Racing through rocks & river

Sheenboro’s Amphibious Challenge is the only ÖTILLÖ recognized swimrun in Canada, serving as a merit race for the Sweden-based swimrun. This race took individuals from Fort William into the Ottawa River, across private properties and Crown land, over the course of a few hours.

Donald Teuma-Castelletti
SHEENBORO Sept. 8, 2018
Superhumans of all sorts sprinted, climbed and swam their way through Sheenboro on Saturday morning, competing in a world-class event unlike any other in Canada.
Fifty individuals competed in pairs in the third Amphibious Challenge, a swimrun event pitting racers against the Ottawa River, the indigenous terrain, and not to mention, each other, with participants coming from all over the globe.
“We’ve got someone here from France, Calgary, we had some guys registered here from Hawaii – they had to bail out because of an injury – we’ve got folks from the States, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City,” said Simon Donato, founder and event organizer.
Beginning in 2016, Donato started the Amphibious Challenge after competing in Sweden’s ÖTILLÖ, the original swimrun event, where pairs compete across a pre-marked course alternating between running and swimming, all the while maintaining at most a 10 m distance with their partner.
Donato’s race has two options, a 15 km route or newly arranged 40 km journey, starting and ending at the Hotel Pontiac in Fort William. He credits the natural ruggedness of the area as being perfect for bringing a beloved competition to Canada.
“Sheenboro is a very wild and beautiful area, that’s why we do it here,” said Donato, to competitors minutes before the race began.
As well, he credited the locals as being crucial to the success, praising the 45 volunteers that day who helped with everything from registration through to manning the snack stops.
For three racers, the Amphibious Challenge was warm-up to another upcoming race they’re participating in. With experience competing in different aspects worldwide, Angus Doughty, Harper Forbes and Scott Ford were using this weekend as a precursor to the Wilderness Traverse, a roughly 24-hour long race across 150 km of North Muskoka over two days on the weekend of Sept. 29.
All three hailing from the Toronto area, they made the trek up as they sought a different kind of challenge, lacking the transition zones of traditional triathlons.
“The interesting thing about this is that you don’t change,” said Forbes.
He explained that other races would see them peel off a wetsuit after they finish the swimming section, changing into fresh gear as they will not be needing it the rest of the trek. In a swimrun, competitors continuously switch between land and water, and must be prepared to do both the entire time.
However, it wasn’t just the chance to get some extra training in that brought the three men to the Pontiac. Some of the group had first started coming to the area 20 years ago, competing in races in the Fort Coulonge area, while Doughty is a regular paddler in the area.
“We’ve been here before,” said Forbes. “We know it’s beautiful and pristine, and knowing it is, we like to come back.”
Of course, not every participant was as experienced as these racers were, but everyone was looking forward to a challenge. Catherine Pleau, of Varennes on the south shore of Montreal, is a regular runner and has competed in short distance triathlons but was attracted to the swimrun because of the exclusion of cycling.
“The combination of swimming and running seemed perfect, and the added challenge of doing it several times in wild nature seemed even more fun,” said Pleau, via electronic message.
Having trained for two months ahead of the race, Pleau was looking forward to a challenge and was not disappointed. Competing in the short route, she said the hardest part is enduring the level of fatigue that sets in without the breaks between sections.
“What’s challenging about swimrun is the repeat factor – in triathlon, once you’re done swimming, you’re done, and then you’re biking and running (and focussing on different muscles),” she detailed. “In swimrun, when you finish a swim or a run, you know there are more swim and run segments waiting for you, so muscle fatigue is more intense.”
“Getting out of water and running is tough – you feel very heavy, and you’re dizzy,” continued Pleau. “Starting to swim after a run is just as challenging – in triathlons, you never start your swim out of breath.”
She further explained that the terrain itself is a whole other challenge. While most runners are used to having a smooth, cleared path to traverse on, some of the islands on the route are mostly untouched. Racers must navigate the route amongst rocks and tree trunks, while keeping an eye out for trail markers and maintaining the 10 m distance with their partner.
It was this reliance on partners that Pleau said made the race much more enjoyable. She was grateful for her racing partner Véronique Simoneau, who provided support even as Pleau struggled through some portions. Especially when the portions she’d thought would be easier, proved tough as the event wore on.
“On a particularly exposed section of the swim, we thought it would never end and felt like we were progressing at a turtle pace,” said Pleau. “I’m a good swimmer, so I didn’t expect to find it as challenging as it was.”

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