Coach Molly Checks In: Casco Bay SwimRun Round Two, or "This is not a Triathlon"

After a humbling experience at our first attempt at SwimRun last year, my race partner Ed and I returned to Maine for redemption at the 2017 Casco Bay Long Course. SwimRun, an increasingly popular genre of multisport, is inspired by the Ötillö series, born of the crazy athletes of Sweden. The races consist of multiple alternating swim and overland running legs - “swimming” introducing the bemusing challenge of being tethered to your partner, and “running” proving to be an altogether categoric departure from the sport as we know it.

The Casco course traverses nine islands off the coast of Portland, Maine, including over five miles of ocean swimming and 14 miles of running. SwimRun being the ultimate duet sport, you complete the entire race with your partner, thus the tethering imperative during the swim legs. There are no transition areas and you are forbidden to drop gear, so you must carry everything you need for swimming and running, resulting in what Ed refers to as The Garage Sale Look:

Clowns, 2017 Version

Clowns, 2017 Version

Ed and I rolled into the race meeting feeling like real veterans of the sport. We had our compression bandages, compass, whistle, and tether prepared for the mandatory gear check, and even knew the basics of how to use all our equipment (a big improvement from last year). We took our seats near the front and settled in for over an hour of critical guidelines for navigating the islands we would be crossing, including sighting tips for finding our landings, and navigation coordinates in case the bay was fogged in.

“This is not a triathlon.”  More than once the race director stressed this point with a foreboding tone of admonition. Unsurprisingly, many athletes in the crowd were triathletes, and a few of them prickled (one of them vocally) at the suggestion that triathlons are in any way easy. I knew, however, his warning was apt, and that he was doing all of us a favor. The run courses in SwimRuns have minimal marking, there are no buoys to help you find your way through the ocean swims, and there is no feasible way to have swim safety crafts throughout the nearly 5.5 miles of that athletes cover in the water. Triathlons are certainly not easy, but they are highly supported, and it would be a dangerous mistake to go into an event like this without an accurate grasp of the amount of autonomy, skill, and preparedness you must bring to endure, rather survive the race.

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Race day dawned warm and clear, and Ed and I downed our morning applesauce before making the short walk to the ferry. On the vessel crossing to Cliff Island, we joined our 150 fellow long course teams in gaping out the windows as our course passed by. My breakfast felt a little unsteady at that point, but I reminded myself that I’d done this once before, so I was basically an expert at it.

After very little fanfare, the race started with a quick run, which came to an abrupt stop at our first swim entry. The path down to the beach was steep and narrow, and the teams in form were holding us up. We all know there's not much more agitating than race traffic when you can't pass, but the wait afforded me my first and only celebrity sighting when Joan Benoit Samuelson came running by and wished us all luck! Thanks, Joan! When we finally made it down to the water, I cast an unsubtle look of spite at the other teams who were so reluctant to make their first jump, but I was duly served as I began to understand their hesitation.  Last year’s water had been atypically comfortable, but this year lived up to its Maine reputation of utter frigidity and dangerously variable currents.

Ed and I jumped in, and the next several minutes were filled with my underwater gurgling screams as my body learned for the first time what the low 50’s feels like. I very much longed for the rest of my wetsuit, as I had scissored-off the neoprene of the arms and legs in favor of the runs. Ed and I are both strong swimmers, and we still struggled to navigate the changing tides and variable currents in the channels around the islands. As for the run legs, we did a better job this year of finding our footing in some of the more difficult overland terrain, but our pace still slowed dramatically in those sections.

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SwimRun is the ultimate adventure – we got lost in the woods, turned blue during the longest swim leg, and slipped on rocks as we climbed over uninhabited islands. It was an incredibly challenging day that pushed us and tested our limits as athletes - certainly the toughest event I have ever experienced.  Of course, the desire to improve and show that we are up to the challenge is what draws many of us to these types of events. Despite being proud of our redemption in an arguably even tougher year, I still have much to improve on, so I am looking forward to many years of SwimRun to come. And many post-race meals like this one:

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