Sunday, November 4, 2018

SwimRun NC Race Report 2018: A Community of Racers

SwimRun NC in Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina, was the last race of what seemed like a very long season. It wasn't even on our original schedule - upon learning that it was an Otillo merit race and therefore the last chance this year to collect points for Otillo for next year, Whiting and I signed up at the last minute after we learned that a couple of women's team spots had opened. I'm really glad that circumstances led us to this challenging, gorgeous race.

Since the SwimRun race wasn't on our race calendar, Whiting and I had both registered for the Denver Rock n Roll half marathon the week before, so of course we raced it. Back-to-back weekends of racing had worked well for me last month, but last month I raced the events in the opposite order - SwimRun San Juan Islands one weekend and then the Bear Chase 50k the next, where I had a great day and a PR (I know a report is overdue for that one, but how can I be expected to write reports when I'm racing every weekend?!). Between the half marathon on Sunday and the SwimRun the following week, I flew to Roanoke, VA, for an unexpected work trip and ended up driving 4 hours (through the remnants of Hurricane Willa) to Raleigh-Durham, NC to pick up Whiting who flew in on Friday night. We stayed the night in a weird airport hotel and then drove the next morning to our cabin in Danbury, NC, that we would share with three friends - two who were racing (Kathy and Jeanne) and one super sherpa (Kitty, our Big Sexy Racing teammate).

The cabin crew - Kathy, Jeanne, Kitty, me, and Whiting
You may think after reading a whole paragraph about the week leading up to the race that I'm setting up the excuses for why I had a poor performance on Sunday. In fact, the opposite was true! I felt great; it was one of those perfect race days where everything feels good and effortless and easy. Racing back-to-back weekends seems to work for me and that's something to remember for the future. Unfortunately, this was also the first SwimRun race of the three we've done this year where Whiting had a hard time from the very beginning of the day. At Lake James and at San Juan Islands, we excelled together and struggled together and hit high and low points at the same time. At SwimRun NC, for the first time, our team had to get through a race where we were having completely opposite days.

I'm getting ahead of myself though. This very well organized race had packet pickup and the start/finish line at the same place, a cute little brewery called the Green Heron Ale House nestled in the woods on the shore of the Dan River at the edge of Hanging Rock State Park. Whiting and I did a little 15-minute shakeout run before the pre-race meeting at 4:15 on Saturday and then gathered with our friends to listen to the course description and rules. The crowd at the pre-race meeting was made up of people who were new to the sport and people who had come all the way from Sweden to race (they were easy to spot in their Otillo swag). Triathletes in the crowd stood out in their Ironman gear. When the race directors joked about how no swims would be cancelled here even though the river was swollen and flowing quickly from heavy rains that had just come through - "after all, this is not Ironman" - I was glad not to be wearing any of my Ironman swag!

Let me talk for a moment about swag, because the stuff included at this race was top-notch. In our race packet, along with our very official-Otillo-looking bibs and swim caps, was include a set of personalized cards with well-wishes from elementary students in the area, a really cute hat and T-shirt and a pair of wool socks for each of us, a foldable cup to be used on the course, and probably something else that I'm forgetting. Impressive.

Pre-race meeting

Good-luck cards from local schoolchildren were included in our packets.

Such cute well-wishes from future SwimRunners.
The meeting lasted about an hour and then we headed back to the cabin to eat dinner (prepared beautifully by my very healthy roommates) and get some sleep for the night. The race would start at 8:00 the next morning, so we'd need to be up by 6. At the pre-race meeting the race directors joked about how they didn't want anyone showing up at 6 am at the start line to set up their transition area. One of the many benefits of a sport where you start the race with all the gear that you're going to use for the day!

I'll probably overwhelm you with pictures of the unique, beautiful, and technical course, but I'll describe it too. It went kind of like this, and I'm saying "kind of" because one of the great things about SwimRun is that nothing is precisely measured: 15-16 miles of running broken into 11 segments and 3000 meters of swimming broken into 9 segments. The first 4 miles was uphill through the woods to a lake. Along the way we would climb up steep waterfalls that required ropes to grip to get a foothold. Once teams arrived at the lake, we would swim 500 meters across it and then pop out on the other side, run approximately a quarter of a mile, then plunge back into the lake for less than 25 meters, then shimmy down a slippery mudslide, cross a small stream, run up the other side, and do the whole loop again. Once the two loops were complete, teams would run up 600+ stairs to the top of Moore's Wall and back down the other side, return to the lake, and complete the two loops a second time. Then a 4 mile run back towards the finish line that included another (different) waterfall/rope descent and climb. The last part of the race was an 800 meter swim (float) down the Dan River to the finish line.

We lined up to start the race with approximately 60 male teams and 40 mixed teams and exactly 23 female teams. Whiting and I had a plan to keep ourselves reeled in by running by heart rate in the first part of the race. We'd swim the four 500 meter swims really hard and make up some positions, and then run at threshold pace at the end of the race, leaving nothing for the 800 meter swim because it would be downstream in a rushing river.

As I said earlier, the problems started from the beginning. Whiting's heart rate was too high as we traveled up the first trail, sharing last place with a couple of new friends that we met on the course. The four of us agreed to travel at a pace that would keep Whiting's heart rate in check, and then I think we all expected to crush the first swim that would take place at the end of 4 miles of running/power hiking uphill. In our conversation on the trail, we learned that this other team was also made up of Ironman athletes who are above-average swimmers; Aimee and Kerry were two more women who were looking for a different kind of challenge.

I knew that Whiting was frustrated but I asked her to lead the way to stay at a pace that worked for her and I checked in frequently about her heart rate. It was frustrating not to have the day that we wanted, but we both held hope that it would turn around.

The second waterfall.
 Finally, we reached the first 500 meter swim. Now was the time to crush it! We jogged past the announcer and a well-stocked aid station, past the speakers with booming music, past our lovely BSR teammate Kitty who was injured and therefore supporting instead of racing. We plunged into the lake. At San Juan Islands last month, Whiting had led the way on nearly all of the swims, and I expected her to speed past me again. That was not the case today, so I led, grateful that there were other swimmers in the water and volunteers in canoes to help guide the way across the lake to a little right turn at the other end of the swim. We passed a few teams in the water, which provided a boost.

Kitty with the awesome announcer at the lake!
Disoriented and wobbly at the end of the very cold swim (55 degrees), Whiting and I climbed out onto the shore and made our way through the woods. As we walked (running was impossible, we were staggering like we were drunk from the change in equilibrium), we had a little discussion about how the day was going. I wanted Whiting to know that although the situation was frustrating, that I wasn't frustrated with her - we all have bad days. The chat seemed to make her feel better and we worked as a team moving through the mud, across the tiny swim, through the trees to a tiny technical descent that had turned into a mudslide because of the rain. Back up the other side to the aid station to do the whole loop again.
Hiking with purpose.
At this point, there were other teams around us because we were doing loops. That plus the booming music and cheerful announcer made everything feel very strange. In previous SwimRun events, even if we were running in a contained area, it felt spread out and isolated, quiet and natural. In this one, we were surrounded by people and there was more of a finish-line vibe right in the middle of the race. We later decided that there were pros and cons to the loops at the lake - you could learn the lines to take and feel more like you were in a race by being around other people, but you also knew that you had to plunge into that cold water 4 times and shimmy down the mudslide 4 times without getting hurt. I still haven't decided how I feel about those loops.

After we completed our second loop, we ran/power hiked up the 600+ steps to the top of Moore's Wall. I led the way, pulling Whiting with an imaginary 10 meter tether. We hiked with another team that we met along the trail. When we reached the top, a couple of amazing things happened: we popped out of the woods to see a beautiful view and have our picture taken in front of it, and a million other teams appeared. Apparently we had moved our way into the middle of the pack in the loopy swims, and there were other teams everywhere! This lifted our spirits as we said hello to Jeannie and Kathy and then ran back down to do 2 more loops of the lake. Of course several teams ran by us on the rooty, technical descent that was slippery due to wet fallen leaves, and we made our mental note to "get better" at trail running. I think I can speak for Whiting and say that we felt much better heading back down the other side of the hill.

Top of Moore's Wall
All that was left now was two more loops and then a run that was mostly downhill to the Dan River. We moved as quickly as we could, passing a couple of teams and getting passed by a couple of teams. Running through the trees down to the river felt strange - it was downhill and therefore easy to run, but there were just enough obstacles (roots, rocks, slippery leaves) that I couldn't get into a rhythm. I repeated our mantra of the day out loud to prevent us from tripping, "eyes down, toes up!" I was grateful to finally reach the river with a few trips but no falls. We'd made it! As we approached the river, we spotted Jeanne and Kathy floating down. They were close enough that if we swam hard, we could catch them.

The river was cold (53 degrees!) and it was moving quickly due to the heavy rains, and we plunged in with purpose. Whiting led the way and we pulled hard to gain ground. As we caught Jeanne and Kathy, they flipped onto their backs and we all said hello and chatted and laughed. Then the water became even swifter and Whiting ran into a fallen tree that was wedged in the middle of the river. This sobered us and we swam the rest of the way with caution. Swimming head-up, my torso bumped into a rock that I couldn't see and then I began to worry about what was actually down there below the water. Spectators on the bank directed us through the mini rapids, and soon enough we were crawling out of the water and up the stairs to the finish line in just under 6 hours. What a day!

The river was moving fast!

Last swim-out of the day.
The post-race food was the best I've ever had after a race (pasta and potatoes and barbecue with fixings and banana pudding and sweet tea!), and Whiting and I didn't even wait to change out of our wetsuits to eat it. We finally changed into dry clothes to attend the awards and raffle. As we sat in the warm sun and the podiums were being announced, the final team, our new friends Aimee and Kerry, crossed the finish line and everyone cheered. They had taken it easy and had a great day, and now they're hooked on SwimRun too. It's really fun to be on the podium but there's just so many other ways to have a wonderful day at one of these races.

I'm proud to say that Whiting and I walked away from the day feeling like we'd done many things right. We've learned a lot in one season. We fueled properly and paced properly with the circumstances we were given. We dressed right - we both kept our Zone 3 wetsuits zipped up all day and stayed cool on the runs and warm (enough) on the swims. We stayed blister-free with Ruby's Lube coating our feet inside of our shoes and calf-length wool socks. We communicated and worked as a team and didn't forget to have fun. We didn't come in last place - but we've learned that that's not so bad either. It's okay to have things to work on (trail running skills) as our first year in a new sport comes to a close.

I'm so happy to see so many new SwimRun races popping up in the US. Each one that we've done so far has been a completely unique experience, and I'm looking forward to many more. After each race, we've said "we'll definitely do this one again," and SwimRun NC is no exception. I'm thrilled to race in Casco Bay next summer and elated to be able to throw our names into the Otillo hat. Keep your fingers crossed for us!
A huge highlight was meeting Herbert Krabel in person - he's the biggest advocate for SwimRun in the US and this race is his baby.
*One of the awesome things about SwimRun races is that the amazing photographs are included as part of the race package. The gorgeous professional photos in this post were taken by Brian Fancher and Aaron Palaian.

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