Manhattan Island Marathon Swim Relays +1 

Earlier in the summer I was in New York visiting family. While I was there I took advantage of an opportunity to see first-hand what it was like to be on a marathon swim support boat.

Originally I had no plans to attend the race, but as our trip east approached, I saw that it coincided with a new relay version of a classic swim around Manhattan. As with the annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the course takes swimmers up the East River, along the Harlem River and then down the Hudson River for a total of 28.5 miles. I placed a couple of online posts asking if anyone happened to have a spot open up on their relay. As it turned out, I was naive to think I could get in at the last minute. The spots on the relay are determined many months in advance, and other than designated alternates, no substitutions were allowed.

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In response to my postings I receive a polite note from Morty Berger explaining it was not possible to participate as a swimmer. In the alternative, he suggested that I volunteer as an Official Observer for the race. Since I wouldn't be able to get in the water, being an observer would give me a great opportunity to examine the course in preparation for my solo attempt in 2012. Moreover, receiving a personal invite from Morty was not something I could turn down.

Morty is an accomplished marathon swimmer, and in the early 1990's saw the potential of expanding access to the rivers around New York City through the rebirth of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (commonly known as MIMS). In 1993 Morty, along with a number of others, also created NYC Swim which now puts on nearly a dozen open water swims each year in the rivers around New York City. Morty works tirelessly donating hundreds of hours of his scarce personal time to ensure the success of the swims.

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The Course

The MIMS Relay +1 was a special addition of the traditional MIMS race held a month earlier. This race would be for relays only except for a special lone solo swimmer (and thus the "plus one"). More on that solo swimmer below.

My job would be easy. I would document the team's time at various points in the race, and make sure the official rules were followed. The rules included making sure they made a proper exchange by taping the leg of the existing swimmer in the water, before the next swimmer went past them. I also had to ensure that each exchange occurred in a specific predesignated time period.  

I showed up early on the day of the swim and met with the members the relay I would be observing. It was a group of triathletes with most of their members having roots in Australia. 

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Charles Nuttall-Smith, Daniel Matheson, Adrian Crockett and Stephanie Myers
with Tower 1 under construction in the background on the left.

Photograph by Bob Needham

Bringing these athletes together was their common commitment to Robin Hood, an organization that targets poverty in New York. Each is a member of the Robin Hood Endurance Team which is dedicated to fundraising for Robin Hood by competing at world-class endurance events. 

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After all the teams gathered at pier 25 to get last minute instructions, we all boarded individual boats assigned to each team. As we waited our turn on the dock it became immediately clear what a huge number of support personnel were necessary to conduct this swim. We then motored down the Hudson River to Pier A for the start. From that point the race would head around the southern tip of Manhattan, called the Battery, then northeast up the East River and under the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Lower Manhattan

Photo by Bob Needham

As we rounded the Battery, the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan loomed over the swimmers and their support boats. For me, it was a totally new perspective on New York City. From my vantage point, the rivers were a purely horizontal world, with everything on them moving to the left and right. However, the adjacent building shot straight up, and provided an entirely new dimension to the city. While New Yorkers may find this perspective unremarkable, it brought the city into better focus for me even though I have walked the canyons of Upper Manhattan a number of times.

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Brooklyn Bridge and the East River 

Photograph by Bob Needham

One of the challenges of this relay race is that all relays were to change swimmers at the same time. In the early stages of the race, this meant that when it is time for the swimmers to change, the boats can be right on top of each other. This required a good strategy and deft boat handling by the captain for the exchange.

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Our captain Mike Carone at the helm & his co-captain Stephen Cambio on the Harlem River

Photograph by Bob Needham

As we passed under the many bridges of the East River, which bring millions of people into Manhattan from the adjacent Long Island, the temperature rose. Once onto the Harlem River it grew even hotter.  All I could think of was getting into the water and swimming. However, despite the strong urge to jump in, I stood fast in my role as an Official Observer and found protection under the boat's small canopy. It then became immediately clear how tough a job it is being a member of the support crew. The weather conditions can be too hot, or too cold and a boat full of people can feel very cramped over time. Moreover, regardless of the conditions in the water, those in the boat can be mush worse.

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George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River

Photograph by Bob Needham

Once we broke free of the East River, we entered on to the grand Hudson River and headed south, passing under the majestic George Washington Bridge. The conditions were ideal. A very light wind and calm waters. However this would not last. As we traveled further south the wind picked up causing waves to crash against the bow of the boat. What had been an easy swim, became a much more difficult task. This is one of the great challenges of MIMS: the rough conditions you face in the lower Hudson. They hit you after you have already swum over 20 miles, and are daunting even for the most accomplished of marathon swimmers. It was at this point where team Robin Hood Endurance proved their mettle. Coming from the world of triathlons, they could not dedicate all their training time to swimming. Nevertheless when faced with these challenging conditions, they did some of their best swimming of the day.

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Lower Hudson River

Photograph by Bob Needham

The team finished up strong and all rightfully celebrated their great success. But you ask: what about the solo swimmer?

While this race was designated a relay race, a special spot had been reserved for Dr. Julie Bradshaw, MBE. Dr. Bradshaw is a legend in the marathon swimming world. An International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame inductee who holds 18 different world records in the sport, including a mind-boggling English Channel crossing of 14 hours and 18 minutes swimming butterfly. Butterfly is universally considered the hardest stroke to swim, and to swim a marathon butterfly is unthinkable . . . but not for Julie. On this day she was attempting to swim the entire 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island swimming butterfly.  And swim it she did, finishing in 9 hours 28 minutes and 37 seconds - only 20 minutes behind the finish of final 4 person relay. A performance to be remembered.

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Julie Bradshaw, MBE

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