Izzy and I had been targeting the swimrun rankings and competition this year. However, the rules for the prizes were changed near the end of the season, and to win we suddenly found ourselves contemplating entering both the sprint and the main Ötillö world series ‘1000 Lakes‘ races in Germany at the start of October. We went for a run in the Pentlands after work one evening and decided to do it …
So after arriving on Thursday and settling into our fantastic apartment, we went for a short run, which I managed to keep to the agreed length! And on Friday a swim in glorious sunshine. We nearly couldn’t find our way back in to our landing point, but otherwise survived! Last year we did very well here, partly because the water was colder than many people are used to. This year, it was 3 weeks earlier, meaning the water was still plenty warm enough to play in wetsuit-free.
We stocked up at the supermarket and made careful plans for our food over the weekend. Andy had impressed on us how we should treat the events like a two day stage race and be careful what we did both during and after the sprint. Obviously this meant stocking up on as many kinds of foreign chocolate flavours as we could justify eating …
Saturday start was fairly relaxed – register, briefing, back to house to change and kill time, start at 11. The sun was shining, the gun went off and everyone really sprinted! I think we were leading the ‘sensible’ bunch but still went 4:32 for the first km. Approaching the first swim, our main rivals for the series prize were just in front. We’d been stronger swimmers than them when we raced in Borås earlier in the year, so I was confident of catching them. However, we got in and my goggles immediately leaked – something that hasn’t happened to me in a swimrun race before! I stopped and faffed but never solved the problem, swimming 900m worrying my contact lens might wash out or get infected, and squinting lopsidedly as I sighted.
We never did catch Maria and Josefine either – turns out they’ve been getting highly effective swim coaching all summer! We were still close though as we ran through the trees. At one point we overtook but they sped up again and we tucked in behind. We had the points advantage so only needed to stay near them, not go crazy. Just then Izzy tripped and fell! It looked innocuous as the ground was soft. She said she hit her head, but she seemed OK and we carried on slightly slower.
As the race progressed, we kept the girls in sight but the pace was pretty rapid. On the final run we could still see them and were gaining slightly, but I was happy to stay like this. I ate at the feed stations even when I didn’t feel I needed it … it was important to stay fuelled and feed the muscles mid race today, ready to perform tomorrow.
I smashed across the final swim, thinking we might catch them up with a straighter line. Not quite, but we ran in to the finish just 24 seconds behind, in 3rd place. The girls who won were waaay ahead and also racing on Sunday. We finished, jogged back, had our milky drinks and a fried egg sandwich, went back for prize giving then home again for another egg sandwich, feet up, then pasta for dinner!
Izzy’s head was fine, but her hand was swollen from the fall, so we bought the cheapest frozen veg we could find in the supermarket and regularly iced it all evening. I even looked up compression bandaging on YouTube and used my compulsory bandage to do a pretty good job of swaddling it up. By morning it looked much the same, but we reasoned if she’d managed to finish today she could do it tomorrow…
An earlier start on Sunday as we boarded the bus in the dark. We set off a little later than expected and hit roadworks and a diversion on the way! We were calm as all we needed to do on arrival was get straight into the toilet queue and put our damp wetsuits back on. We chatted to Ulrika and Helena, the previous day’s winners, as we waited and then made our way to the start. Josefine and Maria came to give us a hug and say good luck. They said they were tired but we didn’t know if it was just bluffing 😀
The gun came as a surprise and we were off. No wrong turnings on the way to the first lake this time, and it was more like a triathlon swim, with a lot of pushing and shoving on the way. Two teams squeezed me from either side and I was left spluttering for air. As we got out to the feed station, we met Michael telling us to keep it steady and that the others were just in front (I think – though it was hard to catch whilst concentrating on everything else!). I wasn’t wasting energy here and tried to ignore everything else and make it our own race. We soon drew close to them, but every time we tried to pass, they accelerated a little and I decided to wait and make our move on the longest run, of 7km. However, as it happened we went past just before the preceding swim.
I thought this might be the crux, where we pulled ahead of a big bunch of teams. I swam down a short river section confidently, having just passed a few female pairs and seeing one we could catch ahead. Out into the main lake and suddenly a pair in orange bibs were coming past! What? I am not great at drafting but I jumped on their feet and worked hard to stay there. Eventually they pulled away, just as another pair came past and I went with them instead. This was like ‘sprinting’ a swim at the start of a triathlon, ignoring what had come before and was to come after! I was finding it mentally quite challenging to be racing so closely with so many other teams.
We left the feed station first and were running through the woods at a fair pace. We could hear the voices of the other girls ringing out behind us for a long time. About 2km to go and I could feel the tow cord getting tighter. I was feeling tired too and hoping we had not pushed too hard too soon… A short swim and another 4km run which I found tough. I still had energy to admire and point out some of the enormous fungi growing in the woods around us though. The increase in support around the course was also noticeable and fantastic – I think the locals now had a better idea of what was going on!
At last we got to a long 1.2km swim and some clear water. We seemed to have pulled away from the other teams although the threat of them reappearing kept spurring me on. In fact it was as if we had finally ‘found our place’ in the race and had some space from everyone. The swim went on and on and on … But when we got out we were on a section we had done the previous day. I was hoping we might be in 4th as given who would likely podium, it would mean direct qualification to the world champs next year. It felt like we had overtaken so many teams, but I had no idea where we were now.
We still caught a couple of male teams and finally were on the last run. This felt much harder than yesterday! My hamstring had been playing up a bit since September and now I could feel it affecting my gait. I said nothing and pushed on. The final swim across to the castle, we were catching two male pairs but didn’t quite make it! Sprint finish and we discovered one of them were our friends Ben and Jonathan.
Only enough for 5th place / 37th overall, although we had moved up from 11th in the early stages. Full results here. It was enough to win the series, despite strong competition from Josefine and Maria, plus Helena and Ulrika storming up behind with two speedy wins in two days. Our pace was faster on both swims and runs compared to last year, which I like to think is fitness but may have just been the extra degrees of warmth!
No qualification to the world champs this time. The girls get one fewer place per race than the other teams, which is something I disagree with. The strength in depth of the girls’ field has grown massively over the last couple of years, which is great. You can go all the way down to 9th here and see a team that finished 77th overall in September. However, there was a big build up for the series prize and we walked away with €2500, biggest prize ever!
Thanks to race directors Mats and Michael and all the other organisers and volunteers, to the photographers Jakob Edholm and Pierre Mangez and to sportextremeswimrun.com for their support this year. Also to Graham at Physis who got my shoulder back in good enough shape after Ötillö for it to be pain free this weekend.
We thought we didn’t know many people going to this race – but turns out there were many familiar and friendly faces. It was great to catch up and get to know people better 🙂 Time for takeaway pizza and more chocolate before the journey home on Monday. Due to the persistent swelling and evident pain, I insisted Izzy went straight to the minor injuries clinic to get her hand checked when we got back – turns out she had a broken finger! No swimming for her for a while!
That’s the end of the swimrun season. I’m taking October off racing, before launching into a packed Nov / Dec with off road duathlons, an Open 5 and my first ever swim-free ultra.
We were enticed by the sound of a final swimrun race in October. Our German friends were encouraging us to sign up to the 1000 Lakes – a new Ötillö world series race. It had lots of swimming and not too much running. It was long enough since the world championships to have recovered, and short enough not to take us out for another month afterwards.
So we carried on training, mixing in a few freshwater sessions along with trips to the beach. The water was getting colder by the week, 9 – 11 oC. We had been promised warmer for the race.
We flew to Berlin and drove to the town of Rheinsberg in the area called 1000 Lakes. We took good notice of the signs telling us not to drive into the trees lining the sides of the road. When we arrived we found that no-one spoke English and even my very rusty German was needed. I did find a lovely Italian lady in the pizzeria though, and had a chat telling her all about the race and what we were doing!
We thought Rheinsberg was quiet, but the day before the race we also went to look at the start in Wesenberg and found out what a sleepy town really is – Saturday morning, nothing open and not a soul in sight.
Izzy had a new swimrun suit, the Head Aero, designed for greater comfort and speed when running. She had worn it a few times but had not yet cut the arms and legs. I was entrusted with this nerve-wracking task, then we went off to try out some of the final run, the last swim and the run up to the square. We were gaped at like curiosities!
I was feeling fairly relaxed. We had done the big race of the year. This was for fun, with the opportunity to qualify early for Ötillö next year. But if we didn’t make it there were still other options, so we didn’t pile on the pressure. We thought the long swims would suit us, but I wasn’t so sure about the fast running. I irritated some knee cartilage during Ötillö which enforced some weeks of rest / very easy running. It might have been good for me though, as I was feeling lively and full of energy!
We had now been warned that the water temperatures were lower than normal, in fact, rather like home. Our test swim confirmed this. OK, we were ready for it. I had also taken careful note of the race schedule and knew there were a couple of sections with long swims and only very short runs in between. It was unlikely we’d warm up on these, so we mentally prepared ourselves to be cold and knew how long it would last and when we’d be able to warm back up.
Race day and it was an early start on coaches in the dark. Wesenberg had woken up and there were many locals out to support and cheer us on. I loved the effort made with traditional dress and the man playing a music box. It took away some nerves! It was funny to meet a couple from Cornwall enthusiastically saying they hoped not to see us on course, as they were the ‘sweepers’ following at the back on their bikes and clearing up trail markers.
As we set off through the narrow, cobbled streets, someone gave Izzy a nudge off the main path. ‘How rude’, she thought. She didn’t react as she was focused on the task in hand, but then it happened again! As she turned to speak her mind, she saw it was our friend François being cheeky – he had a lucky escape!
It was a fast start, as we knew it would be. We were ready to get in line for a narrow section. ‘Firm, but strong’ said Izzy, and we did not panic or stress. The pair in front let a gap open and people started overtaking. Eventually we went round too. But other teams still pushed past us, very energetically. We knew to save it, there was still plenty of racing to do.
In the woods, we got to a turn and were heading straight on. Everyone else was streaming left. In hindsight we could tell it was not right. We were familiar with the course marking style and the arrow position was wrong and there was a piece of oddly placed tape. We also knew this was not the way we had run yesterday – but maybe there had been a last minute course change? We followed.
But markings soon ran out and we saw Maja, a very good racer, running back the other way. We quickly and decisively corrected and lost less than 2.5 mins. Many others waited longer, not being able to decide who to go with, or running on and hoping to re-join the course later.
The first swim was like being in a triathlon. We were still bunched together and faster people who had gone the wrong way were catching up slower teams who had gone the right way. We saw a women’s team in orange speed past.
Izzy said the second run felt like a cross country, and she was right. I had decided it was short enough not to unzip my suit, but this meant it was hard to breathe easily and we were moving fast. It felt like other teams were swarming all around us and I had no idea how far back we were placed. I found it stressful!
Very soon it was time for the second swim. It was a long one (1.3km) and I was beginning to feel the cold as we neared the end. I saw a women’s team divert to the side to get out early. From the exit we had to run straight up a flight of steps. I could feel the tow rope go tight and Izzy said her calves were cramping but to just carry on. So we did! We saw one of the race directors, Michael, looking distracted on the phone. We smiled and pushed onwards.
Our German friends ran past and one of them had no shoes! He said later it was a deliberate strategy to keep them off on the short runs so he could kick when swimming and save time changing. We wondered what havoc it would play with his socks! The support all along the course so far was fantastic, with many spectators to cheer us on.
I felt a bit disorientated. My face had gone numb. But Izzy was unusually talkative (for a race) and ran alongside me, keeping me going and making me feel better. Getting in to swims she was always pushing me to hurry, and on exits was ready to go when I was.
For one of the swims, we approached on a slippery boardwalk. We had been warned! We took it easy as a guy played skids in front of us. Then we were into a river, murky, with a lot of vegetation. As we neared the exit, my face was in the water and it was dark and silent, then I would look up to sight and there was noise and light, then down back into the darkness …
I had revived, and we were pushing on. I had memorised the course and knew it was another short run before a long swim and then a chance to properly warm up on the longest run section of the race. As we got to a junction we were met by an organiser. The next long swim was cancelled! At the time we felt a bit disappointed, but we just dealt with it and kept moving. Later we heard it was because so many teams had dropped out due to the cold after the second swim.
We were unsure of what the total length of our run would now be. At first we were told 11km – but was this total or only from when they saw us? Then we got to a feed station and a chap said ‘4km to go!’ Which was confusing, but it turned out he meant until the next feed station. And then there was still another 4km to the swim! Of course, we were nice and toasty by now, I even had sweat running out from under my swim hat.
The further we went the harder and harder it felt. But my watch was beeping every km and I knew from this that our pace was consistent. We even overtook a couple of men’s teams. Someone had said we were second, but we knew there at least 4 fast teams had started and I’d felt so surrounded earlier on, I wasn’t sure whether to believe them. It didn’t change what we were doing anyway. We kept running on and I suddenly took a few seconds to look up and notice how beautiful the woods around us were.
At one swim entry, a female team suddenly appeared from the other direction. This was strange and threw us into more confusion, especially when they sped off so fast on the swim! It turns out they were the lead team, who had missed a turn and just come back. We also saw François again here, and said hello – though he later accused us of not stopping for a chat. This was a race though?! No wonder we beat him … 😀
A good thing about this event was that there were so many feed stations and they seemed to come up very fast. I was variously taking energy drink, coke, bananas and chocolate biscuit bars. I lugged some water and food around all day for emergencies but wished I hadn’t bothered with so much!
With three swims to go, my shoulder started hurting. It was a long swim, right across a lake which smelled a bit of boat fuel and was busier than some of the others. I experimented and managed to find a way to alter my stroke and keep going. Maybe it was a good job that earlier swim was cancelled after all.
Later we looked at our speed, and we had slowed down a lot. I don’t think it was just my shoulder, or the fact we almost swam into two guys who suddenly stopped in front of us mid-swim! Maybe we had some fatigue from the cold or our arms were tired from the paddles, which we had hardly used since September.
On the runs we were both having calf problems now. They were cramping up when we got out, making us walk / run all bandy-legged. It wasn’t easing off either and they were staying sore as we ran. The surface was packed sand, tarmac and cobbles which were tough on the legs.
The second last swim felt warmer and cleaner and I took a drink. The sun might have come out, because I couldn’t see where I was going. Despite how it felt, my watch says all swims were either 10 or 11 oC.
Before we knew it we were on the final section we had already checked. We went past an obelisk with golden shields and down to the lakeside. I was trying to be speedy in transition, got my goggles on early, and nearly tripped over …. but as the supporters’ arms went out to catch me, I just about managed to stay upright. Success!
We swam straight across the lake towards the castle and up a little ramp to exit. We felt like celebrities. There were cheering crowds lining the route and some friends ran alongside, urging us on. We got into the finishing funnel to more cheers and congratulations, the news that we were second placed females and a quick interview.
As vegetarians we weren’t looking for the bratwurst, but our apartment was perfectly situated 100m up the street. We stumbled in, got the hot shower going and tucked into milkshake, tea, crisps and chocolate. My lips were still blue for a while though 😮 .
We were really pleased with how the race had gone. It had been hard work at times but we always knew we would finish. Transitions had a new urgency and we were positive throughout. My knee held up just fine and even after accounting for changes to the swim sections we were 35 mins faster than planned (all gained on the runs).
150 teams started, 101 teams finished. Many had to pull out early due to the cold conditions. I was just glad we had taken our recent cake eating training so seriously …
At prize giving, Michael commented how we just keep turning up! We met loads of friendly people, so despite the descending chill in the tent, we were having fun. As well as 2nd place females / 30th overall, we also qualified for Ötillö World Championships! So no need to chase it all summer next year. We were asked if it was the toughest race we’d ever done. Ha ha! No. But it goes to show how different people find different things tough. It all depends on circumstances and mental battles as much as the physical conditions.
I highly recommend this race as a season finisher – it’s fast, not too long, the swims are not technical and the trees are a riot of colour. It’s also cheap. Despite the unfavourable £ / € exchange rate, the total cost was still 40% less than other races we did this year. Check it out!