FEATURES,  Readers' Swims

Ellery McGowan tackles the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS)

I had been training hard for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) since completing the 17.5-mile NYC Swim “Ederle Swim” last August and was delighted to hear in November that I had been accepted into the event, but my training had to increase. In April I joined one of SwimTrek’s “Long Distance Training Week” courses in Mallorca. The weather wasn’t fantastic but, with hindsight it proved invaluable, and I went on to complete my four-hour qualifying swim in 13.8 degree Celsius water with hundreds of jellyfish for company.
On Thursday 6 June, two days before MIMS, I took my four year old grandson, Kaua, on the Circle line sightseeing ferry around Manhattan and had an awful feeling going up the East River against the tide that there was a possibility I might have difficulties on the following Saturday. The sights were amazing and I was especially taken with the Harlem River which I had only crossed and not seen before on my visits to New York. After this trip, I was then quite excited and looking forward to the big day.
Then, on Friday, the storm Andrea hit the East Coast and dumped four inches of rain in Manhattan. But as I mixed up my feeds at my son Angus’ house and looked at Saturday’s forecast I was not troubled – the rain was due to cease at 7:00 and my start time was 7:15, so not too bad. Angus, Kaua and I went into Manhattan for the briefing and to meet up with other competitors. This lasted about two hours after which we checked into our hotel and went for a very late lunch which turned out to be my main evening meal, getting drenched all the time.
I was up at 4:45 by which time Angus and his wife Renata had already boiled kettles to fill Thermoses for my hot drinks of Maxim and their tea.
Registration was at 5:00 on Pier 25. There was no rain and, as dawn broke, the sun came out. I was feeling very happy as I munched on some bananas, greased up and prepared for the short boat journey to Pier A. However as we neared 8:00 o’clock, trepidation filled the air. It was not warm and one swimmer just had a black bin liner to keep the chill off. Apparently several boats hadn’t turned up and so swimmers had to double up.
I knew, as always, that once I hit the water, which happened to be 15 degrees, I would feel fine. I soon moved into a comfortable stroke rate, which incidentally was 62 all the way – faster than my usual but I can put that down to “Swim Smooth”. I had my paddler, Stephen Ahearn, on my right so I could see all the landmarks: the Staten Island ferry departing close by, Wall St, passing under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges up to Midtown seeing the Chrysler building and then the United Nations.
Whilst peeking at the Chrysler, Stephen asked me if I was ok which he did often. I explained I was sightseeing at which time he told me three swimmers had already got out due to the cold. As I approached 59th St Bridge Stephen suddenly said, “your swim is over!”

The tide had turned and none of us bar the 11 elite swimmers were to make it through Hell Gate. This was two hours into my swim and we had 3hours 55 to make it to the first cut off point, which was easily attainable in normal circumstances. However the rain and amount of water from behind Long Island pushing into the East River made this impossible for all except the fastest swimmers. I was dumbfounded but quickly changed into another costume, wrapped up, drank hot tea and heard the race organiser say we could continue the swim from the entrance to the Harlem and, although our time would be unofficial, it would still count as a circumnavigation of Manhattan.

At this point the sun came out again and I said to Angus there was no point going back in, the water was cold and it would get colder. Renata agreed with me, but collectively we decided just to swim the Harlem. I got in and started swimming again, thinking of my mother who had had Alzheimer’s, of all of you who had supported me and had faith. I said to myself “one bridge at a time” and there are 15 of those that cross that river. I was very cold and my legs started to cramp in the thighs and my left shoulder hurt at one stage.  I thought better of taking an analgesic as I wanted to keep moving. The river was also full of sticks and a variety of rubbish.  My mantra of “relax, enjoy and one arm after the other” also kept me going at this difficult time.
I became more positive as I swam along and, although still feeling cold, spoke to a swimmer in a white hat for a bit, took in Yankee Stadium, the turn off for the George Washington Bridge, the big C for Columbia on the right and their sports grounds on the left and then I saw it….. Sputyens Duyvil Bridge, the last bridge on the Harlem.

I also had a brief chat with Tory Gorman from Sydney and was surprised that she had just caught up with me but she had made it through Hell Gate. In some ways this inspired me. We crossed into the Hudson through what seemed like a whirl pool and I thought I wasn’t moving, but I felt the warmth of the 17 degree Celsius water. This stretch is long but the mighty Hudson pushed us towards the Battery and, even with big waves driven up by wind being against us, I knew I could finish. My feeds seemed to come around quickly and Angus said they were told to feed us every 25 minutes because of the cold. Each time I fed, alternating between an Isogel and hot Maxim, my thighs cramped. I took half a banana every two hours as well.

Down the Hudson we flew, and under the George Washington Bridge where I turned to have a good look at the beautiful “Little Red Lighthouse.” Next the water treatment plant, the municipal rubbish depot for the barges, the boat basin and into Upper West Side, the buildings with their water tanks on the roofs and then Pier 42 where the Circle Line Cruise goes from and the Trident, Concorde Museum.
I saw the new Twin Towers, Empire State building briefly, Chelsea Piers and many others until we passed Pier 25 again. I had nearly collided with a pier earlier and had to put my feed bottle back on the kayak but I escaped, waved to the crowds, and then fed at a more opportune moment. As I swam past Angus’ old apartment my paddler said he would be leaving me as he pulled off into North Cove. I thanked him and went on past South Cove and into Pier A where we had to touch the BIG RED BUOY. The banks were crowded with people, which was such an encouraging sight.

My cramps had stayed with me until the end but were not a problem whilst swimming. I fed well, my arms stayed in good order but I was surprised when Renata said the water was down to 13.4 degrees Celsius in the Harlem. It was a great swim but unfortunate that we had to be “Boat Assisted” for a part of the East River, something which I personally think could have been avoided if we could only have got underway when scheduled.

Of the 40 soloists who started 11 finished and 17 of us finished designated “boat assisted”. I have a trophy as a Finisher for MIMS 2013 and the trophy for TOP FUNDRAISER so I thank you all who helped make it happen, especially Angus and Renata, Stephen  Ahearn, Ed Scola and my Guildford Lido friends, Jim, Margaret and Ali who brought coffee and or swam with me.
A few days ago I received a lovely email from one of my Swim Smooth Mentors, none other than GB Olympic OW medallist Cassie Patten:
 “I just wanted to send a belated email to say well done, I hope you enjoyed the experience? I knew you would be fine, you have a steely determination to you which is honourable.” 

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.