On Saturday, Oct. 21, I completed my “A” race of the 2017 season, SwimRunVA. Held in Richmond, the endurance event spanned roughly 18 miles, totaling 3.3 miles of swimming in the James River and 14.9 miles of running along trails.
The uniqueness of swimrun centers on its structure and logistics. Unlike typical road races and triathlons, this is a team event, meaning each athlete sticks with their partner for the duration of the competition. (Garden State SwimRun was an exception.) Most swimrun races are point-to-point, starting at A and traveling to B, and all contain multiple transitions that challenge athletes to go back and forth between swimming and running. Finally, all gear that is used for the swim must be carried on the run and vice versa; ultimately, this equates to swimming while wearing running shoes and running with paddles and pull buoys. Sounds like fun, right?
Pull buoys, paddles, wetsuits, oh my!
“Fun” was the guiding principle for my triathlon training this year. My coach and I worked to round out my endurance portfolio, gain multisport experience in a variety of events, and ultimately keep this lifestyle fresh and fun: I guided an Achilles athlete for a marathon (and we’re doing the NYC Marathon tomorrow, but that’s another post!); I participated in swim meets; and, I competed in two swimrun events.
Getting after it on the trails
SwimRunVA sounded interesting because with the abovementioned outlook, it demanded lots of swim and run training, which meant lots of time working on my not-as-strong triathlon disciplines. Since I had never attempted this type of race, my training saw some new techniques and different workouts, and it also introduced a team component. Although I love competing solo, I grew up playing team sports; the fact that I would be tackling 3.3 miles of swimming and 14.9 miles of running with a friend not only gave me peace of mind—knowing we were in it together—but it also made me train harder. It was easier to tap in to motivation knowing that my teammate was counting on me.
Scoping out the swim
As the race approached, my teammate and I met up once each week and completed swim-run bricks together: twenty minutes of swimming, 20 minutes of running, 20 minutes of swimming, etc. These workouts gave us the chance to identify sustainable paces (we projected a five-hour finishing time), work on communication, and above all, get used to transitioning from swimming to running and vice versa. Each Sunday was a key workout day for me: I’d run 3.5 miles to masters practice, swim for two hours, and run 3.5 miles back home. Overall, I swam 4-5 days per week and ran four days.
Anyway, onto our memorable weekend in Richmond!
We flew down from New York City late Thursday afternoon, which gave us enough time to get our bearings, explore the area, and take care of last-minute race necessities. We ordered a swim-run race kit from Europe that contained our tether, pull buoys, and compasses, but the package was held in customs, leaving us without gear. Luckily, we found a swim shop within an aquatics center, so we bought the required items. Friday morning began with a shake-out half-mile “run” to the Black Sheep for breakfast, and we also ventured down to the American Civil War Museum to check out the mighty James River—its surging rapids and monstrous boulders were clear indicators of just how gnarly the swim portions would be, and we were pumped!
One reason the boulders were so visible was due to the low water level, the race director Jay told us at the pre-race briefing and dinner. (Sidebar: two thumbs up for the veg-friendly spread!) Last year, the James was about five feet deep while the water measured 3.5 feet. This meant we would have to swim around and potentially over these rocks, and these natural road blocks added an extra challenge to navigating the course: there was never a true straight line we could follow. Unlike triathlon, where there are buoys stationed at various points on the course, the swims in Richmond had two buoys only—one at the entry point, and one where competitors exited. Safety measures and general swimrun etiquette was also discussed, and Jay also reviewed the course in its entirety. Although SwimRunVA was only my second ever event of that kind, I felt relaxed and at ease after the briefing. Sure, there was some uncertainty—how would my “new” pull buoy hold up on the run? What if we got lost?—but it would be an adventure!
Fiddling with my paddles
I wish I could talk about each of the seven runs and six swims in great detail, but honestly, the entire race was a blur. My teammate and I settled in to a comfortable, endurance pace with the objective of managing our energy and simply enjoying the day. The opening run and swim segments set the tone for outing as we were greeted by a gorgeous sunrise. During those moments—especially during the swim as it was the longest continuous one of the day at 1.1 miles—I took time to reflect. I felt grateful to be in nature, exploring a new-to-me area. I felt grateful to have a body that allowed me to swim and run. And I felt grateful for the experience as it was unfolding moment to moment.
Thanks for the suit, Blueseventy!
Race day conditions were perfect. The air temperature started around 50 degrees and steadily climbed to the low 70s, and the water hovered around 60 degrees. The first swim felt a little brisk, but it ended up being ideal as the race progressed; each time we finished a run segment, we were ready to get in the water and cool off. (There are a handful of companies that make swimrun suits, and Blueseventy hooked me up with a prototype they are introducing to the market next year. I absolutely loved it!) Most of the running legs traversed trails, but there were a handful of “urban” running segments with stairs, ladders, and—my favorite—a pipeline. Full disclosure, we did get lost three times, but that was our fault. (Race protocol dictated we carry a course map, which proved to be helpful in these instances, ha.) Plus, it gave us a chance to further explore Richmond.
I felt like I was in The Hunger Games!
Team Two Stevens finished in 4:47, and we narrowly missed the podium in the mixed division—by four seconds! But more importantly, we had a blast, and we already registered for next year’s race.