If you haven’t seen your buddy in years, you could text and ask him to meet you for a beer. If you’re Lance Armstrong, you text and ask if he wants to run and swim 23-plus miles while tethered together. Swimrun, an endurance sport born out of a bet between two Swedes in 2002, is the newest challenge for athletes like Armstrong who’ve already checked off grueling races like an Ironman.
The sport requires athletes to alternate between sections of trail running and open-water swimming. It exploded in Europe in 2014 and is just starting to catch on stateside, said Lars Finanger, co-founder and race director of SwimRun USA. There are now about a dozen races in the U.S. Armstrong may be best known for cycling, but he started out by kicking butt in the pool and won his first triathlon at age 13. When his pro cycling career ended, he found his competitive second act in the triathlon world, and he earned a spot on the podium at several Half Ironman events in 2012.
Not one to hold back his opinion, Armstrong sent out a tweet that year describing the shorter Olympic triathlon event as “a shampoo, blow dry, and a 10K foot race,” and he took issue with the Olympic rule that allows cyclists to draft off each other. Canadian Simon Whitfield, a four-time Olympic triathlete and arguably one of the greatest triathletes of all time, took offense, which set off a Twitter battle that received a maelstrom of media coverage.
Armstrong was eventually banned from competing in the Kona Ironman World Championship after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency formally charged him with drug violations from his Tour de France days. Now he has set his sights on dominating swimrun, and for his latest race in Washington’s San Juan Islands, he made an interesting choice for a partner: Simon Whitfield.
Both men said that the media blew their tiff out of proportion, and while they may have their differences, they have an incredible mutual respect for one another.
“There’s a whole other narrative people want to assign to Lance that I’ve never cared for,” Whitfield told Men’s Journal. “After years of emails and phone calls we met in person in Austin 15 years ago and went out for a beer.”
When Whitfield crashed out of the 2012 Olympic triathlon in London, Armstrong called to say, “’Hey man, sorry that happened, I know how much work you put into it,’” recalled Whitfield. And years later, when he was going through a divorce, Armstrong rang him to offer more supportive words.
Armstrong said that when considering a partner, Whitfield immediately came to mind. He’s based in Victoria, British Columbia, close to the race, and the two are pretty evenly matched when it comes to athleticism.
“We’re long-lost homies who’ve kept in touch over the years,” Armstrong joked. “He’s not very fit, I’m not very fit. We’re just going to wing it and see what this experience is all about and try not to kill ourselves.”
Although they’re both getting older, neither Armstrong, 47, nor Whitfield, 43, has lost his competitive edge.
“I imagine Lance is more competitive than me,” said Whitfield. “Between the two of us we won’t have a problem with that part of the race.”
Before Sunday, neither athlete had participated in a partner race before, and certainly not one that requires you to be tethered to your teammate by an 8.5-foot rope. They’ll also have the added challenge of swimming in their sneakers and running in a wetsuit: The course is broken up into 12 swims and 14 runs, and it covers an intense 6,108 feet of elevation gain.
Their strategy has been a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am training routine that started one month ahead of the race.
“My plan is to forget the technical stuff and just wing it,” said Armstrong, adding that his Achilles heel could be the cold water temperatures. Both athletes were drawn to the fact the sport is still in its infancy and feels more like an adventure.
“It’s a chance to hang out with an old friend and be a kid again,” said Whitfield. “As we get older, we get into these disciplined, institutionalized sports and they lose some of the fun. With Swimrun, it’s kind of anything goes. You’re swimming with paddles in your sneakers. It’s like being on an expedition with your friend. I like that spirit.”
The duo raced under the cheeky team name Shower, Shampoo, Blow Dry, and on Sunday they finished 3rd with a time of 6:09:20. Armstrong posted about the race on his Instagram page:
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What an incredible day of runnin’, swimmin’, and sūfferin’ yesterday @swimrunusa on Orcas Island up in the San Juan Islands. I’ve been some beautiful places in my 47 years but Orcas has to be top 3 – stunning! @simon.whitfield and I noodled our way thru 4+ miles of swimming and 20+ of running. Great to spend the day with this living legend. Talking, laughing, suffering, and generally asking ourselves, “what the hell did we get ourselves into?!”. Can’t wait to go back next year. Lastly, thanks to all the volunteers for helping pull off an event that has to be logistically one of the harder endūrance events to put on. #wedu (all 📷’s by @lizkreutz)
Looks like the pair have found their new sport.