The jagged rocks and sizable boulders that surround tiny Vaill Island in Casco Bay look formidable for an ocean swimmer to climb up – let alone run around in a race.

Looking at the island from a boat, Lars Finanger and John Stevens, directors of the annual Casco Bay Islands SwimRun race, now in its fourth year, quickly correct this misconception.

“You cannot run it. It’s one of the unique features of the race,” said Stevens, who grew up on Little Diamond Island and lives in Portland. “You’re climbing and maneuvering and stepping over lobster traps.”

Swimrun, started in Sweden in 2006, involves two teammates alternating between ocean swimming and running as they race 10 to 30 yards apart (10 yards on the swim, 30 on the run), moving from island to island.

The event in Maine, organized by Odyssey SwimRun (formerly SwimRun USA), was the first swimrun race to be held in the United States; the year was 2016. It was co-founded by Jeff Cole of Kennebunk, who died in 2018. Even so, few Mainers know anything about the Casco Bay Islands swimrun race, now also called the Cole Classic in Jeff Cole’s honor. Today Odyssey SwimRun also produces three other races in the United States.

“It’s a very young sport in the U.S. It’s a young sport, period,” said Finanger, who co-founded SwimRun USA and has competed in the Swimrun World Championship in Sweden.

Lars Finanger rock hops along a portion of the Casco Bay Islands SwimRun course on Long Island earlier this month, demonstrating the rugged terrain racers have to navigate in the fourth annual event in Portland Harbor. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

On Aug. 11, the Casco Bay Islands SwimRun will bring 450 athletes to Portland Harbor. The race has sold out each of the past three years and is close to selling out again.

Finanger and Stevens, two of the race’s four producers, believe that’s because the Casco Bay islands – and the swimrun experience – speak to the outdoors spirit of the fit and adventurous. The race mostly appeals to endurance or multisport athletes, like triathletes, looking for a demanding challenge and an unpredictable backwoods-type adventure. Finanger said roughly 1 percent of the swimrun athletes race to win, a handful are semi-competitive, and about 95 percent are in it for the odyssey – thus his company’s new name. Everyone trains hard for months just to complete the race, he said.

“The distance alone is intimidating,” said Stevens, who’s won the Casco Bay race three times with his teammate, Matthew Hurley of Colorado.

When the founders of SwimRun USA approached Portland Harbor Master Kevin Battle four years ago to ask if they could stage a swimrun race in Casco Bay, Battle’s first thought was, “What a nutty idea.”

“I listened to their stories of where they had done it before. I thought, ‘It’s really going to have to depend on the athletes, the participants being able to do what they do,'” Battle said. “So far, it’s gone very well.”

Now, each summer in the months leading up to the race, Battle finds swimmers between the islands in unexpected places. They are converted swimrun enthusiasts testing their endurance.

“We find them in areas you don’t normally see swimmers. When we go to check, there’s someone in a boat with the group who’ll say, ‘Yeah, they’re training for that race,’” Battle said.

THE COURSE

The Casco Bay Islands SwimRun has a long course and a short course, both of which change each year. The long course – a total of 21 miles and more in the swimrun tradition – starts on Peaks Island and finishes on Long Island. The short course involves running a total of 9 miles and swimming 2 miles. Most long-course teams take 5 to 6 hours while short-course participants typically take 4 to 5 hours.

“It’s a short course in name only,” Battle said. “It’s still pretty far. You’ve got to take it seriously. You’ve got to train for it. You’ve got to be swimming in the ocean beforehand.”

Finanger works each year with Portland Harbor Master Kevin Battle to design the endurance-race course that traverses 10 Maine islands. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Each year, Battle’s input is instrumental in the course design. That’s because he oversees the movement of container ships, oil ships, commercial fishing boats, and mega yachts in Casco Bay, plus kayakers.

For the swimrun race, he coordinates about 15 safety boats to follow the field from island to island. To make certain the athletes are safe, Battle gets help from harbor masters from Falmouth and Long Island, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary. He recruits a number of volunteer boaters.

For the on-land segment, Finanger asks upward of 50 landowners on the 10 islands to sign agreements to allow the race to cut across their front lawn or field. So far, he said, islanders in Maine have embraced the race.

“I often have to explain what this is. But on race day, they love this weird thing that passes through their property,” Finanger said.

The race goes over rocky and sandy terrain, as well as through fields and hiking trails. It’s a test for even the best runners, and the strong ocean currents and tides can confound the fastest pool swimmers. As a result, the pack always spreads out across the course.

“You feel you have the course to yourself,” Finanger said. “You may be aware of other teams around you, but you’re not racing in bunches.”

Matthew Owen of Portland has done both the Casco Bay Islands SwimRun and the Boston Harbor SwimRun. He described the scenery and vantage points in Maine as wild and strange. Racers emerge from the ocean in unlikely places, where there are no stairs, beaches or boat ramps.

“You’re approaching all these islands from an angle that few people see,” Owen said. “When people go to the islands, they’re using a dock. We approach on rocks covered with seaweed.”

THE GEAR

A swimrun swim paddle, just one of the optional pieces of gear used in the endurance race that has roots in Sweden. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Several pieces of gear are required in swimrun races, and lots of optional equipment is used. Because there are no support teams or people to assist, swimrun racers must carry or wear everything they need. Many race with minimal gear, most swimming in their trail-running shoes, usually made of mesh.

All Casco Bay Islands racers are given a collapsible water cup to use at aid stations, a high-visibility bathing cap and a race bib. They are required to bring a pressure bandage, in case they get cut and need to stop the bleeding; and a whistle, in case they are in distress. Many choose to carry hand paddles, goggles and a pull buoy to put between their legs during the swim to help stay afloat. Definitely, food is a good idea.

Owen said gear can make or break a good team, as it did for him and his brother, Phillip, the first time they tried swimrun in 2017.

That year, the brothers, both former Division I swimmers, wore surfing and swimming wetsuits, and overheated. They brought no food, which added to the misery of the experience. Even so, the brothers, who call themselves very competitive, were not deterred.

Last year, the brothers returned to the race equipped with easy-to carry-gummy energy chews and wetsuits designed for swimrun-competitions. They finished eighth overall, feeling great.

“We had a much more enjoyable experience, which is mainly what we were going for,” Owen said. “We probably are never going to win that type of race, because we’re not the best runners. But we did well and enjoyed it. We both fell in love with it. It’s all about getting back to nature. It’s like this very free attitude – as long as you have the shoes and a wetsuit, you can go anywhere.”

THE TEAMMATES

Lars Finanger and John Stevens enjoy producing the four swimrun races now held across the United States, including the one in Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

While solo categories are starting to appear in swimrun races, traditionally the race is done in teams of two. Ideally, teammates run and swim at compatible speeds. The best-matched teams are similar in other ways, too.

“You’re competing shoulder to shoulder. You end up relying on your teammate. And you have low moments,” Finanger said. “You’re swimming in 58-degree water. Your body goes through challenging conditions and environments. It’s a test to see what you’re made of, and it involves leaning on each other.”

As he prepares for his fourth swimrun race, Matthew Owen said working with his brother is the best part of the adventure. They train together, doing mini swimruns off the Cape Elizabeth coast. It’s brought them closer together, in part because they understand their sport, while few others do.

“To be honest, most people have never heard of what we’re doing,” Matthew Owen said. “It is definitely not a well-known sport yet. But I definitely think it will grow.”

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