This incident may or may not be foreshadowing--you'll have to read on to see: Five days before the race, my SwimRun teammate Katie and I did one final short swim/run/swim. Because the "swim" part made my shoes wet, I pulled my custom orthotics out of them and, when I got home, laid them both out in the sun to dry on a flat rock, right next to our garage (as I'd done at least three times prior). I left them out overnight (as I'd done before) and woke up the next morning. Went out to grab them. Only the shoes were there.
The orthotics, as best I can guess, were carried off my a soon-to-be hibernating rodent of some kind. "I'm not surprised," said Grant, my husband, in a sympathetic tone, "They're like a salt lick." True, but losing my orthotics the day before I leave for a race? I'd rather have lost my goggles AND wet suit.
Oh, and for the record? I got my period on Thursday night. Lovely.
"I just don't know what to expect—except for an adventure." This was my standard—and very accurate—line about SwimRun USA. I've never swum (to make forward progress) in an ocean; I've never run across islands; I've never combined the two.
SWIMRUN: THE BASICS
I know I've talked about the race frequently on podcasts, but just in case you need a quick background, here you go: SwimRun is a newish event, where competitors (often as teams of two) swim/run/swim/run/swim/run, etc until the finish line. Rotation between the sports is a key point; it's not like a triathlon, in which you swim, then are done with the swim; bike, then are done with the bike; run, then are done with the race. You're constantly transitioning—and pretty much always wet—in a SwimRun race.
The event can be held on a lake, but it's most often held in and around a body of islands, which requires you to swim between the islands and then run over them. That was the case for Casco Bay in Portland, Maine, where my friend Katie Oglesby and I entered as team #COBAMRS for the short course race. (We wanted to make it kinda clear that we were from Colorado, where there is no salt water, ocean, or islands.)
SWIMRUN: THE GEAR
Let's get this part done first, since we've already hit on orthotics. Because you are regularly transitioning between running and swimming, you have to be able to streamline into both events by a) swimming in your running shoes and b) running in your wetsuit. In addition, there are certain items you must have for SwimRun—they check them at the pre-race meeting—that include a wetsuit (ocean water is coooold!); a whistle; a compass; a tether (to connect you to your partner if/when the weather is nasty or you prefer the tether); and a compression bandage.
If these mandatory items give you pause, that's a good thing. While I always felt safe, especially in the water, the conditions and the course are also competitors in SwimRun, and need to be respected as such.
Because you are wearing shoes while you're swimming, many competitor prefer to swim with paddles and a pullbuoy between their legs, which helps with flotation. (You put bungee cord through the pullbuoy so it stays attached to your leg while you run.) And because running in a wetsuit can be a bit warm, Orca has designed the SwimRun Core, a much more user-friendly suit (compared to a tri suit) featuring optional long sleeves, a front zipper, and really flexible shoulders and midsection for easy and off.
Out to dinner the night before the race, I realized I hadn't raced raced in about two years (the Twin City 10 Mile). Couple that rustiness with the knowledge that I had very little knowledge about SwimRun, and I was pretty anxious as we headed into the pre-race meeting. There were schools of super fit athletes that seemed to possess a confidence I've never felt, even when I do know about a race.
But then Lars Finegar, the race director, kicked off the meeting with a tribute to Jeff Cole, who brought the SwimRun vision to Maine after watching the Otillo World Championships in Sweden unfold online. Cole was the kind of race director who, after cancelling a race, called each team individually to explain their options. He died in early April of this year, and several friends and athletes stood up and gave tributes to Cole. One of them asked us to hug a fellow (unknown) competitior like she or he was a longlost friend. That request made the room erupt with laughter—and pretty much disappated any anxiety I had.
Then Lars gave the gender make-up of the racers, and while I didn't record the specifics, it was a pretty equal field, with lots of coed teams. It didn't have that testosterone-laed vibe many newer/more challenging races can often emit.
This year, Lars renamed the race the Cole Classic, and before we headed out, asked, during the race, us to take care of each other and soak it all up. I wasn't sure how swimming in the ocean would go for us, but team #COBAMRS definitely could do that.
SWIMRUN, CASCO BAY: THE RACE
We headed to the ferry to take us to Peaks Island, our starting line, at 5 am (3 am mountain time, for those of you playing the time conversion game at home). It was raining and cool—a big, helpful change from the weather the previous week—and the rain didn't feel like a bummer. "This is perfect SwimRun weather," Lars said before he sent us off.
On the ferry, we sat at a table and laughed with two sisters—team Twisted Sisters, who were also first-timers—about the Air B'n'B on a sailboat they had the previous night; while it saved some money, it also made them a little seasick. We arrived at Peaks Island well before the 7 am start, which gave us ample time to use the bathroom; obsess, as all good endurance athletes should, about our gear; and chat with fellow competitors. BAMRbassador Aimee Bouchard, who is also training for an Ironman with the Train Like a Mother Club, was competing with a friend; they wisely stayed on the island the night before.
As we all milled about, the creature from the Black Lagoon look suddenly became the accepted norm. When I noticed somebody didn't have a pullbuoy attached to their leg, it looked odd. The SwimRun family had enveloped us.
The race went off, and we were a flurry of yellow caps and bright jerseys down a paved road. After a mile or two, we headed into a forest preserve, and it felt like the adventure was truly beginning. Roots, rocks, bridges, logs, overhanging branches: Team #COBAMRs kind of fun. The map said the first run was going to be 2.5 miles, an updated version said it was going to be 3.2 miles; and my GPS had it at 3.6. Adventure it is.
The first swim? Not as fun as the first run—and a reality check for me. After we traversed rocks covered in seaweed, we dove in into the cold, salty water. It felt refreshing, and nice to be off our feet. We were moving well, and then two things happened at once: 1. A lead long course team, which had started an hour before us, came barreling by us (and they were kicking, which felt weird) and 2. We hit a patch of floating seaweed/kelp the size of a Ford F-150.
Suddenly there were bubbles all around me and when I turned to breathe, I had a cap and face covered in (super smelly) seaweed that I couldn't manually push off since I had on paddles. I kept swimming, like a good Dory would, but I definitely lost my rhythm.
Sighting became my main issue on the swims. The water was relatively calm, but compared to our practice ground—serene Chatfield gravel pond—it felt pretty dang turbulent to me. Everything about it was unfamiliar: the salinity; the smell (I am not a fish eater, and the smell of seafood, when I was pregnant, brought me to my nauseous knees); the random, albeit smallish, waves; the large islands of seaweed that I couldn't see (and such, couldn't avoid). Being conservative with my estimate, I averaged 2.5 gulps of sea water per swim.
"Don't let that happen again," I'd tell myself as I got another bellyfull, "Keep your mouth closed." A good strategy--except I needed an open mouth for oxygen.
Anyway, long story short: Katie grew up in Florida and is a pro at open water swimming and sighting. Even though we practiced my being the lead swimmer, she took the lead on most of our swims. Bless her--but dang her! She didn't get my mental memo to clear out the seaweed.
We had a slight mishap on our first landing; we came to shore on—you guessed it—a farm's worth of seaweed. Katie realized our mistake, and we jumped back in the water and swam some more. Finally coming to the right beach, I tried to stand up and pretty much felt drunk. Steadied myself, and saw none other than Adrienne Martini, who had volunteered for the race, standing on shore. She was suupposed to be a different spot, but jumped in when a hole opened up. Right behind her? Another BAMR: Amy WIlson, whose husband and dropped her off on their fishing boat earlier that morning. Beyond cool to see familiar faces in such a remote race.
The next run was pretty short, the next swim pretty uneventful, and the next run? Or should I say "Run"? Because it was a scramble over large, small and endless rocks around Vaile Island. "Take how long you think it'll take you to go half a mile and multiply that by five," Lars told us in the pre-race meeting.
I'll admit that I was on sensory overload during this portion of the race. I was watching my footing super carefully; I was trying to stay close to Katie (her neon jersey in my peripheral view); there was a drone filming overhead (cool but new experience); fast long-course teams were flying by us. Surreal doesn't really describe it, but it's the best I can do.
At one point, after a really big dropoff—one Katie went around but I took on because of my height—I lost my footing and slammed the left side of my torso into a rock REALLY hard. Like take-my-breath away hard. I was pretty sure I'd cracked a rib, but I was in the middle of Vaile Island in the middle of an adventure, so I stood up and took a few steps and then a few more and realized I could move forward, so I did.
The swim/run pattern continued. For better or worse, the cold water numbed things (good for my rib, not great for our hands and feet). Katie slipped on one water exit, and bloodied up her shins and hand. "If you're not bleeding, you're not racing," said Lars, as we ran past him and Katie held up her hand of carnage. The swims got a little easier, but Katie will (kindly) attest: I need to work on my sighting.
I didn't know what to expect, but now I know that's the beauty of SwimRun. It was an adventure, an experience, a chance to do something very few people get—or choose—to do.
The most beautiful thing about it—and all SwimRuns, I assume? The course forces you to be 100% present. You're not watching the time or your splits. You're not thinking about teenage drama or what's for dinner or even the finish line.
Instead, you're focused on getting as efficiently as you can to the next shore. Once you're there, you're navigating a trail through pristine scenery. Even on the paved roads? You can't help but just soak it all up: The classic island homes + lighthouses and the residents, generously letting us run through their properties and cheering us on. At one point, a dad and two small boys were out on a forest trail. One of them had an unrolled pack of Rolos (I took one), the other had a roll of cookies (Katie took one). Made my heart melt. Plus, there was a Goonies-like bike squad of about six kids pedaling all over Long Island, which was great. We never knew when they'd approach and cheer.
"If you hurry, you'll make the 12:05 ferry," one local told us as we set off on our last run. Okay, then.
I was, however, ready for the finish line when we crossed it. (Katie, rock star, could've gone for a few more hours.) My rib was super tender. I discovered this when I laughed seeing Adrienne, who snapped this shot, again at the finish line. Later, the results told us that the 15-16-mile race (everybody's GPS was a little different) took us 4 hours, 41 minutes, which landed us in 14th place out of 34 female teams, and 38th out of 86 total short course teams. (Yeah for strong female racers!)
The rain didn't look like it was stopping anytime soon, so the three of us (Adrienne, Katie + I) jumped on that 12:05 ferry. As we chugged along from island to island and eventually landed to Portland, we did laugh and recap and just pretty much marveled at our collective luck of all landing on random islands in Maine on a rainy Sunday in August.
And the foreshadowing? After chowing down a cheeseburger + cornbread, both delicious, I changed out of my shoes. I then realized that my jerry-rigged insoles, combined with the ocean sand, had rubbed both arches raw. I hadn't noticed the irritation on the course at all.