Race Report: Donner Double

The Donner Double is race which combines a 2.7 mile swim across Donner Lake and a 10-mile run through Reno, Nevada.

The Swim: 

Here is the start as it appeared from a support-boat. Photo credit: Rich Staley

Here is the start as it appeared from a support-boat. Photo credit: Rich Staley

Three years ago, I entered the "Donner Chill", a one mile open water event in Donner Lake. I'd joined the Walnut Creek Masters (despite NOT really knowing how to swim) because I'd injured and re-injured myself so much from marathon training, I'd nixed any weight-bearing activity from my daily regimen, so that I couldn't even push off the walls of the pool in swim practice. So, I decided that an open water swim was just the thing to stave off the feeling the big fear that I would never competitively run again. (If I could swim a fast mile, maybe I could run one, too.)

Let's just say the event didn't go so well. Walnut Creek is in the East Bay of California with an elevation of something like 12 feet, so swimming in cold water at altitude without any prior experience wasn't exactly smart. I remember the first few minutes of the "Donner Chill" feeling as though my wetsuit was choking me and as if I couldn't breathe.  I stopped maybe a quarter mile from shore and thought: "I hate pancakes so much. But, I'd rather be on land eating pancakes than swimming in this race right now."  Yet again, I put my face in the water and swam another three strokes and I felt as though I couldn't breathe. 

I had wanted to swim the race in under thirty minutes because that was my benchmark for my progress in the pool. I ended up coming in at 31 minutes despite stopping countless times in complete panic, support kayaks followed me, worried I wouldn't make it at all.  Once on terra firma, I was so disappointed in myself that I burst into tears. In my blog post I wrote that day, I equated my swimming style to (yes, I actually did) a floating turd. 


Four years later when I moved back to Reno, I joined the Sierra Nevada Masters. This summer, I received the event announcement urging me to sign up for a similar race, the Donner Double (and the Donner Lake Swim.) I'd just done Ironman Coeur d'Alene and was still on the post-race Cloud 9 with a 6th place age group finish.

So, I signed up, thinking that I would practice in Donner Lake "plenty of times" before the race so I wouldn't have to worry about my tendency to panic in open water.  Plus, I wanted to go back to the body of water which almost beat me, and to conquer it and not feel as though I'm dying (or in dire need of pancakes.)

Side note: my car broke down after I made this plan and needed basically everything replaced. It's hard to swim in Donner Lake when you live 30 miles away and you don't have a car. 

So, race morning arrives and I literally hadn't swam in open water at all since Ironman which was back in June.  It's August 15th. Therefore, my race plan was a cross between "fuck-it-all" and "thank God my wetsuit makes me float."

The morning of the event is crisp and cold; I warm up by standing in the sun on the beach and not getting into the water until the last possible minute. 

Side note: the water wasn't that bad. 

At the start, I do my usual routine of hanging back so that the faster swimmers can get out in front and I don't get trampled.  This strategy backfires somewhat when I realize I'm trapped behind a wall of bodies I can't get around and then the inevitable happens: someone swims over me. 

Good thing I remembered my fuck-it-all pills. 

I think what has scared me the most about open water swimming is the unknown.  When the lake bottom disappears from view, all former points of reference fall away and it really is yourself inside your own mind.  It reminds me of how I felt when the University told me I didn't have a teaching position anymore, and I had no one to turn to. This happened in November and the semester ended four weeks later, right before Christmas.  During the cold, bleak winter break which followed, I envisioned myself free-falling through the "nets" of professional contacts, friends and family-- falling into some deep, dark abyss and there was nothing I could do to stop my own free fall.

Luckily, I feel calm with a soundtrack of the songs with silly lyrics playing in my head.  Lines like "I wanted to be stronger/ I wanted to be everything for you/If I could be stronger, would you believe/ that I could love you like you want me to?"--which is Stronger, by Clean Bandit. 

About a half mile into the swim, the lake seems to open and it's as though I'm the only one out there. When I rest my right or left cheek on the surface of the water to breathe, I see nothing but shoreline and it seems as though I'm swimming alone in the middle of Donner Lake. Every so often, I look forward to "sight"  a mountain peak before me because I can't see and won't see the finish line until I'm almost there, about an hour and five minutes into the race.

When I do see another person, I feel a swell of something like happiness. I swim toward them, I let the bubbles their feet and hands brush over my face and then I pass them by, hoping they follow me to the finish line where we can all do fist-pumps and high-fives at the insanity of swimming across an entire lake that almost killed me three years ago.

My swim race number was 324. For the run, I would become number 83.

My swim race number was 324. For the run, I would become number 83.

I do my best to pick up the pace when I see the orange, inflatable square thing we would run through on Donner's West shore to finish. Maybe my heart explodes a little--or, no, it goes nuclear-- when I see the digital time clock next to the orange-inflatable thing. It tells me  I swam across Donner in an hour and thirteen minutes.

Side note: Hot damn, I'm proud of myself for that. 

The Run

I haven't really run a "run-only" race in a long, long time. Or, one on pavement. But, if I'm going to swim across Donner Lake, why not also run a ten mile road race (the Donner Double)? This weekend is for apparently for breaking barriers and slashing fears. 

Going into this, I have no idea what pace to hold. I have no point of reference for my run and haven't for a really long time. And, maybe that's why it's appropriate that the longest open water swim I've ever done is paired with this run.

This is a weekend of asking the question: "Why not?" and discovering there is no reasonable answer.

The start line is crowded with runners. Many of them I have seen before and, in a way, it's like a high school reunion. I'm a little embarrassed to be on the start line close to the front-- I think again about how little I've run and how many injuries I've had. 

I remember all those races when I was "fast" and I really knew I could win.  The last "fast" race I ran was in 2011. Now, four years later, I toe the line, not knowing where I'd end up, or how long it would take me to get there. 

Ready, set. Run.

We run into the dawn. We run down Reno's streets and I let the lead males disappear far ahead of me and I don't feel bad about that. We run up a slight incline into the University campus. I think I must be eight or nine places back from the lead woman, and that is OK with me. I just want to finish with respectable time. 

Running, trying to keep my form intact. Photo credit: Rich Staley.

Running, trying to keep my form intact. Photo credit: Rich Staley.

It's hard not to make this a memory-fest. How many times have I run these roads, alone? How many times have I run these roads at race pace, at tempo pace and at no particular pace at all?  How many times have I dreamed that I am "Rebecca from Reno" and hoped that that would mean something? 

When we run through UNR's campus I roll my right ankle three times. I pass the girl in front of me (who would turn out to be Lauren Evans of eFast, who is also my coach) but she passes me on the climb to Lombardi. I fall back, and think about the fact that I have a solid eight miles in front of me, and I haven't run at race pace for this long in ...years.

So, I ease back and fall into a rhythm which, looking back, was probably a smart choice.

Side note: My hamstrings hate me from mile seven onward.

It becomes a conscious effort to run-- I had to be cognicient of where I place my feet, how hard I pull with my hamstrings. It is as though I've gone fragile in the final three miles. When we run into Idlewild Park, we do a quick loop and I see the lead woman, running back the other way. I've raced against her before many, many years ago.  And once, long, long ago, I was (nearly, not quite, but nearly) that fast. 

Today, she performs as she always does: lightning-fast and smooth on her feet. I congratulate her and put my head down, knowing I've only got two miles left.

And what is two miles? How many times have I run two miles? I tell myself that two miles is nothing and I can run them. 

And, I do.

When I cross the line, someone announces that I'm the third woman across the line. I don't believe him and I ask Rich-- who is there-- if this can even be remotely true. 

I am in absolute shock when he says "yes." 

I ran ten miles in 1 hour, nine minutes-- definitely not my fastest time, but I'm impressed with myself, given how long it has been since I have been a runner.

Here I am accepting my third-place award for the 10-mile run. Lauren Evans of eFast (who took 2nd in the run) is also my coach. I just love this picture. Photo Credit: Race178

Here I am accepting my third-place award for the 10-mile run. Lauren Evans of eFast (who took 2nd in the run) is also my coach. I just love this picture. Photo Credit: Race178

This will be the last summer race for me and I'm excited, actually, to take time to focus on other aspects of my life (writing, for example.) However, looking back over this season, even if I have not always placed first or even in the top 10 percent, I am proud of my accomplishments.  They've forced me to ask myself "Why not?"

And then, to listen to the only response (silence.)

I'm on top of the podium for the Donner Double event, which is completely amazing! Photo credit: Rich Staley

I'm on top of the podium for the Donner Double event, which is completely amazing! Photo credit: Rich Staley


  •  Fifth in the wetsuit swimmers
  • Third in the run
  • First in the combined event