Firstly for anyone that’s not familiar with SwimRun we’ll attempt to give a quick overview. It’s a relatively new sport to the UK only really popping up in the last couple of years, but has been big in Sweden where the truly epic ÖTILLÖ SwimRun world champs take place each year. Essentially it’s a multi stage race combining multiple alternating swim and run stages through natural environments in pretty stunning locations. You compete in teams of pairs where you have to stay together at all times and generally in the UK at least the total distance equates to roughly that of a marathon. Competitors carry all their kit with them, so that means swimming in your shoes and running in your wetsuit! A much better description can be found here
James signed up with Andy Jones for Breca Gower at the beginning of the year as their A race. As the sport in the UK is still in it’s infancy, not much was really known about it so it was a bit of a step into the unknown, we didn’t know anyone that had done one and there seemed to be lots to learn. Lots of new equipment to try out (swimming with a pull buoy seemed to be recommended to counteract the slowness that swimming with shoes creates), a new special swimrun wetsuit to buy, lots of differing opinions online about what options works best (paddles or no paddles) – and even how to train for such an event. It as also the first year this race has been run so details of course were fairly sparse for anyone who wasn’t familiar with the area.
A month before the race and struggling with ongoing issues with shin splints Andy was forced to pull out due to not being able to run and Chris was called in as a fairly last minute replacement. (Chris had planned to do one in the future but with his first Ironman coming up at the end of September a SwimRun was firmly in next years plans) however James assured him it was “perfect Ironman training” and Chris figured “well I’ve been swimming and running a fair bit anyway so what the hell”, arms and legs were cut off an old wetsuit, about 5 swims done in the SwimRun kit, sorted, how hard can it be, right!!?? Well….
Race weekend began on the Friday night with registration and a safety briefing at Swansea University. The race director Ben, ran us through the basic details and words like “dramatic”, “dangerous”, “arduous” were being bandied about – we figured he was just bigging it up trying to scare us, turns out if anything he was under selling it! We were told that these races typically have a do not complete rate of roughly 10-20% (teams pulling out, injury, not meeting cut offs etc) which seemed high, and there were lots of questions from the audience around cut offs etc. We then spent the evening geeking out a bit as we examined the course map, check in points and cut off times to try and work out what sort of average paces we needed to be hitting to beat the cuts offs. We reckoned if we could average 8 minute kms for most runs (one technical one we allowed 11min kms) and 3min/100m pace on the swims we should be fine, so we went off to bed feeling confident.
We both woke up after a rubbish nights sleep about 30 minutes before our alarm, and checked the weather forecast, 18 degrees and mostly sunny, lovely! 35km/hr winds with 45km/hr gusts – arse!
Off we go to Mumbles Pier in Swansea, quick change into our gear between some dumpsters and some grotty public toilets, drop our bags at bag drop, and onto a coach (in wearing full gear – wetsuits etc) for the hour drive to the start line.
Race starts at 10am and the first section is a 4.8km run mostly uphill from Hill End Camp Site to Rhossili passing the first checkpoint at 4.4km. We knew running was going to be our strength and used this section to try and bank a bit of time, passing the checkpoint 25 minutes ahead of cut off, getting some hi-fives from Freedom Tri club-mates Sara and Emma and getting to the first swim in 6th place (and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves).
Time for wake up call! The first swim was a 400m swim onto the dramatic Worms Head. With the high winds there was quite a swell up and we were having to swim straight into it, it was pretty impossible to get any rhythm going and other teams of strong swimmers using hand paddles started to power past us. We exited the swim onto the rocks of Worms Head probably at least 20 places down on where we entered it having had a rude introduction as to what SwimRun was all about!
Third section was another eye opener – a 3.9km “run” to the end of Worms Head and back then around to the next bay. Easy enough right? Except most of this section was literally scrambling over sharp jagged rocks, dodging blow holes, rock pools, deep gorges with nothing approaching a trail in sight, one false move and it would have meant serious injury or worse. Even the flatter sections were over loose stones and rock pools making it pretty hard going on the ankles. Once off the rocks of Worms Head we followed what can only be described as a mountain goat like trail around a cliff face to the next swim entry – not the sort of terrain I’d normally consider running around! We managed to make up a few places though and were really enjoying it.
The next section was a swim, this had been shortened by about 50% due to safety concerns, it ended up actually being a pretty nice swim made better by the facet we exited the water to be greeted by Andy Jones who’d come along to marshal. Hi Fives, bit of banter – off we go!
The 5th section was a rolling 10km run from Fall Bay to the headland of Port-Eynon Bay with some good hills a few few technical sections but enough flat stretches that we were able to reclaim a lot of ground on our fellow swim runners and finished the section with over an hour of time in the bank and feeling pretty smug. Idiots.
Time for another swim, advertised as a 700m swim from a rocky outcrop at the tip of Port-Eynon Bay into the bay, sounds simple enough until Chris started feeling homesick and headed out into the Bristol channel back towards England on his own, after being herded back in by the safety boats shore was finally reached but with 1.7km logged on the Garmin and a lot of places lost. Top work. Just to really rub it in, upon trying to stand Chris was hit with horrible cramp down the whole left leg forcing him to just bob about on his bum for a minute or two while the waves broke over his head until the cramp subsided.
Next we had more running(roughly 5km), more hills, legs getting steadily heavier but managed stay on course and rope in a few of the places and time we’d lost.
The next swim is one we’d both rather forget, advertised as a 1.1km ( less than 20 minutes for us normally) from the tip of Oxwich Bay into the beach we were in the water for just under an hour, Garmins showed over 3km of distance covered. It was awful, we just seemed to be going nowhere, James swam over several Jellyfish which gave him a brief burst of energy but safe to say we were both in a pretty dark place on this swim. Upon finally reaching shore Chris’s first utterance as he emerged from the water was “If that was 1.1km I’m the fucking tooth fairy!”, you probably had to be there but it kept James chuckling for the rest of the race. Luckily James family and Chris’s daughter Erin were waiting for us on the beach which provided a real boost to the spirits as by now we were freezing cold and by all accounts not looking too flash at all. Surely that had to be the worst of the swimming over? Marshall’s at the checkpoint also inform us we’re not only 30 minutes ahead of cut off, a lot of time lost, bugger!
Next up we thankfully had an easy 2.9km run along the beach to warm us up, just what the doctor ordered.
Then, next section… What the actual fuck!? Advertised as a 600m swim around a rocky headland (Great Tor) and into neighbouring Three Cliffs Bay. Surf was massive. 4ft waves that once we passed the headland just seemed to come from all directions. Sighting almost impossible. Would never even consider attempting normally. Rounded headland and no let-up in swell, beach just never seemed to get closer, lots of salt water swallowed, impossible to get any rhythm, flipped over completely a couple of times. After a mile of swimming finally reached the shore to be greeting by a very impressed looking lifeguard. The race organisers then closed the swim soon after after deciding it was too dangerous, cheers guys. Chris’s Garmin reckons there was 300m of elevation gain on that swim leg!! Probably not accurate but it certainly felt that way and the resulting Garmin trace certainly represents how we felt!!! We later found out that a number of teams took one look at that swim and immediately pulled out of the race. Fortune favours the brave (or stupid!) Shoulders knackered and pretty exhausted we traipse on.
Next couple of sections were fairly uneventful in comparison, more hilly runs where we continued to pick teams off a bit but by this stage neither of us fancied swimming. We were both pretty knackered and were really starting to feel it, not to mention that forgetting to apply any body glide before the race meant we were beginning to chafe – A LOT! Spirits were raised when we met Sara and Emma at the penultimate checkpoint, we load up on pretzels, jelly babies, oranges and boiled potatoes, replenish our water bottles, get some updates on from the supporters following our progress on Facebook and start to feel better for a while at least – especially when we’re told we’re in 24th place!
As we approached the third to last swim, however, we were both pretty quiet, more hills and running over loose, stony beaches had drained us, the banter had dried up and we very slowly took our time getting into the water as the waves crashed onto the stones for what was advertised as a 900m swim from Brandy Cove into Caswell Bay. Swim ended up being about 1.6km and choppy again and we both admitted when we got out that neither of us had wanted to get into the water for that one, I’d doubted I even had it physically in me to swim again. Swimming could get in the bin and stay there. Stupid swimming.
But after feeling pretty low entering the water, we came out feeling pretty euphoric. That was the last of the big swims done and the end was in sight. We knew we’d at least finish the race now. A 1.9km run followed, fairly uneventful but ended by running into Andy again at the entry to the penultimate swim. Andy is a legend and had used some of his dark Welsh magic to flatten the sea. A quite pleasant 500m swim followed from Snaple Point into Langland Bay, spirits raised considerably and talk of finish line beers began. Also a pact not to let anyone else pass us.
Another 2.5km run, a couple more teams overtaken, feeling good and into the water for the last swim, a short 200m swim into quite a narrow exit in between some dodgy rocks in Bracelet Bay. They weren’t making it easy! Ironically as we spent the day swimming with the tide coming in, the faster teams had less swimming to do. Much easier to dodge rocks when you’re running.
Right that was the last curve ball nice 500m sprint the finish at Mumbles Pier! Let’s smash this. Wrong.
Up some steep stairs, little bit of road, road? Get off that you mugs and down that cliff face for a bit, up some rocks to a ridge, poke heads over the ridge, ARE YOU HAVING A BLOODY LAUGH MATE!!?? Finish line and family is in sight about 30m (horizontal) to go, but the only way to get there is down a sheer what seemed like almost vertical rock face. Nervous bum sliding to follow, finally at the bottom, high fives gathered, up some steps into a beer garden, FINISHED and with over 30 minutes to spare!!!!
Thank god it was over, but what a sense of achievement, gulped down some hot soup then time to get the pints in, Andy, Sara and Emma all met us at the finish line and race director Ben also spent time with us all chatting about the day, turns out the conditions had made it a lot tougher than expected and drop out rate was a lot higher than normal.
Official results show us finishing in 22nd place (15th in category) out of only 48 finishers. 35% of the starters failed to finish – way above average. Wowzers!!
What a day! That was easily the toughest event either of us had ever done, brutal, character building and stunning in equal measure. Would we do another? Absolutely!
Thanks to our families, friends and club mates for their support in the build-up to and during this race – it would have been a lot tougher to complete without you!
Some stats from Garmin:
Total time: 7hrs 50 minutes
Total distance: 50.7km
Running: 38.25km (4h46)
Swimming: 11.82 (3hr04) – suspect this was actually more like 8km, hard to tell
Total elevation gain from run: > 1000m
Full official event photo album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/134146862@N07/albums/72157687954745785
It seems like there’s genuine interest from many Freedom members about Swim Run, so we wanted to share some thoughts and lessons learned:
- Swim Run is still in its infancy in the UK, and that’s part of the attraction. It’s an opportunity to be part of something from the relative beginning. Breca, which seems to be the UK’s leading Swim Run race organiser, is still finding its feet. The organisation at the weekend from a competitor’s perspective was great (would be interesting to know what Andy, Emma and Sara think from a marshal’s perspective) but it’s very different to your typical triathlon event….
- It’s a ‘wild’ event – the organisers cannot control the conditions you’re competing in, it really is you vs nature. On several occasions we thought, ‘this is dangerous’. We just needed to be sensible and not ‘race’ over certain sections. Likewise, take the advertised distances as a rough guide, tides, waves, weather conditions and a complete inability to sight can cause these to change quite a bit!
- There are many options for equipment – the majority of teams seemed to be using hand paddles, and when we saw them powering past us it was easy to see why! However, we hadn’t done enough training with them so didn’t want to add an unknown variable on race day. Something to work on over the winter! Some others had very minimalist shoes. We were speaking to one competitor who said, with a touch of irony, that they were great to swim in but difficult to run in, because of the terrain.
- We spent more time swimming than expected. Mastering technique and the best use of swimrun equipment for next year is a must. We’d say that we’re swimmers of average ability (in context of Freedom) but struggled on the swim and didn’t overtake a single team in the water. It was our stronger running which helped us make some ground and beat the cut-offs. Also don’t underestimate how much wearing shoes in the swim slows you down – as an example Chris normally swims in the lake at around 1:55 per 100m pace, in the swimrun wetsuit and shoes this dropped to more like 2:15 per 100m!!
- Choose a Swim Run partner that complements your abilities. It’s never going to be equal, but it wouldn’t be fun for either partner if the gap between you was too big. Also choose someone you don’t mind talking to for 5-8 hours!