"What can you catch in the East River?" goes the old comedy line. "A fish that comes out and says, 'You call that a hook?' "
The point is well taken—about all the rivers around Manhattan, in fact. They bathe a brash and varied city, where movers, movie stars and maniacs bid you hello in the deli. So it was fitting that when the Second Annual Manhattan Island Swimming Marathon began last Sunday, among the 28 starters was the first person to swim around Hong Kong Island, a 37-year-old Aussie named Linda McGill, who was swimming topless; Ashby Harper, who last year became the oldest person, at 65, to swim the English Channel; and a 34-year-old lawyer-turned-literary agent (Real Men Don't Eat Quiche) named Richard Marks, who was "sedentary" from 1967 to '80, then started swimming and crossed the 26-mile-wide Catalina Island Channel 18 months later.
And those weren't even the favorites. That group included Dave Horning, who won last year's race in 7:25:45, and who three weeks later got off his bike in the middle of Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon and ate a prearranged, 90-second-long catered lunch, complete with banana, water, silver, candelabra, linen tablecloth and a waiter in tails. Horning seems to operate on the theory that if he so much as brushes his teeth in the morning and there are no reporters or photographers to record the event, then he can't be said to have truly brushed his teeth. Since Hawaii, he had run the New York Marathon, in 2:54, completed six other triathlons, damaged his knee skiing and acquired acute tendinitis in his left shoulder. He wasn't in the best of shape, but then he never is. Horning would be tough to beat.
One man who would try was Harald Johnson of Santa Monica, Calif., the 35-year-old co-founder and art director of Swim Swim and Triathlon Magazine. He may have had the most dramatic story of all. Johnson hadn't been in New York City since 1953. He was five then and dressed in lederhosen. His family, immigrants from Germany, had steamed into New York Harbor on board the S.S. Neptunia. On July 8, Johnson's birthday, his mother sent him some pictures from that occasion. There was one of the Statue of Liberty. "Do you remember this?" she wrote.
"I'd never forgotten," he said before the swim. "That's why I'm here."
One week before the Manhattan race, Johnson outswam Horning and Luca Del Borgo—more on him presently—by 1½ minutes, to win a 1½-mile ocean swim off Long Island. Now, at race time, he had shaved down his body, a technique used by pool racers to trim a few milliseconds from their times. Johnson was serious. He would be tough, too.
Two days before the swim, Horning and Johnson sat eating pasta and discussing the local favorite, Del Borgo, a 20-year-old Manhattan lifeguard and freelance photographer's assistant. Johnson said, "I guarantee the winner won't be less than 30." Horning, 35 on July 27, replied, "He'll be 35 a few days after the race."
"Luca hasn't had the life experience," said Horning.
"He hasn't been through a divorce," said Johnson, who has. "You have to have one of those to win this race."
Del Borgo's best time for the 1,650, one measure of distance potential, was better than Horning's or Johnson's, but he lacked their wise-guy bluster and confidence. "I'm nervous," Del Borgo said. "People tell me I'm fast. But I've never seen some of these swimmers, so I can't compare myself."
The race began off East 96th Street at 10:30 a.m., with Del Borgo and Horning trading early leads. "It's a strange race," said Johnson's handler, Jim Curl, on the launch Full Moon. "You swim around the island to the Battery, you catch the tide right and then you sprint up the East River to the finish. But get to the Battery too soon, and you get cold and tired treading water."
All the swimmers were mindful of that. But only a few were fast enough to make it a real danger. Johnson was one of those. His stroke rate averaged a low 56 per minute, but still he was going too fast. He was swimming neck and neck with Horning, whose rate was 66.
At the George Washington Bridge, the span that crosses the Hudson River 10 miles into the race, Horning turned to Johnson and asked, "Did you ever swim here before?" "No," came the reply. "Nice, huh?" Horning said.
"He likes to break your concentration," Curl had warned, and now Curl caught Johnson's eye and pointed to the left. Johnson spun away, and a half hour later he was out front and alone.
Earlier, Johnson had warned Curl, "At some point during the swim I'll become completely disoriented because of low blood sugar." With that in mind, he had borrowed a bright red umbrella, which he opened and tied to Full Moon's transom. "I'll be able to focus on that," Johnson said.
Curl was very careful to keep the umbrella in Johnson's line of vision, but there were times when he needn't have been so careful. One came at 3:09 p.m., after Johnson had been swimming for four hours and 39 minutes. Horning had dropped out at West 79th Street with a flare-up of his tendinitis, and Del Borgo was nine minutes back, troubled with leg cramps and not long for the race, either. Johnson's only competition now seemed to be from Marks and from a Brooklyn actor named Jim O'Malley. But they were far upstream. Curl told him, "You've got a chance to break the record."
Johnson said, "All right! I feel great!" And off he went. He paused briefly to gaze at the Statue of Liberty, and he thought, as he said later, "My God, how long it's been." Then he stroked around the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan. Suddenly he was going nowhere.
Someone had miscalculated the tides there, and Johnson made little headway for nearly an hour. Meanwhile, Marks and O'Malley swept down the Hudson toward Johnson; by the time the tide had turned and Johnson had reached the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River at 4:22, his lead had been cut to 75 yards. Johnson dug harder. At 5:25, a friend, Dan Honig, called to him, "You've got 200 yards on them now."
"Write it on the board," Johnson said, and Honig wrote out the message on a white board. "He's exhausted," Honig said. "He can't think well, but he can see. The umbrella is important now."
By the East 70s the tide was moving with the swimmers at five knots, and there was only a mile to go. O'Malley had faded, and Marks was churning away at 71 strokes per minute. But Marks had "run out of river," as he said later.
Johnson sprinted to victory, in 8:15:45; Marks came in 3:59 later; and 24-year-old Julie Billingsley, a graduate student from Washington, D.C., won the women's competition in 8:33:39. McGill finished last among the women.
Marks said of Johnson, "There were some really fast swimmers in this race. We needed strength of mind and character, and Harald has both of those."
"What now?" someone asked.
"I want to get some Haagen-Daz chocolate ice cream," the winner said.