Saturday, April 14, 2018

SwimRun Lake James Race Report 2018: “Adventure!”

SwimRun Lake James was my first swimrun event and I've been looking giddily forward to it since Whiting and I registered for the race in November. The experience was all that I expected and more.

The concept is pretty simple – you race with a partner across the natural terrain of a location. When there’s water, you swim across it, and when there’s land, you run. You’re required to stay within 10 meters of your partner at all times and you can use whatever equipment you want as long as you cross the finish line carrying all the gear you started with. This means that if you want to use fins to swim, you can (we saw one team that did). If you want to bring a rolling suitcase containing various changes of clothing and meals, which Whiting and I joked about many times leading up to race day, I guess you can do that too. The only mandatory equipment for this race was a wetsuit, a whistle, a compression bandage, and a course map.


Wetsuit: Whiting and I both raced in the Zone 3 Evolution wetsuit. This swimrun-specific wetsuit has long neoprene sleeves but the legs are made of thinner material than a normal swimming wetsuit and only go to the knee. This allows for comfortable running. Because you’ll likely be pulling the top of the wetsuit down throughout the day for the longer run segments, there’s a zipper on the front of the suit instead of the back. The suit has pockets inside and out to carry the things you need (gels, etc.). Whiting and I each wore a sleeveless two-piece tri kit under the wetsuit. Shameless Big Sexy Racing sponsor plug: You guys. We spent nearly five and a half hours in these wetsuits and both of us exclaimed after the race about how we had ZERO chafing and none of the normal wetsuit-induced shoulder fatigue.

Trail shoes and wool socks: I raced in Inov-8 Terraclaw 250 trail shoes and mid-length CEP wool socks. The shoes were grippy and perfect on the terrain of the day: slippery wet clay, gravel jeep trails, and soft pine-needle coated forest floor. The wool socks kept my feet warm and the taller sock length kept sand and grit out of my socks. A generous pre-race coating of Ruby’s Lube on my feet kept them free of hot spots and blisters.

Paddles and buoy: Most swimrun competitors choose to use this equipment because swimming with paddles and a buoy offsets the drag of swimming with your shoes on. You strap a buoy to your leg with a bungee cord. You spin it around to the front to use while swimming, then spin it off to the side of your leg to keep it out of the way while running. We used size 1 Strokemaker paddles with wrist straps that made them easy to spin to the outside of the wrist and keep out of the way while running.
The paddles were also handy for writing the lengths of the course segments and the location of the aid stations to keep track of the day. 
Neoprene cap and gloves: Whiting opted to use these wonderful warm items, but I did not. I chose instead to use two regular swim caps “just in case” and no gloves because I “never get cold.” I’m sure you can already guess what happened.

Nutrition: We each carried a soft 17 oz. body bottle (the kind that you carry in a hydration pack for a trail run) that we refilled with water at aid stations and stuffed into the front of our wetsuits for swimming. Although there was nutrition available along the course, we opted to bring our own Gu.


Lake James State Park in Nebo, North Carolina, is beautiful, lush, and green and smells of pine. The lake is clear and cold with little islands scattered about. The race consisted of 3.5 miles of swimming and 13 miles of running inside the state park, broken into 13 swims and 14 runs. The shortest swim was 50 yards and the longest was 1600. The shortest run was across a tiny island, less than a tenth of a mile, and the longest was about 7.5 miles. On race day, the air temperature was about 50 degrees and the water temperature was 56, which turned out to be almost ideal temperatures for alternating swimming and running. Each swim exit was marked with a large American flag and the longer swims were also marked with a small strobe light that you could see from the far shore. The run course was marked with fluttering pieces of pink and orange tape tied to trees, plus the occasional signage.
Course map with swim and run segments 
We swam and ran all over this picture!
Enchanted forest


There were about 50 teams taking part in the race, with the men's division and the mixed division containing most of the competitors. I expected most participants to be long-course triathletes like me, but that wasn’t the case at all. We met former ITU racers, former college swimmers, ultrarunners, and ironman triathletes. The one thing all the participants shared was a sense of adventure, because nearly everyone was new to this sport.

Training and Race Plan 

Whiting and I had trained together every Sunday for several weeks before the race, blowing up our friends’ Strava feeds with millions of alternating swims and runs. Our longest workout was 5x (1600 pull/30 minutes of running). These training sessions were invaluable: we learned what kind of encouragement works (shouting “Wheeeee!” when feeling tired was a good one), what paces work for both of us, and what fueling strategy works for a 5-hour day (a gel every 30 minutes with intermittent sips of sports drink). We made a small spectacle of ourselves when we practiced once with full gear in the pool at the Colorado Athletic Center in Boulder and on the Boulder Creek Path. Whiting and I went into the race feeling fully prepared for everything…except swimming in open water! Race day would be our first open water swim of the season, which is definitely a first for me. 

Whiting’s coach, Matt Smith, had generously coached me “as part of the team” for the weekend training sessions with Whiting. He gave us a race plan: Stay comfortable until you get through the long run (7.5 miles, which was right in the middle of the race), then push the pace on all the shorter segments after that. What I say next may surprise you, because you’re reading a blog filled mostly with stories of race plans that were, at best, half-executed. My entire ironman experience has been about making the best out of a situation that has gone wrong, which is great for life lessons, but also, I’m fully aware of how hard it is to actually execute a race plan. It could only be more difficult to execute with a partner – right? Wrong. This was possibly the best executed race of my life, and it was because I had a partner.

And Finally, The Report 

We started 100% dead last, at the very back of the pack. The first segment was a two mile run in which we kept our pace consistent with Whiting’s zone 2 heart rate or below (I chose not to wear a strap, which will not be the case next time). We told ourselves that it would be a long day, that anything could happen, and that we didn’t need to blow up right out of the gate. Follow the plan. I expected this would allow us to make our way through the pack over the course of the day. In the first two miles of running, we slowly passed a couple of teams and then arrived at the first swim entrance.
We're probably behind the photographer in this photo.
The water was a very cold 56 degrees and it felt crazy that we were going to swim it in with wetsuits that had no legs. Whiting was especially concerned about panicking in the cold water, so we took it really easy getting in and getting started. As always it was hard to put my face into cold water and we both paddled heads-up for several strokes – it takes your breath away! Once we were rolling, swimming with paddles and a buoy with a wetsuit and shoes became instantly natural, and we passed another couple of teams in the first 800 yard swim. Then, after a couple of short segments, we came to a swim exit with an American flag parents! Mom and Dad cheered for us as we went on our way. It was really awesome to have them there to pop out and surprise us with support throughout the day.

Pre-race pic with Mom and Dad who just happened to be in the area after attending the Masters golf tournament in Augusta a few days before the race.
We had contact with a couple of teams after that. The general rule was that if there were people in the water when we arrived at a swim start, they’d probably be behind us at the exit. Swimming is a strength for both of us and our confidence certainly allowed our team to shine in the swim segments. However, once we reached the long run segment, we didn’t see another team again for at least 90 minutes. I guess we’re not working our way through the field. We’re on track for our goal time of 5 hours, so who cares if we're out here all alone at the back of the pack? 

Whiting and I moved relentlessly forward but at a comfortable pace, following the fluttering ribbons that marked the way, climbing over fallen trees (and sometimes attempting to crawl under them), squealing when we stepped on "baby Christmas trees" as we made our way through the pine forest. We chattered incessantly, feeling like we were solving all the problems of the world with happy girl talk. We've both been obsessed with reading race reports of the Barkley Marathons, and taking a tip from one of them, we began randomly shouting “Adventure!” when we reached terrain that was slightly more technical.

After the long run came the longest swim of the event: 1600 yards. We saw another team for the first time in almost 2 hours ahead of us in the water. We pulled up the tops of our wetsuits and put our caps and goggles back on, and plunged into the icy water. It. Was. Cold. After running for 90 minutes, we were warm and had gotten over the initial shock of the cold water at the beginning of the race. Now we had to accustom ourselves to it all over again. I felt the icy coldness moving up my feet and legs into my core.

We climbed up onto the shore and started the island-hopping section of short swims and runs. At one point, we ran out of the water onto an island where another team had stopped. One of the men was running in circles on the tiny island. “He’s trying to warm up,” said a race volunteer, “the course is that way.” Okay, so I'm not the only one struggling with the cold. We ran across the island, plunged into the water and swam a short distance to the next exit. This one had a steep, slippery bank with a rope hanging down for us to use to climb up. I tried first and immediately fell back down as a tree branch snapped beneath my feet. As Whiting and I searched for a solution, looking for another way up, the cold team that we had passed came by us and effortlessly leaped up, barely using the rope. One of them turned to grab our hands and help pull us up, and I’m certain that if he hadn’t done that, we’d still be in the lake right now! (Note: Upper body strength is needed for this sport.)

Even with the course segments listed on our paddles, Whiting and I both became a little disoriented and couldn't figure out what segment of the race we were on, or when to expect to be finished. At this point I was really feeling the cold and dreading the last long swim that I knew was coming – 1300 yards. I didn’t want to get back into the cold water for that long (we learned later that 4 teams had been pulled from the race due to the cold).

Eventually as we picked our way through the woods and around a corner, we saw, for the first time that day, a swim course that resembled a triathlon. There were teams of swimmers everywhere. Whiting and I had worked our way into the middle of the pack! My competitive nature perked up and I turned to her and excitedly said, "Okay Whiting, now we do what we do." I was confident that I'd lead and we’d swim well. But as soon as we entered the water, the cold hit me, and I felt like I could barely move my arms. I saw Whiting swim around me and I scrambled to get behind her and draft. Just stay on her feet. It felt impossible at times and I worked as hard as I could to stay with her. That was the fastest swim of our day. Whiting led us past every team that was in the water as I held on for dear life. Teamwork! Execution!

When we arrived at the shore, I screamed with excitement at our progress. Happy to be out of the water, I raced up the hill through the trees. It was Whiting’s turn to hold on, but she wasn’t complaining. We raced past two more teams, giggling and shrieking “Wheeee!” and then we finally approached the last swim of the day. It was a 50 yard swim across to a boat ramp where all the spectators, including Mom and Dad, were waiting and cheering. It was impossible to prevent ourselves from laughing and smiling as we swam side by side across the water. We ran up the boat ramp to the finish line,  where a spectator yelled to us, "those are the best smiles we've seen all day!" We congratulated each other and hugged and exclaimed practically in unison, “This sport was made for us!” Our final time was 5:23 – just 23 minutes longer than our goal time. Our time even ended up being good enough for third place in the female division! What an incredible day, and truly a team effort. I can’t wait for the next one.

The last 50 yards.

Women's division podium pic (photo found online by our amazing friend Maggie who we felt cheering along with us in spirit every step of the way!)
The next one is SwimRun San Juan Islands in Washington in September. Finishing that race qualifies a team to enter the lottery for Otillo, so we’re crossing our fingers to see what happens when that lottery opens later this year. There is no doubt that Whiting and I will do whatever we can to get a spot at the original swimrun race at Otillo in Sweden. Until September, we’ll both be spending more time on the trails to improve our trail running so that our running confidence can match the confidence that we both have in the water. We’ve made a list of things to do differently next time, but I couldn’t be happier with this first experience.

We celebrated with ice cream as we usually do. This photo is proof that Whiting went from "Otillo is scary, I'm not sure" to gleefully googling "How to get into Otillo" after the race.


The team aspect of this sport is a major part of the appeal for me. I loved racing with Whiting. It was so much fun to share a racing experience with a partner who was experiencing the whole thing right along with me. Endurance racing is often so much about pushing yourself through setbacks to accomplish a personal goal for personal reasons, but racing as a team brings a whole new wonderful dynamic to it. To steal a phrase, it's not triathlon without a bike. It's not a relay. It's a team effort and it's amazing.

Swimming and running across the natural terrain instead of a precisely measured urban course makes it feel like an adventure, and as I've made my way off the roads over the past year in both running and biking, this fits right in. I would never have guessed that I'd love so much the feeling of being a part of the natural environment. This race allowed us to see parts of the state park that you can't get to easily from the roads. It felt untouched and wild.

Although this sport has been growing in Europe for 10+ years, it's new to the US. The race at Lake James was relatively small and there was a feeling of community around it. After the race, Dad commented that "this is what running used to be like." It's really cool to feel like I'm part of something new and a little bit fringey.

A feeling of community at the pre-race meeting.

Join Us!

There were two swimrun races in the US last year. This year there are at least 18 on the schedule. I invite everyone reading to grab a partner and sign up for one of these things and be a part of this growing sport. Adventure!