Did you know that there is a string of islands off the coast of Boston, and that it’s possible to swim between them? Neither did I, until Odyssey SwimRun advertised Swimrun Boston Harbor Islands. Well, I like swimruns, and I have a history of swimming in unusual bodies of water (see Panama Canal, 2014, Alcatraz 2011, and probably some others), so why not?
Well, just because I was easily convinced that this was a good idea, did not mean that everyone else shared my views. In other words, I would be entering this one in the solo division. Because Elliott would be coaching at nationals in Ohio that weekend, I was also traveling solo. Not my favorite situation, but I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again.
First, the travel logistics, in case anyone wants to do this race in the future (though not in 2020, as it won’t be offered…so this blog post might not even be all that useful). The race was on Saturday, July 13, so I flew up to Boston on… Thursday morning, and flew home on…Saturday night. Random, but significantly cheaper. Speaking of cheaper, wow, hotels in downtown Boston are extremely expensive! Since we had such an early meeting time on race morning (5AMish to catch the ferry), I wanted to stay close enough that I didn’t have to rely on a cab, bus, metro, etc. to get there on time.
Enter Hostelworld.com. It’s a great way to search multiple hostels at once, including specifying if you want your own room (yes, please, I’m a grownup). The site also has a generous cancelation policy, which is great because I didn’t notice the fine print on my first reservation (staying on a historic tall ship in the harbor–doesn’t get much closer than that!) that my room would be unavailable from 6-10 PM Friday night due to a dinner cruise. Umm no. Luckily, I was able to get a private room and bathroom at the HI USA hostel in Chinatown for more than I wanted to spend, but still safe, clean, and cheaper than the alternatives. Plus, I was able to store my bag there on Thursday before check-in time and Saturday after check-out, plus use one of their showers post-race/pre-flight.
Thursday and Friday were both pretty relaxed. I had been to Boston before, so I mostly biked around the city on their bikeshare bikes, had lunch with Jonathan from InsideTracker and drinks with former fellow DC Tri swim coach Mike, and gawked at all the tour groups at the Harvard and MIT campuses. (Pro tip: MIT has an amazing new rec center and pool, but it’s NOT the “MIT pool” that will appear in Google Maps; you want the Zesiger Center…and yes, they are both on Vassar Street, which is why it’s so confusing.)
As always, packet pickup and the pre-race briefing were really friendly and relaxed. Please don’t turn into Ironman, swimrun! Since this was the inaugural year for this event, we were all unsure of the course and the descriptions were the usual blend of helpful and “well, you’ll figure it out.” We were told that the run course had changed that morning when they set up the course, and that if the weather stayed as foggy as it was that day, some of the swims would be canceled, and beware of wild turkeys on one of the islands, and oh yeah one of the islands used to be a rehab facility but is now abandoned so you might feel like Rapture has happened but it’s all good. The photos they had taken that morning were in black and white, adding to the spooky factor. Thanks.
Race morning, I allowed enough time to jog to the ferry if needed but was able to take a bikeshare bike. Learning from past events, I packed a change of clothes for post-race, sunglasses, sunscreen, snacks, a sweatshirt, and a phone charger. The ferry ride was supposed to last 30 minutes but we covered it faster, much to the panic of those of us in line to use the bathroom at that time. Oh well, time to put on the gear, lube up my neck (remembering the horrific chafing from my two races in Maine), and warm up.
As soon as the gun went off, I thought, “Oh crap.” My running had been minimal all season due to a super tight glute. The good folks at Rose PT had dry needled the piriformis and I had been able to run slowly for up to about 40 minutes at a time. And now, I was running fast, on a rough surface, for a total of about 10 miles that day. People tend to start out really fast on these runs so I tried not to let it rattle me, just stay with the group (watch their footing on the shore to see if the rocks or sand looked more stable), not get lost, and not have to dedicate a section of this blog to wild turkey attacks.
The first swim was one of the longest, and as I have learned (the hard way) to do, I double checked with the volunteer about the location of the swim exit. Unlike triathlon, where there are sighting and turning buoys throughout the course, swimrun has entry and exit flags, and that’s it. If the swim is long, the exit flag is often just a red speck on the horizon. In addition to a wetsuit and shoes, good eyesight is a must-have. I’m glad I checked with the volunteer rather than blindly swim after the people in front of me, because many of them were going to the wrong island! My satisfaction was short-lived, however, because my goggles soon started leaking. I really, really hate not being able to see. If I am having a nightmare, it’s probably revolving around that (or auto-correct fails; ah, modernity). I emptied the goggles, tried swimming again, leak. I stopped, sighted, tightened the goggles, leak. Not only was this annoying from a time perspective, I realized that the current was strong and I was being taken away from my destination and all the other swimmers. And while there were supposedly kayaks in the water for safety, I didn’t see any of them. I tried to keep calm and think about backup plans. If I saw another swimmer, maybe I could tether to them and let them sight to shore? Could I swim head-up the entire way? Backstroke? I tried licking the inside of the goggles, tightening the strap again, and lo and behold, they held. Not only did they work just fine the rest of that swim, they were good for the rest of the race. (I retired them immediately afterward, however.)
I was so thankful to get to shore and see the volunteers. Mentally, I was still a little shaken up, but when I heard another team comment on how hard the first swim was, I felt better. At least I wasn’t the only one who found the first swim way more difficult than anticipated. The second run was short and through an old fort and the photographer startled me a few times. Then back to the water, but mercifully for a much shorter swim this time. At the end of the third run, I was surprised and delighted to see the race director, Lars, manning the swim entrance. He said that even the first swimmers took nearly twice as long as anticipated on the first swim and that a bunch of teams would likely miss the time cutoff, and oh yeah, I’m currently in second place for the solo category. Wait, what now? I had figured surely I was toward the back of the pack, given the goggles incident and my lack of run speed. Well then.
Next up was the longest swim of the day, though thankfully it had a weird traffic cone in the middle to use for sighting. I kept reminding myself to go steady, keep on swimming, count my strokes, think of all the other long swims I’ve survived, etc. Next up was Long Island, aka the ghost town. I was mostly thrilled to run on pavement for a change and to have the long swims behind me, though kept looking behind me to make sure I wasn’t about to get passed (or eaten by a zombie). The volunteer at the swim entrance confirmed I was in second place, so into the water I leapt. This swim was supposed to feel short in comparison but due to the changing tide (and my tiredness, I’m sure), it. did. not.
By the time I reached the shore, I was so tired, I had trouble zipping down the top of my wetsuit and had to ask the volunteers for help. Unlike the other islands, which were empty except for racers and volunteers, this one was a popular recreation destination. This also meant there were a lot of trails zigzagging across (and UP and UP and UP) the island, and I was terrified of getting lost and not finding the finish line, or adding a loop, or inadvertently cutting the course and getting disqualified. It’s easier to follow a course when you’re with a partner, because there are two sets of eyes looking for the marking flags; solo, when very tired and eyes recovering from some time in salt water, it felt like a recipe for disaster. A few times, I tried asking spectators if they had seen other runners come in my direction, or where the course went; I got lots of shrugs, which was not ideal. Finally, I turned the corner and heard the finish line…but where was it??? I kept running, above and past the finish line, wondering if this was actually just a really elaborate nightmare, but then the trail turned again, descended, and led to the finish line. Right before the finish chute, my shoelace came undone. Given that I had lost two places in a finish chute in a previous race, and my uncertainty at being able to stand again if I bent to tie the shoelace, I kept going, planning on tucking and rolling to the finish if I tripped. Thankfully, there was no one behind me and I got to have the finish line to myself. At this point, I was on the edge of tears, because I was so tired and thankful to be done. Then came the announcement, “Now crossing the finish line is Katherine Tobin, our second solo racer and first female!” Wait, what? First female??? I had assumed people had been saying I was second female all along. My first overall win. So of course, at this point, I really did start to cry.
It was so nice to sit down and not have to move. The finish line food was great (cooked and served by the race director’s mom!), I got to catch up with some people I had seen along the course, and of course share the good news with friends and family (thank you, past me, for bringing the cell phone and charger). I had also learned from past races to check the ferry schedule and arrive early, so I was able to efficiently pick up my podium prize and head back into the city.
My flight wasn’t until 9 PM, so I had time to indulge in some of the food and drink I’d been eyeing earlier, namely beer (yes, plural) from Night Shift Brewery and ice cream from JP Licks. I arrived home exhausted, chafed (worse than Maine 2017 but better than Maine 2018), and excited for the next one. Thank you, Swimrun USA, for another great event!
And of course, huge thanks to Coach Liz, the DC Tri Elite Team and our sponsors: District Taco (ever thought of a Boston expansion?), Xterra, Gu Energy, Georgetown Sports Massage, Rose Physical Therapy, Osmo, xx2i optics, Rudy Project, etc.