When swimming the Peaks to Portland, athletes try to avoid bumping other competitors or coming into contact with the kayaks that help guide almost each entrant across Casco Bay.

For Cathy Kilburn, who is used to rushing into the water among a field of triathlon competitors, the YMCA-sponsored swim offers her plenty of elbow room.

“I’m used to a lot of hitting,” say the 40-year-old Westbrook resident. “In the Peaks to Portland I have a lot more space.”

Kilburn will be among the field of nearly 200 that will take to the salty sea Saturday at 8:30 a. m. to swim the 2.4 miles from Peaks Island to the mainland. This will be her sixth year tackling the challenge.

“You do it once and you want to go back,” she says. “To be able to cross Casco Bay using only the strength of your body is exciting.”

Kilburn and her kayaker, Neil Jordan of Portland, were in the water training at Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth last Thursday under sunny skies. The water was warmer than Kilburn expects it to be for the race.

“It’s cold (in Casco Bay), but you just need to deal with it,” she said, with the drive one would expect from a triathlete. “And when you run into a patch of seaweed, you just have to swim through it.”

Kilburn navigated around lobster trap buoys in Kettle Cove, of which there are fewer out along the race route. Either way, she has to rely on Jordan, who has been teamed with Kilburn since her second Peaks, to pick out a clear path.

“It’s up to the kayaker,” she says. “I follow him.”

Not too closely, however. That might lead to getting accidentally struck with a paddle. Kilburn says that she tries to stay about six feet from her kayaker, and he is always to her left because she breathes in that direction, allowing her to maintain visual contact.

Kilburn started entering triathlons several years ago after a running injury. She tried cycling and swimming to work out, instead of just running, and decided to give the endurance events a try.

“Triathlons are really intense, but they’re also a lot of fun,” says Kilburn.

She participates in eight or nine triathlons a year. Still, in some ways, the Peaks to Portland is more difficult.

“In the endurance sense, the Peaks is tougher. You’re in the water for an hour, and you get more tired. But the body is not as sore as after a triathlon.”

Kilburn, who grew up in Westbrook and was part of her high school swim team, won her age group – 30 to 39-year-old women – in the swim last year, though because of the wind and choppy seas, she actually had her worst time.

With such variables as wind, waves, buoys and seaweed affecting an open-water swim, Kilburn – like the other competitors – has to be realistic about goals.

“I’m hoping to have a good swim and place well.”

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