Harder, shorter and colder

I wanted to be faster than in my Swimrun debut in 2016 and that was not a completely unrealistic thought, but in a Swimrun race it is always about the team. I however lost two teammates in a span of 14 days less than a month before the race and it looked like my race might be in trouble.

Last year in July I competed in my first Swimrun race at ÖtillÖ Swimrun Engadin in Switzerland and the wonderful experience completely bonded me to that unique Swedish born new sport. My partner Matus Kriska and I finished 62nd out of 160 teams in that event after racing somewhat cautiously. I was a newbie and Matus, who had raced various other Swimrun events before, had not been able to train as much as he typically does and we thus decided to take our time during transitions and feed zones. Time wasted however adds up quickly with tons of transitions in a race when you come to a complete stop to take off your bib, pull up your wetsuit, put on swim cap and goggles, and then get the pull buoy and paddles in place before jumping into the water. The same of course is also true when you transition from swimming to running. We also were pretty slow at the aid stations and when all that time was added up, we only had moved 7:10 of our 8:19 race time.

For 2017 I wanted to have faster transitions and be overall faster. I ran a lot more, trained regularly on similar mountainous terrain on the SwimRun NC course at Hanging Rock State Park in North Carolina, and I even joined a master swim group, something I had always avoided. But the altitude in Winston-Salem is 970 feet (300 meters) and the race start of the ÖtillÖ Engadin is at 5,910 feet (1,800 meters. The course however was changed and was now shorter and harder, so I decided that a faster time was not the ideal measure. My new goal now was for our team to finish inside the top 50 overall.

My 2016 partner Matus Kriska had agreed to join me again for this race and I was very happy about that match-up. Matus is a very fast, talented and calm athlete and thus an ideal Swimrun teammate. But with big medical school exams hanging over his head, Matus was apparently struggling with his studies and training. He could not decide what to do and then apparently did neither. In mid June I learned that he was in a difficult spot and I told him to focus on his studies and that I would find a new partner.

I then got Vladimir Banas to join me in Switzerland. Vlad is an experienced ultra marathoner, long distance triathlete and strong swimmer, and he was going to be in Europe anyhow. He and I had already agreed to race in another event together, and we seemed to match up well. We ran the SwimRun NC course together one day and it went very well. I was thus very optimistic about our upcoming adventure. But only a week later while driving home from work he experienced a scary tachycardia episode, and that meant he was now out too. With the race now only 11 days out and in far away Europe I started to worry, but did not give up. A good friend of mine recommended American Carson Christen as a possible teammate, and it turned out that this TriSutto coach who currently resides in Schweinfurt, Germany had planned to go to St. Moritz, Switzerland on July 9th (race day) anyhow as he was part of a training camp with Brett Sutton that started a day later. This 28-year old former college swimmer from Iowa was clearly plenty fast in the water and we seemed to match up well for running together too.

I arrived in Silvaplana, Switzerland on Thursday, July 6th and Carson joined me a day later. That afternoon we spent a couple hours exploring the first 2 run segments of the race, plus we swam that first swim segment in Lej Cavloc and got to test out the SwimRunners tether system in very cold 48 degree water. The tether worked great, and we seemed to match up very well in terms of running speed, goals and expectations. I was also happy that the ML prototype Huub Swimrun wetsuit that I had brought from the USA fit Carson like a glove.

We did another swim together the day before the race and watched the ÖtillÖ Engadin Sprint, but mostly we tried to take it easy. At the mandatory race briefing late that afternoon we sat with several other North American teams, listened to a passionate speech by Michael Lemmel and met some teams who were among the favorites to grab the top spots. After a solid dinner we hit the sack early with a long day ahead, but neither Carson nor I slept well. We tossed and turned and I guess eventually we passed out.

We got up at 5:45 and after a quick breakfast we put on our gear, added on sunscreen and Body Glide and then walked to the bus stop. We had to be there at 7am to catch one of the chartered race busses. The busses were packed but thankfully the trip to the race start in Maloja did not last too long. With no transition to set up there was just chit chatting and last minute bathroom visits and then we all lined up at the start for a long day of running and swimming in a magnificent setting.

We stood somewhere near the front, but not too close. The air temp was in the high 50s and we had decided to keep out wetsuit tops up. It also appeared that most other teams had opted to do the same, and with a blast from the start gun, we were off with 160 teams from 27 nations.

The field spread out quickly during the first 3.275 km run on a gravel road and at the first bend it looked like we were way in the back of the field, but when glancing towards the back it was obvious that we were not. The first 775 meters were flat and then the course started to point uphill and slowly the field spread out more and more. The race organizers had flipped the first 2 segments (compared to the previous year) to allow the field to properly settle before hitting the narrow trail. In 2016 we had to run up a very narrow hiking trail and overcome 350 meters of elevation gain to get to the first swim, but this time we stayed on the gravel road instead and saved the tricky hiking trail for the return trip.

We ran up that first climb relatively mellow, just as we had planned, and in no time we arrived at the first mountain lake. There were several teams around us, including the Canadians Barry Berg and Elliot Rushton but it did not feel crowded. A quick refreshing 270 meters swim in Lej Cavloc and next was a “goat path” with 230 meters of elevation gain. The whole segment was 5.25km on a narrow and technical hiking trail that initially went up 230 meters in elevation before dropping down 355 meters to the next swim. As we power hiked up the climb we had no idea where we were in terms of an overall place but with female division contenders Nina Ellmark and Anna Sporrong (Team Spiggen och Spätten) right behind us on that climb it could not have been too bad. They eventually passed us and they then disappeared from our view not to be seen again until the finish. That was the only spot we lost on the climb, and we gained a few more by the time we reached the top. The descent was rather tricky and we let a few teams come by us. During that section we noticed a couple mixed teams where the male seemed to really put pressure on the female partner and we both wondered how long that would last. I slipped once on the technical descent but landed perfectly on the Huub Big Buoy on my hip unharmed. There was a time check and then another 2.5km run with 50 meters elevation gain to the second swim.

We had not pulled our wetsuit tops down and thus the transition into Lake Maloja was smooth and fast. Our tether system also worked well and we passed a few teams during that 550 meters swim. This one and the other remaining other swims were in the 55 degree Fahrenheit range.

We next tackled a 6km run with 200 meters of elevation gain followed by another swim of 830 meters to an island in the lake. After a short run of 550 meters we jumped back in the water to swim 685 meters back to the land. The 170 teams from 27 countries were well spread out by now and we steadily passed other teams in the water, and some teams actually started to use our draft. The next run was 6.570km and again had an elevation gain of 200 meters. We power hiked most of the steep sections and still managed to pass teams, and with a couple other teams we played a constant yoyo. We passed them on the way up and they passed us on the way down.

The 5th swim was 625 meters in length and it led to the very tough climb in Silvaplana. 375 meters of elevation gain and drop in under 4km of running on relatively tricky terrain. By now it was a bit warmer but we still ran with our wetsuits up. We in fact never pulled our wetsuits down during the race, we just opened and closed the zippers. The next swim of 815 meters was followed by a 2km run and we were now well in the second half of the race and we both felt reasonably good.

The 7th swim was the longest with a length of 1,400 meters and a storm arrived during that segment. The lake got very choppy and with such a long exposure you could really feel the 55 degree water temperatures. According to Carson this was the only swim where he could feel the "pull of the tether." But he then said that it was more so the current and not the German guy attached to him by the hip. I came out of that swim feeling cold and with somewhat wobbly legs, but when I looked around I noticed no other team nearby. We grabbed some food and drinks at that aid station and then moved on to the final climb of the day. All of the sudden I noticed a team running towards us and still slightly dizzy from the swim I thought that maybe we had gone wrong. We continued running in that direction, but I turned around to make sure we did not have to go somewhere else. I then tripped and fell and hit the gravel path very hard. I busted open both palms of my hand and my right elbow and forearm was a bloody mess. My left knee was also scraped open, but the biggest pain was surely that right elbow and right hand. The volunteers nearby rushed over and offered assistance but I was stubborn and said I was ok. I also noticed that the team running towards us was one of the front running teams (German Sparkle Party in 5th place overall) returning from that climb and about to start their final swim. So yes, we were going the right direction but I was now hurting and felt a bit nauseous. We slowly continued and Carson was very calm and supportive. But I decided to climb back into the lake to wash all the gravel and dirt from my open wounds. I felt terrible, and wondered if this was the end of our race, but there is no crying in Swimrun. Plus I did not want to disappoint my teammate. He had made a big effort to race with me and I surely could not stop now. So we continued. I had a compression bandage with me (required gear) but I thought it would be wasted on my elbow considering that we still had one more swim in front of us.

The final climb was new and unknown but I had heard that it had a tricky section in it. At 384 meters of elevation gain it was the tallest climb and it felt like all of it was hard and challenging. When we were half way up thunder and lightning hit and cold rain came pouring down. We actually still had our wetsuits zipped up and we both still had the swim caps on, and that seemed perfect for the conditions. We passed a Spanish team on the way up and caught a French team on the way down, plus a British team really smoked us on that downhill. The descent was difficult and the rain and slippery conditions made it even more challenging. Plus after that fall I was less willing to take a risk. Carson briefly slipped but did not hurt himself. After what seemed to be an endless descent we finally arrived back at the lake. We had been looking forward to that final swim, but when we arrived at the swim entrance the race officials told us that because of the lightning we could not swim that last leg and had to run around the lake instead. Actually only the first 9 teams swam all the swims, 100 teams did not swim the last swim, and 33 teams did not swim the last 2 swims.

At that point the French team we had passed earlier came back and moved ahead of us, but one of them looked to be really slowing down. My gas tank was also running empty but we now had less than 4km to the finish and when one of the French guys stopped we pulled past them again. I was also ready to walk, but Carson coached me through that final rough spot. He picked sections we would run to, and then point out how long we could walk. The French team was now about 30 seconds behind us and with our calculated runs and walks we managed to gain more time on them. We didn’t even walk that last section we had “selected” and ran to the finish. Our time was 6:49:19. Good enough for 24th place in the male division and 36th place overall. And according to Carson who ran his watch as "one run" we only did not move for 9 minutes.

I was very happy with the result and Carson Christen turned out to be a fantastic partner. He was strong, patient and smart and easy to get along with. Word also has it that we may see him at the start of another Swimrun race. He told me that he thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I would want him as a teammate in any race.

The Canadian “Notorious B&E” squad of Barry Berg and Elliot Rushton had a great race. They finished in 6:14:18 and that meant 19th place overall. Floridians Reeli Reinu and Tagg LeDuc of “Agony of Defeet” finished the race in 7:34:17 and that was 85th place overall. Also the British “Olden but Golden” squad of Steve Quinn and Maxwell Long who reside in the USA finished in 7:54.25 and that was 105th place overall.

Among the 33 teams who did not do the last 2 swims were the American “Mosquito Pancakes” male team of Bennett Droessler and Brandon Sack plus the American “T-Rex loves Cardio” mixed team of Christian and Courtney Loeschel. They finished in 7:56:55 and 8:07:33 respectively. Another American listed in the results under the male team of “Rafalution” is Josh Meir Levine. He and his Israeli partner Stephen Levey also were unable to swim the last 2 swims and they finished in 8:31:27.

Several of the International athletes I talked to all had planned vacations in Europe around this race and without a bike in tow that is pretty simple. I too went to see family and friends for a few days before returning to the USA.

The image above is the elevation chart from the Engadin race.

My equipment for the race was as follows: Huub Amphibia SwimRun wetsuit, Huub Big Buoy modified with speed laces, Farm to Feet Greensboro 3/4 socks, Inov8 Terraclaw 250 running shoes, Garmin Fenix 5x watch, red size L Strokemaker paddles and Aquasphere Kaiman goggles. Carson and I were connected during the swims with a SWIMRUNNERS pull belt and tether, but this race did not use it during the runs. Carson raced in a Huub prototype SwimRun suit and he too was using the red size L Strokemaker paddles, but he would have preferred smaller paddles. He used the SWIMRUNNERS pull buoy that attaches easily to the SWIMRUNNERS pull belt with a parachute buckle. He swam with Huub Varga goggles and he ran in Asics SuperJ33 road shoes.
I carried 3 spare gels in my pockets, the emergency medical kit and a whistle, plus I took a spare swim cap. I only consumed 1 of those gels, and had mostly bananas and energy drinks in the aid stations. Plus I drank water in the lakes while swimming - on purpose.

Next year, there will be another Swimrun adventure abroad for me but it is not yet decided which one, but I would suspect it might be in Sweden.