Little Red Lighthouse Swim 2014 – race report by Aaron Riley

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The “little red lighthouse”

I was given an entry to this race as a birthday present, although I must admit, I’d never heard of the swim. When I think of New York swimming, I think of the Manhattan Island race. Once I had checked that it wasn’t that same race, I didn’t think much about it until closer to the time.  I knew it was a 10km current assisted swim in a river. I’d swum in a current assisted race before- admittedly it was the Dee mile and 20 years ago, but I ignored that fact and thought I’d be fine.  The only decision left was whether to wear a wetsuit or budgie smugglers?

In my mind, the ‘little’ in the title was more to do with it being a ‘little’ swim rather than a small lighthouse.  How wrong can you be? Very, as it turned out, particularly as due to technical problems with start/finish points, the race organisers had decided to make the race a distance of 7.5 miles, instead of the usual 10km..

The trip was all planned and we had decided on travelling light which in part was a decision made for us by our beloved dog. After a training swim in the Lake District the weekend before the race, the dog decided he liked the taste of neoprene and chewed a hole through Anna’s wetsuit. Non wetsuit it would be.

As this was our main holiday for the year, we had decided on making the most of the week and picked the lovely Mr Branson to take us over to New York (not the pickle) assuming that the hassle would be taken out of the trip and we could check in and arrive in New York refreshed, de-stressed and ready to race (and sight see). All I can say is I am glad I wasn’t racing an Ironman as upon arrival in JFK airport our names were called over the tannoy to go to the Virgin travel desk in the Baggage claim hall- our baggage was still in Heathrow.

It actually worked out really well as it meant that we weren’t travelling through New York with baggage though it didn’t arrive until 10 am the next day (the day of the race).

Day of the race…

As the race didn’t start until 2pm and we didn’t need to be there to register until 1:30pm we decided to go out for a short walk around the shops and get breakfast and lunch which was a lovely way to spend a race morning rather than waking up at 4am to shovel porridge into your mouth and rack your bike in the dark.

We took our first yellow cab to get to the race start/HQ at the edge of the river just off the Manhattan waterfront greenway (path round the island).   The sun was shining and there were 250 swimmers registering and warming up just next to the water.   The format of the event was that you had to submit a qualifying swim (I used my IM swim time from the previous year) and based on the swim times swimmers are seeded into waves with the slowest wave going off first and the following waves are set off with the aim of all swimmers reaching the finish at the same time. I was seeded in the fastest wave; Anna was a few waves in front of me. There are no feed stops on the swim if you wanted to take any food or water with you; you had to carry it which in a pair of budgie smugglers isn’t the easiest thing to do. The plan was to take 2 gels with me tucked into the back of the trunks.

We had about an hour before the start line to settle down and take in the atmosphere which was really interesting/unnerving as some of the swimmers had some strange ideas with one guy covering himself from head to toe in Vaseline which isn’t a pretty sight.

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Swim safety briefing

After dropping our bags off, the first wave of swimmers were called up to the starting area for the safety briefing.

The water temperature was around 19 degrees and air temp was low to mid 20’s so we weren’t too worried about getting cold.

They called Anna’s wave and after she left, I assumed I would catch her, with the plan being to make sure she was ok on the way past. I sat for a while in the shade waiting to be called on which is possibly the worst start to a race as the nerves just keep building- at least with an IM it has started before you’ve really woken up.

Finally we were called and lined up in seed order (sounds like a garden centre) ready to be counted into the water. As safety briefings go it was short and sweet- stick to the buoys and keep swimming. They made it sound simple.

The gun went off and we were off.  As you start at Pier 96 you have to swim out into the river before turning right and head down river. At this point, for anyone who doesn’t know, it’s a bloody big river. And the buoys being positioned every half mile sounds fine when you’re on the bank but when you’re in the water you can only see the buoys from about 200m due to the waves which meant sighting was a little more difficult than I’d anticipated. With almost 50 people in the wave I figured I’d be able to draft most of the race and just sprint at the finish but once the gun went off and we tuned right people seemed to just disappear into the waves; so there went the game plan.

On the briefing the only other instruction was to keep heading for the Washington Bridge, which sounds easy but it was about 6 miles away so you are always looking at a bridge which is just not getting any closer.

I had worked out that Anna had started about 40 minutes before me so I wasn’t expecting to catch her until the end of the race if at all. So, as I swam along, I started passing people from the earlier waves and not too sure if Anna was ok, I decided I’d check any of the swimmers that were wearing her coloured hat and a female costume. Needless to say, I probably didn’t look great swimming close to only female swimmers to check to see if it was Anna, before swimming on when I realised it was not her.

I was feeling great for about 90 minutes then the arms, shoulders and back start to ache, which would probably have been a good time to stop for a gel but I just couldn’t face a gel in salt water so carried on, as I’m sure I would have brought it back up with the salt water that I was drinking.

As you swim down the river and look along the shore line you see the high-rises and Central Park all pass you by which look beautiful. As I approached the bridge, the instruction was to bank right as the flow from the other river which you cross could sweep you out across the river. It was a welcome feeling to swim in fresh water and it provided some relief from the salt water; like a fine wine after 2 hours of salt water.

At this point I figure I should be near Anna but just don’t see her so I start thinking either she’s had a blinder of a race or I’m going really slowly. So I head under the bridge and see all the people at the light house cheering you on (forget IM crowds this is more like TT crowds of 10 people, but appreciated all the same). As you pass the bridge the sun starts to go down and as you haven’t eaten for 2 hours it starts to get very cold and the muscles are really burning now, every stroke you’re worried about a muscle popping through exhaustion which is something I’ve not experienced before when swimming. The kayakers are directing you into the finish past some very expensive looking yachts. AS I approach the finish with about 200m to go I notice somebody sprinting past me, I tried my hardest to pick the pace up and figured if the arms popped then I could float to the end, but they just beat me to the finishing chute and then I realised it was a young female who had been drafting me all the way – I’d been beaten at my own game. I climbed up the chute and clambered over the timing mat and started looking around for Anna assuming she must have finished but couldn’t see her. I just managed to see her come up the finishing chute about 4 minutes after me but I still don’t know when I passed her as I never saw her. After we warmed up and got changed she proceeded to tell me that I had no chance of seeing her as she had been drafting a tanker. Luckily we decided to stay and eat at the restaurant, as I was surprised find out I had won my age group (though not the under 18 female age group).

It really was an amazing experience and a fantastic birthday present, with the added advantage that when the race was over and although I couldn’t lift my arms my legs still worked so we could sight see pain free which made a change.

It is definitely a race for the bucket list.

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