A New Maine Squeeze?

You guys, I think I’m in love. It has been a little over a year in the making, after a bit of a rough start. But then we started to sort things out and it has just been getting better from there. I’m referring, of course, to the sport of swimrun.

Casco Bay Swimrun was my third race (after Switzerland and North Carolina) and Penelope was third partner (after Meaghan and Rachel, so yes, I get around). This race takes place off the coast of Portland, Maine, between several islands in Casco Bay. There are two distances on offer: long course (five miles of swimming and 15 miles of running) and short course (two miles of swimming and 6+ miles of running, over four and five segments, respectively). We opted for the short course since it was Penelope’s first swimrun and the long course race had a very competitive application process. (It was beautiful, though!)

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Our race course.

But “short” didn’t mean it was easy.

In true Ötillö style, the Casco Bay course involves running across one island, swimming to the next one, running across it, swimming to the next, etc. (“Ötillö” is Swedish for “island to island.”) In our case, we boarded the ferry from Portland at zero dawn thirty and were transported out to Long Island. The organizers had planned on a fog delay, but the weather was surprisingly cooperative so we used the extra time to get a tour of the course and scout the swim starts and exits. This was extremely helpful, since unlike triathlons, there were no guide kayaks or sighting buoys–it was up to us to know where to go, and that’s why we were required to carry a compass and waterproof map. (“This isn’t a triathlon” was a recurring theme of the weekend.)

Eventually, they dropped us off at the harbor. We exited the ferry, handed in our morning clothes bags, and turned around to wave at the volunteers and family members on the boat when the fog horn blared. Aww, thanks for the support! Hi guys! Oh wait, that was the starting signal! Crap! In all my years of racing, that was the most confusing–and hilarious–start. Luckily, Penelope and I had our gear ready and took off at a good clip. The first run was short and fast enough to get our heart rates up and make the 55 degree water feel nearly delightful. The first swim was the longest and exactly as forewarned: strong current, hard to spot (a mini island blends in with the destination island), and holy moly saltwater + wetsuit = major neck chafing.

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Our poor necks didn’t know what was coming.

Run #2 was the longest of the day, around Peaks Island. This included going through some charming small towns with amused locals who prevented us from making wrong turns, and running through a nature preserve and getting quite lost on numerous occasions. There were some white ribbons tied to trees to mark the course. Just not a lot. We wound up getting passed by a pair of women for the first of many back and forths, but were grateful for their presence in that they were local and knew the route.

The rest of the race was mostly a blur of short swims and runs. Too short. Usually by the end of a race, I’m ready to be done, but this time, I was actually contemplating asking if I could get back in the water and go again. Except for the Fort Scammel segment of House Island. That had a lot of treacherous and sharp rocks, followed by getting lost in an eerily abandoned fort–that wasn’t our favorite, and is where the local team passed us for the final time. Sigh. Better to lose one place than multiple teeth, right? (On the bright side, we got to run across an island that isn’t open to the public–how amazing is that?!)

Similar to North Carolina, we exited the water and had to run up a flight of stairs to the finish line. Hooray!

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Note the amazing team socks. 

This race did finish line food right (albeit several hours after we finished; glad we had packed snax).

Despite being announced as the third place female team, we were really fourth (this is becoming a theme for me this summer). They only gave out awards for first place in each category (male, female, mixed), so oh well, no biggie. As I said, very different from triathlon–no finisher medals, age group awards, overpriced branded gear, etc. And that’s just fine by me.

Luckily, Penelope is also hooked on the sport and we have already registered for Swimrun Lake James this spring. I’ll also be returning to Hanging Rock for Swimrun North Carolina with Rachel in October; Penelope was able to pinch hit for another team and our tri friends (and new swimrun converts?) Michaela and Amanda will join us for that one as well. Road trip!

Since I’m sure you’re all chomping at the bit to get in on the swimrun action, here are a few logistical notes and lessons learned:

  • Rather than fly into Boston and drive to Portland, we should have just flown into Portland and skipped the rental car. Our flights were delayed each way and apparently everyone in Boston drives to Maine on Friday afternoons. Beware.
  • Saltwater chafing is a whole new experience. Usually, my Roka triathlon wetsuit and Orca swimrun suit are extremely comfortable, but my experience had been limited to fresh water. An alumna of this race said that last year, people carried bodyglide with them to reapply midrace, or people put KT tape on their necks. We opted for a cheaper version of that approach, using athletic tape on the backs of our necks. It worked great but we should have been more thorough; we both returned to work on Tuesday with some massive hickies on the sides of our necks.
  • To fin or not to fin? Fins are allowed in swimrun, as long as you carry them. Since this race had a relatively large swim portion, I was planning on using fins. The logistics took some tinkering, but the best setup was to carry them in a small string backpack with velcro cinching the straps together on my chest to reduce bounce. Then I’d store the backpack in my wetsuit during the swim. However, the night before the race, I realized that even with a :10/100m speed advantage on the swim, it wouldn’t make up for the slower transition time. This proved to be a good decision, as many of the swim starts and finishes were rough and rocky; fins would have been a mess.
  • Shoes: I wore special swimrun shoes by IceBug and they were phenomenal. Even on extremely slick and rocky terrain, I felt like a billy goat. For the future, I might drill small holes in the soles to help with drainage but honestly they felt like they dried quickly. Since I didn’t have to deal with taking them on/off during the race, I kept the original laces but might switch to speed laces for next time, or simply trim the laces shorter. We bought matching tall, rainbow striped socks, which not only protected our legs from branches and rocks, the spectators loved them and we are easy to spot in photos. Highly recommend.
  • Other Gear: We both used pull buoys and paddles, which we attached to a belt during the runs. Cleavage makes a great storage area for swim caps and the tether when not in use (hooray for Coeur bras’ pockets). Next time, we will experiment with putting pool noodles around our calves (instead of a buoy), holding them in place with tall socks. We already have some kick-ass matching socks, so they may as well do some work for us.

Bottom line: swimrun offers sportz with friends in beautiful locations, minus the pomp, commercialization, ego that seems to infest many triathlons these days. These races aren’t designed to be easy. They force you to think, experiment, take risks, and solve problems–such a refreshing change from being glued to a bike power meter or heart rate readings.

I hope my new love and I have many happy years ahead.

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Also more of this, please and thank you. 

Thank you to my support network, including Elliott for not freaking out when he read the first paragraph of this post (right?), Penelope for the adventure, Mary for the coaching, Coeur for the gear (not even salt water fazes that kit), Rose PT for keeping me healthy, and for Penelope’s friend Laura and her husband for hosting us. If you’re ever in Portland, you must pick up some of Laura’s incredible and creative chocolates. Oh, did I mention Penelope and I are applying for the long course race next year? The chocolates were definitely a factor in this decision. 

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4 thoughts on “A New Maine Squeeze?

  1. Hey Katie, serious question: Does anyone do these events and just walk fast instead of run? You know I hate running, but these events sound so much fun. Just not sure I can do all the running (knees), but I certainly can walk fast. Whatcha think?

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    1. Great question! I think it depends on the race. The longer ones have strict time cutoffs, and unlike triathlons, where nearly everyone makes the cutoffs, Otillo intentionally sets them for a ~50% DNF rate. Their sprint series (and likely some other races) have much more generous buffers, so you may be able to walk. Plus, you’d make up lots of time in the swim sections!

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  2. Training for Lake James as my first! Your blog has been invaluable in my swimrun education so far, so we’ll see if I can brave up and out myself as a blog stalker in April. 🙂

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    1. Haha awesome! Wow, starting with Lake James is impressive! How did you hear about it? Do you come from a swimming or running background? (Or just like crazy sportz, which is also totally legit.)

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