Race Report: Little Red Lighthouse Swim (New York, NY)

After a summer of so many rural lake swims, a big urban 10K was a perfect capstone for the 2010 open water season. The Little Red Lighthouse Swim, organized by NYC Swim in the Hudson River along the west shore of Manhattan Island, was exactly what I needed. Finishing times from previous years seemed to indicate that it swam more like 5-6 kilometers.

Two days before the race we got an email indicating that the course had been moved 25 blocks up the Hudson, and would now run between the 79th St and Dyckman, near the top of the island. This adjustment allowed for a more standard distance of 10K, but even better, a climactic pass-under of the George Washington Bridge just before the finish.

Swimmers gathered in the pre-dawn at the Boat Basin Cafe provided comfortable and architecturally interesting shelter as we waited for the race briefing.

I arrived earlier than most and spent a few minutes on the footpath below to take in some scenery. Even from 5 miles away, the bridge was a striking feature of the horizon:

Looking up the mighty Hudson

Looking up the mighty Hudson

In a typical looped 10K it can be tough to grasp, in a visual sense, how far you’re actually swimming. The picture above captures the moment this finally “clicked” for me. And to think: Once we made the bridge, we still had more than a mile to go!

Shortly after Morty’s presentation we checked our bags (to be transported via moving truck to the finish) and lined up along the footpath. The first (slowest) wave of swimmers marched down the dock to cheers of encouragement. Subsequent waves (2-7) were set off about 5 minutes apart.

Instructions were fairly simple: From the start at the edge of the dock, get out into the river ASAP to find the current. Aim left of the blue sailboat a couple hundred yards upriver, and then keep left of the big orange buoys all the way up to the bridge. This would keep us in the middle of the river but slightly on the Manhattan side. At the bridge (which was visible the entire swim, even from water level) we would turn right and follow the final buoys into the finish at the Inwood Canoe Club.

By the time I reached the blue sailboat just upriver from the start, I was 25 yards ahead of the rest of my wave (#6 of 7). Although I had no one to swim with, there were 200+ folks ahead of me from earlier waves. The course was reasonably easy to navigate - the buoys were large and the bridge was enormous - but all the bright swim caps provided semi-useful intermediate sighting markers.

The current was strong, and got stronger throughout the swim. Near the end it was almost like bodysurfing. The bridge - a huge, 8-lane span - which for an hour seemed never to get closer, came and went in just a few seconds.

I managed to pass (in some cases, dodge) every single person from Waves 1-5, I think except for one. A few minutes before the finish, Harry Stephenson from Wave 7 caught and passed me.

The finish

The finish

I ended up 5th overall, behind Stephenson and three others from Wave 7. Though I suspected it beforehand, it’s clear in retrospect that I’d have been better off in Wave 7. It’s always easier to swim fast with people of similar speed, who can push you and provide drafting opportunities. I also found out later that the flood tide had maxed out about an hour after I finished. In other words, Wave 7 had about 6 extra minutes of increasing current.

So it goes!

The final few swimmers coming in; G.W. Bridge in the background

The final few swimmers coming in; G.W. Bridge in the background

After a mercifully brief awards ceremony (cool glass plaque for 3rd overall male!) and a brief chat with new friend-of-the-blog David Barra, I was off to LGA where a plane would bring me home in time for a home-cooked dinner. A whirlwind 24 hours.

This was one of my favorite swims of the year. Impeccably organized, exciting vibe, and a spectacular point-to-point course along one of the most famous stretches of river in the world. I’ll be back.