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 dogwood-studded 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.”
I just wish hypothermia hadn’t been part of it.