I’m nine weeks away from attempting to swim twice around Manhattan. The path has been less glamorous or interesting than the one I followed before many of my previous swims. The day and time of my attempt are set, the water is not cold, and the biggest challenge is swimming against the current.
Although spending a few days in New York before the attempt is better than waiting in Dover for an English Channel crossing, the preparation, in general, is the same for both swims: many miles in the water, strength training, physical conditioning, mental training, and MAT sessions.
At the beginning of the year, when we decided to postpone the Kaiwi Channel swim, Rafa and I not only restructured the order of training outings, but also the location in which they would take place. Since the swim was not going to be in the open ocean, we decided, first off, that I would only go to La Jolla at the beginning of the year and in May for my 24-hour training sessions; the other trips would be to Las Estacas and, later on, we would look for an unheated pool so that my body remained used to the cold water.
Our routine is characterized by rotation: for every four weeks of intensity training, one week of recovery. All weeks include high volumes and tough sessions on the weekends. Usually, swimmers take advantage of the weekend to do long distances. That was also my case, until Rafa took charge.
The changes he has introduced have been progressive, challenging, exciting, and very satisfying. Before I share some examples, I should clarify that I like to constantly discuss training with Rafa, make suggestions, and find ways for him to let me use paddles more often.
I will never forget the first of these changes. When we started the most intense part of my preparation for a double crossing attempt of the Catalina Channel, I suggested that we do 100 times 100 meters every 2 minutes, interspersing equipment.
“And what’s the point of that?” Rafa answered. “Sure, we’ll do 10,000 meters, but you’re going to have to learn to do several things: maintain a strong pace throughout the crossing, recover, and ultimately swim continuously at a maximum pace.”
Thus, we incorporated sessions of 10 x 1000 m. In the first eight 1000s, for example, I had to swim 600 meters at R3 and 400 meters at R2; then 10 x 75 m at R4 with 25 m of recovery; and, finally, 1000 m of maximum effort. The first time I did this workout I ended up exhausted and frustrated. When I got to the last 1000 m, I was finished after only 200 m; I’d failed to manage my effort properly. Over time, however, I learned, and today I know how to do it.
Another important innovation was to do long sessions with periods of recovery in between. In other words, instead of swimming continuously for six or eight hours, we started doing sessions with two hours of recovery for every two hours of swimming. In San Francisco or La Jolla, these sessions are very difficult when the water is cold, since it is hard to warm up or recover after returning to the water.
The harder version is the 24-hour session, which involves four hours of recovery for every four hours of swimming. On this occasion, my 24-hour training session in La Jolla coincided with a webinar hosted by the organizers of the Manhattan swim. The event was aimed at all swimmers who are going attempt to circumnavigate Manhattan this summer—once or twice. The goal was for us to get to know each other and understand the swim.
In the end, the most relevant things were that we will not be able to get the drone onto the boat; the changing of kayaks will not be uniform; I will start at 8:30 on August 10; and, in the second lap, I will have to face the current for a long time.
A few days later, while we were reviewing our plan for June, Rafa told me: “This is the last month in which we can add volume. Let’s consider volume on Thursday and Saturday. Then, let’s take advantage of the current in Las Estacas to practice and visualize that second lap.”
I accepted the idea thinking that there would be training sessions in which we would make an extra effort in some parts of the course. Looking at my training plan for this last Sunday, I identified ten short laps upstream, as well as two half laps. I understood the course, but I did not receive more information.
A more precise description reached me eventually: “We’re going to do three short laps in under nine minutes, then swim to the stairs in under twelve minutes, take a two-minute break, and then do short laps upstream once again.”
The training session sounded tough, but doable.
* * *
The day has come and I feel good. On average, I have swum the first four short laps in 8:25, and the trajectory to the stairs in 11:16. Halfway through the session, I am performing well and my level of tiredness is at 7/10.
Another lap upstream, 8:34. I already feel tired, but it’s time to negotiate the workouts of the week. Given that I finished the first laps in less than nine minutes (the goal), maybe I can convince Rafa that, if I keep it up in the remaining three laps, I’ll get to use paddles and the pull buoy in the weekly workouts.
“Rafa, if I finish the next laps in less than nine minutes, will I have earned the right to use paddles?”
“No, only if you complete two in under 8:30.”
I already feel tired; the last lap was already tough and I completed it in 8:34, so I’ll have to push myself. I think about the talk, visualize the training session I had on Thursday morning, and focus on counting my strokes as I swim.
I increase my pace and the level of pain. Rafa follows me and we complete the lap in 8:01.
“What was that?”
“I had to overcome the current.”
During recovery I think that I can beat the eight-minute barrier. It will be painful, but worth it. Before starting, I tell Rafa that this lap upstream is going to hurt.
I start swimming. After one minute I’m a few strokes ahead; halfway through, the number increases; and, in the final part, I know I’ll make it in under eight minutes—with that level of pain, there’s no other option. I stop the watch and look at the time: 7:36, a personal best.
As I finish the session, I know I’m ready. After 90 minutes of intense training, my shoulders hurt, but we focused on what we needed.
* * *
The Manhattan swim emerged out of the blue. It was just something to fill the gap this year. For weeks I didn’t feel the thrill of trying something new; the only goal was to have fun and enjoy.
However, during the recovery week after La Jolla, after finishing the first of three 1000 m laps, Rafa stood up with a smile on his face and said, “I just realized that if you complete even one lap in Manhattan, you will have finished your third Triple Crown.
Sure enough, with the English Channel crossing I completed last year and my six Catalina Channel swims, a single circumnavigation around Manhattan would give me my third Triple Crown. It’s a curious paradox: our greatest achievements are often more the result of the unexpected than of planning and goal-seeking. That, among many other things, is what’s so great about open water swimming.