I was a bit nervous about racing Otillo Catalina after my previous epic failure at SwimRun North Carolina. I knew I had the fitness, I just needed to be a more cautious on the execution and preparation the days before the race to ensure proper hydration and focus. If I let Chuck down again as a swimrun partner, I might be served friend-divorce papers soon after.
I hadn’t been to Catalina Island since I was a kid. I went there for a couple camps in elementary school. I was excited to go back and bring my kids for a fun weekend getaway. The weather was looking nice with some cooler temps on race day, which had me in a positive mental state the week leading into the race.
We ended up driving to Santa Barbara Thursday evening for a family dinner in order to break up the drive to San Pedro. Friday morning, we carried the sleeping kids to the car for a 5:30am start in order to get to San Pedro in time for our boat, while being overly cautious towards to possibility of LA traffic. We met with Chuck, Annie and little Henry at the San Pedro harbor just prior to our 9:30am departure on the short ferry to Catalina.
While most racers were staying in Avalon, we opted to stay in the much smaller and more rustic Two Harbors. This is where the race would start and finish, so I thought it made logistical sense to be close to the race at the cost of the additional restaurants and amenities in Avalon. We rented a 4-bedroom, 3-bath villa from Banning House, just a couple hundred yards from the beach and the race start. It ended up being a great location, plus still gave us access to breakfasts at the Banning House Lodge and evening wine and cheese receptions every night.
We spent Friday relaxing at the beach, the park and the house. Since there was really only 1 restaurant at Two Harbors open for each meal, we decided to take advantage of the house rental and cook our meals in the house. We were also “smart” enough to bring a few bottles of our own wine from home to enjoy. The general store seemed to be fully stocked with everything we would need for home-cooked healthy meals.
Saturday morning, Chuck and I went out on a quick 30-minute run right when we got out of bed. We chose to do one of the first climbs on the course. Right away I knew this was going to be a tough course. We definitely couldn’t run the hill and ended up power-hiking up. What great views from the top though. Even on the way down, it was more ginger-footed hiking and slipping than running. Talk about steep! Ugh… Sunday was going to be a killer.
The two families then took the ferry over to Avalon. It’s a windy 40-minute high-speed boat ride over and we were lucky enough to see many dolphins along the way. In Avalon, we had tickets for an underwater boat ride so all the kids could see fish from the “submarine”.
We also got lunch and did some “tourist” shopping before catching the 2:30 boat back to Two Harbors and spending the rest of the day relaxing at the house. That evening, we made another excellent dinner… and I tried to control my wine intake as it was the night before the race. Instead of wine, I switch to a bottle of Skratch Hyper Hydration for a big dose of sodium to hold in some water prior to the race.
SwimRun seems to be a late-morning sport. Race start was 9:15. Sleeping in till 6 felt good (as my body usually is naturally up at 5am every day of the week). Two Harbors was still very quiet as everyone was still in Avalon and would take the ferry over a bit later in the morning. Breakfast was coffee, and toast with almond butter, banana and honey. Very tasty.
All athletes had to be at registration and check-in on Saturday in Avalon. But because Chuck and I were in Two Harbors, Michael, the race director, agreed to meet us both Sunday morning for our own private registration and race briefing. This was very nice and accommodating of him and we both appreciated the flexibility. We met with Michael at 7:30 to pick up our bibs, race caps, timing chips and talk a little about the race. After, we headed back to the house for another hour of relaxing and slow preparation.
After putting on all my race gear on around 9am, we headed down for the quick 1-minute walk to the race start. By then, Two Harbors was filled with racers who had been ferried over from Avalon. We corralled ourselves about 1/3 back in the pack of about 110 teams to wait for the countdown.
Swimming and Running with a Friend
The gun going off made me jump. And we were off on a quick trot up the dirt road. There wasn’t much to do but follow the groups in front of us. I knew after the first few hundred yards of flat running, we would all be walking up the first climb. Sure enough, there was a major traffic jam after the first right-turn up the hill as we moved to the single-track and had to single-file around a locked gate lined with cacti. After the long pause to get around the gate, I looked up to see the long progression of athletes power-hiking up the steep dirt incline. I just focused on following Chuck and not getting lost in the sea of other athletes.
After a couple false-summits, we finally made it to the peak and were able to get in a quick jog, before the steep decent down the hill towards the ocean. The views were amazing and it looked like we were running off the side of a cliff, into the ocean. The downhill was very steep and slippery with rocks and dirt. The downhill was more of a quad-killing shuffle than a run. At the bottom of the decent, we hit a dirt road, that led us another few hundred yards back to Two Harbors where we quickly grabbed a drink at the aid station and said hi to the family.
I had decided to start the race in my wetsuit, so the transition to the first swim was fairly simple. As we ran to the beach, I grabbed my paddles and swim cap from the pocket in the front of my shirt, zipped up the front of my wetsuit, then waded into the ocean and reached for my pull buoy to put between my legs. The water was cool, but felt good after the wetsuit run.
The first swim was just under a mile. We couldn’t see the swim exit at Big Fisherman Cove, so we just had to sight the edge of the cove in the distance. I tried my best to swim straight and sight, while not hitting any mooring buoys which lined Two Harbors. I also had to keep an eye on where Chuck was so we stayed together and never more than 10 meters away. Overall, I was feeling good. Swimming felt very easy, and I got to rest a bit in anticipation of a long day.
At the boat ramp exit, I tried not to slip and fall as I got out of the water, pulled my goggles down around my neck and got my cap, paddles and buoy properly stored for the run. I decided not to take down my wetsuit as I was now a bit chilly from the cold water (61 degrees) and I knew the next run would be fairly short, at 3 miles. We started off with a minor climb along a fire road, and then headed back towards Two Harbors. Chuck seemed chipper and positive as usual, and we settled in on an easy pace with fast feet.
In Two Harbors, we stopped again for a quick drink at the aid station, then ran down the road for the last mile of running before the next swim. We finally made it to Ballast Point Beach, and entered the rocky shore for a quick 400-meter harbor swim to the other side. This was a quick and easy swim, and since it was in the protected harbor, it was a warmer than the previous swim. I kept my eye on Chucks bright-yellow paddles just behind me to the right as we crossed together, while avoiding the moored boats in the harbor.
When we exited the water at the boat ramp, I knew we were in for a long run section. Looking at the map beforehand, I could tell this run was going to be brutal with the long and steep climb to the top of the island. In all, this run section was the longest run of the race at 6 miles.
I decided not to take off my wetsuit top, but to just unzip the front because I was still chilly from being so wet and the air temperature was still under 60 degrees. Right away, I knew this climb was going to be massive. Sure enough, just a few hundred yards into the run, the fire road started becoming so steep, every team began power-hiking. I could see all the teams were hiking and no one was even trying to run. Chuck and I tried our best to move forward quickly while hiking up the hill.
The first mile and half of hiking to the first aid station was grueling. I really didn’t know how long the climb was, but it just went on and on. While 1.5 miles doesn’t seem like far, when you’re power-hiking something this steep, it seems like an eternity. Chuck was clearly a better power-hiker than me and seemed like he could have enough energy to even run it. He was leading us and I was doing my best to keep up. I was also trying to be somewhat conservative in my effort in order to not fall apart like in North Carolina. I was content to keep power hiking, and long as I was moving forward.
My lower back also started killing me and both my feet fell asleep… great. I had to alternate walking forward and walking backward to relieve pressure on my lower back. I’m sure Chuck was pissed seeing me hiking backwards every few minutes…. But it sure did help my back. We finally got to an aid station, which I was hoping was the top of the climb. I grabbed some water and a banana and went for some salt-tablets I had in a vial in my shirt. But I guess the vial wasn’t water-tight because ocean water had gotten in and dissolved all my salt pills. I ended up tossing the whole thing in the trash. Guess I wasn’t going to be taking any salt.
We then continued some ups and downs along a ridgeline at the top of the island. The views were amazing. We still had to hike most of the climbs, but we did get in some running when the downhills weren’t too steep. When we did finally start the long decent back to the ocean, it was still slow-moving. The descents were slippery and steep. I had to zigzag the dirt road to keep traction and not slip. My poor quads and toes. Plus, I still had rocks in my shoes from earlier in the race, which was slightly annoying.
We finally made it to Parsons Landing, which was a small beach in a cove. The swim was to be a simple 700 meters in the shape of a rectangle, where we would swim out from the beach, turn right at a buoy, parallel the beach to another buoy, for a final turn in back to the beach. But when we got there, we saw the washing-machine-looking ocean with waves crashing on the rocky beach. Oh man!
We stopped at the aid station there for a quick bite and drink before making our way to the shore. Chuck wasted no time and quickly dove through a crashing wave and began swimming. I paused for a moment to time my entry before doing the same and diving in under the next wave. Swimming out to the first buoy was rough. I tried to swim quickly at first to get out of the wave break. Even after that, the large swells coming in, made for a bumpy ride and I had to time each stroke and breath to not get a mouthful of ocean water. Another team we were with was also trying to make it out to the first turn buoy and was struggling as well. They cut the buoy and made the turn prematurely. I never wanted to be called out for missing a buoy, so I pushed on a bit farther to make it to the buoy and go around the outside. The next section paralleled the shore, but the large waves coming in really tossed me around and made it hard to find Chuck. I just got a glimpse of his yellow paddle every now and then. I was just praying this wasn’t going to make me sea-sick. After the second turn, we headed back to the shore as the waves came from behind us. I tried to keep an eye on incoming waves and ride them the best I could. Finally, stumbling out of the water, disoriented, I was glad it was over. Chuck and I just looked at each other. I’m sure it was the roughest swim either of us had done. It took a while to mentally regroup after that. I think we were both getting tired at this point. I stopped to take off my shoes and shake the rocks out. And then we were off on the next short 1.2 mile run on some single-track, both of us joking to each other about the swim.
After what seemed to be too short of a run, we made it to Camp Emerald Bay and to Johnsons Landing, for our next swim. This is when I started to get tired and run-down. I really wasn’t looking forward to the next swim. This was a .8-mile swim, which was around a point, so we couldn’t see the swim-exit from the swim-start. We just started swimming to the point, and hoped we’d see the exit flags soon after that. In Emerald bay, the water was very clear and I somewhat actually enjoyed looking around and seeing the ocean bottom as we swam by. But when we turned the point and started swimming to the beach-exit, the water got colder and I started getting uncomfortable. I could feel my body slowing down from the cold and each stroke wasn’t getting me as much power as it should. I started to fall behind Chuck and did what I could to keep up with him.
When we exited the water, I was happy to start running again to get warm. I left my swim cap on to keep in any heat I could. We came to another aid station where I grabbed a few cookies and shoved them in my mouth. The aid station volunteer said we were coming up to the longest swim of the race. This was a bit intimidating for me. We ran another 600 meters, which included a small path through some brush down to the water. We were off on the next mile swim towards a point called Lion Head.
This swim was essentially between two points on the coast, which pushed our line farther out into the ocean and not as close to the shore. This made the water temperature particularly cold for me. The swells were also much larger, so I was moving up and down a lot and had trouble keeping an eye on Chuck and the direction I was swimming. About one-third the way through this swim, I began to feel so cold that my legs felt like they were seizing up. Not quite a cramp, but I had to sit-up in the water to relax the muscle. When I sat up, I was able to look around and see how far we still had to go. Looking across the ocean during long swim in swells seems daunting and scary. This was the first time I started to get very uncomfortable in the water. The number of safety boats was not what I expected from most races. They had, maybe, one boat per swim to watch the swimmers. There is no way a single boat would see me for the mile of swimming. In my mind, this was not enough to ensure the safety of the swimming. I was now seeing why having a partner was so necessary. I was happy to have Chuck just in front of me, in case things went really bad.
By the end of this swim, I was really not feeling good. My whole body was shivering in the water, and I was fighting just to keep my stroke rate up. I almost felt like I was making no forward progress. After, what seemed like the longest swim of my life, we finally made it to the rocky and cold exit. I slipped and fell a couple times getting out of the water on the rocks, cutting my shins. I was very disoriented from being so cold. We made it up a steep path to the main road for the next 2.2-mile run. I remember Chuck looking back and asking if I was all good and needed anything. I said to him “I need a hug”. I was partially joking, but probably would have taken a hug from him in that moment. Anything to get me warmer as I was shivering as I ran along the dirt road. I really did not want to get back in the water.
Luckily the longer run started warming me up to the point where I wasn’t shivering anymore. Chuck and I were mostly quiet to each other as we ran. I just focused on not tripping and reminding myself we only had 2 more swims before the finish…. I could handle that.
At the Fourth of July Cove, we got in the water once again for the 800-meter swim around a point and back in to Two Harbors. I was a bit weak from being cold, so the swim took longer than it should. Chuck was still leading the way by the end of the swim as I started shivering again and lost some strength. At the beach-exit we ran through Two Harbors and stopped at the aid station for some cookies and a drink. The volunteer was positive, telling us we only had 1 more swim. I think she could tell I was cold and hurting. We saw Camille and Annie and I don’t think I even was able to muster a smile. Just a cold, blank stare. My stomach wasn’t in the mood for cookies, so I ended up carrying them for a way, and then just tossing them into the brush. I knew the end was near.
We had a decent 3 mile run back to Big Fisherman’s Cove. At this point, I was just focused on Chucks feet and nothing else. I just followed him as we ran through the dirt roads and then to the final trail before making our way down the last boat ramp and into the water. I really really did not want to get in the water again. But I knew this was the last swim and the finish was on the other side. Just a short 1-mile swim to go before I could get warm.
The last swim back to Two Harbors was extremely challenging for me. The coldness came back instantly for me and I felt no energy or power in my arms to move me forward. All I could do was sight on Chucks yellow paddles in front of me and push as hard as I could to keep up. It felt like the shore wasn’t getting any closer, no matter how much time I thought passed. Eventually, and very slowly, Chuck made it to shore, then turned around for me to make it out of the water and to the beach. I was so cold, I could barely take down my goggles. We ran along the beach, under the pier and then up to finish shoot.
After crossing the line, I still don’t remember things very clearly. I was just gone, mentally. I remember Chuck talking into a microphone as the announcer asked him questions about the race. Michael, the race director gave me a hug (a swimrun tradition). I think he must have seen my blue face and lips because he immediately asked someone to get me a coffee and a cookie, as if my life depended on it. There was a mad scramble to find a coffee and cookie for me. Usually, I would be thrilled if someone put that much effort into getting me a cookie, but I was not in the right mindset to be appreciative of the effort. I held the Dixie cup of coffee and was shaking so bad that it just spilled all over my hand. I wasn’t able to get a sip or do anything as I was just shaking.
Team Chafing Our Dreams – Total Time: 5:58:36
Total Race Distance: 38.6k: 30.9k trail running and 7.7k swimming
The only thing I could think about was getting to a warm shower. The best decision I made on this trip was to rent the only house a hundred yards from the beach. I booked it as fast as I could to the house with Chuck. I made it to the shower and got in and just stood there, under the hot water with all my gear on, watching the mud and dirt wash down the drain.
I was in the shower for about 30 minutes, just trying to warm up. Chuck, Annie and Henry had booked the 4:30 ferry back to the mainland, so they were getting ready to leave. I tried to get out of the shower to get dressed to say goodbye, but the instant I left the warm water, I started shivering again. It took a while before I could gather the energy to get out of the shower and dressed. And by getting dressed, I mean, every layer of clothes I could put on under my down jacket.
I met up with Chuck down by the finish and I started to feel better and warmer. We got burgers and beer as my appetite came roaring back. We said our goodbyes before Chuck, Annie and Henry left.
I was finally almost back to normal and Camille and I and the kids went up to the Lodge for 5pm wine and cheese with a view. We ended up making another amazing dinner at the house with lots of wine, plus cookies and ice cream.
I’m very happy that I was mostly able to redeem myself after my last swimrun race. The goal was to finish with enough time for Chuck to make his boat back home and no one sprained an ankle. So overall, it was a successful event and quite the adventure. It was also one of the hardest races I’ve ever done. Ironman triathlon sure wears me out a lot more, where I’m not functional the rest of the evening. At least with this race, I was functional an hour after the race. But the race takes its toll mentally. It’s much more of an adventure with a lot of unknowns and some uneasy moments in an unforgiving ocean. The complexities of the many transitions from swimming to running to swimming and the complexities and benefits of having a partner make this race unique, frustrating, challenging and rewarding. I’ve also never been as cold as I have been during this race. I definitely pushed some new limits in terms of dealing with a cold and shivering body.
We’ll see what happens after this race has settled in my mind. I’m not yet anxious to do another swimrun, but that may change any day. In hindsight, it was enjoyable, but in the final moments of the race, it was miserable. But it’s amazing how quickly I forget the misery and focus on the accomplishment.
Here is the official Otillo Catalina Video:
And a fun press article: