MIMS 2012 – Part 4 – The East and Harlem Rivers

Swimming past the Empire State Building

For the three people who asked for this, sorry for the delay, it’s been a busy few weeks, Stephen Redmond and Channel swimmers are far more important.

Somewhere in the East River section I saw a boat coming up on my right with an Irish Tricolour flying above the cabin. I guessed this had to be Ciarán’s wife Margaret’s innovation (as it so proved). So the third wave had certainly caught me due to the Hold at the Staten island Ferry. Nothing to be done except swim.

UN Building

We had passed a couple of river bends and within ten minutes entered a wider stretch of river aiming north toward United Nations Plaza. After passing under the United Nations buildings, the river narrowed between the west bank and Roosevelt Island, and we were squeezed northwards like wet soap between giant concrete hands, speed unabated, passing under the Queensboro Bridge, one of the last I was to recognise, and the sounds of the traffic overhead as I flipped to backstroke again, sixteen strokes before emerging back into the sunlight and forward.

The spires of midtown Manhattan, notably the Empire State and the beautiful Chrysler building, the one building in New York I had wanted to see for myself for many years, slipped away into the past and the behind.

I thought about Christopher Priest’s mind-bending novel Inverted World, where a city on rails is always moving toward the horizon, striving for The Optimum, time compressing and slowing in front of the city and diluting and speeding up in the past. I never know what book will come to me when I’m swimming, but it seems to happen like songs come to other swimmers, but almost all are welcome and never hang around annoying me like songs. Here I was, not Helward Mann, the book’s protagonist, but just a man, swimming up into the Future, my arms the rails I must pull myself along, the Optimum always in front of me, never quite catching it.

All this time a few of us seemed, from my vantage at least, to be jockeying for position. I could pas a swimmer, get ten metres on them only to see them do the same on the other side five or ten minutes later. With a long swim ahead, there was no sprinting to put clear water between us, everyone settled into their long strokes. Since we were all wearing the same fluorescent pink RCN caps, sometimes I was sure it was the same person, at other times I seemed to randomly assign a name. Was that Graham from Jersey? Am I still just behind Genevieve from Canada? Is that George? Is that Elvis?

Ciaran and boat

At around two hours we passed Gracie Mansion and entered Hell Gate, the confluence of three rivers Harlem, East and Long Island, and so named from a corruption of the Dutch (because of the shipping lost there) and now an area for the swim that would see the blazing progress begin to slow, and an area often notoriously choppy. My second feed was good again and a quick glance while I was feeding and facing backwards while kicking showed Ciarán’s boat just behind. I don’t waste time on looking where I’m going, except inadvertent fraction-of-second glances from the top of a wavelet. It’s worse than pointless as it slows the swimmer however momentarily and being long-sighted without prescription googles meant I would gain no valuable information.

Crossing Hell Gate

Hell Gate progressed slowly, but it was not the trial I’d expected, where and when I’d expected to possibly have to put the hammer down in the third hour for anything up to an hour. I had my third feed before I crossed it, my feed plan calling for larger feeds on the hour for the first two hours, then a feed after 30 minutes for the next two feeds, until three hours had elapsed, and then changing to feed every 20 minutes, reducing time spent feeding in the early stages when there wasn’t as much to be gained from it. Of course that plan had been written in cool Ireland, though I amended liquid amounts once we realised the heat would be a factor, but only increasing the volume by 50 ml for the twenty-minute feeds. Every time I looked Dee was there on the stern on the gunnals, watching, looking intent but with everything in control, calling Brian in for feed bottles, occasionally taking a photo. I wondered what Brian thought. Apart from the words shouted from South Cove, no further word had escaped my lips. I’m not a smiler when I swim (unlike Gábor). Brian gave me the bottle. I fed, I swam on. When he spoke I looked at him and nodded from behind my dark Vanquishers if I thought it necessary, which wasn’t much. Business. I must have looked like Mr. Grumpy.

During these hours I flipped between feeling good, and feeling everyone was passing me and with everything out of my control beyond turning over my stroke. It was a huge distance to have travelled in a short two hours, quite an average training distance. Bridges had passed of different heights and widths, whose names I no longer knew nor could remember their locations.

Donal in the Harlem river

The real beginning to the Harlem river is at Ward Island Bridge. As we closed on it I realised Reel Passion was slightly wide and right of the bridge’s left stanchion heading under the main span. I kept left forcing them to readjust and I passed the left stanchion within arm reach. As I exited I saw a large industrial digger out of my left eye and as I did the water quality changed like entering a sluice. It had previously been good once the first hour’s constant diesel slicks had passed but now it tasted … nasty. Evan described it as industrial, and I felt it tasted like the stale dishwater mixed with an oily tang, a failed vintage.

Minutes later, the bridge still visible behind me, the sides closer and surrounded by mundane post-industrial landscape, Ciarán’s boat appeared right behind Reel Passion and moved quickly up beside it. Crossing Hell Gate I’d caught and left a swimmer, it seemed, who had previously been ahead. I’d had a better line I’d felt, through the decisions of my kayaker and crew. Now Ciarán was doing the same to me. His boat disappeared behind Reel Passion’s outline, he was moving much faster than me.

The next feed came, now onto the twenty-minute interval feeds, and I checked and Ciaran was forty to fifty metres behind. I switched breathing doing a minute of right-side-only breathing allowing me up my rate slightly, then reverting to bilateral breathing and kept this up for some time, maybe until the next feed. It wasn’t a sprint or anywhere near it, but an increase of pressure.

And then I got confused. All the way up the east side, the Sun had been over my right shoulder, then it moved to over my left shoulder. I began to think I was approaching the sharp swing west of the river. I was wrong, and the Sun back moved again over some time. A tower appeared in the distance. I swam toward it and the river continued moving north according to the Sun, even allowing for time elapsed.

Kayaker Brian and Donal in mid Harlem, all going well

Time passed, bridges passed, many bridges. With twenty minutes feeds I lost track of the former and had no idea of the latter. I remembered reading how Evan had felt his arms starting to ache and therefore worried at three hours. I couldn’t remember where he said he was, I was guessing Spuyten Duyvil. Just thinking about it first made me worry that my shoulders would get sore. But I’d take a few prophylactic Ibuprofen before the start and everything felt fine. Then it was the thinking about it that bothered me slightly. So i stopped thinking about it.

Not actually the Vulcan Academy of Science

The field has spread, I had no swimmer within 50 metres of most of this time. Progress felt slow, by which I mean normal. Something loomed again, it turned out to be a building I immediately thought of the Vulcan Academy of Science, looming over the east bank. Brian left for his break at the Boathouse. I was surprised because I thought we’d already passed that point. Dee was preparing to feed me when he reappeared, both Brian and Reel Passion almost always on my right hand side where I’d requested them to suit my preferred breathing and better vision. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the GPS seems to shows this as being the slowest section of the race. I saw a big Target and Marshalls in a crook of the East bank and as I passed them, I was finally certain I was heading west into Spuyten Duyvil.

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