Run in a wet­suit, swim in your shoes at trendy new events

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Fit City

Ever on a quest to chal­lenge my­self in new ways, I headed to Ge­or­gia re­cently to test the (very cold) wa­ters of a trendy new sport called swimrun.

Not sur­pris­ingly, swimrun started in Swe­den, the kooky re­sult of a bet hatched be­tween four drunk guys. They chal­lenged each other to race from is­land to is­land, swim­ming and run­ning and stop­ping at restau­rants along the way. The last team to fin­ish had to drink and pay for what the team ahead of it had or­dered for them.

In 2006, a ver­sion of the race — mi­nus the eat­ing and drink­ing as­pect — went com­mer­cial in Swe­den, at­tract­ing 11 teams. Then it picked up steam. Four years ago the swimrun phe­nom­e­non spread to the United States. At a typ­i­cal swimrun event, teams of two al­ter­nate be­tween run­ning and swim­ming over a pre-marked course, stay­ing within 10 me­ters of each other at all times. Some races un­fold be­tween is­lands; oth­ers be­tween in­lets and coves at lakes.

I love to swim. I swim on a U.S. Masters team here in Austin, and a few years ago my friend Gretch San­ders and I fin­ished a 28.5-mile re­lay swim around Man­hat­tan Is­land. When we heard about SwimRun Ge­or­gia, we signed up, ea­ger to tackle the 20-stage race at a pine- and dog­wood­stud­ded park an hour north of At­lanta.

This is a strange sport, I’ll read­ily ad­mit. Un­like triathlon, where ath­letes swap gear be­tween stages, sen­si­bly don­ning cy­cling shoes for the bike por­tion, say, then switch­ing to run­ning shoes for the run, swim­run­ners wear the same

cos­tume the en­tire time: wet­suits, shoes, in­su­lated swim “hats” and, if nec­es­sary, gloves. To coun­ter­bal­ance the weight of soggy shoes, they strap pull buoys to their legs and hang hand pad­dles from cara­bin­ers for the swim sec­tions. They stuff emer­gency whis­tles and high-pres­sure ban­dages into their pock­ets and haul all that stuff with them for the du­ra­tion.

San­ders and I signed up. It all sounded fab­u­lous.

Then a freak cold front blew in 24 hours ahead of race day. And so, on a frigid April morn­ing, we gath­ered along­side 50 or so other ra­bid hu­mans near the shore of Al­la­toona Lake, gear strapped to our bod­ies like we were headed out on an aquatic back­pack­ing trip. The air tem­per­a­ture at Red Top Moun­tain State Park hov­ered around 37 de­grees, and the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture stood at 58.

We were all in, though, so when the start­ing horn went off, we glee­fully charged over the pine nee­dles, pull buoys flop­ping at our sides, in­su­lated cloth­ing chaf­ing our ten­der skin, and chewed up three-quar­ters of a mile of terra firma be­fore fac­ing our first 600-me­ter swim.

I waded in, told my­self it wasn’t that bad (a lie), then took the plunge. My face stung, and it took a mo­ment be­fore I could breathe nor­mally, but af­ter a few min­utes we were swim­ming across a cove. Six hun­dred me­ters later, we lugged our­selves out of the wa­ter and be­gan run­ning in wet shoes and socks and a clammy wet­suit.

Run­ning in wet cloth­ing in near-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures is some­thing that war­rants a try. Once. My fin­gers went numb, and when one of my shoelaces came un­tied, Gretch had to retie it for me be­cause my fin­gers didn’t work. It was so cold that when we got to the se­cond swim sec­tion, that 58-de­gree wa­ter ac­tu­ally felt warm.

Still, for an hour and a half we felt more or less OK, and even en­joyed scam­per­ing through the woods. Then things got weird. Gretch’s left arm wouldn’t turn over quite right, and she’s a fast swim­mer. My feet went numb, so scram­bling over boul­ders to get out of the lake af­ter each swim be­came a chal­lenge. I felt like a pi­rate with a peg leg.

We wob­bled. We turned col­ors usu­ally re­served for items in the freezer depart­ment of your lo­cal gro­cer. Our lips couldn’t form words, and we be­gan to slur our speech.

We ended up mak­ing it about two-thirds of the way through the long course (per­haps we should have opted for the short course), swim­ming a cu­mu­la­tive 2 miles and run­ning just shy of 6 miles be­fore we agreed that things were get­ting danger­ous.

“That last 1,200-me­ter swim felt like the Ti­tanic hitting an ice­berg,” San­ders said later.

Even SimRun Ge­or­gia di­rec­tor Tony Ham­mett, owner of Peak Racing Events, de­scribed con­di­tions as chal­leng­ing. We weren’t the only team to bail. Half a dozen didn’t show up, and two oth­ers be­sides us dropped out af­ter the se­cond swim sec­tion.

We made it through five run and five swim legs be­fore we started to turn into vi­o­lently shak­ing grape Pop­si­cles. Race vol­un­teers hus­tled us into a warm car, where we changed into dry cloth­ing, hud­dled un­der blan­kets and sipped hot cof­fee. We thawed con­sid­er­ably in 20 min­utes but felt slightly dis­gusted with our per­for­mance.

Then we started laugh­ing. What a crazy sport. “You stuff your­self like a sausage (into a wet­suit) and run through the woods with ev­ery­thing you own hang­ing off you,” San­ders said.

No mat­ter how funny, hy­pother­mia is se­ri­ous business, though, and Dr. Ce­sar Gerez-Martinez from the Se­ton Fam­ily of Doc­tors at Davis Lane Clinic said we did the right thing by stop­ping.

Hy­pother­mia oc­curs when your body tem­per­a­ture falls be­low 95 de­grees. At first, you shiver un­con­trol­lably. Your heart beats a lit­tle faster and you get a lit­tle con­fused. If you don’t warm up, the shiv­er­ing stops and you grow lethar­gic. Even­tu­ally, the heart starts beat­ing er­rat­i­cally, and your or­gans don’t get enough oxy­gen. Body weight, air tem­per­a­ture, wind and wet­ness all play a fac­tor, and it can be fa­tal.

“If you keep go­ing, you’re just call­ing for dis­as­ter,” Gerez-Martinez said.

Chalk it up to ex­pe­ri­ence. And bad luck. Com­peti­tors at last year’s SwimRun Ge­or­gia splashed through 70-de­gree wa­ter be­neath sunny skies on a balmy day.

The sport of swimrun, ac­cord­ing to Ham­mett, is ex­plod­ing in North Amer­ica, mainly along the East Coast and in the North­east. Ham­mett is scout­ing lo­ca­tions in hopes of adding an­other swimrun event to his race cal­en­dar in com­ing years.

The sport, he says, draws swim­mers, run­ners and triath­letes look­ing for some­thing new. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity to use a lot of the skills they al­ready have in their bag,” Ham­mett said. The team as­pect is ben­e­fi­cial, too. “They don’t feel they’re out there alone.”

That cer­tainly fit the de­scrip­tion of two guys we met at the event, Carl Rys­don, 49, and Tom Bates, 48, both of At­lanta.

“I’ve been do­ing Iron­mans and triathlons and just try­ing to find any­thing dif­fer­ent,” Rys­don said as we loaded our­selves with pasta the night be­fore the race.

“It’s kind of up to you to fig­ure out where you’re go­ing,” Bates said. “It’s kind of an ad­ven­ture race kind of thing.” Ad­ven­ture in­deed. I just wish hy­pother­mia hadn’t been part of it.


Mar­cus Bar­ton and Dan Kim­ball of Team Orca on their way to win­ning the long course ver­sion of SwimRun Ge­or­gia on April 8.

Mem­bers of team MoveSwim — An­drejs Duda and Stevens VanDuzer — emerge from the wa­ter dur­ing the SwimRun Ge­or­gia race April 8.


Mar­cus Bar­ton, left, and Dan Kim­ball of Team Orca emerge from the wa­ter dur­ing SwimRun Ge­or­gia. The team placed first in the over­all long course.


Ath­letes in swimrun races strap a pull buoy to their thighs. When they get to wa­ter sec­tions of the race, they pull the buoy be­tween their legs to make them­selves more buoy­ant be­cause they swim in their shoes.


Some swimrun ath­letes mark swim and run sec­tion dis­tances on their arms so they know what’s com­ing.

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