125 prepare to dive into annual Charles River race

Nancy Olesin

Hearty Hopkinton swimmer John Tummon will swim in Sunday's annual race in the Charles, a river that's like a bathtub compared to the North Atlantic off the coast of his native Ireland.

Tummon, 46, is one of 125 swimmers braving both chilly temperatures and questionable water quality in the race organized by the Charles River Swimming Club. Starting at 8 a.m., the mile-long course starts at the river dock by the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade and loops from the Harvard to Longfellow bridges.

This is just the second year for the race, organized to support efforts to clean up the river and some day make the water quality good enough for public swimming, according to Ulla Hester, a German native and triathlete who is vice president and race director for the club.

In 2006, the first year it was scheduled, the race had to be scrapped because of a toxic algae bloom, Hester said. With the water at 78 degrees last year, it was touch and go for the race, but last-minute testing showed the water was safe.

Last week, the water was 66 degrees, but the recent heat wave surely will have raised that temperature. Hester said race organizers don't anticipate water quality problems this year, but last-minute heavy rains could cause the race to be canceled.

Hester, who has raced in the Danube in Vienna, from Alcatraz to San Francisco, and in the Hudson River, has yet to swim in the Charles River. With her day job as an urban planner and as race organizer, she's too busy to participate in the race.

Although the water quality varies and concerns about elevated levels of harmful nutrients, especially phosphorous, continue, in April the EPA rated the water B++, the highest ever for the Charles, according to a press release. Members of the Charles River Swimming Club hope to facilitate the return of public river swimming, but for now it is illegal to swim in the Charles at any other time except during this race, which is for experienced open-water swimmers only.

Tummon, who usually trains by swimming about a mile (about 72 laps in a 25-yard pool) three times a week at the Boroughs Family Branch YMCA in Westborough, said last year's Charles River race was his first experience racing outdoors. In fact, he took up swimming to keep in shape just a few years ago after hurting his back playing ice hockey - a sport he took up after moving to the United States in 1990.

"I registered for the (Charles River) race with the idea just to finish," Tummon said. He finished in about 36 minutes, 15 of 22 in the over-40 men's group.

The river has no noticeable current, Tummon said, and he didn't notice any strange taste, either.

Since he was new at racing, he stayed away from the crush of swimmers last year, Tummon said, but is setting his sites higher for Sunday. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound owner of Hopkinton Allied Trades a light construction company said he intends to get in the thick of things, although a recent five-week trip back to his home in Galway has set his training schedule back.

"Last year, there was a guy who swam faster than me and he only had one leg," Tummon said.

Participation in the race, Tummon added, is a wonderful symbol for swimmers.

"Although I'm in construction, I'm not into using a lot of chemicals. I'm delighted that the river is clean enough to swim in, and to support that cause."

The MetroWest Daily News