Sunday, September 30, 2018

SwimRun San Juan Islands Race Report 2018: Two Friends on a Perfect Day

Photo by Aaron Palaian
After the third or fourth time this year receiving post-race texts proclaiming "this race was the hardest thing I've ever done," my friends have started to call me on it. But in a year of firsts, I've meant it each time, and a week later after time to reflect, I'm not taking it back about this one. The course and circumstances at SwimRun San Juan Islands made for one of the proudest finish line crossings of my life. It was a rewarding, remarkable experience, and as such, I'm choosing to call this one "Two Friends on a Perfect Day" (thank you Dear Evan Hansen) and not "The One Where We Raced for Cutoffs on the Toughest Terrain Ever and It Was Really Hard."

Whiting and I were excited to sign up for the inaugural edition of this race when it was announced last winter. This was before a summer of chasing cutoff times at trail races, and we didn't think too much about the details of the course, choosing instead to focus on the beauty of the islands of the Pacific Northwest. As race day approached, the race directors frequently reported a few changes in the course, and each time an announcement was made, the course got longer. By race morning, we were aware that in 14 run segments and 13 swim segments, we'd be running 21 miles and swimming 4 on the trails and in the lakes of Moran State Park on Orcas Island, Washington. There would be 6000 feet of gain on the run course and we'd summit two mountains. We began (accurately) describing the race as "the Leadville marathon, with swimming."

Part of the challenge of this race was just getting there. Trent, Whiting and I arrived in Seattle at 3 am on the day before the race due to a flight delay. We slept for a few hours in an airport hotel and then drove two hours to Anacortes where we caught a ferry to Orcas Island. We drove straight to Moran State Park and since we were early for the pre-race meeting, we drove to the summit of Mt. Constitution to see the top of the first huge climb of the course. As Trent drove up and up, Whiting and I became more nervous about the next day, but I was glad to be able to see where we'd be going. 

Trent in the clouds at the top of Mt. Constitution
Then we headed back down to Camp Moran for packet pickup and the pre-race meeting at 4 pm, where the 150 teams in the long course and short(er) course races listened carefully to instructions about the next day's events. There was an anxious feeling in the room, I think because everyone was aware of how difficult the course would be. After the meeting we found our way to the cute seaside cabin we'd rented for the weekend and headed into town for a quick bite to eat. Laid out all our stuff for the next morning and got to bed fairly early. 

Pre-race meeting (photo by Aaron Palaian)
A view from the beach at our condo. One of those islands is Canadian!
It took some calculating to write accurate information on our paddles to guide us through the day. We included the distances of each swim and run leg and where we expected the aid stations and time cutoffs to be.

The race started at 7:15 on Sunday morning with calm conditions. The air temperatures were in the 50s and the water temperatures in the mountain lakes were in the 60s. There was one segment of swimming in the bay, which was 52 degrees. 

Whiting and I were thrilled to meet Lance Armstrong before the race. He and his teammate, Simon Whitfield (Olympic gold medalist triathlete) were racing too, which added some excitement to the day!
When the gun went off, we ran across a field and up a dirt road onto some singletrack trail, and as usual, Whiting and I found ourselves in last place. This isn't a bad place to be; based on our prior experience at SwimRun Lake James in April, we expected to move through the field throughout the day. I sensed a single set of footsteps behind me and wondered why one of the participants in the individual division was running behind us. Paul the Sweeper then introduced himself, and I laughed, told him our names, and announced that he should expect to spend most of the day with us.

There were about 10 miles of running, 2000 meters of swimming, and 2000 feet of elevation gain between Whiting and I and the first time cutoff at the top of Mt. Constitution at 11:15 am. Based on our experience in Leadville, we knew this would be tight, so we were racing from the very beginning of this race. We did take some time to marvel at the enormous trees on the Old Growth trail and delighted in the clear, cool water of the first big swim. Whiting took the lead on the first swim and that's how it went all day, except for the one swim in the bay where jellyfish caused me to practically run across the water in fear.

We had a little bit of back-and-forth with other teams. They'd run past us and we'd swim past them, as we expected. There was a jump off a 15-foot cliff that added some extra excitement. And then we were at the bottom of the climb up Mt. Constitution, making what we thought was good time as we power hiked up. We had a good pace going and expected to meet the time cut. Then, with 1.5 miles left, we reached a sign that said "Mt. Constitution 2 miles." What? We were hiking at a 28:00/mile pace and that would not be fast enough. At that moment, we redefined our meaning of the word "runnable." Neither of us was willing to miss the time cut and end our day early. For 40 minutes we raced up through the forest and joyfully reached the summit with 4 or 5 minutes to spare. 

Refueling at the top of Mt. Constitution.
We were in a huge hurry but definitely took a minute to look around at the amazing surroundings. (photo by Aaron Palaian)
Trent was there waiting with donuts! We refilled our water bottles, took a minute to eat, and then ran back down the other side. A couple of teams passed us and we found ourselves with Paul the Sweeper as company again. And of course, running down a mountain, we were both reminded of how poor our downhill running skills are. I was frustrated to see that we were running down the steep trails slower than we'd run up the other side. And we had to race for the next time cut at 1:15 pm.

After a couple of swims and another mountain summit (Mt. Pickett, with no view), we headed down again and realized that it would be very difficult to make the next cutoff. When we arrived at the Mountain Lake aid station 25 minutes after the cut, the first thing we saw was a sign pointing down to the next section of trail. Behind the stone wall the sign was hanging from was the actual aid station. We made a quick decision to skip the aid station and sneak off down the trail as fast as possible to avoid being cut. There was a scary moment when a woman drove down the road behind us in her car, and we imagined that she was coming to force us to end our day. But she drove by without incident, and we hustled down onto the trail, relieved. (It turns out that they were very generous with time cuts at this inaugural event, but we didn't know that at the time.)

Just incredible scenery. A couple of the tiny islands registered as .05 of a mile on my Garmin. (photo by Aaron Palaian)
We now had 3 hours left until the final cut of the day at the finish line. We had been truly racing for 6 hours and neither of us had much left. The rest of the day was a purposeful slog through the forest, running when we could, and walking when we couldn't. After skipping the aid station at Mountain Lake, we ran out of food and water, and we ended up sharing one last gel and a few small sips of water with another hour and a half left in the race. 

After what seemed like an eternity, we made our way across Cascade Lake for a final swim (with Whiting the rockstar swimmer leading) and ran up the hill to the finish line as the last-place team. We were greeted with cheers and hugs from the race directors, and a bottle of champagne! What a day. We both agreed that it was the hardest thing we've ever done, because of the terrain, elevation gain, and time cut requirements. Then we celebrated with pizza and beer at the coolest post-race celebration I've ever been to, with great food and new friends.

It was only fitting for Paul the Sweeper, who had spent probably 7 hours of our 9 hour day with us, to cross the finish line with us! He'd been taking down all the course signage along the way.
Champagne at the finish line for the Orcas Island version of Leadville's "last ass over the pass."
I'm really proud of this race. Whiting and I spent 9 hours and 4 minutes racing together and digging deep to stay in the race and have the opportunity to cross the finish line. As we compared notes, we realized that we had both gone through a difficult low point at the same time in the last half of the race, but neither of us was willing to talk about it and bring the other down. We worked well together to remember to eat and drink, transition smoothly between swimming and running, keep track of time, and generally keep it together over a long day. That's not easy, especially for two competitive people: Trent said that many of the teams crossed the finish line and then didn't seem interested in talking to each other afterwards. I know how lucky I am to have Whiting as a partner in this adventure!

New friends at the post-race party.
I want to say a big thank you to Trent, who supported not only our team but several others out on the course throughout the day. Donuts at the top of a mountain?! It doesn't get much better than that. Thank you to the folks at SwimRun USA who put on an incredible inaugural event: we can't wait to race your Casco Bay event in Maine next summer! Thanks to our coach, Nell Rojas, who understands our goals and continues to prepare us to meet them. And thank you to Whiting's family who let us have her for her birthday weekend in Washington. A shout out to our Big Sexy Racing sponsors: Ownway Apparel kits and Zone 3 USA wetsuits that kept us comfortable all day, and Ruby's Lube (no blisters at all, y'all). As always, thank you to everyone reading this, and I want every single one of you to get out there and enjoy the experience that is SwimRun!

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