2012 Manhattan Island Marathon: Part 3

CIBBOWS

Having committed to seeking out a bathing suit and goggles, I began the long walk to Coney Island. I'd like to say that it was a pleasant walk along the wide wooden boardwalk, but it was a slog in the heat. Thankfully, there were a couple of places I could grab a bit of shade to break up the walk, and a light breeze coming off of the water made it bearable. And then it occurred to me, that since I had my iPhone with me I could Google "beach store" and see what came up in the area. Thankfully, the search yielded a result, but I was surprised that there was only one and I prayed that it would have what I needed. 

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As I approached Coney Island I passed the entrance to the New York City Aquarium. I had been here once before in 2009 to participate in the Aquarium 5K open water swim. The event is put on by the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS), one of the largest open water organizations in the country. A fantastic group of people who put on a terrific race.

As with most swims, I arrived well before the start. While the sun was not up, darkness had been replaced by a soft glow. I took the opportunity to walk out onto the boardwalk. There was no one around. The adjacent beach was empty, and the businesses on the boardwalk had not yet come to life. Slowly swimmers started to show up, and it began to feel like it was going to be a great day in the water.

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Coney Island Boardwalk looking toward Brighton Beach

Photograph by Bob Needham

As swimmers gathered for the race, I was trying to get myself ready for the shock of the 60° water. I had been in water this cold before, but it was many years ago and I was not physically prepared for it. Over the prior 2 years I had been training hard for triathlons and my weight had dropped to a very light 168 lb which helped immensely on the run portion of the race. Contrast that with the 200 lb. I weighed for my Catalina Channel swim just 2 years later. The extra weight I put on for Catalina helped me with the cold water, but I was not so lucky that morning. I ordinarily do not get in the water before the race  to avoid getting cold and tightening up while waiting for the start, however, I felt it was worth the risk to help me get past the initial shock of getting in for the first time. I got in, felt the chill sink to my bones and swam to get myself warmed up and mentally adjusted to the cold water.

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Checking in for the race

Photograph by Gordon Gattsek

As I lined up for the race I stayed far to one side to avoid any collision, which could be a problem for my nagging shoulder. The last thing I need was to bang into another swimmer, hurt my shoulder and have to pull out. I looked to my right and saw the line of swimmers toed up to the water's edge, and I noticed that all of the other swimmers were crowded at the other end close to a jetty. The beach at Coney Island is lined with these jetties, sticking straight out to prevent currents from washing away the sand. At the start of this race swimmers swim straight out to a large buoy, and then turn to left to swim parallel down the beach. By my accounting I was lined up to swim the shortest distance to the buoy, and they looked like they were way off line. I should have taken it as a warning, but there was no time as the gun went off and we all charged out into the water. I was swimming comfortably and as I took a breath I could see that I was swimming abreast of the others, on a direct line to the first buoy. The others still seemed too far to right.

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The finish line with a couple of the jetties in the background

Photograph by Gordon Gattsek

The first buoy was beyond the end of the closest jetty, and as soon as we cleared the shelter of them, I immediately realized why everyone was bunched up to one side. There was a serious current running perpendicular to the shore, and it immediately started to carry me down the beach and away from the buoy. I had to swim as fast as I could, literally swimming upstream, to reach the buoy so I could make my turn around it. In the process I looked over and saw everyone else ride the current around the buoy and down the course. I should have known better than to ignore local wisdom, and would have been better served by lining up with the others. As I struggled to get around the buoy, the race left me behind.

I tried to find a comfortable pace, but my mistake at the start really threw me off. I was headed parallel to the beach but right into the sun. There were buoys marking the course along the way, but I never saw them. I just kept swimming toward the sun unsure if my line was taking me closer or further away from the beach. Along the way I swam into a few pieces of wood and debris. The organizers had warned of the presence of flotsam and jetsam and they were not kidding. Finally I saw a buoy and a kayaker waving me around the turn. There was no other swimmers in sight. I made the turn and headed back along the beach out past the protection of the buoys.

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The race was a 5K, but I was not concerned with the distance and felt comfortable in the water. While my training had focused on triathlons that year, and my time in the pool limited, I was in great shape feeling very strong in the water. Only 3 weeks before I had swum a 4K in 54 minutes. It was a swim full of triathletes and everyone was wearing wetsuits. While I don't wear one for open water races, I do for triathlons because their floatation makes you faster in the water. And while I wore one for the 4K, I was not wearing one for this 5K (even though the water was much colder). I calculated that given the extra distance and swimming without a wetsuit I might be in the water an hour and 20 minutes to complete this 5K race.

Having made the turn the sun was to my back making sighting down the course much easier so I settled into a rhythmic pace. But just as soon as I did, suddenly a group of 4 swimmers came up from behind and began to pass me. "I guess this is my race" I said to myself, and picked up my pace to match theirs. It was obvious that there was one swimmer stronger than the rest of us, so we all got behind him and swam in a tight pack to take advantage of a technique called drafting.

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Drafting in an Oregon open water race. I am in the orange cap swinging my arm high above the water.

Photograph by David Radcliff


Drafting is when one or more swimmers position themselves behind or alongside a swimmer's hip to take advantage of the wake created by the leading swimmer. It is a tremendous energy saver and allows you to swim at a speed you might not be able to swim alone. This is a perfectly legal tactic in all open water races except longer marathon swims. The lead swimmer had a tendency to veer to the left, at times significantly. I tried a few times to take a more direct path, but he was just faster than me and the others. We battled to get an advantage on one another, but none of us could take the lead away from the stronger swimmer. 

I swam as hard as I could, and the race seemed to go on forever. I lost track where I was on the course. All of my focus was on my swimming and trying to stay in position in the pack. The pace was so tough that more than once I wasn't sure I could keep it up, but if the others weren't quitting hell if I was. It was a long time coming, but I finally saw the buoy marking the far end of the course. we would need to make a 180° turn returning to the first buoy and then turn again for the finish on the beach. The lead swimmer once again was veering far left so I decided this was my chance and I sprinted directly for the turn-around buoy. One of the other swimmers followed me and swam shoulder to shoulder around the turn around buoy and back to the final buoy to turn and head into the beach. Unfortunately I misjudged how much further I had to swim, and while the stronger swimmer took a less direct line, he finished ahead of me. I never saw him pass, but then again I never saw the final buoy into the beach. I would have kept swimming if hadn’t been for a kayaker who intercepted the two of us and told us to head to the finish.


(You'd be amazed how many people have posted wrong way videos on You Tube)

I sprinted and ran up the beach to the finish line and was congratulated for just finishing. Apparently the current running parallel to the beach was so strong that on the return trip back some people could not swim fast enough to move forward. With no other choice available they swam to the beach, got out and walked back. It was as if they were on a moving sidewalk walking the wrong way, and not fast enough to move forward. Almost a third of the swimmers that started the race did not finish. No wonder it felt like it was going on forever. It was!

As you may recall I had swum a 4K in 54 minutes 3 weeks earlier. Well, this 5K swim took me one hour and 54 minutes. The current was a killer. In the end I finished 2nd in my age group. From the finishing times I believe the first and third place swimmers were both with me in that small group of swimmers battling out the full length of the course. My guess is that it was Terry Laughlin who was the strongest swimmer and seemed to veer off course regularly (sorry Terry). I had never met either of them before the awards ceremony, and the race gave us lots to talk about. As Mark said "I would have stopped if you hadn't kept swimming". That was the same thing I was thinking about the the lead swimmer (Terry) when we were swimming all out against the current. 

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Mark Block, me and Terry Laughlin in reverse order of finish in the 55 to 59 Age Group

Photograph by Gordon Gattsek

But I digress. This is a story about the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and my search for a swim suit and goggles at Coney Island. Picking up where I left off . . . .

So I continued on my death march, and found the beach store. Luckily they had a suit I could swim in, and amazingly a pair of goggles that fit me. Amazing because there are only a couple of goggles on the market that do fit me.

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Coney Island and the tower for the old Parachute Jump ride

Once I put on my suit I headed out to the water for a 2 mile swim in the warm 68° water. Perfect for my last swim before MIMS.  When I got out I felt ready for the big swim the next day, and kept telling myself: "when you head out to the start in the morning, don't forget your suit and goggles". And as you will learn in Part 4, at least I got that part of the race right.




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