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Ötillö swimrun: Isles of Scilly 2017

Newquay airport is small – ten steps to baggage reclaim!

So, we got back from Sweden, Izzy worked for two days, I put my feet up / rode my bike / washed clothes / unpacked and packed. Then it was time to go away again! This time on a small plane to Newquay, a fantastic tiny airport. We were away for the week and immediately availed ourselves of Cornish pasties, ice cream and a swim in the big waves at Porthcothan.

We slept in a tepee, drove to Penzance, had to run for the ferry and were on our way across the sea to the Isles of Scilly. I chatted with whoever I ended up next to on deck, whilst Izzy hid downstairs avoiding seasickness! We both arrived considerably less green than last year, and ambled our way over in the general direction of the B&B, thinking it was unfortunate we’d left the map in the case that was being taken by car.

 

It wasn’t hard to find and before we knew it, we were being greeted by Patti and Andy and being shown our delightful room with sea view. As last year, we spent a day relaxing, swimming, going for an amble, looking at a burial chamber, sunbathing (Izzy) and exploring rocks (me).

Pre-race, taking in a view of the course. Yes, we swam over there and back!

Race day was on Saturday and it was a pleasant walk over to the start line. We soon found ourselves hiding in the shade of a building and decided to dunk ourselves in the sea just before the start to get wet and cool! The first run was just under 3km. Keen not to repeat the mistakes of Borås, we set off moderately and side by side on the road. All was going well and we were soon at the first swim. I was not at all sure where to aim, the flag was invisible, so the windsock it was. We knew it was right of where we needed to go though. Suddenly part way over we ran into a group of other confused swimmers! We headed left a bit, right a bit and eventually spotted a fluorescent marshal vest and aimed for that.

Sun, sea and sand

And so the day continued. We were with another female pair who I thought might have set out too fast and definitely looked like they would get too hot. They were very strong swimmers but we soon caught and left them on one of the longer runs. There seemed to be less seaweed than last year – maybe we had been routed round it better, maybe we were lucky, or maybe there was just less! There were more jellyfish though – and I got stung twice! Once on the arm and once in a whip across the face. I swore underwater but not even Izzy heard me 😀

Our suits aren’t quick to ‘cab down’ and I was worried about the sun and the heat. I was drinking more than usual and squirting water over my head if I needed to. I also made attempts to ‘eat more’ but was not entirely successful – does one gel count?! (Of course, I did partake of the feed stations as well).

The stripy lighthouse came into view early and we knew this time we were headed there. It took a while to arrive but was worth it 🙂

The spectators on the course was incredible, and I found myself asking if it was even possible to have more support than last year? One fabulous group of people said we were their inspiration, and someone else yelled that we were doing greater than great! Some kids sprayed us with their water pistols … what delight 😀

Supporters – I thank you all

Getting to the last swim was amazing, I just wanted to throw myself in the water. Did I mention it was hot? The marshal said the next female team were only just in front, but we didn’t see them as we crossed. The tide was slack and we had an easy time of it, except for the jellyfish. We both thought we could see the girls in front climbing out and taking forever over it, until we realised we were looking at an orange buoy …

Seaweed!!

It was the final run and we were nearly home. A tractor billowed dust in front of us but stopped to let us past. It might have been a distraction, because just after that, Izzy tripped over nothing much in particular and slammed into the ground. I rushed back to help her up and check she was OK and got short thrift. “What are you doing here?! You are going in the wrong direction, turn around and RUN!!” Yikes, I duly did as I was told! I think the anger and frustration spurred Izzy on, we were charging and the tow hardly tightened as we raced to the finish line.

I was confident we could break 6h, but the last run was longer than stated so my calculations were wrong! The clock stopped at 6:00:33. 4th place women’s team and close enough to 3rd  to feel we had given a good race, but far enough behind (4 minutes) not to regret a slow moment somewhere. Overall 22nd. Results here.

Woohoo, finishing straight

Our placing doesn’t look much better than in Borås and we didn’t podium like last time, but the quality of the field at this race was stronger. We exceeded our target time by half an hour and were over 20 minutes faster than last year. True, the swims were much easier, but on the other hand there was an extra km of swimming to do! I was so pleased that we had a positive and strong race that did us justice 🙂

As before, everyone on the Isles of Scilly was so welcoming. Our B&B hosts had made scones and gave us juice when we got back, the other guests shared their photos of us (thanks Ken!) and all around the islands people talked to us about what we were doing and how we had got on. I can’t recommend the atmosphere and experience of this race enough.

Newquay only has one flight a week to / from Edinburgh, so post-race we had plenty of time to explore another island, eat cream teas and more ice cream, fly back to the mainland on a really tiny aeroplane (very exciting!), eventually find somewhere to stand up paddleboard and stroll the Lost Gardens of Helligan whilst melting in the heat. If you ever fly from Newquay, you should also know there is a perfectly lovely and swimmable beach / cove just 7 minutes drive away. And they serve Cornish pasties in the airport. Perfect end to the holiday before flying back … to rain!

People kept asking me what my next event was, and I would confidently reply ‘Bologna!’ (swimrun). Until Izzy reminded me that I was doing the first ever Ironman 70.3 in Edinburgh in two weeks’ time. Oh yes, that. And as it turns out, before that had even started, I’d agreed to slip in another swimrun as a replacement for an injured athlete. More on that later. Next!

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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.

Our gps trace, swim wiggles and all

Our gps trace, swim wiggles and all

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

Stream of racers getting in for the first swim

Stream of racers getting in for the first swim

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.

Find a good route through the seaweed

Find a good route through the seaweed

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

Walk or swim? Swim!!

Walk or swim? Swim!!

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.

Swimrun views

Swimrun views

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!!

OK, so we must have run past the castle... it is easy to miss though!!

OK, so we must have run past the castle… it is easy to miss though?!

Section 3 – approx. 7km run. Target finish: 12:50. Actual finish: 12:43

Racers in Tresco Abbey Gardens

Racers in Tresco Abbey Gardens

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.

Cake, anyone?

Cake, anyone?

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

Ötillö Isles of Scilly Swimrun

Us swimming through the seaweed, with a male pair taking a cheeky draft!

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.

Follow the signs!

Follow the signs!

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

Where's Wally lighthouse!

Where’s Wally lighthouse!

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!’…

Us running on beautiful trails

Us running on beautiful trails

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

You can get quite long swims in between islands!

You can get quite long swims in between islands!

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.

Swimrun views

Swimrun views

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

Finish line!

Finish line!

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.

Post-race chilling

Post-race chilling

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.

Qualified for Ötillö World Championships!

Qualified for Ötillö World Championships!

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!

Time to celebrate! Cornish cider.

Time to celebrate! Cornish cider.

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 🙂

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