Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Last Swimmer Standing in the 2 Bridges Swim

I was really looking forward to the start of the open water swim season. I had spent the past 9 months swimming mostly in a 25yd indoor pool at the New York Sports Club in White Plains. The excitment in participating in this open water swim event defied my reasoning and logic, and I signed up for the 5K swim!

We drove up the Taconic to Poughkeepsie early that morning and as soon as we arrived I realized how accurate those satellite pictures were. The water is indeed brown and almost opaque, even from a distance. I never swam in a river before. I grew up swimming in the Atlantic Ocean near the coastal city of Casablanca, so I thought a river swim wouldn't be so bad...
The race director (David Barra) presents the course map: a 2.5K oval that circles the eastern stanchions of the Mid-Hudson and Walkway Over the Hudson Bridges, 900m apart. The 5K swim consists of two loops. He mentioned that the river's current was upstream! I learned that the Hudson was in fact similar to an estuary, and thus the tide is felt all the way up to Troy (120 miles north of NYC)!

Right before the start, I set my tempo trainer: I trained really hard this past year to increase stroke rate to 1.16 down from 1.3 and am now able to sustain this pace for about 90 minutes, which to me was a real the pool that is.
When the race officially started with a horn, we all aimed towards the first buoy before making a left turn. Many swimmers started passing me at a brisk pace and I thought that they would eventually run out of steam after the first loop. What struck me at first was how brown and opaque the water was. I knew these waters were not the most exciting to swim in, but little did I know about current conditions and suspiciously warm to cold currents traveling in these waters during the swim!

As I was swimming towards stanchion 1, I noticed that all swimmers were on my left parallel to the shoreline and taking the first buoy near the first stanchion a bit wide, I found myself to the right of everyone else as I made my way towards stanchion 1. BIG mistake!
Surely, at about 30 meters from the stanchion I could finally see the buoy, but was fighting to swim towards it. I found myself stuck in an upstream current going around the stanchion and in the middle  of some sort of mini vortex.
I knew I needed to swim a bit harder to get away from it and join up with the pack, but I did not want to outpace my tempo trainer and needed to save some energy for later in the swim. I was effectively pitted and then it dawned on me - I have been in a similar situation before, a long time ago on my surfboard in the Atlantic...

It was the summer of '88~'89, Casablanca beach front pool clubs. We used to surf right behind the retaining walls when the tide was low. At high tide, the waves crashing on the granite walls made waterfalls spilling over the saltwater pools. An amazing spectacle of ocean fury crashing into man-made walls. However, if you find yourself in the water while tides change, you find yourself stuck in between the waves crashing and the wall. A few friends and I made that mistake once. I remember Karim B., Philippe L., Steve B., Omar F, Nasser F. and myself being in a bad spot where we would be fighting currents for over 30 minutes to get away from the wall and reach the beach was a lost battle and we had no choice but to get closer to the wall and climb up it with surfboard-in-hand while waves crashed us against the wall. I do not remember who climbed that wall first, but we all eventually got out. That was probably one of the scariest moments of my life, but we were back in the water the next day. Completely irresponsible, but we were young and carefree...

Boulevard de la Corniche, Casablanca

Being here in the Hudson in front of the stanchion felt like I was swimming in place forever - in reality, I do not think it lasted more than about 5 minutes, but it was just enough time to lose sight of the other swimmers and fall behind. My instinct was to increase my stroke rate and even use a brisk kick, but my tempo trainer was telling my brain to "stay calm, just pace yourself, you swim 3k/day this is nothing to be concerned about..." very bad advice. I still had 4K to go and did not want to run out of steam too early. I then decided to swim in a zig-zag fashion and it worked. I finally went around the buoy, then the next one and headed to the 900m stretch to the other bridge, current assisted.

Loop 1 completed, I now face Loop 2 to complete the swim. The same situation occured upon approach of stanchion 1, but fortunately I reacted quickly and started zig-zagging to get away from the current.

2 hours later, I was just getting out of the water and crossed the finish line when I got accosted by a woman holding a notepad, who started asking me all sort of questions regarding the swim and overall experience. I was getting interviewed for the local paper! (link to article here). That's when I realized that I was the last man out of the water after 2 hours and 49 seconds. I was quite embarrassed and angry at the same time! I didn't even deserve a hug from my faithful photographer (you know who you are).

I learned a few big lessons on that day:
1. Never pretend to jump from indoor pool swims to a 5K open water race overnight.
2. The key to a successful swim is to stay with the pack at all cost in the early stages of the race and not fall behind. You need to maintain a brisk pace until you reach a point where you can fall back to your usual pace speed.
3. I realized that I trained for the past 4 months to increase my stroke rate (from 1.3 to 1.16) at the expense of my form and SPL (my SPL stroke per length increase from a decent 16SPL to now 20SPL).   
4. Lastly, follow your instincts! The tempo trainer has proven to be a bad habit when one needs to adjust to the overall swim conditions.

That's all folks. One needs to be last once. When you hit the bottom, you know you can only do better from here!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lake George Open Water Swim AKA "Escape from Irene" August 27


The last couple of weeks leading up to the swim were disrupting, erratic and surreal at the same time. Earthquake in NYC and Hurricane Irene closing-in...

I was not able to swim for 2 whole weeks due to my back strain and the week leading up to the swim was spent in Miami for a work assignment.

I was thinking that I could at least practice a bit every day at the hotel pool or beach however swimming was out of the question due to the looming Hurricane "Irene" off the coast producing gusty winds and showers. I was due to fly back on Thursday night and was frantically attempting to get an earlier flight on Wednesday to avoid being stranded there. Except that I was not the only one with that bright idea and it was simply impossible to catch an earlier flight, so I had to wait it out.

On Tuesday the 23rd an earthquake was felt in the northeast and in NYC, my (drop-dead gorgeous) wife said that her desk was shaking for 2 minutes and some buildings in the city had been evacuated. My first thought was that I had never experienced an earthquake, but I may have to sit through a major hurricane.

On Wednesday, the forecast looked better and it seemed that Irene was heading straight to the Carolinas. I was happy that I could fly back home with no issue, no flight delays. All flights to New York City were delayed for hours, but you gotta love the smaller Westchester airport, where it was on-time and nonstop to White Plains  :)


I packed up my usual gear, including 2 wetsuits, and we drove up to Lake George where Grandma lives as we were staying with her that night - naturally. The 3 hour drive up the Taconic Parkway was filled with doomsday stories from this past week, the earthquake and Hurricane Irene with the likely scenario that it would hit NYC by Sunday! (as forecasted)

Once we arrived, we picked up pizza at Mandy's (:)) and went straight to bed. I was a bit anxious as I did not have time to practice at all in over 10 days... I signed up for the 2.5K and the 5K but was not sure that I would be able to make both events as these are back to back swims, with only 1 hour of rest in between the 2 races! The combined distance would be 7.5K and it would be my longest distance swim in a single day! My plan was to use the speedsuit for the first race then the wetsuit for the second race to take advantage of the extra buoyancy it provides.


Alarm rang, I quickly threw on my shorts and t-shirt, Grandma's coffee was already brewing since 5AM (the best coffee ever as always!). We jumped in the car and got on the road. It took about 40 minutes to travel from Lake George (the town) to Hague where the races were scheduled to take place. The drive was absolutely gorgeous as we took the coastal route along the lakeshore. It is a longer ride but well worth it.


We've finally arrived.

We were greeted by a beautiful landscape, it was overcast and the lake was calm and serene with cliffs and mountains filling the horizon as far as the eye could see. It was very reminiscent of Lake Leman in Switzerland albeit with smaller mountains in the horizon :)

Time to check in! I will enjoy the scenery later.

I made my way to the check-in booth and picked up the 2 caps, the pink one for the 2.5K race and the blue one for the 5K. I was number 35.

The 10K race that was scheduled to take place on Sunday was moved up the Saturday due to Hurricane Irene! Weather conditions were scheduled to worsen starting Saturday evening. We then decided that we would drive back down to Westchester in the afternoon to be home before the Hurricane.

I escaped Florida but it seemed that Irene was about to get me after all! :)

Race Maps

I ran into Terry, the TI headcoach (again :) I knew he would be there along with other TI colleagues), we had a nice chat regarding open water sighting and strategy for this swim but I digress...The race director started outlining the course, it would be counter-clockwise. We need to keep buoys to our left. Turn left at yellow buoys and use the orange buoys for sighting. 1 loop is 2.5K so the second race consists of 2 loops.
We're all looking at the lake trying to figure out where the buoys were, I knew that sighting would be an issue for me especially since I breath unilaterally to my right side.

We now had only 10 minutes to get ready for the race, I started gearing up by putting on my speedsuit, getting my goggles out of the bag, spare goggles ready and my tempo trainer that I would set before getting in the water.

Lo and behold! the tempo trainer starts beeping then stops after a few seconds, it is dead! I just had to swim without it...


I am wearing my speedsuit for the 2.5K race, walking towards the water, the race starts by the floater about 30 meters from the shore.

The water is about waist deep over there.

Anticipation levels are very high at this point and we are all waiting for the whistle to start the race. A few short chats with fellow swimmers have confirmed that the buoys are very difficult to see from a distance.

8:00 AND....GO!

I just started following the swimmers in front of me, I passed a few swimmers fairly quickly and the first thing that I noticed was how clear the water was. You can see maybe 5 to 6 feet deep and this makes it easier to follow the swimmer in front of you. What a difference between this and the opaque water of the Long Island Sound!

...Just like a flock of birds in the distance!

The pack in the distance, this is when we start spreading. I am not sure how fast my pace was at this point but I believe I was swimming at around SR 1.3.

Water was very calm, I was maintaining my pace and trying to locate the buoys at the same time, taking a breath on my right side at every 4 strokes and lifting my goggles to sight the buoys at every 4 breaths (or 16 strokes). I kept drifting to the right and then veering to the left on purpose to make up for it but it did not help much. The paddlers had to help me navigate a couple of times during each of the 1200m stretches...
I had a mouthful of water every once in a while due to wake produced by nearby speedboats. To my surprise the water was fresh and drinkable :) probably safer than tap water!

Picture above: from the kayaker's vantage point the buoys are easily noticeable, but when you're fully immersed they are not easy to locate at all.

At the first left turn I took note of a home in the distance along the shore and used it as a target to help me navigate. I then just cycled through my usual focal points grip/arm extension/flick and weight shifts until the finish line...


While walking towards the finish line a fellow swimmer was right behind me, I told him that I was going completely off-course a couple of times and he replied : "I know! I was following you!" :)

My time was 55mn, very average considering that I average 3K in 50 minutes at the indoor pool. But nevertheless good. I felt upbeat and ready for the 5K race that would start in less than 45 minutes.


I had my full wetsuit on for the second race as I was concerned about cramping and preferred to remain cautious. There is no need to risk another injury - I am having too much fun!

It was more of the same during the second race except that my sighting was probably a bit better.

At the end of the first loop you could stop, rest a bit if you wish, get some fresh water off the platform, however if you actually "touch" the platform you are immediately eliminated from the race.


My time for the 5K race was 1h53mn


I was not really prepared for these swims since I never had 2 races on the same day. Furthermore less than an hour rest in between didn't seem to be enough time to recover.

I was a bit disoriented at first because I was not carrying a tempo trainer, as I usually rely on it to maintain my pace. It took me about 10 minutes to finally adjust, all I had to do was repeat the sequence of my usual focal points... I also have to work on improving my sighting skills in open water - I was way way off course a few times and had to be escorted back by the paddlers...These navigation issues occured during the 5K as well. I feel bad for the swimmers who were following me.

Overall this was a great event and I managed to complete the 2.5K in 55mn and the 5K in 1h53mn, not too thrilled about these results but to my big surprise my pace was VERY consistent. My tempo was almost identical between the two races! All this without using the tempo trainer!!!

I am really looking forward to future open water swims, too bad the season is almost over...

What a week! No tempo trainer, but consistent pace throughout both races, 7.5K total swim in 1 day, NYC Earthquake and Hurricane Irene...and another mission accomplished!

For the 2011 Results, visit

Monday, August 15, 2011

Betsy Owens Memorial Swims - Mirror Lake - August 13th 2011

This was supposed to be the best swim event of the season and I was really looking forward to participate in it. Everything was planned properly however I underestimated the time necessary to recuparate after a swim event, I went back to the pool for a 3K only 2 days after my long distance 4-Mile swim.

That same evening I lifted a deck umbrella with its stand and it pulled a muscle in my back! It wasn't too bad initially but a couple of days later I couldn't even lie down in bed horizontally and had to sleep sitting on the couch.

I never experienced this before in my life and hope that it will never occur again :) My doctor prescribed some heavy duty painkillers to get me through this and I was even ready to get up at 4AM and drive up that same morning for the didn't happen.

Lesson learned.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

4-Mile Long Island Sound Swim

I decided to help raise money and awareness for cancer research by participating in a 4-mile swim across Long Island Sound a couple months ago. I had never participated in such a long open water swim before and was really looking forward to this. The fundraiser was a huge success thanks to the help and support of friends and family here and overseas...

The Big Day starts with a sounding bedside table alarm. I rose at 5am and dawn was just breaking...Kira was already showered and ready to go :) . I brushed my teeth, put on my swimmee, slipped on my shorts, t-shirt, hat, and was out the door in 10 minutes with the gear I set out the night prior: duffle bag with speedsuit, towel, spare swimmee, swedish goggles+spare, diving belt (to carry spare goggles), swim caps, camera, and additional checks I received by mail from various donors :) Their support gave me extra karma for the day - I could not disappoint anybody – not today, not for the cause and not ever…

It was very calm outside and it took us less than 15 minutes to arrive at the Larchmont Yacht Club. We left plenty of room for error in order to ensure my check-in before the mandatory swimmers' meeting on shore at 7am. As soon as we parked the phone rang, some last minute cheers from my family in Casablanca.

I was not at all nervous about the swim. I knew the distance would not be a factor since it takes me about 1 hour to swim between 3000 and 3500 meters - what I had been swimming on a daily basis for the past 14 months, albeit in indoor pools. The Greenwich Point Swim I did a few weeks ago increased my confidence in open water swimming. I always loved salt water and the extra buoyancy it provides.

We found our way to the large tent where volunteers were checking in hundreds of swimmers for the one- and four-mile events. (The six-mile swimmers already checked-in a whole hour earlier, and were probably already across the Sound to their starting point)

After a mandatory interview with an official (Dave Z) during which I had to give him some information on my training and mainly assure him that I could swim one mile in less than 30 minutes, he cleared me for check in. I asked him about water temperature and he said about 70F, I thought to myself "awesome, excellent! No wetsuit - I'll just wear the speedsuit!" I signed the waiver and my arms as well as the pink swim cap were marked "137". Officially registered, I made my way to the breakfast buffet for some coffee and banana and just waited and waited and waited…

The harbor was peaceful and still. It was going to be a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. To my right, you could get a glimpse of nearby Manhattan and Long Island was standing straight ahead looking back at us.

More swimmers arrived in various shapes and sizes from all ages. Many swam as teams with team names on banners and t-shirts. There were roughly 1,000 signed up for the one-mile event, and 200 of us entered in the four-mile event. Six swimmers were doing six miles. Many swimmers were wearing full wetsuits, maybe they know something I don't, underwater cold currents? Jellyfish? I hope not!

The meeting commenced by the flagpole at around 7:25. All swimmers gathered around on the lawn to listen to the race director. It was not a race, we were reminded. I was extremely calm, I knew that I had to pace myself – all along I was thinking about my little buddy the Tempo Trainer, the constant beep-beep-beep would help me stay focused. Should I set it at 1.40? too slow? How about 1.35…nooo let's do 1.38. I'll decide before jumping off the boat anyway.

We were told that the course had changed this year and that we would have large yellow buoys  lining the course to our right and 100 yards apart large red buoys to our left. A giant balloon hoisted high above the Larchmont Shore Club marked our beach finish line. Kayakers would be present to assist anyone in distress. 

At around 7:45, we were told to go to the docks to board one of the yachts for a roughly 20-minute ride over to Sands Point. I boarded a yacht that was occupied mostly by high-school or college kids along with a few older people. They looked so young to me now, they seemed very cheerful and happy to do the swim. Everyone on the boat mostly seemed to know each other. At some point one of the swimmers realized that his wetsuit was inside-out. It took him literally about 20 minutes to take it off and put it back on, a group had to help him get out of this heavy suit. It was very entertaining and everyone had a good laugh. I was looking back at the balloon over the Shore Club getting smaller and smaller as we were approaching our starting point.

The boat slowed to an idle off the coast of Long Island and we awaited the start. Apparently we were delayed because we were waiting for the 6 mile swimmers to pass us by. Swimmers were now busy greasing themselves up with vaseline and sticks. I put on my cap, goggles, checked my spare goggles strapped to my diving belt, and started fiddling around with the Tempo Trainer, 1.38? 1.37? ok Let's do 1.38. I put it under my cap and I was ready.

Kayakers were idling around the yachts and we waited, the start was delayed by another 20 minutes. Beep, beep, beep, the Tempo Trainer was on the whole time. Then we hear cheers from other boats as they could finally see the 6 mile swimmers approach. Only 2 out of 6 passed by our boat and one of them, a former Olympian I presume, had powerful leg propulsion. I was thinking about my TI training principle and about how much energy is being wasted! Let's not forget that they were only 2 miles into the race, I wondered whether he could really keep it up for another 4 miles.
Suddenly, at around 8:34am the signal came and people were jumping into the water. I jumped in feet first with a hand over my swedish goggles, I did not wish to lose them. I submerged and immediately started swimming. I would not stop until I got to shore.

The water was pretty clean, but I could not see more than a foot underwater. The water was much darker than the Greenwich Point swim. At least there was no seaweed, no jellyfish, no garbage bags, no brown sludge or oil.

I felt good, peeked out to aim for the first buoy afar and then Beep-Stroke-Beep-Stroke-Beep-Stroke-Beep-Stroke-Breath-and…REPEAT….

After a few minutes I peeked again and started avoiding the other bodies around me that seemed to be changing direction erratically. The big red buoys to my left and the yellow ones to my right were easy to see and I knew that I was on course. I couldn't believe how easy it was. I gulped a few mouthfuls of salt water but that's to be expected it's the ocean after all. Besides, salt water is good for my sinuses.
I tried to peek up at every 5th breath or 20th stroke, to simulate my 25 yard pool practice sets. A few chops and waves mid-course were starting to disrupt my stroke but I had no trouble re-adjusting my tempo…I wish I could stop and re-adjust the Tempo Trainer to a faster pace, but let's not be presumptuous - I still have at least another hour to go.

About mid race, I heard a "Hey" from a kayaker who was following me, I stopped and looked up and said "yeah? " she replied "just 2 miles to go"…I was happy to get this feedback but wasn't thrilled to have to stop to hear it. This happened a few times during the course with different kayakers, I think the most annoying ones were the "You're doing great!...." I decided to ignore them for the rest of the course, it worked out pretty well.

A few minutes after the 2 mile marker I started to navigate through a areas congested with swimmers. Other than that, it was a straight shot home. I never looked at my watch, but knew from the stiffness in my back that I was getting close when I had about a mile to go. I then started overtaking lots of swimmers with yellow caps. These were the one-mile swimmers who'd started at 9am. They were everywhere all at once and some of them were floating, not swimming. I had to weave around them and this would not stop until I reached the shore!

I was getting out of the water and walked to the beach uphill through the sand and towards the finish line.

I heard a "Congratulations…Thank you for what you did! What a great achievement!" from a safety squad member who handed me the iconic Swim Across America white towel.

I felt great but a bit sore while he walked me to the finish table to check-out. I was handed a commemorative medal and walked towards the steep cement steps. I heard a "SAAD! SAAD!...", the sweet voice of Kira, upon looking up she snapped a few photos of me then another  "HEY SAAD!", and there was my dear friend Majid who came along with the kids, Kenzy and Leila…It was great to see them.

I grabbed a bottle of water while walking up the steps, I immediately needed a shower. After some big hugs, pictures with my friends and fans who came out to see the race and support the cause, I ran to the locker room. While taking my shower I was thinking that I should be able to do the 6 mile swim instead of the 4 mile swim, maybe some day.

A full buffet awaited us but I was not hungry at all, I just needed some more water and maybe some bread. 

Never before had I participated in a fundraising event, it was truly a great experience. I was grateful for the opportunity to swim four miles. $1.2M was raised that day for a good cause and that's what mattered the most. Will I do it again? ABSOLUTELY.
I would like to thank EVERYONE who helped me participate in this event, I did it for you and your loved ones who we all still miss dearly.
Special thanks to: Majid Sabour (+Kenzy+Leila), Bruce and Penny Goldsmith, Roger and Tammy Goldsmith, Matthew Goldsmith, Jason Goldsmith, John Credaroli, Michele Firpo-Cappiello, Michael Lee, Mehdi and Salima El Boury, Sofia El Boury, Mama et Baba …and Kira El Boury