Swim, Run, Repeat
Athletes test their skills and endurance in the Casco Bay Islands SwimRun.
On an overcast August morning in 2016, a cluster of people stands on a rocky outcropping at Evergreen Landing on Peaks Island, scanning the water. Leigh Small of Portland and her three children are watching for their dad and her husband, Jeff, who is swimming the 1,700-yard distance from Long Island, tethered to his teammate, Zack Priest. The two men are among 242 endurance athletes competing in the first-ever Casco Bay Islands SwimRun, which kicked off just after 7 a.m. with a 1.8-mile running leg on Chebeague Island. Volunteers are ready with water and packets of energy gel as the first group of wetsuit-wearing swimmers comes in to the pebbly beach on Peaks, pulling clumps of seaweed from their tethers and being careful not to slip as they clamber up the rocks to the road for a three-mile run. It will be the longest running leg of the challenge, which traverses six islands for a total of 16 miles—12 on land and four in Casco Bay.
Kennebunk resident Jeff Cole conceived the Casco Bay Islands SwimRun after he saw a YouTube video of Sweden’s ÖTILLÖ SwimRun in the fall of 2014. Founded in 2006 and now the SwimRun World Championship for partner races in ten countries, the ÖTILLÖ (ö till ö means island to island) SwimRun covers 36 grueling overland miles and six miles of open-water swimming over 26 islands in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden. “I thought, ‘Wow, that is unbelievable. No one does that in the U.S.’” Cole says. “I knew immediately that we had the venue for it in Casco Bay.” Together with fellow triathlete Lars Finanger, now a Casco Bay Islands SwimRun co-race director, it took Cole two years to organize the inaugural event. “We were fortunate to be able to affiliate ourselves and were the first North American qualifier to the World Championship,” he says. The Maine race benefits the Travis Mills Foundation, which is creating a national retreat center in the Belgrade Lakes region for combat veteran families.
Cole describes the SwimRun as “a freestyling experience in nature and the environment.” Athletes receive a map of the course, but unlike in a triathlon, there are no signs to indicate the route. “We want as few encumbrances as possible,” he says. A compass is essential, especially for the swim legs. “From where you get into the water, you may not see where you are supposed to get out, and you have to take the tidal current into account.”
Perched on beach chairs in the back of a pickup truck driven by island resident Paul Castle, photographer Nicole Wolf and I are following Nick and Nora Daly, a brother-and- sister team from Cape Elizabeth. Peaks is our vantage point because the athletes will finish here. After the on- and off-road run they will reenter the water at Torrington Point, swim 800 yards across to Cushing Island, then 900 yards to House Island, before coming ashore at the beach next to the Peaks ferry terminal and running up a small hill to the finish line. As we trail them along scenic Seashore Avenue, we pass islanders walking their dogs and pushing babies in strollers—leaving the race route open to the public is all part of the SwimRun experience, says Cole.
The Daly siblings are Maine swimming royalty. Both racked up local titles before going on to swim at Middlebury College in Vermont. Nick Daly, 27, is now in his fifth season as a swimming and diving coach at the University of Chicago, while Nora, 25, is studying to be a physician assistant in New York City. “We’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been around for the summer, and that I got to go out with all the gear on and do a little island-hopping,” Nora says in a conversation before the race. “We’re not really land athletes, so that was good in telling just how I was going to feel climbing up on the rocks, running around on the islands, and then jumping back in the water.”
The Dalys are wearing short wetsuits, compression socks, and running shoes. They have hand paddles to aid them in the water, and a floating buoy is attached to Nora’s thigh. SwimRun participants are allowed to use swim fins, but like all the gear the athletes use, they have to be carried for the duration of the race. Plus, changing in and out of running shoes is time-consuming, so the Dalys have opted to skip the fins. “Running in a wetsuit is a little bit different, but we’ll see,” says Nora. “They’re nice, because instead of having a rear zip, which would be a typical triathlon wetsuit, it’s a front zip, so you can zip it off, and get a little bit of air circulation,” says Nick. “Regardless of what the water temperature is, you heat up pretty quickly once you start running.”
Twins Anna and Grace Senko have the SwimRun course map, including the distances between each point, written on their hand paddles. “The navigation part will be particularly challenging because we haven’t figured out how to use a compass,” says Grace as the sisters prepare for a training swim a few days before the race off of Harpswell, where their family has a summer home. Like the Dalys, the 25-year- olds both swam in college—Anna at UCLA, Grace at Columbia University—and consider the running segments more challenging than the swimming legs. They began training seriously—and separately—on Memorial Day. “If she runs before work I wake up to a text three hours later saying, ‘I ran five miles,’” says Anna, who lives in San Francisco while her sister is in New York City. They like the idea of being tethered on the swimming legs, “so you always know where your partner is,” she says.
Tethering is just one aspect of keeping the athletes safe in the water. Close to the course, a flotilla of boats from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Portland Harbormaster, the Long Island Fire and Rescue Department, and the Yarmouth and Falmouth Fire Departments are all standing by, prepared to pull out anyone in distress. Race organizers took the Casco Bay Lines ferry schedule into consideration in planning the SwimRun route, and thanks to morning fog that delayed the start for 20 minutes, the only potential ferry-swimmers contact point—between Little Chebeague and Long Islands—was eliminated. “Nick Mavodones and Caity Gildart [of Casco Bay Lines] were great to work with in making sure that we weren’t going to impose any hardships on people traveling to the islands, or put the athletes at risk,” says Cole.
For 2017, a shorter course has been added to the SwimRun, while the full-length course has been extended to offer more time on land. Both races will start at 7 a.m.—the short course on Long Island and the longer course on Cliff Island. Cole estimates that between 350 and 400 teams applied for the 90 slots in each race; merit teams were selected by the race committee based on their past performance in other endurance competitions and guaranteed a slot, while the remainder went into a lottery. “The interest in our race has grown substantially,” he says. “I don’t think it’s any mistake that people want to come to Portland, Maine, because Casco Bay’s so beautiful.”
Cole credits island property owners for allowing unfettered access to SwimRun athletes. “Without their permission and access this couldn’t happen,” he says. “I was surprised with the buy-in that the island residents had to it. [WGME-13 anchor] Kim Block has a house on Cushings and just happened to go for a walk that morning when she saw all these people running in wetsuits. She pitched into an aid station and started to help. That was a pretty universal reaction.”
The sun is beginning to break through as the first teams splash out of the water onto the Peaks Island beach. They face a final challenge, a steep, yet short, uphill climb to the finish line in a field next to the Lions Club, where a crowd and a lobster bake are waiting. The Dalys are the fifth coed team to finish and the fifteenth overall with a time of 3:59, while the Senko twins are the fourteenth female team and forty-second overall. “The toughest part was the Peaks Island run; it got really warm and I was running low on fluids,” says Nick. “We never needed to use the compass,” says Anna Senko, beaming. “I would totally do it again,” her sister chimes in. And indeed they will. On Sunday, August 13, the “In It to Twin It” team will be among the athletes setting off from the Long Island Wharf on the new short course, challenging themselves on land and sea in Casco Bay.