Kevin Flynnís training for the 2004 MIMS
Swimmer: Kevin Flynn
Crew: Denice Flynn
Kayaker: Jay Stollak
Boat Captain: Dan and Jean Pearce
Observer: Tim Burke
Finish time: 8:33:36
Iíve always had a passion for anything in the water. I began swimming as a child and kept at it through college. I was certified as a Red Cross Instructor in Water Safety, First Aid, CPR, Adapted Aquatics, Sailing, and Canoeing. Since the age of 16, I dreamed of swimming the English Channel, the Mt. Everest of swimming. But college, work, family and life in general took precedence, and I had neither the time nor the money to accomplish this goal.
When I turned 35, I wrote down three midlife physical goals: to run a marathon, to bench press twice my weight, and to swim a marathon. I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in November 2000, and benched 405 lbs in April 2003. That just left the swim.
Based on several books I read, I estimated that it would take a year of training to be ready for a marathon swim. I set my sights on the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in July 2004, using the 24-mile Tampa Bay swim in April as a warm-up. I was starting from scratch, having not trained consistently for many years.
I planned out my goals for each month as to what I expected in terms of distance swims and types of workouts. In September I was doing 1 to 3 mile swims; in October, 3 to 5 mile swims; and in November, I did my first 10-mile continuous swim. During the course of these months I stopped lifting weights, as I did not want to risk injury. I just focused on swimming and used stretch band extensions on the side.
Many of the books recommended that the training consist of combinations of endurance and speed. I found I could increase my distance without pain, but if I attempted to increase speed during the same time I would have pain in my shoulders and lats. I decided that my main focus before Tampa would be to increase my endurance, and then between Tampa and Manhattan I would cut down the yardage and focus on improving my speed.
One disadvantage was that, living in New Jersey, I could not train in the open water over the winter. I had to primarily train in the pool until May. When swimming, our visual input to our brain is limited, and we only see above the water when we breath or stop. An important reason to get into the open water is to permit our minds to adjust to being beneath the surface for long periods. Swimming in a pool cannot prepare you for this. The more you can relax your mind, the better and more efficiently you can concentrate on your stroke.
I worked out in a 50 meter pool, which was good. The bad part was the water temperature, which was 83įF. Between December and March I increased my distance, swimming up to 25 hours a week and about 55K by the end of March. I could swim 8 hours non-stop in a pool keeping to a 30 minute mile. It was very boring, but it was good mental preparation. I believe endurance swimming is 30% physical and 70% mental. Itís so tempting to quit, especially when you are bored.
When I swam Tampa I kept my expectations low and reasonable since I had little open water experience. I decided I would not worry about finishing but would just attempt to go as far as I could at a constant pace. The first and most critical mistake I made was forgetting to Vaseline my armpits before my swim. For the first 4 miles of Tampa, there were good two foot swells which bashed up my shoulders. I adjusted by shortening my stroke, but kept around a 58 stroke per minute count. I made the 20-mile point, the Gandy Bridge, in 9 hours. After the Gandy I ran into a strong outgoing Tide and only went 1-1/2 miles in 3 hours. At 7:00 pm, when it was becoming dark, my wife suggested that I come out of the water. I was fine with that as I had gone farther than I had expected and I knew the Tide was still going out for several more hours.
I made a commitment after Tampa that I would complete the Manhattan swim. Since I only had 11 weeks between Tampa and Manhattan, I planned to peak my yardage at the end of 10 weeks, then take a week off and primarily stretch. I decided to increase my speed by 10%, primarily by increasing my stroke count average to 65 strokes per minute. I lowered my yardage and focused primarily on repetition pool yardage and open-water swimming workouts.
On Monday, I would do a workout consisting of a 1000 meter warm up, then 5x500m with 60 seconds between intervals, 5x400m with 50 seconds between, 5x300m with 40 seconds between, 5x200m with 30 seconds between, 5x100m with 30 seconds between, and 5x50m with 20 seconds between.
On Tuesday, I would do a warm up of 1000m, then do as many 100s on 1:45 as I could. When I became sore or tired, I did an easy 500m, starting slow and building up. Each Tuesday I would attempt to increase the number of 100s within 2 hours. At the end of the two hours I worked with the masters team for another hour and fifteen minutes.
On Wednesday, I would do a warm-up of 1000, then do as many 200s on 3:30 as I could, ending with a 500m swim when I became tired or sore. Thursday was my day off (karate with the kids), and Friday I would do several miles, one mile at a time, and try to keep a 26-27 minute pace. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings the pool opened at 6:00 am, and I would go and do straight swims of 5000m, which was easy in the morning as the mind is too tired to think. On the weekend I would train in the open water.
There are two challenges with open-water training: first, getting an escort to make sure you are safe from boat traffic, Debris, and other hazards; and second, either finding a place where you can swim circles or else arranging transportation at the end of your swim. I found that, for most of the lakes in New Jersey, swimmers are not permitted outside the small area with lifeguards. Luckily, the bays along the shore and the ocean offered an excellent opportunity to do distance swimming, although it took some planning to find places that were not overrun with boats and wave runners.
Last summer while I was in Ocean City, Maryland, I broke the first rule of ocean swimming: never swim unescorted. I was about 75 yards out, roughly a mile into my swim, when I looked towards the beach and saw a group of people along with my family. When I looked the other way I saw a big shark fin. I knew it was not a dolphin as it was not undulating. I stopped; it swam forward, turned toward me, then swam back the other way. When I got to shore I learned that someone had videotaped the whole incident, and I saw that I was actually catching up to the shark, and was only five feet away from it when I stopped.
This year I made sure never to swim alone, so I posted an email message on the Jersey Shore Sea Kayaking Association (JSSKA) seeking kayakers to escort me and several individuals offered to help. I learned that the Delaware Bay offered a good opportunity for open water swimming in a large area with little boat traffic. On the Delaware side most of the beaches are private, with little to no boat traffic or wave runners, and I did one six-mile swim there along the beach above Rehoboth.
On the New Jersey side, there are some excellent swimming locations around East Point Lighthouse; one five miles to the south and another 10 miles north at Reeds Beach. One of the important aspects of planning a swim is to check the tides and currents, most of which is available on the internet. When I did a six-mile swim with a kayaker from the JSSKA we used this information to time our turn-around for when the Tide changed direction. With another JSSKA kayaker I did a six-mile swim against the Current around Fenton Island in Atlantic City. Going against the Current took longer, but was good training.
I didnít always swim alone. I hooked up with some New Jersey swimmers training for the English Channel, and swam with them both in the ocean and at an eight-mile fundraiser for their club. One time I swam in the Great Bay with a friend from the pool. The conditions were terrible Ė rain and two foot swells Ė but we decided to swim anyway, as it would be good training for swimming in rough water; plus there were no boats around.
When I pushed myself in the warm pool my shoulders or lats would sometimes become sore. This never happened in the open water, perhaps because the colder water helps numbs the muscles. In the open water I felt that I could open up and swim as fast as I wanted forever and never become tired or fatigued. The colder the water, the faster I would want to swim to generate body heat. I trained my mind to love cold water; to know that it helped me to swim. Thanks to this mental conditioning I was able to relax in the water.
Several weeks before MIMS, I started studying the course. Using a map from the Manhattan Island Foundation, Inc. web site I first mapped out the distances between the four checkpoints:
- 10 miles from South Cove to Triborough Bridge, maximum time: 3:30
- 6 miles from Triborough Bridge to Spuyten Duyvil, total time: 5:45.
- 6 miles from Spuyten Duyvil to the 79th Street Boat Basin, total time: 7:45
- 6.5 miles down the Hudson to the finish, total time: 9:10
I combined the last two legs for my calculations. Then, using Yahoo maps, I marked each mile point and calculated the maximum time for each mile, and the time of day I needed to reach the marker at. For example, the first section was 10 miles with a maximum time of 3:30. That meant roughly 21 minutes per mile.
By reading many of the articles on the web site I calculated the average and maximum times in the past, and figured that 28.5 miles of distance would actually be about 18 miles of effort thanks to the Current. So a swimmer averaging 30 minutes/mile should take approximately 9 hours to complete the course.
Taking my average pace for continuous miles of about 27.5 minutes/mile, I recalculated the total time for the course using 8 hours and 15 minutes as my finish time. The East River estimate was trimmed from 3:30 to 3:05; the Harlem River from 2:15 to 2:05; and the Hudson leg from 3:25 to 3:05. I wrote down each mile with the new expected times on a new map for my crew so they could let me know where I was, how far I had left, and if I was on target.
Then I marked the two maps with my feeding times. I decided to take a Gatorade break at hour one and two, and after that stick to a cycle of Gatorade on the half hour and a power gel or food with a high-carb drink on the hour. My wife put the two maps in a clear plastic folder with the maps back to back so each could be seen.
We were permitted two support crew on our boat. My wife Denice was an obvious choice. She knows when to push me, can tell when I hit my breaking point, and is good in stressful situations. I asked my sister-in-law Debbie to be my second crew member. I knew Debbie and Denice would have fun together and Debbie was supportive in what I was doing, likes adventures, and likes taking pictures.
The day before the race there was a briefing on the course and safety issues where I met many of the other swimmers. Several of them liked the idea of mapping out the swim and they copied my times down so that they would know what to expect. My wife sat next to one of the kayakers who had done this several times. He gave her many ideas and was very helpful.
After the briefing there was a pasta dinner and cruise down the Hudson to the Statute of Liberty and a little up the East River. Like most of the other swimmers I was looking for landmarks to help my swim. On the cruise we met our kayaker, Jay Stollak, and we all talked about ideas and positions. Jay had not done kayaking for the Manhattan swim before, but had kayaked in the waters around Manhattan for years and knew the rivers well. I decided to stay on the Manhattan side of my kayaker the entire time. I breathe every third stroke, so I would see him every sixth stroke. We decided that he would stay about 10 feet to my right and slightly ahead. After the meeting, Denice and Debbie decided to take a walk and see the sights for several hours while I stayed in and stretched while watching TV.
We stayed at the Cosmopolitan Hotel ($149/night for a room with two beds, which is an average price for that area), about four blocks from the starting point. On Saturday morning, we got up at 5:00 am, had bagels, and got to the North Cove by about 6:00 am. I hung around with Denice and Debbie and the other crews until about 6:45, then walked to the South Cove. I chatted with the other swimmers, stretched, applied a sunscreen that would last for eight hours in the water, and rubbed Vaseline on all my contact points: armpits, upper chest and inner upper thighs.
We started at 8:05 in three waves about 2 minutes apart, swimming south along the wall at Battery Park. The Tide was slightly against us, so it seemed to take forever to get to the bottom of the island and up into the East River. It felt good when we passed under the Brooklyn Bridge. I scheduled my first Gatorade break after the Williamsburg Bridge, at the one hour point. My wife informed me that I was keeping a constant 65 stroke per minute count, which is exactly what I was attempting to do. During the second hour my lats were slightly sore on the right side, but after I slowed for a minute or two they were fine. The Current in the East River was strong and the water was flat, which helped me to reach forward as far as I could.
I reached the Harlem River and Hell Gate in two hours. I was ahead of schedule and in the middle of the pack. I had to fight the Current to get to the Triborough Bridge, but I reached it in 2:50, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I had pictured the Harlem River as dirty, since there is little Current and it is skinny compared to the East River and the Hudson. In actuality, the river was fine, even though there was little or no Current in most places.
There were many bridges, however. I believe the best way to do a distance swim is to break down the swim into small segments and to focus on one piece at a time. In the Harlem River the bridges made excellent landmarks. I would swim to one bridge, then set my mind to the next. Halfway through the Harlem, after one of my feedings, I told my wife to look up and I mooned her. She almost fell off the boat laughing. She said later that she knew then I was doing okay and would make it because I was having fun.
Near the top of the Harlem River there was a nice Current going in our direction. I reached the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge in 5:20, 9 minutes behind schedule. During most of the Harlem River my right shoulder was sore, but when I got into the Hudson I took two aspirin and the pain went away.
Itís about two miles from the top of the Hudson River to the George Washington Bridge. I was swimming against the Current for most of the two miles, but after I passed the bridge the Current seemed to be with us. From the George Washington to the finish was just 10 miles. I asked Debbie to keep me up to date with my stroke count, the time, and mileage left.
I knew the Intrepid and cruise ships were seven miles away, and I set that as my next major goal. Every half hour I would stop for a break and pick a landmark along the shore about a mile away and focus on getting there. When I was bored I would count my strokes, 1 to 100, then over again 10 or 12 times.
When we got to the Intrepid we were in the middle of the Hudson. Some Coast Guard zodiacs with machine guns mounted on their front and back were guarding the area around the Intrepid. They raced out to push us further across the river. Around that time there was a large barge heading up the Hudson. One of the race officials was screaming to our boat to get to the Manhattan side and my crew was yelling at me to sprint to the side. Then the barge turned towards the Manhattan side and my crew turned me around and had me sprint back to the middle. We would never have made it across. My crew was pretty shaken up by the experience but I just pointed towards the end and pushed hard.
From the Lincoln Tunnel to the finish was three miles. I was feeling much stronger and could see several swimmers within a mile of me, so I decided to turn up the speed and forgo any more feedings.
When I reached the wall along Battery Park City the Current was speeding us downriver, which felt great. I rounded the point into the South Cove and touched the ladder, with a final time of 8 hours, 33 minutes.. There was such a feeling of accomplishment running through my body. I wasn't tired or sore and, thanks to the Vaseline, I had no pain on any of my contact points. I got back to the water and went over to my kayaker and thanked him.
Talking to the other swimmers after the race, we all felt good about our accomplishment and we had a strong sense of camaraderie in achieving our common goal. There were several massage tables set up for the swimmers and many MIF volunteers at the finish making sure we were okay and congratulating us. My crew was cheering from the boat. Denice told me later how the boat captain, Dan Pearce, and his wife, Jean, took great pride and responsibility in watching, helping and protecting me, and how thrilled they were when I finished. Our observer, Tim Burke, also took pride in being part our adventure. He had signed up only a week before when he heard that MIF was looking for volunteers.
Even though my goal has always been to swim the English Channel, Iíve decided not to do it. Itís too expensive and itís not a practical place to take my family for vacation. Instead, Iíve set my sights on Catalina, possibly for next summer. The thought of swimming at night intrigues me. I also want to improve my stroke efficiency and get farther with each stroke.
All in all, it was a great experience. Everyone was friendly, helpful, and extremely interesting. I had a great time through all aspects of the race, and it is a memory I will always cherish. My thanks to everyone at MIF and to all of the volunteers involved for giving all of us the opportunity to make our dreams a reality.