Co-founder of SwimRun USA, Jeff Cole, dies at 64
By Nancy Heslin
Lars Finanger received the first of a barrage of emails from Jeffrey Cole on September 2, 2014. Lars was in Stockholm, having just finished his first ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship race the day before, and was riding that emotional high of making it through the 75 km course while tending to a beaten and fatigued body.
From his home in Kennebunk, Maine, Jeff had seen images of the ÖTILLÖ WC from the Slowtwitch.com coverage and was enthusiastic about bringingthis style of racing to US soil. In the weeks and months that followed, Jeff, a fifth generation insurance broker in the family business Cole Harrison, tapped into Lars’ experience in the Stockholm archipelago and mapped out countless iterations of course layouts, hinting he had the perfect one in his birthplace, Portland, for such an epic event.
It was in 2003 when Lars travelled to Jeff’s Fireman’s Tri which was a U-23 World Qualifier, that the two first met. “All of their rooms were taken up by other athletes but they offered up their hammock, and I took them up on it. He thought that was so great and we remained in correspondence over the next ten years.”
Jeff, who grew up on the water and worked as a lifeguard and was a volunteer fireman at the Kennebunk Fire Dept for over 20 years, had founded and produced multisport races – from the Fireman’s Tri in Kennebunkport to White Mountains Tri in Franconia, New Hampshire. So he knew that you only get one shot to launch an event, let alone introduce a new sport to a new market.
Jeff and Lars spent the next year and a half securing permits, refining the racecourse and building out a foundation. But by August 2015, Jeff could no longer wait to showcase swimrun and organised a group of a dozen local open water swimmers and triathletes for a five island mini adventure in Cape Porpoise, Maine.
“Before his wetsuit had even dried he had me on the phone to say SwimRun Casco Bay Islands needed to take place in August,” Lars recalls, “when the water conditions were cool, but doable in Maine.”
The two announced the inaugural event in January 2016 and were met with an astounding response. “Due to the difficult nature of the course conditions, we required interested teams submit applications for consideration. We received over 600 applications for 110 team spots! This blew our minds,” Lars shares.
“We were brimming with excitement to showcase this wild multisport adventure to athletes, many of who had ticked all of the boxes in their triathlon racing and were looking for a new endurance challenge. We vowed to offer our racers a raw and wild experience cut from the same cloth as Mats and Michael’s ÖTILLÖ creation.”
Over the next two years, the co-founders of SwimRun USA were on the phone on a near daily basis. “I was constantly amazed at how someone with such a successful career had such an unparalleled motivation for us to produce a world class event. From the start, we both knew there were no guarantees the race would be a success, but we trusted one another completely, divided the roles and responsibilities and went to work.”
As Lars points out, Jeff Cole relished in strategising a plan of attack and left no stone unturned.
Having studied Business Management at the University of Maine, Jeff was prudent in his financial considerations and from the onset, he was committed to providing a charitable donation to the Travis Mills Foundation, an organisation assisting wounded Veterans. In the first two years, SwimRun USA donated $25,000 to TMF and Jeff was very proud of this effort. He was also proactive in offering financial assistance to any island groups who donated their time and marine resources to SwimRun USA. Having grown up in the Portland area, Jeff’s actions showed how dedicated he was to providing future generations with the same types of outdoor opportunities he had.
In September 2017, Jeff and Lars travelled to Stockholm for five days. Jeff was able to see the birthplace of ÖTILLÖ and witness a day for-the-ages in the archipelago, tracing the race in the media boat and soaking in every minute of the Swedish adventure.
“He had always served as a moral and ethical compass to me,” Lars says, “and I looked to him for advice again on the race course that day.”
In the opening meters of the first swim, Lars was accidentally kicked in the face and swallowed a lot of water. From the point, he started to cough excessively and felt as though he was “drowning or having a heart attack”. His teammate Peter Oom managed to haul him through the course to the first major checkpoint on Runmaro.
“I asked Jeff what I should do, stuck between not wanting to drop out and disappoint my teammate, but fearful of my condition. Jeff assessed my condition and expressed concern I had aspirated water and he told me simply and sternly not to continue. He was concerned this could lead to ‘dry water drowning’. He watched me like a hawk the rest of the day, and even came into my room to check on me the next few nights.”
The year 2018 looked promising. Casco Bay Islands sold out for the third year in a row and Jeff and Lars announced two new events in Boston Harbour Islands and San Juan Islands.
However, a little over a month ago Jeff confided in Lars that he had fallen off a ladder and was in a great deal of pain throughout his thoracic area. He had taken steps to seek out care but at the end of March suggested his wellbeing had “turned a corner”.
In his signature style, Jeff called all of the teams who had signed up to tell them personally of the decision to postpone SwimRun Boston until 2019, but our other two races, Casco Bay Islands (Aug 12) and San Juan Islands (Sept 23) would move forward as scheduled.
“The last conversation I had with Jeff was on Friday, March 30, to touch base about which athletes he had not yet reached. At 5 pm, Jeff sent out another reminder to Boston teams we had been unable to reach if they wanted to get a refund or defer their entry. He passed away suddenly after midnight on Saturday, March 31, 2018.
Jeff was only 64.
A husband, a father, a sportsman, an event organiser and a leader, Jeff Cole cared deeply about each and every person he had contact with. He served on the Board of Directors for numerous businesses, schools, and sporting organisations and yet spent a few weeks each year living off the grid completely self-sufficient.
As Lars remembers fondly: “Jeff was an independent thinker but also a consensus builder. He never asked anyone to do something he was not prepared to do himself.
“He will be fiercely missed but his legacy will live on through his wife Kim, daughter Rachel, son Ben, his friends and through the SwimRun USA events he pioneered.”
I met Jeff at the 2017 ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship. Humble and warm-hearted, Jeff was a community man with a natural ability to make everyone feel a part of something bigger.
A funeral for Jeff Cole will be held on April 5. Photos Instagram SwimRun USA. Article published April 4, 2018.
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #7 (May 2018)