Guest Post: Abby Nunn on the 2012 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

Abby Nunn has had a big couple of months. In May, she graduated from Yale University with a degree in History of Science and Medicine. A scholar-athlete in the truest sense, Abby received the Kiphuth Award for highest GPA among varsity athletes - while specializing in distance freestyle for the Lady Bulldog swimmers.

Five weeks later, Abby became the 30th champion of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

I got to know Abby through the Marathon Swimmers Forum, and have enjoyed keeping in touch as she prepared for her biggest swim yet (her previous-longest was the 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West).

One interesting bit of trivia about Abby is that she’s a 6-beat kicker - which is unusual for an ultra-distance swimmer. Back in March she asked the Forum: Is 6-beat kicking prudent for a marathon swim? Apparently, she had been advised that “trying to maintain [a 6-beat kick] for 7-8 hours is counterproductive/a waste of energy, if not impossible.”

Some Forum members agreed with this sentiment. I did not. If someone has been 6-beat kicking her entire swimming career; 6-beat kicking in training; 6-beat kicking in the 500/1000/1650 pool events; 6-beat kicking in 5km open-water races; 6-beat kicking around Key West - why would she fundamentally change her stroke for MIMS?

People are different. Human bodies are different. Therefore, it seems obvious that individual swimmers’ adaptations to water - and moving through it efficiently - will be different. 6-beat kicking for 8 hours would not be efficient for me; perhaps it wouldn’t be efficient for most marathon swimmers. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be efficient for Abby.

You know how the story ends: Abby dominated MIMS - 17 minutes ahead of second place. And she 6-beat kicked the whole way. Even at the end, she was still pulling away.

Different strokes for different folks.

Abby graciously agreed to write a guest post about her experience swimming around Manhattan. I’m honored to publish it here.

To start the morning, my uncle met me at the Doubletree Hotel we were staying at to walk me over to South Cove (slash keep me from getting lost) and keep me company until the race started. We checked in around 8:00, then hung out on a picnic bench facing the water and watched the race boats make their way to the Brooklyn Bridges. I think I also used the restroom, which was mercifully close to where we were sitting, about 10 times in the 2 hours before they lined us up. My coach and a few of my other friends also showed up to hang out with me prior to the start.

At about 9:45 I checked my bag, put on one last layer of SPF 50 (where I made the painful error of not putting my cap on before sun screening, yielding a ridiculous cap tan and a painful burn on the back of my neck), greased up, had some water and a gel, waved goodbye to my friends, and walked over to the starting line. They lined us all up on the pier by number, so as I was number 1 I was leading the line. We then proceeded to hang out on the dock for 20 minutes or so while they decided how they were going to do the entries into the water. They ended up having the people in the first waves jump in first and then working backwards. So it was sweaty and with a very full bladder that I finally jumped into the East River at around 10:25. I had been worried about the water temperature, because unlike most marathon swimmers I am a huge cold-water wimp, but an 85-degree sun and 73-74 degree water ended up being nearly ideal race conditions for me.

Jump shot. Abby w/ John Humenik. Photo by Anthony Delmundo for the NY Daily News

Jump shot. Abby w/ John Humenik. Photo by Anthony Delmundo for the NY Daily News

Before they started the last wave (and after we all finished having one last pee) the ten of us all got together for a group picture and wished each other good luck. This was a direct contrast to the last race that I did, where several dozen large men in wetsuits trampled me during the final countdown. Before I knew it, the final ten seconds had been counted down and we were off! How exciting!

Except not really. About 5 minutes later the whole race had to stop for the Staten Island Ferry to pass. This gave me a few seconds to find and have a quick in-person chat with my AWESOME kayaker, Mo, who I had only just met over the phone the night before. Then someone gave the word that we could start swimming again, but slowly. I did this for about 3 minutes, then got bored and cold with slow swimming and picked up my pace again. Since no one whacked me over the head with a paddle, I figured it was ok to carry on.

By the time the Brooklyn Bridge came into view, I had finished passing most of the swimmers who had started in the earlier waves, and I think there were only 1 or 2 kayaks in front of me. As we got closer to the bridge, I could see my support boat with my parents and boat observer waving at me. As pathetic as this probably makes me sound, seeing my mom and dad smiling at me had an incredibly calming effect, and I suddenly was much less afraid of all the boats around me. It turns out that besides having a great observer and amazing captain, I also ended up with the event marshal on my boat. Since there were not enough boats, they put him on my boat since I was the first person to the bridge so he would be at the front of the group. Thanks to him, I ended up having a large NYPD boat with a helpful blue light on the back to follow for the entire day!

As soon as I went under the Brooklyn Bridge, I had my first feed. My feed plan was 6 oz of lemon-lime Heed on the :15, :30, and :45 minutes (measured to be 50 calories each) and to have a Powergel on the hour, for a total of 250 calories/hour. Since I often miss or am unable to chug and keep down the entirety of the liquid feed in an effort to minimize the time spent feeding, I made the drink slightly more concentrated, so that factoring in mistakes and indigestion I would be sure to get at least 200/hour. My crew did an excellent job of being on time, every time, which is really good since after about 4-5 hours of swimming I become a bit of a grumpy-gills.

The first three bridges absolutely flew by! I was going along quite nicely and taking in the scenery. Mom was drawing pictures for me on the whiteboard, and pointing out sights like the UN as we went by them. Dad was videotaping the whole thing, and Moses told me that I was leading.

I was feeling great, feeling great, feeling great, and then all of a sudden I wasn’t. I don’t even think we were quite at Hell Gate yet, but for whatever reason around 12:00 I had a minor crisis of faith. I wasn’t tired, I just all of a sudden wasn’t sure I could really do it. After all, I had only been swimming for an hour and a half. I had forever to go! I have no idea what brought it on, but I spent the next 15 minutes or so questioning my ability to finish. Then I stopped for another feed, and all of a sudden I felt fine again. I don’t know if other people experience this when doing really long swims, but I found that throughout the whole race my mental state would cycle – I would get about an hour and a half of feel AWESOME and like this is what I was born to do and that I LOVED swimming, 15 minutes of kind of feeling blah, another 15 minutes of being grumpy and whiny, and then all of a sudden back to awesome again.

Eating up the miles. Photo by D. Galluzzi.

Eating up the miles. Photo by D. Galluzzi.

About the time I got out of my first round of grumpiness, we passed a huge group of spectators cheering with colorful signs, which was really encouraging. The next landmark I remember was the giant target sign. I remembered people talking about it, but I had no idea why the location of target was so important until I realized how BIG the bulls eye was. The amount of boat traffic was also much greater around this part of the river.

Then there was the Harlem. When I was hanging out with Emma before the race, she mentioned to me that the Harlem was going to be BORING. And indeed, boring it was. I was moving MUCH more slowly than I had been prior to changing rivers, and there wasn’t a whole lot to look at. Just bridge after bridge after bridge. I kept telling myself that the next bridge was the bridge before Spuytin Duyvil, but alas it never was. The Harlem was also the only place where I ran into any debris at all, one big tire near the construction site. As a side note, I was very pleasantly surprised by the water quality! The first thing most people would say when I told them I was doing MIMS was – “eww, you are going to swim in THAT water?!” So to answer all of them, “that” water was completely clear and clean, or at least what I saw of it.

There were really only 3 exciting moments in the 2.5 or so hours of Harlem. The first was the Circle Line that came by around 2:30. My dad and I took a Circle Line tour on Thursday before the race (which was VERY helpful), and made friends with our awesome tour guide Dave. When we told him about the swim, he mentioned that he was working on Saturday and promised to cheer for me when he went by. He delivered on his promise! At first the honking of the boat scared the crap out of me, but then I looked up, saw it was the Circle Line and all of the passengers on the boat clapping and waving at me. It was a welcome break in the monotony. The second exciting moment was when my aunt and uncle arrived to cheer for me near the end of the river – they were the first people I had been able to see in ages (not including kayaker and boat crew), so it was a nice reminder of all the other people who were waiting to see me finish! The last exciting part of the Hudson was the Columbia C. As a recent Yale grad, the four years I spent being told to “Crush Columbia” inspired me to pick up my pace a bit ☺

Finally, finally, we made it to Spuyten Duyvil right around 3 pm. From the water it looks more like a big green wall. If I hadn’t seen the NYPD boat pass through it in front of me, I would have been sure I was swimming into a solid wall. It had closed again by the time my boat and I got there, so my kayaker and I went under while my boat waited for a little while. I learned later that one of the swimmers had gone through Spuyten Duyvil alone – without a boat or kayak – no way would I have been that brave.

The transition from the narrow Harlem to the wide-open Hudson was immediate and rather jarring. The Hudson was a little choppier, and it just seemed so big! I was really grateful when my boat caught up to us about 10 minutes later. Multiple people had warned me that the GW Bridge is MUCH further away than it seems. I’m glad I knew this in advance; otherwise I would have gotten really frustrated. At one point, I was convinced the bridge was moving further away from me, as I would take 200 strokes or so, look up, and it would be in the EXACT same place. I think it took about 55 minutes from the time I entered the Hudson to the time I got under that silly bridge.

In retrospect, I’m really glad I didn’t know what was coming next! What I was expecting was that since the current was so strong, I would fly down the rest of the river and it would be smooth sailing to the finish. What I was NOT expecting was a massive influx of boat traffic, especially of the large nature, and the resulting 3-4 foot waves, as well as a massive leg cramp. Oh, and my Heed had gone from lukewarm to HOT and thanks to the waves I wasn’t able to keep any of it down. Not a great combination. The stretch from Riverside Park to the beginning of the piers seemed to go on forever, even though it reality it was only about an hour. Every time I felt like my leg cramp was starting to fade, another wave would smack me and the cramp would return in full force. To get through this point, I told myself to “Just keep going as hard as you can for 10 more minutes and then you can stop” over and over again for about an hour.

A little before 5:00 we went by the Intrepid, which greatly improved my mental state. I was so close to the end! I was frustrated by how long it seemed to take to get from pier to pier, but at least I was nearing the end. At my second-to-last feed, my mom told me that I only had 2.5 miles to go (you know you are a distance swimmer when…) and I was ecstatic! There were people dining and hanging out on a lot of the piers, and I got waves and cheers as I went by which was really nice.

The finish. Photo by D. Galluzzi.

The finish. Photo by D. Galluzzi.

I had actually relaxed enough to get back into my “zone” again when I saw the orange buoy. I’ve done a decent number of shorter open water races, but I have NEVER in my life been happier to see the finishing buoy. I sprinted (or at least it felt like sprinting – probably was mile pace at best) the last 2-3 minutes into the finish line and the arms of several wonderful race volunteers! The feeling of accomplishment at that moment was like nothing I have ever experienced. Considering that the fact that I was really going to do the swim hadn’t even become real in my head until this morning, the fact that it was over seemed even more surreal.

It took me a minute to get my land legs back, but besides that I felt completely fine coming out of the water. I waved to Mo in the kayak and mom, dad, and Hiroki on the boat, and then they left to go to their respective unloading points. A whole bunch of people were taking pictures, which is kind of unfortunate since I am the world’s most unphotogentic person on a good day. Morty walked me up the pier to get hosed off, and then my coach came down to give me a big hug! This was followed by a banana (needed to ease back to solid foods) and then 4 of the massage therapists helping me deck change and providing me with an amazing massage.

Overall, MIMS was an INCREDIBLE experience, and I learned a lot from it! First, training and long swims can get your body prepared to do this kind of thing, but (at least for me) there is not a way to get your brain prepared besides jumping in and doing it. Also, the success of a swim like this depends so much on having a good crew and support system to get you through. I am so grateful to my parents, kayaker Mo, captain Hiroki, coach Don, and all of my new open water friends, especially Evan, for taking care of me, answering all of my questions and getting me through training and the race itself. And a less significant lesson – make sure the back of your neck has sunscreen. I have some ugly colored burns back there constantly reminding me of this ☺ Especially given how the last two years of my swimming career had been going, I’m SO glad I got a chance to do this race and end (well I guess pause, really) on a high note. I’d love to do it again someday – although I will need a bit of time off first!

The champ. Photo by M. Calhoun

The champ. Photo by M. Calhoun