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Two Open Water Swims In Two Days

by Phillippe Diederich

U.S Masters swimmer Kris Rutford doesn’t mess around when it comes to open water swims. His first long swim was the English Channel in 1988. Less than a month later he swam the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon. And he’s been going ever since, swimming long open water events for 20 years.

Rutford, 50, was a swimmer in high school and college, but he had not considered going back in the pool until an old college friend, Bob Mizelle, announced he planned to run a marathon. Rutford was not going to let his friend outdo him. He said, “I think I’ll swim the English Channel.”

In the end Mizelle did not run a marathon, instead he swam the English Channel. Rutford was there and says he learned a lot from it. “Experience is a wonderful teacher,” he says. He prepared well and two years later he swam the channel himself.

This year Rutford swam two back-to-back open water events, literally: the Manhattan Island Marathon one day and the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim the next day.

The Manhattan Island swim began at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 12th. Rutford flew in from his home in Lincoln, Neb. and arrived at the start of the swim in Battery Park at 6:15 a.m. From there it was up the East River, up the Harlem River, then down the Hudson. Rutford says that when he swam the marathon as a competitor, his best time was in 1992: 5 hours and 53 minutes. Now he swims only as a participant. This year his time was eight hours and 20 minutes.

Rutford trains at his local YMCA with an informal group of eight triathletes and no coach. He swims six days a week. His typical training program for the Manhattan swim is four weeks with 35-40,000 yards, four weeks at 40-45,000 and four weeks at 50,000. For the last eight weeks he tries to do three-, four- and five-hour swims once a week. “I probably over train, but I like to be prepared,” he says.

The Manhattan swim itself is designed for everyone to get around. It takes account of the tides to make it more manageable. But Rutford likes a challenge, which is how he became the first person to do the swim around Manhattan in a clockwise direction. The swim took him almost 18 hours to complete. At one point he says, “I treaded water for eight hours waiting for the tide.”

In the 20 years since he’s been doing the Manhattan swim, Rutford says the pollution in the water has improved. Of all the rivers, he says the Harlem is the dirtiest because it’s so narrow and has more runoff. “I can’t see the watch on my wrist,” he says.

At around 4 p.m. Rutford finished the Manhattan swim. He dressed as fast as he could, said goodbye to a few friends and made his 7 p.m. train to Baltimore. Mizelle picked him up at the station at 10 p.m. and they drove to a hotel. They got up at 5 a.m. the following morning, Sunday, June 13th and arrived at Chesapeake Bay around 6:30 a.m. He began the 4.4-mile swim at 8:15 a.m. at Sandy Point State Park and finished across the bay at the sandy beach on Kent Island at 10 a.m.

Later that day Rutford and Mizelle rewarded themselves with few cold beers and a steak dinner. They were in bed by 9:00 p.m. The following morning they continued their annual tradition by fishing for croaker in the bay.

This is not the first time Rutford has found two of his favorite open waters swims scheduled on the same weekend, but he says the effort is well worth it. Swimming the Chesapeake Bay with Mizelle has been an annual tradition that’s been going on 19 years in a row. Like many U.S. Masters swimmers, Rutford says he loves swimming. “It keeps me sane and allows me to eat what I want to eat.” 

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