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Should You Try a SwimRun Race?
In the spirit of two is better than one, a new style of racing is catching on across the country.
Sometimes, a bit of nudging is all it takes to try something new. That was the case in 2019, when 43-year-old Courtney Maxey took on the “Battle of Waterloo,” an event in her home state of Illinois. A seasoned triathlete, she was drawn to the race’s 10-stage set up of alternate swimming and running (with a bit of cycling thrown in, too). “It looked like a good time and a few of my friends were doing it as well,” says Maxey, a massage therapist and personal trainer. After covering 42 miles in all, she crossed the finish line with a smile on her face. “I can’t say anything negative about this style of racing,” she admits.
Known as SwimRun races, these events are an increasingly popular option for people looking to test their fitness in a new way. They appeal to both veteran triathletes and less-experienced exercisers, with some races featuring beginner-friendly distances. If you’ve never heard of SwimRun before—or you’re itching to give it a try—here’s what you need to know.
Origins of SwimRun
SwimRun racing is a European import, getting its start in Scandinavia in the early 2000s. In its original days, groups of athletes swam from one small island to the next, running across the land before diving back into the water. Because of the variety of locales where SwimRun racing started, no standard distance developed. Today, one of the most challenging events, the Otillo Championship, features a total of 10k of open water swimming and 65k of trail running.
In the past decade, SwimRun events have popped up all over the world in a variety of distances and formats. “What makes SwimRun popular is that every race is unique,” says Herbert Krabel, a North Carolina-based athlete and race director who played a role in bringing the sport stateside. “In running races or triathlons, the focus is often on setting PRs. With the variety you see in SwimRun, that’s not the case.”
While a few SwimRun events allow for solo racing, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the sport is that in its traditional version, you race with a teammate. That doesn’t mean you’re doing a relay: Instead, you and your partner are traversing the entire course together, never more than 10 meters apart.
As a result, you can’t just partner an exceptional swimmer with a strong runner and go for the win. Rather, you’ll want to pick a partner who has similar swimming and running abilities as you and do some training together to perfect your pacing. Keep in mind that the swim is in open water and the runs are usually on trails, so if you can find similar spots during practice, that can be helpful. Another fun twist for those used to single-sex road racing: Teams can be male/male, female/female or mixed.
New Race, New Rules
One unusual aspect of SwimRun events is that you keep all your gear with you for the entire race. Unlike triathlon, where you have a transition area to return to between stages, SwimRun races are point-to-point, so you never have a home base. This means you keep your shoes on the entire event. “Most shoes drain well and will work just fine,” says Krabel. “But don’t wear waterproof shoes because they will hold water and become heavy.”
You are also allowed to use swim accessories like a pull buoy—a small flotation device you stick between your legs to allow them to rest while swimming—and paddles for your hands. In addition, some SwimRun athletes wear special wetsuits for the races. These are short, lightweight versions of the wetsuits you might see in a triathlon, made for swimming and running. “For newbies, cutting down an old triathlon wetsuit can work just fine, too,” says Krabel. Other gear you may want to carry includes a whistle to alert support if you need help and a small pressure bandage for emergencies.
If you’re used to lace-up-and-go road racing, SwimRun can be a lot to take in at first. “My advice to first timers is to make sure your gear fits well, then practice swimming and running in it,” says Maxey. Even with beginner-length versions of SwimRun, you’re going to be racing for a while, so make sure to fuel up before the event and bring some energy gels along for the ride, too, stashing them in your pockets. There are water stations throughout the course, but most will expect you to carry your own cup—foldable versions are the perfect option.
Finding an Event
Prior to the pandemic, SwimRun events were popping up rapidly across the country. Last year slowed that pace down some, but these races are beginning to return along with other forms of live racing. A quick internet search for SwimRun will turn up a bunch of choices. Organizers like IGNITE SwimRun and SwimRun NC are solid options, as is the Odyssey series, in which races take place in Maine, Michigan, Texas and Washington.
Maxey and a friend were slated to try the Odyssey Maine event in 2020, but didn’t get the chance. This year, she’s eyeing the calendar for a chance to line up at another SwimRun race. “These races allow me to view and experience a town in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says. “Most of all, they’re just fun.”