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Manhattan marathon swim awaits two bay area men

Chris Burke of St. Petersburg and Dr. Mark Smitherman of Clearwater are in New York City prepping for Saturday’s 28.5-mile Swim Around Manhattan.

Courtesy of Chris Burke

Chris Burke of St. Petersburg and Dr. Mark Smitherman of Clearwater are in New York City prepping for Saturday’s 28.5-mile Swim Around Manhattan.

The 28.5-mile Swim around Manhattan will be hard, but not nearly as tough as covering the length of Tampa Bay one stroke at a time.

Or at least that's what open-water swimming buddies Chris Burke and Dr. Mark Smitherman hope when they hit the water in New York on Saturday morning.

"In the 2012 Tampa Bay Marathon swim, I got stopped at Mile 18 because of lightning," said Burke, a 52-year-old contractor from St. Petersburg. "I went back the next year and finished in 12 hours, 15 minutes, which is a lot longer than what I think the swim around Manhattan will take."

Burke and Smitherman, an internal medicine specialist from Clearwater, plan to make this weekend's race the first leg of their quest to complete the triple crown of open-water swimming, which comprises the Swim around Manhattan, the 21-mile swim across the English Channel and the 20.2-mile swim across the Catalina Channel in Southern California.

"I know we can make it around Manhattan," said Burke, who trains at St. Pete Masters at North Shore Pool. "But we've been training hard because we don't want to be the last guys out of the water."

Burke was a college athlete who swam the mile at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, but didn't venture into the open water until his children were grown. "I could not have done it when my kids were young," he said. "It takes a lot of time, but fortunately my wife is very understanding and supportive."

Burke started off with the Hurricane Man Swim on Pass-A-Grille, where he does much of his open-water training, then moved on to the 12.5-mile Swim around Key West. "You just build up over time," he said.

At 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, Burke considers himself a "big guy," which helps when conditions get rough. "Just think about it. When there are waves, would you rather be in a canoe or the Queen Mary?" he said.

Smitherman, 56, was also a pool swimmer who hit the ocean looking for new challenges. "I get barraged with emails and phone calls and always have a million things in my head," he said. "Open-water swimming is the one time I can allow myself to be totally bored and think about whatever I want."

Burke and Smitherman have both seen rough water and know how to deal with the cold. They had to qualify for Saturday's race by doing a four-hour swim in 58-degree water.

"The cold is going to be their biggest challenge," said Clearwater's Ron Collins, founder of the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim and a Swim around Manhattan finisher. "They are not used to those kind of temperatures."

Burke and Smitherman can expect to hit the water early, take advantage of the incoming tide to carry them up the East River, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and north along FDR Drive. Each swimmer will have a support boat to keep other watercraft away and supply them with food and drink.

The swimmers will then pass beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, which links Brooklyn with the Lower East Side and through Hell Gate, where the tides of Long Island Sound meet the southerly flowing Harlem River and the northerly flowing East River. "These tides create whirlpools hazardous even to small boats," according to the race literature.

Once the swimmers hit the Hudson River, it's a straight shot all the way down to Battery Park where, if they are lucky, the swimmers will finish roughly nine hours and 27,000 strokes after they started.

"I've got confidence in these guys," Collins said. "If anybody is ready for it, they are. I guess you could call them both experts."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8808.

Manhattan marathon swim awaits two bay area men 06/11/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 11:33am]
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