I first raced against Casco Bay Swimrun Race Director Lars Finanger about 15 years ago when we were both in our early 20s and taking triathlon ‘seriously’. Lars was a force to be reckoned with back then and is still going very strongly now; he clocked a 9 hr 27 min Ironman in Texas this year having done just 9 hours of training per week! He’s a well known and liked character in the global triathlon community.
After not seeing him for a long time I bumped into him when both of us raced at the 2014 ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Champs in Sweden where we re-connected and started an ongoing conversation about our mutual growing enthusiasm for the emerging sport of swimrun.
We’ve stayed in touch over the last couple of years and when Lars’ Swimrun USA organised an ÖTILLÖ merit race in Portland, Maine, it made perfect sense to both of us that Precision Hydration would help keep the athletes hydrated. We’re also the Official Hydration Supplier of the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Series after all. From there, as you can imagine, it was only a small leap for me to pack my kit and head out to…ahem… ‘help out’ and get stuck in and race myself.
I was travelling solo from the U.K., Lars put me in touch with another racer (you have to race in pairs in Swimrun) Nate Larlee, whose brother Todd had sadly broken his toe just a couple of weeks before when they were doing a course recce.
Nate needed a new compadre or would have had to sit it out, so we both agreed to an endurance sports ‘blind date’ with a small amount of trepidation as it’s normal to spend a lot of time training together for this kind of thing!
After arriving in Maine 3 days before the race, I met up with Nate to go for a quick training swim and we jumped into the bay off a stunning little spot called Cape Elizabeth to do a couple of miles. I was a bit jet lagged but thought a dunking in the sea was just what the doctor would order to get over that.
We did the swim in full race kit, including our running shoes and pull buoys, and Nate was using a set of hand paddles too as these are allowed in swimrun. The water was ‘fresh’ (about 15c / 59f) but not really any worse than swimming in the sea at home and after a bit of faffing around with our tether (it’s often good to use a towing line in swimrun), we got into a decent rhythm and were both probably quite relieved that everything seemed to be ok when it came to swimming together!
Once I’d stopped the usual violent post swim shivering that seems to happen to me in anything but tropical waters, Nate and I briefly discussed tactics. ‘Lets not start too hard, eat plenty, try to be nice to each other and enjoy ourselves’. Then we went our separate ways, ready to meet up at the race on the Sunday.
Before the race itself I presented a Hydration Workshop and Sweat Tested some of the local athletes and competitors (organised by Todd and his Coast Endurance group). This was a lot of fun and it was great to meet a lot of the key members of the local endurance community in Portland Maine, many of whom were also going to be toeing the line in the race on the Sunday.
On race day all of the competitors jumped onto a specially chartered ferry at 5:45am and headed up to the North East of Casco Bay to Cliff Island and the start line. I finished my breakfast on the ferry (PB and J bars and half a litre of PH 1500) and got changed into my race kit on the 45 min cruise to the start.
Compared with other Swimrun races I’ve done the course was pretty swim heavy (~5 miles of swimming and ’just’ 14 miles of running) which Nate and I agreed would suit our relative fitness levels as we’d both independently done a bit more swim than run training in the build up.
The first run was uneventful for us and (as agreed!) we didn’t go off too hard, hitting the water of the first swim just inside the Top 10 of about 80 teams, feeling ready to start pushing on.
The terrain of the Casco Bay Islands reminded me a lot of those in the Stockholm archipelago where the original ÖTILLÖ race began back in 2006, with some pretty savage rocky outcrops to climb up and down when getting in and out of the water, reasonably chilly water temperatures and a mix of road, dirt trails and narrow single tracks on the runs.
The contrast of warm to hot air temperatures (mid 70’s F / mid 20s C) and sunshine meant that running in the wetsuit was sweaty business and it was actually nice and refreshing getting in for the frequent swim sections as it enabled you to keep a lid on what would otherwise have been a rapidly rising core body temperature.
Nate and I kept chatting for the first half of the race to make sure neither of us were burning too many matches with the pace we were setting and, despite a couple of very minor navigational errors (swimrun requires a lot more attention to detail to follow the course markers than a regular triathlon or running event does), we ended up around 4 or 5th place as we got to the half way point.
We found that we were very compatible pace wise, especially in the swim. I was a little faster when the running was easy underfoot and Nate was like a mountain goat on the rocky stuff. Luckily he was patient enough to wait for me as I tottered over some of the more seaweed covered sections like a neoprene clad version of Bambi on ice, so overall we made a more than decent pairing and we moved past a couple of times to end up running in 3rd place on the road as we finished the section on Long Island.
About two thirds of the way into the race there’s a one mile swim from Long Island back to Peaks which is the longest aquatic section of the day. Nate and I jumped in there literally on the feet of an experienced pair of swimrunners - Swedes Jonas Nafver and Henrik Malmstrom - who were in 2nd and who competed in the ÖTILLÖ World Champs in Stockholm this weekend.
Those Swedes can really swim and we worked super hard to stick with them to get across the channel, hoping that this would keep us in touch with a reasonably long 3.5 mile run straight after where we thought we might be able to put a little gap into them.
It felt like we were cranking along and sure enough when I checked the GPS data after the race they pulled us along about 10-15 seconds per 100m faster than we’d been swimming on other sections. If you’re reading this, thanks very much for that guys…
Despite just losing contact with Jonas and Henrik in the final 200m (Nate and I swam either side of a marker buoy with the tether briefly getting caught up in it) we struck out on the run pretty determined to catch the Swedes up and managed to do so within the first mile.
We then put the hammer down as much as we could in the remaining two miles to get about a 45 second to 1 minute gap, taking us into the final sections of the course in 2nd place. Whilst we were overheating in the sun I think they were struggling more and that was ultimately what made the difference.
Both Nate and I dug really deep in the final 40 min loop around the 2 smaller islands that constitute the tail end of the course and were somewhat relieved to get into the final swim without anyone breathing down our necks. It looked like 2nd place would be ours if we could hold it together for another 600m or so…
We did just that and were stoked to cross the line just two minutes off the winners (Matt Hurley and John Stevens) who had also won the inaugural event last year and only one minute ahead of our Swedish friends who had clearly not given up the chase right to the line. Both Nate and I felt that 4 hours and 19 minutes of racing deserved a cold beer (and a PH 1500, of course) to kickstart the recovery process.
I can honestly say neither Nate or I expected us to be on the podium before we started the race and I feel like I’ve made a solid friend after being tethered to him for a whole morning by an 8.5ft piece of elastic rope!
It was a real shame for Todd that he had to sit out but I know he had a good day cheering his brother and I on from the sidelines too.
The final word on the race needs to go to race directors Jeff Cole and Lars Finanger, as well as their extended group of staff and volunteers. They produced a really world class race in Casco Bay despite the many and varied challenges that swimming through a bunch of busy shipping lanes and running over a series of public and privately owned islands creates!
Rumour has it there may be more Swimrun USA events coming in the not too distant future and I cannot recommend highly enough that you sign up for one if you own a wetsuit and a pair of running shoes. Thanks guys - you did an awesome job….