like me, you don't (and shouldn't) need to be aware of this if you're totally in the zone and focusing on the only thing that truly matters - a consistent, unwavering rhythm to your stroke. What's more, there is no magic number that will ensure your efficiency and success in an event like this - your stroke needs to be individual and work for you.
On Saturday 8th June 2013 I fulfilled a life-long goal of swimming the Manhattan Island Marathon Swimming (MIMS for short) in New York City, not only that but I managed to win the race overall from the 42 other solo swimmers selected for the event. I am thrilled to bits with this achievement and it far exceeded my wildest expectations. Now that I've had a chance to reflect and soak it all in, I wanted to share with you my story of how I got here and hopefully pass on some useful insight for your next swimming event, irrespective of distance.
In the process of training for MIMS I've learnt a lot about myself and how to optimise my training program to fit around a hectic work schedule and spending time with my wife and two beautiful children under the age of five, whom without their unwavering support, none of this would be possible. It just goes to show that if you believe in yourself, your training and get the balance right in work, family and your sporting aspirations, who knows what can happen even on moderate training volumes and with a full time job and family.
Good results don't happen over night, they're the result of countless hours of dedicated and consistent training of the right type and quality over a long period of time. In dedicating this win to my Grandma Rose at the prize ceremony, I realised just how long this period had been - she sadly passed away in 2003 and I've been waiting ever since to dedicate a big win in her honour, so here it is 10 years in the making!
I spoke of my background in marathon swimming and of the MIMS event history in last month's Blog here: www.feelforthewater.com/2013/05/swimming-46km-manhattan-island-marathon.html so will try not to repeat what has already been said. In that blog I also mentioned what my weekly training schedule has looked like for the past 10 weeks leading into the event. I had calculated that within 10 weeks I should be able to fit in 50 sessions. These I detailed in full on my @SwimSmoothPaul twitter account on a session-by-session basis, but we've also included them here swimsmooth.com/paul-mims-training.html for your ease of viewing and interest.
I tried to keep this training structure very simple and averaged 36km per week during this period, with my biggest week being 56km. My average session length was 7.2km and I performed 14 easy technique sessions of 3-4km in this period and 36 harder >8km sessions. These harder sessions were based mostly around my CSS pace (see www.swimsmooth.com/training), with even the very long 20km training swims being within 6 seconds per 100m of this pace. These were very demanding sessions, but I was always able to perform them at a very high standard because I was mentally and physically fresh enough to do so. I did virtually no speed work during this period and my weekly volume was at best only a third of 2nd place finisher Lochie Hinds from Sydney, Australia. Whilst I would have probably liked to have done more training, this was literally as much as I could fit in around my other commitments. However, what this result has shown me is that this seems to have worked out to be my optimal training load - I honestly can't envisage how I could have possibly performed any better than I did on the day. It was my perfect race.
After 10 days acclimatising in cold waters in Ontario, Canada and bringing my body clock back 12 hours from Perth time, I was ready to fly down to New York City confident that I had done all that I could to be in the best shape possible. Given the forecast for cold water around Manhattan I'd also spent this time fattening up a little bit to gain some beneficial insulation and buoyancy for the event. The race was scheduled for 7.40am on Saturday 8th June, leaving from Pier A at Battery Point on the southern tip of Manhattan Island and tracing an anti-clockwise route around the city:
Due to a heavy rainstorm the night before the event and the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, many of the support boats discovered damage too soon before the event to be fixed in time. Subsequently, the race was delayed by nearly an hour which proved decisive later on when the slower swimmers came to battle the changing tide around Hell Gate. During the delay before the start, many of the competitors were getting edgy and frustrated but this is a massive sap to your energy - you have to remain positive and focused in these situations and if you do so you're already one-up on those who haven't. "Que sera, sera!" - whatever will be, will be.
We were ferried from Pier 25 around to the start at Pier A in small inflatable Zodiacs, all huddled together in anticipation of the cold water that we were about to dive into. As mentioned in last month's blog, a common mantra we use in Perth for these long distance swims is "J.K.S" or Just Keep Swimming, and I noticed that one of the race favourites (Grace Van der Byl from California) had etched something similar and meaningful to her on her own forearm. Ordinarily I can get a little too anxious before these events, so I took it as a sign of me being relaxed that I realised that I still had my shopping list (Milk, Bread, Cereal) etched onto the back of my left hand as opposed to anything that might spur me on when the going got tough!
We were soon in the water, starting off in the final wave of five. The water felt fresh as I dived in, but I had no doubt in my mind that I would be able to handle it - the English Channel was seemingly much colder when I swam it in 2011. I was wearing a thick layer of wool fat around my armpits, neck and kidneys which I received a little bit of mocking from the other competitors for, but it just goes to show you've got to do what works for you, not anyone else.
At the start it was a little disorientating not knowing exactly where to head other than straight forwards and that your paddler would collect you within the first 200m and your support boat about 10 minutes later. I set off strongly and immediately recognised that I was alongside the three race favourites - Lochie Hinds (Australia), Grace Van der Byl (USA) and Gustavo Helguera (Argentina). I had been surprised and a tad worried to hear that I'd been seeded 4th going into the event as I was well aware of the credentials of these brilliant swimmers. Despite feeling really good, I decided to back off a bit and let them forge ahead, fearful that I might blow up later on. I was quite sure at this point that I wouldn't see them again all day. Instead I concentrated on the rhythm of my breathing and the voice of my little son Jackson telling me that I'm a "Hot Tamales" - something he always does when I tell him that I'm going for a cold swim.
To help establish my rhythm, I simply kept repeating "Stroke-Stroke-Breathe" over and over again. I wasn't aware of where I was situated within the field, but I have a very distinct memory of thinking how the water appeared to be a lovely temperature and quite minty-blue in colouration - a far cry from the dirty waters that everyone had been warning me about! I focused and seemingly obsessed on this - really enjoying the water.
We would stop every 30 minutes to alternate between 250ml of 32Gi Endurance drink and a GU carbohydrate gel washed down with the same drink. I wouldn't speak during these stops as I find that idle chit-chat throws off my concentration, instead I'd focus on getting my drink and fuel down as quickly as possible by flipping over onto my back and back-stroking with my left arm whilst feeding with my right. All up, these stops take less than 10 seconds to perform, thus minimising the drop-off in speed.
I was feeling great - really fluid, really strong and kept reminding myself of all the hard work and sacrifices I'd put myself and my friends, family and work colleagues through to get to this point. There was no tomorrow as far as I was concerned, no more training sessions that had to be completed, it was all about the here and now. I had several tunes playing over and over in my head: Eminem's "Not Afraid" and "Lose Yourself", and bizarrely the 1980 hit "D.I.S.C.O" by Ottawan (the last song I was listening too before we started). This put a big smile on my face and gave me more rhythm to my stroke.
All of a sudden I came up alongside who I recognised to be Lochie, whom I thought was well ahead of me by now. I couldn't believe it. But just as soon as I had done, Lochie took off into the distance, obviously benefiting from a different current to the one I was in. Still, it filled me with a massive amount of confidence. This was the promising young 17-year old from Sydney (half my age) who'd been tweeting about completing over 120km a week in training (three times what I had managed) leading up to this event and here I was doing a good job of keeping tabs on him two hours into the event. I was ecstatic and let out a loud "yahoo!" when I saw Evan on my boat fist pumping the air. I still had no idea though where Grace or Gustavo were or whether anyone else had sneaked up alongside me.
I could see Lochie's boat hovering off in the distance, maybe 3 or 400m in front of me, but not seeming to progress any further. I couldn't bear the suspense any longer, so I shouted to Amanda between strokes "where am I?" - she obviously thought I meant where am I geographically so called back a street number which I couldn't hear very well. So I shouted again and this time she understood - she simply held up two fingers in a victory salute, "second!" at which point I bellowed out a rather naughty expletive in total disbelief and excitement and in that very moment I committed to winning the biggest event of my life.
I put my head down, never again looked forwards or behind for anyone else, applied firm pressure to each stroke and started to swim hard, really hard. I still had over five hours of swimming left to go but I decided that I wanted this win and I was going to do everything possible to get it. Within just 15 minutes I had caught and passed Lochie. Shelley (Taylor-Smith, my mentor and 5 time winner of this event) had told me that if I caught anyone that I should swim alongside them for a while and really eyeball them, "show them how strong you're feeling" she said, but I felt I didn't have time for this, I just wanted to get past and put as much distance between me and 2nd place as quickly as I could. It was like I was on auto-pilot - the harder I tried, the easier it seemed to get. It was a truly amazing sensation. Here's a video of that very moment in time taken by Adam on the support boat:
(I think you'll see that I'm a classic Swinger - wouldn't change that for the world, for me it works, pure and simple)
I knew the race wasn't done and dusted there at Hell Gate, certainly not with five hours to go and with somebody in Lochie's physical form chasing you down, so I just swam scared - never looking back, being quick through my feeds and putting all the tactics and skill into the hands of my team. They were amazing. Every time Evan would fist pump the air I'd shout out "yahoo!" and every time he did so I'd feel a little stronger. I fed off it like it was the very life source that was keeping me moving.
We successfully navigated the Harlem River with Lochie in close pursuit. The gap had grown to 4 minutes at this stage and I still didn't know where Grace and Gustavo where but worrying about that would have not done me any favours. I had to keep going. I had to stay strong. "Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate" was all I kept saying to myself.
There's a big "C" for Columbia University painted onto a rock wall as you pass through Spuyten Duyvil at the northern end of Manhattan Island and from there you're almost into the mighty Hudson River. Everyone had told me how important this section was and how races have been won and lost there in the past, so I did what Evan had told me and I re-started the entire race again - I forgot everything else that had been completed thus far and readied myself for the chop and turbulence of the Hudson. I felt confident that my high stroke rate would carry me through whatever we'd encounter around the corner, the big question though was whether Lochie would start to peg me back. This scared and excited me in equal measure - the race was just about to begin!
As we rounded the corner at the north-west corner of the island, I had one quick look forwards at the massive George Washington Bridge which is 1450m in length and stands 184m high and then didn't look at it again until I saw it's shadow overhead. I had been told how this humongous structure can appear within arms reach for a very long period of time and how that can easily play with your mind. Instead, I put my head down and just focused simply on not letting Lochie catch me.
Like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, we were soon "under the bridge" (sorry, couldn't resist!) and past the famous Little Red Light House, but for whatever reason I thought that we still had one final bridge to pass under. We didn't - this was the 20th and final bridge that we needed to swim below and yet we were still a long way from home. I asked Amanda how far Adam thought we had left in terms of actual time and she shouted "one hour forty minutes!" with an apologetic look on her face. Rather than thinking this was a lot, I tried to break it down into chunks: back in Perth I would cover a little over 7km in this time, or 3.5 loops of my 2km circuit in the Swan River. Whilst I was starting to feel tired and had some significant pain in my left wrist and niggles developing in both shoulders, I wasn't so tired that I feared my ability to complete it. The only concern was whether Lochie's massive training regimen would stand him in better stead for the final push to the finish than my more modest preparations.
Not once did I dare believe that I had won the event until I eventually touched the large orange buoy tied up alongside the seawall at Pier A where we started a little over 7 hours beforehand, but when I did, the feeling was electric:
After finishing I learnt that only 11 of the field of 42 were recognised as actually finishing the event, the others being told to leave the water at the top of the East River and be escorted upstream to the Harlem River out of the impassible current. I placed 1st overall in 7h14m just over 5 minutes in front of Lochie and my team mate Ceinwen Roberts was 1st female and 4th overall in 7h31m. Fellow Perth "Sandgroper" Lisa Delaurentis finished 8th overall and 5th female in 8h01m. Not bad - three of our training group in the top-10 overall in one of the world's most recognised and iconic marathon swimming events. Unfortunately the other Sandgropers Andrew, Wayne and Geoff were pulled from the water but then progressed around the course with Paul D unfortunately retiring due to this incident. The official results can be seen here:
Three swimmers DNF'd and were taken to hospital due to hypothermia including the 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 just on 16.0ºC (60.8ºF), compared to 2012 which was 19.9ºC (67.8ºF). More on that here:
I had a brilliant team: Adam Young (team leader), Amanda Nitschke (who flew over from Australia to be my paddler), Alex (paddler provided by MIMS), Evan Morrison (who we flew over from California to help with logistics - he came 3rd in 2011 in this event), Barrie Davis (champion boat driver provided by MIMS), and Hannah Borgeson (observer provided by MIMS) - and this I class as having the biggest profound effect on my result. They were brilliant to a tee.
To win MIMS was a brilliant feeling and I'd like to extend a special thanks to Morty and his team for inviting us over for their fantastic event. I am a competitive guy at heart and love the fact that this one is a race, all of us battling exactly the same conditions, whatever they might be. On the day those conditions (a lot colder than normal and tough currents) proved to play in my favour and psychologically I tried to tap into that to keep me going.
A lot of people have already asked whether it was a better performance than my English Channel crossing in September 2011. The two were very different. Physically I know that I'm in a similar condition to nearly 2 years ago, if maybe a touch faster now over a 10km event. The first thing everyone asks me though about the English Channel is how long did it take me and an answer of 12h14m always feels like it needs justifying especially when that person doesn't know the conditions or hasn't seen our video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJZQ5Nlfeho. I felt like I had to really tough it out that day, both physically and mentally, and at the end of the day I did make a successful crossing when historically in the event's 138 year history only about 10% have achieved this feat.
I found out later that there was an award from the English Channel Swimming Association for "The Best Swim in Worst Conditions" but that it had been awarded to the only other swimmer that made it that day. I was a bit confused about that if I'm honest having crossed 37 minutes quicker in the exact same conditions, but award or no award, at least I can say that it was recognised as the worst day that year and that's always given me personal comfort if nothing more.
I realise now that marathon swimming throws many hurdles your way which can totally effect the outcome, time and result, but occasionally it throws a golden nugget your way too. It was MIMS's coldest year on record my some margin and I never thought I'd be saying that the cold would favour me, but it appears that it does. There might have been faster swimmers (on paper) in the field on Saturday but for whatever reason the effort that I put in on the day, with the stroke that I have, with my fabulous team and in the conditions I was presented with all culminated in the win, so consequently I'm very pleased about that.
A special thanks once again to my absolute mentor and inspiration in marathon swimming, Shelley Taylor-Smith. Like before my English Channel swim attempt in September 2011, Shelley very kindly spent some valuable time with me going through what it might take to perform at my best around this course - one which she's personally won no less than a record breaking 5 times - that being said, I never truly believed I could win it, though Shelley had confided with Amanda Nitschke (my awesome paddler, lifelong friend and squad member) that she had an inkling that I might - she knows her stuff and clearly knows her athletes very well!