Many months ago, Jordan told me about this different event called SwimRun being held in North Carolina and insisted we sign up for it. I didn't ask for details, just noted that it was a few weeks after the ironman and said "that should be fine." We didn't "train" for this event. Jordan maybe swam 2-3x in the past year and I had swam a whopping 500 yrds in the 3 weeks that followed Ironman Louisville. That said, our attitudes going in were somewhat different: Jordan was taking the "in it to win it" approach while I was all like "whatever dude, let's have fun."
We made the 2 hr drive down to Hanging Rock, NC the day before the race, picked up our packets, gave our team a name ("Hokie Pokies"... should have gone with "Slow Pokies" lol) then relaxed at the host brewery-bar for the evening. Since we had procrastinated in making sleeping arrangements and everything nearby was maxed out, we opted to car camp near the starting line. We did make a quick trip to Hanging Rock Lake to check it out that evening as well, but I don't think the reality of what we were doing there really sunk in (at least not for me).
Race morning was uneventful. Thankfully it wasn't too cold, which was one of my primary concerns for the race. We took a minimalist approach in regards to carrying gear (most people used paddles and pull buoys, we did without), dressed in our wetsuit and jersey "bibs" and made our way to the starting line a little before 8am.
After the horn went off, we took for the first longer run section of 4.3 miles (mostly uphill, single track trail). The pace from the start was QUICK, although doable. Jordan was itching to push and keep pace with the other mixed teams ahead, but I kept telling him "Patience! It's a long race!"
I opted to go completely watch-less for this race, so time and distance were irrelevant to me. That said, that first run section felt HARD, harder than it should have been as I was struggling to breath some and very warm in my wetsuit. We wound our way up the trail and eventually made it to some extra technical sections that involved climbing up slick rocks and crossing a few waterfalls (neat!) At one point we had the option of climbing straight up or taking a longer but "easier" route around, but without hesitation I went straight up. That is all part of the fun!!
With about 1 mile to go before reaching the lake I was burning up in my wetsuit and started to maneuver to pull it off my shoulders (also a great excuse to walk :P). Once we reached the lake it was time to suit back up in the wetsuit and prepare to plunge into the lake. Let me just say I was DREADING this moment of the race.
Hanging Rock Lake
The race involves crossing Hanging Rock Lake 4x (500m each) and 4x shorter 25m swims. Before the race Jordan asked me how long I thought those swims would take and I confidently noted "10 minutes ... for you... but I can likely do it in only 8 minutes." HA! Right... I was eating those words with humility after the race...
I entered the water and screamed because it was FRIGID and I hate cold water:"OMG you have got to be kidding me."
That first swim felt like a flashback to my first triathlon ever. I'm not sure you could call it swimming - more like surviving? - the wetsuit was constricting my shoulders and the chilly water suffocating. I felt faint and was honestly worried I was not going to make it. Jordan just kept asking "are you ok?" Yea... not my best moment. Coming out of the water, I was light-headed, yet now we were running on this technical trail...
From there we had about 1/2 mile trail run, another 25 m swim, plus another 1/2 mile "run" which was more so scrambling up and down large rocks. I was shivering and mentally it was very difficult to focus. It's hard to describe but almost felt like I was running half awake (or drunk?)... really not all there. We finished the loop and prepared to repeat it (2nd of 4 total times)
"Wait, we have to do that again?" (Obviously I studied the course).
After the 2nd loop of swim-run-swim-run, we prepared for the next longer running section of 5 miles up to Moore's Wall and back. I was relieved to get away from the lake and catch my breath! Jordan on the other hand was ready to bust up the mountain and catch more green teams. And uphill meant the opportunity to walk, right??? NO, apparently not :) according to Mr. Trail Runner who was quick to inform me, "This is our strong point, we need to make up time and pass people!" Cue mini meltdown from a grumpy Kristen... I was not in the mood to be rushed! I put my foot down and informed him that he needed to chill and his rushing me was killing the fun of the experience (he knows that rushing me is never productive). So we met in the middle: he backed off and I gave a little bit more of an effort :) We hiked/ran up the trail and eventually made it to the top where we were instructed to pose for a picture. After some fluids, we quickly took off down the mountain.
The downhill stretch was uneventful and peaceful. I was happy to be running downhill and Jordan was happy because we were finally passing some people. We were told that the trail was very "technical and treacherous" but really not so much by our standards and were able to pass quite a few teams in this stretch. I cherished this portion of the race knowing that waiting at the bottom was another 2 trips across the lake (ewww).
When we reached the lake again, we took in more fuel and pulled our wetsuits back over our shoulders. Meanwhile the announcer asked us, "So Jordan and Kristen, how's a race like this for your marriage?!" I think Jordan smiled and gave a thumbs up, meanwhile I just probably gave him my death stare of "yea, not gonna answer that right now."
Up next was a repeat of the previous two loops of swim-run-swim-run. The swims felt better, but still incredibly slow on my part. Jordan kept telling me to "sight" off of him yet was swimming to my left with the sun directly behind him (not productive). I finally sucked it up and gritted it because, well, why prolong my misery? Anyway, the nice part of the repetitive loops is we knew what to expect and were able to establish a rhythm of sorts.
After finishing our two loops (again), we prepared for the final longer run back towards the finish line. Thankfully this section was mostly downhill (!!!) so we were able to move at a fairly good clip and I think we passed 2-3 teams during this stretch. Approx 4 miles later, we put our wetsuits back over our shoulders to prepare for the final "swim" up the river (800-900 m). This was interesting because the water levels were pretty low thus there was very little real swimming involved. We tried hiking, then we tried breaststroke, but eventually I settled on putting my face in the water to look for rocks to grab and pull myself forward. We ran aground on rocks/shallow portions quite often so there was quite a bit of up/down throughout this stretch. At this point (thankfully!) we were relaxed and not in a hurry as we were safely buffered between teams (meaning, unlikely to catch anyone, unlikely to be caught). Eventually there were people on the sidelines yelling "you're almost there!" which I thought meant we had another 200m or so to go. Nope! They marked the swim exit!! The ending was a bit anti-climatic... but quite a relief... as we climbed out of the water, walked up the stairs and "jogged" across the finish line.
In total, the race took us 4 hrs 29 minutes (A LOT longer than I was thinking). Would I do it again? Probably! It was a neat experience, fun to try something new and simply a gorgeous day to be out enjoy nature at the peak of fall. Challenging for sure, but I am thankful to have had the opportunity to simply move my body and share in this neat experience with the hubby :)
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and endurance athlete residing in southwest Virginia alongside her husband and dog. Through this blog she aims to share favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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