And while you can race solo in many short or sprint courses, it’s this emotional shared experience of the high highs and the low lows that make this sport fun and rewarding. To this end, choosing a swimrun partner can be a bit like choosing a life partner. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but hear me out as I do believe they share some common characteristics.
Brooke and Annie taking the leap at Orcas Island Swimrun
The Dating Game
While this was not how I found my match, I think shopping around could be a way to inform what you’re looking for in a swimrun partner. Some people meet their first race partner through careful planning and consideration, maybe like that of an arranged marriage. Others meet their first partner through a friend of a friend of a friend. Some prefer the blind date where they show up to a race and decide they want to do it with someone and hook up with another solo racer. Whatever your dating style, experience this awesome sport with whoever suits your fancy. By the end of it, you may cordially part ways or you may just swipe right and continue the journey.
The Initial Spark
Personally, I like a partner I just vibe with. Someone who makes me laugh, a person who embraces their freak side and brings out my own, a gal who will dance with me in the streets or forests moments before a race to get ourselves psyched up, a lady with enough crazy in her to be tethered to me for hours on end through some of my lowest lows. I knew that person was Annie from our very first race at the Bellingham Swimrun. I can’t think of any other race where I literally giggled the entire time. We had such a fabulous time experiencing this new sport for the very first time that we didn’t stop smiling and my cheeks were more sore than my quads by the end of it. From that event on, we were hooked…and literally tethered to each other every race since.
And you thought I was kidding about our pre-race dance ritual
Building a Solid Foundation
Like any budding relationship, a good chunk of time is spent building a solid foundation on which your future swimrun dreams can perch. I hate to be gimmicky, but I literally just realized our foundation is a concrete mixture of the 3 Cs: communication, collaboration, and connection.
Communication is key in swimrun. You can’t just take off on a run when you’re ready to go if your race partner is literally wrestling her pull buoy out from between her legs while getting pommelled by waves. You also can’t just skip an aid station because you’re feeling great and know you have two gels stashed away somewhere while you’re partner has a bra filled with snack trash and is about to bonk. And you definitely cannot just “go for it” trying to swim around the bow of a large lobster boat in a tenacious current and hope your partner being dragged behind you is going to make it too. These are exact examples of how Annie and I learned the importance of communication. We solved the first issue by choosing a unique call and response for each race to ensure the other is ready. In our last race when one of us was ready for the swim or run, we would yell “JOY!” and wait to get started until we heard an echoed “JOY!” from our partner. This not only provides a verbal confirmation that we are synced and ready to go, but you can read a lot into the tone or level of enthusiasm in your partner’s response and get a better idea of where they’re at mentally. The second issue was resolved by pre-race meetings together where we would plan out our fueling, which aid stations were a must, and which may be optional depending on how we feel at that time. That’s right. We did race for a good year without planning our fueling… amateurs. And the final issue was less of an issue and more of a crisis. As I barely made it around the bow of this lobster boat, Annie almost didn’t. Still tethered, our cord was making its way below the hull of the boat while Annie had to grip the boat with her cold little fingers and muscle arm around the bow in order to not be swept out to sea. We processed this experience quite a bit as it was a real scare. In the end, we should have detached before attempting the maneuver and are much more aware of how to keep each other safe while racing. So, as you can see, communication has been a learning process for us. We now know the importance of communicating before, during, and after races to ensure we are riding the same wave, feeling the same high, and living to do it all again.
The team is what makes swimrun so unique. And teamwork is one swimrun’s core values. Without focus on the team, how the team is performing, what the team’s goal is in that moment, you won’t go anywhere. I think our performance in our last race of 2019 at Ödyssey Orcas Island exemplifies this best. As previously mentioned, we had communicated well before the race, planning our fueling strategy, as this race had a few aid stations farther apart than previous races. We felt good with our plan and executed it as best as we could. Unfortunately, my best was not quite good enough. At all the initial aid stations before a big 3000′ climb, for every 1/4 PB&J I was getting down, Annie was consuming 4 (an entire sandwich!). We took the climb at a pretty good clip and by descent time, I was feeling horrible, to the point where on the following swim, I made myself sea sick from rolling side to side. No bueno. But Annie, in tune with my grumble of a “JOY” response, took note and came to my aid. “What do you need at this moment?” she asked. I told her I needed to slow the pace a little and take extra time at the next aid station to take down some broth. She adjusted her quick trot accordingly and made sure my collapsable cup runnethed over with warm chicken stock. Then as we pressed on, she insisted I take in more calories and offered me her secret stash of my favorite Tutti Frutti Science In Sport gel. Soon after, I was coming back to life. I’m pretty sure I would not have been able to finish that race without her help. It’s true you’re only as good as your weakest link, but when the team is your primary focus, that link can be strengthened.
The official rule of swimrun is that you cannot be more than 10 meters from your swimrun partner throughout the duration of the race. In any given swimrun, you will find partners who complete the entire event untethered, tethered, or a combination of the two. Regardless of how you and your swimrun partner race, to tether or not to tether can be a rather strategic decision. (Side note: our tether is so critical to our team strategy we’ve actually dubbed it the “umbilicus”). Generally, people will tether if one individual is a stronger swimmer and/or runner to help pull their partner. For the most part, this is how Annie and I operate. She is a stronger runner (especially on hills) and will lug me up a mountain if she has to; whereas, I am a stronger swimmer and pull her on the swims…although she is quick on my heels these days, so I mostly provide a draft. However, we’ve adapted our strategy depending on the race terrain, our individual levels of fatigue, and our own personal preferences. For example, Annie comes from a professional dancing background and when she descends hills, even on highly technical trail, she basically looks like she’s doing a series of pas de Bourrees (fancy dance term for twinkle toeing) down the mountain side. Now I, on the other hand, am like one of those mountain goats that gets stuck on some tiny ledge of a cliff face and can’t find its way down. So, when I’m tethered to light-as-a-feather Annie, it can pose a real threat to my ability to stay upright. This was delicately brought to our attention last year when racing Odyssey’s Orcas Island Short Course. As we passed a solo racer on one of the descents, he made the astute observation of “hey…you’re going too fast! You’re going to kill your partner” seconds before I face-planted on some fine Pacific Northwest mossy soil. What I discovered after that race while training solo is that I’m faster not tethered to her on descents. I’m able to let her get far enough ahead (but still within 10 meters) to see the trail ahead and plan my footing a bit better. So on steep, technical descent we untether. But the choice is between you and your swimrun partner and is no one else’s business.
No ‘pagne, no gain. Brooke and Annie’s champagne finish at Bellingham Swimrun 2019
Trying the Long Distance Relationship
Not everyone may have the luxury of living and training in the same place as their swimrun partner. While it would be my personal preference to train with Annie all year long, we live on opposite sides of the state. So, we make sure the virtual umbilical cord is strong by sharing workouts with each other, giving each other kudos on Strava, and talking frequently about our training goals, aches and pains, and overall strategy. Just like a life partner, maintaining a strong and healthy swimrun partnership requires some love and attention.
Planning for the Future
Sharing Similar Goals
Annie and I talk about our A, B, and C goals for every race. “A” goal is something we don’t think is quite in our reach, but would be freaking awesome if we accomplished it. “B” goal is something we have to work hard for, but are confident that under the best conditions can achieve it. “C” goal is something to aim for if things don’t go quite as planned, but would still make us really proud to achieve. We also have a “secret goal” each race, but I can’t write about it here, because well, it’s a secret. However, there is one goal that surpasses all these goals that Annie and I have shared since our first race: To race our best race and smile while doing it. Even when we aren’t feeling our best, or are recovering from injury, that is always our goal. Of course, winning is always on the table, but our number one goal for this sport is to be our best selves and enjoy the gift of swimrunning.
Pushing Each Other to Be Better
One of the best things about racing with a partner is that the motivation to become better is not only intrinsic, but also driven by a need and want to be better for the other person. Annie and I push each other to be stronger, more resilient athletes, better sportswomen, and better humans. There is so much I would have never thought myself capable of if it weren’t for her confidence in my ability to do it. And I like to think I’ve had a positive effect on her too. So, here we list the ways in which the other has pushed us to be better. I encourage you to reflect on the same with your own race partner, or the many race partners you may have had up until this point, because a team is only stronger than its individuals if each teammate truly values what they gain from the partnership.