Casco Bay Islands SwimRun Race Report

by Khem Suthiwan

What does a triathlete do when racing IRONMANs isn’t as exciting as it used to be? Try something different…way different. Couple of weekends ago I was one of the lucky few to participate in the inaugural Casco Bay Islands SwimRun race up in Portland, Maine. This was North America’s first ÖTILLÖ-style SwimRun – consisting of a series of swimming and running legs between several islands. In this particular race the approximate distance covered was 4 miles of swimming and 11 miles of running. The caveat – you have to carry and/or wear all your gear for the ENTIRE race. No transitions. No changing tents. No SAG support.

Sounds like fun, right? Well, hold your horses. Entry to this race was via merit or lottery applications. Merit entries required each 2-person team to submit a summary of past achievements. Lottery entries required proof of verifiable race results with swim splits under certain. 20 teams were selected by merit consideration and 80 by lottery. Teams could be same gendered or mixed and teammates had to stay within 3 meters of each other throughout the entire race, hence the use of tethers during the swim portion by some teams.

Khem and Stephanie tethered and swimming at the 2016 Casco Bay Islands SwimRun
Khem and Stephanie heading out for a swim.

Was it easy? Not particularly. This course definitely favored stronger swimmers. From the very beginning, you had to overshoot your landing point because of the tidal currents in the water. Some sections there were 4-5 foot swells in addition to wake from nearby boats. As if that wasn’t already enough, there was seaweed…everywhere. At times an entire wig-full of seaweed would get caught on our tether. I would look back and see what appeared to be cousin It (from the Addams Family) getting dragged behind me.

Some of our water exits and entries were off sandy beaches, but more often than not we had to navigate through fields of thick seaweed and scramble over rocks. One island in particular was quite the challenge – Vaill Island. The approach took us through a bunch of seaweed, then scrambling over boulders around the entire island since the interior was covered with poison ivy. Once we made it around, we had to figure out a safe place to jump back in the water…and into the seaweeds.

Khem Suthiwan at the 2016 Casco Bay Islands SwimRun

The longest swim crossing measured just over 1,600 yards, and by far the toughest. Other teams we talked to after the race averaged about 1 hour for this crossing. The tide was going out when most of us reached this point in the race. Swimming against the current coupled by getting dragged down by seaweed made this section difficult both mentally and physically.

The one thing I was really worried about going into this race (blisters) really wasn’t an issue. But the chafing from swimming in the ocean for that distance – very unforgiving. My teammate and other fellow athletes learned the hard way.

A few lessons learned from our experience included:

  • Use swim flippers in addition to paddles. Flippers are allowed (you just have to carry them on the run), and based on the difficulty of this course, it would’ve helped us A LOT.
  • Ditch the tether in heavy seaweed areas.
  • Carry extra body glide during the race.
  • Overshoot your target by a lot, especially on the long channel crossing.

This race is definitely not for the faint of heart, the fair weathered athlete, or those worry about the water temperature. But if you are looking for an adventure where you can push your limits and go outside your comfort zone…AND know someone just as crazy and willing to do it with you, then SwimRun may be your next thing!

Big thank you to Jeff Cole and Lars Finanger for putting on such an awesome event and to New Wave Swim Buoys for providing each team with a swim buoy and the amazing drone videos from race day. Can’t wait to come back next year!

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