Alex Sheen who only started participating in swimrun this year, reports on his first full distance course at Ödyssey’s Austin Pace Bend Swimrun. He finished inside the top 10 in the solo category and had a blast.
About Ödyssey Swimrun
Lars Finanger and the Ödyssey team have done a terrific job of finding locations across the USA that provide technically challenging courses in beautiful venues. You can read swimrun.com’s interview with Lars here.
Pace Bend Park in Texas delivers rugged terrain with the added challenge of (at least in my British eyes) being in a desert. With water levels in the Colorado River unseasonably low (even for a desert…!), the 27km course was going to involve a great deal of climbing and scrambling into and out of the swims.
A warm Texan welcome
One often hears of the hospitality of the southern United States and I certainly experienced this on my visit! From excited hugs from the Adorkables mere seconds after meeting them in person for the first time (Spoiler: they’re even lovelier in person), to breakfast with Batman’s Parents and Marcus Barton, and lunch with the Low Tide Boyz, I was received with warm arms into the US swimrun community.
After a quick swim and run shakeout on Friday, I joined a mass gathering of swimrunners at Pace Bend Park on Saturday, organised by Team Envol and the Low Tide Boyz to recce the trails and one of the swims. Following the mass of other swimrunners up out of the water it was evident quite how challenging the climbs up and down over large but loose rocks were going to be during each transition.
Did someone say there are rattlesnakes?
My primary fears for the race were not my fitness (though this was my first long course event, I’d done the training and was in my best shape in over a decade), but rather the nature. Lake Travis, the dammed section of the Colorado River that would host our swims is home to ‘gators and Pace Bend Park has a population of rattlesnakes. Naturally my new US friends took great joy in sending me photos of every snake they came across during my time there.
The shakeouts highlighted a new threat however, the heat. Friday morning it had been an almost unbearable 21°C and close to 100% humidity at 7am, presenting a terrifying prospect for Sunday’s race. Mercifully the weather broke Saturday night with a stunning thunderstorm bringing the temperatures at race start down to a much more palatable 12°C, it almost felt like a home field advantage in the presence of so many shivering Texans! (Reader, it wouldn’t last).
Gearing up together in the hall that served as a base for the race created a fantastic atmosphere of togetherness. Reunited with new friends from the day before, it was all smiles rather than game faces demonstrating what a different community swimrun is to most sports.
One of my favourite things about swimrun is the diversity of athletes in a race. The field in Austin ranged from former Olympic triathletes, One Water Race participants, and Ötillö World Championship Teams, all the way through to total newcomers to the sport. Trying to encourage those with nervous looking faces, we made our way to the start line and with that we were off to the races!
Super Sheen has lift off
Starting both the short and long courses at the same time made for a crowded opening 2.8km dash to swim 1 which was a rare rock free water entry, instead knee deep mud (big thanks to As Keen As Mustard for all the preparations for this at their UK races this year!). One thing that really contrasted the US swimrun scene from my UK races was the quality of swimmers.
With the collegiate sports system in the US keeping swimming a more mainstream sport for longer, and with a more established Masters scene, many more swimrunners than is often the case came from a swimming background.
With 6 swims on the long course, and 3 on the short course, many of which were close to 1000m, strong swimming was certainly required. As participants were spread out by the technical Run 2 and long Swim 2, I lost track of where I was in the field finding myself alone going into Run 3 the first of three the 5km runs in the course.
Race Director Lars had reminded us all that “slow is fast, and fast is slow” over the trails, and I learned that lesson the hard way. Keen to find my stride on the trails, I got into a comfortable rhythm and put my training he practice. Naturally it was at this point that I tripped on a rock and went down hard. One of those falls that’s over before you know it’s happened. Fortunately, my chin was the last thing to hit the ground and while I looked a bit of a mess at this stage (bleeding from both arms and my face) the damage was only superficial. Shaking off a moment of dizziness and after a few words with myself (#dohardthings), I got going again only to find a photographer around the corner – thankfully my gravel eating hadn’t been captured in action!
Refreshing swims after the relentless heat
Swim 3 came as a welcome respite after such a long run in the sun, and I was keen to get the blood washed off although even the freshwater stung a bit! The rest of the race was marked with repeated twists and turns and sharp inclines on the runs, and more bouldering in and out of swims. I usually finish a swim having calmed my heart rate but steep climbs undid all of this requiring a bit of a walk before I could get into a run.
Run 5 provided a glimpse of the rest of the field as it involved an out and back run – cue fist bumps and high fives with athletes going the other way. I was surprised to see some of the top teams coming the other way, maybe I was doing well! One particularly memorable swim-in saw me reach the top of the cliff that would normally involve a jump into the water, but with water levels so low, was now a climb down. I distinctly remember looking down and wondering how on Earth I was going to get down to the water!
Towards the end of the course, the Long and Short routes overlapped once again providing some wonderful opportunities to encourage those very close to the end of their race while Long course athletes still had a little further to go. The penultimate run brought us close to the finish line where Mark Finanger, the ‘Voice of SwimRun USA” was announcing teams coming in, it was clear that while I had slowed considerably through Run 6, the front of the race had not and they were all finishing.
Arms aching I climbed out of the last Swim and made my final push to the finish. With temperatures rising rapidly through the morning, it was 23°C when I finished, I was glad to be done!
I had made a last minute decision to pick up a Kangaroo top from the Ark stand at the race. The opportunity to try one on meant I could confirm I fitted one of the sizes in stock and this proved to be a great choice for the longer runs on this course so I could stash my kit and all the rubbish from my gels.
The debate remains out on the benefits of carbon fibre paddles over plastic, so I’ll be doing some further research on this through the winter, but my swim pace exceeded my expectations so something was working well.
Surveying the wider field’s kit choices, Adidas continues to be “the brand” of shoe to wear with many selecting the Speed Pro or Speed Ultras given their blend of grip and drainage (Adidas if you’re reading this we’d love to chat with you!). Ark suits were the preferred choice with lots of Vigg and Utö Air suits on show given the heat.
Ödyssey delivered a truly excellent race experience, from the venue and terrain, through to the pre/post race socialising and food. For those in the US looking for a taste of a “big” swimrun race, Ödyssey definitely provides, and for those from further away I can whole heartedly recommend making the effort to get to one.
Special thanks to Trista & Amy (+Matt!) of the Adorkables, Marcus Barton and, Chip and Chris of the Low Tide Boyz for their warm welcome to the USA. Thanks y’all!
Extra kudos to Bill and Chrissy Lankford of Mr & Mrs B who had also made the trip to Texas from the UK, and Alistair Garmendia at my Masters Club who provided me with some Union Jack temporary tatoos.
The greatest of thanks to my wife and children who supported my trip without them.