By Abby Mowinski
Finally, the long-promised race report from the inaugural SwimRunNC that teammate Allison Leppke and I tackled on a beautiful North Carolina morning on October 30. Admittedly, part of my foot-dragging to write this blog was not only because my feet, babied by Hokas all summer, physically hurt after racing in minimalist trail shoes, but because this race was HARD, folks. And sometimes it takes a lot for me to admit that things are hard for me. Simply put, this race served up a healthy dose of hubris. However, emboldened by the race reports of some of our accomplished competitors who had the guts to state outright that the race was challenging, here are my thoughts and experiences.
Abby and Alison the day before the race.
Roughly 30 miles north of Winston lies the home of SwimRunNC - Hanging Rock State Park - a gem of a
park featuring beautiful waterfalls, unique rock formations and outcroppings, and sweeping vistas. Team ATL Amphibians met up at the mandatory pre-race meeting, held at the Green Heron Ale House, which also served as the start and finish of the race. The race directors provided a detailed overview of the course and rules of the event. The driving theme of the meeting was respect – respect for your safety and that of your fellow racers on a challenging technical course, respect for the preservation and health of the trails, and respect for the event, as we were all serving as positive ambassadors for this emerging sport.
This was not your neighborhood 5K. Everyone out there had arrived with purpose and ambition – clearly a field of seasoned and competitive athletes, hailing from all over North America. The race directors talked us through the course, highlighting the technicality of the descent from Moore’s Wall, urging us to be smart and not break ankles (prompt eyebrow raise from both Allison and me). The course breakdown was as follows: a 4.5 mile single-track uphill run from the Ale House to Hanging Rock State Park, a 2-loop 500m swim in the lake interrupted by a short run around the periphery of the lake and a short swim across the dam, repeated twice, then a 1.7mile trail run approach and ascent up Moore’s Wall to the highest point of the race (and surrounding terrain), a 2.2 mile descent back to the lake for a repeat of the 2 sets of 500m lake swim, a return 4.7 mile trail run, and finally a 800m shallow river swim/slosh/scull in
the Dan River to the finish. Essentially, the race elevation profile was a mountain – a steady climb of 2,200 feet of vertical gain for the first half and then the equivalent descent for the return trip. Daunting? Yes. Doable? We thought so, and it was too late to change our minds anyway.
We arrived at the race the following morning with ample time to spare. The general mood was controlled enthusiasm, perhaps somewhat subdued, or better, reflective, as teammates stuck together, helped each other pull on their wetsuits, and gathered gear from the beds of their trucks. As the clock neared 8:00 AM, teams quietly chatted and smiled for photos. Our race strategy was simple – start off conservatively (not really knowing what we had in store), work the swims, and stay safe. The gun went off and, two-by-two, the competitors took off down the gravel road which very quickly funneled into the woods and single-track. In retrospect, Allison and I should have lined up more aggressively at the start, as it became very
challenging to pass teams in the first several miles due to the bottle-neck, but by the halfway point and return trip, the crowding had thinned out such that Allison and I were alone for the entire final run.
The first 3 miles were hands-down the hardest part of the race for me. The combination of running in a wetsuit plus the steady uphill gradient equaled a big spike in my core temp and heart rate. Due to my prior hospitalization for heatstroke/rhabdomyolysis earlier this season, this was a profoundly worrisome place for me to be psychologically and physically. I had hit the “what the hell was I thinking” and “please let Allison forgive me” point. Fortunately, at about the 3.5 mile marker, we hit the first of the waterfall climbs and that permitted a mental refresh and change of pace which helped tremendously. Not long after that, we made our approach to the lake – the first of the swims – and our comfort zone.
I had been anxious about the 50 degree water temps in the weeks leading up to the race, but, holy smokes, the water felt absolutely amazing! In addition to the myriad of details that the race directors perfectly executed, the swim entry/fuel stop was one of the best. Music pumping, volunteers cheering, and race announcer on the loudspeaker, the enthusiastic atmosphere provided the perfect energy boost Allison and I donned our caps and goggles, rotated our pull buoys into place, unclipped our paddles, and headed into the water. Despite some equipment issues with my paddles at the entry of each swim, Allison and I quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm, swimming side-by-side with impressive synchrony. Our matching swimming ability and pace made the swim legs very easy to execute.
Each swim exit provided a temporary challenge to overcome dizziness likely brought on by the rapid transition from horizontal to vertical and the abrupt change in temperature. Fortunately, it was short-lived, and I was able to shake the unsettling sensation after roughly 200 yards or so. After our two big swim loops, we were informed we were holding third place and we hit the trail that led to the Moore’s Wall climb, the most serious gain of the race. The Wall offered a series of 640-plus rough-hewn stairs carved
out of the monadnock. Thanks to the awesome Navy guys several yards ahead of us shouting out each stair count, we knew just where we were at with each step. Allison and I quickly realized that running
the steps in their entirety was not only inefficient but damn near impossible, so we “power-hiked” several
portions of the climb. We were overtaken by the third place women’s team during the climb and held our fourth position till the end.
For as challenging as it was, the climb afforded us a spectacular view (and photo-op!), as well as true sense of accomplishment as we gained perspective of the distance and height we had traveled thus far. We guzzled some water and were re-energized, knowing that it was truly “all downhill from here.” The descent from Moore’s wall was rather rocky, rooty, twisty, turny single-track and both Allison and I kicked into “self-preservation mode,” leaving our inner billy goats out to pasture. While we still maintained a steady click, we jointly decided not to cannonball down the mountain and had fun from here on out. I, for one, had loosened the shackles of competition and just enjoyed the ride. As we made our way down, approaching the lake for the second series of swims, we passed several hikers, who were so kind and supportive, sending us smiles and words of encouragement. The swims went by quickly and, before we knew it, we were back on the trail for the last 5 miles of running. We didn’t see any other competitors during the entire return run and were thankful for the immaculately marked course, as we could have easily convinced ourselves that we had veered off trail.
The final leg of the race was an 800 meter river swim in the Dan River, which we had initially planned on being our money leg. Due to the drought, however, the river levels were quite low, mid-calf to knee-deep at most sections. It was definitely easier and safer (slick river rock underfoot) to traverse with the river than to wade, but instead of swimming it was “baby sea turtle crawling” mixed with sculling and some fun sections of feet-first eddy surfing. I laughed the entire time.
As we approached the Green Heron Ale House, we saw Rogue, Allison’s awesome boyfriend, on the bank, directing us to the shore. A final climb from the river, we ran the up the stairs and through finish line hand-in-hand, elated and relieved. I think the pictures at the finish line really capture that sense of accomplishment. We ended up placing fourth in the women’s division – and, having never attempted a race like this before, were incredibly proud.