Isles of Scilly Swimrun
“Reaching the Isles of Scilly couldn’t be easier” – so says the tourism website. After an evening train to London, the overnight sleeper to Penzance (enchantingly called ‘The Night Riviera’) and then a 3h trip plagued by sea sickness, we finally made it to St Mary’s, the main island, a mere 20 hours after we set off.
Luckily, we had arrived on Thursday and the race wasn’t until Saturday, so we had time to recover! It took me longer than Izzy, but by race day we both felt fine. Our B&B owner even relaxed the strict ‘breakfast at 08:30’ rule to serve us earlier and let our food settle. I appreciated the civilised race start time (10:00), but being only 2 minutes walk from the start, it did mean a lot of anxious waiting around.
Our timing chip wasn’t working and, as we waited for a new one, even one of the race directors told me to relax and not worry. I must have had ‘nervous race face’ on! Andy always tells me nerves are good for my performance though.
This was a ‘World Series’ event and the first in the UK, with qualification spots for the World Championships in September up for grabs. Izzy and I wanted to go back there and do a better job than last year – but had not been selected on merits. Qualifying was our only option; we had to be in the top two teams excluding anyone already qualified – and we thought it would be close.
I had done a lot of route studying in the days prior to the event. In my head, I had broken it down into 7 sections, memorising the run and swim lengths, target times and feed stops. This really helped me on race day as I knew exactly what was coming up, as well as our general direction of travel (the map in my head was probably as good as the one in my back pocket!). Izzy had a gps watch to give us distance checks when we needed, but I raced with a watch showing only the time of day! We were ready for our 10 runs (30km) and 9 swims (7km).
Section 1 – 2.5km run / 2km swim. Target finish: 11:00. Actual finish: 10:55
When we did make it into the start pen, we lined up ‘near-ish’ to the front – in fact, about level with the women’s team containing a current and a former world champion. We didn’t have the temerity to stand further forward than them! The starting gun went, though I didn’t hear it, and we were off. As the path narrowed, we got stuck behind a couple of mixed pair teams. I decided it wasn’t worth trying to push past at this stage (as per race briefing), though it didn’t stop a few others elbowing past. Over a few rocks on the beach and we were off through the seaweed on our first swim.
Izzy cracked a rib or two whilst out cycling 6 weeks before the race. This had interrupted training somewhat. Usually I would be reassured and spurred on in equal measure by the tap-tap of her paddles on my heels, but they weren’t there. On the other hand, our bungee tow cord was not taut, so I knew she had enough draft to keep up without any bother.
We had been told to aim for orange or red flags. I was concerned about this, as I’d had trouble spotting red flags at Loch Gu Loch. I aimed for the orange thing – though realised the next day that it was a windsock that had nothing to do with the race! Never mind, it worked well enough.
Section 2 – 3 runs, 3 swims, with a longish middle swim. Target finish: 12:00. Actual finish: 12:02
We got out for a very short run through the dunes. Dennis from Head was there and shouted to us that we were 2nd female team – woohoo! The next bit was confusing as the tide was still low and it was debatable whether we were on a swim or a run section. Others were wading, but we always swim if the water is barely deep enough. So we did, and could see we were moving the same pace as people walking around us, but I think we used less effort.
At some point on this section another female team came past us. The leaders had already got a qualifying spot, so we didn’t panic and knew we just needed to hold this new position. I recognised the team as being one that had introduced themselves earlier – we have a mutual (very fast) running friend. As we started the longer swim I could see that they were slightly mismatched for speed, with one at the front having to hold back for the other. We powered on. I wondered if their forte would be the running and half expected them to catch us on the 3km run.
In the end, they did not and as we cleared the big rocks on the exit of the last swim I could see them in the water and estimated we had about a 3 minute lead. It was here we passed a quite impressive castle, which we visited in a more leisurely fashion the next day. Unfortunately, I never even noticed it was there – but the proof was in the photos and the video!!
Section 3 – approx. 7km run. Target finish: 12:50. Actual finish: 12:43
This run passed like a dream. It was great island for spectators, as we had crossed the tip of it after the first swim and were now running round it. We also went through the Tresco Abbey Gardens, packed with tourists. I couldn’t believe the level of encouragement we were getting. Everyone was clapping and cheering and I felt like a superstar! Throughout the day, whenever someone supported us, I did my best to give them a yellow hand paddle wave 😀
I’m pretty sure it was at one of these feed stations I got a rather tasty piece of cake, though Izzy’s face when I suggested she try a piece was a picture! We did a good job of moving through the stations quickly, pausing to drink and grabbing food to eat on the way out.
Finishing this longer run leg still ahead of the 3rd placed team gave me a morale boost. We were ready for the section that would test our transition skills.
Section 4 – in out, in out, shake it all about (short legs across a string of 3 islands). Target finish: 13:30. Actual finish: 13:33
One of the features of the swims in this race was the killer SEAWEED. We encountered it during a little try out the day before, but little did we realise we’d have to race through it too. It was like spaghetti, coming up from the bottom in thick strands and floating on the surface in a swirling mass of slippery stalks. It was easy to find out what it was later – it is actually called ‘sea spaghetti’! It’s even edible, so we should have had a nibble to keep us going…
Instead we fought our way through. At one point, Izzy had given my bum a hefty shove when I seemed to have stalled. I hurt my elbow a little doing some funny sculling, and realised it was better to just make the hand entry much steeper and slice through it.
We have practised transition a lot, but could probably still get better. Pushing the pullbuoys round is fiddly. We got confused at one rocky section, losing sight of the tape and marshal, but soon were on our way again. I was pleased we were hitting our target times nicely! Especially since I had confidently told them to everyone who might be at home tracking us 😀
Section 5 – 7.6km run. Target finish: 14:30. Actual finish: 14:26
This run was a beautiful coastal trail winding round the island of St Martin’s. It did go up and down a little, and the tow was starting to come into play. I was still feeling strong and enthusiastic though! I was careful not to look at the view too much as, when I did, I promptly tripped over. We overtook a couple of male teams and everything was going well. I did my best motivational talk for Izzy. “You are only allowed to think positive thoughts!” I declared. To which the curt reply was “I’m trying!”. I spotted a ‘Where’s Wally’ red and white stripy lighthouse thing and instructed Izzy to view the jolly sight and smile. I was full of facts such as: ‘halfway through this run!’ and: ‘less than 10km total running to go in the race!’…
We were also filmed by an enthusiastic chap running alongside us, which was fun – you can see a clip of it in the official video 🙂
Because my elbow had been sore, I was a bit anxious thinking about the last, very long swim.
Section 6 – 2.3km swim. Target finish: 15:15. Actual finish: 15:31
Before that, we had to pick up a pink tow float just for this swim, as it was the longest and most difficult. The safety kayakers had to be able to find us. Izzy was getting some food down, so I adjusted the belt and fastened it round her waist, giving her a quick mid race cuddle to say ‘we’re doing great!’.
As we got to the water, the marshal told us there was a strong tidal current coming right to left, and to aim to the radio mast, far to the right of where we had to land. I was happy with this concept, as we had had to do this a lot at Otillo. However, this time it was different. The channel was wider than anything we had crossed there, and the current wasn’t consistent.
We were also a bit confused, as we were told to aim for the mast, then were told we were too far right and to aim for the yellow buoy. Then we were told to aim for the mast again, then the beach, then the mast … I was getting too cold and tired to care much by this point, and was extremely grateful for the presence of the two chaps in the tandem kayak who escorted us most of the way across. There was an island to our right. The perspective was probably playing tricks, but it seemed we would never swim past it.
Every time I thought ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m cold’ or ‘Are we moving?’ there was no other answer that came to me except ‘keep swimming…’
I had wondered whether we were on for a sub 6h race, but you can see that this is where our timings unravelled a bit! It wasn’t just us though – even channel swimmer and ‘Mr SwimSmooth’ Paul Newsome said it was a tough leg, and all teams took longer than they expected. Our gps recorded the distance as 2.5km – probably due to our wiggles – some from direction changes and some from tidal pull!
Section 7 – approx. 7km run. Target finish: 16:00. Actual finish: 16:21
We were rather happy to finally land. The marshals suggested we take some time to gather ourselves, though I was not letting up. My concession was a walk up the beach. Thankfully the sun was now out and we warmed up really fast. At the final feed station, we were told others in front had been commenting on the difficulty of the swim, so we were buoyed by this fact.
Despite knowing we only had this one run to do, as we climbed another little hill, with the tow rope taut, I felt a sudden slump. I took an emergency gel with 20 minutes to go, and think it helped. Just after that we got onto a section we had recce’d and knew the end was almost here. On we pushed, until we rounded the corner onto the final stretch. It was lined with spectators who were all going wild, cheering and shouting and taking photos.
Under the finish arch, straight into an interview, a hug for the camera and we were done!
We slumped onto the ground, drank coke, ate some of the snacks we had carried all the way round (!), soaked up the sun and congratulated the others finishing.
Annika Ericsson and Maria Edstedt had a clear win, coming in 25 minutes ahead of us. Jenny Rice and Claire Wilson kept their 3rd spot finishing in 6h41 (their report here). We were 14th overall out of a field of 81 starters and were delighted both to have qualified for Ötillö and with our overall result. Full list here.
It also means that the pressure to qualify in our next race, in Switzerland, is off. Instead we can focus on other things about the event. This is great as Scilly played to our strengths (greater swim:run ratio) and I’m expecting to find the next one tougher. Plus, it’s at altitude, and I live about as close to sea level as it’s possible to get.
Sunday was reserved for sightseeing and more celebrity status. All weekend people (residents and tourists alike) had been stopping us in the street or when we were out eating, asking us about the race. Common questions were about where we were swimming to, whether it was really true we had to stay within 10m of each other, and whether we would be tied together!
After a trip to Tresco, the gardens, a fine lunch, the castle and back again we were off to hunt for the chambered cairn we had passed in the race. After an unplanned detour and an emergency café stop (where we picked up the best map we’d had all weekend) we found the cairn, plus a rock shaped like a camel. Then we were hot-footing it home to (only just) make the prize giving and pasty eating celebrations on time!
“Reaching the Isles of Scilly couldn’t be easier.” I thought getting there had been hard work, and we had paid extra to leave on Monday by plane and get home the fast way. Unfortunately, our flight was cancelled due to fog, we were put back on the boat (sea sickness pills duly purchased and taken) and it took 31 hours to finally get home. The only compensation was the opportunity to chat with more fellow racers and get to know them better. This included Mårten and Matti who we had met at Loch Gu Loch last year. Matti’s daughter has a great tale of leukaemia survival. This time they were racing in different pairs and raising funds via “Heja Stina!” – read more here.
Getting to the race in Switzerland will involve two planes and three trains … here’s hoping it goes a bit more smoothly!
Many thanks to our sponsors, sportextreme.com and Gococo socks (I wouldn’t race without them). Also to Icebug UK – I was racing in their shoes for the first time. Super light, super grippy, super easy to spot in swimming photos! Also thanks to the organisers for putting on a great race, the photographers and to everyone on the Scilly Isles who were so happy to have us there!
Here is the race video – spot us three times 🙂