The fourth run lead us to a cliff, 10 feet down, on the ground the letter “J” made with baking flour, marking the point to leap, the chilly 60* lake below. My teammate Angela and I stood side by side, on the edge of the cliff, seconds ticking by. Two bantering men came down the trail, another team, they stopped, waiting behind us. We jumped.
We both hit the water of Cascade lake, feet first, sinking down just a little, using the lifeguard leap, legs open scissor style mid air, just after hitting the water, squeeze the legs, popping up, keeping the head at the surface. I let out a joyous whoop, looking to Angela, having landed to my right, smiling, pulling down swim goggles, watching Angela clasp the tether to her belt, we verbally check in with each other. Good to go. We swim off across the lake, 500 yards, together.
Exiting the water at the north end of Cascade Lake into the picnic area of Moran State park, we are an hour into the Orcas Island Swim run long course event. We have completed 5 runs and 4 swims, still 8 runs and 8 swims to go, 1 package of honey stinger blocks consumed, one leg of 5 minutes swimming in 50 degree water, the salty Cascade Bay of the Salish Sea. Now we are starting our first long stretch of trail running, 2.5 miles to Mountain Lake.
The forest trail, trees, moss, rocks, dirt, streams, little foot bridges, are unbelievably beautiful, words never convey, one has to see it for themselves. We talk just a little because Angela has ear plugs and my insulated cap is both covering my ears and smushing them, we cannot hear one another. The phrase “what, I can’t hear you” is frequently uttered between us. We run together as a team, over the miles we share how we each love this landscape. I can see how these trees are the tall trees ship masts of days long gone were made from. We run light, quick steps, our energy is high.
We each have swim/run specific wetsuits on. These suits are short sleeve but with neoprene arm warmers, the legs stop just above the knees, with the zipper in the front. These suits are meant for running, the neoprene in the legs is thin to make it more mobile for running. Prior to race day both Angela and I discussed how we would take off our insulated cap and goggles during the run as well as unzip the suits to help from overheating, something we both experienced while training back in New England. On race day though, there was no unzipping nor cap removal! The air was chilly, mostly overcast, and the mountain lake water in September was chilly-low 60’s if not lower. Even though the swims were short in distance, I was thankful for the runs to help produce heat!
We wear our sneakers during the swims, no point wasting time to take them off though they create drag, many participants use a pull buoy. The pull buoy helps reduce drag, the legs float easier and are more streamlined. It’s more efficient, but we decided not to use the buoy as it is just one more thing to carry, plus most of the swims were rather short, so we skipped it. We also skipped using the hand paddles, again just one more thing to carry during the run. Our plan: travel light.
There are 41 teams out on the long course, a total of 20+ miles of running and 3 miles of swimming. But, it’s funny, as we make our way up and down the trails, we seem alone, no one visible in front, no one visible behind. Yet, each time we arrive at waters edge, another team arrives seemingly out of no where. Taking a moment before each plunge into the water, we stop to clip together.
The first few swims Angela and I tethered ourselves, a nine foot neoprene rope, each of us wearing a nylon waist belt for the tether. I was in charge of carrying the tether as we ran, the fixed end on my waist, the clip end for Angela, a silver medal carabiner I picked up at the hardware store, to attach and detach. The tether helped us stay together during the first few swims, so we wouldn’t lose each other, but as the teams spread out getting lost in the crowd was no longer a thing. Plus the tether was getting tangled as Angela swam behind me, a major inhibitor to her stroke. I wrapped the tether around my waist, clipped it and wore it, quite fashionably I ad, as a belt. Angela was toting a yellow buoy bag, a slightly inflated bag that she towed behind her as we swam, then slung over her shoulder as we ran, inside the bag was her Precision Hydration water bottle, soft and collapsible, and her GoPro.
On our steepest longest climb Angela pulls out her GoPro to capture a few seconds of video. I knew these video clips would be great to look back at later, and I was right.
I felt simple just running, no pull buoy, nor hand paddles. Friends together- run, swim, run, swim, eat, drink, run, swim repeat until we cross the finish line. Simple and raw. Self sufficient, work together, support one another.
The key points of the original Swim/Run events, Otillo as they are called, are meant to be pure and raw in my opinion. Check the website, OtilloSwimRun.com, and you will read such words as respect, dedication, teamwork, motivation, emotions, passion, adventure, sustainable on their homepage. We are all here to be challenged, experience nature, and all the emotions that can come from a long event both those highs and lows of spirits, the support of each other both teammate and fellow athletes, respecting ourselves, each other, the land, by being prepared, open to what comes, and self sufficient.
Angela and I are carrying our own food, I have 8 chocolate Honey Stinger gels, 3 packages of Honey Stinger gummy drops, and one FX bar, stuffed into the zippered pocket on the back of my wetsuit. I could not feel these packages in the pocket, but I am sure I looked very lumpy, plus my water bottle stuffed down the front of my suit. My Orca brand wetsuit, a coincident given the race venue, was designed specifically for SwimRun events. It zips in the front to allow to unzip to cool down, has pockets, is thin, 1 millimeter, neoprene to make it easier to run, Mine is black with neon green making me very visible, Angela in orange. Prior to the race, knowing it would be cold in the north of Washington state, then a little left, we wore insulated caps under our race specific swim caps, but neither of us ever felt overheated. We made our way step by step and stroke by stroke back to where we started.
As we passed through the aid stations, there was no hint of anyone before us-no visible trash- in the form of cups and wrappers. To keep the race sustainable, little to no impact on the land, we each brought a collapsable cup. I picked mine up during race check in, as I write this I remember I borrowed the $5 from Angela and still owe her that, thanks Angela you know I am good for it. At our first aid station I pull out my cup, it was tucked into the right sleeve of my wetsuit, fill it with water, drink, stuff it back and go. Clean.
Around our 17 mile mark, we pass the team of Lance Armstrong and Simon Whitfield. At first glance I did not realize who it was, they looked shorter and slighter than I thought, but they also did not look good. Also, I estimated them to be about an hour in front of us. Not what I expected. I did say hello, they kinda nodded a soft greeting.
Around mile 18, we disappointed aid station volunteer by not stopping in. Though he was very inviting and friendly as he told us of all the good stuff they had, we didn’t need anything, we felt good, so we continued on.
My memory is that this next stretch felt like the chilliest stretch as we ran in the shade of the late afternoon, this was the first I really felt the cold. I was not looking forward to this next swim.
Coming up to our next swim entry we had the option to launch ourselves off a rope swing, as encouraged by a volunteer sitting in a kayak below. Hmm, no, not today. I crawled down the rocks, a little stiff and clumsy from the cold, scraped my knee on a rock on the way down then plopped into the water. Looking back up from the water, Angela seemed to move a little more graceful down the rocks than me.
This time I really felt the water. It was cold, the wind was against us. Our next few swims and runs were short. I felt cold from the water, but the runs were not long enough for me to get my body temperature up. My swim technique is very efficient, so efficient that it is hard to stay warm. I resorted to using the breastroke to generate heat in the water. All through the race I was eating to help both stay warm and fuel my body. I felt I had done well with this, but the duration was becoming a challenge. I shifted my focus on the beauty and uniqueness of this experience.
Some of my favorite runs were over these tiny islands. Toward the end mile 19 we went over a little island that was about 25 yards long, fun, then a bit of sun peaked through the clouds. It was a beautiful moment, I felt great to be alive having this experience and having it with Angela.
Tiny island run completed, we jump back in to swim. Brrrrr.
As I swim, I reflect for a moment on what we have completed, then remember the best PBJ I ever had in my life thus far was on top of Mt Constitution a few hours ago along with a drink of water in my collapsible cup. Ah the simple things.
As we exit this swim, I share with Angela what we have left to cover before the finish line. For months prior to this event I had been memorizing this course. Knowing the course helps me mentally know what’s ahead as well as physically to plan fuel and where we are on the course. I tell this should be our last long run at 3.5 miles. As we ran I watched the distance on my GPSGPS watch. It ticked pass 3.5 miles yet we were no where near the water. Hmmm.
In the end that run was actually 4 miles and by that point my quads were hurting. I was feeling the effects of running downhill off the mountains plus stiffening from the cold. The ache started more than an hour ago, they were sore, And by now I was looking for the lake to relieve them.
Exiting our second to last swim, a volunteer happily told us it was “all downhill from here to the finish”. I know from experience these things are rarely true, and this was that moment. It’s not all downhill, I thought, as we climbed up a little hill. Then a few more little hills. Eventually the last swim arrived, a volunteer pointed the way, we jumped in off a rock. I got glances of a little blue sky on each breathe, savoring this point. After probably a hundred races thus far in my life, I tend to have mixed feelings about the end, the finish line. I can be excited to be done on one hand, wohoo, but then on the other I think this thing is over, a marker of the passing of this life experience. Even the “not so good races” the ones I really struggle through, there is that portion of the race I look forward to stopping, but don’t.
Reaching the beach where we had started 8 hours earlier, Angela and I run to the finish line where we are greeted by the race director, Brent. He personally welcomes us in and congratulates us. We are smiling, happy, tired, but what I hear clearest are the words “hot shower!” Best words ever! I love after a good effort whether it be training or a race, a hot shower or jumping in a lake, a reward, a feeling of cleansing, then fresh dry clothes.
Angela and I leave the finish area to head for the post race snack table. I grab a hot chocolate, we pick up our gear we stashed early that morning then head to the showers. Hmmm, I notice I didn’t bring a towel, fortunately there are paper towels in the dispenser of the bath house. Ahh, dry clothes felt just as delicious as the hot chocolate!
Next we headed for the Wood fired pizza. Ahh, “pizza and dry feet are the best thing ever,” I think. I love how simple these adventures are, I feel so, so grateful for the efforts of the race director and volunteers. The course lets me see, explore, and experience something beautiful which touches me inside and out. To which I then find great pleasure in the simple things like a physical challenge, new territory, exploration of body and mind, nourishing food, and dry feet! And of course friends to share it with!
Monday morning, post race, I was up early in the camper. The crew was still asleep as I scooted out into the early morning darkness guided by the light of my headlamp. Today we would leave early, I was hoping to have a full day post race before leaving but, the group needed to get on the road. So, I needed to get to the lake, to the trail one more time to say goodbye.
I placed a few things in my pack: towel for yoga, my journal for morning pages and gratitudes, plus a few warm things to layer up if I got cold. Down the trail through the campground I went to the lake. At the little beach area I did my yoga routine, breathing with the movements, offering my gratitude to the mountains, people, and the lake. I remembered two evenings before being here with my friends, we played doing yoga poses, taking photos, and some stretching.
Yoga done, I walked and jogged the trail around the lake. This trail is part of the course, I had great memories as I moved over the trail, especially the leap off the cliff! Next year I will jump higher, I thought. All these little things to be thankful for that allowed me to be here, to have this experience. With Gratitude!