The day before the 1000 Lakes race, I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pant leg and dipped my foot into one of the lakes we’d be swimming in.
Having just spent the last four months training in 20°C water and 30°C land temps in the south of France along the Med, there was no way my foot was prepared for 8°C water. Turns out my entire body was not prepared for less than two digit land and water temps even with a wetsuit on. Our team (my beautiful and inspiring wife) and I DNF’d on race day. But I’m not disappointed or bummed or angry, I’m just happy we got as far as we did. Our training was exceptional and proved to us that we could make the cut off times. The cold really threw us for a curve though.
Race day I was feeling a little intimidated. I do not have a classic physique for swimrunning or any endurance sport. My body shape is best suited for a sport that would involve pulling stumps out of fields while drinking. I was feeling like a coal mining pony in a herd of thoroughbreds. Still, I love participating in any type of endurance sport.
As soon as the race gun went off, we were off and right on the pace that we had trained for. The first four some odd kilometres went well despite one little detour. Some merry prankster had screwed with some of the trail signs which sent a bunch of us on a brief detour through the woods. Still, our pace was good.
When we hit the first patch of water, something just wasn’t right. I could feel I was off my training pace. Usually, I am slightly faster than my wife, but on race day, she was much faster than I was and kept having to wait for me. Not good especially when water temps are only about 8°C. Any idle time means you’re just burning precious energy in the cold.
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I’m still not sure. Maybe I just wasn’t warmed up, or it was an issue of buoyancy. Since we train in the Med, the salinity gives me way more buoyancy than fresh water. Either way, this wasn’t the first time this has happened on race day. We’ve already decided that at the next race, Nancy will be towing me at least on the first few swims.
Hitting the second run through cold, foggy fields, I could sense that something was wrong with Nancy. She seemed panicky and was talking to me as though we were running for our lives. I was in front of her so I couldn’t see her face but she just kept uttering panicked phrases about how we had to keep going and go faster. I checked my Garmin and we were well ahead of our pace time. I didn’t know what she was talking about and put her hyperactively odd behaviour down to race day jitters.
We have done previous races in similar water temps but the difference was the land temperature. With no sun and it hovering around 9°C, it meant you were simply running with the cold water from the lake still surrounding you. Even if the sun was out and it was that cold, it would have given us the opportunity to warm up because the black of the wet suit absorbs the solar heat.
That run to the next swim was cold. Even though we were only an hour and change into the race, I could not feel my heels and had to really watch the ground because I couldn’t rely on my feet to feel the ground. It was on that section of the race that race directors were running up and down the field of racers telling us that the last long swim was cancelled. The night before the race, they had already cut down a kilometre plus swim to about 300 meters.
‘If they’re changing the race as the race is going, this is going to be one long, cold sucky day.’
The second swim was longer but I finally started to get my stride back. Nancy was still ahead of me but she didn't have to wait for me and near the end of that swim I found myself gaining on some of the other racers that had passed me and was happy to have finally found my swimming pace.
Coming out of that second swim was tricky. There was a dock that I tried to climb up on but I couldn’t make my hands grip because they were so cold so chose to scramble up the bank. My legs were basically frozen stiff and I couldn't make them bend the way I wanted to so I had a couple of face plants on the way to the cut off timer.
We made the first cut off time with about 15 mins to spare. Relieved I grabbed some banana at the aid station and checked on Nancy. She was shaking uncontrollably and couldn’t be still enough to eat or drink. She looked cold but still healthy and I told her how great we were doing and that we were going to finish. She did not register what I was saying. A few minutes later, one of the organisers whom she knows, grabbed her by the shoulders and with a look of concern and said, “You don’t have to do this race.”
I shook it off. The first time I knew Nancy was in trouble was a few minutes after that. I turned around and Nancy was dropping behind me quickly. This never happens. On race day she is the one charging. Her running pace is a bit faster than me and if she is behind me while training or racing it’s to keep my pace up. For her to drop behind means something’s wrong. I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t doing well.
A few minutes later when we came to the next swim, she backed up and said, “No.” She never says no. On training or racing, she is the first to dive into the water while I’m futzing with equipment as an excuse not to get back into the cold water. When she backed up from the water, it was the first time I could see her face. She had deteriorated greatly in the ten minutes or so from the aid station - blue lips, slurred speech, and pupils the size of an 18 year old kid at an electronic dance festival. One look at her and I didn’t hesitate. The race was over for us.
The fact that several other teams were dropping out at that point combined with one woman who was having a seizure on the ground made me realise Nancy didn’t just need some encouraging talk.
I know Nancy felt horrible and later she asked me if I was disappointed. “Not one bit.” She couldn't see what she looked like and when I saw the state she was in, I was just happy that she was ok.
The thing is that with the Otillo swimrun series you have to accept that nature is the biggest part of the race and that nature decides whether or not you will finish these races. When almost half of the race either doesn’t show up at the start line or drops out of the race because of what the weather has offered, I don’t feel as though that gutting it out was an option for us. Any disappointment I felt was quashed when I saw our friends Thomas and Jasmina come in second in the race overall, just a few minutes behind the first place winners. They themselves had some tough luck and DNF’s in the past two years and to see such incredible competitors and people finish in style made me proud just to have trained and competed in the same race as they did.
I grew up in a small town north of Toronto. I started running on country roads and fell in love with long distance running when I was twelve years old. I loved (and still do) getting up just before the sun and going for a run in the country. Running in Canada you get everything from 30+°C heat in the summer and minus 20°C cold in the winter. I started challenging myself when I was 13 and would just run for hours on the weekends not really knowing the distances or pace but just seeing if I could run to the next town and back and then set a new challenge. I first heard about an Ironman when I read an article about it in Sports Illustrated when I was about 13 years old. At the time, an Ironman was a disorganized, crazy endurance challenge and I set my sights on doing one. Finally did my first Ironman more than ten years later in Canada out in British Columbia after completing several marathons and several smaller triathlons. I finished. I still remembered how exhausting that first one was. Although I’m not fast, I love the endurance aspect of sports. This led me to the world of ulra-marathons where I’ve done a 50 mile, 100KM and 100 mile race. A few years ago, my wife told me about these swimrun races in Scandanavia. Easily the toughest endurance event I’ve done because you need to not only have endurance but you have to be quick. Then there’s the challenge of nature, the cold and trails. The best thing about it is being a team with my wife and sharing the highs and the lows that a demanding endurance sport brings. One moment you’re telling each other to fuck off and the next you’re kissing at the finish line.something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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