Week 44: Not for the Faint of Heart

Finally, the time has come. The moment we have all been waiting for. Figuring out my ear infection Racing the North Carolina Swim-Run! (For those of you who actually were wondering about the ear infection, see the postscript.)

As my regular readers are probably tired of hearing by now, a swim-run is a different type of race from an aquathlon. Yes, they both involve swimming and running. But an aquathlon is much closer to a traditional triathlon format–often (but not always) a single swim and single run, competed as a solo event, using traditional triathlon gear. This means, for example, that people swim with bare feet and do not run in a wetsuit. Why am I making this distinction? Keep reading. A swim-run is a different beast. For starters, they are partner races. Teams of two (male, female, or mixed) complete the entire race together, and are not allowed to stray more than 10 meters from each other. In fact, some teams wear tethers around the waist to ensure they stick together (and this is often required during the swims, for safety reasons). Swim-run races are usually point-to-point (or a loop, in the case of NC) and teams carry their gear the entire route. This means–you guessed it!–swimming in shoes and running in a wetsuit. The races are also predominantly in wild areas, so the swims are rough and the runs are on trails.

Those are the basics. Since the sport is still new in the United States and I hope to encourage more people to participate, here are some more logistical notes. If you don’t plan on competing, feel free to skip ahead, or read and tsk tsk my crazy life choices.

Races: The best-known swim-run series is Otillo, culminating in the world championships in Sweden. Just like how Ironman (specifically World Triathlon Corporation) is a famous brand of triathlons, Otillo is a brand of swim-runs. There are plenty of non-Ironman triathlons, and there are plenty of non-Otillo swim-run races. Unlike triathlon, which has pretty standard race distances, swim-runs can vary. Starting in 2016, Otillo offers sprint and long versions of their races (usually sprint on Saturday and long on Sunday). My race in Switzerland this summer was the long version. In the United States, the sport is still quite small; Casco Bay (Maine), Richmond (Virginia), and North Carolina were all medium-distance compared to Otillo. (Casco Bay will offer short and long formats in 2017). One thing to keep in mind when picking a race is that for long Otillo races, the time cutoffs are set so as to disqualify approximately half the field. Shorter races are more generous. There is more to this topic (Otillo merit races! World Championship points!) but I’ll move on for now. Leave a comment if you’d like to learn more.

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No matter the race, fun is constant.

Gear: Even though it’s “just” swimming and running–sports that usually require so little gear, swim-run is a different beast. Logistics are a big deal, and this is where some teams can get into trouble. Gear requirements will depend on the temperature and terrain of your race, but in general, here is a good checklist:

  • Wetsuit: while you could use a regular triathlon wetsuit, swim-run suits are easier to run in (thinner neoprene on the legs), zip in front (since you will likely be zipping down the top to stay cool while running), have a built-in whistle on the zipper and pocket for a map (both are required at races), and tend to be shorter in the legs and sleeves (mine has removable sleeves, akin to neoprene arm warmers).
  • Goggles: standard open water goggles are fine. If your eyes are sensitive to sun, keep in mind you won’t be able to take sunglasses or a visor with you, so think about whether you want to try to run with tinted goggles as ersatz sunglasses.
  • Cap: the race will provide a swim cap but if the water is cold, consider a neoprene cap or headband. You will, however, always have the official race cap on the outside. You do not have to wear the cap while running; I recommend the cleavage storage method. Sorry, guys!
  • Watch: if you care about data, do your research. Some multi-sport watches (e.g. Garmin Forerunner 920 XT or 735 XT) have a multi-sport mode but it maxes out a five legs. The Garmin Fenix 3, however, is an Otillo sponsor and has a specific swim-run mode. For my race in Switzerland, I had a Garmin 620 (bike/run only) so I just recorded the run portions; for NC, I used the 735 XT and set up multisport mode to be run-swim-run-swim. I then saved and reset it for the next four legs (the race had 10 swims and 9 runs). Did it work perfectly? No, but at that point in the race, I was having too much fun to care.
  • Clothes: What to wear under the wetsuit? Both races, I wore a tri kit with a Coeur sports bra, since it has an extra pocket. The pockets in the bra and tri kit were useful for holding gels and the required first aid kit. Keep in mind that the race will give each team identical jerseys with a team number on them, and participants must wear this jersey on the outside of their uniform the entire race (yes, outside the wetsuit when swimming). So now is not the time to wear a flashy outfit, since no one will see it.
  • Socks: I wore tall compression socks and that worked quite well for keeping debris out of my shoes. I didn’t notice them while swimming.
  • Shoes: Trail shoes with good drainage, since you will be swimming in them. This can be hard to figure out in the United States, since the sport is still new and local running stores aren’t used to being asked about these features. For Switzerland, I wore my Nike Wildhorse trail runners and drilled small holes in the sole for drainage. For NC, I poured over the European blogs and ordered swim Icebug shoes online. They are fantastic for slippery and rough terrain, but don’t have a lot of cushion, so think of them as racing flats vice training shoes for long trail runs. (For what it’s worth, my partners for both races wore Inov-8 and were very pleased with them.)
  • Paddles and Buoy: Yes, you can use them! You can also use fins, but keep in mind, you have to carry everything and lots of short swims = lots of time futzing with gear. I opted for orange (extra small) Strokemaker paddles and a special swim-run buoy that attached to the belt and tether system. It may sound odd to use this gear during a race, but the buoy helps negate the weight of your shoes (and it’s hard to kick with shoes on anyway), and paddles are useful for overcoming rough currents.
  • Belt and Tether: While I’ve seen a variety of home-made solutions on this front, I am glad my first partner and I decided to go the easy route and buy a set from a European swim-run store. Each partner has a race belt with buckle enclosure on the side and a crotch strap that prevents it from riding up too high. It also has buckles on the front and back that clip to the tether–the person swimming first will clip the tether behind them, and the second swimmer (lucky duck who gets to draft) clips to the front. When the tether is not in use, it can be stuffed into a little mesh bag attached to the belt. (I found that it sometimes falls out while running, so I wadded it up and stuck it under my bra strap.) The pull buoy has a rubber band that slips around the leg and a buckle to attach to the belt. This means that while running, the buoy is located on the outside of the leg, clipped to the belt so it won’t fall down. While swimming, the buoy is unclipped and slides in between the legs. Voila! For the running sections, I also secured my goggles and paddles via the buoy clip. Yes, people could hear me clickety clack from way up the trail, but that’s better than hearing me curse about losing my goggles.
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Running mode: not quiet, but gets the job done.

Training: In addition to regular triathlon training (including plenty of trails, since ❤ ), my coach also assigned several swim-run specific workouts. Luckily, Rachel and I have the same coach and she coordinated schedules with us to ensure we could do these practices together. These workouts involved multiple runs and swims in succession, including testing out the tether and practicing running with the belts and gear. Did we look ridiculous? Of course. Did it help us prep for race day? Most definitely.

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View from the bar at race start/finish. Piece of cake, right?

The Actual Race: Now that I’ve spent over 1500 words building up to this point, let’s just say that it “11/10, will race again.” The race was extremely well-organized and thoughtful. For starters, the price was quite reasonable–$200 per team. The organizers posted all kinds of useful information to the Facebook page, including videos of various sections of the route, suggestions for gear, answering questions, helping people find partners if folks had to drop out, etc. Participants received a nice trucker hat and high-quality socks from local company Farm to Feet, as well as a discount from swim-run gear maker Orca. (Volunteers received socks and a hoodie, plus the gratitude of all participants.) Photographers were abundant (there was even a designated photo spot on top of the mountain) and we got to keep the photos for free! The race featured 10 runs and 9 swims:

  • Run up through the park, crossing several streams, wading up a creek, and climbing up and then behind a waterfall using ropes. (Yes, really.)
  • Swim across the lake. A photographer was in a canoe, wearing a super hero costume. My guess is that a lot of the people in his photos look puzzled.
  • Run most of the way back across the lake. Try not to be dizzy.
  • Swim across the corner of the lake.
  • Climb out, run along the lake, climb down a ravine (with a rope), across a creek, back up the other side of the ravine, and return to the original swim start. Receive a colored wristband to show we have done a lap.
  • Swim/run/swim/run same as before.
  • Keep running, up the mountain, including climbing 642 stairs to the top of an overlook. Be greeted by a water stop and photographer. Feel like a superstar. Head back down the mountain via different route–no stairs, but more technical footing. Try to channel inner billy goat.
  • Back to the lake for another two loops of swim/run/swim/run, receiving a band after each loop, for a total of four.
  • Run back down the mountain toward the start, but take a different trail that leads toward the river.
  • Swim down river to the finish. Stand several places because the water is shallow and there are rocks. Be thankful for the swim paddles for protecting your hands and face, as well as the polarized goggles that make it easier to spot and avoid the deeper sections of the river.
  • Exit the river, try to set gear so as to avoid tripping as you run up 20 more stairs to the finish line. High five partner.
  • Strip off the gear in the parking lot. Put on dry clothes. Stagger 50 paces to the enormous BBQ spread and free beer. Wear new hat with pride. Immediately decide to return next year.

Thank you to the organizers from Swim-Run NC for such a memorable event, Rachel for being a fantastic partner, Mary for coaching us both to a 5th place finish, LUNA for the snax, and Rose PT for keeping me healthy. Now, let the off-season begin!

Postscript: Ah, the ear infection. Long story short, it involved four doctor visits, four prescriptions, one diagnosis of “most definitely NOT a bacterial infection,” two diagnoses of “classic fungal infection,” one diagnosis of “no clue; let’s take a sample to the lab,” and a belated diagnosis of “JKLOL totally was bacterial; you should have filled the original prescription. From 24 days ago.” Yay modern medicine. But at least I can hear–and more importantly–swim again.

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View from the top. This season has had its up and downs, but the ups always prevail.
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