Category Archives: Spirit of Marathon Swimming

Boston Frogman Swim

Had the honor on Sunday to volunteer for the inaugural Boston Frogman Swim.

The Frogman swim is in honor of the fallen among the Naval Special Warfare community. Over 100 Naval special operators have died since 9/11. Several families showed up today to represent their loved ones while 27 swimmers completed a 5K swim, each swimming in the name of one of the deceased.

Showed up at oh-dark thirty to help set up for the swim. In usual military style, the whole place was set up in no time at all, and at the end, torn down in less than 30 minutes like we’d never been there.

I was amazed at how many volunteers showed up to help out for the event. I was equally, or maybe, more amazed at all the people who volunteered who were not in any way connected to the military. Seriously, the first five people I spoke to, fellow volunteers, none of them had been in the military. Neither did they have any connection! They simply had friends who were in the Navy or thought it would be great to support the community. So wonderful and the reason why I love living in this wonderful country!

My new friend Jane was swimming today, and I was happy to see a couple other open water swimmer friends, Polly and David, swimming the event! Wetsuits were mandatory unfortunately, but probably best for the distance and temperature (53F).

Some actual Navy Seals swam it, as well as one kid who is going to BUD/S soon. Most of those guys all swam it with legit fins and mask. Due to the cold water, it was still quite the challenge.

I counted swimmers in and out of the water, along with my new friend Renee from the timing folks and we had former Navy guy Nick doing med checks at the end. The goal, said Nick, was to get each of them to put thumb and index finger together in the OK sign and use the letter F. He made all of them flash him the sign and “Repeat after me and say ‘I’m fine.'” Amazing how many of them responded “I’m great!” One former (retired?) Seal looked at him, flashed OK, and said “I’m f^&king great!” Not exactly what Nick asked, but he got the f-word he needed.

Then of course, the after-party. You can’t have a military crowd, or an event run by military, without having a get-together after to trade stories and drink beer. I walked that way with a swimmer named Ashe. She’s new to marathon swimming and this swim so far was her farthest. What a swim to tackle as your first 5k! We got to know each other on the one mile walk, and I also got to know her brother (kayaker) and her mother. (I pointed her toward all the great people at MSF as she was interested in going longer!)

The party was great. Volunteers and swimmers got to eat free and families just paid a little to join us. The ReelHouse did a great job. Still not sure if it was turkey or pork tenderloin. Don’t care. It was very tasty. And they had Lord Hobo’s Boomsauce. Oh hells yeah. Yours truly represented the Air Force honorably, but after four Boomsauces, it was time for IronMike to go home and take a nap.

Charlie (L) and Glenn, Navy Seal Foundation Ambassador

Rory did a little speech and gave out a few awards, but most importantly, there were no number ones or anything like that. This was a challenge, not a race. My new buddy Charlie, from the Highlands of Scotland by way of Montana, Texas, California and Florida, won for raising the most money of anyone (swimming all three Frogman swims) and being the slowest. And if you’re so inclined, it is never too late to donate to this wonderful charity!

Rory giving a short history before handing out awards

I’ve said it before, but volunteering really is a must if you’re serious in this community. I went many years just swimming and not volunteering and I’ve been working to correct that. Take a new open water swimmer out with you. Coach some kids in open water. Volunteer at a triathlon. Crew for someone’s marathon. Pay it forward and you will not be disappointed!

Crewing is where it’s at

I had the honor of crewing for Bridget S. in the Boston Light Swim, an 8-mile ocean swim with a long, illustrious history. She lucked into a slot when someone who made it through the swimmer lottery had to drop out. She and I know each other going back to 1992, so it was just dumb luck that I’m living here now and she got a slot in the swim. And I was already volunteering on the Friday night prior to the swim.

I must admit up front that I volunteered for selfish reasons: If you make it through the volunteer lottery (yes, a lottery for swimmers and volunteers), and you qualify, then next year you can skip the lottery to swim the race! So while I’d love to say I volunteered for altruistic reasons, I really had a game plan for 2019.

Friday went well; I got to meet a lot of swimmers I’d only known through the internet and the MSF forums. I also met some great swimmers who aren’t on the forums, to include a man who has swum the BLS 20 times, but also has swum BLS doubles at least 3 times. He’s also swum the original Boston Light route (12-miles from downtown Boston to the Light). Kim Garbarino was incredibly modest, and quite the swimmer. I met an 80-year old swimmer who has written the histories of the BLS; yes, I had to buy his books to add to my OW swims history collection. Bob McCormack was wonderful to meet and a true lover of this swim.

Saturday found us up early and out of the house by 0455. We had to stop at a Dunkin Donuts (they’re like Starbucks here) to get our pilot an iced coffee. We met all the other swimmers, got Bridget’s stuff together for the fly-away bag, and went out to the pier to wait for Kevin, our pilot.

(c) Jon Washer

This really is the worst part of any swim, the nerves at the beginning. All you can think about is the swim: How will I feel? How cold will the water be? Will the weather hold/get worse/get better? Did I train sufficiently? What did I forget? Where’s the pilot?

Kevin arrived and we loaded the boat. His boat was pretty small; Bridget had told me that he said she could have one crew member. I can see why. Small boat, but very capable. We motored on out to the Light for the start.

(c) Jon Washer

You can kind of see what looks like a small radar at the front of his boat. That is something like a “trolling motor,” if I understood him correctly. It is electric and with this motor Kevin can control his boat by remote control, with the main engine off. There would be times during B’s swim that I realized the motor was off and Kevin was steering the entire boat with a handheld remote. Nice and slow like the swimmer, none of this rush ahead, let the swimmer catch up, repeat.

The swim would start with a 5-min warning by radio, then two short horn blasts. Nothing fancy. Swimmers were not allowed in the water till those horns blasts. The current was in the swimmers’ favor, so jumping in early, then you have to fight to stay back behind the line. So the blasts go off and Bridget gets in the water. She is admittedly a gradual enterer in cold water so this jumping in was not to her liking. In fact, she jumped in, surfaced and screamed. Turns out the water was 57*. Bridget didn’t whine or hesitate, she simply put her head down and got to work. Within 60-90 seconds, she was cruising with a beautiful stroke.

She actually started in the very back of the line; all other swimmers were ahead of her at the start. But within 30 minutes, she had passed 5 other swimmers. Within an hour, she had passed eight more swimmers. Most of this was due to Bridget’s beautiful stroke, but a large part of this was the navigation by Kevin. He found fast water. He took an occasional weird route which turned out to be the right choice as Bridget would just zoom by other swimmers. Turns out he isn’t new at this. He’s piloted for BLS swimmers before, and knows the course.

She passed all those swimmers!

Between Spectacle and Thompson islands, a bunch of different currents met, and there was slow water there. I ended up calling that area the Doldrums. (I didn’t tell Bridget that till after the swim.) It was about a half mile or so long and a lot of swimmers got stuck. I didn’t stop her at the 30:00-feed mark in this area because I didn’t want her to see herself being pushed backwards. Kevin took us almost directly north to Spectacle after we went through the Long Island “bridge,” then we took a sharp left past Thompson and caught a beautiful current.

Almost there!

That current took her straight to the L Street finish. I asked Kevin a couple times if he thought she would make it to the beach before the five hour cut-off. I didn’t want to stop her for a feed if she was within minutes of finishing. Kevin had no worries. He had her on a good line. One of the Irish swimmers was going directly to the yacht club where we started. Only problem with that is that was not the finish. By the time his pilot realized, Bridget almost caught up. It became a race then. Kevin wanted her to beat that guy! And she almost did.

Unofficial results shows the Irishman beat her by only one second! (c) Jon Washer

Kevin and I cheered for Bridget as she arrived, then motored on back to the yacht club where we started. I tentatively booked Kevin for 2019. After watching him find fast water for Bridget, I knew who I wanted to be my pilot next year!

Akhmed Anarbaev, First Kyrgyz Olympian, and First Across Lake Issyk Kul

In the midst of planning my next escapade, I came across this wonderful interview with one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, Akhmed Anarbaev.

Akhmed Anarbaev, first Kyrgyz Olympian and first to swim across lake Issyk Kul.

Mr. Anarbaev was the first Kyrgyz Olympian, competing for the Soviet Union in swimming in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, specifically in the 400. He didn’t make the pedestal, but that didn’t stop him from another first in swimming.

I met Mr. Anarbaev in 2015 in Cholpon-Ata on lake Issyk Kul. Annually he hosts a swimming weekend, with indoor and outdoor events. He owns and runs a LCM pool on the shore of Issyk Kul, the only pool of that length in all of Kyrgyzstan. I met him after his indoor competition was over and asked if I could take part in the short (300m) open water swim later that day. He had no problem with that, and even introduced me to the other swimmers there, most of them also former members of the Soviet swim team in the ’60s and ’70s. Later that day I managed to talk 3/4 of my kids into swimming the competition with me. Along with dozens of other swimmers. All of whom were beat by Anarbaev, who at the time was 67. And in great shape.

This interview I just found, from 14 January 2018, sheds some light on the history of his Issyk Kul swims that I tried to gather back in 2015 with my so-so Russian.

His first Issyk Kul crossing, from Kyzyl-Suu in the south to Ananyevo on the north shore, 36 kilometers, he completed in 1982 in 11 hours (as exact as he gives). This is the route we call “historical” in the Lake Issyk Kul Swimming Federation. This I learned back in 2015, but what I didn’t know was that he swam it with someone else, some unnamed swimmer. (If I make it back to Issyk Kul this summer, I will have to ask him who the other swimmer is so I can update the crossing list.) Also, a little about his nutritional preparation for that crossing: He and the other swimmer split a can of stewed meat. In his own words, “It is good that we were escorted.”

Unbeknownst to me, he tried a solo crossing of the widest spot on the lake, from Tamga in the south to Cholpon-Ata in the north, a distance of about 65km. That crossing was unsuccessful. For this crossing he started at 7pm. He chose to start at that time because he wanted to swim in cold water at the beginning of the swim and to finish the swim in warm water after the sun had been up for 12+ hours. Unfortunately, his swim turned out quite different than planned, and frankly it is lucky he’s still alive. Strong winds, rain, lateral waves, his escort boat lost sight of him at one point for an hour twenty.

Even more strange was the second time the boat lost sight of Anarbaev. He kept swimming, but started to hear someone calling his name. He saw a boat on the waves so he swam up to it, but it wasn’t his boat. It was another from Balykchy, the village on the westernmost point of the lake! (Dear readers will remember this village as the home base for my crossing.) The crew of the boat thought they saw a dead body floating 200m away from them. Alas, the body was swimming. And the crew knew of only one person who could be swimming in the middle of Issyk Kul, so they started yelling “Akhmed! Akhmed!”

Anarbaev was lost a third time, and when he caught up, was forced to swim at the back of the boat. The boat only had one light in the stern so he decided to swim from that point so as to not get lost again. But swimming back there he was fighting against the currents of the propellers and started to breath in diesel exhaust. His breathing suffered, his chest muscles and abs got tight, and they finally pulled him out of the water, after only 5.5 hours. The doctor checked all his vitals and he was fine. (It is here that Anarbaev tells the interviewer that it didn’t matter that the doctor said he was okay, because “by the rules, at any point if you touch the boat, your swim is over and won’t be recognized.”)

There’s more to the interview, to include his philosophy on health, drinking and sport. Google translate doesn’t do too bad of a job (ignore all the he‘s and she‘s; Russian has grammatical gender), so if your Russian is lacking and you want to read the Google version of the interview, the translation is here.

Review of the film “Sea Donkey”

“Tenacity” is one of the adjectives used to describe Adrian Sarchet, resident of Guernsey, long distance swimmer and the 28th person to swim the Irish Channel, star of the film Sea Donkey.

The movie is 1:35 and starts out pretty slow. Kind of like many adult open water swimmers! The first half hour or so covers his months of training in the waters off Guernsey. Especially appreciated is the glimpses of his failures. You learn so much from your failed attempts, I’m glad the producers decided to keep those bits in the film.*

Sarchet is lucky in that he has a super supportive family, to include his wife, father, mother, friends from his swim club, locals. This is highlighted throughout the movie; this would be a great movie for your family to watch or for your crew to watch, especially if they are new to supporting a crazy person who’ll be swimming for 12+ hours. He follows a rule that some of us have learned: no spouse on the boat. The last thing he wanted was to worry about his wife getting sick. The last thing his wife needed was to see how hurt he was at the end.

I’ve already given up the ending, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching this film. Watching Sarchet’s determination and tenacity. Realizing the effects a swim of that magnitude and cold has on a body. How your health is affected by jellyfish and cold water. Yet, how will can win over pain.

IronMike’s rating: Two thumbs up!

*Be sure to spend the time to watch the bonus features; well worth it.

12 Days of Christmas Gifts: Day Twelve

Iron Mike here presents to you twelve days of gift ideas for the marathon swimmer in your life. Check back daily!

Day twelve: Monday, 25 December, Christmas!

No. It is not too late to get the marathon swimmer in your life a gift for Christmas. And no, I’m not calling on Amazon’s unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver Christmas cheer in two hours or less.

More than anything, your swimmer wants to thank you for your support in his/her crazy pursuits. Your swimmer wants you to know that they love you for it and are so happy that you are in their life.

So if you want to get the marathon swimmer in your life something that they’ll remember forever, march right over to and hug them. Give ’em a big hug and kiss and say “I love you. And even though I have no idea why you enjoy immersing yourself in cold water for hours simply to go from point A to point B, I love you for it. You’re an oddball, but again, that’s why I love you.”

From IronMike’s family to yours, a very Merry Christmas!

12 Days of Christmas Gifts: Day Eleven

Iron Mike here presents to you twelve days of gift ideas for the marathon swimmer in your life. Check back daily!

Day eleven: Sunday, 24 December, Christmas Eve Movie Night!

You can find movies (DVDs) on swimming technique all over the internet. That’s not what I’m talking about. (But if I were, I’d recommend this one by the folks at Swim Smooth.) I’m talking about entertaining films that are about swimming, specifically marathon or channel swimming and the spirit of marathon swimming.

One that I loved watching was Dangerous When Wet. Loved it so much I did a review of it. It’s a bit cheesy, having been filmed in 1953, but the best part of it is when the English Channel race organizer goes over the rules of the race:

Do not touch your rowboat. Or your trainer. Or you will be disqualified. When you reach Dover, you must wade ashore unaided.

At another point, the main character is in the middle of the English Channel and her love interest comes out to swim with her, and she says “Stay back, don’t touch me!” Even movie producers in the ’50s understood marathon swim rules and why we marathon swimmers are so passionate about them.

Bottom line, if you want a nice, romping and cheesy family movie with a huge swim as the setting, watch Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet.

Next, I recommend Driven. This is one of the most fun movies you’ll ever watch. If you’re not a marathon swimmer, but you wonder why crazy people do things like swim in cold water for half a day (or more), then you need to watch this film. The film makers follow three marathon swimmers as they train and swim some difficult channel crossings in the Santa Barbara Channel. The cinematography is incredible, offering views few get to see. (How many support crew want to dive into 57* water and swim under the marathon swimmer?)

Driven was crowd-sourced and I am in awe of what the community was able to do to get this film produced. It was a final selection in two international film festivals (Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo); what I would have done to get to see it on the big screen. I couldn’t say it any better than the Santa Barbara Independent, when they said the movie…

…manages to wow with its story-line while simultaneously mesmerize with its cinematography”

Two thumbs up. And it is available in digital format as well as physical DVD.

There are other movies out there, but I haven’t seen them. There’s a movie out there about Captain Matthew Webb, first person to swim the English Channel. Fittingly it is called Captain Webb. I have not seen it as I can’t get online access to it here in Russia. Maybe I’ll watch it when next in the U.S.

Another I want to watch when I get access to it is Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story, about the teenager who in 1954 became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. Her story is incredible and should be known among all marathon swimmers. Her story is also a great story for young girls, and one I shared with my daughters.

USMS destroying open water swimming

The U.S. Masters Swimming organization is now meeting in Dallas for their convention. One of the proposed amendments (link pdf…go to page 179) to the USMS rule book was contrary to the tradition of open water swimming:

303.3.2 Swimmers may receive the following assistance from any escort craft:
A. Food or drink may be passed from escort craft to swimmer as long as deliberate contact is not made between the two.

303.3.3 Swimmers shall not receive the following assistance from any escort craft:
A. Swimmers shall not receive flotation or propulsion forward progress from any escort craft nor make intentional contact with any craft.

Those strike-outs are significant. What that means now is that swimmers can rest by holding onto a support craft (boat, kayak, SUP) during USMS-sanctioned open water events. The rationale behind these two rules’ amendments is to align them to rule 303.9.5, which has been amended in Dallas to:

A disqualification can be made only by the referee, the starter or a judge within whose jurisdiction the
infraction has been committed. Swimmers shall be disqualified if they: …
303.9.5 Receive assistance Make forward progress by pulling, pushing, or resting, or maintaining contact on physical features and/or craft on or near the course, other than the bottom near the start and finish and at specified locations. Incidental contact shall not be a basis for disqualification.

The rationale of this proposal, according to documents and a couple people present at the convention, is that it “removes resting on a stationary object as a disqualifying offense, for swimmer safety.”

There it is. “…for swimmer safety…” Because we’re all children.

Apparently, swimmers who have never swum more than 3k in training sign up for 5k and 10k swims en masse, thus they need to be protected. (In my experience, no one signs up for half or marathon swims who have never swum even half of that in open water already. Those distances are just too far for most, without training.) Because sure, resting in the middle of an hour or more-long swim event isn’t an aid to the swimmer.

The spirit of open water swimming is that the swimmer completes the distance solely under his/her own power. In fact, it is kind of a bragging point for most of us. “Yes, I swam 10k from location X to location Y. No, I didn’t get in the boat to rest. No, I didn’t hang on the side of the kayak when I got tired. I swam the entire distance without touching the bottom or holding on to anything. Yeah, I’m bad-ass.” You know, kind of like when pool swimmers complete a 500m swim. They swim 5 or 10 laps solely under their own power. Not stopping to rest on the lane lines.

In fact, the first 5k event I swam was kind of a big deal…to me. I had swum that far in a pool, but after swimming that in open water, water with currents and salt, with other competitors running into you, salt rash under the arms, well, you kinda feel invincible. I remember returning to the airport the next day, seeing a sign on the highway announcing that the next town was 5 kilometers away, thinking to myself “My God, I swam this distance yesterday.” Sure, the taxi only took 5 minutes and I took significantly longer than that. But seeing the road pass by, the hills and ground, trees and signs pass by, it cemented in my brain that I did something significant. This rule demeans all of that.

In the UK during my first 10k, they had two “comfort stations,” one at 4k and the other at 8k. They touted tea and biscuits. I thought that would be great, as I knew the water would be cold. When I got to the 4k comfort station (really just a big raft), I noticed it was surrounded by swimmers hanging off the sides, like barnacles. I thought to myself, Why would I waste minutes I could be swimming waiting for a small cup of hot tea? I can just put my head down and get done with the remaining 6k and have all the tea I want, reveling in the feeling of being done with swimming 10 whole kilometers on my own power.

No sprinter in his right mind would sign up for a 1500m pool event if he wasn’t ready to swim the entire distance. No swimmer should sign up for a 5k swim, which takes us mere mortals at least an hour and a half (closer to two hours for me), if he isn’t ready to swim for a couple hours. He should know going in that he can’t stop and rest halfway through the swim.

One delegate, a marathon swimmer, voted yes on this proposal. Her reasoning? New swimmers who enter open water events may be nervous or anxious in open water. If that person gets kicked in the face, s/he can rest on the boat to recover. Therefore, for the swimmer who has never swum in open water, s/he can now rest while the other swimmers actually swim the entire event.

Why’s that matter? Well, if you’ve ever been in open water, swimming like the wind trying your hardest to pass the swimmer in front of you (regardless of whether or not s/he is in your age group), you know that swimming in open water takes training and practice. You work your heart out to swim fast and straight. You want to complete the distance solely under your power wearing a cap, goggles and suit.

But what if one or more of the swimmers in your age group swims his or her hardest and is 100s of meters ahead of you? Why, that person can simply rest for a bit hanging on to the side of a boat. Catch his breath. Take a few minutes breather. Then start fresh. Or at least, fresher than you, who have been swimming at your race pace since starting the event.

Why not just let him wear fins? Or use a pull buoy? This is similar to giving one basketball team more time to bring the ball past half-court than the other. You know, because one team is new to basketball, and might need 60 seconds (instead of 10) to bring the ball from their end of the court to their opponent’s.

I’m reminded of an incident several years ago (2013?) where a woman got sponsors to help her pay for her English Channel swim. She planned to swim the channel for charity and did actually start. However, a few miles in she got on the boat, put on a wetsuit and fins, and “finished” the swim. In publications she touted herself as an English Channel swimmer. Um, no. You’re not. You cheated.

To their credit, one delegate proposed that the rule include a rider that a race director can state in the race rules that touching a support craft is disqualifying. That passed, thank God. Still, that is up to race directors to include in their event’s rules. And in my experience, I think many USMS events in the future will allow holding on to a boat to rest. And this is too bad, as the USMS hosts several championships every year, in distances ranging from one mile to ten. My guess is those events now will allow people to rest on boats mid-swim. Those events won’t get my money.

Pictures from Issyk Kul Swim Challenge

Lake Issyk Kul Swimming Federation doctor and observer, Olesya, sent me a batch of great photos* from the swim challenge held on 6 August 2017. Thought I’d do a post with them as many of them are perfect to show you how beautiful this lake and country are. Take a gander.

The inevitable wait for the boat

Beautiful morning on Issyk Kul
Here comes the boat!
Of course you have to warm up
Kayaker and crew meeting
Swimmers getting ready
It’s not an official federation crossing without the flag picture!
And of course the pre-swim prep
Can’t have a swim like this without a great crew!
Starting spot. Note the snow. (This is August, remember.) Didn’t I say this place is beautiful?!
The traditional arms up ready!
Look at that beautifully flat water.
Look at that view!
Miss that lake
Last guy coming in!


*All photos by the incomparable photographer Giovanni Casini.

Great weekend of swimming

Managed three days at the lake over this wonderful 3-day weekend, 9.12 kilometers. Even better was that I had company each day! Open water is definitely more fun with others.

On Saturday and Sunday I took my friend Jen back to the lake. She’s a glutton for punishment, having done three days of “boot camp” (basically CrossFit horror), which made her sore all over, and a day of pool swimming, then two days of lake swimming with me. Saturday was way colder than last week, with the water probably in the 16-17C range. But the sun was out which was nice. As usual, within a minute or so of swimming we didn’t feel the cold.

That’s our Saturday. We hung by the coast there in the south, so much so that we ran (swam?) aground at one point. I knew we were in trouble when I looked to the right and saw a fisherman about 5 meters from us standing in the water…water up to his knees. Looking at us like we just ruined his fishing. So of course I said good morning and we went on our way. By the time we headed back, he was no longer at that spot. Done or moved? No idea.

There were tons of folks out that day as it was so pretty out. As you can see above, the air temp was 21C, which is warm enough even for Russians to be out in bathing suits and bikinis sun-bathing. Even saw two people (!) in normal skimpy suits swimming! Say it isn’t so! My daughter came with so she could get a long run in, and Jen and I remembered to get a pic by the water.

Sunday the weather was crap. At least in the morning. Cloudy, windy and kind of cold, about 12-13C air temp. We both were regretting our decision to go swimming. As usual we walked in our suits from parking to the lake, getting looks along the way. And it was quite breezy. We brought sweatshirts for after.

Toe-dip thermometer, however, reported an increase in water temp since Saturday. It actually felt like it was 19-20C. Very inviting. In fact, by the time we were done, we didn’t want to get out as it was way warmer in the water than out! Anyway, Jen wanted to do at least an 1:15, so we went a little farther than Saturday. As we were turning for home, we didn’t go straight in. There were some fishermen whose lines we wanted to avoid, plus we thought we’d have to swim past our entry point to get to the full time. Turned out we’re either slow enough or misjudged our speed because as we got close to the start, we had had enough time so took a sharp turn left and swam in, as you can see below.

Sunday we spent less time gabbing and stopping for boat-watch, so our “moving time” average was 2:00 per 100 meters, which I’m very happy with for an OW practice session. I’m also getting a bit better at sighting as the summer progresses, which might help at the end of the month when we swim in Sochi.

The weather got better later in the day. But during the swim, it was cloudy and overcast. Very few people at the lake and no one without a thick jacket (Russians get cold when the air temp falls to 60F). We did manage to get a pic of ourselves in front of the “Swimming forbidden” sign.

Labor day! Jen had other plans, but Sabrina, our teammate for the upcoming 3 x 1000 in Sochi, wanted to go to the lake, so I had another partner! She is a triathlete, so I honestly figured she’d swim with a wetsuit. I was happy to see she didn’t bring one! Actually, turns out she doesn’t even have one, so that’s a good sign.

We did the same route as Jen and I on Saturday, basically. The water was a bit colder than Sunday but not that bad, maybe 18C. And the sun kept peeking out from behind the clouds, which was nice. We even had some of those MChS (Russian coast guard) boats go by, but they didn’t even care about us. Most likely that’s because I listened to them a month or so ago when they said to not swim through the middle of the lake!

Sabrina’s shoulder was giving her pains, so once we got back to the sunken houseboat, we bee-lined it straight back to the shore. On our way coming in, I stopped to let her catch up and I saw a passel of grandmas and grandpas (babushki and dedushki) with their little charges up on the shore staring at the strange people in the water. I yelled to them “good morning” and waved, and they all waved back, the kids laughing. Very sweet and very Russian. My daughter went running again today and got a picture of us swimming in. (And that’s it on pics, as I forgot again to get one of us by the lake.)

So it was a great swim-weekend. Great swim week as a matter of fact, since I swam Tuesday and Thursday as well. Not a lot distance-wise (13.8-ish km) but good in-the-water time. And since the 26th of August, 24.2km. I’ll take that!

I did not swim around Manhattan…

…I almost swam around Manhattan. Let me explain.

Yesterday I started the 20 Bridges marathon swim, an iconic swim 28.5 miles around the island of Manhattan. This swim is historical. It used to be called the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, but had to be picked up by another organization, the incredibly organized and run NY Open Water. This swim is also a part of the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming, sharing that title with the English and Catalina Channels.

The swim is not a race. Swimmers start at different times based on their average one-hour pool swim distance. My distance was in the 3600-yard range in my weird tiny Russian pool. Rondi Davies figures out your start time based on that. My start was 0715. The earliest start was 0655 and the latest was 0720. These times are all figured so that you catch the tides and swim around the island with Mother Nature’s help.

My kids, Sam and Maggie, were my crew. We met our kayaker, the incredible Agnes M., and observer, Hsi-Ling, got the requisite jump photo, and got on Paul’s boat, the All Aboard.

(Henceforth, all times and distances are estimated. I need to get back to Moscow so I can sync my Garmin and see the data.) I went out too slowly, obviously. At my second feeding (1:30) my kayaker told me I had to pick it up. So I went into overdrive…as much overdrive as I can anyway. Same thing at the second feeding (2:00). During this time, two (of two!) jet skiers came by and spoke with Agnes. Hmm…

I breath right-side only, despite preaching and sometimes practicing bilateral. Can’t help it. So for this swim, I knew I wouldn’t see anything of Manhattan, only other parts of NY and NJ. That’s fine. And this turned out to be great. If I had seen…

So at my 2:30 feed, jet skier Ed told me we had to have a talk. I had to decide whether I wanted to quit or be moved and have an assisted swim. Then he and Agnes pointed to my left side. I saw the wall she had me swimming next to, and I was very quickly moving backwards. Apparently, for some unspecified time I was making no progress. I learned later  that one of the jet skiers had told her I had 55 minutes to go 50 city blocks, and I managed only 20.

Well when they ask you if you want to quit a mere couple hours into a swim you’d been training for for months or get moved up river a bit and be disqualified (but still get to swim!), of course you respond “I’ll take the assisted swim.”  Ed and Agnes both cheered. I got on Ed’s bladder torture board on the back of his jet ski, and got on my boat, while Agnes paddled like lightning to get to bridge #5 (Ward’s Island footbridge). (I had passed bridge #4 maybe 200-300 yards earlier.)

I apologized to my observer and my boat driver. They brushed it off. I thought about asking Hsi-Ling how my stroke count was prior to getting pulled, but decided against it. I made the decision there and then that the minute I started up again in the water, I’d stick to the rules again. Just because I DQ’d and am doing assisted, doesn’t mean any other part of my swim needed to be assisted. I wouldn’t hang on to the kayak or boat or anything like that once Agnes and I started up again. When Agnes was just about ready I jumped in, peed (ah, relief) and got back to work. All negative thoughts left my brain and I just concentrated on my swim.

(When I got back to the AirBNB last night after a wonderful dinner with family (more on that below), I pulled up Google maps and did some elementary mensuration. Turns out I got pulled a little over 6 miles and then from where I restarted to the finish was a bit over 21 miles. So really what I did yesterday instead of swimming all the way around Manhattan was do two marathon swims with a ~25 minute break in between.)

The swim from here on out was, at least for a few hours, awesome. The Harlem is very thin and not so deep. I’d see a bridge coming up and then zoom, I was past it. As the river got thinner, I’d see the walls zooming by. I felt so fast. Feeds came and went. It was lovely.

I had two mantras during this (these?) swim(s): Swim to the next feed. If I ever felt blah, or wanted to quit (often), I’d just think swim to the next feed and reevaluate. Repeat.

The other mantra I’ve adapted from something David Barra, incredible marathon swimmer and founder of NY Open Water, said, and I paraphrase:

The most anyone can hope for during a marathon swim is to come to a general understanding with the body of water you’re swimming in.

So yes, your former atheist returned Catholic did, several times during difficult parts, ask for the river’s help with a push. I know the Harlem listened, wasn’t sure the Hudson did until the end, and didn’t start asking the East early enough.

After the Harlem we turned into the choppy Hudson. Very wide, with only one bridge very early on and very tall. It also went by pretty quickly, so I assumed I was still getting a push, but hard to tell with such distances. At the first feeding in the Hudson, I asked Agnes if that was bridge 19. She said nope, it’s the last one. That made me feel great! Only…I failed to remember looking at the map weeks ago. That bridge comes quickly and then there’s still something like 11 miles after that. Ugg.

The Hudson was tough. I wanted to quit several times. The water all around was slightly salty, but still too salty for my liking, and I was starting to hate the taste. I can’t say I ever got queasy like in Issyk Kul the first time, but a few times I thought “I think I’m gonna puke.” A couple times I was hoping I would puke so I could stop thinking about it. But then I’d change up my feed and hope for the best.

My feeds were water with Crystal Lite and Justin’s Nut Butters. I had also brought along small bite size pepperoni and baby bell cheeses. When I asked for one of those (“Agnes” stroke stroke “pepperoni” stroke stroke) she actually smiled. I think she must have thought it odd for a swimmer to bring those types of foods!

I grabbed a pepperoni, switched to elementary backstroke, and enjoyed the tangy taste. Same, later, with the cheese. Wonderful switch from the nuts.

Agnes had me in some fast water. I’d start to view buildings over in Jersey and watch as they were first at 1 o’clock relative to me, then quickly 2 o’clock and then I’d zoom by them. I was very thankful. But suddenly she gave me the sign to swim away from her and she had me take quite the angle away. I was very confused when I saw some pilings. Wait! There’s no turn in the Hudson. What are we doing.

The NYPD boat had us get out of the middle of the Hudson because a cruise ship was backing up and departing. They pushed us to an isolated cove where some folks were learning how to kayak. Agnes got me up to date. She continued to follow my rule of not telling me how far I’ve gone or how far I’ve got, thank God. I asked her for some cheese and pepperoni. “Yeah, might as well have a picnic while we’re here.” In a few minutes (five?) the cops told us we could continue.

I knew at some point I’d see coming into my 1 o’clock Lady Liberty. Yet, at the same time, I really didn’t want to look for her. I was afraid she’d be so incredibly tiny that I’d know I still had a long way to go. Thankfully, it was so choppy I really couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to see her as the waves were blocking anything small over there. So I just stuck with the buildings abeam of me and kept stroking. One more time, who knows how long after the first time, they pulled us over again, this time for a ferry, so I ate and gabbed. More quickly we were back on it.

My crew, my kids Sam and Maggie, took tons of pictures, as did Agnes. I figured I was passing historical stuff. I didn’t want to look. I just wanted this over with. At one point, as the island curves to the left, I caught a glimpse of One World Trade Center. Pier 25, where we loaded the boats in the morning, is right there at that building. And it was still far away. Ugg. Dammit. When will this swim be done? Why not just quit?

No! So I kept stroking. At one of my later feedings I took a glance to the left, and One World Trade Center was closer, grand and tall. Thank goodness, that means I only have a little ways to go. I waved off the next two feeds and just kept going. I had enough liquids in me as I was peeing once or twice between each feed. Let me finish this!

It never seemed to end, but I knew I was close as Ed was back with his jet ski but this time smiling. I started to hear cheering and thought it was nice of those folks to cheer for the last place guy. Then I heard my sister-in-law’s whistle (incredible!) and knew it was my family. Then a horn went off, Agnes smiled and raised her paddle and I was done.

Sure enough, my family (20+ folks!) were all there, along with dozens of others wishing me well. It was awesome. I got on Ed’s bladder torture board and he took me to my boat, where I immediately emptied the rest of my bladder.

Back at Pier 25, we alighted from All Aboard, thanking Paul for his help. I thanked Hsi-Ling for her help today, and proceeded to the bathroom to change. Along the way I met another swimmer that started with me (sorry, can’t remember your name!) and his observer (Patty) and we gabbed a bit about the swim. After I was changed we went and found Agnes, running into Rondi along the way. She was telling me she was sorry about me not getting past Hell’s Gate (that should have clued me in, that name!). OMG, Rondi, not your fault! The fault was all mine! You were amazing!

Agnes gave me back all my stuff, we hugged many times, got pictures (no jumpography, this time), and promised to stay in touch. (I can 100% recommend her for anyone doing this, or any other NYOW swim.)

The kids and I took a taxi down to Pier A where my family all were waiting for me. Felt great to see them all, get and give hugs and kisses (we’re a very touchy family…Italians) and then proceed to the Pier A Harbor House to try and find room for 21 people to eat. We found 3 tables that covered 16 of us. The table next to mine had two men at it with beer. I offered to buy their next beers if they’d give the table to us. They refused the beers and said no problem, they just needed to pay their bill then they’d move to the bar. What wonderful people New Yorkers are!

We ordered and ate. I hardly tasted my tuna burger. For the first time ever I was unable to finish a Brooklyn Brewery beer (Summer Ale). I think it was the salty water, but my voice was like I’d been shouting all day and nothing tasted right, especially that beer.

We finished up, my family and I started the 2.3 mile (according to Google) walk to the house, and the rest of the family went to their rentals up by Times Square. I agreed to the walk when my sister told me “You’re only staying a mile from here.” About 15 minutes into the walk, when I still didn’t recognize anything, I asked my sister-in-law, “This is a long mile.” She said, “No, we were 2.3 miles away.”  Ugg. So I can add a 2+ mile walk to my list of stuff I did that day!

All in all, great and difficult experience. My sincerest thanks to the wonderful people of NY Open Water: Dave Barra, Rondi Davies and Alex Arévalo. Thanks to Hsi-Ling Chang for observing my swim, to Paul Stone for piloting the boat, and super big hugs to Agnes Michalek for getting me around the island and through some tough spots, both physically and mentally. Finally, love, hugs and thanks to my crew-kids Sam and Maggie who didn’t mind getting up at 0400 to spend the next 14 hours with their dad, instead of seeing more of NY. I could not have done it without you all!