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Why a Swimrun Race Is the Crazy New Fitness Challenge You Need to Try

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Photo: Richard Hill

Erica's lips have turned an alarming bluish purple hue, and from the chatter of my teeth, I'm pretty certain mine match. It's late October and the air is a cool 50 degrees. We're tethered together, shivering at the edge of a lake, and as we try to convince each other to plunge back into the frigid waters, I wonder how in the world she convinced me to do this.

I met Erica 10 years ago at a surf camp in Oahu, Hawaii. She lived in Chicago, and at the time, I lived in New York City. We bonded over our shared love of travel and adventure and so began a tradition of annual girlfriend getaways: a yoga retreat in Cartageña, a surf trip to Barbados, kite surfing in the Turks and Caicos, beach bumming in St. Barts. But this year, instead of our usual sun and sea escape, we were competing in a Swimrun race near Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

I had never heard of Swimrun until Erica forwarded me our entry back in January. The sport, established in 2006, began as a drunken bet between Swedes to swim and run across the islands in Stockholm's archipelago. Their inebriated scheme became known as the Ötillö (Swedish for "island to island"), a grueling 6.1 miles of open-water swimming and 40.3 miles of trail running interspersed among 26 archipelago islands—completed while tethered to a partner. Today, a series of Swimrun races, including shorter, sprint distances, are held throughout Europe and the sport is rapidly catching on in North America, particularly among women, according to Ötillö cofounder Michael Lemmel. (Related: The Most Exciting Multisport Races Are More Than Just Swimming, Biking, and Running

You don't just sign up for a Swimrun like you would a Tough Mudder (although, you definitely need to train for an obstacle course race, too.) Swimrun race directors screen team applications (male, female, and co-ed) to ensure "you have what it takes." Erica had been doing sprint triathlons since 2009, and despite being a single mom with a 4-year-old, had committed to nearly a tri per week this past summer. I am a runner, but between moving to Colorado and being on the road two to three weeks a month for work, I hadn't raced in over two years and my swimming experience extended to paddling a surfboard.

So I was shocked when I received an email saying we'd be one of the 90 teams competing in SwimRun NC 2017, a race comprising 14 miles of running and 3 kilometers of swimming broken up into 11 trail runs and nine swims at Hanging Rock State Park. "It was a very close call, so please train well for this very hard and very technical race that took teams last year between 3.5 and 6 hours to complete. I would love to be proven correct," wrote race director Herbert Krabel. Not intimidating at all.

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Photo: Brian Fancher

I told myself not to panic as I sent Erica my half of the $350 race fee over Venmo. I had 10 months to train and there was always the chance she'd come around and agree that a fall trip to the Caribbean would be way more fun. Winter passed and I still hadn't gotten in a pool. In March, Herbert emailed to remind us there were only 242 days until race day. I scanned the email and immediately called Erica when I got to race tip number one: "If this is your first Swimrun event, we recommend that you experience running in completely wet shoes and socks. You can also test swimming with shoes at your pool." Now I was panicking.

Unlike a triathlon, which transitions from sport to sport, Swimrun alternates between running and swimming and requires its own unique set of gear. For efficiency, you run in a special Swimrun wetsuit that's just the right thickness so you stay warm in the water, yet don't overheat running, and you swim in your socks and sneakers, which should be lightweight and fast-drying. (Speaking of the right footwear for the job, are you wearing the wrong sneaker during your HIIT workouts?

It wasn't until July, when Erica forwarded me our Airbnb confirmation and her flight details, that I realized there was no going back. I knew the running wouldn't be a problem. I have clocked a 3:16 marathon and slogged over 70 miles of trails in one go. But the swimming terrified me. I hired a master's swimming coach, who introduced me to hand paddles and pull buoys and warned that my biggest challenge would be endurance. Her advice to log up to two hours of pool time a few days a week would have been easy if I weren't traveling for work. The summer leading up to the race, while Erica was competing in triathlons, I visited more than six countries and found myself doing laps in child-size hotel pools. 

A week before race day, my wetsuit finally arrived, and despite my shimmying and tummy sucking, I could not get it to zip. I called Erica close to tears, mortified that my lats had grown Hulk-like from all of the swimming. When I finally got myself out of the neoprene suit I noticed the company had accidentally sent a size too small. I was ensured the correct size would arrive before my flight, but the day of my departure I was still suitless. I overnighted another suit to our Airbnb and when Erica caught a glimpse of me trying it on she burst out laughing. "Jen, you put it on backward." I was used to surfing-style wetsuits that zip in the back. It turns out, the original suit would have fit if I'd only zipped it in the front.

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Photo: Brian Fancher

I was feeling excited as we arrived at pre-race day check-in. The fall foliage was a brilliant gold and orange and the race started and finished at a pub. Team Beach Bums (yes, that's us) would be competing against teams named Bro-Tastic, Persist, and All Gas No Brakes. My confidence wavered. There were an equal number of male, female, and co-ed teams and nearly all of the competitors seemed to have had triathlon, if not Ironman, experience. (Related: This Woman Just Set an American Record for Finishing a 10-Ironman Triathlon

It seemed like the common appeal for most competitors was the teamwork. "You always have a friend and you're never alone," Kristen Jeno, a Swimrun veteran and one half of team Sole Sistas, told me. "Sharing the experience is special. You're as strong as your weakest link, me in the run for sure. So I set records when I'm tied to my teammate, Jenny." (Sole Sistas would go on to clinch first female team that day.)

That evening, as Erica and I packed our bags with gels and bars, she could sense my tension. "You can't leave me," she said. "We're a team." Part of me wanted to laugh. She was the triathlete. I was worried I'd be the one doggy paddling in the water, slowing us down. But she was right. I am a perfectionist and hypercompetitive. It's not that I'm not a team player, but being single and childless, I'm used to being accountable only for me.

Race day morning was chilly and wet. Just as Herbert bellowed "five minutes till start time" over the loudspeaker, Erica shouted the first of what would be many F-bombs that day. After all of my wetsuit drama, it was her wetsuit zipper that broke minutes before the race. Luckily, someone had a spare men's small, not quite as thick, but better than nothing. I zipped her up as the gun went off and we dashed into the crowd of tethered competitors. We found our stride and I was actually smiling until mile three when Erica realized she'd forgotten our timing chip amidst her wetsuit crisis.

At the first checkpoint, I explained our situation and the official agreed to count us. After 4.5 miles we high-fived as we pulled on our goggles and hand paddles for our first of four 500-meter crossings of Hanging Rock Lake. Despite warnings, I hadn't practiced swimming outside of a pool, and unlike most teams, Erica and I had never trained together. This was the moment of truth. It turns out, with 9mm front leg padding on my wetsuit, plus the swim buoy and hand paddles, I glided like Michael Phelps. And because teams entered the water at different points, we were fairly spaced out, alleviating my fear of being pulled under water.

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Photo: Brian Fancher

We crawled out of the lake feeling strong, only to be hit by the frigid air. The next .3-mile run was barely long enough to regain feeling in my toes before we had to swim 25 more meters, run .2 miles, and brave another polar lake crossing. With a thin wetsuit, Erica was looking hypothermic. A concerned woman pulled us off course to warm her up. "Should we quit?" she asked me. I hadn't been prepared for this. There was no way in hell I had come all the way to the middle of nowhere North Carolina to quit. "We can do this," I told her. "It's going to be painful but we're going to finish."

So we continued on, climbing 642 slippery stairs, traversing waterfalls, and barely surviving another two crossings of the lake. There were points where we each cried; where we each had doubts about our own physical limits. But together, we swam down the final 800 meters of the rapid-filled river, climbed a dozen stairs, and ran the remaining 50 yards, side by side, to cross the finish line with frozen smiles. (Related: How to Scare Yourself Into Being Stronger, Healthier, and Happier)

It had taken us 5 hours and 29 minutes, but we did together, and that is what makes the Swimrun so special. We were far from first place, but we certainly weren't last, and as we sipped victory beers, the two men across from us at the pub confided the cold temperatures had them close to tears as well. The best of friends, I realized, challenge us to do things we would never have the confidence to do on our own.

That night, Erica vowed, we'd never do such a crazy thing again and we started scheming a 2018 trip to Greece. By the following weekend, she'd emailed me details for a Swimrun race in Georgia.

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