I Did A Swimrun
1/2 mile into the race. We are there somewhere.
They say that pushing your edge is good. They say that you should get out of your comfort zone. They say you should try new things.
I don’t know who They is, but I take They’s advice often. There are times that advice brings new and exciting experiences, you meet new and interesting people, and you see new places. There are also times when that advice can lead you to get in way over your head, when you can feel like you are overwhelmed and even drowning. Sometimes it is all of those things.
Wearing the Race Director hat at Odyssey Swimrun Casco Bay with Matt Hurley, John Stevenson, and Lars Finanger.
I am a race director for swimruns. I design courses that take racers on a journey with their partner through multiple sections of swimming and running. I forerun the courses to make sure it all works out. I put course markings out so that the racers who are running through the woods connected to each other with a bungy cord and wearing a wetsuit know where to go. I organize safety boaters to be in the proper position so that if a racer has a problem on the 12th swim of the day, help is there.
But I have never actually done a Swimrun race. As a race director, I have too much going on to participate in my own race, and there are so few Swimrun races out there, that racing for me has just never happened.
The other reason I haven’t done a swimrun race is that I am not what one would call a swimmer, and it turns out that is an important part of swimrun. I suffer from adult onset swimming. I have learned to swim for swimrun. While many of the swimrunners have been swimming since before they could walk and can easily throw down 1 minute 100’s, I am the guy in the slow lane who thinks he is in pretty good shape, but can barely make it one pool length without feeling like his lungs are going to burst.
Welcome to Otillo Swimrun Catalina Island.
Towards the end of the first running section.
Through mutual friends I connected to my teammate Chris a whole 2 weeks before the event. Here was my chance to stretch my edge and actually compete in a swimrun. We were both going to be on Catalina because both of our better halves were racing, so we figured since we were there, we may as well race. And if we were going to race, we may as well go big and race the World Series Distance. Why not stretch my edge and run 20 + miles and Swim almost 6 more miles spread between 8 running sections and 7 swimming sections?
Never mind the farthest I have swam in the last 6 months was 1 mile. Never mind that the pool I train in had a broken pump and was out of commission for 2 weeks the month before the race. While I may not be a swimrunner, I am an Adventure Racer. And Adventure Racing teaches you two things. It teaches you how to suffer, and how to persevere. These skills would come in very handy.
Chris and I met over the phone and discussed our race strategy and came up with a race plan.
Step 1: Chris tows me on all the swims
Step 2: Don’t start out too fast.
Seemed like a solid plan two weeks before the race. When we finally met in person on race morning, it still seemed like a good plan.
The actions of a loving husband.
Kelsie Pearson. The bad ass better half of Chris getting her game face on at the start.
We stuck to the plan. We didn’t start out too fast, and Chris towed me on the swims. I did help out a bit by towing him on the runs (I’m not a total mooch). As we approached the most exposed swim of the race at Parson’s Landing we were feeling good, although I was a bit nervous looking out at the 4’ - 5’ crashing waves we were about to swim in. We even caught up to Chris’s wife Kelsie and her teammate Caroline at the aid station prior to the swim.
Chris: “Kelsie you two are looking strong. What place are you in?”
Kelsie: “We are in second place. But Caroline broke her goggles. Do you have a spare pair?”
Chris: “Shit. No.”
Chris is a loving and supportive husband who understands how hard Kelsie and Caroline have been training for this race. As I found out in this moment, he is also impulsive.
Chris: “Here take mine,” he says as he pulls the goggles off his head and hands them to his bride. “Now go win this thing.”
Kelsie: “Thank you,” as she and Caroline are running down the beach toward the breaking waves.
My internal monologue during this transaction. “Shit! What just happened? We only have one pair of goggles. Do I lead now? No. I am too slow. Crap! I have to give Chris my goggles if we are ever going to finish this race.”
I peel my goggles off my head and hand them to Chris. “Well I guess you will need these.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” I say. “It is the only way.”
The sea was angry that day my friends.
As we jumped into the crashing waves I tried to get my head underwater and swim like real a swimmer. Without goggles, I couldn’t see what was coming or know when to breathe and my hand paddles were getting tangled up in the tow rope. After two, let’s call them “unsuccessful attempts at breathing”, my head came out of the water and, although I am ashamed to admit it, I straight up doggy paddled to the first buoy while Chris was towing like a mad man.
On the back stretch of this triangle shaped swim, the waves weren’t breaking as much, and I could swim a few normal strokes between getting tangled in the tow line, which I couldn’t see, and getting surprised by the wave now and again. Luckily my cough reflex was in full working order.
As we rounded the last buoy and headed into shore, the waves were now pushing us, which I thought would help. Instead, I went from being two waves behind Chris with a tow line that was so tight I could have played a C sharp chord on it. In the next instant I would be surfing a wave and crash into Chris’s feet. As the water got shallower, it got rougher. A couple waves tossed me around like a rag doll and I wouldn’t know which way was up. As my feet finally touched the rocky bottom I stood up and drunkenly staggered out of the water.
I had survived my first no goggle swim.
As we ran towards our next swim, I had a lot of thoughts going through my head.
“Only 4 miles of swimming still to go. Shit! How the hell am I going to do this? I need to find some crazy zen place. Just think calm happy thoughts. The rest of the swims won’t be so rough. You can swim by feel. Just follow the tow line. Breath easy. You got this. I am going to drown. Can I communicate with dolphins? Is being towed by a dolphin against swimrun rules? Where the hell is flipper when you need him? How the hell am I going to get through 4 more miles of swimming?”
The Hale Mary.
Not Chris and me, but a taut tow line none the less.
Making our way through a scout camp, I can see the next swim ahead. Luckily there is also an aid station just before the swim.
I throw the Hale Mary. “Is there any chance you have a spare pair of goggles?”
“I think we might.” chirps the eager volunteer as she walked back to an old shed near the water’s edge.
Am I that lucky? Do they actually have goggles?
My heart leapt as she came walking back with not one, but four pairs of old swim goggles in her hand. I have seldom seen something so beautiful as those sand encrusted vintage goggles. I grabbed a pair and they fit. Cue angelic choir. I couldn’t really see out of them, but they were a hell of a lot better than nothing.
I thanked the volunteer for her help and for saving my life.
We headed back into the water, Chris leading with the tow line stretched taut between us, and me with a renewed appreciation for the simple things in life, like goggles. Now they may have been full of sand and looking out of them was like looking into a fogged up bathroom mirror, but I could make out large objects like the shoreline and Chris’s feet and not hit them. It was amazing.
The Finish Line is a cruel mistress.
The finish line, and if you look at the bottom right corner of the frame there is a bit of a road. That marks the end of the second to last swim. What a tease.
Through some twist of fate or a sadistic streak within the race directors, you emerge from the second to last swim (not the last swim mind you) within 50 yards of the finish line (45.72 meters for our international audience). You can not only see the finish, but you can see the cheering crowds, you can make out your friends and family and adoring fans all awaiting your arrival. And you can smell the finish line food. You are enticed by the wafting aromas of grilling burgers. You can see the burgers grilling with the intermittent burst of flame as that delicious grease drips into the fire. You can even hear the distinctive hiss of beer cans opening and it beckons like the Sirens calling out too Odysseus. And yet despite these temptations of the flesh, and despite 5 hours of non-stop racing so far, we must go on. We must leave this false idol of a finish line behind and quest onward for the real finish. Our true destiny.
Turns out that real finish was still an hour of hard racing away. But after another run and another long swim that was into the wind, into the waves, and uphill both ways, we emerge from the ocean the final time. Two other teams were in the water near us or just ahead of us on the beach. None of them would beat us. This was our moment. Our chance to shine. Leg cramps be damned. We charged down that beach like a couple wetsuit wearing, hand paddle carrying, pull buoy towing, Baywatch Lifeguards. And as we crossed the finish line just under 6 hours after we had started, and well back from Kelsie, Caroline, and Chris’s goggles, we had succeeded. We had pushed our limits. We had gone to new places. We had new and exciting experiences. We had swimrun. Swimran. Swimrunned. Whatever the past tense of swimrun is, we did that.
Coming across the line. My goggles look pretty good on Chris.