After so much buildup and anticipation, finally writing about my race in Switzerland (two weeks afterward) seems somewhat anti-climactic. To be honest, I started writing this entry several times since July 10, couldn’t find the right words, and even debated whether to skip over it completely. But life isn’t perfect, so there’s no need for this blog entry to be. And if I can’t find the words, I’ll just use photos.
I flew to Switzerland on July 4 (arriving July 5), nearly a week before the race. While the direct flight from DC to Zurich was a breeze, it was also not the end of my journey. I then had to take three trains to St. Moritz in the southeast corner of the country. No complaints, though! I was a high school exchange student for a year in Switzerland, so the ride was basically a disjointed voiceover monologue in a mix of German and English of me squealing in delight and babbling about what adventures I’d had in each of these places. Luckily for everyone, the train was not crowded that day.
Kathrin from Conrad’s Mountain Lodge in Silvaplana picked me up at the train station and drove me the three miles to the hotel. How do I still remember the name of the person at the hotel? Not just because it’s the German equivalent of mine (though that helps), but everyone at this hotel was incredibly friendly and kind. They knew the names of all the guests, and we learned their names and home countries as well. Plus, the hotel had not only a fantastic breakfast, but also a cake and coffee/tea happy hour each day–all included in the room rate. Plus, we could borrow high-quality mountain bikes and use a public transportation pass as part of our stay. And considering the room was just about $80/person/night, this was an incredible deal.
I spent the days leading up to the race slowly getting used to the altitude, climate, and time zone. The Engadin Valley (ok, all of Switzerland) has an incredible network of hiking and biking routes, so I spent hours wandering around, trying to stick to trails near lakes and rivers to keep the terrain relatively flat and not ruin my taper.
My race partner, Meaghan, arrived from Vienna on Thursday. For those who don’t know her, Meaghan is from DC and also a member of the DC Triathlon Club. She’s living in Vienna, Austria, this year, so doing this race together was a result of “Oh hey, I should visit you in Europe! And maybe do a race together! But shipping a bike is such a hassle…ooooh look, and swim-run! And it’s a partner race so we get to socialize! Plus, the longest run is about 10k and the longest swim is 1500 meters, so we won’t get bored. This is totally doable!” Note what was missing from this logic train: total distance (about 30 miles of running and 6k swimming), altitude (4700 ft of climbing at around 7000 ft elevation), water temperature (around 55 F), and did-not-finish rate (over 50%). You can see the full stats here, courtesy of a friend who wanted to make sure we knew what we were getting ourselves into [one week before the race].
Soon, race day was almost upon us. For those of you not familiar with swim-runs, the logistics are different from regular swims, runs, triathlons, or even aquathlons. For starters, they are partner events, not relays. The team must stay within 10 m of each other, and tethers are encouraged (and sometimes required). The race comprises multiple run and swim legs (in this case nine and eight, respectively), point to point–which means you need to carry everything with you. And yes, this does mean swimming in shoes and running in a wetsuit. Having the right gear is key to swim-run success, and as the sport has grown in popularity, specialized gear has become available. For example, Meaghan wore Inov-8 shoes that are light and drain quickly (I drilled holes in the soles of my Nike Zoom Wildhorse trail shoes) and I had a specialized swim-run wetsuit that was designed for easily removing the top half (for running) and sleeves. Hand paddles, pull buoys, and even fins are allowed–as long as you carry them throughout the race. We used a snazzy belt-tether-buoy getup that allowed us to clip goggles and paddles to the outsides of our legs as we ran (noisily). Other required gear included an official Otillo swim cap and jersey (to identify participant teams), a whistle (usually part of the wetsuit zipper), a map (which we promptly lost), a compass (though apparently a Garmin counts), and a safety kit (which no one ever checked or elaborated). We also wore neoprene swim caps since the water was in the 50s–a full 30 degrees colder than the air. (If you look carefully in any race photo, you can probably spot where I stuffed the caps while running.)
Lots of logistics, right? But wait, there was more! Our wetsuits had been back ordered from the shop in Denmark, so we had them shipped directly to the hotel in Switzerland…but Meaghan’s never arrived. So on the day before the race, in a small town in a remote part of Switzerland, we were faced with tracking down a wetsuit for a niche sport. When the race organizers tweeted at us that there would be an expo, we thought we were in luck…but the tent was only had wetsuits for demonstration and sizing, not for sale. So they let Meaghan borrow one. For free. Seriously, major props to the folks at Campz/Addnature for being so flexible and understanding! Phew, finally, we were ready. There was nothing standing in our way now…
…except a lot of climbing. The first section of the race is 3.9 miles, with 1150 feet of climbing, which is basically like hiking halfway out of the Grand Canyon. We knew better than to try to run it, and wound up in a pace line of everyone else hiking up the trail at a brisk quip. Unlike most races, where people stay more or less silent and in their own heads, the partner aspect made this race quite social. There was a German couple directly behind me, and every few minutes, the man would call back to his parter, “Are you ok, honey?” (Her responses decreased in enthusiasm as we climbed.) After a mile or so, I did the same: “Hey Meaghan, how are you doing?” “Not great,” came the reply. Something we hadn’t noticed from the map was that the race started at a higher elevation than where we had been staying, and then went up from there, so about 8000 feet. We had been hiking higher than that on Friday, but higher speeds + wetsuit + acclimatization is weird meant that Meaghan was facing the classic symptoms of altitude sickness: racing heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, etc. But here we were, in the middle of a line of people trudging up a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, at the beginning of a race we had trained for since November. “Ok, let’s keep going for now and see how you feel at the swim. It can’t all be uphill!” I said. And it wasn’t all uphill…just almost all uphill. But Meaghan is a trooper. We made it to the first swim, enjoyed the clear, crisp mountain lake, and then were treated to a mostly downhill second running leg.
The optimism from the second run leg was short lived, as subsequent sections involved more and more climbing. Aid stations appeared around once every hour, and we did our best to drink up, eat the Swiss nutrition products, and stuff our pockets for the next leg. (Note for future racers: write down the distances of each leg on your paddles for reference; you will not remember them, or will remember them as shorter than reality. Note for race organizers: please including this information at aid stations, as every racer asked and no volunteers knew.) However, the altitude was taking its toll on Meaghan, who started experiencing swollen feet and light headedness. We slowed down our pace, focusing on getting to the next aid station. The fact that we were hiking up totally exposed, unshaded trails in our neoprene gear did not help matters. Luckily, Switzerland is dotted with tiny mountain towns with public fountains, so we were able to dunk our heads and cool down our hands. I had brought sunscreen in a ziplock bag (would someone please create 1 oz containers, like gel wrappers?), but we still got completely cooked.
The third swim had the added challenge of being sideways into a very powerful breeze. I’ve been in a variety of open water swims–ranging from the San Francisco Bay to the Panama Canal–and this was probably the roughest. I was very thankful for the hand paddles for making my strokes more powerful, and for the tether than ensured Meaghan and I stayed together. The following swim was just as windy, but this time, the current pushed us in the right direction. However, this being a small race with minimal environmental impact, there were no sighting buoys, just a flag at our destination across the lake. This was mostly fine, except on this particular swim, where I inadvertently sighted off a sail boarder with a sail the same color as the exit flag. (Yes, sail boarder – did I mention how windy the lake was?)
After our fourth swim, we knew we’d have to pick up the pace in order to make it to the next checkpoint before the time cutoff. So we hustled. What we did not know at this point: that the next leg was over four miles (volunteers had told us it was 2.5), it involved 1200 feet of climbing, and that the time cutoff of 1:45 PM was designed to disqualify around half the participants. (Most triathlons have very, very generous time standards.) As we were rounding the final bend toward the checkpoint, I checked my watch. 1:45. Game over. Meaghan must have checked at that moment as well, since when I turned around, she had also stopped. We hugged, cried for a bit, and soldiered on to the checkpoint. After all, we had to give them our timing chips and hopefully there would be some sort of food or drink. When we arrived, the race organizer was there to shake our hands and take the timing chips. We leaned in to hug him and Meaghan collapsed and couldn’t breathe. She recovered quickly and didn’t need an ambulance, but it just goes to show that she had been giving 100% for over six hours, and even if we had made the time cutoff, it probably would have been unwise to continue. We rested for a bit, got some snax, and headed back to the hotel.
The rest of the day was quickly rotating menagerie of emotions. Disappointment in not finishing. Eagerness to do something–anything–to attain that feeling of accomplishment I’d come for. Frustration that the race was over due to no fault of my own. Relief that nothing worse had happened, given the remoteness of location. Gratitude that we had accomplished as much as we had. Dread at having to tell friends and family that I hadn’t achieved my goal. And while I will probably always view the day as a mixed bag, a friend helped me gain some perspective when I called that night, in tears. He said that even though Meaghan and I didn’t win, we were the first place (and only) female American team. “No, you have to finish to place, and we didn’t do that!” I protested. “Not with NASCAR rules!” He replied. “Even if a car crashes at NASCAR, it still gets points and placement based on how far it got before the crash. And we’re American, so we we get to use NASCAR rules.” Not only did it make me smile, it was a good reminder that how something ends doesn’t have to determine how we view the whole experience. Did I enjoy training for this race? Yes. Did I have a blast traveling to Switzerland and eating my weight in chocolate and cheese? Of course. Was the scenery breathtaking, albeit perhaps too literally? Most definitely. Was it incredible to share this experience with a friend? Absolutely. So by that metric, we did quite well.
And yes, we are already scheming for redemption in 2017.